Crew 101

How to Take a Stroke

The Catch

This is the point of the stroke where the blade enters the water. The rower is at full compression up the slide, and tries to reach as far as possible to obtain a long stroke. When the rower is at the catch, the boat is at its most unsteady point. At this time, steadiness and balance is key, while entering the water and changing direction quickly is of utmost importance.

The Drive 

After the catch, the blade is in the water and the rower drives with his/her legs against the foot stretchers to pull the blade(s) through the water and move the boat. For the first half of the drive, the rower remains upright. With the beginning of the second half (after the knees come down) the rower leans back and pulls the oar(s) in with their arms. The most crucial part of the drive is keeping the oar blade(s) just below the surface of the water and making the oar(s) accelerate through the water, i.e. finish faster than it began.

The Finish

At the finish, the rower is leaning back and pushing down on the oar handle(s) to make it come out of the water. In order to make this easier, the rower feathers the blades. When an oar blade is feathered, it is parallel to the surface of the water.

The Recovery

In the first part of the recovery, the rower sits up from the release, and moves slowly back up the slide towards the catch. Key word being slowly. If a rower zooms back up the slide, the momentum of the rower puts check on the boat; it sends the boat in the other direction. That’s bad. As the rower then approaches the catch, they feather the oar blade back so that the blade is perpendicular to the surface of the water.

Type of Boats

The boats (or shells) are basically of two types and reflect the two forms of rowing: sweep rowing and sculling. W-L crew is a sweep rowing program. In sweep rowing each rower handles a single oar (about 12.5 ft or 3.9 m long). In sculling a rower uses two oars, or sculls, (each about 9.5 ft or 3 m long). 

The word shell is often used in reference to the boats used because the hull is only about 1/8″ to 1/4″ thick to make it as light as possible. These shells are also rather long and racing shells are as narrow as possible while recreational ones can be rather wide. Most shells today are made of composite materials such as carbon fiber, fiberglass, or kevlar. A few manufacturers still build wooden boats.

Each rower has their back to the direction the shell is moving and power is generated using a blended sequence of the rower’s legs, back, and arms. The rower sits on a sliding seat with wheels on a track called the slide.

Each oar is held in a U-shaped swivel (oarlock) mounted on a metal pin at the end of a rigger. The rigger is an assembly of tubes that is tightly bolted to the body of the shell. The subtypes of rowing shells are classified according to the number of rowers in the shell.

Sweep Boats (each rower has one oar)

These shells can have a coxswain—a person who steers the shell (using a rudder) and urges the rowers on. Included in parenthesis is the symbol used for each subtype along with some dimensions and weights.

  • Coxed Pair (2+) – Two sweep rowers with a coxswain.
  • Coxless Pair (2-) – Two sweep rowers without a coxswain.
  • Coxed Four (4+) – Four sweep rowers with a coxswain.
  • Straight (or Coxless) Four (4-) – Four sweep rowers without a coxswain. Steering is usually accomplished via a rudder that is attached to a cable that is connected to one of the rower’s foot stretchers (this an adjustable bracket to which the rower’s feet are secured). The coxless pair has a similar type of rudder setup.
  • Eight (8+) – Eight sweep rowers with a coxswain. Eights are 60+ ft (~18.5 m) long and weigh about 250 pounds (~114 kg).
Sculling Boats (each rower has two oars)

Only in rare cases do these boats have a coxswain. Steering is generally accomplished by applying more power or pressure to the oar(s) on one side of the shell. The hands overlap (usually left over right in the US) during part of the rowing cycle, or are always left in front of right.

  • Single (1X) – One rower or sculler. Singles are about 26 ft (8 m) long and less than a foot (0.3 m) wide. Racing singles can weigh as little as 30 pounds (~13.5 kg). There are heavier (~45 to 50 pounds), shorter and wider versions often referred to as recreational singles.
  • Double (2X) – Two scullers. Most racing doubles can be also used as a pair with a different set of riggers designed for sweep oars. When used as a pair a rudder is usually added. There are also recreational versions of sculling doubles.
  • Quadruple or “Quad” (4X) – Four scullers. Often referred to as a `quad’ and usually has a rudder attached to one of the sculler’s foot stretchers as in the straight four. Most quads can also be rigged as a straight four using a different set of riggers.

Race Formats

Racing Distances and Divisions

Most major regattas have separate divisions—Men’s (M), Women’s (W), heavyweight (HWT) or open, lightweight (LWT), etc., then divided up into 8+’s, 4+’s, 1x’s, 2x’s and so on. So for a typical regatta, you might see separate races scheduled for M8+, W8+, M4+, W4+ down (or up—depends on your cup of tea) to W1x and M1x. There may be separate heavyweight and lightweight divisions that would require a weigh-in for the lightweights sometime before the start of the regatta. You may also see divisions according to experience (novice, varsity), age (junior and masters), and skill level (senior A, B, Elite, etc.)

