All About Rowing


Crew is one of the oldest activities and sports still in existence. It has been a part of the Olympic Games since the 1900 Paris Games, and it continues to grow in popularity and prestige.

Rowers hold one or two oars and apply pressure to the oar handles in order to propel the blade through the water. TJ primarily competes in Eights (boats with eight rowers in it) but we also row in a couple Fours (boats with four rowers in it). Each boat also requires a coxswain who steers the boat, executes race plans, relays messages between the coach and the rowers, and pushes their rowers past their maximum capacities.

Fundamentally, crew is a team sport. All rowers in the boat must be in sync, placing their oars and taking strokes together. Any rower who wishes to stand out will only slow the boat down. In a boat, there must be an understanding that everyone in it is working toward the same goal; everything a rower does in the boat affects everyone else in it. Each rower places an enormous amount of trust in their fellow rowers and in their coxswain to do their job to the best of their abilities.

In this photo of our Men's Varsity Eight, the boat is traveling to the right, meaning that all of the rowers are facing backwards as the coxswain faces forwards. The rowers can't see where they're going, so they rely on the coxswain to tell them where they are on the race course and where competing boats are sitting relative to them.

Rowers are identified by their seat number. The rower all the way on the right, at the bow of the boat, is the 1 seat or bow seat. The next rower to the left is the 2 seat, followed by the 3 seat, and so on, all the way up to the 8 seat next to the coxswain. Like the bow seat, the 8 seat has a special name: the stroke seat. The stroke seat is responsible for setting the pace of rowing--all of the other rowers match their stroke timings up with the boat's stroke seat. Strokes must be strong rowers with excellent technique, since they are responsible for guiding the technique and timing of the other rowers.

The Rowing Stroke

The whole body is involved in moving a shell through the water. Although rowing tends to look like an upper body sport, the strength of the rowing stroke comes from the legs.

The stroke is made up of four parts: Catch, Drive, Finish and Recovery. As the stroke begins, the rower is coiled forward on the sliding seat, with knees bent and arms outstretched. At the catch, the athlete drops the oarblade vertically into the water.

At the beginning of the drive, the body position doesn't change – all the work is done by the legs. As the upper body begins to uncoil, the arms begin their work, drawing the oarblades through the water. Continuing the drive, the rowers move their hands quickly into the body, which by this time is in a slight "layback" position, requiring strong abdominal muscles.

During the finish, the oar handle is moved down, drawing the oarblade out of the water. At the same time, the rower "feathers" the oar – turning the oar handle – so that the oarblade changes from a vertical position to a horizontal one. The oar remains out of the water as the rower begins recovery, moving the hands away from the body and past the knees. The body follows the hands and the sliding seat moves forward, until, knees bent, the rower is ready for the next catch.

The Equipment

The Shells

The boats in which rowers race are called racing shells. The modern racing shell is made of honeycombed carbon fiber, designed to be light yet strong and stiff in the water. TJ rowers mostly compete in Eights (shells with 8 rowers), with some Fours (shells with 4 rowers) intermixed.

The oars are attached to the boat with riggers, which provide a fulcrum for the levering action of rowing. Generally, sweep rowers sit in configurations that have the oars alternating from side to side along the boat. Once the riggers, oars, rowers, and coxswains are added to rowing shells, they become race-ready boats.

The Oars

Oars move the boat through the water and act as balancers. The shaft of the oar is made of extremely lightweight carbon fiber.

The popular "hatchet" blade – named because of its cleaver-like shape – is about 20 percent larger than previous blades. Its larger surface area has made it the almost-universal choice among world-level rowers.

Oars are designed to be light, yet strong enough not to break when pressure is applied. They also feature ergonomic handles to help rowers keep grip while pulling.

Race Watching: Things to Look For

  • The crew that's making it look easy is most likely the one doing the best job. While you're watching, look for – continuous, fluid motion of the rowers. The rowing motion shouldn't have a discernible end or beginning.

  • Synchronization. Rowers strive for perfect synchronization in the boat.

  • Clean catches of the oar blade. If you see a lot of splash, the blades aren't entering the water correctly. The catch should happen at the end of the recovery, when the hands are as far ahead of the rower as possible. Rowers who uncoil before they drop the oar blades are sacrificing speed and not getting a complete drive.

  • Even oar blade feathering. When the blades are brought out of the water, they should all move horizontally close to the water and at the same height. It's not easy, especially if the water is rough.

  • The most consistent speed. Shells don't move like a car – they're slowest at the catch, quickest at the release. The good crews time the catch at just the right moment to maintain the speed of the shell.

  • Rowing looks graceful, elegant and sometimes effortless when it's done well. Don't be fooled. Rowers haven't been called the world's most physically-fit athletes for nothing. A 2,000-meter rowing race demands virtually everything a human being can physically bring to an athletic competition – aerobic ability, technical talent, exceptional mental discipline, ability to utilize oxygen efficiently and in huge amounts, balance, pain tolerance, and the ability to continue to work when the body is demanding that you stop.

  • Race times can vary considerably depending upon the course and weather conditions. Tailwinds will improve times, while headwinds and crosswinds will hamper them.

  • If a crew "catches a crab," it means the oar blade has entered the water at an angle instead of perpendicularly. The blade gets caught under the surface and will slow or even stop a shell.

  • A "Power 10" is a call by the coxswain for 10 of the crew's best, most powerful strokes. Good coxswains read the course to know how many strokes remain for their crew to count down to the finish.

  • Crews are identified by their oar blade design and by their uniforms.