top of page

Rowing 101

A parent and athlete guide to rowing

Welcome to the wonderful world of rowing, or "crew" as its crazed participants like to call it. You will no longer fail to answer correctly when someone asks you the famous trivia sports question: "In what sport do the participants cross the finish line while sitting down and going backward?"

​As a crew parent, you will be expected to mysteriously absorb the meaning of a whole new jargon. (What's so bad about a crab? Is the first seat in the front or back? What's an "erg" beside a unit of energy?) You will be asked to drive great distances and spend major amounts of time in unpredictable weather to observe perhaps one minute of a race -- and that minute is neither the start nor the finish! You will be asked to provide some modest financial support and lots of emotional support (and food!) for a sport that does not appear to be particularly difficult or demanding, or even that rewarding for the participants. What's it all about?

A brief history of the sport

Rowing as a team sport developed in the 1800's, notably at Oxford and Cambridge in England and at Yale and Harvard in the United States. The Harvard/Yale race, first held in 1852, is the oldest inter-collegiate athletic event in America. The first amateur sports association in this country was a rowing organization -- Philadelphia's Schuylkill Navy, in 1858 -- and the first national governing body for a sport in America was the National Association for Amateur Oarsmen, founded in 1872.

Rowing at simsbury high school

Rowing at Simsbury began around 1971 when some enthusiasts bought a used eight and hung it from slings near the Chart House (Pettibone Tavern). As the sport grew in popularity and moved from the hobby to club to varsity sports stages, the parent's group, the Friends of Simsbury Crew, was incorporated in 1977 to support the rowers both emotionally and financially. The Paine boathouse, a barn-like two-bay structure, was built in 1977 through the hard work of Simsbury parents. In 1988, an addition added changing rooms, a workout bay, a larger coaches' office, and a launch bay. Paine boathouse provides a storage area for rowing shells and indoor practice space during inclement weather.

While the individual rower does not need any fancy equipment to row, no padding, helmets, spikes, or sticks, the team's equipment is quite expensive. Because of that expense, and the need for water for practices, relatively few public high schools offer rowing as a sport.

​The Simsbury High School crew has earned a fine record over the years. It has won several state, New England, and National championships. Simsbury has on four occasions, sent boats to England to participate in the Royal Henley Regatta, the oldest, largest, and most colorful rowing event in the world.

Rowing terminology


At a large regatta, such as the Head of the Charles, you may see eight different kinds of boats raced. Rowers in boats in which each rower handles two oars are called scullers. These come in singles, doubles, and quads. Rowers with only one oar are called sweep rowers. These come as doubles, with and without coxswain, fours, with and without (without coxswains are also called "straight pairs" or "straight fours"), and eights with coxswain. At the high school level, you will normally only see fours-with and eights. Coxswains normally sit in the stern, where they can see the whole boat and

communicate face-to-face with the stroke, but you may also see boats with the coxswain in the bow, lying nearly prone. This inhibits communications somewhat, but reduces wind resistance and improves the weight distribution in the boat. All the boats are called shells, although boats rowed by scullers are also called sculls. A new, varsity eight costs about $42,000 and a novice eight is $28,000. Simsbury has a fleet of 10 rowing shells. Each shell has its own set of oars and cox-box. Each shell is designated with a color (electrical tape) on the rigger, oars, cox-box, and boat box.​

The front of the boat. The area usually contains the name of the shell.

The back of the boat.

That portion of the bow and stern that are covered with fiberglass cloth or thin plastic.

Oars propel the boat through the water. Sweep oars are about 12-13 feet long and made of fiberglass or Carbon Fiber (lighter). They cost about $350 each.

The wide part of the oar that is used to move the boat through the water. The blade is painted with the school's colors and is a way to distinguish among boats at a distance.

The bar across the oarlock that keeps the oar in place.

A wide collar on the oar that keeps it from slipping through the oarlock.

The triangular-shaped metal device that is bolted onto the side of the boat and holds the oars.

Slide:The little tracks in which the seats are set to allow the seats to move back and forth as the rower completes his or her movement.

Where the rower's feet go. The stretcher consists of two inclined footrests which hold the rower's shoes. The shoes are bolted into the footrests.

An electronic amplifier for the coxswain's voice that plugs into a speaker system built into the boat, so that each rower can hear his or her instructions. It also contains a stroke meter which works from the magnet under the stroke's seat and measures the cadence, or strokes rowed per minute. Each of the 10 shells in the boathouse has a specific cox-box that goes with it.

Speed Coach:
An electronic device in the rowing shell that tells the coxswain the stroke rate, boat speed, elapsed time, and distance. It reads off an impeller that attaches to the bottom of the rowing shell. Each of the 1-3 boys and girls crews has a speed coach in their shell.

