Women's Rowing 101

PATRIOTLEAGUE.ORG Colgate's Sarah Kruse
Colgate's Sarah Kruse

April 18, 2008

Football, basketball, baseball. Most people have a general knowledge of these sports - the game's rules, type of equipment used, each player's function. Well the Patriot League's most recent sport addition, women's rowing, is not one of those types of sports where you'll find many people having a casual conversation about the team's strength of schedule, which top players are out with injuries or about filling out brackets in March. Rowing is a sport unlike any other with a very unique lexicon. In this feature Patriot League rowing student-athletes explain different aspects of their sport to serve as an educational tool for those who are not familiar with a sport the Patriot League began to sponsor for the 2005 spring championship season.

Bucknell junior Jeweliet Yost

What are the functions of a coxswain? What is expected from your position?

JY: The main function of the coxswain is to be an extension of her coach. It is up to the cox to execute the coach's plan, whether it is during practice or on race day. She must find a way to get the most out of her boat on every single stroke, and be the sole voice of her crew. In a sense, it is the coxswain that is the glue that holds the crew together (coach, cox, and rowers).

What skills must an individual possess to be effective at the coxswain position?

JY:Organization, confidence, and leadership are the main skills required to be an effective coxswain.

Why do you play the role of coxswain?

JY:There is no stronger bond than the one formed within a crew. No other group of people share the same level or type of trust in each other as crew members in a boat. It is only the nine members of a crew that place their toes on the edge of a cliff each and every day and, with the call "hands on," jump off together. Being the leader of such a strong unit is such a fulfilling feeling for me.

Colgate junior Sarah Kruse

Explain the different races in the sport of rowing (i.e. first varsity, second varsity, novice).

SK: The different races and events are structured to allow everyone on the team to contribute and race at a level they are capable. The first eight is the strongest boat in the program and is normally made up of the eight fastest and most experienced rowers. The second eight is normally formed by the next eight fastest and they compete against other second eights as to foster healthy competition and allow an arena for improvement so that they might eventually gain enough experience to move into the first eight. Novice events are made for inexperienced freshmen rowers. Novice boats are formed by the rowers with the least experience in the program. Generally the divisions allow for a place for everyone in the program to contribute at a level which they are best suited for.

Explain the difference in heavyweight and lightweight.

SK: The distinction between heavyweight and lightweight lies in the obvious: the weight of the crew competing. In women's rowing all rowers in a lightweight boat must weigh less than 135 pounds. Generally, heavier crews are faster because they are able to apply more force to each stroke.

Explain the differences between Head races and Regattas.

SK: Head races are long races (normally around 5000 meters). Because they are so long it is impossible to find a body of water that is long enough and wide enough for a series of boats to be lined up across. This means that head races are races against the clock. Boats are stagger started and each boat is timed separately. At the end of the race the times are compared to determine the winner. Regattas are what are typically thought of when one thinks of rowing. Most Regattas are races of 2000 meters with about six lanes across where all the boats start at the same time and are actually racing each other.

Explain the seating and the boat and who gets placed where and why.

SK: The seats in a boat are number 1 through 8. Seat 1 is the first to cross the finish line while 8 is the last. Generally lighter technically sound rowers are placed in seats 1 and 2 as they have a lot of control over the balance of the boat. It is important that these two rowers be light as to not weigh down the bow of the boat as well as technically sound to maintain balance. Seats 3 through 6 are known as the engine room. These rowers tend to be the bigger rowers in the boat and there job is to take very long and strong strokes. Most of the power comes from these four rowers. Seats 7 and 8 are responsible for setting the pace for the rest of the boat. All of the other rowers follow them so they must be extremely technically sound as well as very steady. If they do not keep a steady stroke rating it is very difficult for the rest of the boat to follow in unison.

Holy Cross junior Kelly St. Germain

What are the ways for younger people to get involved in rowing before college? Are there high schools that sponsor rowing or is it more of a club sport?

