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What is Rowing?

A ‘manual’ for interested parents

By David Greenspan


Table of Contents

Introduction.. 3

LMHS crew rows on the Schuykill! 3

The Equipment in a nutshell.. 4

Oars, Riggers, and seat 5

The ergometer. 6

Rowing Basics.. 7

Anatomy of a stroke. 7

How to make a boat fast! 7

The crew... 8

The coxswain. 8

LMHS crew in competition.. 9

Side by Side. 9

Head races. 9

Indoor Competition. 9

A typical Race. 9

Warm up. 9

The Start 10

The Body. 10

The Sprint 10

Watching an LMHS crew race. 10

Wear proper clothing. 10

Food and Water. 11

Watching the race. 11

A Year in LMHS Rowing. 12

Fall 12

Winter 12

Spring. 12

Boat Selection. 13

The racing season. 13

Lower Merion Women’s Open 4 with coxswain (maroon with white hats) in second at the 2006 SRA regatta Summer rowing  13

Nutrition.. 14

Spirit/value.. 15

Acknowledgements.. 17


So, you want to know more about Lower Merion High School rowing? Some of your questions may require specific answers that only this current year’s coaches can answer. But if your questions are more general, then this document (in evolution to be edited and updated as you give me feedback) is for you!

So let’s start with the most basic. What is rowing? Rowing is a sport for recreation or competition in which athletes’ race against each other on rivers, lakes or on the ocean. The boats move across the water by person power through the use of oars. Rowing competitions have been established for juniors (under 18 year olds), Masters (from 36-100+ yrs), and is an Olympic sport. Whereas, LMHS rowing has girls and boys of all sizes, Olympic aspirants must compete against some of the fittest athletes in any sport. A typical male Olympic rower would be over 6 feet tall, weigh in around 200 lbs and have about 7% body fat. Fortunately, it doesn’t take anything like that to find a comfortable spot on the LMHS rowing team!

In the United States, high school and collegiate rowing is sometimes referred to as crew. From www.dictionary.com:
crew  /kru/ [kroo] –noun 4.       the team that rows a racing shell: varsity crew.


LMHS crew rows on the Schuykill!

Walking Boat House Row on the Kelly Drive is a walk in history. Rowing is the ‘second’ oldest sport played today (Cricket is just a few years older). Philadelphia rowing spawned amateur athletics in this country and has been represented in the Olympics since the first modern games in 1900. The grand tradition of Philadelphia rowing continues to this day with the coach of the Olympic gold medal 2004 Men’s team, Mike Teti, having rowed for Monsignor Bonner and St. Josephs College. LMHS crew rows out of Whitemarsh Boat House at Hines Rowing Center in Conshohocken, PA.  Via trailer LMHS boats are transported to the race course on the Schuykill River just upriver from Boat House Row each week!

The Equipment in a nutshell

Rowing is done in a boat called a ‘shell’. Perhaps this name comes from the very thin veneer like hull, once made of wax paper and later a thin layer of wood, fragile as an egg shell. Currently, shells are significantly sturdier; made of carbon fibers and plastic. Still, a 60 foot long and 2 foot wide shell big enough for eight 200 pound rowers and a 120 pound coxswain (almost a ton in total) weigh little more than 210 pounds and costs about $35,000 these days.

There are several different types of boats. They are classified referring to one of five variables and use a shorthand notation. The notation is crucial since race programs and results use the shorthand regularly:

  • Number of rowers in the shell. In all forms of modern competition the number is 1, 2, 4, or 8.
  • Position of ‘coxswain’. Boats are either coxless (‘straight’), ‘bow’-coxed (also called bowloaders), or ‘stern’-coxed. (For ‘coxswain’ see page 8. The bow is the front and stern the back of a boat.)
  • ‘Sweep’ or ‘scull’. In sweep rowing, each athlete has one oar, either port or starboard (port is on the left facing the bow of the boat) and so each athlete is either a ‘port’ or ‘starboard’. In sculling, each athlete has two oars, one in each hand.
    • Sculling options and notation: single (scull) (1x), double (scull) (2x), quad (or quadruple scull) (4x), octuple (scull) (8x) (always coxed, and mainly for juniors and exhibition). Note the designation (_x). This is shorthand to denote a sculling shell (The photo is a women’s openweight quad (W4x). The ladies are sculling. They have one oar in each hand.)

