Regatta Watcher's Guide

About Rowing

Among the most physically demanding sports, rowing at a world-class level requires excellent conditioning. Upper body and leg strength are of equal importance as athletes row 2,000 meters (roughly 1.25 miles) in an average of six minutes, depending on the number of athletes per boat. Brought to the East Coast of the United States from Great Britain in the early 19th century, the sport is rich in sportsmanship and tradition- coxswains of winning boats are thrown into the water and the prize for the winner is literally the shirt off a competitor's back.

One, two or four athletes enter the sculling events, in which each athlete uses two oars. Rowers each use one oar in the coxless pair, coxed pair, coxed four and coxed eight events. In these events, sweep oars are positioned alternately on the sides of the boat, or shell (note that one rower in a sweep oars event would result in a boat going around in circles). In the coxed events, a coxswain steers the boat by pulling on wires attached to the rudder and advises the crew on racing tactics. The eight always carries a coxswain and is a remarkable event to watch; the boat is approximately 62 feet long (roughly the distance from home plate to the pitcher's mound on a baseball field) and moves at nearly 15 mph.



In rowing, event names are conventionally abbreviated as follows:

Racing Categories

1x  Single sculls         2+  Coxed pair
2x  Double sculls         4-  Coxless four
4x  Quadruple sculls      4+  Coxed four 
2-  Coxless pair          8+  Eight 

Gender Categories

     M  Men
     W  Women
     MX Mixed

Weight Classes

     L Lightweight

So a Men's Lightweight Eight would be : ML8+


What to Look For

The four parts to the rowing stroke- catch (blade in water, knees bent, arms forward), drive (legs straight, arms drawn toward body), finish (oar out of the water, blade horizontal), recovery (body forward, blade turned from horizontal to vertical) - should all flow together in smooth powerful movement.

In addition, the following are crucial for top rowers:

Continuous motion -- Rowing should be a continuous fluid motion.

Synchronization -- Rowers strive for perfect synchronization with crew members.

Clean catches of the oar blade -- A lot of splash means the oars aren't entering the water correctly. The catch should occur at the very end of the recovery, when the hands are as far ahead of the rower as possible.

Oar blade coordination -- As the blades are brought out of the water, they should move horizontally at the same height, just above water.

Consistent speed -- Shells move slowest at the catch, quickest at the release. A good crew times the catch at the right moment to maintain the speed of the shell.

Strokes per minute -- Stroke rates vary from boat to boat, depending on the number and size of the rowers. At the start, the stroke rate will be high (40-44 strokes per minute for an eight, 36-40 for a single). The rate slows down during the middle of a race to 32-36 for an eight and 28-32 for a single. Finishing stroke rates - the sprint over the final 500m- can be as high as 46 strokes per minute.


Competitive Categories

Rowers are categorized by what boat they row, how old they are, how well they row, what their gender is and how much they weigh. The descriptions below explain all possible categories. At the 1995 USRowing National Championships, categories are limited to elite open and lightweight events for men and women, as well as junior events for men and women.

By Ability

There are three national achievement categories: Intermediate, Senior and Elite. Intermediates can become Seniors by winning a first place at a designated "status-changing" event, the National Championships for example. If an Intermediate rower wins the Senior Men' Single Sculls at the Nationals, he then becomes a Senior Sculler. As soon as that happens, he can no longer enter an Intermediate sculling event.


Elite rowers represent the highest categorical level of rowing competition in the United States and compete at the World Championships and the Olympic Games.

By Gender

There are men's events and women's events. In a few regattas there are also mixed events. In a mixed eight, for example, there would be four men and four women.

By Age

Juniors are rowers 18 and under, or those who spent the previous year in a high school. Masters rowers are those over 27. At some regattas, masters events are further categorized by age, women 36-42 for example.

By Weight

There are two weight categories, lightweight and open weight. Lightweight men cannot weigh more than 160 lbs. and the average weight in the whole boat cannot exceed 155 lbs.


Each competitor in the lightweight women's events cannot weigh more than 130 lbs. and the average boat weight cannot exceed 125 lbs.


Lightweight can row in open events, but open weight athletes can't row in lightweight events unless they qualify. Lightweights have to weigh in before the event.


The Race

At the start, each of the six boats is held by the stern on starting pontoons and the bows are aligned by aligners. This event will be the first regatta held in the United States to use the AGSO Start, a hydraulic gate apparatus. The system will hold the bows of the shells until the start command is given.

The rower in the bow seat may raise his/her hand to indicate the crew is ready, until the starter conducts a roll call of the crews. After the roll call, the starter raises a red flag, gives the warning command "Attention" and then gives audible and visual signals to start the race. Crews are allowed only one false start, which is called when a crew leaves early or has equipment breakage in the first 100 meters of the race. It is not uncommon for an oar to break, for example.

As soon as the crews begin, one or two launches follow, carrying a driver and a judge-referee. The primary responsibility of the judge-referee is to ensure that all boats are racing in safe conditions and that every crew has an equal opportunity to win.

Crews are allowed to leave their lanes (in fact, a crew may begin in lane 1 and finish in lane 6) as long as their movement doesn't interfere with another crew's opportunity to win, or does not physically endanger the crew.

If a boat is close to interfering with another shell, the judge-referee will direct the crew by calling its name and pointing a white flag in the direction the boat should move to avoid trouble.

Judge-referees positioned on the finish line tower or platform determine the placing of each boat, with the assistance of timing and photo-finish equipment. "Winning by a bow ball" refers to the 2-inch rubber tip on a shell's bow that is used to indicate the winner in close races where photo-finishes are used.