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Regatta Viewer's Guide

About Rowing

Among the most physically demanding sports, rowing requires excellent conditioning. Upper body and leg strength are of equal importance as WT Woodson High School athletes row 1,500 meters (0.932056788 miles) in generally 5-7 minutes depending on the number of athletes per boat and water conditions.

The Events

Rowing is divided into two disciplines: sweep rowing and sculling, and two categories within those: lightweight and open.

Sculling and Sweep Rowing 

Athletes with two oars – one in each hand – are scullers. There are three sculling events: the single – 1x (one person), the double – 2x (two) and the quad – 4x (four).

Athletes with only one oar are sweep rowers. Sweep boats may or may not carry a coxswain (pronounced cox-n) to steer and be the on-the-water coach. All of Woodson’s boats have coxswains. In boats without coxswains, one of the rowers steers by moving the rudder with his or her foot. Sweep rowers come in pairs with a coxswain (2+) and pairs without (2-), fours with a coxswain (4+) and fours without (4-) and the eight (8+), which always carries a coxswain. The eight is the fastest boat on the water. A world-level men's eight is capable of moving almost 14 miles per hour.

WT Woodson Crew participates in sweep rowing events. Sweep oars are positioned alternately on the sides of the boat, or shell (note that one rower in a sweep oars event would result in a boat going around in circles). In the coxed events, a coxswain steers the boat by pulling on wires attached to the rudder and advises the crew on racing tactics. The eight always carries a coxswain and is a remarkable event to watch; the boat is approximately 60 feet long (roughly the distance from home plate to the pitcher's mound on a baseball field) and world class rowers can move a boat at nearly 15 mph. Each boat has all-male or all-female rowers, but coxswains may cox a shell with rowers of the opposite sex.

Athletes are identified by their seat in the boat. The athlete in bow is seat No. 1. That's the person who crosses the finish line first (which makes it easy to remember – first across the line is No. 1 seat). The person in front of the bow is No. 2, then No. 3, No. 4, No. 5, No. 6, No. 7 and No. 8, a.k.a. the stroke. The stroke of the boat must be a strong rower with excellent technique, since the stroke sets the rhythm and number of strokes per minute the rest of the crew must follow.

Progression of Crews
Pursuant to the rules of the Northern Virginia Scholastic Rowing Association (VASRA), any program that enters a “Second” eight or four must also enter a “First” boat in that category. During the VASRA season, any of the following configurations of boats can be offered for competition:

  • First Eight (8): This crew is the fastest and most prestigious crew in the program. Training for and making either the boys’ or girls’ First Eight (aka Senior Eight) requires dedication, intense training, and a significant level of commitment. Due to the VASRA progression rule, the crew must be selected before any other Eight. This crew will compete at all local regattas as well as the Stotesbury Cup and SRAA National Championship Regatta (if they qualify). The First Eight may also attend the US Rowing Youth National Championship if it finishes first at the Virginia Scholastic Racing Championships at the discretion of the coaches and the JMCBO. This boat is designated as a Varsity Crew.
  • Second Eight (8): This boat consists of equally dedicated rowers as their First Eight counterparts. The Second Eight is usually considered a development squad for the First Eight and may only be entered if there is also a First Eight. In order for the Second Eight to qualify for the SRAA National Regatta, the team’s First Eight must also qualify. This crew will compete at all local regattas as well as the Stotesbury Cup and SRAA National Championship (if they qualify). This boat is designated as a Varsity Crew.
  • Junior Eight (8): The Junior or J/V boat consists of experienced rowers who are not seniors in high school. The designation allows a team with younger boys and girls to compete at a high level against athletes their same age and experience level. The Junior Eight is considered “out of progression” meaning a team may race without entering a First Eight. Therefore a Junior Eight may also qualify for the SRAA National Championship without the First Eight also qualifying. This crew will compete at all local regattas as well as the Stotesbury Cup Regatta and the SRAA National Championship (if they qualify). This boat may be designated as a Varsity Crew.
  • Lightweight Eight (8): The Lightweight Eight is considered “out of progression” meaning a team may race one without entering a First Eight. Therefore a Lightweight eight may also qualify for the SRAA National Championship without the First Eight also qualifying. If a lightweight crew is formed, it will compete at all local regattas as well as the Stotesbury Cup Regatta and the SRAA National Championship Regatta (if they qualify). This crew may be designated as a Varsity Crew. 
  • First Four (4), Second Four (4), and Lightweight Fours (4): Based on the number, participation, and competitiveness of rowers in any given season, deciding to compete in Fours is an option available to the coaches. Sometimes, circumstances outside anyone’s control may dictate the use of Fours instead of Eights in order to be competitive, or in order to get as many rowers on the water as possible. These boats can be formulated to compete at local regattas and post-season regattas as scheduled. The First Four, Second Four, and Lightweight Four boats may be considered Varsity Crews. Third Four and Fourth Four boats are considered Junior Varsity.
  • Freshman Eight (8) and Novice Eight (8) & Four (4): The main difference between freshman and Novice Events has to do with the age of the rowers within the crew. The Freshman Eight category is limited to boats with ALL freshman boys or girls while Novice Eights / Fours are limited to rowers in their first year of competition regardless of their year in school. Freshman and Novice events are “out of progression” meaning a team may race one without a Varsity Eight being entered. Therefore a Freshman Eight may also qualify for the SRAA National Championship without the First Eight also qualifying. Freshman Eights can compete at all local regattas as well as the Stotesbury Cup and the SRAA National Championship Regatta (if they qualify). Novice Eights and Fours can compete at all local regattas but can not race at the Stotesbury Cup or SRAA National Championship Regatta because the novice events are not offered.

