Introduction to the Sport of Rowing

In a world where being speedy is a goal and time rushes by so quickly, the timeless sport of rowing can give us a break from an ever-busy lifestyle. Rowing a boat in calm waters allows being relaxed and exhilarated simultaneously.

And if you enjoy recreational rowing, you might likely enjoy it as a form of competition, too. Rowing started as a form of transport and became one of America’s popular sports. It’s the first team sport contested in the US and continues to be popular among schools. Rowing can offer significant benefits for the mind and body and for your social life, too.

In this article, learn all about rowing, covering the basics you need to know.

What is Rowing?

Rowing is a sport that involves propelling a boat through water using oars. It can be both a recreational activity and a highly competitive sport. In rowing, a team of rowers or an individual (depending on the boat type) uses their strength, technique, and coordination to propel a long and narrow boat forward.

Rowing typically takes place in various bodies of water, such as rivers, lakes, and even coastal areas. The boat used in rowing is called a shell or a scull, which is a sleek and narrow vessel designed to minimize drag and maximize speed.

Rowers sit on sliding seats, facing backward, and use oars or sculls to row. Their coordinated effort, proper technique, and timing allow the boat to move smoothly and efficiently through the water.

The rowing stroke involves a sequence of movements that include the catch, drive, finish, and recovery phases. During the stroke, rowers push against the foot stretchers with their legs, transfer power through their core and back muscles, and pull the oars through the water to generate propulsion. It requires strength, endurance, and cardiovascular fitness to be able to row to the desired destination. It’s also about teamwork, as rowers must get their movements in sync and work together to achieve the optimum speed.  

Rowing competitions range from local regattas to prestigious international events like the Olympic Games and World Rowing Championships. Beyond its competitive aspect, rowing is also popular as a recreational activity and a way to enjoy the beauty of the water and nature. Many rowing clubs and organizations offer programs for people of all ages and skill levels, allowing them to learn and participate in the sport.

Rowing vs. Crew

Generally, rowing and “crew” refer to the same sport. In nautical terms, “crew” is used to refer to people operating the boat, but it’s used in America as another word for the sport. In schools and colleges in the United States, sometimes the sport is called “crew,” where athletes row across a body of water using one oar each.

History of Rowing


Alt-text: families rowing on the river

The history of rowing stretches back thousands of years, with evidence of rowing as a means of transportation and warfare dating back to ancient civilizations. Here is an overview of the history of rowing:

Ancient Origins

Rowing can be traced back to ancient Egypt, where rowed boats were used for transportation along the Nile River as early as 3000 BCE. Whether it was invented by Egyptians or something learned from Mesopotamia through trade is unknown. Still, archaeologists have recovered a model of a rowing vessel from a tomb that dates back to the 18 to 19th century BC.

In ancient Greece, rowing played a crucial role in naval warfare. Triremes, warships with three rows of oars, were used in battles such as the Battle of Salamis in 480 BCE.


Rowing continued to evolve in Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. From Egypt, rowing vessels were extensively used in trade and naval warfare in the Mediterranean from classical antiquity onwards. It became a popular means of transportation and trade on rivers and waterways, especially in Greece and Northern Europe. The first rowing clubs emerged in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, promoting rowing as a recreational activity.

Modern Competitive Rowing

The first modern rowing races started from competition among professional watermen in the UK on the River Thames in London. The oldest surviving race of its kind – the Doggett’s Coat and Badge – was first contested in 1715 and is still held every year from London Bridge to Chelsea.

In 1818, the world’s oldest public rowing club was established: the Leander Club. During the 19th century in England, wager matches between professionals became popular, attracting big crowds. The popularity of rowing as a sport grew rapidly, particularly in England, where the first Henley Royal Regatta was held in 1839.

In 1892, the International Rowing Federation (FISA) was founded to govern and regulate international rowing competitions. FISA first organized a European Rowing Championships game in 1893, while the annual World Rowing Championship was introduced in 1962.

Inclusion in the Olympic Games

Rowing is one of the oldest sports in the Olympics. Though it was included in the program for the 1896 games, racing was canceled due to bad weather. Male rowers have competed since the 1900 Summer Olympics, and the sport has been a permanent fixture. Women’s rowing was added to the Olympic program in 1976.

Today, the Olympic rowing program includes 14 boat classes that race, including single sculls, pairs, fours, eights, and lightweight events.

