Story: Rowing

Page 1. Overview and origins of rowing

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Rowing and sculling

Rowers use one oar each. Rowing boats (‘shells’) are crewed by two, four or eight rowers, each with one oar positioned alternately on each side of the boat.

Scullers have two oars. They race alone, or in pairs or fours.

Both rowers and scullers face backwards, and a lightweight coxswain (cox) steers all eight-person boats and some four-person and two-person boats. Elite rowers and scullers race over 2,000 metres; juniors and the disabled (and, until 1985, women) race shorter distances. Elite courses are divided into lanes by marker buoys.

Speed records

In 2013 the recognised fastest time over the standard distance of 2,000 metres by a single sculler was 6 minutes 33.35 seconds, recorded in 2009 by New Zealander Mahé Drysdale. The Canadian eight recorded 5 minutes 19.35 seconds in 2012. By comparison, Moroccan runner Hicham El Guerrouj has run 2,000 metres in less than 4 minutes 45 seconds.

Origins of rowing

Until the early 19th century rowing, paddling and sailing were the only ways for people to travel across lakes and oceans. Sails utilise the power of the wind; oars and paddles convert the energy in human muscles into horizontal movement. Oars were more useful than sails in regions where winds are often light or fickle. Many people who lived near water were competent rowers – as part of their daily lives, not as leisure or sport.

Becoming a sport

The first competitive regatta may have been held in Venice, Italy, in 1315. In England, rowing for sport began in the 1740s. Over the next century, competitive rowing became established in elite public schools and universities. The first Oxford vs Cambridge eight-oared race was rowed on the Thames in 1829. This ‘Boat Race’ has been contested annually since 1856, except during the world wars. The first Henley Regatta on the Thames was held in 1839.

Rowing in New Zealand

Rowing as sport was spread around the British Empire by officials and settlers who had learnt it during their youth. The Canterbury Rowing Club, New Zealand’s first, was founded in Christchurch in 1861. Within a decade enough clubs had been formed for interprovincial regattas to be held.

Rowing in New Zealand soon faced the debate over amateurism that raged throughout the English-speaking world. In England, manual workers were barred from the sport on the grounds their occupations (especially if they were watermen, who rowed small boats for a living) gave them an unfair advantage over gentlemen, for whom ‘training’ was a dirty word. However, in New Zealand even gentlemen sometimes had to row, and the approach was less purist. Early regattas often included races for whaleboats. Cash prizes went to clubs, not individuals.

National association

The New Zealand Amateur Rowing Association, set up in 1887, was one of the first colony-wide sports bodies. The founding clubs were Napier, Union (Whanganui), Wanganui, Star (Wellington), Wellington, Nelson, Whakatu (Nelson), Union (Christchurch) and Canterbury.

The first national championship events were rowed in 1888; from 1892 all were held at a single venue. By 1892, 34 clubs were affiliated to the association, and by 1903, 45 were, grouped in nine provincial associations. An interprovincial championship eights race was first rowed in 1928. The association removed the word ‘amateur’ from its name in 1994 and subsequently began calling itself Rowing New Zealand, governed by a board.

Rowing on land

In 2004 Rob Waddell and Georgina Evers-Swindell held the world records for ‘rowing’ 2,000 metres on a rowing machine.

Internationally, rowing’s governing body is FISA (the Fédération Internationale des Sociétés d’Aviron). This was founded in Europe in 1892, but British Commonwealth countries did not join it until after the Second World War.

In 2012 Rowing New Zealand’s head office was at Karapiro, in Waikato. A Rowing Foundation set up after the 1978 world championships to assist elite rowing was relaunched in 2012 to assist junior rowing, which until then was essentially self-funding.

How to cite this page:

David Green, 'Rowing - Overview and origins of rowing', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/rowing/page-1 (accessed 23 October 2019)

Story by David Green, published 5 Sep 2013, updated 19 Sep 2016