Rowing Terms: A Glossary For Readers and Fans of the CalPac World
Poz makes the fifth novel I’ve set in and around a boathouse, and it’s at long last time to provide a glossary of rowing terms. While any of these could easily be looked up on the internet, you’ll never find my
obnoxious inimitable commentary anywhere else.
The only pace is suicide pace, and today looks like a good day to die
At the ready/At the catch: Rowers sit at the catch position ready to take the first stroke as soon as the cox’n tells them to, or in the case of a single rower, as soon as the starting judge or ref makes the call (at the top or front of the slide, shins vertical, oar blades in the water).
Blind boat: boats without cox’n, indicated on paper with the number of seats in a boat along with a minus sign, so when I’m in a blind quad, it would be indicated as a 4(-).
Bow ball: a small rubber ball affixed to the boat front that provides absolutely no protection in the event of collision if the boat is moving under any pressure stronger than paddle pressure.
Bow-loader: a coxed four in which the cox’n is seated in the bow facing forward instead of the stern. The cox’n is typically very close to the waterline and suffers greatly reduced visibility. The best cox’ns in bow-loaders quickly learn to tell what his or her rowers are doing by sound and by the motion of the boat, and will be the first to die in case of a collision. Bow-loaders are also called coffin ships, owing to the fact that in a collision the boat’s carbon-fiber hull will crumple like paper.
Bow pair: the two rowers sitting at one and two seat in a boat with four or more seats.
Catch: at the top or front of the slide when the blade of the oar catches the water.
Catching a crab: When a rower feathers the blade before it is fully extracted from the water, the current generated by the boat’s passing can grab the oar and pull it perpendicular to the hull, sometimes quite forcefully. When such a crab throws a rower from the boat, it is a called an ejection crab. The idea is that a crab has grabbed the blade of the oar. Google “ejection + crab” or “rowing + ejection + crab” for a video of this phenomenon.
Check it down: (chiefly American) A command to stop the boat’s forward motion by putting the oars in the water such that the oar blades are perpendicular to the surface of the water. The British equivalent is “Take the run off,” once again proving that the British can’t speak English.
Cox’n: God. Just ask him or her. To a cox’n, rowers are meat that moves the boat. Cox’ns in men’s and women’s crew have different personality types.
Eight: A coxed sweeps boat with eight rowers. This is the big time, the most powerful of the boats. One of these, rowed well and at full power, is a thing of beauty, and awe-inspiring to behold. If you get in its way when it’s at full power, it will fuck you up because it’s basically a dreadnought.
Engine room: Seats three through six in an eight. They have a lower impact on the set of the boat than the bow pair or stern pair. This is where you put the big, muscular guys who can’t hold a beat. I generally row in the engine room, usually at five or six.
Ergometer (or erg): a rowing machine that mimics the rowing stroke. While there are other models, the Concept-2 indoor rower has a virtual monopoly in the United States and for good reason…the others suck. The C2 uses air to create resistance. I’ve liked using a water-rowers—uses water, rather than air, to create resistance—to rowing a toilet bowl.
Erg testing: Rowing a set distance for time, or a set time for distance, to see which rower wins. They’re evil.
Feathering/feather the blade: On fully extracting the blade from the water, the rower turns the blade parallel to water with a flick of the inboard (closest to the boat) wrist. The blade is squared, or returned to the perpendicular before the catch.
Fours: A boat that seats four rowers, either coxed or not.
Head race: the primary style of racing in the autumn in North American and Europe (although there are some spring head races), head races are time-trial races in which crews compete to complete a set course—generally between 4k and 8k—in the shortest time possible within their age group (see “Master rower” below).
Juniors (novice, jv, and varsity): High-school rowers. Owing to the physical demands of the sport, rowers seldom start before high school.
Master rower: a rower over twenty-seven years of age. The term ‘master’ in no way refers to skill. Master refers to anyone over the of 27.
On the paddle: the lightest of strokes, moving the boat but not at all fast. Also referred to as paddle pressure.
Pair: the smallest sweep boat, consisting of one port and one starboard rower.
Port: in nautical terminology, port refers to the left side of the boat, but since rowers sit backward relative to the direction of motion, port is the rower’s right side and a port rower’s oar sticks out to the right. A port rower’s outboard hand will be his or her left hand. Due to this reversal, sweep rowers lose the ability to tell right from left.
Quads (+/-): a sculling boat that seats four, either coxed or uncoxed. I’ve only ever seen and rowed a blind quad. These boats fly. Think of a clipper ship and you won’t be far off.
Ratio: Speed of the drive (when the oar’s in the water) vs. speed of the recovery (when the oar’s out of the water); a measure of the efficiency of the stroke. The boat is at its slowest at the moment the blade of the oar enters the water; the boat is at its fastest just after the blade leaves the water when it’s released. The faster the drive, the faster the boat goes. The slower the recovery, not only do the rowers have a chance to breathe, they don’t slow the boat with catching too soon.
River launch: launching from a river as opposed to a dock. Rowers carry the boat out into the water and climb in via the process described in Poz.
Rushing the slide: when rowers have abandoned any pretense at ratio (see ‘ratio,’ above) and rush up the slide toward the catch during the recovery.
How is this avoided, you ask? By paying attention to stroke seat and to the rower immediately in front of you. Don’t zone out.
Sculls/sculling: Sculls are the oars used in sculling, from whence the practice of rowing in a small boat with two oars draws its name. Sculling is one of the two major forms of rowing, the other being sweep rowing.
Single: a boat seating one person and requiring sculls instead of sweep oars.
Slide: also known as the tracks, the parallel metal rails on which the seat travels during the stroke.
Squaring the blade: turning the blade perpendicular the water’s surface with a flick of the inboard (closest to the boat) wrist. Rowing on the square is 1) an exercise in frustration; 2) a drill to teach novice crews to control the oar handle on the recovery; 3) a way to show off by more advanced crews.
Starboard: in nautical terminology, the right-hand side of a boat, but since rowers sit backward relative to the direction of travel, a starboard rower’s oar will stick out to the rower’s left. A starboard rower’s outboard hand will be his or her right. Sweep rowers quickly lose the ability to tell left from right.
Stern pair: in sweep rowing, the rowers sitting at seven and eight who set the pace for the rest of the boat.
Stroke: 1) the act of taking a stroke. 2) the rower, generally port, who sets the pace for the boat.
Sweep rowing/sweeps: This is what you think of when you hear ‘rowing’—one rower, one larger oar, bigger boats, although a sweeps boat can be a single pair (one port and one starboard rower). No one really knows why it’s called sweep rowing, but the consensus is that you sweep the water along with your oar.
VO2-max: the amount of oxygen extracted per breath. Olympic-caliber rowers have the greatest VO2-max of any competitive athlete.
There are probably things I’ve left out, but hopefully this will be enough to help people navigate the rowing babble in Poz and my other publications. I’ve tried to keep it to keep the esoterica to minimum, but inevitably something will shine through, and maybe that’s okay.