Although no one knows for sure when and where rowing began, it is generally agreed that the ancient Egyptians were among the first to build oar-powered boats. The ready availability of both wind and muscle made sails and oars the logical solution to the problem of travelling over water, and by the time of the Romans and Vikings vessels were propelled in this way on a grand scale, for transport, exploration and conquest.
Rowing as a competitive sport came much later, and developed here in England on the River Thames.
In the days before the plethora of bridges that now straddle the River Thames, the only way to cross quickly was by boat. The Company of Watermen and Lightermen trained and licensed oarsmen to ferry people and cargo across the river or to and from boats, using ‘wherries’ powered by one man with two oars. The oarsmen served a lengthy apprenticeship, developing considerable skill and strength. As a result, and in order to make the crossings more entertaining, passengers sometimes placed bets on which oarsman could make the trip in the fastest time. These wagers often carried high stakes, so winning was more than just a matter of pride. In 1715, an Irish comedian and politician named Thomas Doggett was rescued by a waterman when he fell into the river, and to demonstrate his gratitude he instigated a race and offered a handsome prize. Having set the course, the race was to be between six former apprentices in their first year of freedom, and the prize was a smart red waterman’s coat and a silver badge representing liberty. Still contested today, this is thought to be one of the oldest contested sporting events in the world.
Perhaps more famous and certainly more familiar today, the Oxford-Cambridge boat race began in 1829 and is still run as a private match between the rival universities over a distance of 4 miles.
Rowing was scheduled to make its Olympic debut at the first Modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896. Unfortunately the weather made it impossible to hold the event, so instead it happened four years later in Paris, 1900. Women’s rowing didn’t make its Olympic debut until the 1976 Montreal games. Britain is currently among the leading nations in the sport.
At a more local level, the British Rowing Association (BRA) and Coastal BRA organise regattas all over the country, with hundreds of clubs competing at all levels. Throughout the winter, crews race at the longer Head of River races to build up strength and endurance in readiness for the regatta season. The sport is now very inclusive and most clubs offer the chance to row at all ages, whether competitively or simply for fun and recreation.