Sculling is a form of rowing in which the rower uses two oars, one in each hand, to propel the boat forward. The oars are positioned perpendicular to the boat and are used to move the boat through the water in rhythm together. 

An image with motion blur showing four scullers racing on the water

In this guide:

It requires a special technique that differs from rowing with a single oar. Typically, sculling is done in small boats, such as single sculls or double sculls, but can also be done in larger boats, such as quadruple sculls or even octuples, as is common for young rowers just learning the sport in the United Kingdom. Sculling is a popular sport that's enjoyed both recreationally and competitively, and can provide a full-body workout while also promoting balance, coordination, and mental focus.

Sculling vs. Rowing: What's the Difference?

Many people confuse sculling with rowing, but they are two distinct disciplines: In rowing (also called 'sweep rowing'), each person uses a single oar to propel the boat forward; in sculling, each person uses two smaller oars — one in each hand — to row the boat. This means that the technique required in sculling is quite different from rowing, but the skills are complementary and the physiology effectively the same.

Still, sculling is the foundational discipline of modern rowing. The competitive sport of rowing has its roots in the Doggett's Coat and Badge — a race that has been run on the Thames River in London, England by the Thames Watermen since 1715. 

Benefits of Sculling

Sculling has many benefits for both physical and mental health. Here are some of the most notable:

Full-body, balanced workout

Sculling requires the use of almost every muscle in your body, making it an excellent full-body workout. Also, unlike rowing, the sculling stroke is balanced: While rowing necessarily means you'll be pivoting out to one side of the boat or the other following the sweep of the oar, sculling encourages you to keep your bodyweight centered and avoids any overuse or overtraining of one side or the other. 

Balance and coordination

Since sculling requires two oars, it also requires a greater degree of balance and coordination than rowing. This can help improve your overall balance and coordination in sweep boats, as well as in other areas of your life. 

Low-impact exercise

Sculling, like all forms of rowing, is a low-impact exercise, which means it's easy on your joints and less likely to cause injury.

Why Learning How to Scull Can Make You a Better Rower

Improved balance and coordination

Sculling requires a greater degree of balance and coordination than rowing with a single oar. By learning how to scull, you can improve your overall balance and coordination, which can translate to better rowing technique.

Increased power and efficiency

Sculling requires you to use both arms and hands to propel the boat forward, which can help you develop greater power and efficiency in your rowing stroke. If you only row on one side throughout your career, without the balance of sculling (or at least the rowing machine on land), you're more at risk of developing musculoskeletal imbalances. 

Greater understanding of the rowing stroke

Sculling requires a different technique than rowing with a single oar, which can help you develop a deeper understanding of the rowing stroke as a whole. Also, training in a single offers a kind of direct feedback you simply cannot get in a shared shell—every movement you make is directly and solely attributable to what you're doing, making it a great (and sometimes harsh) teacher. 

Increased versatility

By learning how to scull, you can become a more versatile rower. This can be particularly useful in races where you may have the opportunity to switch between rowing with a single oar and sculling, or switching sides in a rowing boat (imagine if you didn't need to have separate lists of ports and starboards!).

Famous Scullers

There have been many influential sculling world champions and Olympians throughout history. Here are a few notable names:

Vyacheslav Ivanov

Vyacheslav Ivanov is a former Soviet Union and Russian sculler who won three-straight Olympic gold medals in the single sculls event between 1956 and 1964 (one of only two athletes to achieve that feat). He is widely regarded as one of the greatest scullers of all time.

Pertti Karppinen

Pertti Karppinen was born on February 17, 1953, in Askainen, Finland, and began rowing at a young age. Like Ivanov, Karppinen achieved a three-peat in the men's single sculls at the Olympic Games, winning in 1976, 1980, and 1984. Karppinen earned two of the three Olympic gold medals in come-from-behind fashion against Peter-Michael Kolbe of West Germany (see below), at the Games in 1976 (Montreal) and 1984 (Los Angeles — shown in the video above). 

