Rowing Instruction

Water and boats are magic!

Mike’s Advice!  
I have been rowing a drift boat for fifty plus years now, twenty of those as a guide and I can tell you I have about seen it all.  I can’t help but pass on the sage advice of a good friend and boat builder extraordinaire, Joe Koffler. Joe says, “there are two kinds of drift boat owners…those who have sunk one, and those who haven’t sunk one yet”.  I’m still on the right side of that equation and if you are in the market for putting yourself and friends in one of these craft Iv’e put together some thoughts to help you stay upright and dry as well.  All the best!

Rowing Instructions: Given with the emphasis on safety first.  

Howard Ruland negotiating Blossom Bar on wild section of Rogue

     Whole books and countless videos are available on this subject and I would encourage you to read and research before and while building your skills.  A couple out there are: Drift Boat Strategies:Rowing and Fishing skills for the Western Angler and Driftboats: A complete Guide by Dan Alsup

 Rivers come in a real variety in the Pacific Northwest…from the laconic flow of some coastal streams to the rough and tumble extremely hazardous rivers coursing down from our mountain ranges.  The skills needed on each of them and their various stretches varies immensely. Check out local knowledge and try to go with someone the first time down a new stretch or new river.  Safety first always! 

Important Terms: Lets get on the same page with a description of important concepts

bow: The end of the boat you look at when in the rowing seat.

stern: The end of the boat behind you when in rowing seat.

draft: How far the lowest portion of you craft (middle) sinks through the water surface.

back row: Extending your arms placing blades in water behind you and pulling hands toward chest.

push row: Placing oar blades in water in front of your sitting position and pushing blades toward rear.

snap bow direction change: This is a push and a pull simultaneously on opposite oars to quickly drive the bow into a new angle for quicker adjustment of where the bow points. Pull on one oar, push on the other.  (Advanced skill like patting your head and rubbing your stomach), This does not come naturally. Practiced it will more quickly change bow orientation than rowing with just one oar to turn the bow. Figure it out on a lake until you don’t have to think about what each hand needs to do.

river right: The bank to your right side (or anything right of your current river position) as you are facing downstream.

river left: The bank to your left side (or anything left of your current river position) as you face downstream.

bend the blades:  A term that means putting everything you have into a stroke or strokes, arms, legs and back…(lets face it, you will more than likely get into a situation where this will be needed).  Practice…get out in some quickly moving water and see if you can completely stop the boat from moving downstream. You have to row much harder than you think to do this. Figure out what it is physically going to take early, before you need to do it.

hydraulics:  The force of moving water is immense, never underestimate its ability to get you into trouble. 

life jackets:  The name says it all…wear them, you won’t have time to put one on if something goes wrong.

The Concept of Drift Boat Rowing

River navigation is definitely an acquired skill. Before you jump into your brand new craft and push off down your favorite river, spend a little time to learn what to look for (reading water) and how to make your river craft respond to your touch and stroke. 

A lot of river running involves bow orientation and effort.  Always face the bow toward what you want to miss and back row away from it..keep rowing. If in trouble…keep rowing, don’t stop rowing especially when you are already in trouble, hung up on rock or worse being forced into bank side structure…keep rowing.  Pay attention and you should not be in a dangerous often boat losing situation.

Before Putting In On A River/Stream

Hit a lake/reservoir/pond,  figure out what pulling with one oar does to your bow orientation, row with one oar harder than the other and note how bow orientation gradually changes.  Do it until you don’t have to think of WHICH OAR To PULL ON. You can also pull with different degrees of effort on each oar singularly and still keep in time with the other oar. This will be an often used skill as you are riding half in and half out of a current seam.

 Generally speaking a person who really knows how to row will do ONE stroke to TEN for the learner because of experience and knowledge they have gained.  So don’t assume you will effortlessly go through stretches that someone else you have been with made look so easy.  You are going to over react and recover and repeat again and again…that is just the learning curve in process.

First Launch, Pick an easy stretch and go with someone who can already row well.

  While you are in the current, row hard enough to stop all downstream progress of the boat  You need to understand how hard you need to row to stop a boat completely… where the water is flowing under you, making it easier to steer,  and move to where you need to be.  Most people who have ridden in drift boats but haven’t rowed do not understand how hard hard is. Literally this is like you are trying to bend the oars.  If you cannot handle this for about twenty continuous seconds then maybe this is not something you can do. Maybe you should reconsider your choices or at least what rivers you will utilize.

