Oars, part 5. Matching the oar, seat, and the athlete.

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The ideal physique and technique requirements for each position (and a conclusion at the end).

So, we have a squad of good rowers, and we now want to build a crew.  How do we match the athlete to the Seat/Position, and indeed match athletes to each other to produce the most efficient and cohesive crew?

The different potential arc angles at the catch in the 6 different positions in the boat which we looked at earlier in Article – 4, does mean that, all things being equal, you are ideally looking for different physiques to facilitate the different potential of each position.  However, it is not just the varying arc angles which effect seat selection, but also the fact that the bow pair of rowers sit much higher above the water than the stern four.

In addition to this, there is simply a different ‘feel’ to the boat in the stern, in the middle, and in the bow, and all these factors influence the ideal combinations of physique (length of reach, sitting height, leg length, etc.), physiology (strength and endurance), body weight (fore and aft trim of the boat), explosive power, speed of movement, other qualities of movement, flexibility, and technical efficiency, required for each position.  We are not going to include any psychological aspects of seat selection here because this is yet another ‘can of worms’!

So let’s look at just a few key factors related to each position in a Cornish Pilot Gig.

Stroke Seat

In terms of biomechanics the stroke seat doesn’t necessarily require the tallest athlete, or one with the longest arms or tallest sitting height, because in the stroke position the maximum achievable arc angle at the catch is about 10 degree less than in the bow seat. Although in degrees this doesn’t sound much, it is significant when you realise that the necessary reach of trunk and arms will be something like 15cms less than would be required in the bow, so we don’t need giants in the stroke seat.   Whilst this seat also offers a 10 degree longer angle at the release, we now know that much of this doesn’t need to be used as 37 degrees is the maximum angle required at the release.

The stroke needs to be very rhythmic and very consistent, and often a smaller “piston” who is dynamic, yet metronomically consistent, is your ideal athlete to lead a crew which may have stronger and more powerful athletes further up the boat.  In addition, the ability to set and mark a clear rhythm and maintain a steady and relaxed recovery sequence is an important attribute.
The ability to ‘read’ the run of the boat between strokes and match the recovery rhythm to the changing recovery boat speed is also a valuable asset for a stroke, and these athletes are not easy to find.   Finally, good technique in the stroke seat helps the whole crew to achieve better technique, whilst brute power is not necessarily a key requirement.

#5  Seat

Like stroke, the #5 position doesn’t require the longest of reaches forward but even so, the catch angle possible does  require a slightly longer reach than at stroke, and therefore #5 seat may require a slightly taller athlete. It should be pointed out here that, since the thwart is fixed, the leg length in fixed seat rowing is not so important and can be accommodated by the position of the foot stretcher.  Reach potential is therefore a combination of trunk height (sitting height) and/or arm length, and these are more important than leg length. This is in contrast to sliding seat rowing where leg length is relatively much more important.

In terms of movement quality we are looking for someone who can reinforce strokes rhythm and can also transfer this rhythm whilst also instigating the fractionally longer reach forward that the stroke seat doesn’t offer. Like stroke, you are not necessarily looking for the greatest power output in the #5 seat, although, if you have all the other attributes for #5, then real power as well doesn’t go amiss.  Another movement quality you should be looking for in a #5 rower is that of ‘flow’.  This is difficult to describe to those not trained to analyse movement quality, but essentially you are looking for a very ‘loose’ and ‘fluid’ quality of movement.

Stern Pair

When creating a crew it is not just about the ideal requirements for each seat, but how particular combinations of athletes complement each other. In this respect a complementary pairing of stroke and #5 is essential to create a combined rhythm strong enough to reach right through the boat to the bow seat. If the stroke does achieve the maximum possible arc angle at the catch, then it is not so essential to have this at the #5 seat but the ideal is to have the “piston” at stroke with a slightly more “rangy” athlete at #5.  As a unit, a strong and lively rhythm, good technique, and real consistency is what is required from the stern pair.

