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The Boats – Sculls and Shells

All rowing boats can be called shells. Rowing boats with scullers in them (each person having two oars) are called sculls, e.g., single scull, double scull, quadruple scull. So, all sculls are shells but not vice versa! Originally made of wood (and many beautifully crafted wooden boats are made today), newer boats – especially those used in competition – are made of honeycombed carbon fiber. They are light and appear fragile but are crafted to be strong and stiff in the water.

The smallest boat – the single scull – is approximately 27 feet long and as narrow as 10 inches across. At 58 feet, the eight is the longest boat on the water.

The oars are attached to the boat with riggers, which provide a fulcrum for the levering action of rowing. Generally, sweep rowers sit in configurations that have the oars alternating from side to side along the boat. But sometimes, most typically in the 4- or 4+, the coach will rig the boat so that two consecutive rowers have their oars on the same side in order to equalize individual athlete power.


Oars move the boat through the water and act as balancers. Sweep oars are longer than sculler's oars and have wooden handles instead of rubber grips. The shaft of the oar is made of extremely lightweight carbon fiber instead of the heavier wood used years ago.

The popular "hatchet" blade – named because of its cleaver-like shape – is about 20 percent larger than previous blades. Its larger surface area has made it the almost-universal choice among world-level rowers.

Basic Rowing Terms

Basic Rowing Terms

The Shell:

Bow - the front of the shell where the little white ball is located (bow ball). When sitting in the shell, it is behind you. You get to see where you've been!

Stern - the back of the shell which is in front of you while sitting in the shell.

Starboard - the side of the shell that is on your left hand side while sitting in the shell.

Port - the side of the shell that is on your right hand side while sitting in the shell.

And few other things,

The rigger - the metal structure protruding from each side of the shell usually alternating from port side to starboard side.

The oarlock - at the end of the rigger, the metal and plastic part that actually holds the oar. It is made up of the gate, the metal bar that opens up to allow the oar to be inserted and the star nut which is at the end of the gate and locks it down. You screw the star nut open and close.

The seat - the place where you put your seat! It rolls on four little wheels on the seat tracks. Usually there is a seat keeper, which allows the seat to stay in the shell when it is lifted up overhead. However, not all shells have seats with keepers. Care should be taken to remove these seats and carry them separately or else the seat could drop out and hit you on the head or get lost in the water!

The footstretcher - a torture mechanism used on oarsmen and women who take rowing too seriously! It is adjusted fore and aft according to the height of the rower by three wings nuts (port and starboard and keel nuts)

Location, Location, Location

Location, Location, Location

The location of the rower in the shell:

bow (seat) - the person sitting in the front of the shell furthest from the cox'n

two (seat) - the person sitting in front of the bow person

three (seat) - the person sitting in front of the two seat

four (seat) - the person sitting front of the three seat, and so forth to the.....

stroke (seat) - the person sitting in front of the seven seat. The stroke is the person that everyone behind (seven through bow) needs to follow. The stroke sets the timing at the direction of the coxswain.

Some more...

bow pair - bow, and two

stern pair - stroke and seven

bow four - bow, two, three and four

stern four - five, six, seven, and stroke

Race Watching Tips

Race Watching Tips
  • The crew that's making it look easy is most likely the one doing the best job. While you're watching, look for continuous, fluid motion of the rowers. The rowing motion shouldn't have a discernible end or beginning.
  • Synchronization. Rowers strive for perfect synchronization in the boat.
  • Clean catches of the oarblade. If you see a lot of splash, the oarblades aren't entering the water correctly. The catch should happen at the end of the recovery, when the hands are as far ahead of the rower as possible. Rowers who uncoil before they drop the oarblades are sacrificing speed and not getting a complete drive.
  • Even oarblade feathering. When the blades are brought out of the water, they should all move horizontally close to the water and at the same height. It's not easy, especially if the water is rough.
  • The most consistent speed. Shells don't move like a car – they're slowest at the catch, quickest at the release. The good crews time the catch at just the right moment to maintain the speed of the shell.
  • Rowing looks graceful, elegant and sometimes effortless when it's done well. Don't be fooled. Rowers haven't been called the world's most physically-fit athletes for nothing. A 2,000-meter rowing race demands virtually everything a human being can physically bring to an athletic competition – aerobic ability, technical talent, exceptional mental discipline, ability to utilize oxygen efficiently and in huge amounts, balance, pain tolerance, and the ability to continue to work when the body is demanding that you stop.

More Race-Watching Tips

  • Race times can vary considerably depending upon the course and weather conditions. Tailwinds will improve times, while headwinds and crosswinds will hamper them.
  • If a crew "catches a crab," it means the oarblade has entered the water at an angle instead of perpendicularly. The oarblade gets caught under the surface and will slow or even stop a shell.
  • A "Power 10" is a call by the coxswain for 10 of the crew's best, most powerful strokes. Good coxswains read the course to know how many strokes remain for their crew to count down to the finish.
  • Crews are identified by their oarblade design.  The USA blades are red on top and blue on the bottom, with a white triangle at the tip.
  • It doesn't matter whether you win an Olympic medal or don't make the finals – each crew still carries their boat back to the rack.
  • Coxswains from first-place boats worldwide are thrown into the water by their crews.
  • Coxswains don't now and probably never did yell "stroke! stroke!" Similar to a jockey, their job is to implement the coach's strategy during the race, in addition to steering and letting the rowers know where they stand in the race and what they need to do to win.