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Safety Expectations

The USRowing Safety Expectations document is intended to guide coaches and administrators as they design or update their rowing safety program.

The guidelines are not exhaustive, but cover basic information that every club needs to be aware of and include in their safety protocols.

You MUST be the expert regarding your specific venue, and these recommendations need to be adapted to fit your waterway and boathouse.

What can my club do? (How do we start?)

Each club should appoint a safety committee that will develop and annually review all safety rules, protocols, and procedures.

These responsibilities should include, but are not limited to:

  • Safe practices to prevent incidents and accidents.
  • Procedures for responding to both on- and off-water emergencies.
  • Means for reporting and tracking injuries, incidents and equipment damage.

Know the waterway.

Each club and school should post a map of local waterways, of traffic patterns (for crew shells as well as all motorized boats) and any known hazards.

NOTE: Study what other rowing clubs do, learn from them, and work with other boathouses on your body of water.

Every Club Should Use a Logbook.

Keep your rowers’ log book in a prominent location. Create club policy regarding how, and by whom, it will be monitored. Everyone on the water should sign in and out, every row. Make one person in each boat (cox, bow) responsible.

NOTE: A logbook is only useful if someone checks the book to see if there is still a boat on the water.

What Should the Coach and Administrators do?

  • Create and communicate an emergency action plan for both on and off the water. Post your plan in a prominent location. Review it annually. Update it when necessary. Train your coaches, rowers, and coxswains on a regular basis.
  • Coaches and administrators should have current First Aid/CPR/AED certification. Click here:

USRowing recommends that all schools and clubs require their rowers, coaches and coxswains to view the USRowing Safety video with a coach present prior to each on-water season. The video is 27:25 minutes in length. Set aside more time for it than that. Stop the video frequently for discussion. Refer to it when issues arise on land and on water.

NOTE: Following the film credits is the “Coaches and Administrators Section” with more information about safety plans and heat and cold related emergencies.

  • Review club standard operating procedures (SOPs) with all coaches, rowers, and coxswains on a regular basis. SOPs should include, but not be limited to, house safety rules, launching and landing procedures, and locker room rules.

NOTE: Accidents can occur in the boathouse, on slippery docks and ramps, and in the parking lot.

All Rowers Should Have a Physical and Pass a Swim Test.

Arrange to have a lifeguard perform the test, not the coach. The coach should observe the test, and make note of weak swimmers.

At minimum, rowers should demonstrate the ability to float and/or tread water for ten minutes, and put on a life jacket while floating.

NOTE: If a rower cannot swim, they should wear a PFD in the shell at all times. Inflatable PFDs are an option.

All clubs should recommend that rowers consult with their physician before starting or re-joining the sport.

The Launch Driver:

Coaches and anyone driving a launch should have a current boater safety certificate. Click here:

  • Know and obey all local and federal regulations concerning all boating and safety requirements.
  • Develop a traffic pattern map for your venue. Post it in a prominent location. Communicate the rules of the road to all coaches, coxswains and rowers.
  • Review your rowing venue and its specific conditions with rowers, coxswains, and coaches to identify hazards, and tricky currents. Some rowing clubs have produced hyperlapse videos that they post on their website, which highlight the important features of their waterway.

On the Launch

Shells should stay within hailing distance of their safety launch. The launch has been outfitted to provide assistance to rowers and/or their shell in the event that it is needed. Most frequently, the toolbox and coach’s expertise is available for small equipment adjustments or repairs, to allow for rowing to continue.

If more serious needs arise, the launch is there for rapid transportation.

  • Supply your club’s launches with a sufficient number of US Coast Guard approved life jackets (PFDs) for each rower and coxswain under your care as well as coaches, and every passenger on your launch.
  • While states regulate requirements for wear of PFDs in power boats, USRowing strongly recommends that everyone in the launch wear a properly fitted PFD, especially the coach, all year round.

For information on types, proper use, fitting of life jackets, see the PFD manufacturers association website.

