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Last Updated: Friday, 19 March, 2004, 11:15 GMT
All in the same boat
By Martin Gough

Oxford in practice for the Boat Race
Roles of the crew explained:

Successful rowing eights operate as a unit, moving together so as not to upset the balance of the boat and slow it down.

There may be some famous names in a crew, but, unlike football and rugby, there are no star performers; no one oarsman will win a race through an individual performance.

But that does not mean that each member of the boat does not have an important, and slightly different, role to play.

As oarsmen face away from the direction they are travelling, the front of the boat is inhabited by Bow, but it is at the back - the stern - where the management duties are held.


In the Boat Race, more than in international competition, the coxswain is a vital addition to the crew.

A course stretching four-and-a-quarter miles, with three large bends, is far more demanding than the standard 2000m rowing lake.

Tidal conditions mean a band in the middle of the river, the width of just more than both boats, contains the fastest-flowing stream, and the cox must stay in that water while avoiding collision with his or her rival.

Besides steering, the cox is also the voice in the boat, coaxing, motivating, and calming an eight-man engine.

As the cox faces forwards, in a conventional boat, strokeside (even numbers) are to the left and bowside (odd numbers) to the right.

However, this can change on occasions if an exceptional athlete rows on the bowside, most notably Olympian Tim Foster, who stroked Oxford in 1997.


It does not take long before an oarsman - even one who has trained for six hours a day for six months - feels fire in the lungs and the legs.

International races last, at most, six minutes, so a race three times as long is cruel and unusual punishment.

The man who can best stand that punishment is the stroke, setting a pace that perhaps only he knows the crew will be able to maintain throughout the race.

It is important, though, that the rest of the crew are able to stay with him and, over a course of this length, finding a steady rhythm is vital.

The best strokes are human metronomes.


The translator for the bow side of the boat, seven takes Stroke's rhythm and acts as the man to follow for the blades behind his.

Seven has a vital support role to play.

If he does not back-up the stroke's commitment, or follow any change in pace, it is certain that none of the rest of the crew will.

Stroke and seven make up the Stern Pair - captain and able lieutenant.


Described in rowing circles as a cross between Arnold Schwarzenegger and a Labrador.

The middle four of the boat are the engine room, the biggest and most powerful members of the crew.

But, of the four heavies, six is the brains of the operation, making sure that the rhythm of the stern is not lost when it reaches the less subtle middle of the boat.

Often one of the tallest members of the crew, six lends length to the mix - the longer the stroke, the further the boat will travel.


The main demand for the men in the middle of the boat is to provide power - as much as possible.


Another member of the powerhouse, four has to remember that there are three men behind him who are a long way from the action in the stern, and must help to keep them in touch.


In lesser boats, the three seat is where the least technicallly able oarsman sits.

He is not far enough towards the stern to upset the rhythm but, as he is not right at the bow, any error will not result in the boat swerving.

At Boat Race level there are no weak links, but three still has the least responsibility.


Often the seat occupied by the back-up stroke.

Two joins the man behind him to make up the Bow Pair who, as the first blades to catch the water at the front of the boat, must be the sharpest members of the crew at the beginning of the stroke.


Joins two in making sure that the boat is balanced correctly.

As the man at the front of the boat, his blade makes the most difference when it is placed in the water, so he must be sharp and technically correct.

Anyone can do that at the start of a race but, after 18 minutes, especially in a close contest, only the best will be able to hold the correct shape throughout.

Links to more Boat Race 2004 stories



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