Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Rowing

Vero Beach

At times we feel underprivileged as we row our dinghy around when almost all the other cruisers have outboard motors. Ordinary row boats seem old fashioned. If one doesn’t have a motor boat nowadays, he/she has a kayak instead. It is true that we would like to have an outboard for longer trips or when it’s really windy. However, most of the time we are better off rowing.

Our dinghy is a Fatty Knees. It is a hard shell row boat that’s 8 feet long. When under way in Tarwathie, we carry it up on the deck under the boom. Other cruisers recognize and remark on it. “Is that a genuine Fatty Knees?” is something we hear often.

A great benefit of rowing is the exercise. It is great for general physical conditioning, and upper body strength and for back muscle strength. When I watch others using their motors for short trips I am reminded of the people one sees at work who cruise in the parking lot for 5 minutes in search of a parking spot closer to the door. Then at the end of the day they pay money to go to a gym, or perhaps return home to get a workout on their treadmill.


A second benefit is the peace and quiet while rowing. It is like the difference between flying in a glider as compared to flying in a small airplane. The peace is at its best when the wind is still, and the water surface is like a mirror and at night. In those conditions one can just glide along silently admiring the stars. In the harbor at Vero Beach we can also hear the sounds of the dolphins when rowing at night. Dolphins come to the surface every 30 seconds or so and breath. The sound of their breath whooshing through their blow holes is easy to identify.

We don’t set speed records when rowing. The hull speed of our dinghy is about 3 knots. After much experiment I conclude that one can expend very much more effort rowing without exceeding the hull speed as much as 0.1 knots. On the other hand, not much energy is saved by rowing slower. Therefore, our speed through the water with zero wind is about 3 knots, no faster, no slower.

I never tried to paddle a kayak or to row a racing shell. I’d love to try it some day. Nevertheless, our dinghy is used for more than sport. We use it for transportation and cargo hauling. The enjoyment is a side benefit.

It is important to have a proper boat and proper oars to enjoy rowing. Most cruisers have inflatable rafts with flat, or nearly flat bottoms and very short emergency oars. They row terribly. The oars on those rafts are pretty must for emergency use only. We also have 7.5 foot long oars; the longest oars we can fit on the dinghy. Those are key for enjoyable rowing. For some reason, most people with any kind of dinghy choose oars that are too short. The minimum length should be 1.5 times the beam of the dinghy, but I recommend the longest ones you can stow onboard without sticking over the gunnels.

Ease of moving around in a dinghy is highly subject to wind, wave and current conditions. As I said before, rowing in still wind is the best. When the wind blows more and more, the difficulty of rowing goes up rapidly. Against a 20 knot headwind I can only manage to row about 1 knot made good. Once in Burlington I had to row about 300 meters to return to Tarwathie against a 35 knot wind. It was a very arduous task. It took me about 45 minutes and it took almost all the strength and endurance I had. That was one occasion when I really did wish we had a motor.

Rowing with the wind behind you or on the beam is not much more fun because the wind tends to blow the bow into the wind. It makes it hard to steer.

Rowing against currents isn’t so hard as against winds. However, our maximum speed through the water is 3 knots, so if we are rowing against a current of 3 knots or more, we’ll move backward.

Rowing in choppy conditions can be difficult and wet for some boats. We see people in their inflatable boats standing up in rough weather to try to keep dry, or at least drier. In those conditions, the Fatty Knees is superior. It has a high freeboard and we almost never get wet, no matter how choppy the waves.

Rowing a row boat is unlike riding in a motor boat or even paddling a canoe or a kayak because one faces backward. That means that you can’t see where you are going without pausing to twist your head around. I confess to having run into other boats, other dinghies, piers, docks, walls and day markers when rowing. Too bad.

I have a pretty reliable, albeit uncelebrated, speedometer when rowing. Every time I reach the end of a stroke with the oars and lift the oars back out of the water, it leaves a circular swirl on the surface surrounded by three little whirlpools. I can usually see three to five consecutive swirls in my wake. At top speed of 3 knots, the linear distance between swirls is about 4 meters. Therefore, my speed in knots is approximately ¾ knot per meter between consecutive swirls.

Not everyone takes naturally to rowing. One such person is my niece Lena. Lena is a very talented person. Among other things, she plays the violin so well that she was invited to join a symphony orchestra at the young age of 14. Lena is also an athlete and an excellent soccer player. So here’s the story.

Once upon a time, at the Isle of Shoals in New Hampshire, we allowed Lena to take the dinghy to row herself and her mother to shore. The shore was only 60 feet away and conditions were calm so it shouldn’t have been a problem. Lena though had never tried to row before and nobody gave her lessons. She couldn’t figure out that she had to coordinate her left and right arms, or that she had to lift the oars out of the water to return them for a new stroke, or that she needed to twist the oars in her hands so that the blades were perpendicular to the surface. Poor Lena floundered like she was trying to row the boat like she plays the violin, with the left hand doing something entirely different than the right hand. Her mother, Libby and myself, watched her flail the oars ineffectively for at least 5 minutes in silence. We didn’t want to embarrass her or to stress her out her with unwanted advice. Finally, we became afraid that the current would carry them away out to sea and her mother took over.

If only we had a video recorder, we could have posted the top video of the day on youtube. The only thing we do have is the single still picture below.


Sorry Lena to pick on you, but this story had to be told.

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