Friends of Rowing History
There are many rowing terms. Most are easily understood but a few are confusing. Some proper terms are being used less regularly and inaccurate terms and expressions are finding their way into conventional use. The following descriptions, explanations and definitions should be helpful.
1. The term crew is used in American schools and colleges to designate the sport of rowing, such as Yale Crew or St. Andrew's Crew. When outside of the academic sphere, the sport is known as rowing, as in the United States Rowing Association or Philadelphia Girl's Rowing Club. The British and European universities and schools have rowing clubs and not crew clubs or varsity crew.
2. When you use the term crew you shouldn't use the term team. Traditionally, crew means a team of rowers. To say crew team is redundant. You may say rowing team.
3. Rowing can be a general term to mean rowing a boat with one oar per person or two oars per person. To be more specific, when a person is rowing with one oar then he/she is rowing using a sweep oar, and when rowing with two oars, he/she is sculling with a pair of sculls. Pulling is rowing on open-water (ocean, open bays, etc).
4. It is perfectly correct to call a rowing or sculling boat a boat. Another term that is used is racing shell or just shell. Either term is commonly used when referring to a boat that is used for racing.
5. Nearly all the terms used in rowing are understandable except for one. When a crew is to stop rowing, the cox'n, coach or someone will call way-enough or way'nuff. This is a 19th Century American naval term that has carried on through to today. It should not be confused with weigh as in weigh anchor (unless your racing shell has an anchor). Outside of North America, way'nuff is not used (no one in England will have the faintest idea what you're talking about).
6. A crab is an event when a rower or sculler is unable to extract the oar blade from the water at the finish of the drive (pulling phase of the stroke) and a sloppy stroke occurs. This can happen when a rower loses grip of the handle, makes an error in judging when to extract or release the blade from the water, or if the boat tips to the side and there's nowhere for the rower to lower his/her hands to extract the blade. The result is usually a falter and some timing problems for a few strokes. However, an over-the-head crab is more serious. Its when the oar handle forces the rower onto his or her back and the handle goes over his/her head. This usually causes a great deal of disruption in the boat and in most cases the crew must stop rowing, recover the oar, and then proceed. Still worse, but very rare, thus there is no term for it, is an ejection. This may happen when racing and the boat is moving very fast. The rower catches a crab and the oar handle gets caught in the stomach causing the rower to be catapulted out of the boat. The crew must stop to collect the swimmer and then proceed.
7. The boat orientation terms are simple: the boat usually travels forward and the forward end of the boat is called the bow. The trailing end of the boat is called the stern. When facing forward in the boat (like the coxswain but not the rowers) then the left side is port and the right side is the starboard. A rower just beginning to row may get switched from side to side, but at some time may row and develop his/her skills on one side. The side chosen has nothing to do with a person being right-handed or left-handed. It's chosen to make a near equal number of port and starboard rowers and to balance the potential skill levels. A crew/coach wants to have an equal quality of rowers on each side.
8. The positions in the boat are numbered according to the seating. The seat closest to the bow is #1, next #2, and so on. The rowing seat closest to the stern is #8 in an eight or #4 in a four and is also called the stroke seat. The person rowing in this seat is the stroke-oar or stroke.
9. The coxswain is the person that steers the boat. He/she is a coxswain or cox'n or cox and he/she is coxing a boat. A cox'n usually uses an electronic amplifier system called a CoxBox™. It not only amplifies the cox'n's voice through a speaker system, but it has a built in stroke rate meter and a timer. Some boats, usually fours, may have a lie-down coxswain's position in the bow end instead of the sit-up position in the stern.
He/she is very light so that the crew need not carry extra weight on the race course. Most school and collegiate leagues, as well as international rowing events, have a minimum weight for coxswains. The minimum weights are different for girls'/women's crew and boys'. Also, minimum weights may differ from schools to colleges, from league to league, and at international events. Your school or college coach will know the coxswain's minimum weights. A cox'n below minimum weight can still cox but must carry a bag of sand or other deadweight to compensate for the weight deficiency.
10. Boat designations
The international (Olympic) distance is 2000 meters (1¼ mile). High schools may race 1500 meters and master rowers 1000 meters. The Harvard-Yale Boat Race begun in 1852 is 4 miles and the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race begun in 1829 is 4¼ miles.
A time is usually taken and the margin between boats is recorded when a flag at the finish is dropped or raised when the bow of each boat crosses the line. Many times the margins are given in lengths. A length is a boat-length. Visually, it is easy to estimate the distance by boat-lengths. One boat-length would be when the bow (front tip) of one boat is about even with the stern (aft tip) of another boat. There could be multiples and fractions of a length: ¼ length, ½ length, ¾ lengths, 1½ lengths, 3 lengths, etc. (At the Henley Royal Regatta after a race with a margin of 4 or 5 lengths the result is recorded as easily.)
A boat length is relative to the size of the boat in the race. In an eights race one length, about 58 feet, is different from one-length in a fours race, about 40 feet. When a boat is more than 1 length ahead it is referred to as open-water.
When the margins are less than a length, then sometimes people use seats as a measurement. A seat is the length of one station where the rower sits, approximately 4½ feet. Example: the #2 rower in X boat was even with the #1 rower in Y boat, then X boat is one seat ahead of Y boat. You may hear that a crew won by three-seats, about 13-14 feet. One more term is deck. The deck is the unmanned, covered bow section of the boat (about 10 feet for an eight). Again, it is a visual cue. When the bow-ball of X boat is barely ahead of the #1 person in Y boat, then X boat is a deck behind of Y boat. These decks were once covered with a canvas material and so the old term was a canvass rather than a deck. If you visit Henley Royal Regatta they officially record a deck length as a canvass.
Race times are recorded and it is usually a mistake to compare times from one race to another or from different days. An imperceptible difference in wind conditions can make a noticeable difference in times.
The distance can vary, but usually in the 3 mile range. Sometimes the race course is over a winding river like the Charles. The race is a timed event with each crew starting in single file and negotiating the race course as fast as possible. The start time and finish times are recorded and the elapsed time calculated. The fastest time wins. Sometimes in masters events there is an age adjusted handicap. Crews passing each other is usually exciting, particularly on a narrow river or tight bend. Crews don't really know how they placed until a printout of the times is posted.
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