Mark Wallace's Black Skiff

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Rough Water Rowing

Rough water can happen to any of us: The wind gains strength while we’ve been easily rowing downwind… A sudden thunder storm comes up… A wind shift causes a ‘confused sea’, waves from multiple directions. Regardless of how much we love nice calm rowing conditions, stuff happens… Here are ideas on how to deal with unexpected rough water.

Dale McKinnon, in an article in Small Boats Monthly, Rowing Rough Water , identified three keys for rowing in rough water:

1. Shorten your stroke by a quarter to a half.

 Birgit Skarstein, of the Lidchhardt Rowing Club agrees:

“When the water is very rough, you need shorter, more frequent strokes and steady, smooth power.”
 In another article Rough Water Technique, the author states:
“In extremely rough water, stop your hands about 3 or 4 inches away from your ribcage at the finish of the stroke. This will allow more room to drop your hands [lifting the blades higher to avoid hitting waves] and release the blades from the water.”
 2. Relax.

Dale says: 
“Concentrate on softening your grip… you will calm the rest of your body. Stay balanced and relaxed, and let the boat do its wild hokey-pokey beneath you…”
Shirwin Smith, Founder of Open Water Rowing Center in Sausalito, California, states:

“Don’t fight the water. The biggest problem for scullers on rough water is their tendency to stiffen their upper body, arms and hands. “
3. Zigzag to deal with a ‘beam’ sea.

Dale recommends, rather than rowing parallel to the waves (with first one oar and then the other oar digging in and water possibly pouring over the gunnel), we angle (30 to 45 degrees) into the wind. The boat will not roll so much and it will be easier to keep both oars in the water. Turning into the wind will also offset the distance the boat is being blown down wind.

My personal ‘learnings’ from rowing in rough water:

  • Stop the ‘death grip’ on handles
  • Stop trying to power through wind and waves… Use steady pressure with shorter, more frequent, strokes
  • Stop smashing into the waves with the oars… Make the stroke recovery higher and feather the oars so they either skim over waves or ‘cut’ through them
  • Think “Relax, firm and steady… I can do this.” Repeat.

An excerpt from Dale’s article:

“Halfway across the entrance to McKay Reach [in the 3rd week of an 800 mile row from Ketchikan, Alaska, to Bellingham, Washington in a 20’ Sam Devlin designed dory] I encountered swirling gale-force winds and waves coming at me from all directions. As my fear increased, my grip on the oars grew tighter. I was tiring quickly and my hands, forearms, and back ached. I knew that if I didn’t regain my composure and relax, fatigue would add exponentially to the danger I was in. To reach the safety of even the nearest lee I would have to conserve energy. I kept pulling and calmed myself. I loosened my grip and soon felt my body begin to relax. As my spine became less stiff, my hips could adjust to the wild gyrations of the hull. My head no longer swayed with every wave, and my growing dizziness subsided. My blades stopped getting slapped skyward off the tops of waves, and my tendency to “catch a crab” disappeared. I could feel the water on each blade and adjust more quickly to the waves’ erratic shapes.”
Tell us about your experience rowing in rough waters.
The next blog will focus on various outrigger designs.


  1. I agree with much of this, but take a couple of exceptions for row cruising boats:
    1) The advice to shell rowers regarding balance does not really apply to our bigger stable boats - we don't need to use the oars to keep from capsizing. I used to spend energy to avoid broaching, but Colin Angus advised me to just let the boat go when resting. It stays quite dry if I just ship oars and let it turn broadside to the waves (most boats will be stable this way). Breaking waves are something else, I stay away from surf as much as possible.
    2) Short fast strokes are sometimes better, but when rowing into a strong headwind long slow strokes can help. I often take advantage of a west ebb current to make headway against the usual west (opposing) wind on the Carquinez Strait. The boat will turn broadsides quickly in the wind and short waves, so it is advantageous to keep oars in the water for control. I take long slow strokes, making less than a knot through the water, then a very fast recovery and catch before the boat turns. Progress is made since the current adds to the boat speed. Shorter strokes are more tiring in this situation.

