Who Sits Where, Part Deux

By Andy Anderson

Dear Doctor Rowing,

Could you explain to me what the different seats in an eight mean? Our daughter has just started rowing and we are curious to know if it means anything that she was selected as the stroke. Is the seating based wholly on technique or is there a personality type too? Does she have any future in the sport?

Should we be proud?

Set out the good linen and crystal and then get on the horn to Granny. You, my friend, have hit the jackpot. Surely you have been around rowing long enough to know that your daughter is a rare jewel, a pearl among swine.

Much has been written about what makes a great stroke. She must, of course, have a good sense of rhythm, steady and consistent, so that the seven people behind her can follow easily. She must be strong and powerful, for the stroke is the one who sets the pace of the oar through the water. And her blade work must be strong; this is not a seat for someone who has difficulty getting out of the water cleanly.

But great strokes are more than great technical rowers. It is precisely in the personality realm that a stroke most stands out. Can you say prima donna? The stroke should be someone so competitive, so self-assured that she is constantly annoying her teammates with comments like, “Have you ever noticed that I cut my meat more efficiently than anyone else on the team?” or “I wonder why it takes the rest of you so long to shower?” It’s not just that the stroke thinks that she can do all of these things better than anyone else alive. A coach’s job is to find the person on the squad who really is better at everything and put said person in stroke seat. Don’t apologize or be modest. The person who inhabits the stroke seat really is superior.

Now, what about the girl right behind her, in seven? Coaches often go out of their way to praise the “second stroke.” I’ve often heard coaches say that seven is always the best athlete. “She must be equal in intensity and drive to the stroke, but have the additional task of following and passing on the rhythm to the rest of the crew. It’s the most difficult job in rowing.” Seven seats themselves put it another way: “I am the real stroke. The person in front of me just thinks that she is setting the rhythm. If the coach didn’t have an insane prejudice against starboards, I’d be there, where I belong.”

Six? Inhumanly strong. Competitive. Arrogant. She knows that she’s the most powerful person in the boat. Has there ever been a great boat without a great six seat? Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because six doesn’t get all the attention of the stroke that she is cut from more modest cloth.

Five is a kind of reflection of the strong and savage six seat, but watered down—a reflection in an old dusty mirror. It’s not that they dislike being in the six seat’s shadow, they just don’t really notice. They are happy to put up the second best erg scores in the boat and be praised as, “a real leader in the engine room.” It doesn’t take much to make a five seat happy. They’re not all that bright.

Four? Happy, contented people. Gregarious. Well-adjusted. They are the ones most likely to have a stable relationship, a boyfriend who comes to all the races and brings everyone food. If you want to spend a pleasant hour talking about something other than crew, (though why would you want to do that?) this person is for you. So what if they have some rough spots in their stroke. They know that they are doing their best.

Much has been written about the three seat’s plight. In my copy of The Badminton Library’s  volume on rowing and punting, published in 1898, it says, “It is curious how often the worst man in an eight rows in this position.” This person was the last to earn a seat in the boat. It seemed like the coach was desperate to find someone else to row in her place. But then, undoubtedly, the coach came to a big realization: no matter who the person was, the boat would still need to have a three seat. Finally, the seat racing ended. That awkward, bumbling rower, the one everyone expects to catch a crab, was in the boat. But you know what? It’s a bum rap. These people move the boat. Show me a good eight, and I’ll show you a skilled rower at three.

Two? The philosopher. Unlike the three seat, the two seat actually did catch a crab once in a big race. She has been tormented by it ever since. This is the girl who might stroke one day if her therapy goes well. She’s got the aggressive personality, but doubt lurks beneath everything she does.

Bow is the artist, the stylist, the best dressed—the one who can tell you what everyone else in the boat is doing wrong. This person has an uncanny ability to breathe through her nose at all times, without ever gasping for air. And how can it be that she is always so articulate, even after an intense session of speed work? Could it be that she doesn’t ever really pull? She seems to live a kind of charmed life, asked to balance the boat but never criticized if it dips down to one side.

Have I offended everyone? Good. As a former coxswain, my job was to get everyone so worked up that they would kill themselves trying to show their superiority. A great crew has all of these insecurities hidden just below the surface, ready to explode at any moment. Attention? Go! 

--Published in Rowing News, November 16, 2010.