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“We Don’t Just Talk About Rowing
We Actually Row!”

“We Don’t Just Talk About Rowing – We Actually Row!”

Crew Shell Classes 101: What to Know about Single, Double & Quad Shells

Crew Shell Classes 101: What to Know about Single, Double & Quad Shells

Hi friends! Are you new to rowing? I’m betting you are or you wouldn’t be reading this!

Whether you are thinking of buying your own shell and have no idea what a shell is, or you’re just looking for general information, you’ve come to the right place.

I have decades of experience in this subject, and I want to help newbies feel more grounded in their new sport.

If you feel like everyone is speaking another language when you go to the club boathouse, don’t fret. Every sport has its own lingo, and rowing is no different.

Grab a cup of tea (or coffee) and let’s have a discussion about shells, rowing, and what the heck sweep rowing is.

What Is a Rowing Shell?

rowing boats docked on the grass

A rowing shell, frequently called a racing shell or just a plain old shell, is what rowers call the boat that they sit in.

Rowing shells are very lightweight and narrow but usually quite long. Oars are attached to the boat using oarlocks  to keep them in place and prevent them from falling into the water or sliding.

Rowing shells are designed for racing. These boats were developed for speed, evolving from their ancestors—like the canoes or other transport boats.

Rowing shells can be used for either sweep rowing or sculling.

What Is the Difference Between Sweep Rowing and Sculling?

You may have thought that there was only one type of rowing, but there are actually two variations.

Sweep rowing is probably what you’ve seen at the Olympics or on television. This is where one person holds one oar with both hands. To keep the boat running in a straight line, each side needs one rower. That’s why you will never see a single sweep rower.

sculling and sweep rowing

On the other hand, sculling is where each person in the boat holds two oars, one in each hand. With an even number of oars on both sides of the boat, the scull can now go in a straight line, and for this reason, you can have a single scull.

If you attend a regatta (a boat racing event) you usually hear about scullers, but rarely will you hear the word “sweep” rowing. If the race doesn’t involve sculling, you will usually just hear it announced as rowing.

What Are Rowing Shells Made From?

Originally made from different types of wood, nearly all rowing shells today are made from composite materials.

Believe it or not, the first composite shells were made from paper mache in the 1870s. I don’t know how they didn’t get wet and sink, but I imagine that a boat builder coated them with tar or wax.

Later, manufacturers tried using a honeycomb-shaped cardboard surrounded by very thin plywood, later adding a thin fiberglass outer hull.

Today, nearly all racing shells are made from carbon fiber-reinforced plastic which has a honeycomb structure covered by a thin sheet of reinforced plastic for the composite hull.

The more rigid the shell, the better the shell is since less movement—such as twisting or flexing—means more energy is going towards moving the boat.

What Types of Crew Shells Are There?

rowing class and symbols

Rowing shells have many classifications. As I mentioned earlier, boat classification will depend on how many people are in the boat and whether you are sweep rowing or sculling.

First, let’s talk about sculling, where one person has two oars, one in each hand.

Boat classifications for this include:

  • Single Sculls (or 1X) meaning just one person in the boat
  • Double Sculls (or 2X) meaning two people are in the boat
  • Quadruple Sculls or Quad (or 4X) meaning four people are in the boat

There are different qualifications for weight and age, but let’s focus on these numbers for now.

When it comes to sweep rowing, you have more boat classifications, including:

  • Pair (or 2-) meaning two people in the boat
  • Four without a coxswain (Coxless Four or 4-) meaning four people are in the boat but there is no coxswain (more on this person later)
  • Four with a coxswain (Coxed Four or 4+) meaning four people are in the boat and there is a coxswain on board
  • Eights (or 8+) meaning 8 people are in the boat and there is a coxswain. You won’t see an eight without a coxswain in a race. (Learn more on Eight Man Rowing Shell here)

In a written program, you can tell what type of race it will be simply by seeing the numbers (4+ or 2X, for example)

What Is a Coxswain

a coxswain facing the rowers and shouting encouragement or instructions

This person (and it can be male or female) is the person you see in the boat who isn’t rowing! They try to keep their head down, but they may be shouting encouragement or directions to the other rowers.

The coxswain is very important, and while they may not be actively rowing, they are steering the shell so it doesn’t hit other boats or run into anything, such as a buoy.

Which Shell Is the Fastest?

There is a definite pecking order to boats when it comes to speed, and it goes like this (from fastest to slowest):

Crew Shell (from Fastest to Slowest)
4X 4- 4+ 2X 2- 1X 2+

Crew Shell (from Fastest to Slowest)


This isn’t to say that a 2+ is slow like walking, but it’s the slowest of all the row boat speeds.

