change in design for rowing boats : LUSENET : Open-water rowing : One Thread

what changes in design are there in rowing boats? what difference is there in the 1920 rowing boat and the 2004 rowing boat???

-- Mandy (, August 19, 2004


Dear Mandy,

From a design standpoint, there have been no major developments in rowing craft design over the last century or so. What has been changing is our perception of what makes a good recreational craft. During the last half of the 19th century the top designers and builders produced beautiful, lighweight, fast and seaworthy recreational rowing craft. Then a convergence of influences, including the flatwater racing shell, bicycling and the outboard motor, caused us to forget about those craft. Somewhere along the way people got the idea that coastal workboats would make good recreational craft. Never mind that few recreational rowers ever have need to carry 800-1000 lbs. of dead cod, nails or drunken sailors. Unlike with recreational craft, the U.S. government funded surveys to record the various types of craft employed in the commercial fisheries. Those heavy, high-sided, blunt ended craft were all that most people knew. In the early 1990s that began to change. Now we're seeing a resurgence of sleek, lightweight, versatile, high-performance open water rowing craft that would have pleased our great-grandfathers mightily. There will come a time when the average rower will know or care little of obsolete working craft.



-- Andre de Bardelaben (, August 19, 2004.

Oh Come on Andre! Some of us use coastal watercraft for their original purpose.

And some people still have clubs dedicated to using those craft.

Just because there are alternatives, doesn't mean that there isn't a place for those boats. And yes I agree, the hydrodynamics of boats was pretty well understood by the early 1900's at the latest. (Actually by the 1800's but some stuff appears to have been figured out about planing hulls later.)

Yours, -Gary-

-- Gary Powell (, August 20, 2004.

Dear Gary,

I know some Civil War reinactors and people who occassionally dress up as mountain men and still others who sometimes ride high-wheeled bicycles, but they don't live their entire lives in accordance with the times their garb and equipment represents. Just as the repeating, centerfire rifle replaced the percussion lock muzzle loader and the graphite flyrod replaced the noodly, six-strip bamboo flyrod the majority of people will move onto more efficient, practical, versatile and user-friendly rowing craft. There will always be room for specialty, historical and extreme boats but, over time, surf boats, flatwater racing shells and authentic workboat reproductions will be increasing viewed as fringe craft. During the height of rowing's popularity (the late 1800s) the only reason to row a coastal workboat for recreation was because you couldn't afford a purpose built recreational rowing craft. Your atavistic thinking represents a kind coastal chauvinism which blinds you to historical and empirical reality. For the last decade the fixed seat open water racing circuit has been completely dominated by long, lean, low- sided, lightweight craft with inland roots. Between races those same boats double as safe and efficient family cruisers. As more people become aware of the availability of true, pure recreational rowing craft most coastal workboats will be relegated to museums where they rightly belong. If you visit the TSCA gatherings on the East Coast you'll see that my predictions are already coming true.



-- Andre de Bardelaben (, August 20, 2004.

Andre, It has been my experience that those who first look at rowboats as an alternative to kayaks, are attracted to the classic design of the Whitehall. (Even with those stupid glass strakes that add nothing to its hydrodynamics that you would want.) Those who live on the ocean and beach their boats are fond of flat bottom, double ended boats, dories often fit that bill. The fast sports car low freeboard rowboats are truely a joy to row in flat water, but with a large group of non rowing guests (4 adults in the boat), a higher freeboard boat is a necessity. Flat and low wave water is more pleasant than the rough water that fisherman and coastal ship chandlers had to work in and so perhaps you are right. And the days of Whitehalls and dories are numbered. However I have noted that Whitehall reproductions now owns their own trailer and appears to make regular trips across the country delivering boats. Some people must still like them.

But for now when I go out on the water, I see mostly potato shaped motorboats that pitch and roll when they stop, and almost no rowboats at all.

Just as one might own a two seat convertable, one might also own a mini-van. I for one have been eyeing a single seat Wherry, now owing a mini-van all purpose boat, a dory.

With the price of gas staying comfortably in the $40+/barrel range, and the average american gaining weight faster than you can say "supersize me!" let us all hope that rowing again becomes a popular past time. -Gary-

-- Gary Powell (, August 21, 2004.

