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Hello rowers, readers, and rowing sports enthusiasts! I’m Rachael Taylor, a professional rower and silver medallist in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Since retiring from my Olympic flatwater rowing career, I have lived by the ocean and been fascinated by the various sports taking place in and around the beach.
The ocean sport that really caught my attention was the iconic Aussie sport of surf boat rowing. Having been an elite level rower, I thought, “How hard can this be?!” I quickly got involved in this sport and fell in love with it!
I went on to spend the next 15 years racing surf boats at beaches all around Australia, in New Zealand, and even Italy to race and win a world surfboat championship medal at the International World Lifesaving Championships.
What Is Surfboat Rowing?
Surf boat rowing is an intense sport, best suited to adrenaline junkies, fitness fanatics, and thrill seekers! It requires a team of four very strong rowers to navigate a heavy surf boat through large waves and surf, race around a buoy, and then return by catching waves back to the shore.
Conditions on the ocean are ever-changing, and the level of competency with surf-skills plays the most critical role in determining whether a crew has success or not.
Surf Boats as Lifesavers
Many surf lifesaving clubs use surf boat racing to train their members in the skills needed to become a lifesaver. In fact, the Bronze Medallion, which is the basic qualification for becoming a surf lifesaver, is an essential qualification to row and race surf boats in Australia. This means that all of the competitors in surf boat racing are also trained and current qualified lifesavers.
Surf boat rowing has a rich history in Australia, dating back to the early 1900s. The sport evolved as part of the Surf Life Saving movement over the years, with changes in the design of the boats and the technology in equipment used.
Today, surf boat rowing is a highly competitive sport, with teams from all over Australia and New Zealand participating in various competitions and events.
What sets surf boat rowing apart from other ocean water sports is the extreme nature of the sport when raced in big surf or severe waves, combined with the intense team aspect of the sport.
Each rower has a specific role to play, and the success of a team depends on how well the crew members work together to navigate the ocean conditions and the swell.
Same as in regular rowing but in a much intense level, this sport requires strength, endurance, courage, and skill, making it a challenging and rewarding activity for all who participate in it.
History of Surf Boat Rowing in Australia
The first surfboat race was held at Manly Beach in 1908, and from there, the sport began to grow in popularity. In the early days, surf boats were used primarily for surf lifesaving or rescue missions.
Teams of rowers work together to navigate the treacherous surf and use the boats to row out and rescue swimmers and save lives. This was a dangerous and physically demanding job, but the brave men and women who took it on were determined to make a difference.
Where I live in Western Australia, one of the world’s most prolific hotspot for great white sharks, there is a history back in the day of surfboats rowing out to sea when a shark was spotted near the beach. The bowman in the surfboat would be armed with a harpoon!
The surfboat rowers performed the work that a surf lifesaving jet ski crew would perform today in driving sharks from the beach area and out to sea away from swimmers.
Over time, as surf boat crews trained to stay fit for surf rescues, surf boat rowing began to evolve into a competitive sport, with races being held among different Australian surf lifesaving clubs.
The boats themselves also underwent significant changes, with new designs and materials being introduced to improve speed and performance.
Surf Lifesaving Clubs
Surf lifesaving clubs have played a crucial role in the development and growth of surf boat rowing in Australia. These surf clubs were established in the early 1900s to protect beachgoers from the dangers of the surf, and they quickly became an integral part of Australian beach culture.
Today, there are over 300 surf lifesaving clubs across Australia, and most of them have their own surf boat rowing teams.
Surf boats are no longer used in surf rescue, as jet skis and inflatable rescue boats have now superseded their requirements. That said, all surfboats today are still required to always carry surf rescue equipment, and throughout my own surfboat rowing career, I was involved in one genuine rescue situation.
My surfboat crew and I were training at Kurruwa Beach on the Gold Coast in Queensland, a notorious stretch of open beach with dangerous swell, rips, and currents. As we were training, one of my crewmates recognised that a swimmer was being sucked out in a rip. We quickly navigated our surfboat in the direction of the swimmer.
The most experienced swimmer in our crew, who happened to also be a professional lifeguard, dived in to rescue the swimmer, using a rescue tube to safely assist the swimmer back into safer waters. That day the swimmer we rescued was very grateful for our surfboat crew coming to her aid.
In Australia, surf boat teams in today’s surf clubs are all required to be active patrolling lifesavers, who also enjoy fierce competition in local, state, and national surfboat competitions, and the sport continues to be a beloved part of Australian beach culture.
Surf Boat Rowing as a Sport
As an ex-professional flatwater rower and then an avid career surfboat rower, I can attest to the fact that this sport is one of the most exhilarating and adrenaline-fueled activities out there.
In Australia, surf boat rowing has a rich history and has become an iconic sport that attracts both men and women of all ages. In this section, I will discuss the different aspects of surf boat rowing from competition to boat crews and sweeps.
Surfboat Rowing Competitions
Surf boat rowing is a highly competitive sport, with various competitions held throughout the year. The most prestigious event is The Aussies, which is the Australian Surf Life Saving Championships.
