Surf's Up

What Should the Role of Coastal Rowing be on the World Stage?

I’ve had an interesting discussion on Twitter (yes, social media can still do good things) about the role of coastal rowing in FISA’s push for more engagement, as well as the Olympic Movement. The back-and-forth stemmed from this tweet:

First, there was pushback about accessibility. The idea of open-water rowing shells being more stable and cost effective (as well as not necessarily requiring the shelter of a boathouse, etc.) is certainly compelling—it’s easier to get started, both physically and financially. Second, it doesn’t require the use of a purpose-built racecourse.

But those aren’t the only kinds of accessibility, or the only concerns regarding venues.

Coastal rowing requires, well, coasts. If you’re already living along a coastline, then that’s obviously not an issue, but it’s not great if you’re living in, say, Ohio. (Yes, you can row open-water shells on any body of water, but being in the surf along the coast of California is quite different from a bumpy day on Scioto River.)

It’s one thing if FISA is operating alone, and coastal rowing is just another offering to help cast a wide net, as with the World Indoor Rowing Championships (the most accessible of events, of course). That argument is logical, and there may, in fact, be a good return on investment by building a broader base, despite coastal rowing’s generally separate history and legacy to that of flat-water international rowing. Similarly, FISA can simply continue the practice of holding separate events for coastal and flat-water world championships—the venues don’t need to be close to one another. But it’s an entirely different thing if it’s meant to be a part of FISA’s plans for the Olympics (as it may be) going forward.

Through the lens of the Olympic Movement and Agenda 2020, trying to add coastal rowing makes no sense, unless FISA is looking to make drastic changes to flat-water racing. Here’s why:

  1. As I noted in my earlier piece, ‘The Future of Rowing at the Olympics,’ the IOC is moving in the direction of athlete quotas. This means that, unless the same athletes would be participating in both (which seems very unlikely), rowing would be asking for more, not fewer athlete places—not going to work.

  2. This would require an additional rowing venue, when rowing is already a nuisance to the IOC in that regard. The suggestion I’ve made in the aforementioned piece on rowing’s future at the Olympics is that it eventually move to 1k racing and align itself with canoe/kayak (which also used to have much longer races). There is the potential that coastal rowing could possibly make use of the same venue as sailing, but the logistics—especially if the same set of athletes were to be competing in both coastal and flat-water rowing—would be a nightmare.

  3. The only way around the above two points would be for FISA to a) significantly reduce the athletes competing in flat-water competition, and make room for coastal athlete places by means of that reduction. This could be an angle worth exploring, if we’re interested in trying to move in the ‘X Games’ direction.

  4. Lastly, from the spectator perspective, rowing is already a difficult prospect. Moving it offshore wouldn’t help that the way shortening the racecourse would. However, if it’s the ‘X Games’ approach we’re after, then it’s all about television anyway, so it’s effectively a moot point—you’d be making the sport more television friendly by either a) making the races shorter and margins smaller, or b) including the possibility of crashes and flips as crews try to navigate the surf.

So, while the idea that coastal rowing could play a larger role in the greater rowing community is growing on me, the same arguments, when applied to the Olympic Regatta and rowing’s future at the Games, don’t add up unless we’re looking to break (almost) entirely with tradition.

Where do you stand?


Illustration by the author.