Rigging for Open Water Rowing

by Craig Leeds

Rigging is the process whereby equipment is selected and adjusted to best suit a particular rower. The purpose of rigging is to allow each rower to be as effective and comfortable as possible. It consists of all the adjustments and choices possible regarding boats, riggers and oars. A few examples are; choosing oars of correct length, positioning the button on the oar, setting the distance between oarlocks, and positioning your footstretchers. Rigging is analogous to choosing and then adjusting a bicycle to fit a particular persons needs. Like a properly set-up bike, a properly rigged boat allows its’ user to achieve his or her optimal speed with the most comfort. Another benefit from being properly rigged is in preventing some injuries, by allowing the body to be relaxed and naturally positioned. Rigging and rowing technique go hand in hand. They are difficult to separate. A poorly rigged boat can inhibit proper rowing technique. Although proper rigging may help, it cannot make a rower with terrible technique row well. Rigging is necessary because of the wide range in people’s size, strength, stamina and technique. Because of these differences, each rower should have his/her boat rigged to his/her own particular needs.

Every rower can benefit by learning about rigging. Once the basics are understood, you can begin this process and decide for yourself, how you can get some “free speed” by “frigging with the rigging”. While it is possible that your present set-up is optimal, and that no change to your rigging would result in more comfort or speed, it is unlikely. It must be noted that if at present you are rowing with a rig that is way outside the normal range, the first changes you make could possibly slow you down until you acclimate to them. At the elite level of flat water rowing, rigging changes tend to be in only very small increments. At this level changes of 1 or 2 centimeters are considered huge. The changes are usually incremental and evolutionary for each rower or crew. When a change is made the rower or crew is given time to get comfortable with that change. Once comfortable, times over known courses can be compared, and a decision can then be made about the efficacy of the change. Rigging should be an ongoing process whereby you make a change and course test to see the result of that change. In this way you will eventually find your optimal set-up. I feel it is best to start with a rig that is at least in the ballpark of being right. There are rigging tables and compilations from which an initial set of numbers can be drawn. I have included some ballpark numbers to get you started later in the article.

Keep in mind that, in reality the following steps are intertwined and difficult to keep separate!

Select the Proper Size Hull

As is the case with bicycles, one size does not fit all. Talk with the manufacturer for recommendations.

Adjust Trim of the Boat

The goal of this step is to find the optimal fore/aft positioning of your body in a particular boat. The importance of this step decreases as boat length increases and rowers weight decreases. Have someone watch you row your boat with your stretchers set through their available range (from all the way in the stern to all the way to the bow). The observer should be able to see differences in how the boat travels through the water with your weight shifted bowward or sternward. Leave the stretchers set where the best run is achieved. All other adjustments will then be made relative to where you set your stretchers. Adjustable tracks and pins (both for fore/aft movement) are sometimes needed to allow this step to be carried out.

Set the Work through the Pin (WT)

WT is the fore/aft distance between the stern edge of the seat at the catch position and vertical face of the oarlock. For an ocean single WT should be in the plus to minus 5 cm range. This is a good time to mention the importance of consistency when taking rigging measurements. To properly compare various rigging measurements, the same methodology must always be used to insure comparability. The usual and accepted methods used to take the measurements needed for rigging are not necessarily the most rational, so feel free to use your own, as long as allowances are made for differences between your method and others. Increasing WT, increases the work done by the legs and also increases the catch angle (CA) when no change to the spread occurs. [We can start to see already, that in talking about one aspect of rigging, others must also be introduced, because so much of this is interrelated]. It will also decrease the release angle (RA). CA is the angle between the oarshaft at the catch and a perpendicular line to the keel and parallel to the surface of the water. The RA is analogous, but measured at the release position. With too great a CA, “pinching” of the boat occurs. When CA is 45 degrees, roughly half your energy is being used for forward propulsion. The other half goes to slippage and lifting the boat. Because of this, a CA of more than 45-50 degrees is usually counterproductive. The total of CA and RA should be about 80-95 degrees for ocean rowing. In flat-water sculling, it is not unheard of to have a total of 110 degrees.

Adjust Heel Cup Depth (HD) and Foot Stretcher Angle (FA)

HD is the vertical distance from the deepest point of the heel cups to the low point of the seat top excluding the holes, of course. FA is the angle formed between the keel and the footstretchers. It is generally between 40-50 degrees. Changing HD or even FA can also change your WT and therefore, it can also change your CA. [If you can really follow this preceding sentence you are halfway home!] Increasing HD (lowering your heels) or decreasing FA will allow you to travel through the pin more easily (increased WT) and because of this your CA will then increase. At the catch, one’s shins should be no more than perpendicular to the keel. People with longer shins usually need more HD or less FA to attain this position. Although, increasing HD or decreasing FA allows one to compress more easily at the catch, there is a drawback. That is the tendency to drive the boat down at the catch and bounce the boat up and down thus wasting energy. Decreasing HD and increasing FA are good ways to decrease wasted boat motion-as long as proper compression can still be attained. Maximum forward ankle flexibility is therefore desirable. I like to keep my heels in contact with the footstrecher at the catch, for balance and better power application. Tracks should have about one centimeter of slope, with the bow end of the tracks higher than the stern. Some energy from the drive is wasted in traveling up this incline. However, after trying flat tracks in some long races and having my hamstrings tie up from having to pull myself up to the catch position, I will gladly travel up that centimeter for the relaxation on the recovery.

