Racing boats (often called shells) are long, narrow, and broadly semi-circular in cross-section in order to reduce drag to a minimum. Originally made from wood, shells are now almost always made from a composite material (usually a double skin of carbon-fibre reinforced plastic with a sandwich of honeycomb material) for strength and weight advantages. FISA rules specify minimum weights for each class of boat so that no individual will gain a great advantage from the use of expensive materials or technology. Many adjustments can be made to the equipment to accommodate the physiques of the crew. Collectively these adjustments are known as the boat's rigging. Single and double sculls are usually steered by the scullers pulling harder on one side or the other. In other boats there is a rudder, controlled by the coxswain, if present, or by one of the crew. On international courses landmarks for steersmen, consisting of two aligned poles, are provided. Oars are used to propel the boat. They are long (sculling: 250–300 cm; rowing 340–360 cm) poles with one flat end about 50 cm long and 25 cm wide, called the blade.
There are many differing sets of rules governing racing and these are generally defined by the governing body of the sport in a particular country. In international competition the rules are set out by the world governing body FISA. The rules may vary slightly but are generally very similar. The main notable difference between British Rowing rules and FISA rules is that coxes are not required to wear buoyancy aids in international events governed by FISA, whereas they are required to wear one at all times under the British Rowing rules.