History of rowing
Rowing has a long history, mainly because of its utility in warfare and transportation. Students of ancient Greek and Roman history will remember references to rowing in Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey” and learning about biremes and triremes, which were long vessels that incorporating two or three banks of oars. In the seventh and sixth centuries B.C., these boats took Greek colonists to various parts of the Mediterranean, and by 480 B.C. there were fleets of these oared warships vying for supremacy.
Although there is a documented reference to a regatta in 1274 in Venice, Italy – not surprising, given its network of waterways – the sport didn’t develop as a recreational or competitive pursuit until the 1700s. In 1715, one of the oldest, continually running athletic contests in the world, Thomas Doggett’s Coat and Badge race, was established in England for watermen in their first year of apprenticeship; winners were eligible to man the Royal Barge on state occasions. At the end of the 18th century, rowing was into its amateur era with clubs flourishing at the collegiate level. By 1790, British clubs were active on the Thames, and boys from Eton, the exclusive boys school, were competing in eights in 1811 – eighteen years before the first Cambridge-Oxford race on the Henley-on-Thames (which Oxford won in front of 20,000 spectators) and 28 years before the first Henley Regatta, which was on a different part of the river. Later called the “Henley Royal Regatta,” it is still contested annually.
Although Americans didn’t compete in the prestigious Henley until 1878, the sport had been gaining momentum for 50 years. The first U.S. rowing association was organized as far back as 1834 (New York Amateur Boat Club Association) and collegiate rowing took off after Yale began an intramural college program in 1843. The first intercollegiate race was in 1852 – Harvard defeated Yale on New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee – and by 1873, there were 289 rowing clubs in the United States. Although rowing events were supposed to be held at the first modern Olympics at Athens in 1896, bad weather forced their cancellation. So in 1900, the sport made its Olympic debut on the River Seine at the Paris Olympics and has been a part of every Games since. Women’s rowing was added in 1976.
Arguably the premier event of rowing is the men’s and women’s eight. A full boat of eight oarsmen and one coxswain, the eight often reflects the overall strength of a country’s rowing program. Here is a brief crash course on the event’s terminology: The coxswain typically sits in the stern, facing the rowers and the finish line. He steers the boat by controlling the rudder, and also assumes a coach-like role in the boat. The “stroke” refers to the rower in eighth seat, at the stern of the boat. As his is the only oar that can be seen by all other rowers in the boat, he is responsible for setting the rhythm and stroke rate (number of strokes per minute). The 7-seat is the next rower and his oar is on the opposite side of the boat, so rowers on his side may also follow him for rhythm and stroke rate. The stroke and the 7-seat are together known as the “stern pair.” The 3-seat, 4-seat, 5-seat and 6-seat, sometimes known as the “engine room,” are typically the strongest rowers in the boat. The 2-seat and bow-seat are the best technicians and help manage the boat’s balance, which is most sensitive in the bow. When the boat is sitting at the starting line, either of them may be asked by the coxswain to take small strokes to make sure the boat is heading straight when the race begins. They are collectively known as the “bow pair.”