NOTE: Refer to the capacity limits set by the launch manufacturer. This information is on the launch. Contact Manufacturer if not posted. Stay aware of the capacity, to avoid overloading the launch in an emergency.

  • States have specific requirements for safety equipment based on the length of your vessel. Research your state’s requirements, and have your coach launches inspected annually by your local marine constable. It is an opportunity to develop a relationship and mutual understanding with a crucial safety resource.

Equip launch with a Type IV throwable PFD, bailers, paddles, first aid kit, fire extinguishers, lights, anchor, extra line, flare kit, marine safety throw kit, sound-making devices, and space blankets.

Emergency supplies in the launch should also include a tool kit:

The tool kit should contain wrenches, appropriate nuts, tapes, washers, and other materials needed to make small repairs. Only minor repairs should be done on the water.

  • On coastal waterways where marine VHF radios are used, carry a marine VHF radio on each launch. Know the VHF channels that you should use in the event of an emergency.
  • Train your staff in proper operation of radios and proper communication protocol.
  • On inland waterways, use radios where it is the local convention. Be aware that certain topographical features make radio use impractical. Another scenario where radio use would be impractical are densely populated areas where interference would be a problem.
  • Cell phones are an alternative when radios are not. Be aware that cell phone signals do not necessarily ping your nearest cell tower. A 911 call from the water might not reach your local 911 operator. Critical time could be lost during a rescue if the operator has to figure out where you are. Save local emergency numbers in your phone for direct communication. Keep in mind that you should have the discussion in advance with emergencies services that you would call upon, and make sure they understand your emergency protocols.
  • Also post a laminated list of local emergency landing sites and services as well as their phone numbers in each coach launch. Include street addresses for potential landing locations in the event that you must call for assistance. An emergency services driver is not going to know where to find you if you are using club vernacular.
  • Keep launch lights in working order.
  • Keep your engine well serviced so that it will start with one pull.
  • If your engine has a wearable kill switch, require that it be worn while the launch is in operation.The launch driver must wear the cord that activates the safety/kill switch in accordance with the motor manufacturer’s literature.
  • Have a procedure in place in the event that a coach launch runs out of gas.

For Coaches and Other Launch Drivers:

Proper supervision protocols must be developed and carried out to ensure the safety of the rowers.  Under no circumstances should athletes who are minors be allowed or left unsupervised on the water.

Rowers in multi-person shells should always be quiet and attentive to the coxswain or coach.

  • Develop and implement a mentoring program for newly hired coaches to ensure safe and proper training practices.

NOTE: Make sure all volunteers /crew parents, regatta workers know the rules of safety.

  • Keep equipment well-maintained and safe. Develop procedures for reporting/repairing broken equipment.
  • Have an incident report form available should a problem arise. The reporting coach/administrator should file a report at the earliest opportunity to keep the events clear in mind.

A launch may prove useless unless the following precautions have been taken:

  • The driver must be trained in the proper use and operation of the powerboat.

For information on safe boating courses see information in the Safety Information.

Practice Man-Overboard Safety Drills.

Know how to have rowers enter the coaching launch from the water. Approach from the leeward side, keeping the outboard propeller away from any victims. Turn off the engine as soon as contact is made. Avoid overloading.  For more information and demonstrations see the USRowing Safety Video.

In and On the Boat:

The boat is not a Personal Flotation Device (PFD); it is an Emergency flotation device. Newer shells have been designed for flotation and have flotation compartments under the rower’s bench. Older boats may not have sealed compartments under the rower’s bench but the bow and stern compartments will keep the boat afloat. For more information and demonstrations see the USRowing Safety Video

  • USRowing recommends that all unaccompanied shells carry Coast Guard approved PFDs. A copy of the Coast Guard Regulations concerning PFDs is available upon request from USRowing.
  • Oars are not a PFD nor emergency flotation device.

Modern oars will fill with water in a matter of minutes and lose any expected flotation.

