The competitive sport of rowing (‘crew’ in the US) is one of the oldest Olympic sports, and has a history dating back to early 10th century when races were held between professional watermen on the River Thames in London.  At the end of the 18th century, amateur competition began with the organization of “boat clubs” at British public schools and universities.  Inter-colonial racing began in Australia in 1833 when a Sydney crew raced against a Hobart crew in whalers.  The first rowing club in the US was the Detroit Boat Club, founded in 1839, and the first American college rowing club was formed in 1843 at Yale University.  Rowing in New Zealand has been a competitive sport since the 1850’s.

Competitive rowing events are divided into two disciplines: sweep rowing and sculling.

Rowers with two oars, one in each hand, are called ‘scullers’.  There are three sculling events:  the single – 1x (one person), the double – 2x (two), and the quad – 4x (four).

Rowers with just one oar are ‘sweep rowers’.  Sweep boats sometimes include a ‘coxswain’ to steer the boat, and those without, are steered by one of the rowers moving the rudder with a foot.  Sweep rowers come in pairs with a coxswain (2+) and without (2-), fours with a coxswain (4+) and without (4-), and the eight (8+) always have a coxswain.  The eight is the fastest boat on the water, capable of moving almost 14 miles per hour.

When watching a race and the graceful rowing of the competitors, many of us don’t see the physical and mental demands of the sport.  A 2,000-meter (approx 1.25 miles) rowing race, demands extraordinary athletic capabilities:  “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.” (US Rowing)  Just try it sometime, and you’ll understand soon enough what it takes.

RACE WATCHING – What To Look For

  • While you’re watching, look for a continuous, fluid motion of the rowers, with no discernible end or beginning.  The crew making it look easy will likely be the winner of the race.
  • Synchronization. Rowers strive for perfect synchronization in the boat.
  • Clean catches of the oarblade. If you see a lot of splash, the oarblades aren’t entering the water correctly. The ‘catch’ (oarblade is placed in water) 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 oarblades do not get a complete drive, and that sacrifices speed.
  • Even oarblade 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 are slowest at the catch (when oarblade is placed in the water) , quickest at the release (when oarblade is removed from water).  Good crews time the catch at exactly the right moment to maintain speed.


  • Race times vary depending upon the course and weather conditions. Tailwinds will improve times, while headwinds and crosswinds will slow down a boat.
  • If a crew “catches a crab,” it means the oarblade has entered the water at an angle instead of perpendicularly. The oarblade 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 oarblade design. The USA blades are red on top and blue on the bottom, with a white triangle at the tip.  List of national team oars
  • It doesn’t matter whether you’ve won an Olympic medal or don’t make the finals, each and every crew carries the boat back to the rack.
  • A worldwide tradition – coxswains from first-place boats are thrown into the water by their crews.
  • Coxswains don’t yell out “stroke! stroke!”, and probably never did.  Their job is to steer the boat, implement the coach’s strategy during the race, and keep rowers aware of where they stand in the race and what they need to do to win.

Viewers Guide, US Rowing
Rowing 101, US Rowing (quick facts, glossary of terms, fundamentals, and equipment)
International Rowing Rule Book, World Rowing Federation (‘FISA’ from the French, Fédération Internationale des Sociétés d’Aviron), governing body of the international sport of rowing
Rowing development projects and Training Camps, FISA website
Find a rowing club in US, (search tool and club information)
Rowing New Zealand, The New Zealand Rowing Association

⇒ ⇒ Recommended Reading:  The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown – It’s the poignant story of personal and physical struggles faced by a University of Washington eight-oared crew during the Depression, and triumph as the team made it to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.  Regardless of your experience or interest in rowing, it’s a compelling read and Zola favorite.  Sure to inspire as well as give you some history and understanding of the commitment required in the sport of competitive rowing. [Editor’s Note: Zeester Media LLC may receive a small commission for the purchase of a book made via the Amazon link within this page. This in no way affects the price you pay for the purchase.]


First organized in 1965, the Head Of The Charles Regatta, also known as HOCR, is a rowing head race* held each October on the Charles River, separating Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts, and it’s the largest 2-day regatta in the world, with 11,000 athletes rowing in over 1,900 boats in 61 events.

A *head race is a time-trial competition in the sport of rowing.  Rowers race against the clock where the crew or rower completing the course in the shortest time in their age, ability and boat-class category is deemed the winner.

The challenging 3-mile course (4,800 meters) of the HOCR starts at Boston University’s DeWolfe Boathouse near the Charles River Basin and finishes just after the Eliot Bridge and before Northeastern University’s Henderson Boathouse.

If you missed the live stream broadcast of the 2018 HOCR, there’s still time to watch video recordings of the races.  Just click/tap the “Watch Again” button or select from the video posts on the media player below ↓


The Aon Maadi Cup Regatta is the National Championships for school rowing in New Zealand, and is the country’s largest rowing regatta with over 2,000 athletes from 120 schools competing while about 10,000 people watch from the banks Lake Ruataniwha.  It’s a super fast & exciting race competition!

If you missed the live stream broadcast of the 2018 Maadi Cup Regatta or want to see the races again, there’s still time to watch video recordings.  Just click/tap the “Watch Again” button or select from the video posts located on the media players below ↓



If you missed the live broadcast of the 2017 Western Intercollegiate Rowing Championships held in California at Lake Natoma (April 29 – 30), there’s still time to watch a video recording — just Click/Tap ‘Watch Again’ on the video player ↓.  The Western Intercollegiate Rowing Association will post race results HERE.


The Time Travelers video chronicles six men as they set out to break the speed record for a 277 mile course through the Grand CanyonWatch as 8 paddlers set out to break the rafting speed record through the Grand Canyon on the wild and dangerous Colorado River in The Time Travelers video



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Feature sculling race photo, by Flickr user, Annie C, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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Posted by Zola Zeester

Zola is a vagabond playmaker, the On2In2™ recreation guru and primary source of inspiration for this article. Currently resides at Zeester Media HQ.

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