Wow, you guys were hot and heavy into that one...... I agree with Andre that rowing craft have evolved recently and become lighter and better performing. When I first started serious rowing 30 years ago it was in a 300 lb, home built, Swampscott Dory. Like many of us I was influenced by John Gardner and his wonderful monthly articles in the National Fisherman. More information became available, new materials became affordable and some of us migrated toward lighter and faster. Many of these new generation craft were what Pete Culler liked to call "clipper versions" of the working craft. We've all had a great time. The Swampscott Dory is a good rowing boat and offers greater capacity and an easier motion that my Monument River Wherry. It has it's place today and indeed there are many around. I could be just as happy if I still rowed that dory but I certainly would not have won as many races. Maybe we all can agree that there are many good rowing boats for all kinds of uses available now. 30 years ago a good rowing boat was one that had oarlocks in case the 150 lb motor on the 5' wide transom failed!!!

-- Jon Aborn (, September 06, 2004.

Choosing a boat is so personal! The motivation behind getting one is the key. If you are a "traditional boat" nut the history and perserverence of the design may mean more than the actual efficiency. If you love wood and its moods and want to spend time pottering over it, that may mean more to you. Shells may be faster, take advantage of recent design and technology, and be more efficient, but if you don't race others or yourself maybe that doesn't mean as much. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I read about, rowed, and looked at many designs before deciding on a boat and think it will be a sad day when no new Swampscotts are sitting on strongbacks or out on the water.

-- Allison Banks (, September 07, 2004.

Well I chose my boat based on price and availability and use. While I also use my boat for what it was originally intended, fishing! And lo and behold its great for that. The fact that it was one of the faster 19th century fishing boats is just an added benefit in my book. Of course modern motor boat is fast to get to the fish but since I can launch off the beach, driving close to the fishing grounds and launching can be faster than motoring from the boat launch. Also I find rowing for trolling to be really relaxing and adds to the overall experience. The part where my boat hull is a bit heavier and has more freeboard has been a benefit when rowing in waves. It just feels safe as it rides up and down with just barely a rolll to it as the potato shaped motor boats just pitch and roll. An amazing hull design.

Anyway Andre's Skua is great looking boat. If I could own two, I'd like one of his. Light, cartopable, fast, easy for the picnic for two.

Yours, -Gary-

-- Gary Powell (, September 08, 2004.

Dear Readers,

My perspective is very different from nearly everyone who might read these responses. In more than half a century, most of that time spent designing and building human powered boats, I have had the opportunity to try an incredible range of rowing craft. I no longer have to guess how any boat will perform. Iím not sure that I have made myself clear on this subject with my earlier responses. Iím not against anyone owning whatever kind of craft they choose. I just believe that the future of rowing will look a great deal like the past. What I was trying to say is that a rowing craft which has been optimized for recreational use will outperform, in every measurable way, a coastal workboat which has been pressed into service for recreational use. The very best recreational boats have always had very sophisticated hulls with rounded cross sections. For every inch of waterline length craft of this type are more efficient. For every inch of beam they will be more stable. For every foot of overall length they will be lighter. Though they are relatively low sided compared to workboats they tend to be corky and very dry. With less windage they are easier to control in strong winds. These things are as true today as they were in 1890. You should see some of the very sleek, antique, fixed seat, recreational rowing craft in the Mystic Seaport Collection. Iím not talking about racing craft or those clunkers in their livery fleet.

