Physics of Rowing

Physics of Rowing

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Missing Figures

"Marathon runners talk about hitting 'the wall' at the twenty-third

mile of the race. What rowers confront isn't a wall; it's a hole - an

abyss of pain, which opens up in the second minute of the race. Large

needles are being driven into your thigh muscles, while your forearms seem

to be splitting. Then the pain becomes confused and disorganized, not

like the windedness of the runner or the leg burn of the biker but an

all-over, savage unpleasantness. As you pass the five-hundred-meter mark,

with three-quarters of the race still to row, you realize with dread

that you are not going to make it to the finish, but at the same time the

idea of letting your teammates down by not rowing your hardest is

unthinkable...Therefore, you are going to die. Welcome to this life."

-- Ashleigh Teitel

The Basics

The sport of rowing involves numerous combinations and classes of athletes. Boats can be rowed with or without coxswains (the non-rowing captain) and by 1, 2, 4, or 8 rowers. Each rower can handle one oar (sweeping) or two oars (sculling). Racing shells are currently being made with Carbon or Carbon/Kevlar combinations. The act of rowing involves the transfer of momentum by the rowers and their oars to the water. The momentum is transferred to the water by pulling on the oar and pushing with the legs (the feet are attached to the boat by restraints). This causes the seat to slide backwards and the oars to pivot on the riggers. Each stroke is made up of four basic parts: catch (blade vertical in the water, knees bent, arms forward), drive (legs straight, arms pulling toward the body), finish (oar out of water, blade vertical), recovery (body moves forward, blade turns from vertical to the horizontal). For some of the basic forces acting on a 4+ (coxed four) see Figure 1.

Figure 1: mx is the mass for each rower x (1-4) and coxswain (c), M is the mass of the boat, and Fx (x=1- 4) is the force exerted by the stroke and Fdrag is the resistive force of the water.


Drag is the transfer of momentum from our moving object to a fluid. A crew moves through both water (in contact with the shell) and air (in contact with a small part of the shell and the rowers).
Effect on Crew

To minimize air resistance rowers wear skimpy unis and force their coxswains to lay in the very short and narrow stern of the boat.

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This is less of a problem than the drag through water because water is the more viscous fluid.
3 Possible Types of Boat Drag

1. Skin Drag-drag from friction between the hull of the boat and the water in direct contact with the hull
2. Form Drag-drag from turbulence created by the movement of the hull through water
3. Wave Drag-drag from energy lost by creating waves .

Most boats are slowed by primarily wave drag however, racing shells are unique in that skin drag is the primary resistive force. Dudhia claims 80% of the resistance for shells is due to skin drag. If only taking into account skin drag the resistance of the boat is proportional to the velocity of the boat (Equation 1).

* R = (constant) (velocity)^2 Equation 1 (Dudhia)
* The constant depends on the shape and volume of the hull under water


Power is the transfer of energy. Therefore, P = dE/dt where dE/dt is the rate of energy transfer. Instantaneous power can be rewritten as P = (Force) (velocity). For a racing shell, all of the power comes from strokes applied by each of the rowers.

+ Using Equation 1 for drag, we can determine the amount of power necessary to maintain a constant velocity. Because the force applied must be equal to the resistive force
+ P = (Resistive force) (velocity)
+ P = (constant) (velocity)^3 Equation 2 (Dudhia)

Given the relationship between power and velocity (Equation 2), in order to double your velocity, you would need to provide cube times as much power.

+ Power = (2)^3 = 8 times more power


Impulse is how an applied force changes over the time of the stroke. For a graph of Force vs. Time the area under the curve is the impulse of the stroke.
Hypothetical Maximized Impulse Stroke

The ideal stroke would have the largest amount of force possible at the very instant the oar was dropped into the water. This force would be maintained over the distance of the stroke and stopped when the oar is instantly taken out of the water at the finish (Figure 2). Boat velocity is a function of the average impulse not peak power or length of stroke independently. The impulse of the drive is strongly correlated with the physiological limitations of the individual. Maximal oxygen consumption (liters/min) determines the total area of the curve.

Figure 2 (Seiler)

The Stroke
3 Possible Strokes

1. The Hard Catch (Figure 3)

+ The hard catch is created by jumping the drive, putting most of the force into the initial drive by “jumping” your legs back at the catch and letting the initial momentum finish the stroke.

Figure 3 (Seiler)

2. The Hard Finish (Figure 4)

+ The hard finish is created by dropping the oar in lightly at the catch and increasing the force throughout the duration of the stroke, achieving the maximum stroke at the finish.

Figure 4 (Seiler)

3. The Fat Middle (Figure 5)

+ The fat middle curve is achieved by keeping sustained power throughout the drive without putting specific emphasis on either end of the stroke.

Figure 5 (Seiler)
The Best Method

The best method would be one that would give you the greatest area under the force time curve. However, as mentioned before there is a direct correlation with physiology in determining the total impulse of a stroke. When the crew is in a short 2000 m race the “fat middle” appears to the be most efficient stroke shape. In order to produce the hard catch stroke, the curve is very steep with is very energetically costly. For the impulse created, the rower accumulates lactic acid quickly than if the force were distributed over a longer time period (aka the “fat middle”). The hard catch would only be effective for a few strokes, a 500 m sprint at the most (Seiler).

The hard finish puts the most strain on the back and shoulders (smaller muscles than the legs) so the quantity of muscle mass producing the force is reduced from the hard catch method. Again lactic acid build up is increased and in combination with the smaller muscle quantity the hard finish is even less efficient than the hard catch.

The “fat middle” still incorporates the importance of early leg drive and follow through to the end of the stroke. Peak force during the stroke is slightly less than the hard catch but the “fat middle” minimizes lactic acid production and encorporates the greatest muscle mass evenly over the course of the drive (Seiler).



Atkinsopht. “Rowing Computer Research” 16 November 2004.

Dudhia, Anu. “FAQ: Physics of Rowing” Dept. Of Atmospheric Physics, Oxford University, 29 August 2004.

McMahon, Thomas. 1971. Rowing: A Similarity Analysis. Science 173:349-351.

Pulman, Carl. The Physics of Rowing. Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge.

Seiler, Stephen. “The Physics and Physiology of Rowing Faster” The Institute for Sport, Agder College, Kristiansand, Norway. 1997.
6. Serway, RA and JW Jewett. Physics for Scientists and Engineers. 6th Edition. Brooks/Cole. Belmont, CA. 2004.
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