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by David Green

Despite a relatively low level of participation, New Zealand has achieved remarkable international success in rowing, taking eight Olympic gold medals, one silver and four bronzes between 2000 and 2016.

Overview and origins of rowing

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 Karāpiro, 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.

The professional era

In the late 19th century challenges for the world professional sculling title were among the most hyped (and gambled-on) contests in the English-speaking world.

Championship of the World

The Championship of the Thames was first raced in 1831 on the River Thames in London, England. It was renamed the Championship of the World when an Australian challenged the holder unsuccessfully in 1863. From 1876 Australians dominated the event for three decades. It was rowed over about 4 miles (6.4 kilometres) for a typical stake of £500 (worth nearly $100,000 in 2013).

Billy Webb

In May 1892 Wellingtonian Tom Sullivan unsuccessfully challenged Australian Jim Stanbury on the Parramatta River (upper Sydney Harbour). On 3 August 1907 Whanganui pipe inspector William (Billy) Webb defeated Australian Charlie Towns at the same venue despite Towns’s protest after a minor collision.

On his return to ‘Webbanui’, the champion received both a hero’s welcome and a house. In February 1908 he repulsed the challenge of Australian Dick Tresidder. His next opponent was more formidable: New Zealander Dick Arnst, formerly a leading cyclist. Prominent Cantabrians paid for Arnst to be coached in Sydney by former world sculling champion George Towns.

Zambezi centenary

Dan Barry – English champion Ernest Barry’s great-great-nephew – came second in a 2010 race which marked the centenary of the world title match. Races in the biennial Zambezi International Regatta were compromised by both hippos and elephants. A large crocodile took a close interest in the single scullers.

Dick Arnst’s Zambezi race

Arnst beat Webb easily on the Whanganui River in August 1908, and less easily in a rematch six months later. A few months after trouncing local sculler George Whelch on Akaroa Harbour on 4 April 1910, Arnst defended his title on the Zambezi River in southern Africa. The muscular Arnst’s showdown with English champion Ernest Barry, who was said to be the most scientific oarsman in the world, was sponsored by the British South Africa Company, which controlled the region now occupied by Zambia and Zimbabwe. The prize was £1,000 ($160,000 in 2013 terms). There was ‘incessant roaring’ from nearby Victoria Falls1; curious hippopotamuses had been deterred by a marksman. Cheered on by the black population, who dressed up for the occasion, Arnst won easily.

Dick Arnst and Darcy Hadfield

Arnst next defeated the Australian Harry Pearce at Parramatta on 29 July 1911 before nearly 100,000 spectators. However, injuries from being beaten up by drunks outside his Sydney boarding house and weight he put on while inactive contributed to Arnst losing his title to Ernest Barry on the Thames on 29 July 1912. When 30-year-old Arnst failed to win the Australian title in November 1913, his rowing career seemed over. But he resumed training in Sydney in 1920, aged 36, and inherited Barry’s title in 1921, when the 38-year-old Englishman declined to defend it.

After losing 20 kilos, Arnst comfortably defeated New Zealander Pat Hannan on the Wairau River on 11 June 1921. His next challenger, Aucklander Darcy Hadfield, was a ‘pocket Arnst’ in physique.2 After recovering from wounds received at Passchendaele in 1917, he had starred at the Royal Henley Peace Regatta and the Inter-Allied Games in Paris in 1919. In 1920 Hadfield won New Zealand’s first Olympic rowing medal, coming third in the single sculls at Antwerp despite missing training on the six-week voyage.

Six years younger than Arnst, Hadfield won easily on the Whanganui River on 5 January 1922, but soon lost his title to Australian Jim Paddon. Hadfield’s second loss to Paddon, in northern New South Wales in July 1923, marked the end of the golden age of New Zealand professional sculling.


Competitive rowing in New Zealand

Regional Performance Centres

Four Regional Performance Centres (RPCs) set up in 2005 supplement the national training academy at Lake Karāpiro, a $4.3-million high-performance facility opened in 2009. Of the 72 men and 49 women who attended these centres in 2009, 33 were chosen for the summer elite squad and 25 made it to the world championships.