We seem to have lost sight of the fact that professional waterman were not yachtsmen and that true working craft were shaped by the economics of the trades in which they were employed. Unless a boat was employed in a field where speed and hull weight were important any boxy, cheaply produced shape would do as long as it could carry the required load with reasonable safety. This pretty well describes the Banks dory. There were better shapes for the kind of work they did, but they werenít cost effective. The comfort and enjoyment of the dorymen was of little concern to the financiers who owned shares in the fishing schooners. To one degree or another these sorts of considerations affected the design and construction of all working craft. Whitehalls used by pilots and chandlers needed to be fast and seaworthy because they literally raced one another to snag potential clients. They also needed to be extremely rugged to withstand frequent bashing against docks and the hulls of ships in wind tossed seas. Few of us work as hard as the professional waterman did. We donít carry the same size or kinds of loads that they did, nor do we subject our boats to same kinds of day in, day out abuse. Our boats should reflect that. Having a boat that is too heavy or too deep is unpleasant and difficult to row. With modern building methods it is easier than ever to make efficient boat shapes tailored to the ways we actually use them. From a manufacturing standpoint, boats with faceted hull sections make little sense in this age of miracle fabrics and resins. Our great-grandparents didnít choose to row heavy, clunky boats with angular sections that result in equally abrupt motions in the roll plane. If we donít have to, neither should we. If you carefully read the works of John Gardner, L.F. Herreshoff and R.D. Culler you will see that they were all advocates of ďclipperizedĒ rowing craft. They understood that many workboats arenít sunk to their designed waterlines under the heaviest loads that recreational rowers normally carry. Considering the lengthy wilderness trips canoeists have taken since time immemorial, Iím positively perplexed at the kinds of loads that some rowers feel they need to carry. Perhaps thereís more trans-oceanic rowing going on than I realized. After rowing a good recreational craft for a while, rowing a workboat is like riding a bicycle with under inflated tires. It just feels sluggish and unresponsive. As more rowers learn that a 100 lbs. boat will safely perform every function they ask of it better than a 200 lbs. craft they will gravitate towards lighter boats. A lighter, handier boat opens up a wide range of possibilities. When this happens, rowing will become the next sea kayaking. It wasn't that long ago that there were very few sea kayaks around. Only a generation ago a person with a sea kayak had likely built it himself. Or he'd ordered it, at great expense, from a company in Europe. He was likely to be as interested in Eskimo culture as in boating. Now kayaks are everywhere and most kayak owners barely make the Innuit connection. In the future most rowers will have little interest in the history their sport. Right now, thousands more people are drawn to sea kayaking than rowing. One of the main reasons for this is that kayaks are portable and convenient, qualities that all coastal workboats lack. As more sea kayakers discover that well designed, lightweight rowing craft are more versatile, have greater capacity, are drier and more stable and are generally safer than the typical kayak, I believe many of them will gladly trade their paddles for oars.



-- Andre de Bardelaben (, September 08, 2004.

It is heartwarming to read such spirited discussion. It has gotten a little lonely around here the last few years as interest in rowing has diminished. A few random thoughts: There will always be a place in rowing for craft based on workboats and the heavier traditional-built boats. The wise rower will stay away from the extremes and choose a boat that fits it's new intended use. But 1000 lbs of cod is little diferent than 1000 lbs of family and picnic gear (maybe less smell) and a well designed banks dory will build cheaply and get you to the island in grand style. The new designs that Andre produces and similar boats are what will sell today. The reason that Kayaks took over is the conmvenience that they offer. Throw em on top of the Camry, throw em in the water, gone. If people get back into rowing it will be on those terms. Andre's boats offer that convenience and superior performance to boot. His boats are evolutionary, he has picked up where our ancestors left off when the outboard was invented. Great stuff to ponder upon..

-- Jon Aborn (, September 09, 2004.

Dear Readers,

Itís good to hear from open water racing legend, able designer and worthy adversary Jon Aborn. His design efforts have made my job harder and my work much better. Nobody understands rowing boats better than he and no one can get more out of them. He, of course, is correct when he says that there will always be room for a variety of rowing boats. As a dynamic figure on the New England rowing scene he has a unique and excellent perspective on trends in open water rowing craft.

As rowing becomes more popular there will be more of every type of boat we see today, but as time goes on the balance will shift, overwhelmingly, towards lightweight, factory built, fixed seat craft with very sophisticated shapes. The main reasons for this will be performance, simplicity and convenience.

I hope and believe that home designed and built rowing craft will be important to a significant segment of the rowing community for a long time. Thatís where I started and itís where many new and interesting developments will come from.

Many of the statements I made above were in response to a question on the progress of rowing craft design over the last eighty or ninety years. While I am a perfectionist when it comes to designing production craft, Iím not oblivious to the realities of life. It might surprise some of you to learn how much I like and appreciate simple plywood boats. They are cheap, quick and easy to build. For the expenditure of time and money you put into them, you get a great return. They make great childrenís boats, excellent family projects, satisfactory fishing platforms and rugged down-river boats that wonít make you wince every time you scrape a rock while negotiating rapids. While hard-form rowing boats can never quite match the overall performance of the best round bottomed boats, they can be useful and very worthwhile. One of the good things about designing flat bottomed boats is that just about anyone can do it to a satisfying level. I should add that the best performing hard-forms come from the boards of very talented and skilled designers.



-- Andre de Bardelaben (, September 10, 2004.

Check out, you won't be disappointed!!!!

-- Anthony Fryett (, October 23, 2004.

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