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Introduction to rowing at ESC

The basics

Rowing is easy, fun, sociable and provides another way for ESC members to get onto the water - with a little bit of fitness, anyone can do it.

ESC took delivery of its Celtic longboat, Escapade, in March and we're steadily developing a programme of outings to suit everyone, from leisurely social rows to more vigorous rows and race events.

To start rowing at ESC, sign up for one of our taster sessions via the 'Book' page on the website. This session will provide you with the basics of rowing safely and, subsequently, will allow you access to the booking process for outings around the harbour.

Rows will be added to the online programme and will be bookable in the usual way. There will be a 'pin money' charge for each outing (but not for the taster sessions) of £3 per rower. This will be automatically debited from your account on completion of each row.

Clothing and kit

You don't need a wetsuit or any special clothing - comfortable sports or outdoor wear suitable for the conditions will be fine, i.e. a sunhat and sunscreen in the summer and warm layers and waterproofs in the winter. You'll get wet up to your knees when launching the boat so suitable wetsuit boots, wet shoes or Wellingtons are advised. Flip flops are not suitable. Many rowers wear sailing gloves to give their hands a bit of additional protection. Please also bring a water bottle and a waterproof bag for any valuables.

You will need a buoyancy aid. In calm conditions it may not be necessary to wear one but it must be accessible. Your Cox will advise if buoyancy aids should be worn.

The boat

Escapade is a 24ft long Celtic longboat weighing about 160kg. The design is based on an Irish Curragh which was originally a skin-framed boat, but our modern version is made of fibreglass which makes it much easier to maintain, as well as very safe and seaworthy.

Celtic Longboats are very popular in Wales and are raced all around the Welsh Coast, but there is also a growing fleet in Chichester Harbour.

The boat has fixed seats and takes four rowers plus a Cox who sits at the stern of the boat and has a rudder to help control the boat.

Each rower has a single oar which is secured in a gate. The oars we use have Macon blades and are a traditional symmetrical tulip shape. As we only row with one oar each, the oars should be referred to as 'sweeps', but we want to keep things simple so we just refer to them as 'oars'.

The oars are made up of four parts: the blade, the shaft, the collar, and the handle. When in use the oar is pushed out to its full length so that the collar sits against the gate. The collars have rests built into them which help the blade sit square in the water.

Most parts of the boat are identified using familiar terms, but we tend not to refer to port and starboard. Instead we refer to Bow side (the side on which the Bow rower has their oar) and Stroke side (the side on which the Stroke has their oar). It will all become clear once you sit in the boat!

The commands

Whenever you're on board, the Cox is in charge - they control the boat using a set of standard commands. Please listen carefully and follow their instructions.

Coxing commands are in two parts - the first part indicates which crew members are involved and the second indicates the action required. If a command is given without a preface it will refer to the whole crew.

The rowers are identified by reference to either their seat number or more usually by their position relative to the Bow or the Stroke.

Bow - the rower in the bow

Stroke - the rower in front of the Cox who sets the stroke rate

Bow Side - the bow and the other rower with their oar on the same side as the bow

Stoke Side - the stroke and the other rower with their oar on the same side as the stroke

Bow Pair - the bow and the rower in immediately in front of the bow

Stroke Pair - the stroke and the rower immediately behind the stroke

All - all rowers.

Crew members are numbered one to four starting at the Bow (number one) and ending with the Stroke (number four).

The Cox's instructions will make clear which rower(s) they are referring to, so rowers should familiarise themselves with the various terms and with which position they are sitting in the boat.

When approaching an object (a buoy, jetty or other obstruction) the Cox will use the same terminology, so an object will be approached either Bow Side or Stroke Side.

The Cox will use various standard instructions to let the crew know what they are required to do.

Step into the boat;

  • one at a time
  • step into the centre of the boat at the lowest point
  • keep your centre of gravity low
  • support the boat for others

Make yourself comfortable

  • adjust the footrest
  • your knees should be lightly flexed
  • centre yourself on the seat
  • keep your head up & relax your shoulders and arms

Toss oars (going out)

  • locate your oar (they are numbered)
  • lift your oar being careful not to hit anyone
  • hold the oar vertical with the blade aloft
  • end of shaft is resting in the bottom of the boat
  • wait for instructions

Gate oars (going out)

  • place your oar in the gate
  • secure the gate by means of the small nut (not too tight or you'll need to undo it again)

Come forward ready to row - rowers come forward ready to row

Row - follow the Stroke and start rowing

Row on - row and bring yourself in time with the stroke

Row hard - row harder

Row light - row lighter

Tap - very short light strokes

Back down - row backwards

Hold water - dip the blade in the water to regulate speed

Hold hard - hold the full blade in the water and push against the handle to quickly stop the boat

