What is a rowboat?
Rowboats, as opposed to canoes and kayaks, are propelled by oars that are held in place at a pivot point attached to the boat, the oarlocks (also called rowlocks). These pivot point do not change their position as the boat is rowed. This pivot point is a fulcrum if the oar is a lever.
Rowers typically face the stern of the boat. Various clever mechanisms have been tried to allow the rower to face forward but none so far have been widely adopted
Here is the page I wrote on forward facing rowing.
Some boats are rowed facing forward such as Venician gondolas, or Chinese sculled boats. There is also a long tradition of fishermen in the Canadian and US east coats facing forward and leaning on to their oars. They are generally standing and using an extended oarlock stem. Since this is a practical way of rowing I'm sure it occurs throughout the world.
I can't beat John Gardiner's own words in Selecting and Building Classic Small Craft
...rowing becomes to some extent an end in itself. Ideally the oarsman and his boat act together in a harmony of motion and balance not unlike a similar unity of response and action achieved by the equestrian and his mount.
To get to the point of feeling this way when rowing, you have to have a suitable rowboat, and be comfortable rowing her.
What makes a good rowboat.
As usual the answer is "it depends"
There is no ideal rowboat that will satisfy perfectly in all conditions.
It follows that the most important questions to answer first is: where will this rowboat be used and to what purpose? Once that is clear then choices can be made.
Some factors that have to be considered are waterline length, carrying capacity, stability, windage, weight, seaworthiness, beam, shape of the ends, trim, rocker and more. There is also issues of cost and construction difficulty that come into play. Another issue that has a huge impact on choice of a recreational craft is appearance.
Long vs Short Rowboats
Length is one factor that is easy to assess. Longer (within reason) is almost always better. Other things being equal a longer boat is faster and easier to move. It's no surprise then that rowing shells, which are designed with speed as the most important criteria, are long needle sharp crafts that can slice through the water.
Hull speed is the theoretical speed a non planing boat can travel. It is dependent on the length of the boat. A boat cannot travel faster than the wave she creates as she moves forward. The speed of that wave is 1.34 X the square root of l. L is the length of the wave from crest to crest.
Here is a link explaining hull speed.
We have all seen small boats with an overly large motor. As the speed increases the bow goes higher in the air as it tries to climb over its wave. This wastes a lot of energy and adds practically no speed.
Sliding or Fixed Seat, or Sliding Rigger
Sliding seats allow for increased efficiency and is used by all competing rowing teams. It is not offered in shorter boats as much because it causes a short boat to bob up and down (to dolphin) as the rower's centre of gravity slides forward and back. An alternative to sliding seat is the sliding rigger mechanism which moves the oarlocks rather than the rower and achieves similar or better efficiencies without changing the center of gravity and thus avoids the bobbing.
Here is my page on sliding riggers with some links to you tube videos.
Sliding Rigger has a page explaining their system.
Small or no Transom
To slice through the water, most rowboats are double ended or have very small transoms. Often the transom is so high that it is out of the water and the boat is essentially double ended below the waterline.
A large strong transom is essential to support the weight and force of a motor. A rowboat has no such requirement and can dispense with the transom with no loss. By avoiding the wide back end causing eddies behind the boat, the drag of the blunt end is avoided and the boat moves more easily.
Many very nice rowboats have transoms above the water line. This has the advantage of supporting the weight of passengers as they move in the back. Double ended boats can't support a lot of weigh front or back making them less stable.
Freeboard and Windage
The height of the sides outside of the water or freeboard has a large effect on a rowboat. If the freeboard is high, the boat will be safer in rougher water and will not swamp easily. The downside is that the wind will push against the sides of the boat and make it difficult to handle.
Banks dories have a bad reputation when it comes to windage. They are notoriously difficult to row when the wind is up and they are not weighted down with fish. The high sides that gives them their high carrying capacity and the ability to handle rough seas makes them unpleasant in high wind.
My Skerry is a good rowing/sailing boat but when the wind picks up the relatively high sides make it difficult to keep the boat going in the right direction.
Rowing shells are at the absolute extreme end of the spectrum. They are made with the lowest possible sides both to minimize weight and windage. This makes them very unsafe as soon as the least waves build up and threatens to swamp them but this favours speed.
Back or Forward Facing
Most traditional rowing is done sitting facing the back and pulling on oars. The boat then moves forward in the water. The rower does not see the direction of travel. Some fishermen have extra long oarlocks that allow them to stand and push on the oars while facing forward.
Several systems have been developed over the years to allow the rower to sit facing forward for added safety and enjoyment. Typically the oar is articulated in the middle and a mechanical system reverses the motion of the oar. Several models were available from Victorian times onward. Gig Harbor has a forward Facing Rowing system.
Although the weight distribution is important in the trim of the boat or how it sits on the water, weight is not a huge issue. Of course extreme weight is a disadvantage, but so is extreme light weight.
A rowboat benefits from moderate mass to keep it going after each stroke. This is particularly true if the boat is being rowed in waves. A very light boat tends to slow down as soon as the oar stroke is finished, a heavier boat continues to move forward. The inertia keeps it going more smoothly and create a more comfortable ride.
