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RowingRowing Technique

Rowing Technique

Good rowing technique is largely the same regardless of whether you’re rowing a Whitehall or a narrow shell. The rowing stroke should be a very natural and comfortable motion. It may take a few rows to get the sequence learned on the body, and it might take a lifetime to perfect.

The Rowing Stroke

The rowing motion can be broken into two halves. The Drive, and the Recovery. The drive phase goes from the ‘catch’ to the ‘finish’

The Drive

At the start, the rower is compressed like a loaded spring, reaching out over the toes. Knees are bent, arms straight, and body tilted forward. The oar blade should be square to the water.

The rower lifts his or her hands slightly to drop the blades into the water. This step is called “the catch” because the rower feels as if he or she is reaching out to “catch the water” with the blade of the oar.

The drive has three stages:

  1. Drive out with the legs first. Keep your arms straight.
  2. Swing the body back
  3. Bring in the arms

Make sure you do those in that order, the reverse the order on the recovery. The real power comes from the leg drive. Don’t make the mistake of trying to pull with your arms before the leg drive is complete.

At the end of the drive, the rower presses the oar-handles down just a bit, a couple of inches or less, to bring the oar blades out of the water. Just as the oar blade is being removed from the water, rotate the oar handle 90 degrees so that the blade is again parallel to the water. This action is referred to as feathering. 

The Recovery

In the recovery the rower returns to the catch position by reversing the motions of the drive. Oar blades are held out of the water. Again, it has three stages:

  1. Bring the oars away from the chest with the arms
  2. As the arms become straight, angle the body forward
  3. As the oars clear the knees, bring the knees up to compress the legs

Roll the oars square again in preparation for the catch.

Practice on the Ergs

It’s a good idea to practice the basic rowing stroke on the ‘Ergs’ (Ergometers aka Rowing Machines) – there are several of these available in the corner of the Zahler Boathouse.

Be aware of these common mistakes

Move it to the Water

To work on your rowing technique, we recommend practicing on our plastic Spirit Whitehalls. These boats have more standard rowing ergonomics with oarlocks spaced further apart than the wooden boats, and you can use modern lightweight oars – providing for easier feathering and more leverage for an easier stroke.

If you’re coming from the wooden Whitehalls, there are a few notable differences with the Spirit Whitehalls to be aware of.

  • Do not lubricate oarlocks, oars, or the seat tracks with oil.
  • These use locking oarlocks.
  • You can also use hatchet oars. The (F) pair is well suited in length.
  • Rinse oarlocks and moving parts with fresh water after use.

If you have time, here’s another video worth watching on how to row and develop good technique using these boats. It’s 35mins and packed with great information.

Here are a few things to be aware as you advance to rowing these craft:

The Grip & Crossover

On sculling rowboats, you should expect the oars to overlap in the middle of the stroke. This gives you more leverage as you pull on the oars, but it also means you’ll have to manage your oar handles so they don’t collide in the middle of the stroke. The recommended way of doing this is to lead with the left hand, slightly before your right.

Hold the oars loosely in a comfortable position. Your thumbs should be over the edge of the oar handle and exert a light outward pressure on the oarlocks.

Hold on to your oars!

Your oars also provide balance to your boat. They act like stabilizers allowing the rower to stay upright on even on skinny rowing shells. The key is not to let go of the oars. If you need to take a drink of water, or check your radio, leave one hand on the oar handles. This is less important on the Whitehalls that have much more inherent stability, but it’s a good habit to be aware of before you progress to narrower boats.


As you row, you’ll alternate the blades between square and flat, twisting them 90 degrees for the recovery. This video does a good job of showing the motion of the blade in the water.

If you’re feathering correctly, you don’t have to lift the oars too high for the recovery. The oar blades can skip back across the surface of the water.

You can find many rowing tips and technique guides on the internet. Here’s another good Description of Rowing Stroke (PDF) 


Soon after you make your first few rowing strokes, you’re going to discover you need to do a few other things, like turning to avoid swimmers, and stopping before hitting them.

Taking a Break

The command to pause rowing is “Way Enough”. On this command simply stop rowing and hold the oars stable in front of you. The boat will continue moving (way). You may allow the oars to float on the water.


A more important command is “Hold Water” This means to stop the boat’s forward motion by putting your oar blades into the water squared (not feathered). Since the boat is moving, the oar handles will try to come back at you. Push back on the oar handles to resist their motion (it can be quite strong) thereby slowing and eventually stopping the boat.


So far you’ve been rowing the boat forwards (even though you’re facing backwards). When maneuvering in close quarters, you may want to reverse up to an obstacle so that you can see it. This would be particularly useful for coming up on a swimmer for rescue.

To backwater, you push the oars away from you while the blades are in the water, and do the rowing stroke in reverse. Go slow – pushing too hard on the oars will cause the oarlocks to pop out. To backwater well, you’ll want to feather the blades, but feather the blades in reverse so the cups are facing downwards


Rowing boats without rudders (like our singles) are turned by creating different forces on the oars, and hence different forces on either side of the boat.

Rowing with one oar causes the boat to turn *away* from that oar. You can tighten the turn, or keep the boat moving slowly, by “holding water” with the inside oar while you take strokes with the outside oar.

If the boat is moving, you can turn while slowing by holding water with the inside oar while doing nothing with the outside oar. This is important approaching a dock or a swimmer. Practice using one oar and the two oars against one another to perfect careful slow turns.


Now, put it all together and go practice some of these maneuvers.

In Conclusion

Once you have your rowing technique developed on the Spirit Whitehalls, you’ll be prepared to move into using our Vikings, open-water shells, and crew training on our Quad.

Learning good rowing form is an eternal quest for many. Don’t expect to be perfect on your first times out. But keep coming back to these resources, and learning. Developing good technique will significantly enhance your enjoyment of the sport.