    • Sweep options and notation: straight pair (or coxless pair) (2-), coxed pair (2+), straight four (or coxless four) (4-), coxed four (4+), eight (8+) (always coxed). The designation has no “x” for sweeping, and the + or – indicates whether there is a coxswain. (The photo is a Men’s openweight straight four (M4-). Each man has one oar grasped by two hands. This is a photo of the British 4 that dominated rowing in the 1990’s. The man in the back of the boat closest to the camera is Mathew Pinsent. He is holding a port oar since it goes out to the left as we face the front of the boat. The guy just behind the one in the hat is Sir Steven Redgrave, considered the greatest rower of all time. I guess winning 5 gold medals, one in each Olympics between 1984 and 2000 gives him bragging rights!)

Sculling is more efficient than sweeping: the double scull is faster than the coxless pair, and the quad is faster than the coxless four.

  • Lightweight or Openweight: Lightweight men maximum weight in high school is 150lbs, for women is 130lb. Put an “L” in front of the boat designation to indicate lightweight. Openweight is also referred to as Heavyweight (at least for men!).
  • Gender. Men’s crew is designated with an M, women is with a W. So, a Men’s lightweight 4 with coxswain would be designated ML4+. A woman’s openweight double is referred to as a W2x.

Oars, Riggers, and seat

Sweep Oars like the ones used at LMHS are long poles (360 cm or 11.8 feet) with one flat end about 50 cm (20 inches) long and 25 cm wide, called the blade. Modern oars are made from synthetic material, the most common being carbon fiber. The current blade shape is called the ‘hatchet’ and was first introduced in 1991. This replaced the tulip or Macon blade in use from the 1950’s that replaced the long blade used since the turn of the century.

Oars are adjustable. The most common adjustment is at the ‘collar’ (Blue ring on the green ‘sleeve’ in the picture below) that determines how much of the oar is inside or outside the ‘oarlock’ that holds the oar to the boat on the ‘rigger’. Each oar (whether it is a sweep or sculling oar) is designed to be a port or starboard one. Both the asymmetric hatchet blade and collar determine which side the oar fits on.

At each athletes seat is a rigger (a metal wing or triangle of tubes) that is attached to the hull of the shell. The rigger serves to hold the swiveling oarlock well away from the side of the hull permitting a much longer oar and narrow hull quite different from typical rowboats. Riggers are highly adjustable to accommodate to weather, athlete build, performance, etc.

The seat that the rower sits in rolls up and down on tracks. This sliding seat permits the rower to use their legs as a major propulsive force. The feet of the athlete is tied into sneakers (called foot stretchers) that also adjust to permit the many different sized members of the crew to use the equipment.

The ergometer

The ‘ergometer’ is an indoor rowing machine. It is useful for training during the winter months, to allow for hands on coaching of technique, and for competition. This rowing simulator has a meter that estimates the energy exerted in calories or watts, the distance rowed and boat speed. The speed is designated by the amount of time it would take to cover a hypothetical 500 meters. This is often called a ‘split’. So a ‘split’ of 2:15 would mean it would take 2 minutes and 15 seconds to cover 500 meters and improving a split by 5 seconds would be to reduce that to 2:10 for 500 meters.

Rowing Basics

So, how does an athlete row? When rowing, the athlete sits in the boat facing backwards (towards the back of the boat or stern), and uses the legs, back and then arms to lever the boat forward. The major power comes from the legs that ‘jump off’ the footstretchers, rolling the seat toward the bow (front) of the boat. It is a demanding sport requiring balance as well as physical strength and cardiovascular endurance.

Anatomy of a stroke

Rowing technique consume much of the attention of coaches, rowers and coxswains. Good technique is essential for crews to go fast enough to cover 1500 meters in less than 5 minutes. There are two reference points in the rowing stroke cycle. The ‘catch’ where the oar blade is placed in the water, and the 'finish' or ‘release’ where the oar blade is removed from the water. After the blade ‘catches’ the water, the rower ‘drives’ the boat forward. While on the drive, the blade must be down in the water, ‘square’. If the blade is not square it either jumps out of the water (over-squared), or dives deep (under-squared) in what is called ‘catching a crab’.