Types of Rowing Competitions

Rowing competitions encompass a range of categories and types, catering to different boat types, distances, and skill levels. Here are the main categories and types of rowing competitions:

1. Sculling vs. Sweep Rowing

  • Sculling – In sculling, each rower uses two oars (one in each hand). It’s done without a coxswain in quads, doubles, or singles. The oar on the right hand extends to the port, and the oar on the left extends to the starboard. Sculling boat categories include single sculls (1x), double sculls (2x), and quadruple sculls (4x).
  • Sweep Rowing – In sweep rowing, each rower holds a single oar with both hands. Because of this, there are usually an even number of rowers in one boat. Each rower’s oar extends to their port or starboard. Sweep rowing boat categories include pairs without coxswain (2-), coxless pairs (2-), fours without coxswain (4-), coxless fours (4-), and eights with or without coxswain (8+ or 8-).

Within both disciplines, there are several boat types that are classified using the number of rowers and whether there is a coxswain.

2. Distance Races

  • 2,000 meters – The standard distance for Olympic and most international-level rowing competitions. This distance is commonly used in regattas and championships.
  • 1,000 meters – Some regional and club-level competitions use this shorter distance, often for sprint-style races.
  • Head Races – These races are typically longer, ranging from several kilometers to several miles, with rowers racing against the clock rather than side-by-side.

3. Coxed vs. Coxless

  • Coxed Events – These races include a coxswain (cox) who steers the boat, gives commands, and provides strategic guidance to the rowers. Coxed events include pairs with coxswain (2+), coxed fours (4+), and eights (8+).
  • Coxless Events – In these races, the rowers themselves steer the boat, communicate, and coordinate without a coxswain. Coxless events include pairs without coxswain (2-) and fours without coxswain (4-).

4. Lightweight Events

In these events, rowers must meet weight restrictions. The limits vary by gender and boat class to provide fair competition for athletes of similar body weights.

5. Masters Rowing

These races are specifically for rowers over a certain age (often 27 or 30 years old). They allow older rowers to compete within their respective age categories, promoting lifelong participation in the sport.

6. Collegiate and School Rowing

  • Collegiate Rowing – Rowing is a popular sport at the collegiate level, with races organized among universities and colleges. Events include varsity, junior varsity, and novice categories.
  • School Rowing – Rowing is also offered as a sport in many high schools and secondary schools, providing opportunities for younger athletes to compete.

7. Regattas and Championships

  • Regattas – These are multi-day events featuring multiple races across various categories. They can be local, regional, or international, bringing rowers from different clubs and organizations together.
  • Championships – Major rowing organizations, such as FISA (International Rowing Federation) and national governing bodies, organize championships where rowers compete for national or international titles.

Types of Rowing Boats

Generally, there are three types of rowing boats: flat-water shells, open-water shells, and traditional skiffs. Each type of rowing boat serves a specific purpose and caters to different rowing environments and preferences.

Flat Water Shells

Designed for use in calm, smooth waters, flat water shells are used on flat bodies of water such as lakes and rivers. These boats are sleek, narrow, and lightweight – usually, a single is about 27 feet long – giving up other features for the sake of speed and efficiency. They have long hulls and minimal rocker (curvature along the keel line), which helps them glide smoothly through the water. These features make them quite difficult to spin.

Flat water shells are primarily used for competitive rowing in regattas and races, ranging from single sculls to eights. They require a high level of skill and technique to navigate effectively and achieve maximum speed.

Open Water Shells

Open water shells, also known as coastal rowing boats, are designed for rowing in rougher or more challenging water conditions, such as coastal areas, bays, and open water bodies. Open water shells are more stable and built to handle waves and unpredictable water conditions, unlike flat water shells. They have a wider, more robust design with a higher freeboard (the distance from the waterline to the gunwale). Because of this, open-water shells are more stable and buoyant.

Open water shells often feature self-bailing systems to drain any water that enters the boat quickly. These boats are popular among rowers who enjoy exploring open water environments and may have added features such as watertight compartments for storage.

