Rowing a canoe

Looking to expand the waters I can cover in my OT Penobscot, I’ve added some homemade outriggers, so I can row on open water. Went out for my first row today. It worked great, and covered 4.5 miles in an hour. Looking forward to a better test in more wind and waves. I still want a guideboat, but that’ll have to wait until the wallet is a little thicker.

cool. I loved rowing
though it’s been rowboats and dinghys. I’ll never forget the 3 folks in a canoe when I was lake sailing as a kid. Kayak blade front seat, guy rowing in the middle (looked like he had rollers as well), and a single blade in the stern.

Should be interesting
I suspect that with practice and the right oars, that 4.5 mph speed will be just a little faster than what you go when dawdling. You should have plenty of fun seeing how your boat becomes virtually immune to headwinds, and how tracking problems with rear-quartering winds no longer occur.

The only oars available here locally were some cheap wood ones at Gander Mountain. I’d like to get some better ones, but not sure where or what exactly I’m looking for. Any advice would be appreciated.

Thoughts on Oars

– Last Updated: Oct-31-13 12:19 PM EST –

Since you have outriggers, I'd recommend an oar length of 8 feet. If you can get the spacing between the oarlocks somewhere around 38 inches (more spacing is okay, but not necessary), 8-foot oars will be pretty easy to use. Some people recommend 7-footers, but 8 is better. I think the most common length is 6 feet, but that's really too short. Having a few inches of overlap at the handles is fine. You can learn to be ambidextrous regarding how the overlap is accomplished so that it doesn't limit what you can do.

Most ready-made, pinned (non-feathering) oars have the same ratio of inboard length to outboard length. Thus for a given length of pull on the handles, the distance that the blade travels is the same no matter what the length of the oar is, and the amount of effort required is the same as well. However, the longer the oar, the smaller portion of an arc the blades travel through (the path of the blade is straighter because it's following the edge of a bigger circle). Thus, with longer oars, less of your energy is wasted directing thrust in some direction other than parallel to the boat.

Lots of people like spoon-blade oars, but I prefer straight blades because they are so much more versatile for doing things other than straight-line forward travel. I seem to remember that Spring Creek sells some nice oars. Surely an internet search would turn up other sources. My oars were supplied with the boat ( ), and I'll mention that for the little 12-foot version, the oars are 7 feet, not 8. The price of all good oars, whether a basic design in wood or something fancy and high-tech, is kind of scary.

I’m using 7 foot oars with a spread of 48". I was thinking of going up to 7 1/2, but I guess I should be going higher. What is the ratio for inboard to outboard on your oars?

Btw, I’ve been dreaming about a Vermont Fishing Dory from Adirondack Guideboats. I think it’d be perfect for exploring North Carolina sounds and islands.

Shaw and Tenney offer custom sculls
to meet needs of individual oarsmen. I would choose them over Spring Creek.

I don’t understand all the dimensional relationships for sculling. I used to scull a sliding seat racing boat, and my oarlocks had a 60" span. (I’m very tall.) The sculls were about 10 feet, I think, and of course the grips overlapped during the stroke.

I haven’t had the pleasure of trying a good fixed seat Adirondack or similar rowing craft. Most rowboats are absolutely terrible, but rowing is so effective that the owners still make good progress.

Yes, that’s it: Shaw and Tenny
That’s the company I was trying to think of, so thanks for mentioning it. In fact, I just went to the Spring Creek website, and their oars are pretty cheesy.

As far as fixed-seat versus sliding-seat rowing, the way I see it, you need a boat that’s capable of going extremely fast before the sliding-seat method really comes into its own, and in that case it’s surely the only method to consider. For “ordinary boats” that are good for all the things that have nothing to do with racing, getting them up to the fastest reasonable cruising speed is already easy enough without a sliding seat, and since such boats tend to “hit the wall” at hull speed, there’s almost nothing to be gained by the sliding seat’s additional power output. If you are not racing or simulating racing for fitness, sooner or later you’ll be negotiating tight bends, dodging among logs, carving sharp turns or pivoting among obstacles, or on open water, customizing your stroke to deal with large waves, and none of those things would be aided in the least by a sliding seat or the extra-long oars that are used with a sliding seat. Comparing sliding-seat rowing to fixed-seat rowing is like comparing racing cars to pickup trucks, in that there’s just no reason to.

