Drift Boat Rowing 101

Drift Boat Rowing 101

Everything you need to know to make a drift boat go

  • By: Bob White

Despite the potential risk of insulting readers, I wanted to entitle this piece "An Idiot's Guide to Rowing Drift Boats" because I'm comfortable speaking from that perspective. But potentates in the plush FR&R editorial suites would have none of it. Though I've owned and rowed drift boats for over two decades, in no version of reality, however tortured, would I be considered an expert. What I am is still alive and raring to go again after many hundreds of trips without serious damage to boats, passengers, innocent bystanders or private property, and always with a deep appreciation for the unique virtues of the craft, both as a fishing platform and a mode of river transport.

Drift boats originated and evolved on Oregon's McKenzie and Rogue rivers, and their use spread rapidly throughout the Northwest, then east to the Rockies and beyond. Today, you can find them on trout rivers coast to coast, and it's not hard to see why. Drift boats are ideally suited to negotiating moving water. Because the boat bottom is flat from side to side, the hull pivots easily in the current and the oarsman doesn't fight the drag of a keel. Water slides beneath the hull with little resistance, and the boat glides across the surface.

From front to back, the bottom is curved, or "rockered," and the bow and stern rise slightly above the water. As a result, the footprint of the hull on the water is shorter than the boat itself; thus the boat can be rotated quickly and easily for maneuvering, as the oarsman is not levering the entire hull length against the water. The high, upswept bow breaks through rough water, rides up standing waves and deflects splash. The upswept stern keeps the transom out of the water; the current slips beneath the hull rather than piling up against the back of the boat and working against the oarsman's efforts. And the shallow draft is well matched to skinny water. The design is marvelously efficient for its purpose.

Rowing a drift boat is not difficult. If you can pilot an ordinary rowboat, you already have the physical coordination and directional sense of how each oar changes the boat's position. The main difference is that a drift boat gains steerageway--that difference in speed relative to the water that allows for maneuvering--not by going faster than the water (as does a rowboat on a lake) but by going slower. The oarsman rows against the current, in a sense "lowering" the boat down the river rather than trying to outrun it. And this approach makes for, among other things, more nimble maneuvering and improved fishing opportunities for angling passengers. All it takes are some basic skills and a little practice.

Reading the Water I've taught a number of people to row, and anglers tend to learn more quickly because they're already familiar with reading currents and with the behavior of moving water. The various configurations of currents and obstructions are almost limitless, especially in heavy, whitewater rivers. We're concerned here with water suitable to the novice rower--slow to medium-fast rivers, with bends, rock and obstructions, but no technical rapids or quirky hydraulics. And on such rivers, there are three basic categories of water reads:

Obstacles: When it comes to obstructions--boulders, logs, shoals--think of the letter "V." An obstacle shallow enough to hit with a boat typically leaves a disturbance on the surface; it splits the current into two diverging legs, forming a "V" with the apex pointed upstream. Avoid these points. When two obstacles--a pair of boulders, for instance--are close enough together, they funnel the water to a point, forming a letter "V" with apex downriver. Aim for these points. When you have more than one such "V"--in the shallow, rocky tailout of a pool for instance, or over a rocky shoal, where obstructions may cause a number of different V-shaped current tongues--as a general rule, the longest tongue indicates the most passable water.