There are many advantages in very light crafts that make them a delight to launch and transport as well as making them responsive and quick but they are not heavy weather crafts.
Keels and Skegs
Deeper keels and skegs tend to keep a boat running on a straight course. If the main purpose of the boat is open water rowing then it will benefit from a keel.
Photo by Silje L. Bakke
A keel will make the boat more difficult to turn but it will track well.
If the keel is particularly deep at the fore end of the boat, it will track nicely but will behave poorly if it needs to be towed. It will also be poorly behaved in surf. For these purposes a rounder bow is preferable to a v shape.
Rocker vs Flat
Rocker adds stability and makes the boat easier to turn but is a poor performer if the boat has to be beached. Flatter then is an advantage.
Many successful rowboat shapes feel "tippy" when you get into them but when you try to deliberately swamp them they resist valiantly. At first they easily lean over but then they stiffen and resist with considerable secondary stability.
A nice rowboat will feel lively and responsive. If you are inexperienced this might make you uncertain at first. Soon you get to trust your boat.
Rowing shells are quite the opposite. They have been designed to be fast at the expense of everything else and have very little material above the water line, to make them stable. Balancing the little thoroughbred boats is the first skill that is learned.
Getting a Rowboat
Because there is very little demand for good rowboats there are very few being manufactured. Typically a boat is designed to sport a motor and oarlocks are added to also make it a rowboat. Although such a boat might be moved by oars it will never be a pleasure to row.
Most boats built and advertised for rowing are subject to compromise to make them easier to transport. In particular they are shortened beyond what is ideal.
I noticed this rowboat being offered at the Boat Show. It is 17 feet long, has 3 rowlock positions, adjustable seats and footrests. Glass construction but with wood trim. It was a pretty boat and seemed a nice alternative. Rossiter Boats rowboats. They had several models.
Fine rowboats are also being built by smaller shops. Check out Cottrell Boatbuilding. They offer a lovely range of wooden rowing boats.
Whitehall Rowing & Sail has a whole range of rowing and sailing boats. They also have a rowing attachment for SUP's.
They offer both fixed seat rowboats and rolling seat skulling boats.
Building your own rowboat
Building a rowboat is one area where home builders have an advantage. Home builders are not compelled to make compromise to make their boats more attractive to a larger audience. By making their own boats they can identify the features they want and can produce a boat completely suited to their needs. Homebuilders can also afford to spend the time to finish their boats in a nicer way.
John Gardiner in his book Building Classic Small Craft, Complete Plans and instructions for 47 Boats has several row boat offsets. It's a bit optimistic to call them complete plans but it's a really good read and great source of information.
Glen L has a lovely 17' traditional whitehall. It is strip planked.
Fine rowboats are also being built by smaller shops.
Although rowboat/motorboat is not often a happy combination, rowboat/sailboat can be more successful. If we all had our druthers we would have a boat for sailing, one for rowing, a kayak, a keelboat, a outrigger and a couple more just for fun.
Many designers have tackled the problem and come up with workable alternatives. My beloved Skerry is a sweet little rowboat when the wind is not too strong. In high wind it has too much windage to be much fun, but who want to row when there is lots of wind!!?
Iain Oughtred's Elf and others are nice rowboats when they are not being sailed.
The NorseBoat calls itself the swiss army knife of boats and their boat have nice lines.
Francois Vivier has a couple of models which are well suited to sailing and rowing. Among them his Elorn and Seil stand out. In French but use google translation if you need to.
Rowing and Rowboat Vocabulary
As in all aspects of boating, a special vocabulary has developed. Here is my page of Rowing and Rowboat terms. It's a useful resource when reading and researching row boats. It is also a useful page to check out because it gives you an idea of what to look for, and of topics of inquiry.
History of Rowboats
Rowboats have been around since early history. Images abound of Phoenician, Greek and Roman Galleys with hundreds of oars.
Viking ships were also equipped with oars. Many of the smaller viking and Scandinavian boats such as faerings were propelled using oars and sail. Faering refers to 4 oar positions.
Rowboats large and small are ubiquitous throughout the middle ages and a walk through any art gallery will produce many examples.
Closer to our times, fishermen and ferrymen have used countless variations of rowboats.
Whenever more than one rower meet there is bound to be competition and thus there are many regional festivals throughout the world where rowboat races are an attraction.
The shape and development of rowing craft follows the intended use and the conditions of the waters. Fishermen and ferrymen developed their dories, peapods, wherries, whitehalls, bateaus, surf boats and countless variations to answer their needs.
When sportsmen adopted rowing, design emphasis changed from seaworthiness, sturdiness and carrying capacity to speed.
Endurance rowing has many enthusiasts. Long distance dory races are held in St.Pierre et Micquelon and elsewhere. There are also long distance rowing across the Atlantic held in specially built rowing boat.
Here is a Youtube video of a St. Pierre 7 person Dory being rowed in a long distance race.
email me if you find mistakes, I'll fix them and we'll all benefit: Christine