    Best - Rick

  2. Hi Rick... That's good advice when resting... just let the boat go and roll broadside... she'll take of herself.
    Your long stokes, quick recovery method in a headwind is interesting... The Lillistone Flint I row has quite a bit of windage, and I find that if I take long strokes (my normal stroke), even with a quick recovery, the boat seems to stop, or at least slow significantly... but if I shorten the stroke, I can do a faster recovery and keep the boat moving with out having to re-accelerate it (as much) each time.

    Forecast is for 40 degrees on Tuesday and no ice this year... will be out there pulling...


  3. Rowing an inflatable taught me that I do better if I row alternately left/right - having one oar always in the water driving the boat seems to help considerably in bad conditions - at least for me in an inflatable.

  4. Hi TomH... Never tried that... going out tomorrow and will try it, although it will be calm tomorrow...


  5. Hi, I'd like to share my trick from Force 4 coastal passage (Robote by Jim Michalak, heading straight or almost straight to the wind. The trick was to stop rowing when the boat was climbing on a bigger wave - I've found out that she knows better how to make it dry, without my "help". And she stayed dry, as it is reported by Frank Kahr at Jim's designs catalogue. BTW I was using Gaco oarlocks - they allow to adjust the external length of an oar any second, each oar separately, what helps in rough water.

  6. Thank you Julianow... well said... It's not about overpowering the rough conditions, it's about working with those conditions... backing off when climbing a steep wave, or a heavy gust of wind... then when the wind dies down in a lull, increasing the pace.
    I agree about the advantage of adjusting each oar separately, especially in a cross wind. I do this by shifting the grip on the handles, which allow about 1.5" (38mm) of adjustment range.
    Julianow, do you use the Gaco oars, or just the oarlocks? If not Gaco oars, what oars are you using?

  7. Replace "Julianow" with "Wojtek" in the comment above... my apologies Wojtek... Tom

  8. Tom, it's my fault of not correcting that nick "julianow" . I used it a long time ago to announce i want to sell our house in Julianow. Sold, forgot the story, and now the nick appeared here! Surprising :)
    Coming back to the topic, I have Gaco oarlocks only, the oars I'm using for coastal rowing are just common pine 270 cm long ones, and what I appreciate are narrow blades , 10 cm of width. Narrow blades also help in rough water and long distance rowing as they kind of slip through the water , making rowing less exhausting.

  9. Hi Wojtek... At first, I was a little surprised at 270 cm oars on Robote, which is 114 cm wide... but then I realized you are using narrow bladed oars (10 cm, 3.9"), which can be longer than wider bladed oars.
    I have the plans for Robote, with the intention of making a 'row cruiser' model. I've found that the full-length V-bottom, with chines above the waterline makes for a boat that is takes little power to move. Both my own Lillistone "Flint" and my friend's Verio have this full length V-bottom and both are very easy to move.
    Did you ever make floorboards for your Robote, to provide a flat space for sleeping?

  10. Hi Tom, that's right, it's amazing how little power is necessary to move such hull efficiently . However once upon a time I've been stopped on Robote, and the stopping factor was strong wind (not at the sea). Here is the story:

    That's the reason for building Batto for river cruising. So I didn't make floorboards for Robote, I made bow and aft floatation chambers instead, to increase my safety feeling on coastal rowing. I also started to experiment with sails for Robote, but that's kind of adhd effect rather then a calculated plan.

  11. Hi Wojtek... Agreed, wind is a problem... both Robote and Batto are low and don't present a lot of windage. Batto will be better on your river cruising with it's flat bottom and therefore able to get over (some of) the shoals you were running into on your Wisla trip.
    About 10 years ago, I spent 4-5 days in Warsaw, working at Coca-Cola, which is right next to the Wisla... A local man took me on a tour the day after a snow storm... high pressure system came through and was a beautiful clear, blue sky and bitterly cold... got some nice photos of various buildings and thoroughly enjoyed the stay... I wish I could come back for another visit! And join you with a row to Berlin!!

  12. See also Dr. Steven Price's comment in the post "Is This the Perfect Oar Cruiser."