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Rowing 101

What everyone should know about crew, including why you don’t want to ‘catch a crab’

Women's crew team members rowing on Tonawanda Creek.

Tonawanda Creek in Amherst serves as the home water for UB’s women’s rowing program. Photo: Paul Hokanson

By David J. Hill


When Mackenzie Turpin tells people she’s a rower, she can almost lay bets on what’s going to follow. “‘You must have strong arms’ is the most common thing I hear,” says the junior from Ottawa, Ontario. “And I get a lot of ‘Oh, rowing,’ with an arm movement as if I’m paddling a boat.’”

Both responses show how little people know about crew. We asked Turpin, who has been rowing since age 15, and coach Sandy Calfo, now in her third season with the Bulls after coaching Purdue to a number of championships, to shed some much-needed light on their sport.

First of all, says Turpin, it’s not all arms. “The majority of your power comes from your legs, because the seat’s on wheels,” she explains. “When you start your stroke, you’re in a compressed position called the catch. The first and largest part of the stroke is when your upper body stays static and you straighten your legs as fast and as hard as you can.”

Bulls coach Sandy Calfo talking to team members.

Third-year head coach Sandy Calfo came to UB in 2012 after stints at Purdue, Cincinnati and Gonzaga. Photo: Paul Hokanson

Secondly, it’s the ultimate team sport. To be successful in a race, every person in the boat has to be in sync, with terrific technique, especially during the more intense 2,000-meters, a roughly seven-and-a-half minute battle against water and exhaustion. “It’s not a sport where there’s an individual star,” says Calfo. “You have to be able to work with everybody else in the boat and use your power along with everyone else’s.” The coxswain, who’s like a coach on the water (she’s even equipped with a microphone and headset), helps keep the rowers in sync by barking out calls like “Hard on port side!” or “Hard on starboard side!”

Finally, rowing is a lot harder, and more dangerous, than it looks. “I can’t even describe how painful and hard and mentally exhausting it is. You’re basically pushing yourself until there’s nothing left,” says Turpin. “Oftentimes, the difference between the boat that wins and the one that loses is who held their technique the longest.”

If just one person’s technique is off, not only can she slow the entire boat, but she also runs the risk of catching a crab—which has nothing to do with crustaceans. “It’s when your oar gets caught under water and you can’t extract it while the boat’s momentum is going,” Turpin explains. “The oar kind of comes at you and can hit you, or you have to lie down really fast to get out of the way. There have been cases—I’ve never seen one—but it’s called an ejector crab, where you actually get knocked out of the boat because of it. That’s the worst-case scenario.”

Water Warriors

You may not be familiar with rowing as a sport, but know this: The Bulls are pretty competitive on the water. In the spring, UB won the silver medal at the Colonial Athletic Association Rowing Conference Championships in New Jersey. The Bulls placed third in the CAA championships in 2013 and 2012, second in 2011, and won the conference title in 2010.