How to Talk Like a Rower

    Hammers, silk merchants, and lily dippers. Inside rowing’s secret language.
    HomeFeaturesHow to Talk Like a Rower

    Published on


    To continue reading…

    Register for free to get limited access to the best reporting available.
    Free accounts can read one story a month without paying. Register for free

    Or subscribe to get unlimited access to the best reporting available. Subscribe

    To learn about group subscriptions, click here.

    If you’re reading this, chances are pretty good you are a rower, coxswain, or coach. You don’t need to have catching a crab explained, or be told that check is a bad thing. You understand that basic vocabulary. Oh sure, you might get port and starboard confused now and then, and you may need a refresher on the difference between spread and the work-through, but you’ve got the basics down. However, much of the richness of rowing’s language comes from the jargon bandied about in boathouses, not from programs or coaching manuals. Here’s just a sampler of the inside language and wonky turns of phrase rowers use. 

    Slow or Fast?

    Some of the best terms are used to describe rowers who are slow and rowers who are fast.

    An anchor is, of course, someone who weighs a boat down, killing its speed. An appliance does the same thing. There’s quite a rich subgroup here: a toaster oven, a refrigerator, or a Maytag are not people you want in your boat. And no one wants to be referred to as baggage. A coach with a bunch of appliances might be called “General Electric” or simply “The General.” Any of these rowers might be called a boat killer.

    A newer concept has popped up recently in reference to someone who has a good erg score. Instead of talking about how she is good on the erg, you say, “She is fast.” In the old days, we used to think of the erg as a measurement tool. Now with the machine’s ascendancy, a good erg means more. If you do have a good erg, at Williams College they would say you have a “fat erg.” And we know what a “skinny erg” would be. By the way, if you are erging, you might say that you are “ripping chain,” while steady state on an erg is “watt farming.”


    Sometimes it isn’t the words that are said that matter most; it is how they are uttered. Al Shealy, the stroke of the famed Harvard “Rude and Smooth” crews of the mid-70s, gave an interview where he said, “No matter how much I’m hurting, I know that I’ll always have enough left to punish the blade in the last 500.” Now that’s confidence; that’s swagger. Is it any wonder he was a champion?

    I went out to dinner in late 1979 with a couple of guys who were national team veterans. “Where are the Olys next summer?” one of them asked. “The Olys?” I thought. Who calls them that? It was inconceivable that he didn’t know they would be in Moscow in 10 months. What was going on here? Obviously, like most jargon, he was showing an easy familiarity with the idea of competing in the Olympic Games, something beyond what most of us at the table could only dream of. His casual reference spoke of ownership, the way I might speak of mayo, a brewski, or Mickey D’s. 

    Tone is particularly important for coxswains. Yes, getting the words right is key for a cox, or tiller jockey, in order to make sure that a command isn’t jumbled—commands have a logical sequence —information, preparation, and action. “From the catch, all eight ready, row.” The order in which those words come is important.  But so is the tone with which commands are given. The tone should not be panicky or nagging or wordy or emotionless. Commands need to be crisp, authoritative, and precise. 

    I coached a coxswain once who could not get this right. Her voice was always monotone. “We’re losing,” she droned.” It didn’t help her relationship with the crew, who wanted some excitement, that she also trailed her feet and hands in the water during pieces. There’s another deadly thing that a coxswain can do: count out every stroke. I’ve heard coxswains counting “Fifty-two, fifty-three…” It makes me exhausted just to hear them. You never should count above 10.

    Above all else, once you have moved beyond the novice stage, coxing is about using your authority properly. Don’t yell at your rowers when turning the boat with the same tone that you use for calling a ten. Vary the tone and the volume with which you speak to your crew. Don’t ask someone to make a technical change in a conversational tone. If you are a coxswain, practice your different voices. There’s the relaxed-but-alert tone used for commands to pull away from the dock and get spun around. There’s the all-business tone to get the boat moving. Within a piece, a coxswain needs to be crisp and give staccato commands. It helps to lower your pitch; there’s something about a deep bass tone that scares people into pulling harder. Finally, reserve your deepest, scariest, calling-hell-hounds-to-heel voice for when you want blood to seep out of your rowers’ pores. They should be terrified that if they don’t find another gear, another drop of adrenalin, there will be nasty consequences. 

    Speaking of coxswains, there’s usually someone in the boat who thinks that she or he can do at least as good a job as the person with the tiller and offers commentary while rowing. That person is a “backseat coxswain.” A coxswain who steers erratically, usually oversteering, is doing “a snake dance down the course.” 

    Old School

    Gone are the days when rowing was strictly a young person’s sport. Nowadays, masters and veteran rowers make up a huge part of many clubs. So you may find yourself in a conversation with someone who talks about a “lily dipper.” If what you do in a boat is dipping your blade into the water, it’s hard to imagine that you are getting much on it. And a lily dipper is that to the extreme. At a Vesper memorial service for Olympian Bill Stowe, stroke of the 1964 gold medal eight, Emory Clark, the five man, said “Bill was certainly no lily dipper.”

