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.
Amateur competition in England began towards the end of the 18th century. Documentary evidence from this period is sparse, but it is known that the Monarch Boat Club of Eton College and the Isis Club of Westminster School were both in existence in the 1790s. The Star Club and Arrow Club in London for gentlemen amateurs were also in existence before 1800. At the University of Oxford bumping races were first organised in 1815 when Brasenose College and Jesus College boat clubs had the first annual race while at Cambridge the first recorded races were in 1827. Brasenose beat Jesus to win Oxford University's first Head of the River; the two clubs claim to be the oldest established boat clubs in the world. The Boat Race between Oxford University and Cambridge University first took place in 1829, and was the second intercollegiate sporting event (following the first Varsity Cricket Match by 2 years). The interest in the first Boat Race and subsequent matches led the town of Henley-on-Thames to begin hosting an annual regatta in 1839.
The stake format was often used in early American races. Competitors line up at the start, race to a stake, moored boat, or buoy some distance away, and return. The 180° turn requires mastery of steering. These races are popular with spectators because one may watch both the start and finish. Usually only two boats would race at once to avoid collision. The Green Mountain Head Regatta continues to use the stake format but it is run as a head race with an interval start. A similar type of racing is found in UK and Irish coastal rowing, where a number of boats race out to a given point from the coast and then return fighting rough water all the way. In Irish coastal rowing the boats are in individual lanes with the races consisting of up to 3 turns to make the race distance 2.3 km.