Rowing: The Crewed Sport Of Synching Boats

In 1983 the world-renowned Oxford and Cambridge rowing crews took part in a friendly match-off on a river in the heart of São Paulo in Brazil. I was privileged to be on the sidelines watching with binoculars in hand. The grit and determination shown by those men at the prime of their college careers was a far cry from the carefree afternoons I had spent punting and picnicking along Cambridgeshire’s river Cam with family and friends. Unable to shake off the enduring legacy of those Oxbridge athletes, I took to learning their trade in 1991 on the placid waters of Lake Washington, just east of Seattle in the northwest corner of the United States. I was an exchange student looking for adventure. And rowing seemed to be just the pastime for nourishing my inner soul-need. I would clamber into an eight-man scull and spend Thursday afternoons crossing the lake. Rowing at high speed with the coxswain in front maintaining our rhythm took my mind away from the demands of schooling. Riding alongside in the comfort of a motorboat with megaphone in hand was our fearless coach-—a man of modest build with a prosthetic leg who appeared to draw pleasure from reminding us that even a momentary loss of concentration might result in oars smashing into our ribs (‘catching a crab’ in rowing speak).  We had to remain alert, synching our seemingly graceful movements with those of the rest of the crew.

During my more gutsy moments I would venture out in a single-man scull. I learned how to recover from a capsized boat the hard way, deliberately tipping myself into the water and sliding back on through a delicate combination of oar grabbing and body contorting. My crew buddies got a kick out of declaring that it is better to learn safety drills in the cold of icy lake waters than in the heat of an emergency scramble. With my ever-growing confidence, I soon decided that it was time for the competitive scene.  The Northwest Rowing Championships in Vancouver, Washington, that summer provided the setting for my first true event. I ended that day with calluses and blisters all over my feet and hands and an excruciating sunburn that produced many a restless night during the week that followed. But it felt good to have shifted a scull on my own from the starting gates to the finishing line. 

Our coach hammered home the idea that one could attain the pinnacle of stroke efficiency by using the hands merely as hooks that latch onto the oars as one powers through the water, with most of the push coming from the legs. He would walk down the lakeside pier shouting commands across the lake, emphasizing the importance of leg power and frequently making reference to the detailed kinesiology of the rowing action that Thomas Mazzone of the Wyoming County Community Hospital in New York had laid out for the sports world years earlier (1). Like a dance routine, the entire rowing motion can be divided into four phases- the Catch, the Drive, the Finish and the Recovery (1). The Catch describes the position at which the arms are fully stretched out and the sliding seat is at its most forward position. The Quadriceps in the legs then supply the power for the push against the foot rest during the Drive (1). Once the knees are maximally extended, the arms pull through to bring the oars back in front of the rower. The Finish defines the moment in the rowing stroke during which the knees, ankles and hips are fully extended.  The Recovery that follows involves pushing the arms forward away from the body so as to return the oars to a position behind the rower (1). Discipline is the psychological elixir that brings about the physical prowess that is so vital for ensuring that this routine is followed effectively. As Pavle Mikulic from University of Zagreb in Croatia writes “long hours of rowing-specific training programs combined with heavy-weight training typically result in a large aerobic capacity” (2). 

Once at college I jumped onto every spare hour I could find between lectures to pursue my newly found passion. Over the holidays I joined a rowing club on the famous Lagoa lake in Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro and imparted my newly found skills with youngsters who were taking to the waters for the very first time. But more and more I began to row not in lakes but in the open sea. This was not by choice. There simply wasn’t a lake close to college. The choppy waters that lapped the front of our boat house off Southsea Island on England’s south coast where I was studying made rowing tough going. No longer could I rely on glassy smooth waters. Instead I was confronted with minivan-sized swells that would disrupt my rhythm and put me into a state of temporary confusion as I tried to regain composure. To complicate matters sudden changes in weather, particularly high winds, would throw us of course making competitive racing a laughable affair. 

After that experience I have a newly found admiration for ocean-faring rowers such as Americans John Ziegler and John Mailhot.  The Row Hard No Excuses television documentary which aired this month on PBS chronicles the voyage of these two men on a 3000-mile, 50-day race from the Canary Islands to Barbados (3).  Weighed down by food supplies with little more than the sight of a few tankers along the way to remind them that humanity has not abandoned them, they would take shifts every night, rowing naked at times so as to avoid rashes in the most sensitive parts of their anatomies. These men were part of a new breed of adventurers who shared a common desire to prove their worth to the world (3).  Perhaps not unlike the Norsemen of old who covered vast tracts of the Northern Atlantic on their sleek longships in the 10th century, these modern ocean rowers were out to conquer the unknown.  

For those of us with more modest aspirations there are plenty of opportunities to get involved in rowing (4). In some inner city areas of the United States, team rowing is being used as a means of nurturing self-confidence in kids with learning disabilities (5). Child psychologists recognize that a renewed sense of self-worth garnered from sports can spill over and affect how children carry themselves in otherwise difficult social encounters (5). Rowing gives athletes a comprehensive work out and unlike most other team sports has fewer rules to follow and techniques to learn. Endurance, agility and the ability to get into a synchronized routine with other team members are at the heart of what differentiates the novice from the master oarsman.

Rowing is the oldest college sport in America. Harvard and Yale proudly lay claim to holding the first competitive college race in 1852 (remarkably only 23 years after the more famous Oxford-Cambridge college pair organized their first face-off). But the greatest appeal of the sport comes from its accessibility to anyone who has a healthy desire to destress from the bustle of life through an activity that won’t break the bank with upfront equipment costs. 

Further Reading

  1. Muscles Used While Rowing:
  2. Pavelc Mikulic (2008) Anthroopometric And Physiological Profiles Of Rowers Of Various Ages And Ranks, Kinesiology 40, pp. 80-88
  3. Row Hard, No Excuses: Beautiful Rowing, One Hell Of A Race:
  4. It’s My Life: Team Sports: Crew And Rowing:
  5. Corey Kilgannon (2011) Through Rowing, New Confidence, New York Times, May 20th
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Robert Deyes

Robert Deyes

Robert has been a Technical Services Scientist at Promega for over 10 years. He also worked for two years as a Technical Advisor at the Paisley, Scotland facility of Life Technologies Inc. After earning his Masters in Medical Genetics from the University of Glasgow, he spent 18 months at the Université Louis Pasteur in Strasbourg, France where he did research into the molecular basis of the inherited disorder Spinal Muscular Atrophy. He also holds a BSc from the University of Portsmouth in England.
Robert Deyes

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