A beginner's guide to rowing jargon

Rowing has given Team GB some proper punch-the-air moments through the years. For five summer Olympic Games on the trot, Steve Redgrave brought a gold medal home with him, and his legacy continues. The British rowing team has come back with at least one gold medal from the Games since 1984.

With the World Rowing Championship underway, fans will begin to get a good idea of which athletes and teams will be topping the podium in Tokyo next year. But how well do you know your rowing repartee? What’s the difference between a scull and a blade? How does a cox box work? Read on for a few answers.


Without these, there wouldn’t be much of a race as the crews would be stuck at the starting line. The poles with paddles on the end that propel the boats through the water come in different sizes, and depending on the event, rowers use either one or two.

Oars are known as blades in competitive rowing.

Blade is another word for an oar. A smaller version of it is called a scull, used in the sculling event. Sculling is easy to spot as it involves each rower using two oars (one in each hand).

Rowing with a crew where each member uses one oar is known as sweep rowing. The blade oars alternate between the stroke side of the boat (on the left, or port side) and the bow side of the boat (the right, or starboard side).

Whether it’s a blade or a scull, the end of the oar which enters the water is called a spoon and is best identified, especially at the Olympics, by being decorated with the flag that represents the crew or rower.

Cox Box

The cox is the only person on a boat during a race who doesn’t hold an oar. Although it may look as through they simply shout encouragement to the rest of the crew, a cox also has to steer the boat by guiding the ship’s rudder, keep motivation as high as possible and also offer feedback after the race.

The cox faces the crew from the back of the boar during the race.

In the absence of the team coach, a cox, or coxswain to give them their full title, can also step into this role. Steering can be manual, by moving a cable attached to the rudder, or by shouting to the crew to apply more pressure to the on the stroke or bow side of the boat.

When you’re out on the water at a regatta with rival crews either side and noisy crowds on the bank, it can be difficult for the cox to communicate with the entire crew, especially if it’s eight-strong. This is where a cox box comes into play. It’s a system of microphones within the boat that enable everyone to hear the cox as clearly as possible. If your mind's eye is throwing up a picture of a cox using a megaphone to drive their crew on, it wouldn't be wrong. These are still used as a cheaper alternative to the cox box.

Catching a crab

Not quite the skill which would be the envy of fishing crews everywhere, this is all about when a rowing stroke goes wrong.

The cycle of a stroke has to be kept at the right rhythm, especially if the boat has a large crew when it’s vital everyone synchronises to keep the vessel slicing through the water at speed. If something goes a bit wrong and a rower doesn’t lift the oar from the water in time, it’s known as ‘catching a crab’. With the oar being in the water when it should be out, it acts as a brake and slows the boat down, potentially losing time in a race situation. It’s a sign of a good run if a crew crosses the finish line without catching any crabs at all.

Stroke seat

One of the most important seats on a boat. Whoever sits here (at the back of the craft) is the pacesetter and determines the stroke rate for the rest of the crew.

The stroke seat faces the cox, or the back of the boat in a coxless crew.

In a coxed race, the cox is the only person the occupant of the stroke seat sees. They face the cox and have their back to everyone else. If a boat is coxless, the only view from the stroke seat is the back of the boat and the water as the crew cuts through it. In those circumstances, the stroke is the last of the crew over the line as well.


Not exclusive to rowing, this is a last-gasp chance for a crew which didn’t make a final where there are medals to be won to earn themselves a place on its starting line. A repechage is a race in itself, where non-qualifying boats from the previous round of heats give it their all for another chance of a medal.

Certainly not a moment when you want to be catching crabs.

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