Sprint Race

The standard international racing distance is 2000 meters (1500 high school races) and the course usually has six shells racing against each other in their separate designated lanes which may or may not be marked by buoys. These races can take anywhere from 5 1/2 to 8 1/2 minutes depending on boat class, weather conditions, water current and the physical condition and experience of the rowers.

Another racing distance used is 1000 meters for the older guys and gals (Masters). Also, there is a match style (i.e. races with two boats head to head in a single elimination format for each division) racing at some regattas. The Henley Royal Regatta in England comes to mind.

Starting Procedures

Crews are expected to be at their starting stations two minutes before the scheduled time of the race. Once the boats are locked on, the judge at the start will supervise the alignment process. When all crews are level, the Starter will then poll the crews by calling their name. When all crews have been polled, the Starter raises a red flag, and says; “Attention!”. After a clear pause, the starter shall give the start by dropping the red flag quickly to one side, and simultaneously saying: “GO”.

In windy conditions, the Starter may dispense with polling the crews and use a “quick start”. Here, the starter says “Attention!” and if no crew responds, immediately raises the red flag and gives the starting commands. In a FISA regatta, once the red flag is raised in a quick start, hands are no longer recognized, but in the US, the Starter will still recognize hands.

In the US, the procedure of last resort is the ‘countdown start.’ The Starter dispenses with further polling, and counts down “5-4-3-2-1 Attention! GO!” Once the countdown starts, hands are not recognized, and the crews should use the five-second countdown to point their boats.

Crews can be assessed a warning for a false start, for being late to the start, or for a traffic rules violation. A crew that receives two warnings in the same race is excluded from the event.

Glossary of Terms

ALIGNER – The person at the starting dock who aligns the boats evenly for a fair start.

BOAT PARTY – Dinners held by the crew of one or more boat the night before a race. Usually held at the home of one of the rowers, these gatherings are intended to build team spirit, give everyone a nutritious meal, and get everyone home early enough to be well-rested for the regatta.

BLADE (HATCHET OR SPOON) – The face of the oar that pushes against the water.

BODY ANGLE – Leaning to the left or to the right in the boat. Ideally, a rower should sit upright for the entire stroke except a slight lean into the rigger at the catch. Improper body angle can result in bad keel.

BOW – End of the boat closest to the direction of travel. See diagram. Also can be used to refer to one-seat, or in conjunction with either four or pair. Bow-four refers to seats four through one. Bow-pair refers to seats two and one.

BUMP – A very crazy race they do only in England. It is what happens when your race course isn’t wide enough for more than one lane.

CATCH – The part of the stroke where the oar enters the water. See How To Take a Stroke.

“CATCH A CRAB” – A serious rowing error, where the oar becomes trapped in the water in such a manner that it is difficult to get it out at the end of the pull-through. It happens when the blade is at the wrong angle and catches the water the wrong way. Usually, it slows the boat down only momentarily, but if it is an exceptionally powerful crab, it can even throw the rower out of the shell.

CHECK – Bad technique that slows the boat down. Essentially, the momentum of the rowers sends the boat in the opposite direction.

“CHECK IT DOWN!” – Coxswain call that makes all the rowers drag their oar blades through the water perpendicularly, effectively stopping the boat.

COURSE – A straight race course for rowers that has 4-6 lanes. In high school, the length is 1500 meters, while in college/Olympic events, the length is 2000 meters.

COX-BOX – A small electronic device which aids the coxswain by amplifying his voice, and giving him a readout of various information.

COXSWAIN – The crew quarterback. He or she sits in the stern of the shell to steer and give commands to the rowers. The “cox” is in charge from the time the crew picks up the shell in the boathouse until its return to the boathouse.

CRAB – Bad technique that has the effect of “checking it down” when the rower doesn’t get his oar out in time.

DRIVE – Part of the stroke where the rower pulls the blade through the water to propel the boat. See How To Take A Stroke.

EIGHTS – Colloquial term used to indicate 8-oared shells, as differentiated from “fours” or “doubles”, etc.

ERG (ERGO/ERGOMETER/ERG MACHINE) – Rowing machine that most closely simulates rowing in a boat.

FEATHERING – Rotating the oar in the oarlock so that the blade is parallel to the surface of the water. See How To Take a Stroke.

FINISH – Part of the stroke after the drive where the blades come out of the water. See How To Take a Stroke.

FOOT STRETCHER – Part of the boat where the shoes are attached and where the rower pushes his legs against on the drive.

GUNWALE (GUNNEL) – The top edge of the sides of the boat.

HEAVYWEIGHT – Heaviest of the three major weight categories in competitive rowing.

“HOLD WATER!” – Coxswain call. Another way of saying “check it down”.

INSIDE HAND – The oarsman’s hand nearest the oarlock. This is the feathering hand.

KEEL – The steadiness of the boat. If the boat alternates leaning from side to side, it is a sign of bad technique.

GATE – The metal rod across the top of the oarlock to keep the oar from coming out of the oarlock.

LAYBACK – Term for how much you lean back at the finish. Too much is bad, too little is, well, bad also.

SLEEVE – A thick piece of leather (or white plastic) around the oar to keep the oarlock from wearing out the wood(fiberglass).

