There's little room for personality in an eight-oaredshell. The eight oarsmen must dedicate themselves to a single goal: the swiftest ride possible for their diminutive passenger, the coxswain, who, in turn, must demand their maximum effort. Deviation from the norm by any member ultimately leads to failure for the entire crew.
"We hope that personalities will not manifest themselves on the water," Georgetown University crew Coach Jay Forster explained. "We'd rather have no one talking and everybody listening to the coxswain's commands. It's a matter of discipline and concentration.
"I would have to say that such a degree of sublimation of the individual is not evident in other sports. You know you can't go across the finish line first unless you row in perfect synchronization with the other seven men. That makes the whole greater than an individual."
"It's kind of a selfless sport . . . a sport for anonymous athletes," said Coach Bill Palmer of Fort Hunt High School. Oarsmen keep their backs to the finish line, rather than watch their goal. Only the coxswain can view the course of the boat.
Rowing ideally demands identical effort from each oarsman, with each man able to row from any seat in the shell. Because of a disparity in the skills and experience of the participants, certain outstanding attributes are expected of the man in a particular seat.
Seats in a shell are numbered from one to eight with the No. 1 man sitting in the bow (front) of the boat and the No. 8 man, called the stroke, next to the coxswain in the stern. Individual theories vary as to the placement of men in a shell, but there is general agreement in the following theory of assignment.
The stroke is thought to be the most important oarsman in the boat because he translates the coxswain's commands into action, setting an example the rest of the crew must follow. With the stroke usually rowing from the port (left) side, the No. 7 man must be quick to pick up the action on the starboard side.
"They (Nos. 7 and 8) must be the most aggressive oarsmen," said Coach Jon Butler of T.C. Williams High School. "They have to be the ones who never give up, who have to go absolutely all out all the time."
Forster puts his best oarsman in the stroke position "because when you get to the 500 meters (to go) mark, hehs the one who's got to pick it up, get them across the finish line first."
Therefore, a stroke must maintain the best rowing skills, rhythm and timing in the boat.
The bow pair (Nos. 1 and 2) must be technically sound oarsmen because their efforts set the direction of pull of the boat, or whether the boat pulls toward the port or starboard. This directly affects the keel (balance) of the shell in the water.
The middle four oarsmen, commonly referred to as the "engine room," provide the power of the boat. Generally, No. 6 is the strongest and best oarsman. Rowing on the same side as the stroke, he must be quick to pick up the stroke's pace and translate it into power. The No. 5 man usually is the second strongest, providing a similar stimulus on the other side.
The coxswain is much like a jockey. Despite usually weighing 110 pounds or less, he must mold nearly a ton of human flesh and muscle into a smooth operating machine, careering for the finish. The coxswain's main tool is his mind.
"The coxswain should be the most intelligent person in the boat," Butler said. "You want a small person that's aggressive. If he weighs 110 pounds, rowing with some people 200 pounds, he can feel awful small. He can't be intimidated.
"The coxswain has to be just as determined as the stroke because the crew can tell by his tone of voice, his phrases, how he feel about the race."
The coxswain also steers the boat."
The sweep rowing method is as difficult to master as it is easy to watch. The oarsman sits in a seat which is mounted on a 30-inch slide. His feet are held in place by small platforms.
While it appears that most of the power from an oarsman comes from his arms, the main propulsion actually comes from his legs and back. The arms basically serve for the follow-through of the stroke and the return to stroking position.
The oarsman grips the oar tightly from his knuckles down to his fingertips for the pull trhough. As he pulls the oar trhough the water, he pushes himself back on his slide. The blade of the oar should pull through the water at a pitch of about five to seven degrees so the blade is submerged about six inches. Not getting the blade deept enough into the water is called "washing out"; stroking too deeply is termed "catching a crab."
At the completion of the stroke, the oar is lifted out of the water, the trip is lossened and the blade is spun, its back parallel to the water. The oarsman slides forward in his seat, taking a breath, as he brings his hands forward to send the balde back. Then he lifts his hands to drop the oar into the water to begin another storke. The total movement forms a rectangle.
Most crews row about 36 strokes per minute, though this can vary depending on racing conditions and the crew's capability. Common strategy is to lower the rating to maintain a lead and pick it up to gain on an opponent. Power-fives and power-10s-five or 10 strokes at maximum capability, usually about 40 strokes per minute-are used to pick up a quick advantage, of-ten in a close race.
A shell advances approximately 30 feet with each stroke.
After the technique is masterd, there is an opportunity for rowers to attain individual glory in single sculling, where the oarsman pulls oars on both sides of the boat. There are also competitions for doubles and fours in sculling and sweep rowing. But eights are usually where it begins.
"I really haven't met anybody who was into sculling before they rowed in eights," said Palmer, voicing the feeling of several area coaches.
And for most in rowing, the thrill remains with the eights competitions, which are also the favorites of the spectators.
"In a good boat, there's a certain closeness," Palmer said. "It's like a club. The gents that row in the boat experience a sort of camaraderie only they understand."
"Rowing is something," veteran Washington-Lee High Coach Charlie Butt said. "When you get those nine guys working together perfectly, you feel like your're flying with your hands. It's an unbelievable feeling to bring a crew together. If they do that one thing (row a perfect race) once, they then strive harder to do it again." CAPTION:
Illustration, "(Rowing is) kind of a selfless sport . . . a sport for anonymous athletes," says Fort Hunt Coach Bill Palmer. By Richard Darcey - The Washington Post