Collegiate rowing 101: The beginner’s basics

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As rowing’s first regatta soared in popularity by 1925, an estimated crowd of 100,000 people packed along the shoreline to catch a glimpse of history in the making. Trains at full capacity circled around the edges of Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire, allowing for complete 360-degree showings. Citizens of all ages eagerly chattered in anticipation. Prideful students rumbled university chants. Families mingled in an event that embodied the heart and soul of college athletics.

When Yale’s crew first challenged Harvard to a race in 1852, little did anyone expect its everlasting impact. As America’s first intercollegiate sports competition to date, rowing was a big deal, sowing the seeds for the modern day NCAA we know and love today.

While the sport doesn’t quite have the notoriety it held almost two centuries ago, few changes have been made to the original layout of crew. All the mechanics have remained intact and technology has helped tremendously in recording precise data for real-time race results.

Rowing is as invigorating a sport as any, yet many have lost touch to its original roots.
From race watching tips to essential terminology, here’s my top two-tier module breakdown to properly grasp the art of synchronicity.


Race-watching tips

On the surface, rowing can seem simplistic: Two boats racing down a straight line for up to five mundane minutes. Viewing the boats from afar can further remove the connection between a fan and athlete. But when uncovering the hidden nuances and analyzing the races in-depth, rowing can provide some of the most electrifying competitions spectators will ever witness.

Most crew setups consist of boats with eight different seats. A university typically sends several lineups to matches that are 2,000 meters in length, the NCAA standard. Contests can feature as few as two and as many as four teams, but as with any traditional race, the team that crosses the finish line first is crowned the victor.

If you’re a novice kayaker like me, you probably tend to splash a lot of water around when paddling. For collegiate rowers, this is a cardinal sin. Splash can drag a team down and indicate a lack of cohesion. Ideally, the oar blades should smoothly dip into the water without any sizable displacement.

When the boats row side by side, fluidity of motion is crucial. The top competitors in the nation — including Cal — glide through water gracefully, with even strokes across all oars. The more parallel the rowers’ movements, the better. Proper chemistry looks effortless and reaches a tipping point as crews approach a perfect swing.

That swing can only come from the entire team as a whole, with all eight rowers channeling their own abilities into one unified boat. It’s a collective focus that results in intensifying speed. Merging individual talents into a single mindset is what defines crew; no one player can dominate a game as is often seen in sports like basketball. There’s seldom a possibility for a LeBron James style 50-point takeover.

Feeding off the well-built bonds of trust, rowers must rely on another member of their team: the coxswain. This on-the-water coach is not the heaviest, tallest or strongest on the boat — but they are certainly the most vocal.

What is not evidently seen without prior knowledge of the sport is how much a coxswain contributes to the team. While the rowers initiate the necessary forces required to launch the boat into motion, the cox is the one who guides it. Without this pivotal steering position, the crew would be rowing blindly.

The coxswain also manages the rowers’ energy sparingly and must understand the abilities and limitations of their given lineup. Oftentimes, you may see that boats sail the fastest in the last few seconds of a match. This is often an intentional strategy by the coxswain from the get-go. After calling for what is known as a Power 10, the crew generates its most powerful strokes, a painstaking push to reach the finish line and explosion of whatever’s left in the tank. The coxswain’s commands of stroke rates and strategies mid-race adds dimensions to the game, further emphasizing the often unrecognized complexities of rowing.


Like any sport, decoding the distinctive language can be difficult. Hopefully these eight fundamental terms can alleviate some fears.

Crew: Alternative name for rowing. Also refers to a competing boat or team.
Coxswain: The in-game coach of the crew who sits at the stern, or rear end of the boat. Their job includes steering the shell and controlling the rowers’ pace by shouting out play-style calls.
Middle Crew: Typically the most powerful heavyweights of a boat. Centered in the middle, these seats focus solely on producing a shear, propelling force.
Stroke: Most technically sound rower fixed near the stern. They specialize in setting the boat’s rhythm through an established stroke rate the rest of the crew must abide by.
Regatta: Alternative name for a series of rowing races, matches or event.
Swing: The pinnacle of synchronization for a crew. This refers to a perfect swing of oars that follow each other’s movements harmoniously, resulting in significantly enhanced performance.
Crab: An accidental hiccup during the crew’s rowing. Catching a crab refers to losing one’s control of his or her own oar, thereby slowing down momentum.
Stroke Rate: The pace at which a crew strokes per minute. A steady stroke rate hovers at around thirty.

Ryan Chien covers rowing. Contact him at [email protected].