“LET IT RUN!” – Coxswain call for all rowers to stop rowing and to pause at the finish, letting the boat glide through the water and coast to a stop. Used as a drill to build balance.

LEG DRIVE – Term used for driving the legs down on the drive.

LIGHTWEIGHT – Lightest of the three major weight classes in competitive rowing. In high school, the max weight of a rower is 150lbs.

LINES – The ropes held by the coxswain to control the rudder.

LOOM – The part of the oar between the blade and the handle.

MISSING WATER – Bad technique where you aren’t moving the blade through the water as much as you could. Usually caused by not getting the blade in the water soon enough at the catch. Therefore, missed water equals less movement of the boat.

NAPOLEAN COMPLEX – A psychological complex that most coxswains have. Because they are small and in a powerful position, they act like dictators. Sort of the opposite of an inferiority complex.

NOVICE – First-time rowers.

OARLOCK – Square latch to hold the oar and provide a fulcrum for the stroke against the rigger.

OARSMAN or OARSWOMAN – Another term for a rower.

OFFICIAL – An official regatta race administrator that follows behind the current race in a motorboat. The official makes sure all boats stay in their designated lanes.

OVER-REACH – A fault committed by an oarsman when he comes to his full reach forward and then attempts to obtain even greater length by releasing his grasp on the handle with his outside hand or by bringing his outside shoulder further forward.

PAIR – A shell rowed by two athletes, each using a single sweep oar.

PORT – Side of the boat to the coxswain’s left and to the rowers’ right. See diagram.

“POWER 10 (or 20 or 30 etc.)” – Coxswain call to take a certain number of power strokes. A power stroke is a stroke that musters all the strength you can give.

PUDDLES – A measure of your power (and of run). If your blade leaves behind little dinky ripples, then you’re not pulling hard enough. If you leave tidal waves after you pull your blade out of the water, then you’re pulling just right.

RACE PACE, RATE, or RATING – A stroke rating that you can hold for the entire middle portion of the race.

RECOVERY – Part of the stroke where the rower comes back up the slide slowly towards the catch. See How To Take a Stroke.

REGATTA – An organized crew race.

RELEASE – Another term for finish, the point in the stroke cycle where the blade leaves the water.

REPECHAGE – A race after the heats for those who didn’t qualify. Basically, a second chance to make it to finals. Not normally used at the high school level.

RIGGER – An apparatus on the side of the boat to provide a fulcrum for the lever (oar).

RIGGING – The settings for the riggers to create the perfect stroke. (i.e. pitch, inboard, outboard)

ROLLER – The wheels upon which the seat slide travels along its track.

RUDDER – A little fin on the bottom of the boat that the coxswain can control to steer the boat.

RUN – The distance the boat moves after a stroke. Long run is very good. Run can be visually measured by the distance between the last puddle made by two-seat and where eight-seat’s blade enters the water.

RUSHING THE SLIDE – Bad technique that causes check. Comes from coming towards the catch from the recovery too fast.

SCULLING – Sculling is when each row uses two oars (an oar on each side of the boat).

SCULLER – A rower who sculls.

SHELL – Another term for a boat. Specifically, a boat used in racing.

SKYING – Bad technique where the blade is too high off of the surface of the water at the catch.

SLIDE – The tracks in which the rolling seat rolls.

SPLIT TIME – Projected amount of time it would take to row 500 meters at this specific power at this specific pace. Calculated by erg monitors and cox boxes.

SPRINT – The last part of the race. This is the point where everyone is exhausted, and whoever has the guts to go even faster wins.

STARBOARD – Side of the boat to the coxswain’s right and to the rowers’ left. See diagram.

START (and STARTING CALL ) – When all the boats are aligned, the starter says “We have alignment.” then “Are you ready? Row!” Sometimes there are subtle variations on that.

START SEQUENCE – A sequence of very quick (sometimes short) strokes at the very beginning of the race to shoot out into the lead. For example, starting with five short strokes, then a power 20, and then a 10 to settle down to race pace.

STERN -End of the boat farthest from the direction of travel. See diagram. Also can be used in conjunction with either four or pair. Stern-four refers to seats eight through five. Stern-pair refers to seats eight and seven.

STROKE – One full motion to move a boat. Consists of the catch, drive, finish, and recovery. See How To Take a Stroke. Can also be used to refer to eight-seat.

STROKE RATE – How fast a stroke is being taken. In terms of strokes per minute.

SWEEP – Opposite of scull. Rowing with one oar on one side of the boat.

WAKE – Waves that motorboats leave behind. “Getting waked” in a race means you’re behind a boat, either another shell or an official. Getting waked by an official is very bad. It means you’ve either got a bad official or you’re really far behind in a race.

WALKING – When passing a boat, the cox announces each seat as it is passed.

WASHING OUT – Similar to missing water except it means taking the blade out of the water too soon at the finish.

“WEIGH-ENOUGH!” – Coxswain call to have all rowers stop rowing. Call actually sounds like “way-nuff”.