What is the best rowboat for exercise?
This is a question I get asked a lot at boat shows. People are becoming more aware of exercise and want to be active while they are outdoors and on the water. They already know that rowing is good exercise, but what they want to know is what kind of rowboat is the best for getting that exercise and why.
Most people who are thinking about rowing a boat for exercise are not thinking about grunting and sweating like you might do in a gym. What they are thinking about is a pleasant outing on the water while exercising their cardiovascular system and burning off a few hundred calories as a byproduct of enjoying themselves. They are right to think that rowing can be enjoyable, and the boat they use can make a big difference.
Keeping in mind the enjoyment of the outing as well as the quality of the exercise, here is my answer:
For most people, the best rowboat for exercise rowing is an ordinary canoe. More specifically, a tandem recreational or touring type canoe set up with a rowing system. And the best rowing system to use in that canoe is the FrontRowrer™ (which I just happen to make).
Canoes make excellent rowing boats. Well-designed tandem canoes have evolved into the perfect size and shape for two paddlers cruising comfortably for long periods. The propulsive power of a single oarsman is about the same as that of two paddlers, so it follows that this size and shape would work well for a single oarsman. Such a canoe has good stability, maneuvers easily, and moves efficiently over a broad range of speeds. And the open design with no decking makes it easy to store cameras, fishing gear, snacks, extra clothing, etc. within easy reach.
Here are some important qualities that make a good exercise rowboat:
A good canoe set up for rowing does all of the above. And they are typically produced in large enough quantities to keep the costs down. And you may already own one.
Some people may be disappointed with the idea of rowing a canoe. It is a common misconception that you need a fast boat to get good exercise, and canoes are not as fast as shells. But the reality is that you can get the same (or even better) quality exercise at a slower pace with the higher resistance of a canoe. With a faster boat you may move through the water faster, but you will have a higher stroke rate with less resistance. You can burn the same amount of calories and work your heart and lungs at the same level using a lower stroke rate with higher resistance. And you may find the slower pace more enjoyable.
By the way, a good touring canoe set up for rowing is not “slow”. It will be faster than almost any other type of rowboat except a shell.
What's wrong with "conventional" types of rowing boats?
There's nothing wrong with conventional rowing boats, as long as they are used for what they were designed for.
Most rowboats fall into one of two categories: (1) traditional working-type rowboats, or (2) racing-style shells.
Traditional working-type boats:
Solo rowing is when you have just one person in the boat using a pair of oars. This is also known as sculling. When your canoe is set up for solo rowing, the oarsman sits down low and in the middle of the boat. This increases the stability and seaworthiness of the canoe. You can generate more power with a pair of oars, and it is better exercise. Rowing makes it easy to go straight ahead, because you apply power equally on both sides. The oar blades are farther out from the sides, making it easier to turn. And with two oars in the water you can stroke forward on one side and backward on the other and spin the boat around. Solo rowing in a canoe feels kind of like driving a sports car. With only one person in the canoe it will accelerate and stop more quickly. And it will "turn on a dime".
Rowing with a passenger
A tandem canoe is designed to carry two people. This means that you can bring a passenger (and some gear like cameras and fishing tackle) along. An experienced solo rower can easily handle a canoe with a passenger. You will have increased resistance and a slower pace than with solo rowing, so you will get the same amount of exercise in a shorter distance. It’s fun to have companionship while you’re out getting your exercise. One of you can row to your destination and the other can row back, so you both can get a good workout. And having a friend to help makes it easy to load your canoe on your car top or trailer. For rowing with a passenger, you set your canoe up with the oarsman aft of the center line with the passenger positioned forward so that the canoe is trimmed properly in the water. If your canoe is set up right, you can easily switch from rowing solo to rowing with a passenger.
Choosing a canoe
Almost any tandem recreation canoe will work well for rowing, but some will work better than others. Guidelines for choosing specific canoes for rowing can be found here: canoes for rowing