How to Row a Boat


How to Row                                                                                   By Dave Pratt 




Happily, rowing in OARSS' four-oared gigs doesn't require a high entry level of skill ... almost everyone has had some life experience rowing some kind of a rowboat, skiff or dinghy.  Basically, you're going to just sit down on an aft-facing seat, grab an oarhandle and start pulling.


The first consideration is how to get into our boats without doing damage to yourself or to the boat.  Ask the Master or an experienced rower to show you how to get in safely, either by handing you in, or by using the provided hanging ropes to hand yourself in.  Either way, don't step on either the gunwale (tips the boat sideways and may capsize) or on the seat or thwart (that's where you'll sit), but take a long step down  directly into the center bottom of the boat, and then immediately sit down.  Once seated, slide yourself close to the gunwale opposite the oarlock or  tholepin (or simply the "pin") where your oar will be placed.  If that tips the boat, the coxswain (or "cox") will instruct other rowers to distribute their weight to balance the boat.


The next step is to adjust the stretcher ("foot rest") so you can push against it with your legs just comfortably extended, but with your knees slightly flexed and not locked.  Ask for help, as the adjustment method varies from boat to boat in our fleet.  Both feet should be pushed against the stretcher; don't put your feet against the next thwart or try to row with only one leg.


When the cox gives the command "out oars!", move your oar in place to get ready to row, with the leather (or "sleeve") resting in the oarlock, or on the gunwale tholepad and against the tholepin.  Take your time, ask for help, and try not to bang either end of the oar against the boat or your fellow rowers!  Next, ask for help securing the oar to the tholepin or in the oarlock, as the method is different in each of our boats.


Now you're ready to row!  Follow the cox's commands "point your oars!" (push your oarhandle out, bend forward, get ready to row), and then "give way together!" (start rowing.)   Have some fun poking holes in the water ... but try to start each stroke at the same time as the #1 rower (the rower farthest aft, also referred to as "the stroke oar"),  so you don't  clash oarblades by being out of sync with the other rowers.  Keep on rowing until the cox calls out "way enough!"


At the end of the row, pay attention to the cox's commands (and don't be afraid to ask for help)  to "trail oars" and then "boat oars."  When the cox gives you permission, get out of the boat by reversing the way you got in:  either use the hanging hand rope, or ask someone already ashore to hand you out, taking a long step from the center bottom of the boat up to the boat shelter dock.




It may take one or two outings to get comfortable, including  getting in and out of the boat.  It's now time to think about improving your rowing skill, to row more comfortably, effectively and efficiently.


As you take each stroke, be aware of the muscles at play in your body.  Most of the work should be done by upper leg and lower back muscles, with the arm muscles just coming into play near the end of each stroke. 


For purposes of discussion, the cycle of each stroke may be broken down into four parts:  The catch (when the oarblade enters the water), the drive (when the oarhandle is pulled to propel the boat), the release (when the oarblade is taken out of the water), and the recovery (when the oar is moved back to the starting position to begin the next stroke.)  These should all be smoothly blended together, of course!


At the catch, lift the oarhandle quickly as you start to pull with the swinging back and braced legs, using your arms and hands as "connecting rods" to the oarhandle.  Lift the hands at the catch just enough to fully bury the oarblade ...  if the oarblade is buried deeper than that, the part of the loom (the oar shaft between the sleeve and the blade)  nearest the blade will actually drag in the water, thus slowing the boat down!  To achieve the most effective and efficient stroke, the catch should be made cleverly, just "hooking" the oarblade in the water, as if there were a vertical cylindrical post stuck in the sea bottom with the upper end just at water level.  The goal is to hook the blade behind the post as quickly and neatly as possible, so as to get the best push against it during the drive.   Another way to visualize this is to make the oarblade act at the catch like the action of a swimmer's hand at the "catch" when swimming the back stroke.


During the drive, the lower back and hamstring muscles are in play, while the arms and hands just "hang on" to the oarhandle  (as from a chinning bar.)   The back should swing comfortably toward the bow, with the arms still just "hanging on."  Near the end of the drive, the arms are brought into play, pulling the back upright to avoid falling into the lap of the next rower, just before quickly taking the oarblade out of the water (the release) .  Also note that if the blade has been buried too deeply during the drive, it will be necessary to lift some water vertically just to get the blade out ... that's called "washing out" rather than simply "releasing" the water. 


With the oarblade well "hooked" into the water, the drive should be a strong, sustained pull right up to the release.  Think of pushing your niece on a playground swing, trying to make her swing higher and higher.  Each time she passes by, you quickly place your hands on her back and her give a long, strong push.  If instead you give her a vicious punch to the kidney as she passes by, she not only won't swing much higher, but will also report you to her mommy.  (Also note that your niece won't swing much higher if you only give her a friendly pat on the back as she passes by.)


