A Rowing Primer

The Bates crew has 12 boats: four four-seaters and eight eights. The bigger boat is formally known as an 8-plus (or 8+), which means eight rowers plus a coxswain who sits low in the stern, setting the pace and steering by means of a small rudder, which works on a simple pulley system.

In an 8-plus, each rower works one oar; the rowers alternating port and starboard down the length of the boat. The rowers are identified by their seat number, one through eight. No. 8, directly facing the coxswain, is called the stroke, since that rower is the one the others will follow to speed up or slow down at the coxswain’s command.

Sometimes, in giving commands during drills or maneuvering to and from the dock, you’ll hear a coxswain say, “Stern three only,” meaning that only seats six, seven, and eight will row at the coxswain’s command.

By the way, megaphones are out. No one shouts, “Stroke, stroke, stroke” anymore. Today’s coxswains use a headset, which is hooked up to speakers along the inside of the shell so rowers can hear what’s coming up.

The 8-plus, the fastest shell on the water, is roughly 60 feet long and barely two feet wide in the middle. It weighs about 190 pounds and typically is made of a carbon-fiber honeycomb material that’s lightweight and sturdy, as long as it doesn’t bump anything harder than water. A good speed for the varsity men would be 12 to 13 miles per hour; Olympic rowers can come close to 14.

During rowing’s fall season, most regattas are head races, courses of roughly three miles in which dozens of boats are launched one at a time to race against the clock. The 12-week spring season features sprint races of about 2,000 meters. It’s like horse races on water: A half-dozen boats launched simultaneously try to out-row one another to the finish. In midwinter, when rivers and lakes in the New England Small College Athletic Conference are frozen, the team heads to Florida for a week.

The boats – the best known builders are Hudson and Vespoli – cost between $18,000 and $25,000 each. Oars, about 12 feet long, are extra, at $300 per.

– Charles Strum P’03