Thursday 1 January 2009

John Welsford on cruising rowboats

New Zealand designer John Welsford is best known for his seaworthy cruising sailboats such as the Navigator, but he has also designed rowing boats that can be taken offshore. His Joansa is particularly attractive - and a tough lady as can be seen in the picture.
John is an advocate of fixed seat rowing in a world that has become obsessed with sliding seats (I blame Redgrave - everyone wants to do what the heroes do). But shell boats are like sports cars, great for high speed dashes but when you want to tour the world their inability to cope with anything other than flat water, unreliability and absence of anywhere to pack a toothbrush start to show.
So what makes great touring rowing boat? John has very kindly slipped this blog a chapter from his upcoming book on boat design, which is packed with wisdom gained from years of touring under oars. Here is an extract in which he discusses the ideal dimensions of a cruising rowboat.
Cruising in a rowing boat is a lot like wilderness backpacking afloat: a way of visiting the coast's less populated spots, some of which are remarkably close in to the big cities and not accessible from the road, and a way that returns rewards far beyond the modest resources required. It offers the rower an unequalled experience of the shore and there are many places that are as yet quite undisturbed, a large proportion of which are inaccessible to bigger craft.
Note that this essay does not include sliding seat rowing boats, and while much of the information does apply to them, I am not an enthusiast of sliders for recreational rowing for lots of reasons including cost, seaworthiness, maintenance and physical stress, its entirely practical to row a fixed seat boat for days on end and to cover a good distance in all sorts of conditions.
In selecting, building, or - for the brave - designing a touring rowing boat, serious consideration must be given to the boats ergonomics, how she fits the rower. By that I mean that the boat's seat, footrests and rowlock layout should suit the build, suppleness and strength of the rower. For example, for someone a little older and perhaps a little stiff in the hips or lower back, it helps to have the seat at least 200 mm (8in) higher than the heels of the footrests. A fitter, more supple person might be able to tolerate a lower seat, and gain a little stability from the lower centre of gravity, but I use the 200 mm as a standard height for the touring boats that are my main interest.
In a boat intended for open water, the footrests should be at least 400 mm (16in) apart. This applies to sliding-seat boats as well as the fixed-seat boats you see here. The habit of putting the footrests close together is, to my way of thinking, a regrettable one that comes from the skiffs or shells that are too skinny to do otherwise. It is a major handicap when the boat is being rolled about in a seaway, with the feet wider apart the well-braced rower can control the upper body position, and will find it much easier to keep rowing when the going gets rough.
Positioning the rowlocks is also very important. After much experimentation I now place the rowlock pin 325 mm (13in) aft of the rear edge of the seat, and 220 mm (8 3/4in) higher. To set the relationship between the seat, rowlocks and footrests, the oars should be roughly straight across when the elbows are just ahead of the ribs with the rower sitting dead-straight upright and feet firmly on the footrests. This fits me, I am of medium height, slightly short in the leg and long in the arms ( no comments from the cheap seats please) and some adjustment will be required to fit people of other proportions.
Just a point: rowing without footrests is not much fun - it leads to sore backs, sore butts, and not much progress for the energy expended!
A boat intended for open water rowing, recreational or racing, depends on length for its speed. Typically the successful designs are between 4.5 m (14 ft 8in) and 5.8 m (19 ft) long, with a beam of between 1.2 m (4ft) and 1.4 m (4 ft 8in) at the gunwale to provide a good spread between the rowlocks. She will be quite narrow at the waterline to reduce drag, and will be as light as possible, consistent with the technology available to the builder and the manner in which she will be used (or abused).

More tomorrow....


Anonymous said...

I row an Andrea Dory made by Great Canadian Canoe Company. It is 12 feet long and ideal for my size. I row three times per week at 7 am from Baltimore Harbor. I have modified the position of the oars and will install foot rests soon. She rows like a dream, and is a great as a tender to my 37 foot row boat. These boats are nolonger made, and were never given the credit for being such great boats. She rides easily over boat wakes and will handle the occasioal rogue wave at from the side. She holds 600 pounds, and weighs less than 100 pounds. Great for hoisting onboard when the weather picks up while towing. I could not ask for a better boat. The company went out of business due to many factures, but the boat itself is one of the best ever built.

Anonymous said...

Yes a shorter boat can be a pleasure to row. Easier to transport by car and always lighter. Many of the longer boats are Ok with 2 people but some prefer to be alone. Kayaks are only 12-14 ft -prob most are made that length. If building a 14fter is cheaper than a 18fter. Wellsfords boats tend to come out a bit heavier than he says.Not really light weight by 2014 standards, but rugged.Longer boats may be faster in theory but the difference is not important for most recreational rowers.

Anonymous said...

Once you can row properly you dont need a big skeg -either none or very small.A skeg prevents fast turning if in a congested waterway or comming into a beach in bigger waves. Likewise boats that are too straight in the keel may track well on flat water but are unsettled in waves.In normal open water for a 14ft boat you need about 6" of keel spring-they can handle waves aft high provided the boat has enough freeboard.In a light boat the crew is the main ballast, so I agree with John -keep it low 8-9ins thwart height is about right.