So don't just swat the water as it passes by ...  hook onto it, and give it a long, strong push!   Just as the goal of pushing your niece is to make her swing higher, rather than use her for a punching bag, so  the goal of rowing is to move the boat through the water, NOT to move water past the boat!                                           


The recovery is the only time during the stroke cycle that the body gets to rest!  So don't be in a hurry to take the next stroke.  Instead, consciously relax the muscles (especially the hands and arms!) to let the blood flow in the veins and arteries, and remember to breathe deeply as you reach out for the next stroke.  Also, don't "sky" the blade during the recovery.  If the blade is carried too high above the water when it's time to take the next stroke, it won't be possible to achieve a clean catch.




Those of us in OARSS who row regularly in Glide, Erica, Annie C. or Island Star appreciate a wonderful hour spent on the water enjoying the companionship and viewing the birds and aquatic wildlife.  For many of us, this experience, possibly together with the satisfaction of periodic maintenance on the boats, is enough to keep coming back for more.  Others may find their rowing experience further enriched by thinking a little more about what goes into the act and experience of rowing as a crew.


First, a little historical background.  Of course, there was little "joy of rowing" to be found amongst galley slaves, but sailors who rowed navy captains' barges and gigs took great pride in their appearance and skill, and looked for opportunities to test their speed against crews from other ships.  The skill part of rowing was (and is) called watermanship, and includes how smartly the crew can launch ("out oars") and pull away from the dock ("point your oars -- give way together!"), and how smartly and smoothly the approach to the dock can be made ("way enough! toss oars!")  (Of course, in OARSS, we don't "toss" the oars, but rather "boat oars" and/or "trail oars".)  The satisfaction of doing these things together, without scrambling or confusion, follows from devoting just a few minutes of each outing to stop conversation and focus on the task at hand, and so to be attentive and responsive to the cox's commands.  Of course, the cox must also command attention and response by how crisply those commands are issued.


The great satisfaction of rowing as a crew may be experienced when all four rowers catch and release at the same time, called timing.  When this happens, everyone can feel the impulse on the catch from the other rowers, and a pleasant feeling of the boat surging forward as a unit results.  When no one is paying attention to timing, each rower adds power at the catch independently of the others, leading to the impression that each person is trying to row the boat alone.  The cox should once in a while call the rowers to consciously catch together for a 10-stroke drill.  If the rowers become aware how the boat responds to the power pulse when all four rowers catch at the same time, they will be motivated to stop "catching in alphabetical order," and truly row as a crew.


Efficiency in rowing is not very important in a 50-minute social outing, especially if everyone is merely "paddling" or rowing "handsomely."  However, for expedition or competitive rowing, efficiency becomes much more important.  Basically, you should sit close to the gunwale opposite your pin, with both legs extended  (but slightly flexed) and both heels hooked under the stretcher bar.  This position allows the big hamstring muscles in the legs to work in tandem with the lower back muscles to pull the oar past the pin during the drive.  Rowing with one or both legs tucked under the thwart doesn't allow the hamstrings to participate, and thus weakens the drive.  Reach out as far as is comfortable without dropping your chin onto your chest,  to enable a long pull during each stroke.  A good guideline is to "reach to your strong point, not to your long point."  The arms should just be flexible "connecting rods" to the oar handle while the back and legs pull, with the back swinging just a little behind the vertical;  then the arms come into play to finish the stroke and draw the back up to the upright position.  The oar should be moved outboard or inboard, depending on water surface and wind conditions, to feel the right "gearing" of the oar against the pin.


The stroke rate should not be so high that there is no time on the recovery for you to "gather" yourself for the next stroke.  Rowing is very inefficient when you feel rushed to get to the next stroke.  Bearing in mind that the only rest you get while rowing is during the recovery, the cox and stroke oar  should collaborate to insure that the crew is not fatigued prematurely or unnecessarily by too rapid a stroke rate.  A good guideline is to never row faster than a 3-count, where the oar catches on "1",  releases on "2",  and recovers through "3" , so the next catch is both "4" of the stroke just completed and "1"  of the next stroke.  For long rows, a 4-count works very well: catch on "1",  release on "2",  rest on "3" and "4", then catch again on "5" ("1" again!).  There is surprisingly little difference in boat speed between a rushed, "no-rest" stroke rate, a 3-count and a 4-count stroke rate, but there is a big difference in how rapidly the crew is fatigued!


Tags: How row boat
David Pratt: 9:39am - 6/19/13
This is fabulous, Pulitzer-quality instruction on how to row!!! modestly, Dave Pratt
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