Author Dale McKinnon, in her sliding-seat equipped light dory, makes her way into a headwind and waves,David Scherrer,

Author Dale McKinnon, in her sliding-seat equipped light dory, makes her way upwind.

Sailors want wind; rowers don’t. Rough water can be a challenge to a rower’s skills, but I’ve found a few techniques that can help you reach a safe haven when conditions on the water take a turn for the worse.

I had the first difficult row of my wilderness-rowing career 10 years ago in Wright Sound, British Columbia. I was into the third week of rowing my 20′ dory from Ketchikan, Alaska, to Bellingham, Washington, a distance just shy of 800 miles. Halfway across the entrance to McKay Reach I encountered swirling gale-force winds and waves coming at me from all directions. As my fear increased, my grip on the oars grew tighter. I was tiring quickly and my hands, forearms, and back ached. I knew that if I didn’t regain my composure and relax, fatigue would add exponentially to the danger I was in. To reach the safety of even the nearest lee I would have to conserve energy. I kept pulling and calmed myself. I loosened my grip and soon felt my body begin to relax. As my spine became less stiff, my hips could adjust to the wild gyrations of the hull. My head no longer swayed with every wave, and my growing dizziness subsided. My blades stopped getting slapped skyward off the tops of waves, and my tendency to  “catch a crab” disappeared. I could feel the water on each blade and adjust more quickly to the waves’ erratic shapes.

Shorten Your Stroke
In difficult seas you have control of the boat only when the blades of your oars are in the water. Many rowers believe, erroneously, that long, powerful strokes will get them through a clutch situation, but in a long pull, the blades are most effective in moving the boat forward through the middle 45 degrees of the blade’s arc. At the beginning and end of that arc they exert about as much outward or inward pressure as propulsive power. Long strokes also lengthen the time your blades are out of the water during the recovery and, if your boat is rocking, will have the oar handles flailing up and down during the pull. Shorten your stroke by a quarter to a half.

As the wind gets stronger and waves bigger, it’s natural to grip the oars more firmly, but tightness in your hands will have a domino effect of tension through your entire body; you’ll lose the ability to accommodate your pull to the changing contours of the waves. Relax. If your hands are resting lightly on the oar handles, most oars are balanced well enough for the blades, when squared, to find their perfect level just below the water’s surface. Gripping the oars for dear life stiffens your arms and will result in missed catches and washed-out finishes.

During the recovery phase of the stroke, a tight grip will likely force the blades to plow into waves. The handles, driven both downward and forward can knock you off balance or even shove you off your seat. Feather your blades: If you clip the top of a wave, the blade will skip over it.

During the drive phase, a perceived need to exert extra effort and control may compel you to dig the blades too deep. The lower the blades dive, the higher your arms and hands go, reducing the power you can apply, the effectiveness of the oar’s arc, and the ease with which you can release the blades at the end of the stroke.

If you concentrate on softening your grip, you will find that you will calm the rest of your body. Stay balanced and relaxed, and let the boat do its wild hokey-pokey beneath you; you’ll find that the water isn’t quite as rough as you thought.

Cross the Trough
Rowing with the wind and waves on the beam will tire you quickly, and having one oar blade sky and the other submerge is a sure way to lose your temper. Waves cresting against your flanks also increase the possibility of swamping. If the course to your nearest safe haven is across the wind, quarter your boat into the wind and waves. Not only will this counter the usual downwind set, it will also diminish your boat’s rolling and allow your oars to remain more balanced in relation to each other. If you work your way well upwind of your mark, turn to take the waves on the stern quarter. A zigzag course will avoid settling into the trough.

The best approach to rowing in uncomfortably rough water is, of course, not to, so listen to the marine forecasts. Meteorology is not an exact science: Allow for errors in the forecast and give yourself escape routes. Along inland waterways even accurate forecasts tell you only what’s going on in the big picture. You need to know how topography affects local winds and waves. Look in all directions for the telltales of wind in the sky and on the water’s surface. Under oars you’re aboard one of the least powerful vessels on the water, so noticing and understanding a catspaw or a sawtoothed horizon is critical. Pay attention, be flexible in your plans, and keep a relaxed hand on your oars.

Dale McKinnon began rowing in 2002 at the age of 57 and in 2004 rowed solo from Ketchikan, Alaska, to Bellingham, Washington. In 2005 she rowed from Ketchikan to Juneau. The Salish Sea of Washington and British Columbia is her playground. She lives in Bellingham near her grandkids, with her partner Berns, and a chocolate Lab Thea, and builds Sam Devlin-designed Oarlings for other rowers.

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