Gliding on the Water

Competition between college teams.

The Art of Rowing Crew

At 5:45 a.m. when I pull into the Les Wagner Rowing Center in Owego, the parking lot is already full. It’s mid-April, it’s still dark, and it’s cold. Lights are on in the building, giving a slight glow over the water, and pinpoints of light are moving along on the Susquehanna River. The Binghamton University crew teams are already working.

I hear someone calling to me through her megaphone from one of the motor boats “meet me at the dock and you can hop in the boat with me!” Umm … okay, sure. I really had no idea what I was getting myself into – I was just there to take pictures. I hop into the boat with Emily, one of the coaches, and she revs up the motor to catch up to the team she’s coaching for that day, being careful not to leave a wake near any of the other teams on the water.

And so begins my eye-opening experience of watching a practice session of the Binghamton University crew team.

Rise and shine

Emily is laser-focused, watching every stroke of the paddles in perfect tandem. I can just about feel the efforts of rowers from my perch as we keep motorized pace with them. “Be careful not to drop your shoulder,” she coaches one of the rowers. Even a slight shift in position can alter the “set” (the perfect tandem) of the team.   The mother in me blurts, “I can’t believe they are not wearing gloves!” (Did I mention it was cold?) Emily grins and says, “It’s pretty warm in the boats. Plus, we all get used to it.”

Finally after 30 minutes of intense rowing, they pause for a break. I thought I would see exhaustion, but instead I see smiles and camaraderie … chatting and teasing and laughing. They’re working hard but enjoying themselves. I smile in spite of my frozen toes. As the sun starts to peek over the horizon, a peace settles over the water, and the rowers pause to watch the dawn of a new day. No doubt, this is the reward for a morning of hard work.

Practice resumes and a short time later, the rowers dock and unload. The team carries the oars and boats (also known as shells) out of the river to carefully store in the boathouse. The teams gather, drink water, chat and laugh. It’s 7:25 a.m. and practice is done. I’m going home to drink a warm cup of coffee and they’re headed back to campus for a full day of class.

The language of crew

I have a whole new appreciation for the hard work and dedication of crew athletes. I chatted with Cayla Kiernan, co-president of this year’s BU crew team. “At BU, this is a club team,” she explains. “We have an overall sports director for all BU club teams, but we are pretty much self-directed.” Co-presidents are elected each year by the teams, and they are able to set their own practice schedules. Coaches are all certified by the USRowing organization and are often alumni of BU, who are local to the area or in graduate school.

The BU crew teams – both men and women – consist of experienced rowers and those new to the sport.  When joining the crew team, the first year is spent on the novice team before advancing to the varsity teams. And practice is year-round. During the colder months, training takes place indoors using rowing machines and other body-toning workouts. Cayla explains, “We run up and down the stairs of a 15-story building on campus, but then we also do fun things such as Zumba.”

Each rowing team consists of an eight-person or four-person unit, plus the coxswain (pronounced “coxin”) who is in charge of guiding the team. The rowers face the stern (back) of the boat. The coxswain may sit in the front or the back, depending on the style of the boat. In a bowloader crew shell, the coxswain sits in the front of the boat and faces the rowing direction. In a stern-coxed boat, the coxswain sits in the back and faces the rowers. “There is an advantage to both,” explained Cayla. “In a bowloader, the coxswain can’t see the rowers but has a clear view ahead of them. With a stern loader, the coxswain can see the rowers but it is harder to see around them for direction.” In either case, the coxswain will wear a headset and mic to be able to communicate with the rowers.

Crew is an intense all-body workout. To hold them in place, rowers will slide their feet into a foot plate in the boat. The seats move with the motion of the rowing, which allows rowers to use the push of their legs to row, in addition to the upper body pull on the oars. The end of the oar is called the blade and the rower grips are referred to as the handle.

And of course, there’s a specific language known to the rowers. The catch is the point where the rower’s blade is entering the water. A crab is a term used when a rower has a flaw in rowing technique, causing the blade to be caught in the water. When this throws off the set of the team, it’s known as catching a crab. A coxswain may call for a power 10, asking the rowers to give their hardest 10 strokes. “Way enough” is the command to stop rowing. And “hold water” is the signal to square the blades in the water to bring the boat to an immediate stop.

Safety is key

A coach will follow each team during practice, not only to coach but also for safety. Their boat will have enough life jackets for whomever they are coaching. There are specific techniques for loading and unloading the boats in the water. The team will spend an entire day of training at the beginning of the season to learn these safe practices.

The original competitive sport 

Crew – also known simply as rowing – has been around for a long time, with origins dating back to the ancient Egyptians. Modern rowing as a competitive sport started in the 1800s, and the first American college rowing club was formed at Yale University in 1843.

On a recent episode of the popular TV show “Jeopardy!” the final question was: “What was the first inter-collegiate competitive sporting event?” The correct answer is crew. Today there are numerous competitive crew events held between colleges. The BU crew teams participate in six competitive events in the fall and an additional three events in the spring.

For those who love rowing, the USRowing organization can provide additional support for all levels of rowing, from the novice through the Olympic-level athlete. Master level programs are available, as well as coach and referee training, competitive opportunities and a guide to local clubs. “National Learn to Row Day” is held on the first Saturday in June, and clubs all over the United States participate to increase interest in the sport.

Rowing is a sport for all ages. It’s a great workout, and a lot of fun. Check it out!


Public Rowing

Check for rowing clubs and what opportunities they offer to their communities.

Here are some of the clubs located in the Finger Lakes Region that offer training programs from beginner to master rowers.

Hiawatha Island Boat Club – Owego – youth through adult rowing programs

Cascadilla Boat Club – Ithaca – adult beginners through master

Fairport Crew Club – youth through adult rowing programs

Pittsford Crew – youth programs

Rochester Boat Club – adult programs

Genesee Rowing Club – Rochester – youth through adult rowing programs

Brighton Rowing Club – Rochester – youth grades 7-12


College Rowing

A sampling of New York State teams

University at Albany

United States Military Academy

Binghamton University

University at Buffalo

Canisius College

Cazenovia College

Clarkson University

Colgate University

Cornell University

Dowling College

D’Youville College

Fordham University

SUNY Geneseo

Hamilton College

Hobart & William Smith Colleges

Hofstra University

Iona College

Ithaca College

Manhatten College

Marist College

New York University

SUNY Oswego

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Rochester Institute of Technology

University of Rochester

Sarah Lawrence College

Schenectady County Community College

Skidmore College

St. John Fisher College

St. Lawrence University

Stony Brook University

Union College

US Merchant Marine Academy

Vassar College


Story and photos by Cindy Ruggieri

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