Rowing in Oxford: Where to Learn

Home > Articles > The University & Its Traditions

Everything You Need to Know About Oxford Rowing and Races

Rowing in Oxford: Where to Learn

Are you curious about how rowing works in Oxford? Here are all the essentials about this quintessential Oxfordian activity – from the correct vocabulary to where to learn how to row, how to attend the races, and much more. We got quite a few things to cover, so let’s get started. 

Oxford Rowing Basics: The Types of Races

There are three types of rowing races or race formats popular in Oxford. These are the side-by-side races, the head races, and the bump races. So, how do they differ?

  • Side-by-side rowing races: This is the preferred format during spring and summer, and it’s also what you would see if you watched rowing during the Olympic Games. Boats line up and start rowing at the same time, and whoever crosses the finish line first wins. Christ Church Regatta, for example, is a side-by-side race. 
  • Head rowing races: These races are more common during autumn and winter. Instead of racing at the same time, boats here compete against the clock. The time begins to count when they pass the start line and ends when they cross the finish. Prizes are given to the fastest crews. 
  • Bump rowing races: This is a more unusual format but one extremely popular with Oxfordians. The Isis branch of the Thames is quite narrow, so you can’t have a proper side-by-side race. This is why the bumps lines boats bow-to-stern and leave 1.5 lengths of clear water between them. After a cannon fires, the boats try to make contact with the people in front and avoid being hit by those behind. Both the Torpids and the Summer Eights are Oxford bump races. 

Oxford Row Basics: The Actual Races

Oxford holds several regular races and events, typically along the Isis (a branch of the river Thames). The two most important ones are the Torpids (usually held in February) and the Eights (from May to June). Both of these races, as well as others we’ll soon see in more detail, don’t have a fixed date. Instead, they depend on the University of Oxford’s terms

The Torpids Rowing Race

The Torpids is a series of bumping races that take place around February (more specifically, on the 7th week of the Hilary Term). The Torpids has six men’s and five women’s divisions and over a thousand participants that compete with each other along the bank of the Isis river. 

> Learn more about the Torpids here

The Summer Eights or Eights Wek

The Summer Eights (also known as Eights Week) is a series of regattas and also the main intercollegiate rowing event of the year. It usually takes place on the 5th week of the Trinity Term, typically from May to June. The racing also happens on the length of the Isis and each division has thirteen boats.

> Learn more about the Eights here

The Christ Church Regatta

The Christ Church Regatta is a boat race where novice crews of eight rowers compete on the Isis. This race takes place during the Michaelmas term and consists of separate men’s and women’s races. As we mentioned above, the Christ Church Regatta is a side-by-side race, but because there are lots of novices competing, many rounds have to be stopped when crews get stranded!

> Learn more about the Christ Church Regatta  here

The Isis Winter League

The Isis Winter League is a series of races that take place during the Michaelmas and Hilary terms. They are head races where boats don’t compete with each other directly but against the clock. .

> Learn more about the Isis Winter League here

Other Rowing Races in Oxford

There are some other races that take place on the Isis. You can find out more about them through the OURC website

Oxford Rowing Vocabulary

Some people enjoy learning the vocabulary of rowing, even if they don’t like to practice the sport themselves. If you’re one of these curious humans, here is all the vocabulary you will need to hold a conversation about rowing in Oxford. 

  • Rowing, Boat, Crew and Squad: If you’re American, you might call the boats “shells”. Boats in Oxford are…. well, boats. The sport is “rowing”, and the groups doing it are the “crew” or the “squad”. 
  • Captain: The people in charge of safety, training planning, and keeping with the rules are called “captains”. 
  • Oarsman and Rower: If you pull an oar, you are an oarsman or rower. 
  • Boatman: The boatman is the person responsible for repairing and maintaining the professional equipment used by the rowers. They also typically transport the boats to events. 
  • Cox: “Cox” is short of “coxswain”, the person who sits at the stern or the bow (back or front) and commands rowers. They are in charge not just of steering and strategy but also motivation!
  • Sweep Rowing: This is the most popular form of rowing in Oxford. Each rower holds one blade, alternating the directions. 
  • Sculling: An alternative approach to sweep rowing. If you’re sculling, you hold one blade on each hand. 
  • Blade and Spoon: Another term for an oar. The bit that touches the water is called a “spoon”.
  • Rigger: The metal bolted to the side of a boat to hold a blade. 

Explore the university traditions, learn more about the different academic terms, the halls, common rooms, and beautiful medieval quadrangles. Browse All >

Our collection of articles with ideas for things to do and see, the history of this incredible city, the University, its museums, literature and movie inspirations, filming locations, and much more.