Rowing proves more oarsome challenge than it looks

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 July, 2012, 12:00am


We ladies love pampering ourselves at the weekend with a sumptuous afternoon tea at the best cafes. Flowing dresses, pretty clutch bags, scones with clotted cream and jam, and a good hot pot of jasmine (for me) and Darjeeling (for Karly) tea are a few of our favourite things.

We give the impression that we walk only with tiny, elegant steps, and the sportiest thing we would do is whip cream for fairy cakes for the YP team.

No one seems to know we do enjoy the outdoors, and don't fear the sun, however fierce it might be - that's what sunscreen is for. And to prove it, we decided to row on a stretch of the Shing Mun River in Sha Tin. But, of course, it wouldn't be possible without a crash course at the Sha Tin Rowing Centre.

Before getting onto the water, coach Wong Chi-wing taught us the basic movements on an ergo. Although the machine doesn't float, it is a good way to train beginners. We sat upright on the ergo's movable seat, adjusted the foot straps and took hold of the T-shaped handle with both hands.

What comes next takes perfect co-ordination between the arms, legs and back - and that's challenging. You always start by extending your bent legs until they are straight, then leaning back and pulling your arms towards you. This motion, known as 'drive', is where the majority of the power in each stroke comes from.

The classic errors we made were hunched backs and moving our arms in a circular motion instead of horizontally. It also took time to get used to the idea of breathing in while on the drive motion, and exhaling while recovering to the initial position.

Karly, with her longer limbs and stronger core muscles, repeatedly beat me on minute-long tests. But we didn't stand a chance against our coach, who rowed twice as fast.

My university is in a river town, and has a strong rowing tradition. I was too busy drinking tea, er, I mean, studying, to get involved. But it looked like a lovely, relaxing activity, so I was keen to join Joyee in this challenge.

Having, I thought, got to grips with the ergo during the first session, I was confident that getting on the water would be a breeze. How very wrong I was.

We first sat in the training boat next to the river, and the first problem was clear - a pair of blades is nothing like the handle on an ergo! While still on dry land, we learned how to get into the boat without tipping it. It was difficult enough doing this in a pretend boat - I got very worried about tipping in Joyee, who is much smaller than me, once we got into the real thing!

Once you're in the boat, you grab the oars and take up the 'rest' position. Then came the most complex lesson - controlling the blades. You hold the 'handles' lightly but firmly, with your thumbs over the ends, and you need to be able to rotate them.

Then it all begins. You push the handles forward, bending your knees and pulling forward. With the handles out in front of you, the blades will be behind you, hovering above the water. You first have to lower them into the water, making sure they are perpendicular to the surface. Then you pull the handles in, the blades push the water forwards, and you move. Backwards.

Finally, it was time to get in the boat. I got in front and Joyee sat behind - the taller person goes in front, so that they can set the pace (it takes longer legs longer to complete one stroke), and the shorter person behind follows that pace. We sat down (miraculously without capsizing), and coach Chan Wai-hung pushed us away from shore. We were off! We whooshed!

The biggest problem for us is that rowing looks far easier than we found it to be. The coach was very kind, yelling encouragement from the bank and telling us to relax - which immediately made me tense! The oar handles got tangled, the blades refused to move in sync (I always seemed to only feather one at a time, creating drag with the other), Joyee seemed to move much faster than me, and there were a couple of moments when we nearly fell in (although given how hot it was, that might not have been the worst thing).

I was filled with awe at how professional rowers manage to make rowing look so effortless, when we were finding it such a struggle to remember the combination of legs, arms, breathing and relaxing.

But all the frustrations aside, the few times we did get a good few strokes (and moved a couple of metres on each stroke), it was exhilarating. Rowers get an amazing view of their surroundings, and the chance to really work closely with their teammate(s). We're talking about dragging a couple more Posties with us and trying again - but maybe we'll try sweeping next time!

Additional reporting: YP cadet Imogen Butler


Rowing was used as a means of transportation in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. But it wasn't probably until the 1700s that rowing races began. Competitive rowing became very popular after Cambridge and Oxford Universities started their rivalry in an annual race on the River Thames, in London, in 1829. The famous Boat Race is still held every year.

Rowing was first staged in the Olympic Games at the 1900 Paris Olympics, but women were not allowed to compete until the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

The basics

At the Olympics, there are 14 rowing events, divided roughly into men's and women's singles, doubles, fours and eights.

Races are split into sculling (using two oars) and sweep oar (with one). The number of heats in a rowing event depends on the number of participants.

In teams of eight, a coxswain sits at the back, directs the crew and steers the boat. Rowers need a combination of strength, stamina and technique; for anyone sharing a boat, teamwork is essential. Rowers need to be in sync to achieve the best speed, and the greatest distance out of each stroke.

In races, competitors battle head-to-head, aiming to be the first to cross the finish line. Penalties are awarded to competitors who leave their lane, or block or hit other boats, either with their boat, their oars, or in person.

Rowing is the only sport in which competitors cross the finish line backwards.

Ones to watch

Drew Ginn

As part of the men's four, the 37-year-old Australian will be chasing his fourth Olympic gold in London, having been part of winning pairs in Beijing, Athens and a four back in Atlanta in 1996.

He also took part in competitive road bicycle racing for the time, finishing sixth at the 2010 Australian national road championships.

Olaf Tufte

Winner of the doubles sculls in Sydney in 2000, Norway's Tufte is even stronger when working alone, snatching gold in the singles sculls at both the Athens and Beijing Games. The 36-year-old will be rowing solo again and is seen as the one to beat.

Melanie Wilson

Hong Kong kid Wilson (she went to Island School!) will be part of the quadruple scull team for Great Britain. This season, the 28-year-old medical student and her team have twice won bronze in World Cup races. Hong Kong is behind you, Mel!

Bluffer's guide

blade the flat bit at the end of an oar

catching a crab a faulty rowing motion, such as when a blade enters the water at the wrong angle and sinks too deep

coxswain the coxswain, or cox, typically sits at the back of a boat and is responsible for steering the boat and calling directions to the crew

feathering holding the blades in a flat position between strokes to reduce wind resistance during recovery; one of the most difficult things for beginner rowers to perfect

power 10 a call for rowers to do 10 of their best, most powerful strokes; it's a strategy used to pull ahead of a competitor

run: the distance a shell moves during one stroke

scull v sweep sculling means using two oars, more usual in singles and doubles; sweeping means a rower has only one oar

shell another name for the boat

stretcher or footstretcher: the footrests into which the rowers' shoes are bolted


Men's medal races:

Eight: August 1, 10.30am (5.30pm in HK)

Single Sculls: August 3, 9.30am (HK: 4.30pm)

Quadruple Sculls: August 3, 10.10am (HK: 5.10pm)

Four: August 4, 10.30am (HK: 5.30pm)

Women's medal races:

Pair: August 1, 10.10am (HK: 5.10pm)

Quadruple Sculls: August 1, 10.20am (HK: 5.20pm)

Eight: August 2, 12.30pm (HK: 7:30pm)

Single Sculls: August 4, 9.30am (HK: 4.30pm)

Go rowing

Hong Kong, China Rowing Association

Tel: 2699 7271

Address: 27 Yuen Wo Road, Sha Tin


Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club

Tel: 2239 0322

Address: Kellett Island, Causeway Bay


Special thanks to Hong Kong, China Rowing Association