History of Coastal Rowing

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What do we know about the history of Coastal Rowing?  First of all, it is all about definition. Are we talking about sea rowing, coastal rowing or open water rowing? There are many different definitions and many different ways of performing rowing at the sea or coast. We would like to focus on sea- and coastal rowing and do not mind if it includes fixed or sliding seat boats.

But where should we start? The first evidence for rowing (not paddling, that’s even older) dates back to 1900BC in Ancient Egypt. Later on, the knowledge and technique of large rowing ships – the galleys – were developed further by the Phoenicians. The Phoenicians, originally from what we now call Lebanon, had a vast trading empire across the Mediterranean. Unknown to many, a lot of Southern European cities were founded by the Phoenicians, like Nimes, Lisbon, Palermo and Malaga, to only name a few. 
The Greeks adapted not only the Phoenician alphabet but also their naval technology. And the Romans took it from the Greeks. The boats were classified by the number of rowers per bench (Bireme = 2, Trireme = 3, Quadrireme = 4, and so on). And the Romans brought the knowledge to the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic tribes in Northern Europe. The later famously feared Viking longboats originate most likely from this tradition. And 500 years before Columbus a crew of 35 Northmen under the command of Leif Eriksson managed to discover America. New analysis shows that the remains of their village in Newfoundland (Canada) date back to at least 1021 A.D.
During the Middle Ages, the trend in Northern Europe went towards large sailing ships (like the famous Kogge and Caravel). In the Mediterranean, Galleys continued to be the dominant type of boat until the invention of steamboats. The tradition of rowing boats continued also in Northern Europe, but on a smaller scale, if we look for example at the “church boats” in Finland.

Coastal Rowing in Modern Times

The first modern crossing of the Atlantic took place in 1896. The two Norwegian-born Americans Frank Samuelson and George Harbo rowed across the Atlantic from New York to Scilly in Great Britain in 55 days. They used a rowing boat made of oak, which was made water-resistant by cedar sheathing. Furthermore, it had a couple of watertight flotation compartments, two rowing benches, and rails to help them if they capsize – a feature that saved their lives mid-ocean.
History of coastal rowing
Frank Samuelson and George Harbo in their  Atlantic rowing Boats “FOX”, Credit: Wikipedia

The History of Coastal Rowing in England   

Another and more detailed story is told by the Dover rowing club. The history of river rowing in Dover is well recorded and dates back to the oldest known organised race, the Doggett’s Coat and Badge sculling race. It began on the Thames in 1715 and was organised by Thomas Doggett. Remember: The world-famous Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race began in 1829 and the equally famous Henley Royal Regatta began in 1839.
Sea rowing is, compared to river rowing, a very different sport and although the first organised races are not recorded until the 1820s, it is probably much older than river racing.  There are numerous early accounts of sailors challenging other crews to race in the ships’ boats, with the captains putting up prizes such as extra rum rations.

Coastal Rowing and Smugglers

In particular, along the Southern British Coast, speed was essential to a boatman’s living. In English towns like Dover, Deal and Hastings, boatmen made most of their money from salvaging and smuggling. Read more at the Dover Rowing Club website.
First come first serve: In the days before lifeboats, local boatmen would race each other to shipwrecks as the first boat to arrive could claim salvage rights.  Deal and Dover smugglers regularly rowed their boats over to France to pick up contraband, claiming with pride that their 8-oared service galley could cross in five hours and the 20-oared ‘centipede’ galley in 3.  One customs officer described trying to catch a smugglers’ galley in his customs cutter as “like a cow chasing a hare”.
Times changed soon after. With the end of the Napoleonic Wars, a violent anti-smuggling campaign, the invention of steamships, the lucrative “trade” disappeared and many boatmen lost most of their livelihood.

Coastal Regattas

From the 1820s towns along the Southern Coast of England began to organise regattas to provide an income for the destitute boatmen through prize money.  The idea of the regatta quickly spread, not only because of the financial incentives but also because they attracted thousands of spectators. In many towns in the 1820s, concerned local philanthropists began organizing regattas to draw crowds to declining towns and provide cash prizes for destitute boatmen. There were also races for ‘amateurs’, usually local middle-class gentlemen who rowed for small prizes such as silver cups or tea services.
By the 1870s the ‘amateur’ clubs had become very serious about the sport, rowing special ultra-fast regatta-built galleys and training all year.  The amateur races, particularly the fours, pairs and sculls became the prestige races and clubs began to regularly send teams to other regattas up and down the coast. By the 1880s there were 20 regatta venues between the Isle of Wight and Herne Bay.
The Regatta South Coast Championship became a very popular event and decided in 1893 to form a professional association to set rules and regulations and to oversee the regattas – The Coast Amateur Rowing Association (CARA).

History of coastal rowing
Credit: Coastalrowingaustralia

Modern Coastal Rowing by FISA

Modern Coastal Rowing – rowing with a sliding seat – in singles, doubles and Quads, originated probably in France at the end of the 1980s from an idea of the ocean navigator Gerard D’Aboville. Together with a technical committee, which included the Monegasque Jannot Antognelli and the Marseillais Denis Masseglia, boats and rules were developed. They are members of the International Rowing Federation (FISA ) since 1992. Some Americans say modern coastal rowing got its start in the 1970s, with the development of the Alden Ocean Shell. Initially intended to be the most stable and efficient hull design for recreational rowing.
In fact, the original idea was to replace the wooden yole, that is the narrow rowing boats typical of rowing, with boats capable of withstanding a sea stirred by waves and wind. Thus, the Yole de Mer was born, with one, two and four rowers and a cox. It began to appear on the Southern Coast of France and soon after on the Atlantic Coast and in the French overseas colonies.

Italy discovered coastal rowing in 1996 thanks to the CIPS  – “Association of Imperia and to Sanremo’s Piercarlo Roggero” – who rowed along the entire Atlantic coast. However, it is Sanremo’s athlete Renato Alberti who encouraged and promoted the participation of Italian crews in regattas on the French Riviera.

According to Coastal Rowing Australia, the concept of Coastal Rowing in Australia began when, two friends, Warwick Marler and Creagh Mecham, discussed the new FISA class of coastal rowing boats, which Warwick had rowed in the Bay of Biscay, while on tour in France in 2004.  The boats had been designed in 1986 to provide a high level of safety in coastal waters and to develop an international ocean racing competition.


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