Traditional Skiffs

Traditional skiffs, or recreational rowing boats, are generally used for leisurely rowing or casual activities rather than competitive racing. They often have a more traditional and classic design inspired by historical rowing boats. Traditional skiffs can vary in size and shape, but they usually have a wider beam that provides comfort and stability. These boats are suitable for rowing on calm lakes, ponds, or slow-moving rivers. They provide an enjoyable and relaxed rowing experience, perfect for individuals or small groups looking to row in calm waters.

Boat Classes for Crew Boats

For competitive rowing, boats used are classified into classes. These various types of rowing boats offer different dynamics and challenges, catering to individual skill levels, team cooperation, and competition formats. The choice of the boat depends on factors such as the number of rowers, the presence of a coxswain, and the specific goals of the rowing activity.

Here are the types of boats commonly used for rowing (along with the boat abbreviations):

Sculling Boat Classes

  • Single Sculls (1x) – Single sculls are rowing boats designed for a single rower. They feature one set of oars, with the rower using both hands to propel the boat forward. Single sculls provide a true test of an individual rower’s skill, balance, and technique.
  • Double Sculls (2x) – Double sculls are rowing boats built for two rowers. Each rower operates a single oar with both hands. Double sculls require coordination and synchronization between the rowers to achieve optimal performance and speed.
  • Quadruple Sculls (4x) – Quadruple sculls, also known as “quads,” are rowing boats designed for four rowers. Each rower uses a single oar. Quadruple sculls can be coxed or coxless, but a coxed quad is typically used only in rowing for both juniors and beginners. Quads offer a balanced combination of teamwork and individual power.
  • Octuple Scull (8x) – This type of boat is rare and is only typically used by beginners. This boat uses eight rowers equipped with a pair of sculls and a cox to steer the boat.

Sweeping Boat Classes 

  • Coxed Pairs (2+) – Coxed pairs are rowing boats featuring two rowers and a coxswain who directs the athletes and steer the boat with a rudder attached to cables. The rowers each hold a single oar, while the coxswain sits at the stern, providing instructions, steering the boat, and coordinating the rowers’ movements.
  • Coxless Pairs (2-) – Coxless pairs are rowing boats similar to coxed pairs but without a coxswain. One of the rowers steers the boat through a rudder connected by cables since there is no coxswain.
  • Coxless Fours (4-) – Coxless fours are rowing boats designed for four rowers without a coxswain. Each rower operates a single oar. One of the rowers typically uses their foot to steer the boat in the absence of a coxswain.
  • Coxed Fours (4+) – Coxed fours are rowing boats with four rowers and a coxswain. Each rower holds a single oar while the coxswain guides the boat, provides instructions, and manages the rowers’ rhythm and coordination.
  • Eights (8+ or 😎 – Eights are the largest rowing boats used in competition. They feature eight rowers and a coxswain (in 8+) or without a coxswain (in 8-). Each rower uses a single oar, and the coxswain is responsible for steering, strategy, and coordinating the rowers’ efforts. Eights require exceptional teamwork, synchronization, and power to achieve maximum speed and efficiency.

Stages of Rowing

The rowing motion is a cycle – it shouldn’t have a definite beginning or end. But there are four main steps when it comes to the anatomy of a rowing stroke, such as the following

1. Catch – The catch is when the oar enters the water. When rowers start the stroke, they are coiled up on the sliding seat, leaning slightly forward with their knees bent and arms stretched. Instead of using only power to get the oar in the water, athletes also rely on the blade’s weight and gravity.

Having a strong catch position is crucial, with the oar blade fully submerged and the body leaning forward. Proper timing is also vital, ensuring that all rowers enter the water simultaneously to maximize power and maintain balance.

2. Drive – The drive phase is the most powerful part of the rowing stroke. While the rowers are still in the same position from the catch, they will start to uncoil the upper body and extend at the knees to drive the seat back. Their arms are still extended, and their back is long as they draw the oar blades through the water. As they continue, they swiftly move their hands into the body in a layback-like position, which needs abdominal strength. Their speed might be compromised if they uncoil before dropping the oar blade.

Engaging the leg muscles efficiently is essential, transferring power from the legs to the oar handle while maintaining a strong core and stable body position.

3. Finish – Also called the release, this step is completed by moving the oar handle down and drawing it out of the water quickly while turning the handle. This way, the blade goes from vertical to horizontal – a movement also known as feathering the oar. At the finish, the rowers’ shoulders should be slightly behind the hips, and the core muscles will be exercised.