Ekaterina Karsten

Ekaterina Karsten is a Belarusian sculler — and seven-time Olympian —who has won four Olympic medals (including two golds) in the women's single sculls event, as well as a bronze medal in the women's quadruple sculls in 1992 at the Games in Barcelona. 

She is also a six-time world champion in the women's single, and arguably the best rower in the history of our sport

Peter-Michael Kolbe 

Peter-Michael Kolbe (featured in the 1984 Olympic Final video above racing against Karppinen) is a German sculler who is widely regarded as one of the greatest scullers of all time. He was born on August 2, 1953, in Hamburg, West Germany. In 1973, at the age of 20, he won his first international medal, this time in the double sculls event at the European Rowing Championships in Moscow.

Kolbe was a force in the late 1970s and 1980s, when, winning five world championship titles in the event between 1978 and 1987. He won three Olympic silver medals in the event in 1976, 1984, and 1988. 

Olaf Tufte

Olaf Tufte is a Norwegian sculler — and seven-time Olympian — who won four Olympic medals in men's sculling events, including two golds in the men's single in back-to-back Games (Athens, Beijing). The other medals came in the men's double sculls: a silver in Sydney and a bronze at the Rio Games. 

Vaclav Chalupa

Vaclav Chalupa is a Czech sculler and six-time Olympian (from 1988 to 2008), who won a silver in the men's single sculls in Barcelona (1992 Olympics), as well as four further silver medals and three bronze medals at Worlds in the men's single. 

He also won two medals at in sweep events: a silver in the men's pair with coxswain at Worlds in 2009, and gold in the men's eight in 2007 at the European Rowing Championships. 

Kim Brennan (née Crow)

As we wrote in our RR picks for the top 10 athletes of the last decade: "Kim Brennan is one of the most impressive athletes ever in rowing—despite having a relatively short career in the sport, she belongs in the echelon of champions like Ekaterina Karsten and Elisabeta Lipă. Why’s that? In an era when no one (not even the Kiwi Pair) doubles up at the Olympic Games anymore, Brennan not only competed in two events in London 2012, but also won a medal in both the single and the double."

And, of course, she led the way throughout the journey to the Rio Games, winning two of three world titles en route to Olympic Gold in 2016.

Mahé Drysdale

Again, as we wrote in our rundown of the top 10 athletes of the 2010s, "Uncommon as it may be, 'Mahé' is a household name in rowing. And for good reason." 

Mahé Drysdale was born on November 19, 1978, in Melbourne, Australia, but grew up in New Zealand and began rowing at the age of 18 while studying at the University of Auckland. Drysdale won his first world championship medal in the men's single sculls event in 2005. He went on to win five more world championship medals in the event in 2006, 2007, 2009, 2011, and 2013.

Drysdale is also a triple Olympic medalist, including back-to-back gold medals in London and Rio—the latter featuring one of the closest races ever in the final (see video above). 

Gevvie Stone

Gevvie (Genevra) Stone is an American Olympic sculler who has had a successful and inspiring career in the sport of rowing. She was born on July 11, 1985, in Newton, Massachusetts, and began rowing at the age of 16.

Stone's international career reached its peak at the 2016 Rio Olympics, where she won a silver medal in the women's single sculls event. She narrowly missed out on the gold medal, finishing just 0.54 seconds behind the winner, Kim Brennan.

The Sinkovic Brothers

The Sinkovic Brothers of Croatia are without doubt some of the best scullers in international rowing history. In addition to their medal tally from the World and European Rowing Championships, their Olympic appearances have been nothing short remarkable — after winning gold in the double sculls at the 2016 Rio Olympics, they switched disciplines to the coxless pair in 2020 — and won gold again — becoming the first Croatian rowers to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals.

What makes the Sinkovic brothers remarkable is their versatility in the sport of rowing. They have competed and won medals in both the men's pair and men's double sculls events, which require different technical skills and physical attributes.

These athletes have not only achieved great success in sculling — they have also helped to advance the sport and inspire future generations of scullers.


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