Face the danger and pull away


The simple act of rowing a boat is not that simple. Just like other life skills rowing starts off as something challenging but becomes easier the more you do it.


You'll need a boat, a pair of oars and a willing pilot.


I recommend the most simple rowing setup, which also happens to be the most efficient. Equipment should be of the highest quality with features for performance and durability. Don't skimp. You can't have things bending, popping or snapping when you are rounding the corner to “Crystal Rapid” in the Grand Canyon or approaching the fearsome “Satan's Seat” in Cataract Canyon.


You don't need the add ons, which can add on cost. Don't heed the salesman peddling oar rights and oar tethers, pins and clips. Straps and other entanglements can trip you up. No offense to folks utilizing these and other expensive appendages. They are designed to help us learn to row but can restrict the us from enjoying all the options.


You want to be able to ship the oars (pull them in easily) and feather the oars (turn them at any angle, freely). This way oarsmen may apply skill and nuance to their strokes. Can you stand and row? Can you jump to the other side of the rowing cage and row that way?


You can row forward and you can row backward. That's it. Of course you can row forward on one side and back on the other. Or you can row back on one side and not row at all on the other. You can row harder on the left than the right. There are countless variations of going backwards and forwards at the same time (or not). Understanding these variations and internalizing the moves is key to success.


(This may be my favorite rafting photo.) Sitting on the boat with Tiki Girl and Brian Burron. Not sure who is rowing and took the photo.

Rowing back means putting your feet on the foot bar, tipping the oar blades out of the water, reaching forward, dipping the oar blades back in the water and then leaning and pulling back. Rowing forward is the opposite.


It's important to row in your power range. Use your whole body and keep it all in front of you. Oars should be close together, almost touching. You should have a foot bar for digging in on backstrokes. You should be able to row without bumping into anything.


Rowing forward is a good way to see where you are going while rowing backwards is a better way to get where you are going. So, if you look ahead and anticipate curves and hazards you can push forward most of the time. But move early using the angle and tracking of the boat to position yourself. Save the backstrokes for the more urgent situations.


The angle of the boat in the current is quite influential. This is called ferry angle. The more angle you have, the faster you can row across a river. Watch it! A sharp ferry angle in rapids is a good way to flip a boat or jam an oar. Ferry angles are helpful but hazardous.


You want to avoid using too much ferry angle, especially when approaching rocks at the last minute. Shouting expletives and whipping the oars about while trying to avoid a sleeper rock unsettles the crew. Wrapping is possible. Extreme maneuvers are good to know, but best avoided.


If you find yourself approaching danger faster than you'd like, face the danger and pull away. Pull. This may mean rowing against the current. Make it your rowing mantra: face the danger and pull away. Pull. Even if you have to spin the boat around to position it for pulling, do it. Pushing doesn't work.


Going to hit the bank? Coming up too fast on a kayak? About to go over the falls? Face the danger and pull, even if it means turning around. Just like life, it's almost never too late to realize you are going the wrong way and turn around.


You don't want to wear yourself out by rowing unnecessarily or by compensating for wrong rowing. Sudden course corrections can take a lot more effort than having your boat in the right position in the first place. Anticipation is the goal. If you have a lot of miles to cover, moving the raft into position early will pay off in the long run.


Wind can wreak havoc. For winds gusting over 30 miles per hour pull in umbrella and stow drinks and loose clothing, unless it is a downstream breeze, which it never is. In a fierce gale try to anchor on shore where you can tie off and enjoy a drink. Being blown helplessly upstream while your stuff is blowing into the river is disheartening.


On windy days look for a bubble line in the water: that's the current. You can also look for slick spaces in choppy wind blown water. That's the current. Follow the bubbles and the slicks. To proceed forward you may have keep your oars shallow and you may need to feather them as you pull them out of the water. And, if need be, you can turn your back to the wind and pull.


If your boat is set up right, you can add “power assist” adding a friend. Have them sit opposite you and grip inside the handles. They should push or pull gently. Your assistant shouldn't overpower your moves. There can be only one captain at a time.


A last resort in the wind is firing up a little four stroke motor, otherwise known as a “black oar.” A tiller extender lets you stay in your comfy seat and sip a beverage while steering and keeping a steady pace. Have some chapstick handy because you can dry out like a leather sack out there, especially while you are motoring past the others in a relentless headwind.


Reach Steve Skinner at nigel@sopris.net.


Steve Skinner's music is at steveskinner.bandcamp.com



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