Nothing is faster than an 8 plus, and it’s really exciting to watch the crew work.

How Long Are Racing Shells?

Again, this will depend on whether you will have 8 rowers or only one.

Training of professional men rowers from the Olympic Team

Racing shells vary in size, as does the equipment, but generally speaking, racing shell measurements come in three sizes:

  1. 20-feet in length
  2. 24-feet in length
  3. 26-28 feet in length

Contrary to what you might think, the longer the boat, the more narrow it is. You’ll see some boats that are only 23 inches wide!

This makes stability super important!

Sometimes it seems as if rowing shells would rather be floating upside down. Once you sit in one, you will understand what I mean!

How Much Do Crew Shells Cost?

Prices vary considerably. This is like asking how much does a car cost? Used is cheaper than new, something that needs repairs is cheaper still. Brand names also matter. A Mercedes will cost more than a Chevrolet, right?

In general, you will pay between $5,000 and $15,000 for a shell. Don’t forget that this price range rarely includes extras such as boat racks or towing equipment, slings, foot stretchers, and bow balls. In the case of used boats, don’t be surprised if some don’t come with oars!

crew shells docked by the beach

Used might save you some money upfront, but if you don’t like the seats, the rails need repair, or you don’t like the riggers, you’ll need to replace them.

Consider all the costs before buying, and it’s a good idea to take someone experienced when you’re checking out shells to buy.

My best piece of advice is to rent boats or borrow boats until you have enough experience to know what you want and what a “good” boat is.

What Are the Different Rigger Designs?

Basically, there are two rigger designs.

  1. Side-Mount Riggers. These are very traditional and are attached to the side of the hull. You can actually see the bolts attaching the riggers. If you see that the oars look like they are coming out of the side of the hull, then you know the boat has side-mount riggers.
  2. Wing Riggers. These riggers sit on the top of the boat. While you think they might be called top riggers, they got their name because they look something like airplane wings or even bird wings. You can’t miss wing riggers since they are right on top of the shell!

Wing riggers have the advantage of causing a minimal amount of splash in rougher water since they are higher off the water’s surface.

However, side-mount riggers don’t interfere with hand height. I’ve known many people who scraped their knuckles hitting a wing.

Which type of rigger you like is really a matter of preference, which is why I recommend renting or borrowing different types of rowing shells before buying so you’ll know what you want.

What Are the Different Types of Internal Structures?

There are two basic internal structures when referring to rowing shells—ribbed and monocoque.

Think of these two types of structures the way you would a plastic bowl. Some bowls are quite rigid. You wouldn’t think twice about filling it with fruit, even heavy fruit. However, this means that the bowl weighs more, correct?

Thinner types of plastic bowls will make you think twice about loading them down with something like apples, but they are super lightweight, which makes them good for other uses.

A rowing shell is the same way.

A ribbed structure will remind you of the typical row boats you see in the movies. There are “ribs” that go from one side to the other side for stability.

A monocoque design (sometimes called a ribless rowing shell) is something like that very thin plastic bowl. Imagine if you took the lid from that bowl and were able to cut it down so it would fit two-thirds of the way inside the bowl and then you glued it in place. This would make the bowl more sturdy, but you wouldn’t be able to access the bottom third of the bowl.

a single sculler rowing on a lake

Slnava Piestany Rowing Club – Training

Monocoque design has a layer going from stern to bow with small areas cut out for the foot stretchers. This gives you the stability you need without the weight of the ribs.

Both have advantages and drawbacks. Ask any rower and they will tell you their preference. Every rowing shell is a bit different, so experiment or go for rides in all types of rowing shells and see which one feels better to you.

What Are the Different Types of Seats in a Shell?

It’s rare to find a rowing shell that doesn’t use a moving seat that sits on a track.

You might find different seat designs (some are plastic, most are wood, some have a tailbone cut out, etc.), but again, these are really a matter of preference.

close-up image of a crewing boat with shoes in

The seats and tracks are all very common and easily replaced if you should want to change them, or if the track should get damaged.

Rowing equipment hasn’t changed that much over the years, and most of it can be replaced if you must.

The Bottom Line

I hope you have found this article informative. Now that you’ve read it, hopefully you don’t feel quite as lost when it comes to rowing terminology.

While rowing itself has changed very little in the past 100 years, rowing shells have become narrower and lighter than at any time in history.

If you still have questions, you might find this article helpful, or you might want to take a few minutes and check out famous Olympic rowing champions from the history books. It’s always good to have someone to look up to and aspire to be like, right?

Stay active and healthy friends, and happy rowing!