#4  Seat

Typically a #4 seat rower will be amongst the stronger, and probably heaviest rowers in the crew with a potential to get extra chord length of stroke by having a longer oar outboard, and therefore a harder gearing to optimise his/her extra power. He/she will also need to have a taller sitting height and longer arms than the stern pair to effectively use the longer inboard oar length at the catch.  Remember, this athlete sits in the widest part of the boat.

Essentially the #4 is regarded as part of the “powerhouse” or “engine room” of the boat.  Sometimes such athletes are very strong, but may not necessarily be explosive.  Fast strength, or explosiveness is a fundamental requirement of all rowers regardless of seat, so it is important that #4 rowers are not just strong, but explosive too.

#3  Seat

In many respects the attributes required by #3 are similar to #4  so look again at the previous paragraph.  You are also looking for more reach (trunk and arm length) in order to achieve the extra couple of degrees length at the catch which is possible in this seat.

As this position sits in front of the fore/aft centre of the boat, you may also be looking for extra weight in order to trim the bows down, however you want this weight to be muscle tissue and not fat!

Middle Pair

The middle pair may not necessarily be your tallest athletes in the boat, (although they need to have more reach than the stern pair), but they should be the strongest.  Such athletes don’t always have the best technique, but a surplus of brute power should not be accepted as an excuse for inadequate technique! It is crucial that the centre pair create a powerful and explosive unit, and that they can maintain complementary acceleration through the middle of the stroke.  The rowing ‘feeling’ in these seats is one of sustained power, rather than of quickness of movement, and as such this ‘feeling’ should be strongly coached in your middle pair.

#2 Seat

We have already seen that the front two positions in the boat offer the potential of more arc angle at the catch.  It is therefore essential that #2 athletes have sufficient length of reach to be able to use this, and they will therefore need to sit taller and/or have longer arms than the stern 4 athletes.

In addition the heights of the gunwhales rise sharply towards the front of the gig and therefore the #2 position will be sitting higher above the water.

It is therefore easier for this rower to row efficiently, and particularly keep their finishes covered,  if they sit very tall in the boat because the oar shafts in this position are at a steeper angle to the water.  So the #2 rower really does need to have the longest reach forward, and as such should have the tallest sitting height and/or arm length of the whole crew, with the exception of bow!

The other key requirement for the #2 seat is that he/she must have a very quick placement of the blade at the catch and connection to the water and he/she should therefore be one of the two most explosive athletes in the boat.  This is because the sensation in the bow end of the boat is that the water is flowing past the boat much faster than it does in the middle or stern where the sensation is slower and more sustained. Whilst a boat cannot actually go faster through the water at one end than the other, there is no doubt that the sensation of rowing in the bow, the middle, or the stern are all quite different, and empirically we have learnt that the quality of movement of the rowers does ideally need to reflect these different sensations.

If the sensation in the bows is that the boat is travelling through the water faster, then the bow end athletes need to be able to get hold of the water faster.  To achieve the speed of application at the catch, #2 rowers need to have not just fast and quick movement qualities, but they also need to have excellent technique, especially at the catch, which must be very quick and very accurate – you simply can’t afford to be late in, or to miss the front sector of the stroke arc!

However, the #2 rower can also be considered as part of the ‘powerhouse’ of the boat, but this will depend a little on the relative power and weight of the middle pair.  In some crews the ‘powerhouse’ could be the #5, #4, and #3 seats, whereas in other crews it may be the #4, #3, and #2 Seats.  The #2 rower therefore does need to be one of the most powerful athletes in the crew, but particularly with explosive power.

Like #5, the #2 seat also needs to be able to transmit through to the bow rower, the rhythm and power coming from the middle of the boat.  However, this rhythm transmission role is different from the #5 seat because it requires the ‘sharpening up’ of the sustained rhythm coming from the middle pair into the more dynamic rhythm required from the bow pair.

