3 December 2019
By Lawrence Fogelberg
Australian surf rowing as preformed “down under” is very different from the rowing most of us know as the sport. While FISA, World Rowing, does not approve of this as one of its sports, it is certainly rowing. Just watch this 5+ minutes video:
You might have anticipated that the crews would try to catch a wave and surf back towards the beach, but you probably did not envision what it would be like to meet a wave on the way to the ca. 500 m distant turning buoy. The boats weigh about 220 kg (500 lb.), are ca. 25 ft long and have a powerful electric bilge pump to remove water that could easily double or triple the weight of the boat. The “sweep” steers with a 20 ft oar. As one can imagine, his weight is unimportant. What is much more important is his skill at keeping the boat on course through the waves, into them and surfing back to shore. The difficulties were shown in the above video.
On the way out, if the boat does not go straight into the wave with enough speed to ride over it, the boat will be driven back. If it takes the wave at a slant, it will be turned further and maybe roll over. No “eyes in the boat”, the oarsmen/women must watch their blades to keep them in the water, to avoid a crab that could throw them out of the boat.
On the return stretch, the trick to catching a ride is if the rowers achieve enough speed. Otherwise, the wave will pass under the boat. On a big wave, the sweep will have difficulty keeping his blade in the water. Once the boat rides on the front of a wave, the sweep must judge the right fore and aft balance to keep the boat there and on course. With all the rowers huddled in the stern, maybe the bow half of the boat is out of the water, only the sweep’s blade can keep it on course. If not, the breaking wave will take command.
This video (10 minutes) is an in-boat view of a row out and back. Once the guys have tucked up their speedos (a “wedgie” in slang) and jumped in the boat, it takes them 5:26 minutes to the turn, delayed by having to recover an oar. The home stretch is just over 2 minutes. Listen to the sweep’s commands:
This shorter video is compilation of how things can go wrong:
This is the 1999 final with an informative soundtrack about the sport and sweeps’ skill:
And here is the girls’ final in 1999, a dramatic race in which a girl is flung from a boat by a wave:
New Zealand also has surf rowing, of course, and you will also find it in Europe, but I have stayed with the Aussies to illustrate the sport.