    Smooth or Rough

    A silk merchant is someone who rows so smoothly and adds to the flow of the boat, irrespective of strength, that he or she is highly desirable to have on board. A guy who goes 5:50 can be a silk merchant, as can a gal who goes 6:30. The important thing is that the boat, especially with this person in stroke seat, will feel silky. A shell that slides through the water with this feel is often called greasy.

    The opposite of a silk merchant is a chopper. These people have very little boat feel and chop the blade into the water. They’ve missed important lessons somewhere along the line about making your own motions harmonize with the run of the boat. Their choppy catches are often referred to as “killing fish.” A chopper is usually an anchor. Everyone has been in a boat with someone who just makes the whole enterprise feel more difficult.

    That leads us to the popular term “hammer.” Is it a term of endearment or derision? Do you want a hammer in your boat? There’s really no answer to this. Yes, a hammer probably is not known for boat feel, but there is something comforting about knowing that no matter what, this rower will always keep the pressure on. Think of a blacksmith’s forge; you’ve got to keep banging on it to shape the metal. Tiff Wood, one of the sport’s most famous hammers, said, “You can be a ‘Don’t f*&^ with me’ hammer like Thor or you can be that guy freshman year who was king of the erg but couldn’t buy a seat race.” I’d be happy to have a hammer in my boat because you can always work to smooth a hammer out. It’s much harder to teach someone not accustomed to really drive it. 

    If you have too many hammers, though, the boat may feel heavy with very little send or swing. It will feel like all you are doing is “pushing water.”

    Where you Sit

    Although it is popular to think that the stroke has to be the one with the best technique—rowing as she does in the “style seat”—that’s not what every coach looks for in a rhythm-setter. No matter where you row, if you want a fast boat, you need a stroke with plenty of “aggro” (aggressiveness). The stern pair is called the “rhythm kings.”

    Years ago, I saw a sign in the Princeton boathouse that had a photo of an eight at the finish of a race. Someone had added a hand-scrawled caption reading, “Why are the bow pair breathing through their noses and discussing their favorite species of songbirds while the stern four are gasping for breath, grunting like stuck pigs, and sweating blood?” It does matter where you row. Sometimes the bow pair is called “The Office,” where those two rowers have a good view of the rest of the boat while they set things up for the power people. Coaches often say that the bow pair has to comprise the best athletes because they need to adjust to the rise and fall of the boat and because they can influence balance more than anyone else. People in the stern think this is a joke. When a boat has a really strong bow pair, it is often said that it has “front wheel drive.”

    Needless to say, the middle four of an eight are the “engine room.” Smaller rowers have been called “oxygen thieves.” Leave that precious O2 for the big people who need it.

    Getting the Power On

    There are multiple ways of expressing this most-important concept. Legendary coach Ted Nash talked about “putting a wiggle on it,” a more subtle expression than “crank on it.” “Lean on the lumber,” “bend the timber,” or “get the legs down” are all popular with coxswains or coaches who want more.  (Coxswains and coaches always ask for more.)

    A popular technique, of course, is to call tens—for certain people in the boat, on shore, or in your family. I recommend avoiding “Your grandmother could pull harder! Let’s go!” Many rowers in the heat of battle like to be cursed at, abused, or called nasty things. Like in all discourse, in the boat four letter words should be used sparingly or they lose their bite. I liked to call people by their last names; for some reason, that always seemed to annoy and motivate them. In programs with a lot of international rowers, there is the good-natured rivalry that comes from calling “Let’s go Australians; try to keep up with the Kiwis.” In the middle of a piece, you might be called on to “drop some leg bombs,” those intensely powerful thrusts that the whole boat can feel.

    No one ever likes to enter the “pain cave,” in the middle of a race or erg piece, but we all know that it’s a destination we can’t avoid. Too much time in the cave could lead to a “white out,” or a complete loss of vision. Someone you can count on is a “milkman.” They always deliver. 


    Poems have been written, songs composed, lovers courted in the name of this hyperbolic moment of magic on the water. Doctor Rowing is not one of those who spends his life looking for this Holy Grail, but if you were to read a lot of writing about rowing, you’d know there are plenty of people out there who are seeking that perfect moment when the boat moves quickly, effortlessly, when all work as one, when there is swing. I don’t fetishize it; for me, there are good rows and bad. However, there are certainly times the boat picks up and moves fluidly, when there is free speed. My college coach would buy a watermelon and invite us to squeeze the slippery seeds, shooting them out for distance. “Squeeze the seed!” he would say. Make the boat move like that, scooting and slipping forward.

    If you’ve got swing and power, your insertions and extractions are crisp, and your opponent disappears behind you, you are on the right side of a “blowout,” a “horizon job,” or a “curvature.” Enjoy this great sport. 

    Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list. It’s part of the fun to hear new ways of saying things. Let’s keep entertaining each other with what you hear in your boathouse. Why not compile your own glossary? Why not share them on social media? Feel free to post to Doctor Rowing’s Facebook page.

    More like this

    The Importance of a Good Warm-Up

    Knee and Hand Speed