After the ‘finish’ the blade is taken out of the water and the rower is on the ‘recovery’ to bring him or herself to the next catch. When on the recovery, the blade is ‘feathered’ flat to minimize air drag before it is ‘rolled up’ square to be ready for the next ‘catch’.

How to make a boat fast!

Boat speed is determined by the amount of water covered between strokes and the ‘stroke rating’ in terms of ‘strokes per minute’ (36-42 strokes per minute are typical for LMHS crews while racing). The power of each stroke, and the length of the stroke in the water combine to add speed to the boat during the drive. Placing the blade in the water at the far end of the recovery so as not to ‘miss water’, utilizing good technique and fitness, and then bringing the oar handle all the way to the chest so as not to ‘wash out’ the finish moves the boat along.

Letting the boat ‘run’ during the recovery with a minimal loss of speed is necessary for a winning crew. Boat ‘check’ that slows the boat right at the catch is a problem for every crew. With races often decided by a second or two over 5 minutes, fractions of a centimeter difference in the run of a boat between strokes (around 200 strokes for a high school race) can be a deciding factor in who wins and who loses.

Of course, a fast boat steering all over the place will take much longer to get down the course than one that steers straight. Steering is in the hands of the coxswain, but is made much easier by a well rowing crew. Though it would seem easy, steering a shell is very challenging due to the large weight of the boats with crew, uneven pressure between port and starboard, and the very small rudder.

Crews of 2 or more move the best when the members of the crew are in time with each other. The unison of body swing on the recovery, blades in at the catch, swing through the drive, and exit of the blades at the finish is required for fast boats.

Perhaps more than any other feature of the moving boat, the ‘set’ or balance of the boat is attended to the most. A shell can roll so that either side can be lower than the other. The seat is now slanted. The oar on the recovery may ‘chip’ the water. On the drive, the roll puts strain on the back and shoulders. Upright posture, uniform movement, and timing at both catch and finish are crucial for maintaining a boat’s set and a constantly set boat is the dream of every rower.

The crew

In all boats, with the exception of single sculls, each rower is numbered in sequential order, low numbers at the bow, up to the highest at the stern. The person seated in the first seat is called the 'bow'. The rower closest to the stern is called the 'stroke'. Usually the stroke oar is on the port side.

Positions in the boat have varying roles. The ‘stroke’ generally sets the stroke rate and rhythm. Rowers in the middle are usually less technical, but more powerful, ‘the engine room’. The bow rowers tend to be the lightest and are more technically proficient. (This is a bowloaded W4+)

The coxswain

The coxswain is the ‘captain’ of the crew. Yasmin Farooq, national team coxswain, identifies 5 vital skills for coxswains. 1) Steering. 2) Technical coxing/liaison. The coxswain can feel the boat move and communicate this to the crew and the coach. 3) Flow of practice. It is often the coxswain who can make a practice ‘work’ effectively. 4) Motivation and Teamwork. 5) Racing and strategy. The coxswain, is required to implement the ‘race plan’ as unlike all other sports, Crew is raced without the input of the coach who is not allowed to communicate to the crew in any way. Moreover, every race plan has its strengths and weaknesses. Though a plan may be rehearsed, it is the adjustments made in the race in response to real conditions that can determine victory or contribute to defeat.

LMHS crew in competition

Rowing is unusual in the demands it places on competitors. The standard high school race distance is 1500 meters (2000m in college and Olympic competition) about 200 strokes, is long enough to have a large endurance element, but short enough (typically 4.5 to 7 minutes) to feel like a sprint. This means that rowers have some of the highest power outputs of athletes in any sport.

Side by Side

Most races that are held in the spring and summer feature side by side racing -- all the boats start at the same time from a stationary ‘start’ and the winner is the boat that crosses the finish line first. The number of boats in a race typically varies between two to six.

In general, multi-boat competitions are organized in a series of rounds, with the fastest boats in each heat qualifying for the next round. The losing boats from each heat may be given a second chance to advance through a repechage, or repeat race. The Scholastic Rowing Association Nationals in late May each year offers heats and a repechage system.

