A few years ago I adapted my W.P. Stevens-designed decked lapstrake canoe for sliding-seat rowing. The canoe has taken well to oars and outriggers and now makes better speed than with a pair of paddles, but it’s no longer so easy to see where I’m going. Out on open water I can look over my shoulder occasionally and not worry about running into something, but I prefer getting my exercise on the flat protected waters of Seattle’s ship canal where I have to keep an eye out for tugs, barges, pleasure craft, and racing shells, as well as often erratic rental kayaks and electric launches. An occasional glance forward isn’t enough to spot and keep track of everyone, so I never get to settle into a steady rowing rhythm. I’ve tried those little mirrors that clip onto glasses, but they didn’t work for me. I never was able to develop a knack for getting my head aimed in the right direction.
I happened to have an inexpensive (around $10) wide-angle mirror that I use for backing my car up to a trailer hitch. It’s designed to clip on to a car rearview mirror, but will just as easily clip to a piece of plywood. My first attempt for a forward-view mirror for my canoe was to mount the mirror on my outrigger. Although the mirror wobbled a bit as the outrigger flexed, it was steady enough during the recovery to get a good view. But while I could see forward, it wasn’t readily apparent where I was headed. I saw the bow in the mirror at an angle and had to imagine an extended centerline to guess where I was headed.
We had done a Reader Built Boat article on a boat designed in Finland for racing; it was equipped with a mirror set on a short “mast” on the centerline, aft of the rower. I thought it looked rather clunky but decided to give it a try. I used a 3′ length of 1-1/4″ oak dowel for the upright and a block of mahogany with a matching hole for its base. I cut a slot in the top of the dowel for one leg of an aluminum angle and screwed the other leg to a piece of plywood cut to accept the rearview mirror.
I clamped the block to the plywood base for my outriggers and the setup did indeed look clunky, but I got the mirror aimed and headed out rowing. The mirror, measuring 11″ by 3″, isn’t very tall, but it offers a nearly panoramic view forward, and although the convex curve of the mirror shrinks things, I could see even small objects like ducks quite easily. With the 3′ dowel, the mirror is just high enough to see over my head—any lower and I’d get distracted by my hat moving about. The mirror quivers a bit at the catch, but that’s not a problem. Any rolling of the boat will cause the mirror to move side to side, but the image remains stationary.
Because the mirror is centered on the boat, there’s no guessing what I’m headed for: my course will take me right to whatever is in the middle of the mirror. The wide-angle view makes it easy to row along a shore or a marina and keep a safe and steady distance. I can even row with confidence down the narrow space between parallel piers or docks.
The dowel, of course, is right in the middle of my line of sight over the stern, but that’s a small price to pay for the improved view forward. I still check over my shoulders now and again, but I can row at a steady pace without having to ease off to twist my spine to look over the bow. The mirror is almost as good as having eyes in the back of my head.