Most races that are held in the spring and summer feature side by side racing, or sprint racing, sometimes called a regatta; all the boats start at the same time from a stationary position and the winner is the boat that crosses the finish line first. The number of boats in a race typically varies between two (which is sometimes referred to as a dual race) to eight, but any number of boats can start together if the course is wide enough.

Rowers may take part in the sport for their leisure or they may row competitively. There are different types of competition in the sport of rowing. In the U.S. all types of races are referred to as regattas whereas this term is only used in the UK for head-to-head or multi-lane races (such as those that take place at Dorney Lake), which generally take place in the summer season. Time trials occur in the UK during the winter, and are referred to as Head races. In the US, head races (usually about 5k, depending on the body of water) are rowed in the fall, while 2k sprint races are rowed in the spring and summer.
Modern rowing as a competitive sport can be traced to the early 10th century when races were held between professional watermen on the River Thames in London, United Kingdom. Often prizes were offered by the London Guilds and Livery Companies. Amateur competition began towards the end of the 18th century with the arrival of "boat clubs" at the British public schools of Eton College, Shrewsbury School, and Westminster School. Similarly, clubs were formed at the University of Oxford, with a race held between Brasenose College and Jesus College in 1815. At the University of Cambridge the first recorded races were in 1827. Public rowing clubs were beginning at the same time; in England Leander Club was founded in 1818, in Germany Der Hamburger und Germania Ruder Club was founded in 1836 and in the United States Narragansett Boat Club was founded in 1838 and Detroit Boat Club was founded in 1839. In 1843, the first American college rowing club was formed at Yale University.
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