February 7, 2011
The sport of Rowing is often viewed as an elite prep-school sport. Although it is true that the origins of rowing in the United States trace back to the Ivy leagues and private prep schools, today it is no longer a sport of the elite. Even though the sport of rowing is growing in popularity, it often seems inaccessible to people, usually because they simply do not understand the sport. Like any other sport, rowing has it’s own language of terminology, culture of norms, and traditions. In this blog, I will break down the sport of rowing so that those who are unfamiliar to it have a chance to understand it.
It is difficult to prioritize what topic of the sport is most important for new rowers and spectators to understand. I will start though by explaining the different types of races. When most people think of a sport, they view the competitive arena, and so I will start by breaking this down.
In the United States there are two main types of races: head racing and sprint racing.
Head racing occurs in the fall and is considered the non-traditional season of rowing. The results of head races do not count for rankings, points, or determination qualification for championship races.
Head racing is generally covers 6 kilometer course. The course in a head race follows the curvature of the river or body of water. There are turns in the course, which provide a challenge for teams. Head racing is set up in the format of a time trial. Each boat starts the race at lapsed times. These lapsed times are referred to as centers. An example of how someone would use this term is, “ ok team there are 5 second centers today.” So for example of how this would work is, boat 1 would start the race and then boat 2 would start the race 5 seconds after boat 1, and boat 3 would wait and start 5 seconds after boat 2. It would continue this with 5 second centers between the start time of each boat. The boats are essentially playing a game of chase down the course. In order to win a boat has to clock the fastest time down the course. A boat does not have to pass a boat in order to win; they must simply have the fastest time down the course. Even though passing a boat is not essential to winning the race, it is exciting to the athlete and the fan if a boat passes another boat is a good indication that they will finish with a faster time. It is difficult for spectators at head races, because they cannot see the entire race from one point. In addition, for results of the race, both spectators and athletes must always wait in order to determine who has won the race due to the centered starts. To add to you rowing knowledge the largest and most well known head race in the United States is the Head of the Charles in Boston, Ma. This head race includes competitors from all over the world. There are many races that divide compotators by age and level of experience. It lasts an entire weekend due to the vast number of events. The Head of the Charles is usually in October. In 2011, the race will be October 22 and 23.
This is a video of the youth boys race from the Head of the Charles in 2010. This video shows good images of boats trying to pass each other. Also in this video, it is easy to see how the boats are following the curves of the river.
Sprint races consitute the traditional season of rowing sports. Spring racing occurs in both the spring and the summer. For both youth and collegiate rowers this is the main season that counts for records and points. Sprint races are what qualify teams to compete at championships.
Sprint races are 2 kilometers in length. They are generally referred to simply as 2Ks. 2Ks are done on a straight buoyed course. There are 6 or 8 lanes on a course. The course is laid out similar to a race track because each competitor has their own marked lane. However, the lanes in rowing are a straight line instead of a curved racetrack. The starts of 2ks differ greatly from head racing. In a 2k, all the boats line up in their lanes at the starting line. They often must back into starting platforms. At both steak boats and starting platforms, there is a person to hold each boat in place. This assures that they do not drift and allows for an even start of all boats.
Photo of starting platforms at NCAA 2010 championships
After the start, the course is often broken down in terms of 500-meter segments. The start of the race crews generally take short strokes in order to get their boats moving quickly off the starting line. In the first 500 meters of the race, the boat will settle into its racing pace. In the two middle 500s, the crews will make moves. They will work to catch up if they are behind or stay ahead if they are winning. The last 500 meters includes the sprint. The sprint is the last part of the race. It is when crews exert the last of the energy. They generally shorten their strokes and bring up their speed. In a 2k the winner is simply whoever crossed the finish line first. Sprint races are exciting to race because you can see who wins.
Many important races occur in the sprint season. Some examples of these races are Stotesbury Cup, IRA championships, NCAA championship, Youth Nationals, Club Nationals, and the Canadian Henley.
This is a video from the 2010 NCAA championships. The video shows clearly how each boat is in their own lane following a straight course. In this race Yale passes other boats in order to win the race. The way in which they quickly pass through the other boats shows the excitement that can be found in sprint races. Also, at the end of the race Yale can clearly be seen as the winner which adds the excitement of sprint racing.
Head races and sprint races are very different types of racing. It is important to know that unlike other sports, all rowers do both sprint and distance racing. It is sometimes difficult to understand the races, but the easiest way to understand is to see a race. If you are sitting in the grandstands, do not be afraid to ask someone questions in between races. Most people will gladly help you understand what is going on. Sprint season is coming, so get out there and watch a race.