Easy oars - finish your stroke

bring your blade clear of the water

hold the oar at 90 degrees to the boat

be ready for the next command

Oars in - bring the handle of the oar into the boat

rest the handle on the opposite gunwale

Oars out - push the blade of the oar out

collar up against the gate

blade clear of the water ready for the next command

Shorten oars - bring the blade of the oar in towards the boat to shorten the distance that the oars stick out

Blades down - place the back face of the blade flat on the water

Undo gates - loosen gate nuts in preparation for removing oars

Toss oars (coming in)

  • remove the oar from the gate
  • lift oars into a vertical position with blades aloft
  • end of shaft is resting on the bottom of the boat

Ship oars (coming in)

  • remove the oar from the gate
  • carefully lay oar down in the boat, blade pointing to the stern
  • it is seamanlike to do this in an orderly fashion starting at the bow.


The basic action of rowing is very simple and can be picked up in a few strokes. If you are new to rowing, please just relax and enjoy being out on the water. As you become more proficient the notes below will help you improve your technique. It is important to try and row using the correct technique as this will help minimise any risk of injury and make the experience more enjoyable.

Escapade will have four rowers. The rower who sits immediately in front of the Cox is called the Stroke. The Stroke sets the pace and all the other rowers keep in time with them. Watch the shoulder of the Stroke and you will see it dip just as they rotate the blade ready for the next catch. If you cannot see the Stroke, follow the rower in front. Try to avoid looking at the blade of the oar, as this will cause your body to twist and upset your balance.

Getting into the boat

Step into the boat making sure you place your feet in the bottom of the boat where it is most stable. Do not step onto the seats as this will rock the boat.

If you are getting into the boat from a pontoon, you can either step into the bottom of the boat, or you can sit on the pontoon and slide your legs into the boat.

Rowers should get into the boat one at a time and then help support the boat for others.

Once in the boat

Before you start to row it is important to make yourself comfortable in the boat.

You should be centred on the seat and sitting comfortably. In the bottom of the boat is a raised stringer running the length of the boat - use it to check that you're sitting centrally on your seat. Check that your seat cushion is in the correct position and is secure.

Your footrest needs to be adjusted so that your legs are lightly flexed. The footrest is adjusted by undoing the four wing nuts, then pulling up the release button and moving it along the track. Place the release button in the appropriate hole and push the footrest up against the button. Once you are satisfied with the position, tighten the wing nuts.

Select your oar each has tape around the handle to denote which oar it is (one to four).

Your Cox will ask you to either;

  • Toss your oar - hold it upright with the handle in the bottom of the boat, or
  • Gate your oar - place it in the gate and lightly tighten the securing nut.

Once your oar is in the gate, check that the gate height is correct - with the blade floating in the water the handle should be level with your sternum.

If you are particularly tall you may need your gate height adjusted. Your Cox will help you adjust it but please remember to adjust it back once you have finished rowing.

Place your hands lightly on the oar about shoulder width apart with your knuckles in line.

Keep your fingers loose - if you grip the blade tightly you will cause tension in your shoulders.

Wait for the Cox's instruction to 'come forward ready to row'.

Swing forward from your hips keeping your back straight.

Your arms should be straight and fully extended as if trying to touch something in the distance.

Your knees should be lightly flexed.

Your weight should be on the front edge of the thwart (the transverse seat) and the footrest.

Keep your head up and watch the stroke (or the Cox if you are the Stroke).

When all the rowers are ready, the Cox will ask you to row.

The action of rowing is broken down into four parts: the catch, the drive, the finish and the recovery. Focus on one part at a time and it will all come together naturally.

The catch

Make the catch as smooth as possible. There is no need to drive the blade into the water, just raise your hands and let the blade sink into the water.

Keep the face of the blade square in the water.

The top of the blade should be just below the surface of the water.

Keep your arms straight and your legs flexed.

Keep your head up and looking forward.

Your hands should be approximately shoulder width apart.

Keep your hands loose to avoid tension in your shoulders.

Engage your core muscles and push down on the footrest - this will lock the blade in the water.

At the point of the catch, all rowers should be in time with the Stroke.

The drive

Initiate the drive with your legs pushing down evenly through the footrest.

Your weight should come onto the oar and footrest.

Swing back from your hips using your core muscles and your bodyweight.

Keep your arms and back straight and drive through your legs.

As the handle passes your knees, start drawing the handle in towards your sternum.

Keep your elbows in and your shoulders down.

Throughout the drive keep the blade square in the water just below surface height.