Dimension Ratio
I just checked my 8-foot oars. The outboard length is 6 feet and the inboard length is 2 feet. I remember that all my other oars, even the ancient 5-footers for our family’s rowboats of ages ago, have nearly a nearly identical ratio of inboard to outboard length, but I’m sure a little bit of variation is possible. I’m sure the 8-foot guide-boat oars made by Shaw and Tenny would be just like mine, as far as dimensions go.

I would agree with you on the tight,
curvy stream problem, but for open water I would prefer a sliding seat. That’s because I know how to use it. It allows one to wear out one’s arms, shoulder girdle, and back less while transferring much of the work to muscles and structures especially well-designed to do it, the legs. Otherwise, the legs are just doing bracing while the rest of the body carries the load.

It does take a while to get used to a sliding seat, and to manage the oars in choppy water or whitecaps. There is somewhat less advantage when rowing a canoe or a fast rowboat, but there is still an advantage.

In fact, for casual use of a sliding seat, a “slow” craft gives better feedback through its inherent resistance. Like rowing into a headwind. A racing single moves so easily that the sculler must focus on a quick catch and drive, or else the result won’t be that much better than for a fast rowboat.

I’m definitely a Pickup type of guy
Of course that maybe because the only experience I have with rowing is fixed seat.

I actually did quite a bit of it as a kid in an old aluminum fishing skiff. In comparison the canoe feels like a rocket.

It’s all a matter of degree, and …

– Last Updated: Nov-03-13 6:45 PM EST –

... I don't think the amount of "degree" you speak of will justify the use of a sliding seat for most people who are already drawn to canoes and kayaks. Please note that I'm not saying you are wrong. I'm just pointing out that there are no absolutes in this game, and considering a "sliding scale" of applicability of one style versus the other, you need to go a long way toward the racing end of the spectrum for the sliding seat to pay off. The downsides of sliding-seat rowing don't become tolerable otherwise. For example, when it comes to actually traveling by boat (not little jaunts on a local lake), only on a few of my very shortest trips would it not have been a total deal-breaker to have 60-inch wide outriggers or all that extra weight and mechanical gear to deal with.

It's fine to say you can avoid overworking unsuitable muscle groups by making the legs responsible for most of the pulling action, but the fact is, you won't be getting noticeably tired using those "wrong" muscle groups in the first place unless you are setting a very fast pace for unusually long distances. Even on my longest, most difficult rowing trips, I've never gotten tired to the point of being sore or uncomfortable anywhere except my fingers (I'm not talking about rowing big aluminum pigs - those can indeed wear you out), and in regard to that, using a method that allows you to more easily apply an even stronger pull to the oar handles won't make life for your fingers any easier. The way I see it, as long as I can travel much faster and much farther and with fewer rest breaks by solo-rowing than by solo-paddling, and if I never, ever feel over-worked as a result, I can't justify moving up to a method that, if you are honest about it, is only used by racers and fitness jocks (and the occasional oddball who wants to set a distance record on the open ocean).

Then there's the noise aspect. I won't ever find the noise of sliding-seat rowing to be acceptable, because I'm an outdoors lover and that's the reason I am on the water in the first place. Yes, you recently explained to me that the noise is due to the oar hardware and not the sliding seat, but it IS an inescapable aspect of sliding-seat rowing. When I'm out on our city lakes, I can hear the boats of the local rowing clubs from very far away, sometimes well over a mile. And when they pass very close by, it becomes undeniably clear that the mechanical clatter of their oar hardware is many times louder than the sound of the outboard motors on their escort boats (old-fashioned two-stroke engines which are already a whole lot louder than the new four-stroke models). If the mechanical parts of those boats were as quiet as the oarlocks on my boats (where, if there's any noise at all, it can't be heard by a friend who's paddling a few feet away), the coxwain could talk very softly instead of shouting himself/herself hoarse, and he/she wouldn't need to keep a cheerleader's megaphone strapped to his/her face. Sure, the boats of the solo racers are a lot quieter than those of the crews, but only due to the smaller number of oars. You can still hear their clatter at a distance of at least a couple hundred yards, and probably a lot farther than that if it's a quiet day. Heck, even with the solo boats and even ignoring the mechanical noise, the standard practice of skimming the water's surface with feathered blades on the recovery stroke makes far more noise than a pudgy rec kayak being paddled hard. Overall, there's just nothing quiet and peaceful about fast, sliding-seat boats. Just like with the racing-car analogy, noise is not an issue for the people who use these boats, but it would be for anyone I go paddling with.