See below for lights.

Educate the rowers:

Before ever getting into a shell on the water, a rower must understand the following terminology:

  • Bow, stern, port, and starboard
  • Weigh enough, ready to row?, back, tie-in, un-tie, and stop.
  • The number of your seat, stroke, bow person, seat numbers in between and what number/seat s/he is that day.
  • The term “stop” should be used only when talking to a specific crew in a race.
  • When a coxswain or coach wants a crew to stop immediately, the proper term is “Weigh enough! Hold water!”
  • Should someone give the command  “Weigh enough! Hold water,” rowers must respond immediately, square the blades in the water and bring the boat to a halt.

Each person is 100% responsible for the whole boat and 100% accountable for their own oar, rigging, foot stretchers, seat and slide. USRowing recommends before leaving land to place the boat in slings and check the following:

  • That nuts on the rigging are tight, position of foot stretchers and the smoothness of slide are acceptable.
  • That the forward end of the slide is blunt and will not gouge calves.
  • That the heel ties on your shoes are tied, the correct length and in good condition (or if using mules or quick release shoes, make sure that they are  in proper working order).
  • That your clothing cannot become tangled in your seat or oar handle.
  • That you have proper safety devices on board the shell, such as lights, PFD  if unaccompanied, cell phone in watertight container, water.
  • Check bow ball to make sure that it is securely fastened.

Use the buddy system at all times when not accompanied by a launch.

We recommend that all single scullers without supervision carry a PFD in the boat.

  • Your buddy’s boat or the launch can help stabilize you for the re-entry in the event you capsize.
  • A buddy can call for emergency assistance if needed.
  • If you cannot re-enter the boat, swim the boat to shore, lying on the stern, using the shell as a paddleboard.
  • Or, you can abandon your shell and lie on the stern deck of your buddy’s boat to be taken to shore. The loss of muscle control can occur very quickly and dramatically in cold water. The stern deck rescue may be your only option.

Know the Venue:

Make sure that you are aware of the local traffic patterns and rules on the water.

  • Take precautions around other types of vessels to avoid collisions and be courteous with boats that have less maneuverability or ability to stop quickly.
  • Familiarize yourself with the local traffic patterns, including launching and return patterns at the dock.
  • Familiarize yourself with shallow water, stumps, rocks, seasonal problems and landmarks.
  • Stay clear of bridge abutments and other man-made or natural obstacles. Do not negotiate a turn near such an obstacle.
  • The coxswain or single sculler should make frequent checks on both sides. Listen for oncoming traffic.
  • Be courteous to others on that water. Be aware of powerboats and treat them with respect.

Watch the Weather:

Be aware of weather conditions and how your venue is impacted by those conditions.

There are several inexpensive models of weather radios on the market. Check the weather on a computer, phone app, weather radio or other device before going out on the water. Watch for gathering clouds, changes in wind speed and direction, temperature changes and other boats returning home. If on a river or tidal body of water, check the current direction and look for floating objects or kelp.


It is recommended that extreme caution is used rowing in high winds.

If sudden winds come up, return to the boathouse if the trip is safe, or take the boat to the nearest shore and wait for the winds to calm.

Try to minimize equipment damage, but remember that you are more valuable than the boat.


Do not row in fog unless your visibility to shore is as least 100 yards. Be sure to have land reference points. If fog sets in while you are on the water, move slowly, and be prepared to stop quickly. Use a sound making device (cox box, horn, or whistle) to advise other boats of your location as you take your boat to shore, following the shore back to the boathouse.


Do not row in an electrical storm. Lightning detectors are inexpensive and can clip on your belt. If you are on the water and see lightning, hear thunder, or notice your hair standing on end with static electricity, head for the nearest shore. If the storm is upon you, take your boat ashore and wait for the storm to pass.

NOTE: If you are about to launch and hear thunder or see lightning, or quickly darkening skies, do not launch.