With the RPCs dominating the annual national championships, these attracted fewer competitors, and clubs focused more on social and school rowers. In 2013 there were 10 local associations with 62 affiliated clubs, of which nine were schools. As with many sports, the focus on high performance risked alienating the volunteer base.

The toughest sport?

Is rowing the most gruelling sport? The huge amount of training can lead to rib stress fractures, and vomiting from exhaustion during races is not unknown. Cycling is perhaps the best comparison, but Hamish Bond, double world and Olympic rowing champion, said after competing in the Tour of Southland in 2009 that while the week-long cycle race knocked his legs about, rowing strained his whole body. Olympic champion Sonia Waddell said that in the last part of a race the body is in such pain that to keep going ‘you’re entirely brainwashing yourself.’1

Waikato club stalwart Chris White won a record 38 national titles. He also rowed for New Zealand crews from 1981 to 1996. Waikato won the national eights title 16 years in a row. Caroline Evers-Swindell has won the most women’s national titles – 33.


Rowing training and competition can be disrupted when strong winds whip up waves or favour crews on one side of the course. Early regattas were raced on harbours (such as Auckland and Lyttelton) and lakes (such as Pupuke on Auckland’s North Shore), and along relatively straight stretches of river (such as the lower Whanganui). The latter could be improved: Christchurch’s lower Avon was widened in 1950 to provide better rowing conditions, forming Kerr’s Reach.

Even more suitable – though still exposed to wind and weather, and remote from population centres – are the artificial lakes created for hydroelectric projects. In the 2000s the national and secondary school championships were held alternately at Lake Karāpiro, on the Waikato River upstream from Cambridge, and Lake Ruataniwha, near Twizel in the Mackenzie Country. New Zealand has no purpose-built courses like those now required for the Olympic Games.

Women rowers

Women occasionally raced each other in whaleboats in the 19th century, and there was usually a race for women at regattas in the late 19th century, but rowing was essentially an all-male sport until the interwar period, when the Whanganui club was one that accepted women rowers. The first women’s title at a national championship was contested in 1967. A women’s association formed in 1966 merged with the men’s in 1974, when about 100 women rowed and there was one women’s club, Auckland University. In 2008–9 there were just over 2,000 competitive rowers of each sex, more than 75% of them under 18.

A niche sport

A 1924 survey by the Census and Statistics Office found that New Zealand had approximately 2,400 male rowers, organised in 50 clubs. A year later there were 1,916. Rowing was the 12th-most popular sport. In the early 1960s there were about 1,500 active adult rowers. In the 2000s fewer than 1% of adults took part in rowing in a typical year, and the number of adult club members was about 1,000; some 3,000 teenagers rowed for schools. With so few participants, New Zealand’s international success has been astonishing.

Age-group rowing

Boys at Wanganui Collegiate took up rowing in 1885, and the first inter-school race was rowed on Wellington Harbour in 1889. Quadrangular tournaments involving Wanganui Collegiate, Christ’s College, Christchurch Boys’ High School and Waitaki Boys’ High School were held before and after the First World War. Regional schools’ associations were formed from the 1930s.

School rowing flourished after the Maadi Cup (won by the New Zealand army eight in Egypt) was donated for competition between eight-oared crews in 1947. Since 1965 the Springbok Shield has been contested by fours. The first girls’ race at a Maadi Cup regatta was rowed in 1973. The week-long regatta is said to be the biggest in the southern hemisphere. In 2009, 1,864 rowers from 106 schools took part.

A championship meeting is run annually by University Rowing NZ. Representative crews compete in world university championships. Nathan Cohen won New Zealand’s first gold medal at a world university championships in 2006. Masters championships for rowers aged 27 and over are held annually.


Māori rowed whaling boats, and staged impromptu races with whalers, from the early 19th century. Colonists’ regattas often included waka races, but few (if any) Māori joined rowing clubs.

