How to row – as explained by the Boatman’s Manual

Here’s a grim-sounding warning I came across this weekend when reading an old book describing boat skills by an American gentlman called Carl D Lane:

The reader of this Manual is cautioned that no words and none of his time are wasted in it. Facts are stated once and not repeated.

So stiffen up at the back there!

Here’s what this serious author has to say on rowing. I hope it will be useful for someone – although I can’t quite grasp the meaning of diagram 108B – though it is amusing in a Tom and Jerry-ish sort of way.


A boat is defined by Webster as “a small open vessel, or watercraft, usually moved by oars or rowing.”

A deepwater man considers a boat any small craft, usually auxiliary to his own larger ship, which can be bodily lifted from the water and stowed on a large vessel.

With the coming of power and modern sail rigs, replacing oars, the “boat” has reached far beyond its meaning of only a few decades ago.

For the purposes of this manual, a boat shall be considered any hull however moved which is not a ship. This, of course, raises the question: how small is a ship; as well as other questions even more embarrassing. So, rather than place a limit of size or tonnage to the vessels to which this manual applies, let us merely state that the canoeist, the small-sailboat man, the powerboat man should find this work advanced and complete while the deepwater merchant or naval sailor should find it elemental and complete, lacking only full treatment of specialized subjects.

In most cases the boat is operated singlehanded; the lone operator must be his own deck man, navigator, reefer, engineer, and cook; serve his vessel as owner, master, and crew. He must thoroughly understand the elements of a great many subjects—be his vessel a dinghy, a 40-ton schooner, or a dragger—and he must have a basic working knowledge of them all.

Before he ever steps foot on his boat, certainly before he will require a knowledge of detailed seamanship, navigation, or maintenance, he will need to understand the handling of the boat of his choice.

Logically, a manual purporting to be complete and useful should commence at the beginning—at boat handling.

Logically, the subject of boat handling should commence at the beginning also—with the handling of the basic elemental elemental type of boat, that which is propelled by man power.


The ancient, straddling his logboat, without doubt first propelled his rude craft by a setting pole, a satisfactory device until he sailed into deep water. Once “off soundings” he was up against trouble, his answer was to kick his feet violently and discover that the broad bulk of his calves actually moved his boat independently of any contact with the solid land beneath him. It was a shorte step from this discovery to the conversion of his spare setting pole to a paddle by attaching a wide, flat section of bark to it. The need for  an efficient means of propelling larger craft led to a further evolution of the paddle to an oar.   `

The types of rowing boats are myriad. Each region  has developed its own peculiar type best suited to wind, weather, and beaching conditions as well as to basic purposes. In general the dory is the safest deepwater boat. It is high-sided and has marked flare, making it a good weight carrier and a fairly dry boat. Its construction is strong enough not to depend upon thwarts for strength, and so it can be nested or banked, four or more dories to a bank. It is generally rowed by pushing the oars forward  rather than pulling them, the boatman facing forward in a standing position. Dories will sail only moderately well, and they require a small sail with low centers.

In very small sizes the flat-bottomed rowboat is satisfactory and it is easily pulled except in very rough water. It is a good carrier and is strong, but it can seldom be towed satisfactorily. However, it has the advantages of cheapness, ease in building and repair, and of being able to take a lot of punishment on a beach or at a wharf; and is a common type. Properly designed and taken out of the “box” class, the flat-bottomed, or sharpie, rowboat makes the best all-round boat for most small-boat uses.

Round and V-bottomed small boats are treacherous, cranky craft until they reach a length of about I2 feet. In the  smaller sizes they have most of the bad characteristics of the canoe and none of its good characteristics. They tow fairly well, they can be sailed, well in conjunction with a smart yacht when davited  or decked. Repairs are difficult. Unless very lightly built, they are heavier than the flat-bottomed boat and therefore offer more difficulty in beaching and stowing. In larger sizes, such as cutters and whaleboats, the advantages of round-bottomed construction and design become apparent, and they become able boats.

In selecting the small boat the prime consideration should be that it fit the uses to which it will be put.

101. The Flat-bottomed rowboat up to I2 feet. For lake and river recreation and fishing, protected salt-water fishing, dinghy use, work boats;  outboard motors up to about four hp. Sail well except to windward in rough water.

102. The Dory up to 2I feet. For exposed waters   and offshore. Tenders for deepwater boats. Unless sections are modified  (see figure 102) will not sail well except off the wind.

103. The round-bottomed boat (and V-bottomed). Good fancy dinghies in small sizes. Drive well under power and tow well. When so designed will sail very well. (Example: the “Frostbite” dinghies.)

