Rowing has existed as a sport for a long time. The ancient civilizations of Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks all have left evidence that they organized boat races. Today, there are two major types of rowing: sweep rowing and sculling.

Did you know?  The earliest documented regatta (boat race) in North America was at St. John's, Newfoundland in 1826.

In sweep rowing a rower holds one oar with two hands, and only rows on one side of the shell (the boat). The shell needs to be balanced, so rowers are always paired with someone on the opposite side of the shell.

In sculling, a rower holds two oars, one on each side of the shell. Racing shells are narrow, so rowers must sit one behind the other. In sweep rowing, sometimes there is an extra teammate on the boat who doesn't row, the coxswain.The coxswain steers the boat (ensuring they don't crash), calls race strategy (when to sprint to the finish line), and motivates the rowers.Since the rowers are all facing the stern (back) of the boat, the coxswain is the only person who is facing the bow (front) and is also the only person who can see the finish line.

In order to understand how to get a boat to go fast (and win that gold medal!), we need to think about the hydrodynamics (how an object moves in water) of the shell and oars.

Did you know? Rowing was one of the original sports in the first modern Olympics in 1896,but bad weather on the water caused all races to be canceled that year.

Both types of rowing use a racing shell that is long and narrow, which reduces frictional forces,allowing the shell to go fast. Friction is what resists two surfaces from moving against each other smoothly. In this case, it's the force between the water and the shell itself. The shell is also pointed at both ends to push water out of the way easier, allowing the boat to move faster.

The oars used in rowing are long, about 2.8 - 3.8 meters in length on average depending on whether you are sweep rowing or sculling. Outriggers are metal frames that attach directly to the sides of the shell, and hold the oarlock, which is a U shaped brace that holds the oar. The oarlock acts as a fulcrum, (a pivot point) that transfers the energy generated from the rower to the oar pushing against the water.

Did you know? In terms of speed, rowers will speak in terms of "strokes per minute" or SPM rather than kilometers per hour.  A sprint can be around 50 SPM, where 'cruising speed' is around 30 SPM.

But Newton's 3rd Law says that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. How do we move through the water if there is a force to counter-act our every action? By using oars that have wide blades (the part furthest from the handle), the rower can push against the water. This creates an equal force that propels the boat through the water.

Everybody of all ages and abilities can participate in rowing.  All levels of rowing exist, from recreational to elite levels.  Adaptive rowing allows rowers with various disabilities (from blindness to spinal cord injury) to participate in this sport. So whether you are going for the gold, or just want to take in some nature and relax on the water, rowing has got something for everyone.

Learn More!

Rowing Canada
World Rowing
The Physics of Rowing
Rowing Clubs


Nancy is working on her PhD at the University of Toronto, studying how the sexually transmitted infection gonorrhea affects the immune system.When she's not in the lab, she is probably playing ultimate frisbee.

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