Boat types and terminology

What’s the Difference between Rowing, Sculling and Skiffing?

They are all different ways of going backwards at a high speed. The main difference is that rowers row with a single oar, while scullers can manage more than one thing at once, and scull with two oars. Skiffing is just sculling in a skiff.


What’s the Difference between a Skiff and a Rowing Boat?

A rowing boat is used to take your great aunt out in the local park, and is usually alma st as wide as it is long. A skiff is a much more serious affair and is used for racing; it is a traditional wooden craft, 25 - 27 ft long and 3½ ft wide.

Skiffs are built and maintained by craftsmen, and are very valuable - a new one can cost £12,000 - £15,000. Most skiffs are singles (for one sculler) or doubles (for two scullers with a Cox) although there is still at least one four-man skiff on the Thames.

Another kind of skiff is the camping skiff, which is what Jerome K. Jerome’s ‘Three Men in a Boat’ used, It is a bit longer than a racing skiff, and has a removable canopy with a frame to turn it into a sort of tent overnight. This is almost as romantic as it is uncomfortable.


So how come Oxford and Cambridge have such big crews?

Because the University Boat Race isn’t skiffing, it’s rowing. Despite popular opinion, size is important as well as technique. Basically, the bigger the body, the more the oomph. That’s why rowing follows other so-called sports like boxing, wrestling and weight-lifting in having separate categories for light weights and heavy weights. Secondly, they have eight rowers with a Cox, in a boat called a racing eight. This is longer and much narrower than a skiff, with less freeboard (the top edge is much nearer the water, so the boat is much more likely to sink). Racing eights used to be nice traditional wooden craft, but they were always a bit flash with sliding seats and the like. Nowadays they have gone all hightech and are usually made of fibreglass or carbon fibre, or some other kind of plastic. ‘There are also variations on the same theme for different numbers of rowers, known as racing fours, pairs. Singles etc. These are used at events like the Olympics and at places like Henley.


What is a Junior Senior Novice?

At Wimbledon they have seeding, and at golf they have handicaps, in skiffing they use classes. Basically it’s a scheme to try and ensure people only compete against someone else of the same standard. Everyone starts off as a Novice, racing against other Novices, but when they start to get any good at it they win a couple of events which makes them a Junior and they have to race against other Juniors.

When they get too good for that, they become a Junior-Senior, and then a Senior. Finally, having spent years climbing towards Seniordom, they go over the hill to find the whole thing goes into reverse and they become Veterans when they pass 40 (at least the men do, Ladies, as is well known, never pass 29 and so never become veterans).


What is the Difference between an Oar, a Blade and a Paddle?

An oar and a blade are two words for the same thing. Some people make an age distinction, blades being young and oars being old. Other people say that ‘blade’ is an Amencanism, just as they call male hens ‘roosters'. A paddle is when you get your feet wet, which is why they are used for Dongola racing but not for skiffing.


What is the Cox for?

Uncharitable people say he is a kind of leprechaun - a little person wielding an influence, often malign, out of all proportion to his size.

The official story is that the cox is there to urge the skiffers on to greater efforts and to that they steer in a straight line. They can also help the skiffers to maintain a constant rhythm.

So what is the role of an Umpire?

He is there to ensure fair play, and make sure the crews don’t interfere with each other - skiffing is supposed to be a non-contact sport.


What about Punting?

One theory is that punting was invented by someone with no knowledge of engineering, who didn’t realise that by standing up in a boat you raise the centre of gravity and make it more unstable. Another theory has it that it was invented by an engineer, who realised that making it more unstable raised the levity. Whatever the theory, a great sense of balance is needed here.


Why do they use all sorts of different punts?

Punters have been getting more and more skilful over the years, so to counteract this their boats have become more and more awkward. Nowadays, as well as the usual ‘two foot (wide) punts, there are Best & Best punts, which are only about 14” wide. People also punt canoes which are even less stable. However, double punting only uses the two foot punts - even punters have limits!