Race Day - What to Watch For
From the Olympic levels all the way down to high school, the races are 2000 metres, also referred to as 2k. The variations on this include the 500 metre sprints, the 1000 metre races for the Masters Division of rowers over 27 years of age, and the Head Races, usually about 5000 metres and held in the fall.
Unfortunately, rowing is not the best spectator sport simply because of its sheer length. Suppose you are standing near the docks at Henley Island. You are 1000 metres from the start of the race and it is very difficult without binoculars to even see the boats start. Then you see the boats go by you, and for about one minute you can watch and comment on the placing and rowing style of your chosen crew. The boats then basically disappear in the final 500 metres and it is almost impossible to know how the race ended. The grandstand at the Henley finish line does provide the best viewing of the last half and finish of the race.
At the South Niagara course in Welland, the viewing is best from the finish line, but in this case, you have little idea how your chosen crew is placing during the first 1500 metres.
To start a race, the boats line up in six lanes with a volunteer person leaning out over the stern of each boat holding it in place until they are all aligned. Then the Starter calls out “Attention….Row”. Each crew completes their well-practised racing start of three short strokes then building up with full strokes at a seemingly impossible high stroke rate into the 40’s per minute range. Then the rowers settle into their race pace in the high 20’s to mid 30’s strokes per minute. In the final 200 metres, watch for the stroke rate to climb again and as the rowers cross the finish line, they often collapse in exhaustion and pain from a lactic acid buildup, cramped legs, and lack of breath. If the race is a final not just a heat, or semi-final, the winning boats are called over immediately to the awards dock to receive their medals, ribbons or trophy.
Here is what you can watch for as the boats go by. The movements of the crew should be synchronized so all oars enter the water together at the “catch”, and maintain parallel movements through the water in the “drive”, exiting together at the “finish” with each rower in identical layback positions. All bodies will slide forward together in the “recovery”, bending slightly forward as they reach out. Whether the boats have 2, 4 or 8 rowers, look for the “swing” as each member of the crew leans forward or back in identical fashion precisely timed. As all oars with blades perfectly squared enter the water together, there should not be more than a minimal splash. After the stroke is completed and the blades lifted out of the water, the blades are “feathered” lying flat just slightly above the water, and should be at the same height as they are drawn back in preparation for the next stroke. If one or more blades are too high or too low, it is enough for the boat to tip off its level.
Interestingly, the blades themselves do not travel through the water. A shell at full speed, will have the blades dropped in the water and basically stay there, while the boat is pulled past them, over and over. As the oars are lifted out of the water, there remains what is called “a puddle.” The distance between the puddles from one stroke to the next is referred to as the “spacing”. If the spacing is long, it is a display of a combination of speed and a long glide through the water.
“Catching a crab” is the term describing the result of the blade of the oar entering the water not perpendicular to the water. It can be caused either by not squaring the blade sufficiently at the catch, or if the feathered oar catches a wave and digs in. In either instance, the blade goes downward quickly and unexpectedly, raising the handle sometimes right over the rower’s head, or into the chest. It can be very painful, and in some cases, throws the rower right out of the boat. And, it slows the boat down or even causes the entire crew to stop rowing while the crabbed rower gets the oar back out of the water. Viewers saw several of these in last weekend’s high school regatta in Welland, generally in the last 100 metres as the crew pulls their hardest to finish the race.
If the race is a final, not just a heat or semi-final, the winning crews are often called over to a dock at the finish line and awarded their medals or trophies. It is quite common, a simple tradition, after this ceremony, for the winning crew to toss their coxie into the water. As the crew returns to their dock, there are no breaks. With so many crews and rowers on the water, they must remove their boats and oars and carry them back to their racks and trailers as quickly as possible, to make space for other returning crews.
Baron Pierre de Coubertin is known as the father of the modern day Olympics. He is quoted as saying “The important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part; the important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”
These important words filter on down to even the slowest of rowing crews. I have seen crews break down in tears when their crew fails to advance in their heats, while others were hundreds of metres behind the winning crew, and simply thrilled to be part of a sport that builds character through dedication, discipline, determination and enjoyment of being a member of a true team that works together in humble unison. It is often said that Canadian rowers wear their medals inside their shirts so as not to show off. I think it’s just to keep them close to their hearts, enjoying the sport of it all.