Pay attention to rough water.  Waves are generated by winds, tides, currents, or wakes from passing boats. Because shells are vulnerable to high waves, specific care is needed with approaching wakes.

  • If approaching wake is higher than the gunwale, the shell should be turned parallel to the wake to avoid having part of the shell unsupported by the water. It is possible to split a shell under these conditions. Rowers should stop rowing and lean away from the approaching wake, with oars on the wake side lifted slightly.
  • If the wakes are lower than the gunwale and widely spaced, continue to row without a course adjustment. Deep and closely spaced wakes that are lower than the gunwale may be taken at a 90 degree angle with the bow directly toward them.
  • Turning in waves can be tricky; allow plenty of room, energy and time.
  • For more information see the USRowing Safety Video


Know the times for sunrise and sunset. The greatest and most frequent danger while rowing is a collision caused by limited vision or carelessness. Great care should be taken when rowing in darkness or near-darkness.

  • Take extra care to look and listen. Minimize conversation.
  • Be careful not to get too close to shore or known hazards.
  • Only row in familiar waters while rowing at dusk, dawn, or in the dark.
  • A 360°/all-around white light on the stern of each rowing shell when rowing between sundown and sunup. It should be visible enough to warn approaching vessels.
  • The bow of every boat should have a red light on port side and green light on starboard side.
  • All lights should meet Coast Guard minimum standards with no less than one nautical mile of visibility for bow lights and stern lights.
  • Carry a sound making device.


In hot and cold weather

Hyperthermia occurs when there is an increase in body temperature, usually when the air temperature is above 76 degrees, and the victim is exposed to sun and heat in combination with a decrease in fluids. It may occur when sweat cannot easily evaporate; the body is being heated by the environment; or water loss from sweat and respiration is not replaced and dehydration occurs. Two serious conditions may result:

  • Heat exhaustion; signs are throbbing headache, nausea, cool skin, chills, sweaty, and pale pulse. Action; drink water, shade from sun, and treat for shock.
  • Heat Stroke is life threatening; signs are behavior changes, unconsciousness, hot but not sweaty, flushed warm skin and rapid pulse. Action- douse with cool water, shade from sun, fan, ensure the airway is open, get medical assistance as soon as possible.

To avoid these problems in hot and humid weather:

  • Maintain a high fluid level. Drink water before leaving the dock and frequently while on the water. Take an individual water bottle for easy access.
  • Avoid sunburn by using sunscreen and wear a hat or visor to keep the sun off the face and out of the eyes.
  • Wear light clothing.
  • Remain in the shade when off the water.
  • Plan activity level consistent with the degree of heat and humidity.

Hypothermia occurs when a victim is subject to cold temperatures, cold water, ice or snow. There is potential danger for hypothermia when the water temperature is below 80 degrees and very dangerous when the water temperature is below 50 degrees.

Hypothermia can occur without the victim being in the water, rowing in extremely cold weather can cause symptoms.   Symptoms include feeling cold, turn bluish and shivering, and followed by numbness, apathy, lethargy, disorientation and loss of mental capacity.

When air is below 40 degrees and /or water below 50 degrees, keep launch within 100 yards of all shells.

NOTE: Make sure the coxswain is warm but safe. They are not moving. Many layers are not safe, if the boat flips they can drown. Mustang Survival suits are a better warming option.

What to do if cold and shivering:

  • Get out of the water quickly, even on top of the capsized boat. Heat loss is 25 times greater when in the water.
  • If unable to get out of the water, huddle with others. Keeping as much of the body out of the water as possible.
  • Move to shelter quickly, remove wet clothing and re-warm body. In mild hypothermia conditions, re-warm in a shower, tub or with warm blankets.
  • Do not give any liquids to drink, treat for shock.
  • Continue to re-warm and always obtain medical assistance as soon as possible.

What to do if shivering has stopped:

  • Call or assign someone to call for EMS.
  • Treat as above but DO NOT RE-WARM EXTREMITIES!