KS: Rowing is not something many people do before high school. It is also one of the few sports that one can join in college having zero experience. I decided to start rowing my freshman year in high school because it was a completely new challenge. The field sports of the spring and fall seasons did not really appeal to me, so rowing seemed a nice change. Luckily, my high school had a fairly well established program for both girls and boys. Many high schools--both public and private--in Massachusetts and other areas sponsor rowing programs. There are also rowing clubs that sponsor youth and high school programs in areas where the schools do not have their own teams. All programs vary in competitiveness and intensity, but every one serves to teach the basic fundamentals of rowing, as well as helping to foster the competitive spirit and team-oriented mindset of each of its participants.

Lehigh senior Jackie Cross

Define the key terms a person would need to know to understand the sport of rowing.

JC: There are many terms in rowing that are unique to the sport; the several terms below are important for a spectator to understand.

Bow: The front of the boat. This is the part of the boat that crosses the finish line first. The person rowing in seat number 1 is called the bow person.

Bow ball: A rubber ball located on the bow of the boat to protect people's organs from being impaled if a crash occurs.

Catch: The part of the rowing stroke when the oar enters the water. The blade should drop quickly into the water, so that the rower's stroke is as long as possible.

Coxswain: The ninth member of the boat who does not row, but is the on-the-water coach for the rowers. The coxswain also steers the boat and informs the rowers of their position in the race.

Coxbox: A portable microphone that connects to the boat's speakers so that the all of the rowers can hear the coxswain's commands. Without a Coxbox, the rowers in the bow of the boat would not be able to hear the coxswain.

Crab: A mistake when a rower's oar is pulled under water. This slows the boat down since the rower's oar becomes stuck in the water, until the rower regains control of his or her oar. With more rowing experience crabs become less frequent, since rowers understand the importance of releasing their blade quickly at the finish of the stroke. An especially bad crab can cause the rower to be ejected from the boat.

Engine room: The nickname for the rowers in the middle of the boat since they are typically the biggest and strongest rowers.

Ergometer: An indoor rowing machine. "Erg" is Greek for work, and "-meter" means measure, so these machines essentially measure the amount of work or power each rower can produce. Coaches often use "erg tests" to evaluate the rowing strength of each rower, meaning the rowers each row a specific distance on the ergometer. The strongest rowers will finish the distance in the shortest amount of time.

Finish: The part of the rowing stroke when the oar comes out of the water. The finish is the end of the stroke.

Lightweight: Lightweight and openweight are the two weight categories that are used during rowing competitions. A woman rower weighing less than 130 lbs is a lightweight rower. A male rower weighing less than 160 lbs is a lightweight rower. These rowers are eligible to compete in a different category of competition than the openweight rowers, who are any rowers weighing more than the maximum for lightweights.

Power 10: A command from the coxswain for the rowers to be especially powerful for the next ten strokes. These moves are often made when a crew is attempting to pass another boat, and during the 500 meter marks of a race.

Seat number: The seats in an eight-person boat are labeled 1 though 8, starting in the bow of the boat. Therefore, the bow seat is seat 1 and the stroke seat is seat 8.

Stern: The rear of the boat. This is the last part of the boat to cross the finish line. The rowers face the stern of the boat.

Stroke: A stroke is one full rowing motion. "Stroke" is also the name of the rower who is the furthest to the stern. They set the rhythm that the other rowers follow.

Weigh enough: A coxswain's command to stop. Rowers know to respond quickly to this command.

Navy senior Fiona McFarland

What skills are necessary to be successful at rowing? What are the ways Navy prepares to be successful on the water?

FM: Rowing is a sport of hard work, patience, and teamwork. While the physical aspect of the sport is very individual (we're not passing a ball to one another or playing goalie), it is impossible to row in an eight man boat and not have complete and utter synchronicity in your every motion.