John (Hoani) MacDonald of Rangitāne won gold in the fours and silver in the eights at the 1930 Empire Games in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. He was a member of the eight which finished fourth at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, in which he was New Zealand’s flagbearer. In 2012 he was the only rower to have been inducted into Te Whare Mātāpuna o Te Ao Māori / the Maori Sports Hall of Fame. Recent prominent Māori rowers include Ngāi Tahu brothers Storm and Jade Uru, Whanganui rower Paparangi Hipango and Nikki-Lee Crawford (Ngāti Ruanui and Ngāti Apa).

    • Quoted in Peter Bidwell, Reflections of gold: a celebration of New Zealand rowing. Auckland: HarperCollins, 2010, p. 9. Back

International rowing, 1920s to 1980s

Three periods

On the international stage, there have been three ages of New Zealand rowing.

  • Until the 1920s single scullers dominated efforts.
  • From the 1930s to the 1980s there was a growing obsession with the glamour event, the men’s eight.
  • Since 1988 the spotlight has shone on smaller crews, which make optimal use of limited resources and attract more state funding.

Fallow years, 1920–64

Single sculler Darcy Hadfield won bronze at the Antwerp Olympic Games in 1920, and a coxless pair won silver at Los Angeles in 1932. Eights were selected for the 1928 and 1932 Olympics, but funds were insufficient to send the 1928 crew – a problem that bedevilled future overseas ventures. New Zealand’s main contribution to rowing between the wars was Tom Sullivan, who coached national squads in Germany and Austria but was interned in those countries as an enemy alien during both world wars.

In 1956 the nomination of an eight was rejected by the Olympic Committee, and the best result at Rome in 1960 was Jim Hill’s fourth in the single sculls. An Auckland businessman sponsored the eight in the early 1960s. Hopes raised by its victory in the 1963 Henley Regatta – the closest thing to a world championship that year – were dashed when it finished 11th out of 12 crews at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. In that era the selected national crews could be challenged for their place by club crews. So crews sent overseas were often not the strongest possible.

Successes, 1968–88

From the mid-1960s results improved as genuinely representative squads were selected after annual trials at Whanganui by a troika of Don Rowlands, Fred Strachan and coach ‘Rusty’ Robertson. New Zealand rowing announced its return to the world stage when an unheralded coxed four triumphed at Mexico City in 1968. The fancied eight succumbed to oxygen debt and dehydration, fading to fourth.

Nothing rusty about Rusty

Good coaching is vital in a sport which combines aerobic fitness, strength and technique. Russell (Rusty) Robertson was New Zealand’s national coach from 1967 to 1976 and Australia’s from 1979 to 1984. He wrote no schedules and kept no records, but ‘had a knack of being able to push the right buttons’.1 Robertson was employed by the Rothmans Sports Foundation, which ceased to operate after the Montreal Olympics.

The high point of the eights era was the victory at the Munich Olympics in 1972. As ‘true amateurs’ who raffled meat packs to fund their trips, the New Zealand oarsmen were favourites of men like International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage, the strongly pro-amateur millionaire who presented their medals. This was New Zealand’s most successful campaign so far. The coxless four finished second and the coxed four sixth; only single sculler Murray Watkinson failed to make his final.

Following Munich, the eights’ bronze at Montreal in 1976 was seen as a failure. After winning consecutive world titles, the eights came fourth at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, where the coxless four won gold and the coxed four bronze. Single sculler Stephanie Foster became New Zealand’s first female Olympic rower. The coxed four won another bronze at Seoul in 1988, as did single sculler Eric Verdonk and the pair of Nikki Payne and Lynley Hannen. The eights’ failure to qualify for Seoul saw them dropped as the priority crew.

Empire and Commonwealth Games

Rowing has been contested in seven Empire or Commonwealth Games, but only once since 1962. In 2013 New Zealand’s nine rowing golds ranked third, behind Australia’s 16 and England’s 14. Highlights included Don Rowlands’s gold at Vancouver in 1954, the victory at Perth in 1962 by Robertson’s Ōamaru club four, and the eight-medal haul at Edinburgh in 1986, which included two golds for Stephanie Foster.

