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Hi everyone! If you’re new to rowing, or if you attended your first regatta (race) recently, you might be confused by the words sweep, sweep rowing, and sculling.
Most of these terms have a long history behind them. Rowing is probably one of the oldest sports ever (foot racing might be older, but rowing is surely second), so it’s not surprising that some of the terminology is confusing.
Perhaps you aren’t even aware that there ARE two types of rowing!
Not to worry. My name is Petra, and I’ve been rowing for decades (giving away my age here). In this article, I’m going to explain these two terms so you will have a better understanding of what rowing (sweep rowing especially) is all about.
What Is Sweep in Rowing Terms?
If you’ve watched any rowing races, regattas or the Olympics, chances are that you’ve seen sweep rowing but didn’t know it.
Sweep rowing involves an even number of rowers in a boat (called a shell) where each rower holds one oar in both hands.
You need an even number of rowers, otherwise, the boat will have more power on one side and will turn in circles.
If you’ve ever used a paddle in a canoe or a kayak and you had to switch from side to side as you paddle, you’ll understand why you need an even number of people.
Rowers sit on opposite sides of the boat and unlike most other sports, they don’t get to see the direction that they are going.
What Is Sculling then?
Sculling is the other type of rowing that you will see. Sculling boats can have one or more people in a boat, with each rower holding two oars (one in each hand).
Sculling can involve just a single person since they are holding two oars, something that cannot happen in sweep rowing. You will never see a single sweep rower in a boat, but single scullers abound!
Most sculling boats have a maximum of four crew members. While you can have a sculling boat with eight crew members, that is often only for beginners.
On the other hand, sweep rowing is well known for having big boats designed for 8 crew members, called Eights. It’s the fastest rowing boat on the water, and it’s really exciting to watch!
If you want to learn more rowing terminology, you can find it here.
Is Sweep Rowing Easier than Sculling?
I suppose that would depend on whom you ask, but I will share my experience with you.
I’ve seen plenty of scullers who had no problem transitioning to sweep rowing, but if you start off sweep rowing, you’ll find sculling more difficult.
Sculling involves more balance than sweep rowing. That doesn’t mean sweep rowers don’t have to learn balance, but sculling boats are narrower and lighter than most sweep rowing boats.
My advice is to try both. Chances are that you will quickly discover which type of rowing you prefer.
Why Is It Called Sweep or Scull?
While I’m not sure how these terms came to be, I would imagine that it appeared to early rowers that the crew were “sweeping” the top of the water.
Sculling is an old term where men were encouraged to drink an ale (or some other liquor) in one “scull” or a single gulp. Today we call that “chug a lug”, but back a few hundred years ago, it was called sculling or scull.
In rowing, scullers or sculling boats look like the crew is making one long “scull” every time they pull the oar.
You might think that there are other comparisons that are more appropriate, but that’s what we are stuck with today.
Is Sweep Faster Than Sculling?
Actually, in every area except the Eight, sculling beats sweeping.
The exception here is the Eight. Eight rowers sweep-rowing will beat any other human-propelled rowing boat on the water.
This is why sweep boats and sculls race against similar boats and not against one another.
Of course, there are exceptions. If a very experienced sweep crew went up against an inexperienced or much older sculling boat, the sweep could win.
Generally speaking, sculling is faster than any sweep boat.
Is Sweep Rowing or Sculling Better?
There’s really no “better” option here. Both are different but equal.
If you love to be out on the water by yourself, you’ll want to scull since you can’t sweep by yourself.
However, if you love the camaraderie, if you love being part of a team, you might find yourself better suited for sweep rowing.
If you want to own your boat, you’ll find sculling boats less expensive than sweep rowing.
It’s really just a matter of preference. Sculling is harder to learn because before you can even think about rowing, you’ve got to learn balance! Sweep rowing is much more common in competitive racing events.
Pick your favorite, and go with it!
Which Is the Hardest Boat to Row in?
Hands down this would be a coxless pair (sweep rowing). A cox or coxswain is like an onboard coach who also steers the boat and determines the strategy of the race. A coxswain isn’t mandatory, however.
A coxless pair means that you have two sweep rowers, each one holding only one oar. This not only requires balance but also teamwork and coordination. These two people need to work as one. Timing, communication, and steering have to be equal tasks shared by the two.
When a coxless pair works well together, they are a joy to watch. When they don’t work so well together, it’s a nightmare that frequently results in crabbing.
The Bottom Line
It’s easy to find out if a rower is doing sweep rowing or sculling- look at the number of oars they are holding!
If they are holding only one oar in both hands, it’s sweeping. If they have two oars, one in each hand, they are sculling!
For those of you who may just be starting out, I do suggest that you try both sweep rowing and sculling so that you can find your true calling.
Stay fit and have fun rowing, everyone!
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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.