During the fall season, we compete in "head races," which are about 4,000-6,000meters. These are longer races that focus on endurance over a long period of time. Boats are started in 10-15 second intervals, and as you race down the course trying to cross the finish line with the fastest overall time, you occasionally pass slower boats ahead of you, which requires a good deal of foresight, competitiveness, and skill from the coxswain steering the boat (Imagine steering a truck around a ninety degree turn at full speed while overtaking another truck).

For the fall season, what we focus on is endurance and overall fitness. Practices involve long, slower-paced workouts with some running or stair workouts for cross training. Stroke rate (how many strokes per minute the boat takes) is important here because you have to find a high enough rate to propel you through the water at a competitive speed, but not so high that your crew runs out of energy before the finish line.

Speaking from Navy's perspective, there are certain things we focus on in the fall. First of all, our program doesn't have too many recruits because the decision to come to the Academy is based on so much more than just rowing. Our assistance coach, Nicole Stimpson, does a great job of bringing in a few top athletes each year, but many girls being recruited to row in college are not necessarily looking for the military aspect and the commitment to service after graduation. This ends up meaning that physically we are smaller as a team than other schools. I stand 5'4'', which is about the size of most coxswains. Many colleges wouldn't look to recruit me out of high school, but at Navy I fit right in. The average height in our boat when we placed 11th at Head of the Charles in fall 2006 was 5'7'', 150lbs. At most Division I schools, rowers tend to be much bigger and taller with the idea that the longer you are, the more time your blade spends in the water, and the heavier you are the more force you'll apply, all equaling faster boat speed. So, for us at Navy we focus on being fitter and more competitive than the other girls out there and making up for what we lack in size with toughness.

The Academy also limits how much time we can spend practicing. According to my coach's calculations, we miss out on six allowable hours a week that NCAA rules entitle us to simply because of our daily schedule. Even when we put in extra workouts or captain's practices, we still don't reach the allowable allotment of 20 hours a week. But these things that may seem like setbacks are really what we thrive off of. We are midshipmen first and rowers second, but a midshipman strives for excellence in everything he or she does, and crew is no exception.

In the winter season, we come inside off the water to the erg machines. This part of our season takes a level of dedication and sacrifice slightly different than the fall or spring seasons. At the Academy, we have very little time to ourselves. The average student takes 18-22 credit hours a semester, as well as having military duties on the side. Add a two to three hour practice a day, and you're a busy person. When we're rowing out on the water and the weather's nice, it's a nice mental break from the daily grind, but in the winter trekking out to the boathouse to sit on a machine and push yourself past previously established physical limits on a daily basis takes a level of devotion that I like to think is unique to our sport. Our team becomes incredibly close over the winter season, and that's what really keeps us going. When you're erging you don't have the same motivation as when you know the person in front and in back of you is working just as hard as you are. Erging is all about the numbers on the screen in front of you, and it requires much more internal motivation. Girls on our team develop strong bonds here as we encourage one another to keep pushing ourselves to the limit to get the best times possible. This may be unique to our team of people indoctrinated with the Navy's ideals of duty, honor and loyalty, but one thing our parents and fans have noticed is that on our team we strive for overall unit success in all endeavors, rather than knocking someone out of the running for a top boat. Sure, people will always want to succeed personally, but on the most basic level we all push one another forward to the best boat possible.

Then spring comes and we're back out on the water for sprint races, which are shorter than head races at 2,000m, and are raced with boats right next to one another at a higher stroke rate than the fall head races. Again, knowing our weakness is our size and allowable practice hours compared to other crews, we focus on what we're good at--rowing tough and having better endurance than other crews.

So this is a long winded way of saying that natural skills you'd expect from a rower--size, strength, and coordination--are really only a starting point. For our program, we focus more on the skills that a rower can develop, namely mental toughness, sacrifice and a dedication to physical excellence. We don't make cuts on our program for that very reason, because as long as someone has a basic level of athleticism (which is a requirement at the Academy in general), any girl who walks onto our team freshman year has the potential to develop into a varsity rower as long as they commit to put in the work.