Head races

Head races are time trial / processional races. Boats begin at intervals of 10-20 seconds and are timed over a set distance. In the spring, time trials are sometimes used to determine who competes in a ‘finals’ event where there is a limited number of positions for a large number of entrants. Lower Merion Crew often enters ‘head style’ time trials in ‘medal’ regattas beginning with the NJ Scholastic Championship in late April, the Philadelphia City Championship and the Stotesbury cup regatta.

Indoor Competition

Finally, there is competition indoors during the winter season using ergometers. These are typically raced over ‘2000 meters’ or ‘2K’ and are, of course, on the clock.

A typical Race

The 1500 meter side by side race that LMHS crew typically compete in is divided into 4 major sections, warm up, the start, body and sprint. The race plan is developed by the coach in conjunction with the crew and implemented by the coxswain. Once off the dock, the coach cannot have any further contact with the crew. The race plan is designed to give the crew a psychological advantage over the other competitors in the race as it maximizes the performance attributes of the respective rowers.

Warm up

Crucial to a ‘best race’ is a good warm up. It cannot be too long, tiring the team. It cannot be too short or too early, leaving athletes cold. It is an opportunity to ‘get ones head’ to feel the swing, to burn off some jitters, and to get ready both mentally and physically.

The Start

The first 20 to 30 strokes are dedicated to getting the boat up to speed as effectively as possible. The start begins with a high stroke rating (over 40 strokes per minute) that continues until the ‘settle’ into the body of the race. Unlike in running races where the trailing athletes can see the leaders, in rowing the leading crew (other than the coxswain) has the best view of the competition. Many crews prefer leading early due to this but this can exhaust a crew that starts too fast.

The Body

The body is the middle section of the race, typically rowed between 34 and 38 strokes per minute, where tactical ‘moves’ such as a ‘power 10’ of 10 strokes in length are used to optimize the speed and create a psychological advantage over the other crews. Challenging a competitor when it is struggling with an effective ‘power ten’ can have crippling effects.

The Sprint

The final portion is reserved for the sprint with the stroke rating increasing again (back over 40?). Increasing speed and stroke rating requires maintaining good technique, very difficult with the crew so tired. An effective sprint can be a devastating tactic to win a race in the last few strokes.

Watching an LMHS crew race

Most LMHS crew regattas are held on the Schuylkill, a straight 1500 meters with the current from above the Spring Garden street bridge to the finish just before the Columbia railroad bridge. Each race takes about 5-7 minutes with many events taking place during the day. It is not uncommon for LMHS to participate in regattas that run from ½ a day to 2 full days of racing. Moreover, racing is held unless high waves from wind that can swamp shells, debris in the water that can damage equipment, or lightning cancel the racing. Given all of this, how can a spectator best enjoy LMHS racing?

Wear proper clothing.

It cannot be emphasized enough to wear clothing appropriate for standing around outside for hours during the day (of course bringing a chair can be smart). A little rain, a little wind, and a lot of time will make a 43 degree day miserably cold if not bundled in layers. 75 degrees and sunny brings out the shorts and t-shirts. Be prepared with lots of sun screen and a hat with a good brim.

Food and Water.

The day is long and amenities are usually short at racing venues. Fortunately, LMHS crew parents organize food and water for most of the events to ease this burden for spectators and athletes alike. Volunteers for setting up tents, bringing food, cooking, cleaning up, and breaking down at the end of regattas are always needed to ensure that this problem is readily solved on regatta day.

Watching the race.

Programs. It is much easier to watch a regatta with a program that is best downloaded from the event’s website and printed at home the night before (most links can be found through www.lmcrew.org). From a distance, races all look alike. Usually, but not always, events go off near the expected time. Following the regatta along via the program is about the only way to be sure you know what race you are watching. And watching LMHS and its competitors is much more fun if you know who they are!

Team identification. Besides the program that identifies which team is in which lane, it easy to tell who is whom once you are familiar with the team colors and oarblade designs that are unique for each program. LMHS rows in Maroon with black and white trim. The blades are maroon with a white tip (like on the web site).

So who is in front? The best way to watch the race is from one of the referee launches that follow the races down to ensure fair play. It is possible to get into one of these launches by volunteering to drive one. On the Schuylkill river, the Kelly drive is blocked off to automobiles. With some caution, you can follow the race down from start to finish with fair to good visibility by bicycle. Sadly, some of the worst visibility is at the finish line due to the grandstands and cheering spectators. Alternatively the West River drive is closed starting in April. Except for the island, visibility is pretty good most of the racing season.

