Coastal Rigging

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You’ve finally given in to the call of the waves and are trying out coastal rowing. Here’s some direction on how to rig your boat for rough water. 

This blog post is not a comprehensive guide to rigging for beginners—it assumes you are already rowing and have a general understanding of rigging terms and methods, or are you willing to do some online research to get a sense for rigging physics. I’ll use average flat-water racing shell specs as a benchmark, given the volume of information available focused on that. So terms like “shorter” or “higher” below are in reference to this average flat water rigging spec.

While I do provide a few numbers here, please keep in mind that coastal rowing is a dynamic environment and an evolving sport. I’m always experimenting; different boats have different needs; sea conditions vary from location to location, and day to day, and rigging demands can change accordingly.

Oars

For coastal rowing, I prefer shorter oars. Afterall, This is “off-road” rowing, and you need a rig that can pull you into strong headwinds and over rolling seas without stalling. A shorter oar allows you to turn over the strokes a bit quicker, which will keep you from being over-geared when the boat is bouncing or pushing into the wind. A shorter oar will also feel more nimble in the hand, and help you to be agile and responsive. An oar length that may be totally comfortable for you on flat water will most likely be too long for coastal rowing. That now too-long oar will make your drive a slow, ponderous experience that will drain your muscles before you can even get your heart rate up. 

My current oar length is 283 cm, and I tend to be in the 283-284 cm zone these days, but may drop that down further.

I’ve gone as short as 275 cm, and generally don’t run oars longer than 284 cm, even on calm, windless days.

For inboard length, you can go pretty long here. That helps to keep the gearing light. Consider that a coastal boat weighs about three times more than a flat water shell, and carries more beam across a shorter length, in a more rugged environment. So yes, plan on shifting to a lower gear! 

I am currently set at 89.5 cm inboard length (on 283 cm overall), and generally recommend around 89-90 cm.

Oarlocks

Span:

Go wide here. I’m usually in the range of 161-164 cm with the oar specs above.  This pushes my setup towards the maximum spread available on most standard wing outriggers. There’s no harm in just setting your oarlocks out to your rigger max, and seeing how that goes!

Height:

Oarlock height will vary widely. Generally, you’ll want your oarlocks to be a little higher on the coast than on the river. But since oarlock height is determined by rower body size and boat height off the water, both of which vary widely, in this case it’s hard to suggest any specific numerical reference. Just keep in mind that you’ll need a little more vertical space to clear the blades when the water is jumping around. Don’t start pulling your hands into your neck, but at the same time don’t be afraid to explore the upper end of your comfortable height range.  

Foot stretcher placement

In coastal, especially in the single, don’t row “through the pins!” The general consensus in flat water rigging goes something like this: “the faster the boat, the further through the pins at the catch.” Generally, a coastal boat is moving more slowly than any Olympic class boat (except when surfing, but that is an entirely different discussion!), so if we follow the premise that “distance through the pin should be proportional to boat speed,” then it follows that in a coastal single we should not row through the pins.

Set your feet so that at most you are rowing up to the pins – i.e., at the catch your hips are even with an imaginary line spanning the pins. For the single, you’ll likely get better handling if you are a little further towards the bow and not getting the hips quite to the pin at the catch. On the coast, It’s helpful for boat control to have a slightly “wider stance” (less sharp an angle) at the catch to increase stability. To be clear—I fully understand that this may trigger some of those “ideal catch angle physics” discussions, but in the context of handling a boat in rough water, such arcana do not apply. Good boat handling will create higher boat speed. Not rowing through the pins also provides the benefit of the next rigging consideration…

Give yourself plenty of room at the finish. Whatever room you have between your hands and your body at the finish in your flat water shell, add a bit more in your coastal boat. The standard flat water finish position is described variously as keeping the hands an inch or two from the body, or as keeping the hands a fist- to a fist-and-a-half apart from each other. In coastal rowing, consider this: you want your hands to be able to swing past your body at the finish without undue lay-back. There should be enough freedom of movement in any direction so that your hands will never jam against your body. Oars can get caught up in waves, rip current whirlpools can shake you all over the place. I have saved myself from many a capsize by having room to really swing my hands around without getting caught on my body. Should you be tighter at the finish and a hand gets caught on your body during a wave interaction, you will lose that critical fraction-of-a-second reaction time necessary for efficient coastal rowing. 

Conclusion

Compared to flat water, coastal rowing is all about using a lower gear ratio. Shorter oars, longer inboard, wider span, slightly less catch angle, more room at the finish. 

You could look at that and say “that’s a slower rig.” Sure, but even a V8 engine needs to downshift to go up a hill! And in coastal rowing, sometimes you are literally rowing up a steep hill should the waves be large enough! Which is, of course, an exhilarating experience.

Coastal rowing’s lower gearing requirement is a direct result of the strong wind, big waves, heavier hulls, and more wetted surface area encountered in coastal rowing (sometimes your entire boat can be under water!). Reducing oar loading allows nimble handling, good acceleration, and efficient stroke rate in challenging conditions. 

A starting point to consider for oar setup would be:

Overall: 284 cm

Inboard: 89.5 cm

Span: 162-163 cm

Experiment! Apply the concepts discussed above rather than the particular measurements to discover the best possible rig for your conditions. Coastal rowing is dynamic, and should be approached with an open mind and innovative attitude. I have a feeling that there are some major rigging innovations still waiting to happen!