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Proper Rowing Terminology
Helpful Notes

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
    Rowing boats:
        Coxless-pair (2- or pair/wo or pair/without) - two rowers/no cox'n
        Coxed-pair (2+ or pair/w or pair/with) - two rowers with cox'n
        Coxless-four (4- or four/wo or four/without) - four rowers/no cox'n
        Coxed-four (4+ or four/w or four/with) - four rowers with cox'n
        Eight (8) - eight rowers always with cox'n

Examples of 19th C. terminology would have been pair-oared shell, or pair-oared work-boat, or pair-oared gig, or four-oared- ... Designating the number of oars (oars strictly referring to sweeps) and then the type of boat (shell, work-boat, gig, etc). Today, primarily, we use only shells so there's no need to encumber the terms by saying coxless-pair shell. Coxless-pair will do.

    Sculling boats:
        Single-sculls or single (1x) - one person sculling (w/pair of sculls) see Note below
        Double-sculls or double (2x) - two people sculling
        Quadruple-sculls or quad (4x) - four people sculling
        Octuple-sculls or octapede (8x) - eight scullers (rare)

Note: Sculls refers to the implements propelling the boat, so you'd never say single-scull referring to the boat. The incorrect "single-scull" would refer to a boat with one scull.

         Wherry - This is the name used for the every day work boat used by the Thames River watermen. The term goes back to the first descriptions of rowing on the Thames and can be seen on the title page and rowing description in Walker's Manly Exercises-1834.
Cutter - A heavily built rowing boat usually manned by eight rowers and coxswain and sometimes containing a station in the bow for a passenger. Before the days of steam launches, cutters would row along following a race with the umpire in the passenger station.
         Barge - In the 20th century, it is a heavily built and wide-beamed rowing boat for teaching rowing and/or room to carry gear for an excursion. Also, in 15th-19th century England, it is a large elaborate ceremonial ship to transport dignitaries on the Thames. Also, in 19th and early 20th century England, this type of large elaborate ship was used as a boathouse and club-room for the college crews at Oxford and Cambridge and others clubs.
         Tub - (English) - A wide beamed training boat usually a pair with ample room for a coach-coxswain.
 Wager Boat (English) - There were various terms used in England referring to the newest, top racing boat. These were the boats raced when prizes were on the line (wagers being placed).
         Best Boat
(English) - same as wager boat 
         Ran-Dan (English) - an unusual boat of three people configured as two rowers and one sculler

11. Racing
Match Racing format
Most schools and colleges have a match racing season (Spring). This is when two or three schools agree to race side-by-side on a straight, or as straight as possible, course that can fit on the local lake/river/bay. The boats lineup abreast, standing still and a referee/starter, when satisfied that the crews are level and ready to start, will give the commands Attention... Go. The boats start from a standing stop and race in a lane either imaginary or marked by buoys for a set distance. First boat to reach the finish line is the winner.

The international (Olympic) distance is 2000 meters (1 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 4 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: length, length, lengths, 1 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 4 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.

Championship Regattas
A Championship Regatta will usually have a maximum of about six boats in a race at a time. Since Championship Regattas may have more than six entries, a system of selecting the faster crews is used. There will be qualifying heats to begin to sort the crews out. One format is the first or first few crews go directly to the grand final (1-6 places), the next or next few crews go to the petite (small) final (7-12 places). In another more formal format, there will be repechage races to give the non-qualifying crews from the heats a second chance to qualify for the Grand and Petite Finals.

Head Races
In the fall season there are head races. The name comes from a traditional English race called the Head of the River. The first head race in the US was the Head of the Charles Regatta in Cambridge/Boston begun in 1965. Now there are many. These are usually open regattas with many events defined in any way the regatta committee wishes to. A junior in one regatta could be anyone under 19 years old, in another it could be defined as high school.

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.

Henley Races
Henley races are named after a style of racing conducted at the famous Henley Royal Regatta on the River Thames in England. The river is narrow at Henley so only two boats race at a time and the loser is eliminated and the winner goes on to the next round. This format is popular for narrow and/or short race courses in the U.S.



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