With the exception of single sculls, each rower is numbered by boat position in ascending order from the bow to the stern. The person who is seated on the first seat is always the 'bowman', or more commonly called just 'bow', the closest to the stern is commonly referred to as the 'strokeman' or 'stroke'. There are some exceptions to this: UK coastal rowers and rowers in continental Europe number from stern up to bow. Certain crew members have other informal titles and roles.
The "stroke" is the rower closest to the stern of the boat. Everyone else follows the stroke's timing - placing their blades in and out of the water at the same time as stroke. The strokeman can communicate with the coxswain (when in a stern coxed boat) to give feedback on how the boat feels. During a race, it is the stroke's responsibility to establish the crew's rate (number of strokes per minute) and rhythm. (In coxed boats, the coxswain will assist the stroke in establishing the rate). Because of the great responsibilities, the rower in the stroke seat will usually be one of the most technically sound members of the boat. The next rower ('seven' in an eight) sits directly behind stroke and is typically both fit and skilled: this rower acts as a buffer between the stroke and the rest of the crew. They closely follow the rhythm set by the strokeman and help transmit this rhythm to the rest of the boat, and particularly to the rowers rowing on the same side as seven, since rowers tend to look at the blades on their side of the boat to check their timing. If the strokeman increases or decreases the stroke rate it is essential that seven follows this change so that it is translated to the rest of the crew.
Boats that are bow coxed rely on communication between the bowman and the cox - as the cox cannot see boats coming up from behind. Bowmen tend to be the smallest of the rowers in the boat.
Traditionally a boat is organized so that alternate rowers row on port and starboard (or strokeside and bowside), with stroke on port side (having their blade to their own right) (strokeside). This is sometimes reversed, so that stroke is on the other side (having their blade to their own left); such a boat is usually described as 'bow rigged'. This is often on the basis of the abilities of the available personnel, to allow putting an experienced starboard side (bowside) rower in the stroke seat, for example. The eight in the photograph at the top of this article is bow rigged.
There are other options, and in particular in fours the middle pair may row on the same side: this arrangement means that there is less yawing of the boat through the water throughout the course of the stroke, making it more efficient. The two oarsmen in the middle, rowing in a 'tandem', need to be well matched and synchronised to make this work (ie avoid clashing blades), and the bowman, rowing with a significant gap between them and stroke on their side of the boat, also needs to be able to adapt to the larger space in front of them. Recently around half of finalists in World Cup and World Championships regattas have been rigged with a tandem middle pair, though it is less common at lower levels of competition. Occasionally eights are rigged with one or more tandems: several rigs are possible.
A boat without a cox is known as a coxless or 'straight' boat. While coxless pairs and fours are commonplace, because of the speed and lack of manoeuvrability eights always have a cox.
Some boats are bow-coxed or 'bowloaders' with the coxswain lying in the bow behind the bowman rather than stern-coxed or 'sternloader', with the coxswain sitting in the stern opposite the Stroke.
Coxswains used to communicate to the crew by shouting or through a megaphone that was strapped to their head. However, since the late 1970s a "cox box" or speaker and microphone system has enabled even the bowman to hear the coxswain's commands. Such a system is particularly important in bowloaders as the coxswain is facing away from the crew, making it hard for the crew to hear the coxwain’s commands unaided.