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

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

Rowing Race Distances and Times: A Secret History & Surprising Past Uncovered

rowing race distances and times

Hi friends! My name is Petra, and today, I want to talk a bit about the history of rowing races, where the standard distance came from, time trials, and more.

If you’re new to rowing, you will probably find this little history lesson interesting. Even if you’re not new to rowing, you should find this information helpful.

Ready to race? Let’s get started!

How Long Is a Rowing Race?

In rowing races, we judge rowers by two standards—their split time, which is the amount of time it takes them to row 500 meters, and the standard distance of a race, which is 2000 meters.

Action shot of men's Coxed Eight team in a rowing competition

In rowing, we call races regattas or head races. If you would like to read more about other rowing terminology, you will find a comprehensive guide to rowing basics and terminology here.

There are longer races, called head racing, and you might find shorter race distances in local races, but for the majority of regattas, world rowing championships, and even Olympic games, the race distance is 2000 meters.

Perhaps the only worldwide rowing championships offering a 1,000-meter race in addition to the standard 2000 meters would be adaptive rowing events. Read more about adaptive or para rowing here.

Where Did the 2,000 Meter Standard Come From?

A short history lesson will explain where this number originated.

Back in the day, racing was performed on rivers, which were not always the same. Sometimes heavy rains made the rivers much wider, deeper, not to mention faster. Riverbanks changed over time, and as people built bridges and walls to contain or alter the course of a river, it ended up with rowers racing in some fairly tight quarters!

old photo of Eton Beating Westminster in rowing 1836

Eton Beating Westminster, Staines Bridge, May 12th, 1836 by Unknown Author

Even the length of a race would change if the venue was changed. For example, in the Cambridge Vs Oxford rowing event, the river changed several times over the years. Starting off at 2.25 miles (about 3,630 meters) to a whopping 5.75 miles to today’s standard of 4.2 miles (6,800 meters).

With different countries having different types of racing distances, and as international competitions became more common, it was decided that a standard means of race distance should be established.

History of Rowing Races & Rowing Events

In 1883, the European Rowing Races established a set number for scullers at 2,000 meters and sweep rowing at 3,000 meters.

It appears that no one was happy with that, so in 1892, FISA was created. FISA is the French acronym for “Fédération Internationale des Sociétés d’Aviron”, or in English, it would be the International Federation of Rowing Associations. This is the governing body for the sport of rowing, much like FIFA controls the world of soccer.

an ancient illustration showing rowing boats

In 1894, FISA set the standard for the 2,000-meter race for all participants except for the head races.

Some people didn’t like being told how long a race distance should be, and different countries and regattas tried to set different standards, but in the end, the 2,000-meter race won.

Did the Olympic Games Have Different Standards?

The Olympic Games also had a few issues with the typical rowing length standard.

Different countries meant that not only did the locale change but the race distance as well.

1912 semi-finals Eight rowing competition Summer Olympics - British Leander Club winning over Australasia Sydney Rowing Club

The British Eights of the Leander Club (on the left) beating the Sydney Rowing Club of Australasia in the semi-finals at the 1912 Summer Olympics by Unknown author

It appears that even the Olympics got fed up with the changing race lengths, and in 1912, the Olympics adopted the FISA regulation of 2,000 meters.

You might find some local events with longer or shorter distances, juniors races, or another rowing event, but for the most part, you will find that 2,000 meters are the general standard, whether you are racing single sculls or eight rowers in a shell.

What about Erg Racing?

indoor rowing competition for ladies

For those of you who are new, you might be surprised to find that there are world rowing championships for indoor rowing machines, frequently called ergs.

Even here, you’ll find that the rowing events for the erg meet the same 2,000-meter standard.

It wasn’t always that way. The very first erg championship was held in the early 1980s. It was a grueling 5 miles -more than 8,000 meters! I can’t even imagine racing that long!

Later, it was changed to 2,500 meters, which is much more reasonable. Somewhere in the 1990s, the standard of measurement changed to the 2,000 meters that nearly everyone else in the world uses.

Erg racing is also fun, and with today’s technology, you can usually watch it online.

Are There Other Races besides Regattas and Head Races?

kinds of rowing race

Oh yes! You can find all kinds of races, depending on what suits you!

  • Multi-Lane race – This is the one you typically see at the Olympics or most regattas. It’s usually 6 lanes and the standard 2,000 meters long.
  • Side by Side – As the name implies, this will be one team against another side by side on the river. You might find this type of race held between two rowing clubs, so the race can be longer distances or shorter, depending on what the contestants agree on.
  • Surf Regattas – These races are done in the ocean, which makes the rowing that much more of a challenge. The crew often pushes the boat from the shore, past the waves, out to sea. They row to a buoy and back to shore. This race is often 1,000 meters.
  • Beach Sprint Race – This is fairly new and is designed to help include those who live in places with oceans but no lakes or rivers. In this race, the rowing crew must run from the beach and swim out to their boats, row to a buoy and back, then swim and run back to the starting point on the beach.
  • Coastal Regattas – Back to the ocean! This race is done near the coastline with longer distances, usually 1.5-2 miles in length.
  • Offshore or Fixed Seat – This is also a very long race, often going 6 kilometers. The crew starts from the beach and must go around a series of buoys before returning to start.

There really is something for everyone, no matter what type of water you like or have available to you.

The Bottom Line

Don’t forget that most clubs and cities will put on fun rowing events in the summer that are much more casual and family-friendly.

Even if you don’t decide to race, you can always watch and cheer on your favorite team.

I hope you found today’s article helpful and interesting.

Live healthy, everyone, and enjoy rowing!