Regatta Tips

New to crew?
Here are some tips for watching.

by Craig Smith, Seattle Times staff reporter

Frank Howard, the former athletic director at Clemson, once refused to give the South Carolina school’s rowing program any money, saying, “Clemson will never subsidize a sport where a man sits on his tail and goes backward.”


1. It’s in the legs.

Although rowing may look like an upper-body sport, the drive that moves the boat comes from strong legs. The legs come into play because the rowers’ seats slide, allowing extension of the legs during the stroke.

Arms, shoulders and backs get a workout, too.

“I tell people that a race is the equivalent of 240 `cleans’ in the weight room – picking a barbell off the floor using mostly your legs then moving it to shoulder level using your back and your arms,” said Eleanor McElvaine, assistant UW coach.

Most UW varsity oarsmen can do 20 pullups; most Husky varsity women can do 15.

2. Teamwork, teamwork, teamwork.

In most sports, an athlete who tries to do more than others can stand out and often help his team. In rowing, he is a liability who can wind up slowing the boat by throwing off its rhythm. Seattle rowing legend George Pocock used to say, “In order to be a great crew, eight hearts have to beat as one.”

3. There are positions.

The coxswain is the lightweight individual who sits in back and steers the shell. He or she is a “coach on the water” calling cadences, making strategic decisions and telling the rowers where the opponents are. (Rowers aren’t supposed to look outside the boat.)

The “stroke” is the rower directly in front of the coxswain who sets the pace for other rowers. The rower behind the stroke is the No. 7 seat and is the lead for the rowers on that side of the shell.

The four rowers in the middle (6-5-4-3 going front to back) are called the “engine room” and tend to be the heaviest and most powerful. The bow pair are lighter so the front of the shell won’t plow into the water. They must have good balance, too, because the shell is more narrow and tippier in front.

4. Things to watch.

Former UW Coach Dick Erickson calls crew “an athletic ballet” and says watching a good crew “is like watching a chorus line.”

Erickson said an obvious thing to watch is whether “the blades are going in the water together and coming out together.”

Another thing he watches is whether the rowers are “reaching forward for a long stroke.” If they have shortened their stroke, it’s often a sign of fatigue, he said.

Charley McIntyre, former international sculling champion and longtime Seattle rowing coach, watches the waterline of a shell “to see if it’s even.” If the rowing isn’t smooth, McIntyre said the waterline will be bobbing.

McIntyre also said noted that with good crews “you won’t see a lot of splash or white water” coming off oars when they enter or exit the water.

5. It’s strokes per minute, not miles per hour.

The stroke rate at the start of a race is high – 38-45 – and rowers don’t take full strokes for at least the first 4-6 strokes. Once the shell is well under way, the coxswain “settles” to a race cadence, usually between 34-38 strokes per minute for a college crew.

During a race, the coxswain may call for 2 to 4 special “power 10s” (10 strong, powerful strokes). These can be “offensive” to make a move on another crew or “defensive” to hold off an opponent’s surge.

Tomorrow’s races will be the standard distance of 2,000 meters (about 1 1/4 miles) and all crews will be sprinting when they go under the Montlake Bridge, about 300 meters from the finish line. The cadence for varsity crews will climb back into the 40s for the final sprint.

Men’s crews the caliber of the UW can reach speeds of about 15 mph and Olympic competitors can hit 20 mph, according to a spokeswoman for U.S. Rowing. Top women’s college crews hit speeds about 12-13 mph and women’s Olympic boats hit about 15-16 mph, she said.

6. The equipment.

Most modern eight-oared shells are built of carbon-fiber material and kevlar (a synthetic fiber) and can cost $30,000. The men’s shells are 55-60 feet long and must weigh at least 213 pounds fully equipped (oars don’t count). Women’s crews must weigh at least 205 pounds.

Shells are narrow and so close to the water that there is a real sensation of speed for anyone in the boat.

The best oars are hollow with wooden handles and made of carbon fiber. They are 12 feet, 6 inches long and cost about $250 each.