For as long as humans have needed to get across water by boat we have been rowing. However, the first references to it as a sport didn’t appear until a 15th century BC Egyptian funerary carving. It was mentioned by the writer Virgil as part of the funeral games for Aeneas. It appeared again during the Middle Ages when Italian Carnevale featured regatta races, pitting the nation’s best rowers against each other. The first glimpses of modern rowing competitions in Great Britain were seen when boatmen offering taxi services across the Thames competed for money prizes put up by London’s guilds.
There is no official record of how rowing first arrived in America, but the first recorded race was held in 1756, in New York harbour. Once the sport had found its way to America it wasn’t long before it was added to the sports programs of many of the country’s top colleges. It has been a mainstay of US college campuses since the early 1800s and can claim to be the oldest intercollegiate sport in America.
The first known examples of ‘modern’ rowing races come from competitions that too place between the professional ferry and taxi services on the River Thames in London. The London Guilds, Livery Companies and wealth riverside home owners put up the prizes for the races. They became very popular and were attracting huge crowds by the 19th century. 5000 rowing matches are listed in a contemporary sporting book between the years 1835 to 1851. this type of rowing event also became popular on other Great Britain rivers, particularly on the Tyne. The oldest surviving race, the Doggett’s Coat and Badge, was first held in 1715 and is still held today, from London Bridge to Chelsea.
Amateur competitions began towards the end of the 18th century, but documentary evidence is a little sparse. Oxford University organised bumping races in 1815, and the first recorded races at Cambridge were in 1827. The first ever Boat Race between these two universities was held in 1829.
America also has a very large rowing community. The first American race took place between 6-oared barges in 1762, on the Schuylkill River. The sports increased in popularity leading to the formation of clubs and scullers racing for prizes. The first American college rowing club was formed at Yale University in 1843 and the oldest intercollegiate sporting event that’s still contested every year in the Harvard-Yale Regatta. This sporting event has been held since 1852.
The first European Rowing Championships were organised by FISA in 1893 and the annual World Rowing Championships began in 1962. Rowing has also been an event in the Olympic Games since 1900. With just one year, 1896, that this wasn’t included because of bad weather.
Great Britain, the United States, Netherlands, Italy, France, Germany, Canada, New Zealand, Romania and Australia all have strong national rowing teams.
Throughout most of its history rowing has been a male dominated sport. It wasn’t until the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal that the participation of women was allowed. Women have been competing in rowing events since the fifteenth century. Modern women’s rowing events can be traced back to the beginning of the 19th century. On the cover of Harper’s Weekly, in 1870, there is an image of a women’s double scull race. Internationally, women’s rowing has been dominated by Eastern European countries such as Russia, Romania and Bulgaria.