In summary therefore, the #2 seat requires a longer reach forward, the transmission of rhythm, and a really fast, explosive, and accurate catch.

Bow Seat

The bow seat offers the potential for the greatest arc angle at the catch so, like #2, you need a rower with a tall sitting height and/or long arms. In addition the bow seat sits significantly higher than #2 and this also calls for extra trunk height.  In fact, virtually everything that has already been said about the #2 seat applies even more to the bow seat, so it might be worth re-reading the previous section!

The bow rower needs to have even more speed of movement and even more accuracy than the #2seat.  If power = force x velocity then, for a given power output, the bow seat needs the greatest velocity in contrast to the middle pair who will need more force!  In the bow we therefore need a rower with long arms and a long trunk, with good speed of movement and excellent blade-work at the catch. In terms of timing it is better that the bow seat takes the catch early rather than later, although of course ideally they need to have spot-on timing!

Bow Pair

The bow pair as a unit needs to comprise explosive athletes but ideally also heavier rowers to keep the bow down, but this combination of movement qualities is not easily found since heavier athletes often tend to have slower speeds of movement, and what you don’t need in the bow seat are athletes who are very strong but who can only apply their strength slowly!  What you do want is a pair of tall lively athletes whose blade speed and accuracy at the catch are excellent.


Before summarising this section on the qualities required from each position in the boat, perhaps some points on coxing should also be included.  Why do so many athletes worry about the weight of their gigs, and then ignore the fact that they are carrying a very heavy coxswain.  Since in gig racing, there is no weight limit for coxswains, you should be looking for the lightest coxes possible!

Also, it is not just the overall additional weight that has to be carried, but the fact that the coxes weight is all in the stern which buries the stern and lifts the bow, and effectively increases the drag on the hull by a significant amount!  Remember Pilot Gigs were designed to go as fast as possible carrying a pilot’s weight in the bow, and this kept the bows down and the fore and aft trim level.  With the removal of the pilot’s weight, a gig is therefore already inclined to be bow up and stern down.  Add to this a heavy cox, and you really are reducing the potential boat speed significantly.

In terms of weight distribution, it is also essential that the cox must sit absolutely inert and still.  If the cox rocks forwards and backwards during the stroke cycle as so many do, as they will slow the boat down mainly because, on the recovery phase when the rowers are moving towards the stern, which helps the boat maintain its speed, the cox is rocking his/her trunk towards the bow, which has the effect of pushing the boat backwards so the cox is using his/her weight to slow the boat down!  This is a fact which, in sliding seat rowing was measured many years ago – you will never see an Olympic Coxswain moving anything but his/her mouth, and miniscule movements of thumb and index finger on the rudder lines!

Another effect of the cox rocking fore and aft is that in creating a rhythm opposite to that of the rowers, they therefore upset the rhythm which the rowers are trying hard to establish and maintain!
So, if you are going to put in hours of training to make the boat go faster, encourage your coxes to lose weight and sit still- another controversial point!

A good cox has to be a ‘jack of all trade’ and his/her greatest asset is to be able to ‘multi-task’!  This is not the place for a dissertation on the role and qualities of a cox, but suffice to say that they need to be able to steer straight (not as easy as you think), and also steer a transit course across tide and/or wind.  At the Newquay Championships this year, (both men’s and women’s), less than 10% of coxes steered the best transits on the first and last legs, and this could clearly be observed from the shore!

Coxes also need to be able to concentrate on race or training calls, on technical coaching of individuals and/or the crew, and on motivating the crew.  They also need to focus externally on fixed objects, on other vessels, and on other crews in a race or in training.  Finally, they need to be able to use a stopwatch and provide split-times and/or stroke rates, and also use a walkie-talkie radio. This represents a large number of different although related tasks such that multi-tasking is definitely the name of the game for coxes.  All the skills of a cox require teaching and coaching which alas, few coxes actually get.  So train your coxes as well as your rowers, and you will be well rewarded.