Also called an "erg," it's a rowing machine that closely approximates the actual rowing motion. The verb "to erg" means to work out on an ergometer. An "erg piece" is a particular set of work on the ergometer, such as rowing 2000 meters. Erg tests are used by coaches to ascertain an athlete's aerobic and endurance capabilities. There is even a World Indoor Rowing Championship event, the "Crash-B's" held annually in Boston. The boathouse houses 21 ergs at a cost of $900 each.


There are two types of races: head races and sprints. Head races are usually held in the fall and sprints are in the spring. Sprints are 1500 meters for high school and 2000 meters for college. In sprints, boats race directly against each other in lanes on a marked straight or nearly straight course. In larger meets, there will usually be qualifying rounds, then petite finals for non-qualifying boats, and grand finals for the top finishers in the qualifying rounds. Qualification is by placement and not by time. In other words, a second-place boat in one heat will qualify before a fourth-place boat in another, even if the fourth-place boat had a better time. Head races take place in the fall and are longer, usually 2.5 to 3.5 miles, and are timed events. Boats start off typically at 15-second intervals and all race the same course, often with many turns, following the course of the river.



The person who steers the shell and is the on-the-water coach, motivator, and strategist. Pronounced, "cox-n."​

Bowman or Bow:
The rower whose back is closest to the front of the boat, i.e. the first rower to cross the finish line. This is also the #1 seat.​

The #8 seat, the rower sitting closest to the stern. The stroke sets the rhythm for the boat; others behind must follow that cadence.


"Crew" means rowing team, so don't inquire about the crew "team" since the word "team" is redundant. The nine people--a crew-- when placed in a shell are called a "boat". One does not refer to an empty shell as a "boat". An eight is 58 feet long, so it takes a lot of room to maneuver it. If you hear, "Heads up!" someone is trying to move a boat in your vicinity, and you are expected to make way.

Don't ask about record times, since they are so influenced by weather conditions as to be virtually meaningless.

Any rowing event involving competition. Any race is a regatta, however, large or small. Races are never called "meets" or "games" and rowers do not "play crew". A popular crew slogan is "Athletes row. Others play games."


Stroke rate:
The number of strokes per minute at which the team is rowing. At the start of the spring race, the rate is high perhaps 40 for an eight then settles to the low 30s for the body of the race, then may move back to the low 40s for a finishing sprint. Fall racing rates are much lower as the races are significantly longer.

Catching a Crab:
When the blade of an oar enters the water at an angle, instead of perpendicularly, it can get caught under the surface. The oar handle drives into the stomach and has the potential to throw a rower out of the boat entirely! Even if not that disastrous, "catching a crab" will certainly drastically interrupt the flow of the boat through the water.

The "catch" is the point in the stroke where the oar blade enters the water. The catch is supposed to happen at the very end of the recovery when the hands are as far ahead of the rower as possible. Rowers who begin to uncoil before they drop the oar blades are sacrificing speed by not getting a complete drive. "Lunging at the catch" means the motion is not smooth. If you see a lot of splash at the catch, assuming the water is relatively smooth (or "flat"), the oar blades are not entering the water properly.

The balance and feel of the boat. The most efficient boats are balanced evenly over the center line and remain so throughout the strokes. If rowers are not aligned properly, or a rower swings off-center as part of his or her motion during a stroke, or if rowers on one side of the boat are pulling with more or less force than the other side, the set of the boat can be altered, introducing drag into its motion.

When the blades are brought out of the water, they should all move horizontally at the same height, just above the water. The rower is "skying" if the hands are dropped too low before the catch, causing the oar blade to rise before it drops into the water. Proper feathering is always difficult but becomes extremely challenging in choppy water.

Just after the catch, the rower begins pulling back on the oar. Initially, the body position should not change; all the work is being done by the legs. Then, the upper body begins to uncoil, and the arms start their work of pulling the oar through the water. Finally, the rower pulls his or her hands quickly to the body, finishing in a "layback" position.

After the drive, the oar handle is moved down, drawing the oar blade from the water. At the same time, it is turned horizontal to the surface ("feathered").

The oar remains out of the water as the rower first pushes his or her hands away from the body and past the knees. Then the body follows the hands and the sliding seat moves forward until the knees are bent and the rower is ready for the next catch.

The amount of effort a rower puts into the stroke. Races, of course, are conducted at full pressure, but practices and warm-ups may entail a series of strokes at half or three-quarter pressure.

The inexpressible "feel" of a boat that is moving together as a single unit.

bottom of page