There are many similarities between rowing boats. Clearly, their weights and dimensions change depending on the number of rowers and seats in each one. The motion of the body too differs largely between sculling (two oars per person) and sweep (one oar per rower), but to the uneducated eye they appear quite similar. However, this is not the case.
Sweep oar boat par excellence – the eight is the only one with a coxswain and is the longest and fastest of all the categories. It demands light, rapid movements particularly at the catch and finish of the stroke, in the “hands away” movement, as well as maximum effort when the oar is locked on. Speed is the most obvious sensation in an 8+. It makes you feel as though the distance you have covered is somehow shorter than it is, and the cox is there to pay little attention to where the boat is going and more to focus on the stroke quality. But woe betide anyone who makes a mistake, such as failing to get your blade out in time or catching a crab. These can be dangerous when you’re moving at high speed. It feels like being on board a motorboat.
Also fast is the quad. The main difference from an 8+ is that the steersperson has to keep any eye on where the boat is going, to avoid unfortunate crashes and leaving your racing line during regattas and heads. This boat has four rowers, each with two oars – a bit like a wriggling millipede. It is, though, one of the most popular amongst those who row. This boat also requires lightness of movement, and obviously good coordination and understanding within the crew. As always in rowing, each member of the team can count on the collaboration of the other three to eradicate minor discrepancies or temporary glitches, because everyone has to make the same movements. It’s like having a 4-cyclinder straight engine in the boat. This boat feels like being in a four-person bob sleigh.
The coxless four is more technically demanding as it’s a sweep oar boat with two people rowing on stroke side (right) and two on bow side (left) – it’s like having a four opposed-cylinder engine. The force exerted by the crew on either side needs to be even and consistent, otherwise the boat will go off course and will not glide across the water. This boat demands that the rowers work as a crew – a good coxless four is a brilliant quartet of reflected arcs, like Mozart’s music. It feels like being in a fast sailing boat.
The double scull is a boat that’s light to transport but that’s heavier in the water. The crew – the boat’s engine – are made up of only two people and if one of them has a problem, so does the whole team. On the other hand, the boat is not so long and has four oars, which make it very easy to manoeuvre, needing only small adjustments to keep to the correct course. What makes this boat so popular is that you can learn to row in it and continue enjoying rowing in it, at all ages. This boat feels like you’re on a tandem!
The sweep oar boat with only two occupants is the coxless pair. It differs from the other boats in that each rower is in charge of his gunwale (side of the boat). There is absolutely no room for errors and a perfect balance of power and stroke movement is imperative. The boat is heavy in the water and you need to tap it along to make it feel light. At the same time, you have to pay attention to your steering as it’s less manoeuvrable with only one rower per side. This boat feels like an untamed horse – you have to become aware of every vibration, communicate confidence and become one with your boat and your crewmate.
The single scull is the shortest of all the boats; it’s light and easy to transport. But with only one rower with two oars, it has an engine of only one cylinder, making it potentially the heaviest and slowest on the water. There are no compromises here – you’re on your own and you have to face up to every situation and problem, alone. It’s useless to say that you need loads of experience before you race in a single, as the slightest mistake can have you out of your seat, just like in a rodeo, and in the water – an inevitability for the less experienced, but even the more able may succumb too. Complete mastery is required. This boat feels like riding a motorbike.
These are my own personal impressions, which I have limited to the six, current Olympic categories. Their differences aside, I prefer the small boats for training, and the quad and eight to for regattas, but each one offers the feeling of freedom. That feeling of being at one with nature that begins every time you push off from the landing stage to cut through the water or venture out to sea, leaving behind the noise, the traffic, the confusion and the violence of our everyday world.