So back to the rowers – in summary, there are clear and very different roles for stroke and bow seats. There is also a dual role for the stern pair to create and maintain rhythm, and for the bow pair to be able to apply a fast, long and accurate catch. The centre of the ‘power-house’, and probably the biggest and strongest athletes, will be at #4 and #3, although you can also include #5 and/or #2 to create a central power-house foursome.

We should reiterate that whilst you can identify the attributes of each individual seat, a crew should also be built up on the basis of complementary pairings. There are many examples where you may have a stroke who can be an excellent stroke with a particular athlete hehind him/her in the #5 seat, or conversely an average or mediocre stroke with other rowers in the #5 seat!


In the first 3 Articles we have taken an in depth look at the specifications of oars primarily in order to help clubs to provide oar manufacturers with all the information they need to be able to make a good set of oars appropriate to their needs.  We have also tried to provide the rationale behind any advice given.

In Article #4 we have looked more closely at the rationale for the different oar and blade dimensions required for each seat in the boat, and at trends in specifications for different types of rowers.

Finally we have diverted slightly, and looked at the different physical and technical requirements of athletes for rowing in the six different positions in the boat.  This has inevitably included some references to rowing technique, some of which has been controversial, but if gig rowing as a sport is to progress, then there always needs to be experimentation and innovation, so we hope it may have helped us all to ‘think out of the box’ or at least has provided  some mild food for thought.
Sometime in the future we will provide another series of articles on fixed seat rowing technique, in which we will analyse the various parts of the stroke, look at individual and crew technique, and suggest both coaching techniques and technical exercises which will help to improve specific aspects of technique.
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2 Comments on "Oars, part 5. Matching the oar, seat, and the athlete."

  1. debbie tennant

    Great article,have just started coxing. Very interested in coaching techniques and good practise whilst coxing. Please keep me up to speed with new info. Thanks

  2. Matt Petherbridge

    Interesting comment re the 3 / 4 seat needing long arms and body trunk, to take advantage of the extra degrees of stroke possible in these positions ?
    I think this statement is a little misleading as, although it’s true that a greater length of arc is available in these positions, long arms or not, it’s not possible to take advantage of this in the normal course of events.
    In stating this you are actually suggesting that different parts of the boat move at different speeds, which is clearly absurd.
    All positions contribute to the overall boat speed, and so it’s not possible for mid-ships rowers to pull the stroke more quickly, no matter how strong they might be.
    The Gig’s forward progress is a result of length of stroke, combined with rate, which gives you a pretty good definition of a crew’s power.
    Given that in a matched set of oars the mid-ships pair are longer than the rest, for a given arc of stroke the blades will describe a greater distance the longer they are. Obviously I realise that the blades don’t actually travel through the water to any great degree, I use this image only to simplify the description.
    For the greater part of my competitive gig rowing ‘career’ I rowed at three, and yes I do have longer arms and trunk than normal, but nonetheless that didn’t enable me to utilise the extra ‘reach’ of a three oar.
    Interestingly, when I first started rowing it was common to hear coxes calling for bow pair and stroke pair to pause very slightly at the end of their stroke “to give mid-ships time to finish”, and realistically this is the only way the extra stroke length can be used.
    I haven’t heard this command from any Cox for a good many years, and correspondingly I find myself having to cut my stroke short in order to stay in time with the other rowers.
    Long arms and a longer oar do mean I have extra reach, but unless the shorter oars pause, I cannot pull a longer stroke and have to cut my finish shorter than I otherwise would.
    It would be interesting to know if there is any advantage to overall boat speed in a pause to let mid-ships finish, or whether that slight delay in four rowers not rowing outweighs the extra power input gained by allowing three and four to finish their stroke.
    I have no clear idea how one might measure this?

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