The Start

The racing start is important to racing fast and will require practice. There are many variations of the start but most starts include a few stroke to get the boat moving, strokes at a high stroke rate and pressure to build speed, and strokes to lengthen and to get into the race rhythm and pace.

The official start call

This is the official call for the start on race day for the Royal St. John’s Regatta. The race starter will call out the following:

  1. “Are you ready number one?;
  2. Are you ready number two?;
  3. Are you ready number three?;
  4. Are you ready number four?;
  5. Are you ready number five?”

If all crews are ready, the starter will ask “Are you all ready?” and the starter will fire the gun (this will happen fast – coxswains and rowers must be ready).

If the team is not ready to start, the coxswain, and only the coxswain, should raise his or her hand or stand up. The starter will restart the starting sequence.

After the gun fires, rowers will take their first stroke and the coxswain will call out the starting stroke sequences.

If a problem occurs within one minute after the gun is fired, the coxswain should raise his or her hand or stand up. The starter will fire the gun a second time to indicate a false start.

Coxswain basics

It is important for coxswains to practice the following so that they are ready for a race start:

  1. Line up on a starting keg and grab the toggle
    • You may need to ask number one or two to grab the toggle for you and pass it up the line
    • With a southerly wind, you will want to grab the toggle with your right hand. This will ensure that when the wind blows the boat toward the north side of the pond (your left) the toggle rope does not go under the shell or get caught in the rudder. If the wind is coming from the North, toward the boathouse, grab the toggle with your left hand.
  2. Find your point so you can steer a straight course to that point
    • Number one and two can help you find your point
    • Call “touch number one” and “touch number two” to keep your point and the keep the boat as far from the starting keg as possible
  3. Hold the rudder ropes tightly around your waist or hips with your free hand so the rudder stays straight while you are waiting to start and during the first couple of strokes
  4. Help rowers with the following when they are at the starting keg waiting for the race to start:
    • sit in a neutral, relaxed but alert position, eyes and head in the boat
    • only #1 and 2 seats need to take a few “touch-up” strokes
    • when the starter begins the starting count, get in the catch position with the blade fully covered. Stay relaxed
    • when the gun sounds, take the first stroke of the starting sequence and then follow the coxswain’s calls – the same as practice
CAUTION: take a quick look behind you to ensure that the toggle rope is clear of the boat. If it is under the boat, the toggle could get tangled in the rudder, causing a false start.

The racing start – stroke breakdown

Starting strokes

The first few strokes will get the boat moving from a dead stop. The strokes should be quick but powerful and the timing of all six rowers must be perfect. These strokes may be done at half slide or three quarter slide and the back swing may be shortened.

Apply full power with the legs but be patient on the first stroke. The first stroke should get the boat moving from a dead stop but the boat should remain stable for the next stroke. Stroke one will likely be longer than stroke two and three.

Hard/high strokes

At the end of the starting strokes the stroke rate will likely be in the 30+ range. Continue this high stroke rate for a few strokes to build speed. These strokes will be at full slide but may have a slightly shorter back swing for quickness. It is critical to concentrate on perfect timing and keeping the blade buried with all rowers rowing well together.

Strokes to lengthen

After boat speed is established, it is important to lengthen the stroke. The goal is to steadily increase the ‘run’ of the boat and allow more time to recover between strokes. Row smooth, long, powerful strokes.

Be careful not to lose power on the leg drive as you lengthen the stroke and as the stroke rate comes down. A possible coxswain call during and just after the strokes to lengthen: “stay on the legs”


A simple start sequence

Start at 1/2 or 3/4 slide and take three to five strokes with little or no layback. These quick strokes will get the boat moving. Rowers should be at full slide on the fifth or sixth stroke. The coxswain should make a call to lengthen to ensure that the rowers are taking a long stroke and getting into a race rhythm. If the stroke rate is too high, the coxswain and stroke rower will have to work to establish a lower stroke rate while keeping good pressure, rhythm and stroke length.

An advanced start sequence

  1. Five starting strokes (*SR = 34-36 SPM) – start at half slide, or a little more, and push all of the way back. The coxswain should call “pry” or “push”. Take two strokes at 1/2 slide and three at full slide. All five strokes will have a short back swing (or ‘lay back’) and will be really fast.
  2. Five high/hard strokes (SR = 34/36-36/38 SPM) – the next five strokes are quick strokes at full slide and full pressure. The back swing may be similar to the five starting strokes – a littler shorter than normal.
    Although these 10 strokes are quick, they should not feel rushed. You should feel as though you are “prying” the boat forward versus “ripping through” the water. Be powerful but patient!
  3. Ten strokes to lengthen (SR = 36/38-30/32) – maintain full pressure on the footboard and gradually increase stroke length by adding a little more layback. The SR should decrease gradually and you should work to establish good ratio and rhythm.

Strokes 21 onward – you should be at your race stroke rate (30-32 in this example) with good ratio and rhythm.

*Stroke rates may vary from crew to crew and depending on the time of year, fitness, and technical proficiency.

Drill to work on the start

This drill uses an advanced start – half, half, three quarter, three quarter, full. Practice the strokes and the sequence with this three part progression drill. This drill, or a variation of it, can also be used in a race warm-up.

Part one

From a dead stop, complete the five starting strokes. After the fifth stroke, let it run with arms away.  Call “blades down” (rowers place their blades flat on the water) and then “check it down” (rowers square their blades in the water to stop the boat). Repeat 2-3 times.

Part two

From a dead stop, complete the five starting strokes and then seven to ten high/hard strokes. After the last high/hard stroke, let it run with arms away. Call “blades down, check it down.”

Part three

From a dead stop, complete the five starting strokes, seven to ten high/hard strokes, and seven to ten to lengthen. After the last stroke to lengthen, let it run with arms away. Call “blades down, check it down.”

NOTE: the coxswain should make calls to prepare rowers for the next set of strokes in the starting sequence. For example, “Lengthen after two, one, two, on this one!”