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Rowing in New Zealand

Page 2 – From transport to sport

Rowing in history

For all but the last 200 years, rowing and sailing have been the only ways for people to travel across lakes and oceans. Sails use the power of the wind; oars and paddles convert the energy stored in human muscle into horizontal movement. Oars are more useful than sails in regions where winds are often light or fickle, such as one of the cradles of civilisation, the shores of the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

Different strokes...

Rowers use one oar each. Rowing boats (‘shells’) are crewed by an even number of rowers whose oars alternate on each side of the boat.

Scullers have two oars each, one on each side of the boat.

Because both rowers and scullers face backwards, a lightweight coxswain (cox) steers all eight-person and some four-person boats.

Kayaks are crewed by one or more people facing in the direction they are travelling. They dip paddles (shorter than oars) in the water alternately on each side of the boat.

Boats steered and/or paddled or rowed by oars were used on the River Nile in Egypt from about 4000 BCE, nearly 1000 years before sails appeared in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq). Multi-level rowed craft were invented in Greece. Triremes (vessels with three tiers of oars carrying several hundred rowers) dominated the Mediterranean until the end of the Roman Empire. Rowing techniques have changed little since the days of the galley slaves shown in movies like Ben Hur.

Oared vessels were used in northern Europe from the fifth century BCE; later the Vikings combined sails and oars effectively. The Byzantine Empire (based in modern Türkiye) took over Rome’s maritime technology, and the Italian city-states of the Renaissance aped Byzantium. Venetian (Italian) and Spanish galleys defeated those of the Ottoman Empire (which had supplanted the Byzantines) at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, signalling the end of Ottoman dominance in the Mediterranean. This was the last time rowing changed the course of history.

Until the 19th century, many people who lived beside the sea or a lake were competent rowers – as part of their daily lives, not for leisure or sport. The first known competitive regatta took place in Venice in 1315. In England, rowing for sport began in the 1740s. Over the next century, competitive rowing became established in the elite public schools and universities. The first Oxford vs Cambridge eight-oared race was rowed on the Thames in 1829. ‘The Boat Race’ has been contested annually since 1856, apart from during the world wars and the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic.

Rowing comes to New Zealand

The sport of rowing was spread around the British Empire by upper- and middle-class officials and settlers who had learnt it during their youth. The Canterbury Rowing Club, New Zealand’s first, was founded in Christchurch in 1861. Within a decade enough clubs had sprung up around the country for interprovincial regattas to be held.

Speed records

The recognised fastest time over the standard distance of 2000m by a single sculler is 6 min 33 sec, recorded in 2009 by New Zealander Mahe Drysdale. A USA eight broke 5 min 20 sec at the 2004 Athens Olympics. By comparison, Hicham El Guerrouj has run 2000m in under 4 min 45 sec.

Kayaking is more explosive than rowing, and its standard race distances are 200m, 500m and 1000m. New Zealander Ben Fouhy has recorded the fastest time for 1000m: 3 min 24 sec in 2006. A Slovak four-man crew covered 1000m in under 2 min 50 sec in 2005.

Rowing in New Zealand soon faced the debate over amateurism that raged throughout the English-speaking world. In England, manual workers were barred from the sport, on the grounds that their occupations (especially if they were ‘watermen’ who rowed small boats for a living) gave them an unfair advantage over ‘gentlemen’ for whom even ‘training’ was a dirty word. The approach in New Zealand, where gentlemen had to row themselves around from time to time, was relatively pragmatic. Early regattas often included races for whaleboats. Cash prizes were allowed, but they went to clubs, not individuals. Sometimes there were waka (Māori canoe) races too, but few (if any) Māori joined the colonists’ rowing clubs.

The New Zealand Amateur Rowing Association set up in 1887 was one of the first colony-wide sports bodies. The founding clubs were Napier, Union (Whanganui), Wanganui, Star (Wellington), Wellington, Nelson, Whakatu (Nelson), Union (Christchurch) and Canterbury. The first national championship races were rowed in 1888, and from 1892 all the events were held at one venue. By 1892, 34 clubs were affiliated to the Association. In 1903 the 45 clubs were grouped into nine provincial associations. Today the best senior rowers compete for the regional performance centres that were set up in Auckland, Hamilton, Blenheim and Christchurch in 2005.

The first women’s title at a national championships was won in 1967. A women’s association formed in 1966 merged with the men’s in 1974, the year a coxed four competed in the first women’s world championships. Today the number of competitive male and female rowers in New Zealand is virtually equal – there are about 2000 of each sex, more than three-quarters of them aged under 18.

Secondary school rowing

Secondary school rowing in New Zealand began at Wanganui Collegiate in 1885. The first inter-school race was rowed on Wellington harbour in 1889. A quadrangular tournament involving Wanganui Collegiate, Christ’s College, Christchurch Boys’ High School and Waitaki Boys’ High School flourished briefly before and after the First World War. Regional schools’ associations were formed from the 1930s.

School rowing really took off after the Maadi Cup (won by the New Zealand Army eight in Egypt) was donated for competition among male eight-oared crews in 1947. Since 1965 the annual Maadi Cup contest has been complemented by a Springbok Shield for fours. The first girls’ race at a Maadi Cup regatta was rowed in 1973. Today nearly 2000 rowers from more than 100 schools compete in a week-long regatta that is said to be the biggest in the southern hemisphere.

How to cite this page

From transport to sport, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated