Hi everyone! Rowers row backwards, so how can they possibly see where they’re going?
A coxswain onboard is one way to make sure that the boat is heading in the right direction. For uncoxed boats, rowers use other methods to keep their boat on course, e.g., using markers, mirrors, and even buoys.
I remember watching regattas when I was very small and thinking that rowers must have eyes in the back of their heads. Yes, I really thought that! I suppose I was so young that I couldn’t think of another explanation for how they stayed in a straight line and didn’t crash into the shore or one another.
If you’re reading this, you are old enough to realize that rowers don’t have eyes in the back of their heads. Still, you might wonder how the heck they can see where they are going?!
My name is Petra, and today, I’m going to answer that question.
How Do Rowers See Where They Are Going?
When a rowboat has a coxswain, it’s fairly obvious that the coxswain can see where the boat is going since they are sitting at the stern and can see all around them.
The question of how the rowers know where they are going when there is no coxswain is the perplexing one, right?
There are several ways that most rowers use to keep their boats on the straight and narrow.
First, you should know how the boat is steered.
There is a small rudder attached underneath the boat. One of the seats on the stern has thin wires attached to the foot pedal. This person is responsible for moving the foot pedal, which then moves the rudder, so the boat stays on course.
Now let me tell you about the tricks of the trade.
The first one is fairly simple but takes a lot of practice. The person who is in control of the rudder finds some type of marker at their takeoff position. Whether they note a notch on the dock or a tree on the shore, they mentally focus on that point and keep the boat aligned with that mark.
Most courses also have buoys at certain intervals that can help you keep the boat on coarse.
This sounds very basic, but it is much harder to do in practice when you consider that you need to focus on the point, adjust the rudder as needed, and still row your best!
This is probably what led to the next method.
If you look carefully at the crew, you may notice a tiny mirror attached to their hat or the sweatband on their head.
It takes practice to learn how to use the mirror, but very much like the outside mirrors on your car, you can use this tiny device to “back up” your row boat.
Last, and probably one of the original methods, involves simply turning your head to look.
The problem with this method is that unless you’ve got a lot of practice, it’s quite distracting. You turn your head, you adjust the pedal, but you’ve lost your rowing rhythm or you keep turning your head to make sure that you did the proper amount of adjusting.
I favor the mirror method myself but I’ve known lots of Master rowers at rowing clubs who use a combination of focusing on a point ahead of them and turning their heads just once to ensure that they are on course.
Why Do We Row Backward?
The answer to this question all starts in England.
While you’ve probably seen plenty of people use an oar to paddle their boats or kayaks, rowing was started by English college students hundreds of years ago.
Someone probably realized that they could get more power out of rowing if they could pull backward and use the strength of their legs as opposed to relying strictly on their arms and torso when rowing forward.
As time went on, improvements to the boats were made, such as sliding seats and larger, longer oars.
If you’ve seen professional rowers using the backward technique, then chances are when you join a rowing club or get in a boat with other rowers, you will also row backward because monkey see monkey do, right?
However, in some parts of the world, such as the famous gondolas in Venice, rowing forward is the thing. I’ve even seen some boats modified so that you can still use the same sliding seat and get the power from your legs, but the boat moves forward.
It’s a strange apparatus that changes the oars, but if you ever get a chance to see one of these, you’ll never forget it. It’s quite fascinating.
If sightseeing is more your thing, you’ll enjoy paddling a canoe or kayak, but for the sport of racing other boats, we are still navigating backward.
When Were Sliding Seats Commonly Used?
The seats in row boats are quite an interesting bit of history.
Sometime around the mid-1800s, the sliding seat became a common part of row boats.
This little invention allowed people to sit comfortably and push back with their legs taking full advantage of the power of the largest muscles in the human body.
However, it isn’t the most efficient way to use that power.
The sliding seat involves strapping your feet to the floor or to your shoes and then pushing back with your legs.
A more efficient way to accomplish this is to sit in a fixed seat and use sliding riggers.
Yes! Sliding riggers! Think about it! Rowers can sit still, so to speak, and push against the sliding riggers and oars using their feet.
This is called the FrontRower system, which was actually used at the World Championship games in the early 1980s.
However, by the end of 1983, the FrontRower system was deemed ineligible for competition and that it violated the rules of rowing.
Thus, everyone returned to sliding seats.
The Bottom Line
There it is. The simple, uncomplicated answer to the question of how the heck do rowers see where they are going.
I hope that you found this article informative, and that you can sleep better tonight knowing that rowers do not have eyes in the back of their heads!
Live healthy and row happy!
Written by Petra Amara – RowingCrazy.com
CEO & Founder of RowingCrazy, National Rower, Coxswain Womens Eight Team, Rowing Coach & Writer
Petra is a Mother of two and owner of Rowingcrazy.com. Petra lives and breathes rowing, she also has a passion for writing which lead her to start RowingCrazy.com to share her rowing experience and expertise with others.