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Rowing 101: Equipment

Kirby Lee; USA TODAY

Rowing 101: Equipment

Learn more on the equipment of Olympic rowing.

Oars
With shafts made of lightweight carbon fiber, oars are the driving force that propel the boat through the water and act as stabilizers. Years ago, they were made of heavier wood. Wood is sometimes still found on the handles of sweep oars, which are longer than those used for sculling. Rubber grips are the more popular alternative. The surface area of the blade has increased about 20 percent in recent upgrades, and the shape now resembles a cleaver. This "hatchet blade" is the most popular choice among Olympic rowers. Oars used in sculling are 2.92 meters long (approximately 9 feet, 6 inches long); oars used in sweep events are 3.78 meters long (approximately 12 feet, 4 inches long).

Seats
With each stroke, a rower's seat slides forward and back on runners (wheels). During the drive, the legs extend and push the seat back. During the recovery, the seat moves forward as the knees recoil and prepare for the catch. Before the innovation of the sliding seat in 1857, rowers wore leather pants and greased their seats to glide with the strokes.

Below is an explanation of the different types of rowing boats:

Single sculls (1x)
The single sculls event, contested by both men and women, is also known as the "single," or the "skiff" (European). Here, one rower pulls two oars.

Boat length: 8.2 meters (approximately 27 feet)
Minimum boat weight: 14 kilograms (approximately 31 pounds)

The single is as much a free-for-all as the eight, especially on the men's side, but on a much more human and intimate scale. In the eight or any other crew boat, the weakness of one athlete may be countered by the strengths of another. Racing one-on-one, however, each athlete's strengths and weaknesses are impossible to conceal. Winning an Olympic gold medal requires an almost flawless effort in as many as four races in seven days.

Double sculls (2x)
Men and women contest the double sculls (also known as the "double"), in which two rowers pull two oars each, with steering achieved by varying oar pressure; there is no rudder. The double sculls boat is longer, and nearly twice as heavy as the single sculls boat.

Boat length: 10.4 meters (approximately 34 feet)
Minimum boat weight: 27 kilograms (approximately 60 pounds)

There also are "lightweight" categories in double sculls, for both men and women, as well; lightweight men must not weigh more than 160 lbs; lightweight women are limited to 125 lbs. "Doubles are born, not made." So goes the folk wisdom, and there's something to it. The best two single scullers would not necessarily make a good combination. Coaches often talk about "combinations," sometimes unlikely pairings that seem to have some chemistry. Sometimes a powerhouse rower will pair with a weaker, technique-obsessed partner and the boat will take off. And complementary partners often differ in temperament as well as rowing style -- hotheads will pair with philosophers, the garrulous will team with the reserved, etc.

Quadruple sculls (4-)
Men and women contest the quadruple sculls (also known as the "quad"), in which four rowers pull two oars each. One rower steers, manipulating a small rudder with wires attached to a toe-plate.

Boat length: 13.4 meters (approximately 44 feet)
Minimum weight: 52 kilograms (approximately 115 pounds)




Team USA men's four bronze medalists Glenn Ochal, Henrik Rummel, Charlie Cole and Scott Gault power through heat three during the 2012 London Games. Credit: Andrew Weber; USA TODAY

The quads are impressive boats to watch -- eight oars churning at oppressive proximity with tremendous speed, leaving little room for error.

Pair (2-)
Men and women contest this sweep event (also known as the "straight pair" and the "coxless pair"), in which two rowers pull one oar each. One rower steers, manipulating a small rudder with wires attached to a toe-plate.

Boat length: 10.4 meters (approximately 34 feet)
Minimum boat weight: 27 kilograms (approximately 60 pounds)

The pair may be the ultimate "small boat," which typically requires a sensitive touch, exquisite balance and large amounts of water time. The smaller boats do not always respond well to raw power, and athletes who can find maximum output without tearing the water or tossing the boat around are well suited to the pair. Also, athletes with a higher concentration of slow-twitch muscle often do well in the pair while they might not do as well in the quicker boats like the eight or four. The pair has been dominated by Europeans in past Olympic Games. Nevertheless, in recent Olympics, the Aussies and the New Zealand teams have shown much prowess.

Four (4-)
In this men's only event (also known as the "straight four" and the "coxless four"), four rowers pull one oar each. One rower steers, manipulating a small rudder with wires attached to a toe-plate. This event also includes a men's lightweight category.

Boat length: 13.4 meters (approximately 44 feet)
Minimum boat weight: 50 kilograms (approximately 110 pounds)

Technical aptitude and raw power are required to make this boat go fast. Also needed are the ability to race at red-line intensity for a considerably longer duration than the eight and almost extrasensory communication between the crew members, as there is no coxswain. The lightweight fours usually provide some of the most intense racing of the entire regatta. The status of the lightweight fours as the only lightweight sweep event engenders an intense concentration of talent in this event, and it shows up on the water.

Eight (8+)
Men and women contest the prestigious eight (also known as the "big boat") at the Olympics. It is the only sweep event to feature a coxswain, who sits in the stern and acts as in-race coach for the eight-member crew. Rowers pull one oar each.

Boat length: 19.9 meters (approximately 65 feet)
Minimum boat weight: 96 kilograms (approximately 211 pounds)

The eight, to many, is the premier event of the regatta. It is one of the most demanding races -- on land or water -- known to man. A grueling powerfest bracketed by a flat-out sprint at both ends of the race, the eight combines rhythm, teamwork, synchronization, power, fiery intensity, and absurd levels of physical exertion into five and a half minutes in the "hurt locker." With crews racing at paces close to four-minute miles, there is little room for error in the eight. Crews are so close to maximum effort throughout that a slow start putting a shell three seconds behind can become an insurmountable deficit. Similarly, those that go out even slightly too fast could be heading for lactic acid levels among the highest ever recorded in humans. That would nearly guarantee a collapse in boat speed.

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