Bends: Sharp bends in the river, large islands, and even some midriver shoals force the current to turn, forming an arc, with the fastest water on the outside and the slowest on the inside. You can read this water much as you would in fishing it--dividing the current into lengthwise bands or strips that differ in velocity.In fishing, you're usually looking for the band that represents the seam. In boating, there are three objectives: First, identifying the current band(s) that will pull you fartherst to the outside and closest to potentially dangerous obstacles; second, band(s) that will keep you in the slower water to the inside; and third, band(s) that are too shallow for the boat. You're looking to put your boat in the second type of water. Pocket Water: "Rock gardens" are a typical feature in many trout rivers, and they're really a combination of the previous two categories, obstacles and bends, that are compressed into a fairly small space of river. The goal here is to plot a course of downstream V's between rocks and safe current bands wherever the river turns abruptly. It's a bit like negotiating a maze in a kid's puzzle book, except that you don't figure it out as you go along--you plan in advance. If necessary, get out on the bank, scout the water, and make a mental map of your moves. The Strokes The boat is carried downstream by the current, so virtually all of the oarsman's rowing strokes are designed for maneuvering rather than propulsion. And the vast majority of the time, these strokes are taken by pulling on the oar (as in an ordinary rowboat) forcing the boat upcurrent. Here we need a bit of terminology. For our purposes, the front, or bow, of the boat is the downstream end, the one faced by the oarsman; the back or stern is the upstream end. (Historically, these designations were in fact reversed; the bow was the upstream end. But the terms as we're using them are more intuitive and more commonly used.) Good rowing technique maximizes the transfer of your own physical energy into movement of the boat. For the basic stroke, hold the oar blades perpendicular to the water, or the blade tops angled slightly rearward, and dip them just deep enough so that the top edges of the blades are barely submerged. An overly shallow oar tip lacks power and is noisy. An oar that is plunged too deeply makes an arc that is more vertical than horizontal; some of the rower's energy actually goes into lifting the boat rather than pushing it. As a rule, confine your oar strokes to an arc of about 90 degrees, centered roughly around the oarlock. Long, sweeping arcs waste energy at the extreme ends of the stroke, where they push against or away from the boat rather than parallel to it. And they are tiring. Take more shorter strokes through the 90-degree power zone rather than fewer longer ones. Pivot Stroke: This basic stroke turns the boat and repositions it in relation to the current as preparation for maneuvering. It's performed with one oar. Pull on the right oar, and the stern swings left. The boat is now positioned to move to the left. A single pull on an oar sets you up for a move in the opposite direction. The power of the stroke determines how far and fast the stern of the boat moves. Cross-stroke: Where a pivot stroke on the right oar will swing the stern to the left, it will also push the entire boat slightly to the right. (Think of rowing a rowboat on a lake with just one oar; the boat will travel in a small circle, but will also move at the same time.) The cross-stroke (or scissors-stroke) repositions the angle of the hull relative to the current without moving the boat toward either bank. This stroke essentially swivels the boat in place; you can in fact spin the boat 180 degrees in its own length. The stroke is performed by moving the oars in opposite directions--pulling on the right, for instance, and pushing on the left oar at the same time, with equal power. The stern will swing to the left without moving the entire boat in that direction. It's a useful move when quick changes in the boat angle are necessary--navigating rock gardens, for instance. Back-rowing: This is the basic stroke for actually moving the boat relative to the banks, for changing position in the river, slowing the boat when fishing or maneuvering around obstacles. Provided you observe good mechanics, it's also one of the simplest--the basic rowboat stroke, pulling backward on both oars with equal power, using legs, back, upper body and arms for power. Maneuvering The most common maneuvers are based on moving the boat laterally, with a technique called "ferrying." Imagine you are drifting straight downstream. Use a pivot- or cross-stroke to swing the stern in the desired direction and set the boat at an angle to the current; then backrow. The boat will move sideways across the current in the desired direction. If the boat is angled steeply across the current, you'll move cross-stream rather quickly, but the water flow, striking the hull almost broadside, will force the boat downriver at the same time. If the hull makes only a shallow angle with the current, the boat will travel across the current more slowly. Ferrying is one of the beauties of drift boats; if the current isn't excessively fast, you can traverse the river from bank to bank to cover the best fishing water without losing ground downstream. Here's how ferrying works in a couple of the most typical maneuvers: Obstacles: The standard wisdom on avoiding obstacles--rocks, deadfalls, shallow spots or heavy water--is "point and pull," as shown in Figure 1 (Page 36). It's helpful to envision the river as a series of side-by-side drift lanes, much like the feeding lanes of trout. If a drift lane is heading into an obstacle, pivot the stern toward a lane of current that bypasses the obstacle, backrow until you are in a safer line of drift, and straighten out the boat. Bends: You can treat a sharp bend or corner as just another kind of obstacle. The problem comes in reading the water, as shown in Figure 2. Rock Gardens: Rock gardens combine obstacles and bends and require the same techniques. The difference is in speed of maneuvering, as shown in Figure 3. Eddy Out: This move involves ferrying the boat from a fast current into slow water. Imagine a strong current