Boats carried by ships are always round bottomed and reach the length of 40 feet.


104. Ash makes the best oar material. It may be kept white and clean by rubbing with sand and canvas. Always stow oars flat. For long life, the leather (which may be of leather, canvas or fiber) is necessary. (Figure 104.)

Rules for length:

In a single-banked boat (whaler)— twice the width of the thwart from which it is rowed plus the freeboard at rowlock.

In a double-banked boat (cutter)— twice the length  for the thwart from which it is rowed.

ln a single-hander (dinghy) —

7′ OA 6′ oar

9′ OA 6½’ oar

11′ OA 7′ oar

13′ OA 7½’ oar

¤ r’ OA 7′ ¤=¤r

Rowing the Small Boat

105. Most good oarsmen prefer to have the ends of the  oar handles touch each other or even overlap slightly. Either way, the result will be considerably more power than when the handles are widely separated.

The complete stroke is made up of four distinct parts:

Catch — PIace the blade in the water, ready to pull.

Pull — Sweep the blade aft to give headway.

Feather — Raise the blade out of the water and turn flat.

Recover —Swing oars to position of Catch.

To give the stroke power it is essential to:

1. Keep the upper edge of the blade at the surface of the water.

2. Keep hands about level. They move fore and aft as if in a fixed groove.

3. As the stroke is completed, the wrist is given a smart flip so that the blade comes out of the water at a 45° angle. The elbows are in close to the body.

4. Keep the back straight, chin up and in, and the feet against the stretcher.

Your weight should be centered slightly abaft the centre of buoyuancy; never so that the boat trims down by the head.

The pin-type lock (Figure 104) will not permit proper rowing form. It is popular on lakes for trolling where the oars must be trailed at times. Better is a ring rowlock and a preventer inboard of the oar leather.

Learn to set a course and head the boat exactly for it (making due allowances for tide or wind if necessary). From then on steer by the wake or by taking ranges over some point of the quarter. It is lubberly and tiresome to peer forward after every few strokes.

Long pulls can be made less tedious by changing the position of the oars slightly or by facing forward and push·rowing for a while. More progress will he made against a head sea by quartering into it than meeting the seas head on. This is especially true with a flat bottomed boat of generous beam.

106. A single oar, properly handled, can move a boat almost as fast as a pair of oars used in the usual manner. This maneuver is called sculling, and it is especially useful in congested waters, such as near a busy dock or in at narrow creek or channel.

The oar is shipped over the stern, or the quarter, in a rowlock or through a grommet that has been spliced into the transom, the sculler standing and facing aft. The oar is placed with the blade athwart the boat. Grasp the handle in the right hand, turn the knuckles down, and move the handle to the right. At the end of the stroke, turn the knuckles up and move the handle to the left knuckles up, push left; knuckles down, push right. Continue, and keep  the oar pressing outboard —that’s all there is to sculling.  Steering is accomplished by easing the motion right or left, and so directing the boat.

Boat Orders

107. Boat orders are given by the coxswain. Their practical use is in training for rowing in unison with a pulling boat’s crew, such as that of a lifeboat or surf boat. “Oars” is a hold position midway between the stroke parts of “feather” and “recover”. “Stand by” is the commencement of “pull” but the oars are not yet dipped awaiting the command “Give way.” It is smart to flip the oars from “pull” to “recover” with a slight upward turn of the blade.

Handling Ship’s Boats Under Oars

108. Boats manning four or more oars use a set form of commands in handling. These are given by the coxswain (steersman) and are used according to the following tables:


Used by cutters with sunken or box rowlocks.

(1) Stand by the oars.

(2) Up oars.

(1 and 2 given before the boat is reported ready)

(3) Shove off.

(4) Let fall.

(5) Give way together.

(6) In bows.

(7) Stand to toss, Toss or Oars (followed by Boat the Oars or Way enough, without the command Oars).

In all other cases the commands in Table ll shall be used to shove off and go alongside. Boats with swivel rowlocks will not toss oars, and boats with awnings spread cannot toss oars.


(1) Stand by the oars.

(2) Shove off.

(3) Out oars.

(4) Give way together.

(5) In bows or Trail bow.

 (6) Oars (followed by Boat the oars or Way enough, without the command Oars).


Out oars. — To rig out the  oars in the rowlocks ready for pulling.

Oars. — (1) To salute. (2) To stop pulling for any purpose, keeping the oars out, horizontal and blades feathered.

Give way together (starboard, port). — To commence pulling.

Trail. — (1) To salute. (2) To pass obstructions. For the latter, oars of either side may be trailed independently.

Hold water.—To check headway or sternway. The oars of either side may hold water independently. lf boat has much headway, care is required.

