The History of Rowing

About Rowing   |   History of the Sport   |   Glossary   |   Rowing Links   |  

Historical Origins of Rowing

Although no one knows for sure which race were the first to make use of rowing it is generally accepted that the ancient Egyptians were the first to build rowboats. Over the course of history the idea was developed by various other groups such as the Romans and Vikings. Obviously in these cases the means of rowing were transport, exploration and conquest. Rowing as a competitive sport came much later, developed like many other of today's sports, here in England.

In the days when bridges were few and far between the only way to cross the river Thames was by boat, which in this period was simply a means of transport. But, as is the way when grown men draw side by side in a moving vehicle, getting from one side of the river to the other was simply not entertaining enough. Soon the gentry being transported began to place bets on whose oarsman could get them across the river in the quickest time. Such wagers often carried high stakes and the activity became a popular pass time. Therefore it was inevitable that the development of organised races would follow, and the Doggett and Coach Badge race was instituted as a result.

This sculling race first took place in 1716 and was rowed over a 5-mile course between two pubs situated along the Thames. It was open to watermen who had completed their apprenticeship, and incredibly still takes place today nearly 300 years on! The fact the race took place between two pubs is itself significant in highlighting the sport's origins as a social pastime, which are still very much prevalent today.


Naturally as the sport became more competitive, and the need for faster boats more apparent, the result has been a series of radical changes in the racing boat design. Nowadays there is an accepted standard design for racing boats, but these differ dramatically from those used in early races. To begin with boats were heavy and wide, with fixed seats and oars rested on the side of the boat. The first significant development came in 1846 when Oxford developed outriggers. These allowed the oars to be secured away from the side of the boat, providing more leverage and stability, and therefore leading to the boats themselves becoming narrower and more streamlined.

The next major development was the transition from fixed seats to the sliding ones we have today, this change being implemented by Yale oarsmen in 1870. This was the last significant change to the overall design of the rowing boat, but right up to the present changes have taken place (and still do) in terms of materials used and minor changes in shape, all designed at creating more racing speed. Nowadays the boat design is more or less standard and any changes are closely monitored by the world governing body (FISA).

In terms of competition the sport has also come a long way. The first Dagett and Coach race was between single scullers only, but as the years passed more races were founded with increasingly diverse boats being raced. This has culminated in modern regattas which have numerous different racing categories.

Modern Competition

The pinnacle of competitive international rowing is obviously the Olympics . Rowing is one of the original Olympic sports with the first modern Olympic games, held in Athens in 1896, due to be its debut. Unfortunately the weather was too rough to hold the event so rowing had to wait until 1900 in Paris for its Olympic debut. Women's rowing debuted at the 1976 Montreal games.

Copyright © 2009 Osprey Oars. All rights reserved.