To me, one of the weirdest, silliest, most snigger-inducing rowing terms is “catching crabs.” (Phrases about coxes and cox boxes also rank pretty highly on my Guffaw-O-Meter, but that’s another post for another day….)
This phrase has nothing to do with small, nasty-clawed beach creatures. It has everything to do with less-than-stellar rowing technique.
I’m certain, dear Novice Rower, that you’ll be barely along in your rowing career and you’ll have a conversation like this:
Non-Rowing Friend (trying to show interest in your new obsession): “So, how was rowing today?”
You: “Oh man, it was great! Until I caught a crab. That really stunk.”
Non-Rowing Friend: ??????!
How does this phrase become so ingrained in your vernacular? Because as a beginner, you’ll catch A LOT of crabs.
So here’s what catching a crab entails:
You are rowing along, minding your own business. But perhaps you aren’t paying close attention to your timing (gah) and your oar doesn’t release from the water at the same time as your teammates’ oars. Your oar gets stuck in the water—as if a crab has grabbed it and won’t let go. It feels like someone has slammed on the brakes unexpectedly.
Possible dastardly results of crab catching include:
1) In all cases, your boat is slowed down considerably. In many cases, it stops dead. Not great in races.
2) The oar swings back into your body at a high rate of speed and with great force (speed and force of said oar depending on how fast the boat is going). This could result in the oar flying over your shoulder behind you (best possible outcome), or you being hit hard in the ribs or neck (a less-than-awesome outcome).
True story: In my second year of rowing, I caught a crab in the throat about ½ mile into my race at the Head of the Ohio in Pittsburgh. Finished the rest of the 2.6 mile race in tears. A less-than-awesome outcome. But memorable.
3) An “ejector crab.” This is when the oar hits you hard, and the crab forcibly flips you out of your boat. It can also flip your entire boat over (exceedingly rare in large boats, more common in a small boats, like 2xs or 1xs).
Why do crabs favor the inexperienced?
When you are new to rowing, you are more easily distracted. You are trying to think about many rowing things at the same time (Slow your slide! Remember to breathe! Hands then back then legs!). Crabs also happen when you play around with your timing, you put the oar into the water backwards (see the unfortunate video below), and sadly, often when you are rowing with a more experienced crew than you are used to (Heightened Embarrassment Alert).
But NB: it happens to even the best of crews during races.
For the best advice I’ve seen about reacting to crab-catching, here's some sound advice from smart folks at U of W.
For an extreme illustration of what a crab looks like, check out this whopper of a novice crab. This guy was lucky to be wearing a hard hat, and for some reason hes super distracted during the race.
Consider this a cautionary tale. Pay attention in the boat, friends.