If victim is no longer shivering, the torso must be re-warmed to avoid circulation of cold blood to the heart. This can kill. Wrap the victim in a warm blanket and apply heat to the underarms and groin area; wrap again in a separate blanket. Wrap each arm and leg separately to prevent rapid re-circulation of blood to the heart. Hot packs should not be placed directly on the victim, a thin layer should be used to protect the victim from burning. If possible place the victim in a sleeping bag with a warm person.

  • Administer artificial respiration and CPR if necessary. Always obtain medical assistance as soon as possible.

In a situation of cold water immersion; be aware that in very cold water people have survived as long as one hour underwater. Recover a victim immediately and even though there may be no sign of life, administer CPR efforts until medical assistance is obtained.

For more information and demonstrations of hot and cold weather care see the USRowing Safety Video.

Emergency Conditions

Rowers should not leave his/her shell unless being rescued. If a swamped boat is within a swim-able distance from the shore, the rower should swim the boat to the shore. So do not leave your flotation even if you consider yourself a strong swimmer.

  • If in distress wave your arms or a shirt above your head or raise one oar in the air, a whistle, bullhorn or other means of making noise can help attract rapid assistance.
  • In the event of a man overboard the immediate command should be “weigh enough! Hold water!” If the safety launch can get to the victim first, allow the launch to rescue the victim. If the launch is not in the immediate vicinity, back the shell to the victim and have him/her hang onto the shell until the launch arrives. Another rower may have to enter the water to assist if the victim is injured.
  • If a rower is injured the immediate command should be “weigh enough! Hold water!” Signal launch if first aid is needed.
  • If the shell is damaged but afloat and not taking on water; Immediate command “weigh enough! Hold water!” Make adjustments or signal launch for assistance.

If your shell swamps the immediate command should be “weigh enough! Hold water!”  A shell is swamped when the interior water reaches the gunwales. If your shell has sealed compartments under each rower’s bench it will stay afloat and the rowers should stay in the shell. If the rowers are in a boat without sealed compartments (older boats) the flotation ends may cause the boat to break apart, in that case the rowers should follow the procedures listed below.

  • Coxswain directs rowers to untie, and by seat number rowers should carefully slip overboard.
  • If the boat is taking on excessive water, signal the launch and unload rowers by pairs; starting in the middle of the boat; as soon as possible in order to avoid damage to the boat. Pairs should form “buddies” and keep watch of each other. The cox should buddy with the stern pair.
  • If rescue is not imminent, take the following steps: Remove oars and place them parallel to the shell. All persons should move to the two ends of the shell. It is dangerous to roll a shell when near riggers. Then roll the boat so the hull is up, to form a more stable flotation platform so rowers can either lie on top of the hull or buddies can hold onto each other across the hull. Remember that body heat loss occurs 25 times faster in the water. Do not roll the boat if rescue is on the way.
  • A launch can shuttle rowers to the nearest shore. Be careful not to overload the launch.
  • When the boat has been brought to the shore, remove the oars. If the ends of the shell have filled with water, they must be drained before the boat can be removed from the water. Lift the shell carefully to avoid injury or damage. A boat full of water is very heavy, so try bailing first, then roll the boat slowly and lift it from the water.
  • If the shell breaks apart and begins sinking, the immediate command should be “untie!” Get out of the boat and follow the same procedures as for a swamped shell. Do not leave the floating boat. Swim boat to shore if launch is not immediate.
  • If the shell is capsized the immediate command should be “untie!” This rarely happens except in small boats. Be sure that all rowers and cox are accounted for. Stay with the boat until assistance arrives.

If another boat is in distress near your craft, maneuver your shell to the distressed shell. Assist in any way that does not jeopardize the lives in your shell.

For more information and demonstrations see the USRowing Safety Video.

Please defer to the local governmental bodies overseeing your body of water.

For more info:

Row Safe!


Additional Links:

Safety Pages 

Safety Committee

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