What is Rowing?

        Rowing, often referred to as crew in the United States, is a sport with origins back to Ancient Egyptian times. It is based on propelling a boat (racing shell) on water using oars. By pushing against the water with an oar, a force is generated to move the boat. The sport can be either recreational - focusing on learning the technique of rowing, or competitive - where athletes race against each other in boats. There are a number of different boat classes in which athletes compete, ranging from an individual shell (called a single scull) to an eight person shell with coxswain (called an eight).

      Modern rowing as a competitive sport can be traced to the early 18th century when races were held between professional watermen on the River Thames in London, United Kingdom. Often prizes were offered by the London Guilds and Livery Companies.  Amateur competition began towards the end of the 18th century with the arrival of "boat clubs" at the British public schools of Eton College and Westminster School. S imilarly, clubs were formed at theUniversity of Oxford, with a race held between Brasenose College and Jesus College in 1815.  At the University of Cambridge the first recorded races were in 1827.  Public rowing clubs were beginning at the same time; in England Leander Club was founded in 1818, in Germany Der Hamburger und Germania Ruder Club was founded in 1836 and in the United States Narragansett Boat Club was founded in 1838 and Detroit Boat Club was founded in 1839.  In 1843, the first American college rowing club was formed at Yale University.

     Rowing is one of the oldest Olympic sports and has been competed since 1900. Women's rowing was added to the Olympic program in 1976.  Today, only fourteen boat classes are raced at the Olympics, across men and women.  Each year the World Rowing Championships is held by FISA with 22 boat classes raced.  In Olympic years only the non-Olympic boat classes are raced at the World Championships.  The European Rowing Championships are held annually, along with three World Rowing Cups in which each event earns a number of points for a country towards the World Cup title. Since 2008, rowing has also been competed at the Paralympic Games.


The Basics of Rowing

     While rowing, the athlete sits in the boat facing toward the stern, and uses the oars which are held in place by the oarlocks to propel the boat forward (towards the bow).  This may be done on a canal, river, lake, sea, or other large bodies of water.  The sport requires strong core balance, physical strength, flexibility, and cardiovascular endurance.

     While the action of rowing and equipment used remains fairly consistent throughout the world, there are many different types of competition.  These include endurance races, time trials, stake racing, bumps racing, and the side-by-side format used in the Olympic games.  The many different formats are a result of the long history of the sport,  its development in different regions of the world, and specific local requirements and restrictions.

There are two forms of rowing:

  • In sweep or sweep-oar rowing, each rower has one oar, held with both hands. This is generally done in pairs, fours, and eights.  Each rower in a sweep boat is referred to either as port or starboard, depending on which side of the boat the rower's oar extends to.  

  • In sculling each rower has two oars (or sculls), one in each hand. Sculling is usually done without a coxswain, in quadsdoubles or singles.  The oar in the sculler's right hand extends to port side, and the oar in the left hand extends to starboard side.


The Basics – Rowing Terminology and Definitions

Bow (or bow seat) 

The rower closest to the front or bow of a multi-person shell. In coxless boats, often the person who keeps an eye on the water behind him to avoid accidents. 

Starboard Side 

Any sweep rower who rows with the oar on the right (or starboard side) of the boat.

Coxswain or "cox"

The oar-less crew-member, usually included, who is responsible for steering and race strategy. The coxswain either sits in the stern or lies in the bow of the boat, and faces in the direction of travel.


A rower who weighs more than the limit for lightweight rowing. Often referred to as Open weight.


A rower whose weight allows him or her to be eligible to compete in lightweight rowing events.


Rowers who are in their first year of rowing.

 Port Side

A sweep rower who rows with the oar on the left side (or port side) of the boat. This means that the oar blade is placed to the rower's right side.


A rower who rows with two oars, one in each hand.

 Seat Number 

A rower's position in the boat counting up from the bow. In an eight, the person closest to the bow of the boat is 1 or "bow," the next is 2, followed by 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and finally 8 or "stroke."

 Stroke (Seat) 

The rower closest to the stern of the boat, responsible for the stroke rate and rhythm.


A style of rowing in which each rower uses one oar.


Rowing Boats (Sometimes called "shells" )


In a sweep boat, each rower has one oar.

Eight (8+) 

A shell with 8 rowers.  Along with the single scull, it is traditionally considered to be the blue ribbon event.  Always with coxswain because of the size, weight and speed of the boat.

 Four (4-) or (4+) 

A shell with 4 rowers. Coxless fours (4-) are often referred to as straight fours, and are commonly used by lightweight and elite crews and are raced at the Olympics.  In club and school rowing, one more frequently sees a coxed four (4+) which is easier to row, and has a coxswain to steer.

 Pair (2-) or (2+)

A shell with 2 rowers. The Coxless pair (2-), often called a straight pair, is a demanding but satisfying boat to master. Coxed pairs (2+) are rarely rowed by most club and school programs.  It is no longer an Olympic class event, but it continues to be rowed at the World Rowing Championships.


In a sculling boat, each rower has two oars or 'sculls', one on each side of the boat.

Octuple or Oct (8x)

A shell having 8 rowers with two oars each.  Generally a training boat.

Quadruple or Quad (4x)

A shell having 4 rowers with two oars each.  Can be coxed (4x+) but is usually coxless (4x-).

Double (2x)

A shell for two scullers generally without a coxswain.

Single (1x)

A shell designed for an individual sculler.  Very good for skill development, particularly beginners, and a very competitive class at world event.