Many of us cannot or will not be able to drive a launch or use a bicycle to follow the race. For us, we have to watch from the bank of the river and see it go by. Often times, the relative positions of the crews can be very difficult to determine except as they cross immediately in front. Even then, the perception is tricked by the fact that near boats always appear to be going faster and therefore catching, passing, or speeding away from boats in lanes further away.

When the boats are upriver, relative position is best determined by the ‘relative height’ of the boats as compared to the ‘horizon’, an imaginary line crossing the river. Boats ‘lower’ on the horizon are in front. With practice, you can get a pretty good feel for who is leading in the first 1/2 of the race.

When upriver, the boat ‘lower’ on the ‘horizon’ will be in front.

As the boats pass by (if not right on the finish line), the best way to defeat the illusion of near boats going faster is to look at the relative position of the ‘puddles’ that the oars leave in the water. That imaginary ‘line’ across the river will help you decide whether the puddles left by one boat or another are actually changing position all that much.

Some spectators like binoculars. They are especially useful for two things. The first is identifying a race by the crews entered. With the timing of events not always remaining true, sometimes the only way to know what race is on the course is to ID a team and match it to your program. The other benefit of binoculars is if you like to watch boat technique as it rows down the river. The binoculars permit seeing detail well ahead of those without.

Are they racing well? This is a common question as you watch the boats row by (see: pg 7, how to make a fast boat). There are a variety of things to look for. 1) Steering. In smoother water, the wake should be a straight line. 2) Speed. Boat speed can often be sensed by the ‘spacing’ of the puddles. Watch for how far past the last set of puddles the rowers place the next stroke. 3) Stroke rating. A crew hitting their planned rating is typically having a good race. 4) Timing. Does the motion of rowers appear well synchronized? 5) Bladework. Are blades off the water on the feather, stay close to the water as they approach the catch, go in far to the bow, and stay deep to the release? Long, better than short strokes tend to win more races.

So who won? All races are timed and the order of finish and time for each crew in it are posted during the regatta. For most of the racing season, the race results are posted on bulletin boards at the finish line. It usually takes 10-20 minutes to get the final results posted up. Since many regattas also post their results via the computer onto the internet, those who have mobile internet connections can get the results more quickly that way. Race times are very sensitive to current and weather that can even vary from heat to heat in a regatta making comparing times from race to race tricky at best. Ultimately, the finals winner may only be decided by a special finish line camera if the race is decided ‘by a bow ball’.

A Year in LMHS Rowing

Rowing is one of the few sports where athletes may practice year round and compete during both spring and fall. At Lower Merion, the league only permits ‘official’ practices and races between March 1 and the end of May. However, some LMHS rowers join clubs to row and compete in the summer and fall, and practice in the winter using rowing machines.


Fall rowing focuses on building technical proficiency, developing mental toughness and improving physical strength and endurance. The Head of the Schuylkill and Navy Day Regatta in Philadelphia, and the Head of the Charles in Boston are favorite fall races.


This is an intense building period for the spring racing season using ergometers. In February, some athletes compete in indoor rowing competitions such as the Main Line Slide in Villanova and the Crash B’s in Boston.


Spring is the primary LMHS racing season. The spring season begins the first days in March and end with the Stotesbury Cup regatta the third weekend in May. All races are side by side for 1500 meters except for the larger medal regattas that use qualifying 1500 meter ‘head style’ time trials to select crews for finals.

At Lower Merion, as with almost all high school and college programs, the spring break is a dedicated time for training. During this week, double sessions dramatically increases the water time, fitness, technical competence, and camaraderie of the team.

Boat Selection

Boat selection is a complicated process. The question the coach is trying to answer is ‘what is the best lineup of athletes in the boats available to race?’ Boat selection usually relies on 3 major inputs. 1) Ergometer tests, typically 2000 meter or 2K tests, give objective ‘numbers’ to fitness and rowing power. Erg tests are fair approximations of water speed. 2) Seat racing pits two crews against each other over a fixed time or distance. The speed of the two boats doesn’t have to be matched, but the relative speed must be noted. Two athletes are now switched and the piece is run again. The changes in relative speed can be ascribed, in part, to the change in athletes. 3) Finally is the athletes technical style, psychological toughness, how they ‘fit’ with the other rowers, commitment to the team, growth potential, spirit, etc.