Adjust the Spread (Span)

Spread is most often measured between the port and starboard pin axes. There are different width oarlocks, and this does change the effective spreads, but most information does not take this into account. Spread changes both the CA and RA. CA can be increased without increasing the WT by decreasing the spread.

Choose Oar Length and Set Inboard

Once all of the above steps are completed, sit at the release position. Your thumbs should be able to brush your lower ribs while your fingers are gripping the handles. For standard oars, length is measured from the tip of the grip to the end of the blade, along the axis of the oar. Hatchets are measured along the axis from the tip of the grip to where the axis line intersects the blade edge. Inboard is the distance from the tip of the grip to the outboard side of the button (the side of the button that contacts the oarlock). Another term you need to know is load. Load is somewhat analogous to what gear a ten speed bike is set in. The gear is chosen with respect to terrain, wind and one’s fitness, among other factors. The idea is to travel most efficiently. In rowing it is difficult to change your gearing (your load) while rowing. We basically set it and make minor changes for particular conditions. In rowing, to increase load you can: increase blade area, decrease inboard (or increase outboard using a longer oar), decrease spread, increase CA, increase WT, gain a lot of weight, row a heavy or slow boat, or row into a headwind or current. Rigging balances all these factors plus your physical attributes to set your ideal load. Load may be changed with varying race course conditions. For example, you may lighten your load by increasing your inboard 1/2-1 cm if you think you will be rowing into a headwind. If you can’t seem to get the stroke rate up to the range used by most of the race winners these days, your-gearing (load) may be too heavy. It is a good practice to check the balance points of your sculls. The two should be equal or very close to it.

Set Work Height (H)

H is the vertical distance between the midpoint of the oarlock’s sill and the low point of the seat. H is measured with the seat in the stern and the oarlocks parallel to the keel. H relates mostly to the rower’s size (height and weight). The range for H is generally between 14-18cm. With standard practice of rowing left hand over right, the starboard oarlock is generally 5-15 mm higher than port. As proficiency increases, the difference can go to 5mm or less. As a check for height, while sitting at the release position, with blades buried and the boat set, your thumbs should be at a level somewhere between your lowest ribs and your solar plexus. Height can be increased or reduced depending upon water conditions. You will want to be higher in rough conditions with a lot of chop. I feel, however, that if you are set too high the drive cannot be effectively coupled between the upper body and legs. Also, when set too high, there is a tendency to extract the oar early and lose valuable inches of propulsion on each stroke. As with the other components of rigging, try out various heights and see what suits you.

Set pitch

There are two kinds of pitch. The first is fore/aft pitch. This is the angle between vertical and the blade at the mid-drive position. This is referred to simply as pitch. It is generally in the 3-7 degree range. Pitch allows your blade to travel through the water without diving too deeply or washing out. It is most easily measured with a pitchmeter. I think you should row with as little pitch as possible, allowing for clean releases and no tendency to dive deep. The second type of pitch is lateral or outward pitch. It measures the tilt away from the boat of the pins. Outward pitch is usually set between 0-2′ degrees. Lateral pitch allows the fore/aft pitch to vary from the catch to the release. With outward pitch the fore/aft pitch decreases through the drive, reducing the tendency to wash out at the finish. It is good practice to mark your blades port and starboard and use each blade only on the side that it has been set. This holds even when blades are ordered with no pitch. Pitch, inboard and spread are the adjustments that most commonly go out of adjustment. Because of this, periodically check these adjustments as part of your usual maintenance. After a collision of any kind, it is wise to check for changes to these items.

Rigging Chart

The values listed below are very general. Experiment with various rigs, loads and stroke rates. Find out what works best for you, and don’t be afraid to experiment. I don’t recommend making any drastic changes right before a major race or row. It takes time to get accustomed to any major change. When using the chart, if you are strong and fit for your weight, you may want to start with the numbers that would give you a higher load. Short people may need a smaller span to achieve a reasonable stroke length through the water, and may then need to increase their inboard so the load is not too heavy. A taller person may have to increase his/her span if their CA is too great. Those who row at high stroke rates may lighten up their load and just tap the boat along. Also, it makes sense that as race distance is increased, the load would be decreased. When racing a 1000 meter sprint you can carry a much higher load than when racing something like Catalina. Not eager to invoke anyone’s wrath, I will say that for a given body weight and level of fitness, a man would probably have a heavier rig than a woman.

Body Type

Oar Length



120lb, 5'4"+




140lb, 5'6"+




160lb, 5'9"+



180lb, 6'0"+




200lb, 6'3"+




Hatchet Blades

Note: at the time this article was written, hatchets were just starting to become the standard. In general, hatchets are shorter overall than Macon blades by about 7cm. Use the same inboard measurements.