The Lightweight Rower 

The lightweight boats consist of a weight class crew designated by VASRA as (130 lbs. max for girls/155 lbs. max for boys). The lightweight designation allows smaller boys and girls to compete at a high level against athletes of similar size and stature. Training and time commitments for the Lightweight Eight are the same as for the other crews.


In rowing, event names are conventionally abbreviated. These abbreviations are useful to know when reading the “heat sheets” and regatta schedules. The abbreviations are as follows:

Racing Categories:


Single sculls


Coxed pair


Double sculls


Coxless four


Quadruple sculls


Coxed four


Coxless pair



Gender Categories:







Weight Classes:



So a Men's Lightweight Eight would be : ML8+

The Race

At the start, each of the boats is held by the stern and the bows are aligned by aligners.

The rower in the bow seat may raise his/her hand to indicate the crew is ready, until the starter conducts a roll call of the crews. After the roll call, the starter raises a red flag, gives the warning command "Attention" and then gives audible and visual signals to start the race. Crews are allowed only one false start, which is called when a crew leaves early or has equipment breakage in the first 100 meters of the race. It is not uncommon for an oar to break, for example.

As soon as the crews begin, one or two launches follow, carrying a driver and a judge-referee. The primary responsibility of the judge-referee is to ensure that all boats are racing in safe conditions and that every crew has an equal opportunity to win.

Crews are allowed to leave their lanes (in fact, a crew may begin in lane 1 and finish in lane 6) as long as their movement doesn't interfere with another crew's opportunity to win, or does not physically endanger the crew.

If a boat is close to interfering with another shell, the judge-referee will direct the crew by calling its name and pointing a white flag in the direction the boat should move to avoid trouble.
Judge-referees positioned on the finish line tower or platforms determine the placing of each boat, with the assistance of timing and photo-finish equipment. "Winning by a bow ball" refers to the 2-inch rubber tip on a shell's bow that is used to indicate the winner in close races where photo-finishes are used.

What to Look For: The Stroke 

The whole body is involved in moving a shell through the water. Although rowing tends to look like an upper body sport, the strength of the rowing stroke comes from the legs.

The stroke is made up of four parts: Catch, Drive, Finish and Recovery. The four parts to the rowing stroke- catch (blade in water, knees bent, arms forward), drive (legs straight, arms drawn toward body), finish (oar out of the water, blade horizontal), recovery (body forward, blade turned from horizontal to vertical) - should all flow together in smooth powerful movement.

As the stroke begins, the rower is coiled forward on the sliding seat, with knees bent and arms outstretched.

At the catch, the athlete drops the oarblade vertically into the water.