    • Peter Bidwell, Reflections of gold: a celebration of New Zealand rowing. Auckland: HarperCollins, 2010, p. 34. Back

International rowing, 1990s to 2017

Remarkable success

The focus on smaller boats brought New Zealand rowers unprecedented success. In the five Olympics from 2000 to 2016 they won eight gold medals, one silver and four bronze, more than doubling the country’s total at all Olympics to 24. At London in 2012, rowers won five medals, including three gold. Of 99 world championship medals (46 gold) won by New Zealanders to 2017, 10 were gained at Karāpiro in 2010 and nine each at Bled (2011), Amsterdam (2014) and Lac d'Aiguebelette (2015). Women had won 43 world championship medals, 19 of them gold.

In 2009 eight Kiwi crews were ranked in the world’s top eight in Olympic events, and overall New Zealand rowing ranked second in the world, behind Germany. Their recent successes owed much to the high-performance training introduced in 2005.

Philippa Baker and Brenda Lawson

Philippa Baker won the world lightweight single sculls at Vienna in 1991. She and Brenda Lawson were world double sculls champions in 1993 and 1994. The duo came fourth at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and reached the 1996 Olympic final in Atlanta, USA.

Rob Waddell

21-year-old Rob Waddell burst onto the world stage by finishing seventh in the single sculls at the 1996 Olympics. After winning world titles in 1998 and 1999, he triumphed at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Waddell sailed in the 2003 and 2007 America’s Cup campaigns before losing an epic series of single sculls match races against Mahé Drysdale in early 2008. With Nathan Cohen, he finished fourth in the double sculls at the 2008 Beijing Olympics before having an operation for a heart defect that had dogged him throughout his career.

A break from the dishes

Caroline Evers-Swindell recalled: ‘Every year [coach] Richard [Tonks] gave us a month off and in that time our hands would become soft and smooth again. As soon as we were back in training, our hands would be shredded. There’d be an open blister on every joint on every finger, and across the palms too … We[‘d] have to row through the blisters. The first two or three weeks were the worst, but we’d get out of doing the dishes.’1

The twins

Caroline and Georgina Evers-Swindell achieved two second placings in the 2001 world championships in Lucerne, Switzerland, in the quadruple and double sculls. Once they specialised in the latter event they were unstoppable, winning world titles in 2002 and 2003 and Olympic gold in Athens in 2004. A third world title in 2005 was followed by bronze in 2006 and silver in 2007. At the Beijing Olympics they surged from well back in the field to win a second Olympic gold by the smallest possible margin, .01 seconds.

Hamish Bond and Eric Murray

Hamish Bond and Eric Murray were half of a world champion coxless four in 2007. They combined to win three successive world coxless pairs titles from 2009 before dominating their Olympic opponents in London in 2012 in world-best time. They won the 2012 Halberg supreme award for their achievement. They successfully defended their Olympic title at Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

Duel of champions

In 2007 Rob Waddell, after time out crewing on America’s Cup yachts, decided to trial for the Beijing Olympics in the single sculls. New Zealand was allowed only one spot, so in March 2008 a trial over three races was held on Lake Karāpiro between Mahé Drysdale and Waddell. The duel attracted huge international interest. Drysdale won the first race, Waddell the second, and the decider was shaping as a classic duel before Waddell was affected by heart fibrillations, leaving the race and the spot to Drysdale.

Mahé Drysdale

Inspired by Rob Waddell, Mahé Drysdale took up rowing and was part of the coxless four at the Athens Olympics. Switching to single sculls, he won successive world championships in 2005, 2006 and 2007, and arrived at the Beijing Olympics as favourite. However, a debilitating viral infection sapped him of strength, and sheer courage gained him a bronze. Further world championship victories in 2009 and 2011 tuned him for the London Olympics, where he finally won the gold. He successfully defended his Olympic title at Rio de Janeiro in 2016. 