One isn’t supposed to skim the water
with scull blades during the return, though with the new “hatchet” blades it may be easier to be sloppy. If I were sculling now, I would use traditional symmetrical blades.

I can’t speak to the issue of oarlock/scull noise with fixed or sliding seats. If less noise is desired, redesign of the oarlocks and the contact surface of the oars would help.

There’s some noise associated with poling. My Millbrook makes Grumman like slapping noises when breasting waves. Some people bang and grind their canoe paddles against the gunwales. Sometimes I notice these things, sometimes I don’t.

At any rate, I’m not convinced that sliding seat rigs are associated with much more noise than fixed seat rigs. If yours is really quiet, I’d like to know why.

All I know about the noise …

– Last Updated: Nov-06-13 8:29 PM EST –

... is that on a nearly windless day, a small racing boat (I think with six people rowing) can easily be heard at a distance of more than one-third the length of one of our local lakes, a lake which is about three miles long. If there's a light, favorable wind, you can hear the boats much farther away than that. There isn't ANY other kind of human-powered boat that I know of that can consistently be heard at such a long distance. Bumping paddles against the side of a canoe is nothing compared to the clatter of those rigs. It's much less often that I get to see the University of Wisconsin crews, with much larger boats, but I do remember that they make quite a racket too. I just can't tell you how far away I can hear them, but I know it's pretty far.

The vast majority of the time, the boats are moving fairly slowly with the rowers working on their technique rather than on speed, and at those times they are harder to hear, but still can be heard at much greater distance than the motor launch that keeps them company, so I still call it "loud". I can't hear the motorboat that accompanies them until they get very close, maybe a third of a mile (the motor isn't running very hard though at that speed, but clearly is much more quiet than the rowing rigs).

I can't speak for why all the sliding-seat boats I see (hear) are so loud, but the reason fixed-seat rigs are quiet isn't hard to understand. There is no "sloppy fit" at the pivot points, and no impact between the moving parts. The wooden oars CAN move about 1/8th of an inch forward and backward within the yoke assembly (sliding on the pin that holds them there), but that only happens in a headwind (in which case the oars get pushed in the opposite direction during the recovery stroke as during the power stroke, so they move back and forth in the yoke), and when it happens, it's just a very tiny "bump" sound that you'd never hear at the typical distance of another paddler, like 15 or 20 feet. Honestly, the occasional "creak" of my glove on the handle as the handle's angle changes under the palm of my hand during the recovery stroke is usually the loudest sound I hear due to moving parts (there's no need to grip the handle during recovery since there's no feathering action, so light palm contact is more comfortable than gripping), and that sound only happens rarely. The slight splashing of the oar shafts as they slice forward through the water ahead of the pivot point where the blades "stay put" is the loudest sound of all, but that's hardly worth mentioning since it has nothing to do with mechanical parts, and if it's louder than the bow splash, it's not by much. Sometimes when pulling really hard, there will be slight creaking noises coming from the boat since the gunwales flex a bit, and the wooden seat will squeak very softly if I haven't put wax on the contact points in a really long time (I do that at least once a year, and only because with everything else being so quiet, a slight wood-on-wood squeak isn't something I want to hear). Again, the creaking of the boat and squeaking of the seat, when it happens, is a sound you can hear from within the boat itself, but not from within the boat your friend is paddling as he cruises beside you. However, in even slightly choppy conditions the hull of the boat splashing through and bumping into the waves is far louder than anything else, and probably louder than what you usually get with a canoe, but that's only because the travel speed is usually faster.

One final note. Even if someone can demonstrate that all these racing boats I hear are not the norm for sliding-seat rigs, there's no way I'll believe that a sliding-seat rig can be as noise-less as an expertly-paddled canoe. When traveling at canoe speeds, a fixed-seat rowboat boat IS as quiet as a canoe, and with a rowboat I'm every bit as likely to find a coyote or deer right alongside me on the riverbank as when paddling quietly in a canoe.