Getting Started On Water: Buying a Single and Sculls

May 12, 2020

Many athletes are looking to row in a single as they consider ways to stay socially distant and also stay fit. There’s a lot to consider as you make this new purchase. Here are a few tips based on my personal experience.

Rowing Experience

Whether you’ve spent time in team rowing boats, kayaks and canoes, or have never spent time in small boats, you’ll want to consider both safety and your comfort level in a personal rowing shell.

Carbon fiber racing shells are long, skinny, fast, tippy and expensive. They are technical to row and often unforgiving. Sweep rowing skills do not necessarily translate to the single scull: give yourself some opportunity to grow into these skills. Unless you’ve had considerable experience alone in a long narrow rowing shell, you’ll likely want to consider designs that are a bit wider or created for open water. There are many options, from plastic shells to Stand Up Paddle Boards (SUP) with an added rigging unit. Consider that your first rowing shell may not be your last as your skills and confidence grow.

Once you purchase a boat, I recommend practicing self-rescuing yourself in case you do fall out. Whether you’re experienced or not, each boat can feel different in how it capsizes and how easy it is to re-enter. Find a safe place to practice this so you’re familiar, confident and comfortable with your shell.

Where You Can Row

Finding great water can be part of the challenge with a new boat. While the single gives ultimate flexibility to row on your own schedule, you’ll want to find a safe and accessible stretch of water. Consider your options for launching: will you need to launch directly from shore? If so, is the boat big enough that can you bring along everything you need? If there are docks, are they low enough for the sculls’ riggers? Do you have access to a rowing club? If you car top, is the boat easy enough to lift and carry by yourself?

Boats made specifically for open water can be more flexible in terms of providing access to lakes and the ocean. If the body of water presents many challenges (such as frequent debris) give thought to the boat's durability and how it would need to be fixed, if necessary. If you’re rowing in salt water, you’ll want to take special consideration with cleaning and taking care of your equipment.

I row on a river with little current; for rowing on “the big lake” (Lake Champlain), I use a wider boat that self-bails so that it won’t take on water on choppy waves or in high winds. This rowing shell also has more room to store safety gear.

Hull Design

One of the best ways to see if a boat is right for you is to “test drive” it, if possible.

For the right fit, you’ll want to be sure you match the boat’s design in terms of weight range. This ensures that the boat sits properly at the waterline so you don’t “bob like a cork” or sit too low in the water, where it will be difficult to rig and unsafe in rough water. Most rigging systems will allow you to personalize your set-up, but you’ll want to be sure you’re in the basic ranges that the rigging allows for.

Hull shape is a tradeoff between stability and resistance (both water and wind) on the hull. Designs can vary: some are shaped more like bananas and others may have straight lines. The hulls can be curvaceous or flat. These design differences may be subtle to the untrained eye but influence how the boat rows and turns, and how responsive it is to your efforts.

There are basically three lengths of single shells: 20 feet, 24 feet and 26-28 feet. The longest boats tend to have a smaller beam (the width to the boat), which results in less stability. I recommend you match a boat to your current abilities. You’ll want to row a boat that you can be comfortable enough in to use as a platform to improve your abilities and confidence with sculling.

Without a test row, you can research how different boat manufacturers build in different styles. Ask other athletes, coaches, and the boat builders themselves to describe how their boats move in the water. Not all boats are equal in terms of speed and comfort. You’ll want to row a boat that “meets you where you are” in terms of abilities and goals.

Budget

Prices vary widely for used and new shells; you can expect to pay anything from $1500-$15,000. In addition to the shell itself, you’ll want to consider any necessary accessories (roof rack, boat rack, slings, on-board computer, shoes) and oars.

Concept2 is happy to help with your oar-related questions. We can find the right sculls to fit your experience, boat and goals. Many athletes find success with the durable, affordable design of the Bantam, which is a popular choice for a range of athletes including juniors and masters.

If you purchase used oars, inspect them for damage, including soft spots. New grips, new sleeves, and other updates can be installed at home. Call us and we’re happy to provide you with options.

New or Used

Boat manufacturers can help you find your best fit into a new shell. Purchasing new allows you to personalize your shell: find the best boat for your skills, abilities and preferences.

Used boats are bought and sold on classified ads such as Craig’s List and row2k.com. You can also check with your local boathouse or rowing team.

When purchasing a used shell, you’ll want to examine the boat’s structure, not just the hull. Do you see a bend in the keel if you pick up the boat from one end? That may indicate the materials have softened over time. (A strong boat will have a rigid structure.) Also check to make sure the footstretcher and rigger are firmly connected to the boat. Look over the oarlocks, seat wheels and track, and shoes. Be prepared to spend money on these wearing parts over time.

For those looking for an extra challenge, rowing boat plans and kits are available for a build-your-own project. My father built the Oxford Shell II (shown in the photo above). It is a beautiful wooden boat that suits a wide range of athletes: it’s easy to row, fits most adults, and lightweight for transport.

Whatever way you find yourself headed to the water this year, be safe and have fun!

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