Rowing, method of moving a boat through water by using one or more oars. Rowing is a universal activity, practiced since early human history wherever suitable bodies of water have existed. For centuries it was the most common and dependable mode of transportation over water, until the advent of sails and later the invention of the steam engine. Rowing is today, therefore, primarily a form of sport and recreation.
Rowing Crews at Work
In the sport of rowing, each rower uses only one oar, and usually the right and left oar are alternated. The crew in the top boat, or shell, are leaning forward to put their oars in the water, while the crew in the lower shell are halfway through their stroke.
As a sport, rowing has two distinctive forms. In the more common form (also called crew or sweep-oar racing), two or more crew members sit facing the stern of the boat, each rower pulling one oar. In the 19th century crews of 8, 10, or 12 members were popular; in the 20th century crews of 2, 4, or 8 are most common. With 8 rowers (also called strokes), the vessel is steered by a nonrowing coxswain, or cox, who sits in the stern of the boat, facing the crew. The job of the coxswain is to steer the boat, decide tactics, and establish and maintain the speed and rhythm of the strokes of the rowers. The other form of rowing, in which no coxswain is used, is called sculling, or scull racing. It is performed singly, by a pair, or by 4 rowers; each rower faces the stern and pulls a pair or oars.
Although the fundamental techniques of rowing have remained unchanged over the centuries, the design, construction, and weight of rowing equipment have been modified significantly, especially in the course of the 20th century. Racing craft, called shells, vary in length from 18.3 m (60 ft) for an 8-oared shell to 7.3 m (24 ft) for a single scull. The large, heavy, and often unwieldy wooden rowboats of the past have been transformed into long, slender, and light keelless shells, built on a wooden or fiber framework, and equipped with seats for the rowers that slide back and forth. The rowers' feet fit into shoes, called footboards, that are fixed to the boat's bottom. Oars are usually about 3.7 m (about 12 ft) long, with blades of 61 to 91 cm (24 to 36 in) in length and 15 cm (6 in) in width; in recent years the blades have become shorter and broader. The oars are connected to the shell by means of a metal oarlock, a contrivance on the boat's gunwales in or on which the oar rests, allowing it to swing freely.
The sport of rowing requires strength, endurance, and—in events with more than one rower per boat—teamwork. Here, Italian rowers Carmine and Giuseppe Abbagnale power their way through the water.
The essential beauty of the sport of rowing is found in the rhythm of the rower's strokes that propel the boat. The style and rhythm of the strokes has varied over the years, evolving, by today, into a series of clearly distinguishable movements that at the same time retain a pattern of continuous movement. The stroke begins with the placing of the oar in the water and ends when the oar has reemerged and is posed to begin another cycle. The stroke may be broken down into the recovery, catch, drive, and release. The power for the stroke is supplied by the driving down of the rower's legs and the pulling back with shoulders and back; the sliding seat helps to generate great power through the rower's legs and feet. This entire sequence of rhythmical, balanced movements is repeated from 32 to 40 times per min, depending on conditions, strategy, and length of the race.
HISTORY OF ROWING AND RACES
Competitive rowing among organized crews is one of the oldest and most traditional sports. Races between oared galleys were held in ancient Egypt and Rome. The Thames River in England is the setting for three of the most celebrated rowing events in the world: Doggett's Coat and Badge Race, the oldest rowing contest in the world, held annually since 1715; the annual boat race between the universities of Oxford and Cambridge; and the Henley Royal Regatta. The Henley annually attracts the foremost crews and scullers of the world, including several from U.S. universities and schools.
In the U.S., rowing was an informal sport in the 18th century. The first formal public notice of a rowing contest appeared in 1811. In the following years, boat clubs began to be established in the Atlantic Coast states and in the Midwest; by the mid-19th century many kinds of clubs, competitions, and vessels existed. Women often competed in club contests. Rowing regattas became popular spectator sporting events in cities adjacent to water, and by the 1870s international competitions began to be held, involving British, Canadian, and American rowers. Races were from 3.2 to 8 km (2 to 5 mi), usually following a so-called circular course—out to a stake boat and back—which made it easier for spectators to follow the contest. No distinction was made between professionals and amateurs; a considerable amount of prize money was involved, and a great deal of gambling, with resultant abuses, accompanied rowing contests.
In reaction to such abuses and to the growing commercialization of sport in general, the idea of amateurism gained great support in the late 19th century. This idea found its most important expression in the growth of college and university rowing; the sport thereupon began to attract a different body of participants and spectators. From 1852, the date of the first Yale-Harvard race, to the 1870s intercollegiate competition flourished. On its revival in the 1890s, a number of colleges joined together to found the Intercollegiate Rowing Association in 1895, and since that time collegiate rowing, for both women and men, has been firmly established. In the early 20th century the Pacific Coast dominated the sport, with the universities of Washington and California becoming national collegiate rowing powers. Loyal alumni provided emotional and financial support, and numerous trophies, such as the Childs, Carnegie, and Vail cups, were established.
Rowing was adopted as an Olympic sport in 1900 and formally incorporated in the Olympic Games in 1908. Within two decades the U.S. was established as dominant in crew and provided formidable competitors in sculling. A distinctive American style of rowing developed, characterized by remarkable power, even handling, and rhythm, which enabled the crew to keep the boat in motion between strokes. Today Olympic rowing preeminence is shared by many nations, and women have increasingly taken part in rowing and sculling competition. In addition to the Olympic Games, other competitions include the World Rowing Championship, the European Rowing Championship, and Pan American Games competition.