Nathan Cohen and Joseph Sullivan

The third gold medallists at London were Nathan Cohen and Joseph Sullivan in the double sculls. Like Juliette Haigh and Rebecca Scown in the women’s pair, they had won world championships in 2010 and 2011, and Cohen had come fourth with Waddell at Beijing. At London Cohen and Sullivan mowed down their rivals in the last 500 metres. Haigh and Scown won bronze.

The dreaded erg

New Zealand rowers have learnt to fear the ergometer (‘erg’). A rowing machine invented by University of Sydney physiology lecturer Frank Cotton in the 1940s, it was introduced to New Zealand in the early 1960s. Eventually it became standard club equipment. Six minutes of torture on the erg was often used to choose crews for the next meeting.


New Zealand’s success owed much to Richard (Dick) Tonks, the head coach from 2001 to 2013. Growing up in Whanganui in a rowing family, he won Olympic silver in the coxless fours under Rusty Robertson. Tonks, who was Halberg coach of the year four times, worked closely with sports exercise physiologist Brett Smith.

    • Quoted in Peter Bidwell, Reflections of gold: a celebration of New Zealand rowing. Auckland: HarperCollins, 2010, p. 215. Back

International events held in New Zealand

1950 Empire Games

Facilities were basic at the first big rowing meeting in New Zealand since the professional sculling era. Athletes, coaches and officials bunked down in army huts beside the recently created Lake Karāpiro.

The 20,000 spectators who turned up on race day paid an average of 6 shillings (equivalent to $25 in 2022) to get in. A ‘natural grandstand’ had been improved by bulldozer to give everyone a good view over the course.

50 of the 51 oarsmen who competed in the five events won a medal. The Australian eight overtook New Zealand (represented by the West End club crew from Auckland) to win by a foot (30 centimetres). New Zealand repeated its success at the first Empire Games in 1930 by winning the coxed fours.

1978 world championships

Karāpiro hosted the seventh world championship regatta (the first in the southern hemisphere) in November 1978.

The facilities were built by volunteers under the leadership of the chair of the organising committee, Don Rowlands. Nearly 100,000 spectators attended the four days of racing and the $155,000 ($1.1 million) profit was used to set up a Rowing Foundation to encourage the sport.


Don Rowlands spoke at the closing ceremony with an arm in a sling after an accident with a winch, and his back ‘buggered’ from lifting boats with one arm. A marine engineer, he had also designed and helped build the starting pontoon, which featured pop-up buoys to keep the boats straight in a crosswind.

Thirty countries were represented – Rowlands’s offer to buy boats after the event for resale to local clubs reduced transport costs. The 34,000 present on finals day saw the New Zealand men’s eight come third, the country’s only medal. East Germany won eight of the 13 events.

2010 world championships

The world championships returned to Lake Karāpiro in October and November 2010. 67,000 spectators attended, including several thousand from overseas.

Forty-nine countries took part. New Zealand alone had 51 competitors (the total number of rowers in the 1950 games). Winning 10 medals (three of them gold), its most ever at a world championships, New Zealand ranked third behind Great Britain and Germany.

The 33 ‘adaptive’ events for rowers with disabilities, raced over 1,000 metres, started from a special pontoon. This meant that, for the first time at a world championships, the adaptive races finished in front of the grandstand.

There were 600 volunteers. Strong winds curtailed the first day of racing and made some finals even more gruelling.

Other international events

In 2008 a 5-kilometre Billy Webb Challenge was rowed down the Whanganui River past the city, to mark the centennial of Webb’s title defences. That year Norwegian rower and Olympic champion Olaf Tufte triumphed again over world champion Mahé Drysdale. However, by 2012 Drysdale had won the Challenge three times. A women’s race for the Philippa Baker-Hogan Cup was added in 2009.

The Gallagher Great Race was rowed annually from 2002 over 3.85 kilometres upstream on the Waikato River through central Hamilton. The men’s and women’s eights of the University of Waikato competed against invited crews from overseas universities.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: David Green, 'Rowing', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 July 2024)

He kōrero nā David Green, i tāngia i te 5 o Hepetema 2013, updated 19 o Hepetema 2016