The difference is the boat: differences in boat design, which may seem insignificant to the novice, can be critical since the rower is doing all the work with little help from the elements.

Choosing a Rowboat

Width to Length Ratio

Longer boats tend to be easier to row, as they move faster through the water and hold a course well. Wider boats offer more stability and more room on board. A 1:4 width to length ratio will perform very well, with good stability and cargo capacity. Example: a 16″ rowing dory with a 4′ beam (width), as to the right.

A 1:3 width/length ratio will perform less efficiently but offer greater stability and room inside, while still relatively easy to row. A 12′ skiff with a 4′ beam, for example, is a good kids’ model or family picnic boat.

Boat Anatomy


A rowboat bottom sweeps upward at the bow and stern, which reduces drag and helps the boat slip through the water. Boats with little rocker hold their straight-line course well, and as rocker increases in a hull, the boat becomes easier to turn. Quick turning is great for puttering about the marina, but for any kind of serious rowing, choose the design which helps you keep the straight-line course.

Hull Shape

  • Flat Bottom: Offers good initial stability (feels stable when getting into the boat) and pretty good final stability (when leaned over to one side) if the width/length ratio is 1:4 or better. Flat bottom rowing boats can be fast and able, and are also less challenging if you want to build your own rowing boat. They can be a bit noisy going into a chop as the bow slaps down onto the water. The dory pictured above is flat bottomed.
  • Round Bottom: The more streamlined, curved shape moves easily and quietly through the water. More stable when leaned to its side, round bottom rowboats often double as small sailing skiffs.
  • Multi-Chine: A faceted approach to the round bottom, this design has features of the flat and round hull shape.

Hull shapes

Improving Performance


Trim refers to how the boat sits in the water. Each boat hull is designed to sit a certain way in the water, and efficiency is lost (and it’s harder to row) if the boat is “bow down” or “stern down”. “Bow down” will make the boat less stable and more difficult to steer. “Stern down” will make the boat harder to row, as if you were dragging a weight. Simple adjustments in gear stowage or passenger seating will correct for trim. Failure to consider trim is common among beginners, and makes the rowing experience much less rewarding.

Rowing Stations

The most common rowing stations are fitted with either oarlocks or rings.

  • Oarlocks: The traditional “U”-shaped metal or plastic holders work well as long as they fit well. Too much “slop” from worn oarlocks rattling in their sockets greatly reduces efficiency. With oarlocks it’s easy to ship your oars in a hurry (as when coming alongside a dock or another boat), but most importantly, be sure to tie the oarlocks to the sockets with good braided nylon string.
  • Rings: These “O”-shaped holders are made of plastic or metal, and are simplest to row with for the novice. They hold the oars securely in place. Shipping oars in a hurry can be a little more difficult with rings and un-shipping (putting the oars back in rowing position) requires you to reach down to the oar blade to slide the ring back into place. Nonetheless, rings are common to small rowboats because they’re easy to use and harder to lose, being ‘locked’ onto the oar by a restraining collar.


Longer oars have more leverage, adding more power to each stroke. Short oars fit nicely in the boat, but at the cost of efficient (easier) rowing. Oar length should be approximately twice the boats’ beam. Racing hulls have a much greater oar length to beam ratio.

This skiff (right) has a 3:1 width to length ratio, which means it’s very stable, and packs a load. Passengers are positioned for perfect trim. Only one flaw: someone’s not wearing a lifejacket!


Buying a Used Rowboat

  • Check rowing stations. They should be mounted securely and free of cracks or splits. Oarlocks and sockets may need replacing if worn. There should not be too much “slop” in the sockets.
  • Stand back a bit from the bow and sight along the centerline of the boat, fore to aft. Look for perfect symmetry: there should be no twist.
  • Check keel for hogging. Set boat on flat surface or turn over so keel is up. Keel should be flat or swept upwards at bow and stern. If it bows up in the middle, the keel is “hogged”. Look for another boat.
  • If the boat is made of fiberglass, look for cloudy spots which may indicate delamination, which is difficult to repair.
  • Stress cracks, chips and cosmetic flaws are usually easy to repair.
  • Inspect chines (edges of the hull in flat bottom or multi-chined boats), especially at mid-point in the hull just below the waterline. This is the point of contact when the boat sits at the shore and rocks from side to side, and as passengers get in and out of the boat.
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