Stern all.— To acquire sternway. Should not be given when boat has much headway. When boat has headway, should be preceded by Hold water.

Stand by the oars. Every man except the bowman seizes his oar by its handle and sees the blade clear of other oars. The oars should be shoved forward over the gunwale far enough to bring the handle in the proper position, but should be kept fore and aft. The blades will be kept clear of the bowmen’s boat hooks.

Out oars.—Given when the boat is clear of the ship’s side. Thwart-men throw blades of oars horizontally outward, allowing the leathers to fall in rowlocks, place both hands on handle, and quickly trim blades flat and directly abeam. This is the position of Oars. Bowmen throw their oars at the same time as rest of crew, if they are ready; otherwise, they swing their oars out together, touching their blades forward to insure making the movements in unison, and bring them to the position of Oars to take up the stroke with the remainder of the crew, as the case may be.

Trail.—Given when blades are in the water. Finish that stroke, release the handle of the oar, allowing it to draw fore and aft and trail alongside. If no trailing lines are fitted, retain the handle of the oar in the hand. With a cutter having sunken rowlocks, lift the handle of the oar quickly when blade is in the water at middle of stroke, throw oar out of rowlock, and retain handle in hand.

Point the oars. —To shove off a boat that has grounded, stand facing aft, point the blades of the oars forward and downward to the beach at an angle of about 30°, ready to shove off at the command. If waves lift the stern of the boat, the united effort to shove off should be made just as the stern lifts.

Give way together.—All the oarsmen take the full stroke, keeping accurate stroke with the starboard stroke oar. Feather blades habitualloy. Bowmen get out their oars together and take up the stroke. (They may have got them out before the command Give way together, in which case they give way with the other members of the crew.)

Way enough. If the crew has the skill, the command Way enough makes a fancy and snappy landing at a dock or gangway. Ordinarily, the command Oars is given, whereupon the stroke is completed and the oars brought to the position of Out oars. (Figure 108B.) In bows is given as the boat drifts to its objective, the bowmen boating their oars and, manning the boat hooks, springing to position in the fore-sheets, ready to fend or hold on. The command Boat the oars (the reverse of Stand by oars) will permit the landing to be made.

Back starboard (port).—To turn. Should Hold water before backing, if boat has much headway.

Back starboard, Give way port (or vice versa) .— To turn quickly when boat has little or no headway.

Stand by to toss, Toss.— Used only in cutter, with sunken rowlocks. (1) To salute. (2) In going alongside, when it is not desirable to boat the oars. The habitual command to be used when coming alongside. Given from position of Oars.

Boat the oars. —To get the oars into the boat. Given when lying on oars, or when oars have been tossed or trailed.

Point the oar.— To shove off a grounded or beached boat.

Way enough.— To cease pulling and boat the oars. Given only while pulling, and for proper execution must be given just as the blades enter the water.

Let fall.—To go from Up oars to Oars.

(Note.—Thwarts and oars are numbered from forward. Double-banked thwarts are designated by No. 1, starboard, No. 1, port; No. 2, starboard, No. 2, port, etc. The thwarts next to the bow and stroke are also properly designated as second bow and second stroke.)

Special Notes on Handling Boats under Oars

110. In going into a crowded or diffcult landing, pull easily and keep the boat under control with the oars as long as possible, laying on oars if necessary, and boating oars only at the last moment.

In going through a narrow entrance, get good way on the boat, then trail or toss the oars.

A loaded boat holds her way much longer than a light one.

In pulling across a current, try to make good a straight line by steer ing up stream from the line you want to make good.

Having a long pull against the tide, run near shore where the tide is slacker than in midstream, and where there is sometimes an eddy.

There should always be a lantern, filled and trimmed, in the boat, and boats should never leave for a trip of any great length without a compass. Weather is liable to thicken at any time, and a boat without a compass would have difficulty in reaching a landing or returning to the ship. For this reason, coxswains should at all times know the compass course between the ship and landing; and if they are away from the ship and it begins to thicken, they should at once observe the compass course before the ship is shut in.

Never go alongside a vessel which has sternway or which is backing her engines.

In coming alongside in a seaway or when a strong tide is running, warn the bowman to look out for the boat line which will be heaved from the ship.

If caught in an open boat, rig a sea anchor by lashing the spars and sails together, sails loosed. Fit a span to this and ride by the painter. If there is oil in the boat, secure a bag full of waste saturated with oil to the sea anchor.

One thought on “How to row – as explained by the Boatman’s Manual”

  1. Listen carefully I will say this only once. Great piece took me right back to my sea scout days and all those hours in gigs and whalers – I can still feel the blisters!

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