At the beginning of the drive, the body position doesn't change – all the work is done by the legs. As the upper body begins to uncoil, the arms begin their work, drawing the oarblades through the water. Continuing the drive, the rowers move their hands quickly into the body, which by this time is in a slight "layback" position, requiring strong abdominal muscles.

During the finish, the oar handle is moved down, drawing the oarblade out of the water. At the same time, the rower "feathers" the oar – turning the oar handle – so that the oarblade changes from a vertical position to a horizontal one. The oar remains out of the water as the rower begins recovery, moving the hands away from the body and past the knees. The body follows the hands and the sliding seat moves forward, until, knees bent, the rower is ready for the next catch.

The Equipment 


Oars move the boat through the water and act as balancers. Sweep oars are longer than sculler's oars and have wooden handles instead of rubber grips. The shaft of the oar is made of extremely lightweight carbon fiber instead of the heavier wood used years ago. The popular "hatchet" blade – named because of its cleaver-like shape – is about 20 percent larger than previous blades. Its larger surface area has made it the almost-universal choice among world-level rowers.

The Boats – Sculls and Shells 

All rowing boats can be called shells. Rowing boats with scullers in them (each person having two oars) are called sculls, e.g., single scull, double scull, quadruple scull. So, all sculls are shells but not vice versa! Originally made of wood (and many beautifully crafted wooden boats are made today), newer boats – especially those used in competition – are made of honeycombed carbon fiber. They are light and appear fragile but are crafted to be strong and stiff in the water.

The smallest boat – the single scull – is approximately 27 feet long and as narrow as 10 inches across. At 58 feet, the eight is the longest boat on the water.

The oars are attached to the boat with riggers, which provide a fulcrum for the levering action of rowing. Generally, sweep rowers sit in configurations that have the oars alternating from side to side along the boat. But sometimes, most typically in the 4- or 4+, the coach will rig the boat so that two consecutive rowers have their oars on the same side in order to equalize individual athlete power.

Race Watching

The crew that's making it look easy is most likely the one doing the best job. While you're watching, look for –
  • Continuous, fluid motion of the rowers. The rowing motion shouldn't have a discernible end or beginning. 
  • Synchronization. Rowers strive for perfect synchronization in the boat. 
  • Clean catches of the oarblade. If you see a lot of splash, the oarblades aren't entering the water correctly. The catch should happen at the end of the recovery, when the hands are as far ahead of the rower as possible. Rowers who uncoil before they drop the oarblades are sacrificing speed and not getting a complete drive. 
  • Even oarblade feathering. When the blades are brought out of the water, they should all move horizontally close to the water and at the same height. It's not easy, especially if the water is rough. 
  • The most consistent speed. Shells don't move like a car – they're slowest at the catch, quickest at the release. The good crews time the catch at just the right moment to maintain the speed of the shell. 
  • Rowing looks graceful, elegant and sometimes effortless when it's done well. Don't be fooled. Rowers haven't been called the world's most physically-fit athletes for nothing. A 2,000-meter rowing race demands virtually everything a human being can physically bring to an athletic competition – aerobic ability, technical talent, exceptional mental discipline, ability to utilize oxygen efficiently and in huge amounts, balance, pain tolerance, and the ability to continue to work when the body is demanding that you stop.
More Race-Watching Tips
  • Race times can vary considerably depending upon the course and weather conditions. Tailwinds will improve times, while headwinds and crosswinds will hamper them. 
  • If a crew "catches a crab," it means the oarblade has entered the water at an angle instead of perpendicularly. The oarblade gets caught under the surface and will slow or even stop a shell. 
  • A "Power 10" is a call by the coxswain for 10 of the crew's best, most powerful strokes. Good coxswains read the course to know how many strokes remain for their crew to count down to the finish. 
  • Crews are identified by their oarblade design. Woodson’s blades are blue with red and white horizontal stripes in the middle. 
  • It doesn't matter whether you win an Olympic medal or don't make the finals – each crew still carries their boat back to the rack. 
  • Coxswains from first-place boats worldwide are thrown into the water by their crews – but this is absolutely forbidden at Sandy Run and other high school regattas! 
  • Coxswains don't now and probably never did yell "stroke! stroke!" Similar to a jockey, their job is to implement the coach's strategy during the race, in addition to steering and letting the rowers know where they stand in the race and what they need to do to win.