What Are The Rules And Regulations Of Rowing Races?

Rowing, sometimes referred to as “crew,” is the sport of competitively rowing a long, narrow boat through a body of water with two paddles which are referred to as “oars.” Rowing is set up in the style of a race; the first boat to the finish line wins. The “rowing crew” refers to the team manning the boat. The size of the rowing crew depends on the race and can be anywhere between one, two, three, four, five, or nine athletes in one boat. Typically, men and women compete separately in rowing.

The sport requires high endurance and the ability to stay in-sync with fellow athletes. The length of the race is typically about 2000 meters (approximately 1.24 miles) and typically takes professional athletes between 5 to 8 minutes to complete. Throughout the race, teams typically compete in “heats” based upon average speeds. The three fastest boats win gold, silver, or bronze.


Boats: The boats used in rowing are sometimes referred to as “racing shells.” The boats are long and narrow in order to stay aerodynamic. The size varies greatly upon the number of athletes on the rowing crew. The boats can range from 27 feet for a single athlete to 62 feet for a rowing crew of nine.

Oars: Oars are long, typically wooden or plastic, paddles used by the athletes to propel the ship.


As mentioned previously, there are rowing crews of various different sizes, and with the different sizes come different positions.

Coxswain - The coxswain is one athlete that sits either at the bow (front) or the stern (back) of the boat. Typically, the coxswain faces the opposite direction of the other athletes and is in charge of steering and navigating. Additionally, the coxswain usually coaches the other athletes to stay in-sync by shouting commands.

In scull racing, there is no coxswain present, and the athletes must steer the ship with their oars as they row.

In coxless racing, there is no coxswain present, and the athletes use a rubber cable to help steer the boat.

Athletes who only use one oar are sweep rowers and typically use both hands on one oar. Athletes who use one oar per hand are scullers.

The Referee

The referee indicates the start of a race by waving a red flag or shining green light, after this the race begins and is seen out until completion unless there is a false start by a crew. A false start can be called by the referee in the event that the front of a crew’s boat crosses the starting line before the red flag is waved or the green light is shone. In this case, the referee can call a false start and issue a warning to the guilty crew.  If a crew is warned twice for a false start they may be disqualified.

Rules of Rowing

  • Lane Changes
  • False Starts

In rowing, the exact rules usually depend upon where the race is occurring. Most countries that partake in rowing have their own specific rules that all competitors must follow if within the county’s governance. For example, the United States’s official rowing rules were created and are enforced by USRowing so long as the race occurs within the United States.

If the race is occurring in international waters, the rules are set forth by the International Rowing Federation. However, most countries’ rules for rowing are usually quite similar. The two most pertinent rules concern changing lanes and having a false start.

Lane Changes

In Olympic-style rowing competitions, there are six lanes in a race with one boat per lane. If a boat so desires, the rules permit that they can change lanes so long as they do not obstruct other boats while doing so. An example of breaking this rule would be if Boat A changed lanes directly in front of Boat B and caused Boat B to capsize. This would be grounds for Boat A to be disqualified.

False Starts

Rowing races usually begin at the sound of a blank being fired from a gun. If a team begins before the blank is fired, this is considered a “false start.” In most rowing competitions, a boat is allowed one false start without penalization. If the same boat has two false starts, they will be disqualified from the race.