The racing season

The Manny Flick or ‘Flick’ races occur each Sunday beginning the second or third Sunday in March (except for a break at Easter). These 5 races lead up to the medal races including the NJ Scholastics, the Philadelphia City Championships and the Stotesbury Cup. Though the NJ Scholastics would appear to be for NJ schools, and the Philadelphia Cities for schools who row in Philadelphia, these races are open to a much broader competition base. The Stotesbury Cup is the largest HS athletic event in the US. It draws crews from Florida to Canada. It is the ‘premier’ event on the LMHS rowing calendar.

If a Lower Merion crew does well in the Manny Flick series, NJ Scholastic or Philadelphia City Championships, they can qualify for the US Scholastic rowing association championships held the weekend after the Stotesbury. The SRA nationals are by invitation or qualification only. It is rowed at a different location each year between New York and Florida. Though it is titled ‘nationals’ crews at the SRA’s hail mostly from the east coast of the US and Canada.

Summer rowing

On rare occasions, members of the LMHS crew who have had very competitive seasons can go to one of two different ‘summer’ racing events, the Youth National championships in mid June and the Henley Women’s regatta in late June or the Henley Royal Regatta the first weekend in July depending on their gender.

The US Rowing sponsored Youth Nationals are raced over a 2000 meter course and attract both schools and club crews so long they are of high school age. The distinction is an important one. A school crew only has members drawn from that school, whereas a club crew can draw on anyone they can attract to the club. This race does attract crews from across the US.

The Henley Women’s Regatta is completely separate from The Henley Royal Regatta though it is run on 1500 meters of the same course on the River Thames by the town of Henley-on-Thames, England. It is a one on one match race, single elimination style regatta and has been run since 1988.

The Henley Royal Regatta (HRR) lasts for 5 days over the first weekend in July. Races are run over a course of 1 mile, 550 yards (2,112 m). The regatta began in 1839 and is considered the premier summer regatta other than the World championships or Olympics. It is also a single elimination competition

Some LMHS rowers elect to join a boat club program for rowing during the summer as well. This can be fairly intense or more laid back depending on the club or program, done in sweep rowing or sculling. Racing can include regattas in Philadelphia such as the Independence Day, the US Nationals for club crews and the Canadian Henley Regatta held in St. Catherines Ontario.


10 ‘commandments’ of sports nutrition David Nieman DHSc

  1. Eat a prudent diet with a calorie mix that is approximately 55% carbs, 30% fats, 15% protein
  2. Increase total calorie intake to maintain a healthy body weight
  3. Carbohydrates are crucial for regularly exercising athletes.
  4. Drink lots of water
  5. Females should consume high iron foods
  6. Vitamin/mineral supplements shouldn’t be necessary
  7. 70-80 grams of protein a day is more than adequate
  8. Rest and eat carbohydrates 2-5 hours before an event. (Carbo loading isn’t necessarily helpful for short events such as crew races, but it doesn’t hurt either.)
  9. Nutrition supplements are either worthless (such as bee pollen) or unethical and dangerous (such as steroids).
  10. Good nutrition with exercise is best for overall health.

Other Tips.

  • Quick calories just before racing are wasted. Calories eaten thirty minutes or less before exercise are not digested.
  • Drinking fluids, up to ½ cup every 15-20 minutes is invaluable in exercise. Fluid restriction does not improve training results nor does fluid consumption cause cramps. In fact, most muscle cramps are caused by dehydration.
  • If you are planning a snack 30-90 minutes before a race, the best rule of thumb is: Eat familiar food with plenty of water. Pre-race eating is not the time to experiment.


I suspect that each of us parents and coaches believes that the value of sport goes far beyond winning a race or taking a medal. Why else would so many be encouraged to compete with the foreknowledge that in multi-boat racing, most of the time we fail to get a medal, ½ of all athletes perform less well than the other half, and every time someone has to be ‘last’. So, what value is to be had through participation in crew? Here I am taking the liberty to editorialize. I am not offering this as a complete list. Moreover, I am not offering the order of this list as having any significance what so ever.

