Rowing: A Little Bit of Insight

When I tell people I row, I tend to get one of two responses: “You row? Your arms must be really buff!” or “Like, in a boat?” Both are usually accompanied by some ridiculous mimicry of rowing motions.

Unless you’re in the sport yourself or have a friend or family member who does it, chances are you don’t know much about it. Throughout high school, I knew rowing existed; it just existed out in the periphery. When I first fell into the sport in college, I had only a vague idea of what I was getting myself into.

I’m not an expert rower by any means, but it doesn’t take an expert to understand the amounts of team cohesion and technical prowess that it takes to keep a boat moving smoothly. It doesn’t take an expert to realize the grit and willpower it takes to push a boat to the finish line. Even with just a year of experience under my belt, I already have the utmost respect for rowers.

For the not-so-well-versed, crew isn’t just “buff arms” (insert ridiculous arm-pumping motion here). It’s a common misconception that all it takes is a strong upper body to row, but in reality, it’s a full-body sport. Almost every muscle is engaged at one point or another —from the catch to the finish (for non-rowers: the point where the oar goes into the water to the end of the stroke). It takes strong arms for an aggressive finish, but rowers also need incredible leg strength for a powerful drive and a steady core to maintain their form throughout the stroke.

The technical skill is just as critical as the brute strength. This was an aspect of crew that I never understood until I stepped into a boat myself. It didn’t take long to realize this, though, and refining that technique was frustrating as all hell.

The boat won’t stay balanced on its own, and it takes tremendous focus — especially in the learning stages of the sport — to keep it that way. Every person in the boat has to contribute: Every oar handle has to remain level and matched with others in the boat. Every rower has to remain perfectly in sync, following the swing of the body in front of them to maintain the proper drive-to-recovery ratio. If just one of these aspects is off, it can hurt the boat’s time in the end.

Careful oar work from each individual is as integral as team cohesion — every blade has to enter the water at the same time, and if it doesn’t, it upsets the balance. Flattening the blade, or “feathering,” when it’s out of the water minimizes drag, but if the rower don’t square up soon enough it can have fairly disastrous results. “Catching a crab” can happen, meaning the blade gets yanked through the water, shoves the rower’s body back and forces the oar handle over his or her head. Recovering isn’t easy, either, and it’s impossible to do without disrupting the swing of the boat.

Physical power and focus on technique will get the boat moving, but the mental willpower is what keeps it that way. The rowers race with their backs to the finish line — it’s a psychological advantage because they can’t see their position in the race or how far away the finish line is. This slight advantage won’t carry a boat through, though; every rower has to be present mentally and remain strong and composed for each stroke, despite the savage pain tearing through their legs and arms.

There’s more to the boat than just brawn. Though the rowers’ role and the coxswain’s role cannot be compared in terms of difficulty, the coxswain, arguably, is just as important to success as the rowers are. In a typical eight-person boats, the coxswain sits in the stern of the boat. He or she acts as the navigator and motivator for the rowers, and a coxswain’s responsibilities include steering a straight course and keeping the rowers focused, controlled and calm. The coxswain has as thorough an understanding of the sport as a rower does, and the best coxswains understand how to most effectively motivate each rower to get to the finish line. Coxswains coordinate the rowers into one fluid machine, and without their constant motivation and technical calls, it would be considerably more difficult to row a race.

John Seabrook’s 1996 New Yorker article, entitled “Feel No Pain”, sums all this up perfectly: “Marathon runners talk about hitting ‘the wall’ at the 23rd mile of the race. What rowers confront isn’t a wall; it’s a hole — an abyss of pain, which opens up in the second minute of the race. Large needles are being driven into your thigh muscles, while your forearms seem to be splitting. Then the pain becomes confused and disorganized, not like the windedness of the runner or the leg burn of the biker, but an all-over, savage unpleasantness. As you pass the 500-meter mark, with three-quarters of the race still to row, you realize with dread that you are not going to make it to the finish, but at the same time, the idea of letting your teammates down by not rowing your hardest is unthinkable. Therefore, you are going to die.”

Every stroke from start to finish is an “on” stroke. Rowers swing for every other person in the boat, and to give up is unthinkable. The only thing left to do is sink the blade in the water and row.