est. 1967

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#46: Mount Maunganui College

Aon NZ


Article: "rigging & gearing"

  Printer Friendly Version Author: David Rodger  

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Gearing: what is it?

Gearing for a rowing boat is roughly analogous to gearing for a bicycle:

  • Light/low gears are easy to use at low speed or for comparatively fitter competitors; one stroke of the oar/pedal is easier to do but does not take you very far.
  • Heavy/high gears are easy to use at high speed or for comparatively stronger competitors; one stroke of the oar/pedal takes a lot more effort but moves you much farther.

Unfortunately a rower does not have the luxury of changing gear during a race so the boat's gearing must be chosen with care before the race.

How is a boat put into gear?!

A boat is put into gear by altering the ratio of lengths between three important points on the oar: the blade, the pin and the handle.

The reason these ratios are important is because (as far as physics is concerned) a boat is actually being moved along by levers.


A lever uses effort (the rower) on an object (the oar) braced against a fulcrum (the water/boat) to shift a load (the boat/water). According to FISA, boats must be propelled by a second order lever, which is one with the load in the middle. From the shore that is what rowing looks like:

  • the rower puts in their effort at the handle end of the oar; and
  • the water stays still, so it is the fulcrum, at the blade end of the oar; and
  • in between, at the pin, the boat is the load that is being shifted up the course.

However, from the rower's perspective there is a first order lever in action, which is one with the fulcrum in the middle:

  • the rower puts in their effort at the handle end of the oar; and
  • the pin does not move so it is the fulcrum; and
  • the load is the water being shifted back towards the stern of the boat at the blade end of the oar.

Fortunately, as far as gearing is concerned for coaches, it does not matter which type of lever is in action because the effect of changing the ratios is the same.

levers and gearing: pin position

Light gearingblade >------< pin <-----------------------> rower
Heavy gearingblade <-----------------------> pin >------< rower

A lightly geared boat requires more strokes to move the same distance as a heavily geared boat but the strokes for a heavily geared boat are harder to make.

Because it is much easier to look at gearing from the rower's perspective (instead of a shorebound FISA official perspective) we will treat oars as if they are 1st order levers. This also means the arcs traced out by the oar and the limitations on those arcs are easier to follow.


With a 1st order lever you have two complimentary arcs traced out by the ends of the oar rotating around the pin. Gearing is determined by the ratio of the distance travelled by the blade of the oar (outside arc) to the distance travelled by the handle of the oar (inside arc).

Arc effect

Arcsoutside arc (((blade >---------------------> pin <----< rower))) inside arc

The outside arc affects the propelling force of the oar on the boat.
The inside arc affects the biomechanics of the rower.

When looking at the angle swept out by the arcs there are a couple of considerations.

  • The oar is at its most efficient when it is perpendicular to the boat; and
  • Rowers have to be able to hold the oar and apply useful pressure to it throughout the arc.

In principal, the angle of the arcs will be limited to the rower's inside arc and gearing is simply a matter of changing the length of the blade and/or inboard (distance from pin to handle). However, in practice, changing the inboard can involve changing the size of the spread and will usually affect the amount the inside arc overhangs the boat's keel. Those changes have the following effects:

  • Tightening the spread generally increases the angle swept out by the arcs because it makes it easier for rowers to arc the blade behind them at the catch; and
  • If the inside arc is too far away from the keel (most historians allow 30cm) this can cause problems with rowers leaning out of the boat to complete their arc [depending on the technique used].

Finally, to add to the confusion, each rower in a crew will have an optimal arc that depends on that rower's height, strength and ability, the speed of the boat and whether the coach has set the boat up from the catch or the finish (backstop). Then, for the more advanced coach, the idea of the rowers arcing their oars in unison is what rowing is all about.

For the average school coach, faced with sharing oars and equipment, similar arcs are achieved through the placement of the foot stretcher and the compression of the body and legs at the catch - then standard measurements are used for the oars. For coaches with the plant and/or the inclination it is possible to change the leverage for each rower to ensure individual rowers of different shapes and strengths are able to arc together as a crew.

Gearing: how does it work?

