With spring racing about to start, the thought of lining up six across is the only thing keeping us sane during these long winter rows and erg sessions. While all rowers who have been through a spring season have been on a race course, many don’t realize what actually makes a rowing race course a race course. The most detailed specifications of what classifies a Class A race course is defined in FISA’s (rowing’s International governing body) By-Laws. Here is a quick break down of the components.
The Body of Water
Not every long, straight body of water you see from the plane or on Maps will make the grade. In order to fit a FISA approved race course, you need a body of water at least 2150m long and at least 108m wide (135m wide for a World Championship).
Depth is critical as well; the depth of a body of water can effect a boat’s speed. For this reason, a race course must be at least three meters deep throughout all racing lanes at the shallowest point, if the depth over the course is unequal.
The Start Tower
We have all seen just about every configuration possible at the start line. Sometimes the start tower is a person on a pontoon boat, a referee standing on shore, or a formal tower - sometimes it is a competing coach with a megaphone floating along with the crews. A sanctioned start tower, however, needs to be 40 to 50 meters behind the start line in the center of the course. The tower must be taller than three meters from the water line, and no higher than nine meters, always still being visible to the aligner.
I often tell the coxswains that I coach, since they are looking forward and can't see the starter, to keep an eye out for the aligners flag. Once that flag goes up, a start is imminent. An aligner's hut should be between 15m and 30m from lane 1, roughly one to two meters above the water. Officials use a taut vertical wire that aligns with the start line to determine alignment of the shells. The officials can either use a single wire to sight off of a bi-colored board on the far shore, or two vertical wires spaced 40 to 50cm apart.
The Start Pontoon
We have seen races started from johnboats, sailboats, coxswains holding ropes, inflatable pool floats, and of course docks with adjustable fingers. No matter what one uses to hold the shells stationary at the start, that “thing” should allow adjusting boats forward and backward so that all boats begin with their bows on the start line - or at least even. While many race courses within the US have individual floating platforms for each lane, the static nature of some of those platforms results in races that are different distances depending on the boat type - so if an eight goes 2000m, a single might have to go 2010m. Adjustability is the only way to ensure consistent 2000m racing.
The Course and Buoys
Rowing courses use what’s called an Albano buoy system. The system is named after Lake Albano in Italy, where this system was first used internationally during the 1960 Summer Olympics. No, the buoys are not individually anchored for 2000m. The buoys are suspending a cable grid system roughly 1.5m below the water. While this notion may seem obvious, I can’t tell you the number of times people have asked me over the years if the buoys are individually anchored and dropped in a straight line.
An underwater view of a typical race course
While a typical race consists of six boats, to meet FISA standards, a course must be eight lanes wide, numbered left to right looking from the start tower. This is a change from several years ago, where Lane 1 was determined to be "the lane closest to the finish tower," and counted up from there. If the start tower was on the "port side" of the crews, the lanes were numbered left to right; if on the "starboard side" of the crews, they were numbered right to left. This variability caused too much confusion among referees and athletes alike, and the consistent "left to right" approach was adopted.
Each lane must be 13.5 meters wide. For the first 100m, red buoys that are no more than 15cm in diameter, are spaced every 5m. Past the 100m mark, buoys are typically spaced every 10m with buoys of a different, distinct color (usually red) indicating every 250m. The larger red buoys (which are off to the side of the course, so not technically part of the racecourse) not only typically indicate the 500m marks, but also act as floats for the entire system to stop the smaller buoys from getting pulled underwater; their size is in part a function of the amount of tension on the line.
Cables run under water the length of the course and perpendicular to keep everything straight
Buoys are not allowed right on the start or finish lines. This allows referees an unobstructed view of the start and finish.
The Finish Tower
If your race course has a finish tower, it is supposed to be no more than 30m from the outside lane of racing. That tower should have at least three different levels for photo finish equipment, timers, and referees. Within the tower, referees use a taut vertical wire that aligns with the finish line to determine finish order and differentials between boats. The officials can either use a single wire to sight off of a bi-colored board on the far shore or two vertical wires spaced 40 to 50cm apart.
View from inside a finish tower. Cable used to sight the finish is visible on the right
At the end of the (race) day, it's what you do on top of the water, not what is under the water. You don't want to be thinking about cross-wires (let alone anchors) when racing, but it is interesting to know what goes into lining us all up for a full pull on race day.
See you at the start line!