Row…Don’t stop rowing. Going downstream, keep rowing. Heading in what you think is the right direction to get past an obstacle or between two rocks…row, keep rowing. This is what changes the boat from being controlled by the flow to you being in control.  Until you understand rowing very well you should not just drift toward places you are going to have to maneuver.  It takes longer to extract the boat from a river’s grasp if you just let your craft free float…keep rowing. If you want to fish, anchor up and take turns.

Scary…Sometimes when you are lined up correctly it will look like you are heading right into trouble as the current is pulling you toward bank, rock or sweeper. A little disheartening, yes. Sometimes this cannot be avoided, other times you can just give a wide birth to the trouble spot. If you cannot avoid being in a tough spot, don’t panic. Keep rowing with bow facing trouble, this is how you pull away from trouble. In heavy currents this means rowing REALLY hard and keep doing it while maintaining an angle on the bow that continues to pull you away from what the water flow is pushing you toward.  A slight angle may work in some instances and sharp 45 degree angle may be necessary in others,(i.e. example of having to row harder with one oar than the other to change bow angle as needed).  When you are a passenger with others doing this correctly start taking notice of these things, bow angle, entering rapids, changing bow orientation…learn even when you are not rowing.  If you do this the learning curve will shorten.

Before You Go, read all of the Don’ts Section!


Don’t believe something bad cannot happen to you, it can. If you don’t pay attention or take it seriously, it WILL.  If you are in charge of rowing duties, PAY ATTENTION, the safety of yourself/passengers/gear is in your hands, act like you know that. 

Don’t let your anchor drag in an effort to slow your craft so you can fish. Take turns with boat partner, or anchor up. Bad for river bottom as well.  

Don’t push row yourself into a perceived position for missing an obstacle.  This is an advanced skill that you will use once you are well experienced in both reading water and maneuvering your craft, it is not what you should do when you are learning to row your boat.  Back row to position your craft and bow orientation. Keep back rowing as you adjust and pass through obstacle strewn rapids.

**The exception to always back row when learning is if you are forced to go straight into large curls of standing whitewater.  If they are big enough they may want to not let the boat through.  You need to drive the boat into really large back curling whitewater by push row and by keeping blades in the water so they will catch flow to each side and help drag the boat through.  If you end up sliding back down a large curl (surfing) it will turn you sideways and dump the craft in the blink of an eye.  Avoid them when you can, ram them hard if you can’t.

Don’t just drift into sections you don’t know that look possibly hazardous.  Pull to shore, walk downstream and case them out as well as the path you plan to use to get through. Spot rocks you wish to go left or right of and look at them hard enough to recognize them when you are approaching…things will look a little different when you are coming down river at them.  

Don’t just start into a rapid and then attempt to determine where you want to go. Stand up and look downstream at rapids you are approaching and determine your entry point and path, looking for paths and obstacles in those paths, before you drop into them.  Making it through a long rapid often requires multiple boat path adjustments as you are working through it.  Keep back rowing…don’t “float” toward the next position change.  

Don’t drift sideways to the current with your oars plopped down in the water while you do something else like change a fly, etc. The downstream oar can lodge against the bottom and either break the oar or force a capsizing.  Pay attention you are responsible for safety of all.

Don’t let your passengers control the level of your boat. You can’t go through a whole day of oaring sitting half way on your seat just to compensate for someone tilting the boat with their weight. Gently remind them to move “a half step” one way or the other…keep doing it if needed. Most people eventually catch on.

Don’t assume because you are young/healthy/or been in a drift boat many times, you are instinctively going to do the correct thing.  Probably absolutely wrong.  False sense of security is not a survival skill.  

Don’t assume you know how much water your craft “drafts”.  Check every time you start out.  An empty craft (just you) and one loaded with a couple other people and gear is far different.  Get out in some shallow areas until you start scraping bottom noting how much the boat is sunk in and see what you are drafting with the load you have so as you approach riffles and rapids you will be able to estimate how much water you need to float over stuff.  

Don’t buy a drift boat without having tried some rowing in a friends.  Yes, drift boats are one of the most fun and fishing happy river craft you can possibly imagine.  They just aren’t right for everyone.  Some people can just not get the hang of reading water or possibly not able to develop an understanding of how currents work. Also, some folks just don’t have the physical attributes to handle these craft. Go with others (and show your appreciation), hire guides.  Be happy and enjoy time on the water with others.  Rivers and drift boats are pure magic whether you are riding or captaining their journeys.  

Don’t let this discourage you…just be sensible and be open to advice.  Learn, enjoy and share good times on the water. Be careful, learn as you go and be a responsible boat owner as well as a custodian of the rivers you utilize.  A one or half day lesson from a pro will really help set you up for success, I would highly recommend it!