Keep the power smooth and constant and maintain power right to the end of the stroke.

The drive ends with your back at approximately the 1 o'clock position. As you get more experienced you will find that your layback extends as your stroke lengthens.

The finish

Push the handle cleanly down with your outside hand (the one nearest the end of the oar).

As the blade clears the water, loosen your fingers allowing the handle to roll forward in your palm and drop your inside wrist to feather the blade.

Your weight will come back onto the thwart. (seat).

The recovery

Keeping the blade close to the water, start pushing the oar away from you.

Swing forward from your hips keeping your movements smooth.

Keep your legs flexed and relaxed.

Keeping your arms straight, reach forward as far as possible.

As you near the end of your stretch, curl your fingers to roll the handle back into your palm and lift your inside wrist up to square the blade ready for the next catch.

And repeat

If you are new to rowing, try not to over analyse your technique - your Cox will help you develop a good technique as you progress.

Concentrate on keeping your stroke as continuous and as smooth as possible.

Remember you are part of a team and the boat will be at its most efficient if everyone rows together.

If at any time the Cox asks you to 'easy oars' but asks others to continue rowing, please lean forward slightly so that the rower behind you has room to come forward without hitting you in the back.

Bringing the boat in

Your Cox will instruct you on how they want to approach this.

If coming alongside a pontoon, the Cox may ask the rowers who are on the side nearest the pontoon to ship their oars and be ready to hold the boat steady on the pontoon whilst the mooring lines are secured.

The oars are laid in the boat with the blades pointing towards the stern. Be careful as you lower the oar into the boat.

If getting out onto a pontoon, keep your weight in the centre of the boat and step out onto the pontoon, or sit on the pontoon and slide your legs out.

If coming onto a beach, the Cox may ask the Bow Pair to ship their oars and be prepared to get out of the boat and hold it steady once in shallow water.

If getting out into the water, keep your weight on the centre line of the boat as you step out of the boat.

When recovering the boat onto the trolley, the roller at the back of the trolley needs to be under water before you try and pull the boat onto the trolley.

On return, please remove the bung and wash down the boat, oars, rudder and trolley making sure to remove any sand or grit. If you have been outside Chichester Harbour, please be especially vigilant with the washdown and familiarise yourselves with the Chichester Harbour Conservancy biosecurity guidelines.

Replace the cover and make sure it is securely fastened.

Return the oars rudder and seat cushions to the sail store.

If anything is damaged please notify one of the lead rowers - do not leave damage for the next crew to find.

There is a small spares kit in the stern locker. If you need to use anything from the kit, please notify one of the lead rowers so that it can be replaced.

The Stroke

The Stroke controls the rate of stroke for all the rowers in the boat.

The stroke rate will vary depending on the Stroke's natural rate but is normally between 20-25 strokes per minute.

It is important for the Stroke to be comfortable with the stroke rate. Whilst the Cox can ask the Stoke to increase or decrease their stroke rate, they should work together to make sure that the Stroke and the rest of the crew are comfortable with the stroke rate.

We all have a preferred natural stroke pattern, for some it is long and slow, for others it is fast and short. However, due to injury, differences in height, or lack of experience, some rowers may find it difficult to row very long strokes or very fast cadences. A good Stroke will instinctively know if the others rowers are finding it difficult to follow their stroke. If the Stroke feels that is the case, they should discuss with the Cox whether to alter their stroke.

If the boat is stationary, the Cox may ask for three or five short strokes to get the boat moving. It is easier to get the boat moving with shorter strokes and it keeps the boat more stable. Once the boat is up to speed, the Stroke calls 'going long' and reverts to their normal stroke length.

Your optimum stroke rate will depend on lots of factors, how far you are rowing, how fit the crew is, plus sea and wind conditions. The Stroke needs to balance the number of strokes per minute, the length of the stroke and the power of the stroke, to allow for all these factors.

However you row, whether long or short, slow or fast, it is critical that the Stroke keeps good time and has a constant stroke pattern. It is very difficult for the other rowers to follow a Stroke who is constantly changing their stroke pattern or speed.

The next step

Whether you are a beginner or an experienced rower, the only way to improve is to get out on the water and practice in a variety of conditions.

If you are a new rower, just get out on the water and enjoy it.

If you are an experienced rower have a go at coxing - you may enjoy it. Our 'Guidelines for Coxes' can be found here (please log in to the Members' area of the website first).

Do not be afraid to push your boundaries and go out in challenging conditions it's how we all learn.

If you have any questions, I will be happy to try and answer them.

Enjoy and have fun.

Paul Bennett

Sailing Committee

Please follow this link for the Guidelines for Coxes

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