Gearing a boat is all about all about balancing the load experienced by a rower with the efficiency of the oars and their arcs. Gearing is achieved by changing the leverage of the oars by changing the length of the oar and/or the inboard. The physics can be explained in this way:

  1. The less leverage there is the more resistance there is on the rower to transfer their power and the heavier the load feels (heavy gearing).
  2. The more leverage there is the easier it for the rower to transfer their power and the lighter the load feels (light gearing).

Heavy gearing transfers a lot of power for each stroke but places a big load on the rower: the heavier the load the greater the demand, the greater the demand the quicker the rower tires. The outcome is then usually more and more imperfections creeping into technique to maintain power as the rower tires.

With light gearing, the more leverage there is and less power will be transferred per stroke. However, the trade-off is the rower will not be under as much load and will not tire as quickly. Technique is maintained, form is held and rowers learn and hold their technique. These rowers can complete the race with skill, as against developing bad technique by trying to develop large amounts of power.

In the case of coaches for U15's and U16's they should be more concerned about teaching good technique and maintaining form throughout racing. Hence better boat speed is maintained at this level and fewer injuries are liable to occur while the rower goes through growth and muscle development. Although the physics related to light gearing may be less efficient it then becomes a matter of rating; rowers learn from the start that the racing rate of eights is 36-38 and not 32 or 34 and so on. Rowers also learn good co-ordination and hand movement when operating at this level.

One final factor in this equation is to consider the size of the blade. A big blade produces a lot of resistance so consequently requires a lot of explosive strength and, unless the rower is strong enough, will cause a long slow arc. The writer would tend to have a shorter blade arc to compensate which means the oar or scull will be shorter.

Rigging: what do I move?

This is the important bit, where theory is put into practice and coaches and crews can experiment to achieve the best outcome.

  1. Changing the spread (moving the pin) is the most important adjustment you'll make. There are two reasons for this:
    1. the location of the pin has the most effect of any of the leverage dimensions; and
    2. changes to the pin affect all the other major rigging measurements.
    >>>The tighter the spread the heavier the gearing.
  2. Changing the oar length is the next most important adjustment in terms of leverage.
    >>>The longer the oar the heavier the gearing.
  3. Changing the inboard is the next step, as this will adjust the length of time the blade is in the water.
    >>>The smaller the inboard the heavier the gearing.

However, there are some strange but important relationships between inboard and spread:

  1. When you adjust the inboard you make changes to the length of the outside arc, making it shorter or longer by small amounts.
  2. When you adjust the spread you are adjust the location of the outside arc making it closer or further away from the centre line.

Both these adjustments affect leverage. As far as the leverage is concerned there is a 3:1 ratio between the spread and the inboard. Moving the pin 1cm is the same as moving the collar 3cm. The thirty centimetre rule is also a critical rule to remember. It says the inboard should always be approximately 30cm longer than the spread.

What you may now have ascertained is: whenever an adjustment is made to the spread, inboard or oar length it has an impact on the location and lengths of both the inside and outside arcs.

  • The length of the outside arc is critical as it directly affects the load on the rower and the efficiency of the rigger. Any changes to the spread or the oar length will change the length of the outside arc: the longer the arc the longer the stroke. The longer the stroke the further the boat moves each time the oar is moved. However we know the result is a greater load on the rower.
  • The changes on the inside arc are mainly for rower comfort and the 30cm rule assists to ensure this comfort is maintained with efficiency.

Therefore, younger rowers should have a shorter arc, which means a shorter blade length. This may also mean that the area of the blade should be made smaller as well. For modern equipment management this seems to be the easiest way to suit everyone.

Rigging Table

The following table gives common inboard and spread lengths to use. Coaches can then experiment with changing the length of the oar.

A few ranges to be considered and experimented with.
BoatEightCoxed fourPair
 Common inboard and spread (heavy - light)
Inboard113 - 115114-117116 -117
Spread83 - 858686
 Oar lengths (light - heavy)
U15368 - 372366 - 370370
U16370 - 374378 - 372372
U18376374374 - 376


  • Rowing New Zealand level 1 Manual
  • "The nuts and bolts guide to rigging", author Mike Davenport (Mouse House Books 1993)

Further reading for the enthusiast

  • Rowing Australia Rigging manual.
  • "Rudern (Rowing): the GDR text of Oarsmanship", author Dr Ernst Herberger,et al. (Sports Books Publisher,1983.)