tongue, with two-foot standing waves, dropping through a chute; off to the right is a slow eddy you'd like to fish. With the boat straight, enter the head of the chute. As you approach the top of the eddy, pull the left oar to pivot right, and backrow into the eddy. Here's the tricky part. As you backrow, there will come a point when the boat is straddling the current seam; the right oar will be in the slow water, and the left oar in the fast stuff. Because the strong current pushes the left oar blade downstream as you row, you don't end up exerting much force against the water. At the same time, the oar in calm water gets plenty of bite. The right oar overpowers the left one, swinging the stern back into the strong current and potentially putting the boat broadside to the standing waves--if it's rough enough, you can ship water or even capsize. The key, of course, is to apply more force to the left oar--quicker more vigorous strokes--and less force, or even none at all, the to right oar. Re-entering the fast current can pose the same problem; as you angle the stern into the heavy water, the current catches the back of the boat and wants to spin it broadside. Again, compensating with strong strokes on the left oar and lighter strokes on the right will keep the boat positioned and under control. Setting Up: There are a few situations in which the oars will offer limited control of the boat, or none at all, or using them may be inadvisable. Where the river drops steeply through shallow water, for instance, it can be difficult to dip the oars deep enough to get a bite on the current; they hit bottom. When passing close to obstructions, between two rocks, for instance, or very near the bank, you may not be able to get one or both oars in the water at all. In heavy water, with standing waves or big hydraulics, pivoting and pulling for a course correction can put the boat at a dangerous angle to the current; the more broadside the boat, the bigger the risk of mishap. The solution here is establishing the proper boat position at the head of more technical water, a process called "setting up." For instance, you must navigate a fast, narrow slot between bedrock shelves. Backrow to hold the boat at the top of the slot; study the water to determine the drift lane that will pull you down the center of the chute. Ferry into the lane, square up the boat so that it's parallel to the current, lift or ship the oars, and let the water draw you down. Setting up correctly is like a good backcast; if you've got that working right, the rest is usually a piece of cake. Final Thoughts: The key to safe and efficient driftboat handling is anticipation. Constantly read the water ahead, decipher the currents and plan what you will you do in advance. With anglers in the boat, it is tempting, even mesmerizing, to watch their flies, but you must divide your attention between the fishing and the water. Good guides make rowing look almost effortless, partly because they've worked out their boat moves well in advance. They know that a few strategic oar strokes a hundred feet above an obstacle will prevent a last-second rowing flurry to avoid a collision. If a wayward current tongue wants to push the boat too close to the bank for fishing, they move to the outer edge of the tongue or angle the boat and backrow to compensate for the current before a problem develops. As one expert told me, "You drift every piece of water twice--once in your mind, once behind the oars." Common Mistakes Inefficient technique--most beginners tend to plunge the oar blades too deeply into the water and pull the oars through too wide a stroke, both of which waste energy and produce fatigue. Overcorrecting--when pivoting a boat, there's a tendency to swing the stern too far, which requires pivoting in the reverse direction to correct the boat position; often this correction swings the boat too far again, which requires yet another correction, and the boat wobbles downriver from side to side. There are usually two causes: big, overly aggressive oar strokes; and a failure to appreciate the current. When you swing the boat at an angle, faster water will catch the stern, amplifying the momentum of the pivot and pushing the stern farther downstream than you intend. Shorter, lighter strokes help prevent the problem. Misreading boat position--because they are facing the front of the boat, novice rowers tend to read the boat position by looking at the bow, which is fine until the boat is angled. Consider this situation: You're drifting down on a mid-river boulder. As you approach, you pivot the stern to the right and backrow until the bow of the boat clears the rock by, say, 10 feet. Then you swing the boat back parallel to the current and find that you are actually 15 feet from the rock. The angled boat appeared to be closer to the boulder than it really was because you gauged the distance from the bow. No great harm is done in this example, but in a rock garden, for instance, when there may be a boulder to your right directly downstream, miscalculating the boat position could put you on a collision course. Since a drift boat can be quickly pivoted parallel to the current (with a cross-stroke for instance), estimate your true position in relation to an obstacle by where you are sitting, in the center of the boat, not by the bow. Letting go of the oars--when you need to use your hands, to net a fish for example, it's natural to simply drop the oars as the boat is drifting and tend to business. But if the front tip of the oar should meet a rock, the continuing motion of the boat will push the oar right through the oarlock--with surprising force. I once took a nasty shot in the sternum from an oar handle that nearly pushed me out of the boat. And if the boat swings broadside while drifting, the face of the oar blade can catch on a rock or on the river bottom; the boat will drift over the top of the snagged blade and can break the oar. If you need to let go of the oars, ship them, or tuck the handles under your knees to keep the blades out of the water. Drifting broadside--this is a temptation among beginners because they can see downriver better. In deep water, it's not a problem, but striking a rock broadside in shallow water is the quickest way to lose passengers or gear.