4. Recovery – The recovery phase is just as important as the drive. As rowers enter recovery, their hands are moved away from the body and past the knees. The oar is out of the water, then the blade travels smoothly back toward the bow. The rowers move their bodies forward until their knees are bent and are ready to do the next catch.

The sequence of movement for the recovery is the reverse of the drive: arms first, body text, leg last. Proper body posture, controlled movements, and relaxation of the arms and upper body help conserve energy and improve stroke efficiency.

Tips and Techniques for Beginner Rowers

Rowing is simple, but it takes a long time to get comfortable with it. If you’re committed to improving your rowing skills, here are some tips and advice to help you learn better:

Prioritize safety

Before you head out on the water and row on a boat, it’s best to start with safety precautions. Make sure that you know how to swim before you begin, and put on a life jacket while you’re out in the water. Understand the waters where you’re about to row, familiarize yourself with traffic patterns, and be aware of any hazards. Also, make sure you are in good shape and health before rowing, as it can be a rigorous exercise.

Know the basic terms

If you don’t know what bow, stern, stroke, port, and starboard mean – you’re not ready to row. Get to know the basic terms used in rowing first, as you need to understand them before getting into the water.

Learn from experienced rowers

Surround yourself with experienced rowers who can provide guidance and mentorship. Seek advice, ask questions, and observe their technique and approach to rowing. Learning from those with more experience can help you progress faster and avoid common mistakes.

Focus on technique

As a beginner, it’s crucial to prioritize learning proper rowing techniques from the start. Work closely with a coach or experienced rower to develop a solid foundation of skills and body mechanics. Pay attention to the catch position, drive phase, finish, and recovery, ensuring that each part of the stroke is executed correctly.

Perform basic drills

Incorporate drills into your training sessions to isolate specific aspects of the stroke and improve your technique. Examples of drills include pause drills (pausing at different points in the stroke to reinforce proper positioning), half-slide drills (limiting the sliding motion during the drive phase), and feathering drills (focusing on blade control and rotation). These drills help develop muscle memory and reinforce good rowing habits.

Maintain proper posture

Maintaining a correct body position and posture throughout the stroke is crucial for optimal rowing technique. A strong core, upright posture, and engaged back muscles help generate power and maintain balance. Rowers should strive for a relaxed upper body while maintaining stability and alignment.

Build strength and endurance before rowing

Rowing is a physically demanding sport that requires both strength and endurance. Incorporate strength training exercises, such as squats, lunges, and core exercises, into your training routine to build the necessary muscles. Additionally, include cardiovascular exercises like running, cycling, or rowing machine workouts to improve your endurance.

Core strength is also essential for stability and power in rowing, so make sure to target your abdominal, back, and hip muscles in your workouts. A strong core provides a solid base for generating power and maintaining proper body alignment throughout the stroke.

Practice blade control and feathering

Blade control refers to the ability to handle the oar correctly throughout the stroke. Rowers should maintain a consistent depth of the oar blade in the water to optimize propulsion. Feathering involves rotating the oar handle to minimize wind resistance during the recovery phase. Mastering blade control and feathering techniques enhance efficiency and speed.

To practice feathering the blade, use a thick marker pen or a thin rolling pin as a cylindrical object. With your arms extended in front of you, keep your wrists flat and your hand positioned horizontally and level with your forearm. Bend and straighten your fingers from the knuckle while keeping the fingertips bent over. Use your thumb on the underside of the handle to assist in rotating it between your fingers and back into your palm.

Be open to communicate

Rowing is a team sport that requires effective communication and cooperation. Learn to communicate clearly with your teammates, particularly when making adjustments to technique or coordinating efforts. Also, listen to feedback from coaches and more experienced rowers, as their insights can help you improve and refine your skills.

Be patient and practice

Rowing is a skill-intensive sport that takes time and practice to master. Be patient with yourself and embrace the learning process. Stay persistent and committed to your training, knowing that improvement will come with time and consistent effort. It’s best to get things right from the start so that you won’t have to undo any bad habits before starting to improve. Break down the stroke into smaller chunks and practice repeatedly so you can understand.

Have fun and enjoy

Remember to have fun while learning to row. Embrace the camaraderie of the sport, enjoy being on the water, and celebrate your progress. Rowing offers not only physical benefits but also the opportunity to form lasting friendships and connect with nature.