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Seat racing is the main way rowing teams determine their lineups. The basic idea behind seat racing is that two boats will go out, do pieces, switch two rowers, and do more pieces. Seeing the lineups and the relative times achieved by those lineups, it will usually be readily apparent what an optimal lineup would be.

I really can't explain the details of seat racing better than Brad Lewis did in his book Assault on Lake Casitas:

"Each workout became a series of two-minute pieces. After three two-minute pieces, the scullers being seat raced - one man from each boat - would be switched. Another three pieces would be rowed. Now for the moment of truth. If Quad-A was faster than Quad-B before the switch, and then Quad-B was faster than Quad-A after the switch, the man who transferred from A to B was the superior sculler.

To keep the seat racing fair, each sculler, regardless of whether he was being seat raced or not, had to pull his hardest on each piece. The best way to ensure that this happened, at least for the first few pieces, was not to tell the scullers who was being seat raced. "

Obviously seat racing applies to everyone, not just quadruple scullers. It applies to sweep rowers, guys with quick erg times, people of all different weights, and even coxswains. The fastest person on a team needs to be kept honest during seat races, so he may be seat raced, though it may seem counter-productive. Along the same lines, the slowest guy on the team may be given a chance to take on someone that is much more powerful.

As one can imagine, seat racing can cause tension between those being seat raced. Whoever wins gets the seat on the better boat, so your teammate becomes your enemy for a short time. Of course, there are also the usual factors that make rowing the most unpredictable sport in the world, making seat racing a very tense situation. Everyone needs to be pulling their hardest in the event that they are seat raced. Coxswains need to make sure they cox fairly, repeating their calls to the letter and not calling any moves. In the event that the coxswains themselves are seat raced, only then will they be allowed to cox normally; they will usually then be switched just as the rowers are. Alternatively, pieces will be done with and without the coxswains coxing. Many coaches just decide to pick their coxswains out of a hat if they have similar ability.

The results described by Lewis above are quite dramatic. In most seat races, the order in which the crews finish is still the same, but the margin of victory is changed. After all, only one fraction of the lineup has changed. If the margin is increased, the rower now in the faster boat is better, and if it's the other way around, the guy in the slower boat is faster.

Ergometers do an excellent job of measuring a rower's total fitness and power. Why do erg scores not determine lineups? There is a common saying in rowing: "Ergs don't float." Ergs can't measure how well a rower's hands and back follow with the rest of the team. They can't measure how someone's technical errors get magnified into problems with the boat's balance and check. It doesn't matter how powerful you are if you can't translate it to boat speed. By the same token, smaller and less powerful rowers who help the set and swing of the boat frequently win seat races.

Though seat races are the main criterion for lineups, their results aren't always used. Lightweights have to worry about weight caps. If a heavy guy doesn't win by enough in his seat race, the lighter guy who he just beat may get the better seat anyway. Rowers aren't allowed to have bad days, but this rule gets broken sometimes. There are always reasons why a seat race's results may not reflect rowers' true speed.

Seat racing sometimes causes problems, but it has to be done. Some rowers just have a knack for seat racing, while others struggle to adjust to the new environment when they switch. Love them or hate them, seat races help coaches determine the fastest lineups possible.

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