Rowing is one of the oldest forms of water transportation known to man. Rowing is the act of propelling a boat through the use of oars, long, bladed levers that are directed against the water for movement. Rowing evolved from the even more ancient methods of canoeing and kayaking, where the water craft was powered by a single person, using a single instrument, the paddle. Over time, ancient peoples, including the Egyptians, developed techniques where one person could use two paddles attached to the gunwales (sides) of the boat by a device later known as an oarlock, or two persons could each use a paddle working in synchronized fashion on opposite sides of a boat for propulsion.
Later cultures, particularly the Romans and the Viking Norsemen, advanced more sophisticated rowboats into an important part of their military campaigns. Rowing has been a means of support for fishermen and other water-related labor for more than 2,000 years. The rowboat remains a staple of transportation in many water-oriented communities today, for both commerce and as a pleasure craft.
Rowing as a sport competition first occurred along the Thames River in London. Rowboats had been employed to ferry people and goods across the river as there were very few bridges constructed at that time. Competitions arose as to which oarsman was the fastest in crossing the river, out of which the first rowing race, the Doggett and Coach Badge Race, was held in 1716. The event was open to single competitors, conducted over a 5-mi (8 km) course along the Thames; this race remains an annual event.
Rowing as a competitive sport has a number of traditional events, including the Oxford University/Cambridge University Boat Race (inaugurated in 1829), the numerous rivalries between American university teams, or crews, a biennial World Championship, and the pinnacle of competitive rowing, the Olympic Games.
With competition came technology and different competitive classes. Among the important developments in racing craft and oar design was the innovative rowing outrigger, first employed by Oxford in 1864. This device permitted the oars of the boat to be mounted farther from the gunwales, which made the boat more stable and permitted the hull of the boat to become narrower and more hydrodynamic. Another innovation was the sliding seat. In 1870, the Yale University crew developed a seat that slid back and forth with the motion of the oarsmen; this device permits the crew to better use their leg power to drive their bodies and the oars through the water.
The traditional wooden boats gave way to increasingly lighter fiberglass and carbon fiber composite materials, making the boats faster and the oars more responsive.
The rowing classifications begin with the two different methods for the propulsion of the boat, sweep oar races where each rower powers one oar, and sculling, where each rower uses a pair of oars. In the sculling competitions supervised by the international rowing governing body, FISA, races are held in categories known as single scull (one rower), double sculls (two rowers), and quad sculls (four rowers). There are precise regulations as to the permitted dimensions of the boat, the oar specifications, and the material weight of the craft.
In the sweep oar categories, there are similar regulations regarding the boat equipment. Races are held with crews of two, four, and eight athletes. The sweep oar categories may also include a coxswain, or cox, the navigator of the craft who is also responsible for dictating and calling out to the crew of the desired stroke rate. In international competition, there are men's and women's divisions in each rowing category, as well as open weight and lightweight divisions. At an elite level, the ideal rower will possess a tall frame, to best extend the oar over the water, with a good strength-to-weight ratio, as the rower must propel his or her own mass most efficiently.
The standard international racing distance is 1.3 mi (2,000 m) in all racing divisions, with as many as eight boats racing in each heat. The competition is progressive, with the winner of a heat advancing to the next round, and the losers taking part in the repechage, a form of playoff among the unsuccessful heat competitors for a reentry into the main competition. Races are most often conducted on water that is protected to some degree from wind and wave action, to permit greater boat stability.
J. A. Cannon