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Row, row, row your boat…

April 22, 2013

Rowing is fabulous. It’s a good way to get wet without taking your kit off, it’s a great way to get fit without standing-up let alone actually jogging or running. It can be soothing and relaxing – a balm to the soul on a tranquil stretch of water on a summer’s evening. It can also be challenging, lungs bursting, body screaming as you do a 2000m sprint.

Be it in a single scull or an eight, there’s little doubt that the key to rowing is timing, co-ordination and technique. Sure, you can be big and strong and beast an erg or lift plenty of weights, but as soon as you get on the water you will be found out for the fraud you are. Having big muscles won’t help you remember to feather and square, get your arms away quick enough, get your body lean right.

If you are reading this the chances are you either row or enjoy rowing. You’ve either plonked your bum on a Concept 2 and zipped up and down the rail or you’ve actually been in a boat and felt at first hand the moment of embarrassment and horror as you’ve caught a prehistoric sized crab.

But let’s spare a thought for the rowers of antiquity, the men who rowed into battle. For just a moment let’s consider the boiling sea and the biggest “rowing boats” ever constructed.

The battle of Cape Ecnomus, probably the biggest navel battle in history.
Location: Off shore Cape Ecnomus, Sicily
When:256bce
Who: Roman Republic vs. Carthage (1st Punic war)
Strength: About 330 ships, more than 150,000 rowers and marines
Losses:24 Roman ships sunk, 30 Carthaginian ships sunk
Result: Roman victory

The Romans, not to be out done by the naval might of Carthage’s Quadrireme fleet, decided to go one better and build the quinquereme – a candidate for one of the most awesome man propelled vessels in history.

The Roman quinquereme

Crew: 420
Rowers:300
Pattern:90 oars on each side and 30 files of oarsmen
Length:45m
Width:5m at water level
Deck height: 3m above water level
Displacement: 100 tonnes

So imagine the drumbeat of battle. The noise, the adrenaline, the muscle scorching lactic acid as you propel your ship at ramming speed, it’s bronze tipped spike waiting to turn an enemy ship to kindling. Imagine the chaos, the heart rate and the fear as you pull your awe through the water.

So next time you catch a crab, spare a thought for the rowers of antiquity. If they caught a crab they wouldn’t just feel a bit silly, they would have severe injuries, broken ribs, punctured lungs, bruised kidneys and a lot of discomfort. For getting out of time in such a ship doesn’t mean a slightly dodgy split or a poor 2000m, it means the difference between victory and defeat, life and death.

For the record, there were bigger ships in antiquity, but frankly these were ridiculous and used mainly for ceremonials and ferrying men and equipment. The quinquereme and its predecessors were actually part of fleets that had to act in unison, on command in perfect symmetry. A far cry from anything we have today.

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From → History, Sport

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