Central Florida's Premier Rowing Club for Masters
From the development of the concept of an oar working against a fulcrum (sometime after 1000 B.C.) until the present, rowing has been an efficient means of transportation. In the past 500 years whale boats, captains' gigs, surf rescue boats, ferrymen, fishermen and many others have turned to oar-propelled boats. And from the beginning, anytime there were two or more boats, sooner or later there was a race, whether for business, for honor, or purely for the sport of it.

Rowing began to develop as a sport in the early 19th century. In England, boys at Eton were racing in eights by 1811, and the first Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge was held in 1829. In the United States, the first boat club appeared in New York harbor in 1834, while a Yale student began intramural college rowing with the purchase of a second-hand Whitehall boat for $ 29.50 in 1843. Soon rowing had spread across the country. The Detroit Boat Club (founded in 1839) has the honor of being the oldest club in the country still active in the sport. The Schuylkill Navy was organized in 1858 by the Philadelphia boat clubs, and is the oldest sporting organization still in existence.

As the country's population began to move to the cities following the Civil War, they soon seized upon sports and outdoor activities to fill their free time. Leading the way were horse racing and boat racing, the latter involving amateurs, professionals and college students. Regattas increase in number form 10 or 12 before the Civil War to over 150 in 1872, and were held from Savannah to Sacramento and Maine to Milwaukee. By 1873, there were 289 rowing clubs, 74 in New York, 12 in Georgia, 14 in Michigan, 5 in Iowa and 14 in California.

Professional rowing was enormously popular in the second half of the 19th century, but by 1900 had virtually disappeared. Prizes varied from $25 for beginners to $6,000 or more for the famous Canadian, Ned Hanlan. The professional scullers became popular as colorful personalities, while the regattas themselves became exciting events with crowds, food, drink, entertainment, and gambling. It was the gamblers who hastened the end of professional rowing, with rigged races and such dirty tricks as boats sawed in half.

Both the amateurs and college wanted to distance themselves from the professionals. The National Association of Amateur Oarsmen (renamed the United States Rowing Association in 1982) was established in 1872. It was the first national sports governing body in the country, and also the first to establish a definition of an amateur. This early schism between amateurs and professionals is unique to the sport of rowing, and has continued to this day.

The popularity of amateur rowing clubs waned somewhat in the early part of the 20th century, but the stronger clubs survived. One of the strengths of the clubs has been their emphasis on small boats, which demand greater skill yet also allow working adults more flexibility.

Early college racing was in sixes, with no coxswains. Due to the endless fouls and accidents, they gradually switched to eights with coxswains. The first intercollegiate race was in 1852 on Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire, between Harvard and Yale. What soon became an annual race between the two schools changed locations several times before settling in New London, CT, in 1878. Other colleges were soon rowing and, in 1875, 13 eastern school (Cornell, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Dartmouth, Wesleyan, Amherst, Brown, Williams, Bowdoin, Hamilton, Union and Princeton) raced before 25,000 people at Saratoga, NY.

Various match races and at least one collegiate association came and went, until the ancestor of the present-day Intercollegiate Rowing Association was established in 1895 at Poughkeepsie. Initially made up of eastern colleges, Wisconsin (1897), Stanford (1912), Washington (1913) and California (1921) soon joined. In 1929, the NAAO voted to accept college members, but the clubs and colleges remained separate, with few college oarsmen continuing to row in the clubs following graduation.

The distinction was clear in Olympic rowing. Beginning with Navy in 1920, American college eights won eight successive Olympic Gold medals. The small boats were filled by club oarsmen, who usually gained 3 or 4 medals in each Olympiad. American domination of the Olympic eight event ended in Rome in 1960. Changes in style, training methods, and rigging led to the emergence of first the West Germans and then other countries as major world rowing powers. The biggest changes have been in training: speed, endurance and strength can be improved much more effectively and efficiently today.

Two other changes have also affected American rowing in the past 25 years. The first is the appearance of women. Although women were rowing at Wellesley College in 1877, and soon after in a few other isolated clubs and schools around the country, the activity was strictly intramural, and intended to be primarily "healthful and recreational". A few women were rowing, but women were not a part of rowing.

That began to change in the early 1960s. The National Women's Rowing Association was founded in 1962. Four years later, the first NWRA Nationals was held in Seattle, with fewer than 100 competitors. Today, American women rowers are among the best in the world, they are a part of the USRA governing structure, they row at nearly every college and club at which men row.

The other major change has been the development of the "recreational" shells. Less expensive than a racing single, the recreational single has an even more important feature: a complete novice can get into one and start rowing immediately. A racing single is often only 12 inches wide, and learning to row usually involves a fair amount of swimming. The extra stability of the recreational singles and doubles allows the beginner to enjoy the sport from the start. It also lets the more experienced row in the rougher water of bays, ocean coasts, and large lakes and rivers, where a racing single would swamp. The recreational single has been a major factor in popularizing the sport.

Today the United States Rowing Association has a diverse membership of 14,000 and is growing with every year. In 1995, almost 530 clubs, colleges, and high schools from around the country were member organizations - the highest total in association history. The sport is quietly becoming a phenomenon. Olympic athletes, homemakers, business people, youth, senior citizens, disabled individuals, athletes from other sports and those discovering the sport for the first time, those who wish to race and those who row for fitness are finding that rowing can meet almost any need and interest. If rowing is, indeed, the sport of the '90s, it is certainly easy to see why.

This information was taken from A Short History of American Rowing by Thomas C. Mendenhall. The book is available from KGA at 1-800-314-4769.