The Aussies is the pinnacle of surf boat rowing competition, and winning a medal at this event is the ultimate achievement for any surf boat rower. I am proud to have been a medallist in the Open Women’s Surfboat multiple times over the years – a feat that always feels remarkable given the unpredictable nature of the surf conditions.
Not only that. The ‘luck of the drawer’ comes into play when some crews are in a lane where there happens to be great waves to catch, while other lanes get almost flat surf with no assistance at all when they need it most! It can be an unfair and cruel sport!
That’s why it’s so magical when you do win the big ones. It feels like a miracle has taken place, and the seas were on your side that day!
What Are the Positions in Surf Boat Rowing?
A surf boat crew consists of four rowers and a sweep.
The rowers sit facing the sweep, who surveys the conditions ahead and calls all the shots.
The fundamental rowing technique is almost identical to my competitive flatwater rowing experiences, with the use of power through the legs and the arms and back for finesse.
The tricky part is executing this technique in strong winds, large seas, crashing waves, and shifting currents and banks. The boat crew must work together in perfect harmony to ensure that the boat moves as quickly and efficiently as possible through the water.
The sweep is the person at the stern and the one responsible for steering the boat, the strategy of the race, and the overall safety of the crew. The sweep must have excellent ocean navigational skills and be able to read the waves to ensure that the boat is always in the right position.
It is the role of the sweep to set the rowers’ pace and communicate effectively with the crew to ensure that they are all working together. A surfboat sweep cannot really be compared to a rowing coxswain, it is an entirely different gig!
It’s true that both the cox and surfboat sweep are in control of steering their boat and calling the race plan and strategy to their rowing crew. However, a surf boat sweep is also responsible for navigating huge seas and ensuring that the crew is in position to catch huge waves (as safely as possible – which is often not the case).
Surf Boat Rowing Techniques
Mastering the right techniques is crucial for success in this sport. Rowing on the ocean is VERY different to rowing on a river or a lake. It’s like chalk and cheese! Here are some of the most important techniques to focus on:
Rowing in the Ocean
Rowing in the ocean requires an exceptionally different technique than rowing on flat water. It’s important to keep the boat as stable as possible while rowing through what can often be large (and sometimes scary) waves.
This means keeping a low centre of gravity, holding the oars close to the water, and rowing with a smooth, steady rhythm. It’s also important to be aware of the direction of the waves, the wind, and the swell, and to adjust your rowing stroke accordingly.
Surfboat rowers need to be very adaptable and skilful, especially on the way back to shore, where crews are vying to spot the best swells and catch the largest wave back to the beach in the hope of winning the race!
The sport of surf boat racing is famous for some of the spectacular thrills and spills it provides to spectators! Crews often crash their boats into one another at the height of their racing frenzy as they grapple with catching huge waves, at the mercy of mother nature.
Watching surfboats racing out through an enormous shore break, tightly turning the buoy, and then all racing back to catch the most massive wave they can on the way back to shore can be a truly thrilling thing to witness when there is big swell.
A surfboat race is rowed out to sea for around 400 metres, turning a buoy and then racing the 400 metres back to shore. Turning buoys is a crucial part of surf boat rowing.
To turn a buoy successfully, it’s important to approach it at the right angle and to time your turn correctly. As you approach the buoy, the sweep rower should start to turn the boat, while the other rowers continue to row.
Once the boat has turned, the rowers should resume rowing as quickly as possible to maintain momentum. This sounds simple when written on a page, but add some strong crosswinds and a 6-foot swell, and it can be hairy trying to turn your boat as quickly as possible. It’s certainly never dull!
Key Takeaways on Surf Boat Rowing
Overall, surf boat racing is a highly competitive sport that requires a lot of skill and training.
Anyone who has rowed before (in a flatwater boat) will have an advantage insofar as their rowing-specific physical fitness and the fundamentals of rowing technique. However, the new skillset requires a lot of new things to learn, including:
- Rowing in varying ocean conditions
- Catching enormous waves
- Navigating a rowing boat out through breaking waves, rips, currents and white water
- Becoming a qualified surf lifesaver with a bronze medallion
Yes, it’s quite a bit to take on but 100% worth it if you love a challenge, a bit of adrenaline, and a great team sport! There is a category for you to compete in whether you are male or female, young or old.
With the help of expert sweeps, all of whom double as fantastic coaches, surf boat rowing has become one of the most exciting and elite sports in Australia. You really should consider giving it a go!
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Written by Rachael Taylor – RowingCrazy.com
Olympic Silver Medalist Women’s Coxless Pair – 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, Rowing World Championships Bronze Medalist (1999) & Silver Medalist (2002) In The Women’s Eight
Rachael is a mother of two, former Australian Olympic Rower with a successful international rowing career. She won medals at the Rowing World Championships and a silver medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics in the women’s coxless pair. She now enjoys sharing her knowledge with the rowing community