Teamwork – Rowing success can only come from teamwork, with little ability to create superstars. Boat speed is optimized when the ‘crew’ is synchronized. Take rowing a pair as the most extreme example. In order for the boat to ‘set up’, oars must enter and leave the water at the same time. In order for it to go straight, the power in the water must be pretty well matched on both sides. There is likely harm if one of the two rowers tries to win the race on their own. Though there is more tolerance for error in larger boats, the principle applies. Uniformity is crucial. And with uniformity comes a limited ability to differentiate the ‘super star’. Surely, from the spectator point of view, it is much easier to identify that dazzling centerfield catch, great 30 yard TD run, or fabulous jump shot at the buzzer than it is to recognize the subtle changes of the hands by a bow seat helping set the boat or the synchronized rate adjustment from 36 to 38 during a ‘power ten’ called by the coxswain and led from the stroke seat.

And because the sport requires synchronicity, the need to collaborate with each other is very strong. The basis of this collaboration must be interpersonal. Who is going to make a sacrifice with 500 meters to go if there is no confidence in or concern for your teammates? Rowers will tell you that if a team mate misses practice, the entire crew misses out. The commitment to comrades becomes huge.

Unique to rowing is the position of the coxswain. The Cox is an essential member of the crew who adds no speed to the boat. The smallest and weakest member of any crew, it is the cox who ‘commands’ the boat. This juxtaposition of command with physical incompetence creates a tension resolved by coxswains in a variety of ways. How a coxswain gains the respect of the crew is a crucial puzzle whose solution often differentiates the successful coxswain from the ‘average’.

Personal growth – Growth in the sport comes through the physical, psychological and interpersonal demand on each athlete. The athletes will tell you of their anxiety before the ‘2K test’. 8 minutes is more than long enough to test ones mental capacity for tolerating discomfort. The stories of vomiting and fainting after these tests are ubiquitous. Who wouldn’t have some ‘PTSD’ after putting oneself through that?

Each stroke is made up of a myriad of technical elements. Each rower will strive for the ‘perfect stroke’; few ever feel they make one. Concentration, especially when fatigued, is an invaluable winning tool.

Occasionally, athletes will get hurt. Though not an impact sport, repetitive use injuries do occur. This puts a strain on the athlete and their colleagues who rely on them. Working back from such injuries is another source of pride and teaches courage and persistence to overcome adversity.

Most athletes take great pride in besting themselves week over week. Winning is surely not the only measure of success, as losing to a competitor by less, or having a ‘great row’ and ‘leaving it all out on the water’ are testaments to this improvement. Having a dream, striving for that dream, overcoming adversity, recognizing the value of persistence are all found in rowing.

Loyalty and Mutual respect – The combination of teamwork with personal integrity and sacrifice make for an ideal crucible for the development of loyalty and mutual respect. With each day, the effort on all to improve individually and together, mutual respect, the benefits of fair play, a strong work ethic, and fun with humor help take a few athletes and turn them into a crew.

At Lower Merion, ‘team spirit’ is sustained through the hard days of winter training, the double sessions of spring break, the ‘spirit dinners’ before the many races, food and friendship at the racing venues, and the celebrations following each and every performance. At year’s end, a summation, the saying good bye to the seniors and the announcements of new captains creates continuity for the program.

For many of us who have participated in the sport as athletes or as parents of athletes, there is nothing like it.

"To row is great; to race at rowing is greater;

to love rowing is greatest."



I need to credit the following for their help with many details. These also serve as excellent references for further reading.


Wikipedia, www.wikipedia.com has proven to be invaluable as a basic reference. A good deal of the basic text for this handout was initially downloaded directly from Wikipedia as presented in September of 2007.

The Book of Rowing by D.C. Churbuck, published by The Overlook Press in 1988 provided additional material.

WWW.rowinghistory.net offered useful historical information.

The History of the Penn Athletic Club Rowing Association: A saga of a Philadelphia rowing club, by Joe Sweeney can be found at www.boathouserow.org/pac/pennac and has a good deal of interesting information about rowing and its history.

Finally, I direct you to www.usrowing.org. If you are a member, a number of valuable pages of educational materials are available.