Since completing my self-propelled trip from Kittery to Fort Kent in 2012 I’ve received a lot of mail. An inordinate amount of it has been about rowing my wood & canvas canoe on parts of the trip. The nuts and bolts of the rowing rig that I used is the specific focus of much of this correspondence. An email I received recently is an excellent example:
“Hi Jim, I’ve been looking at the rowing bracket made by Essex Industries, and noticed a testimonial from you about using the adapter. I have an elderly Kennebec canoe I’m thinking would make a good rowboat. Hopefully you can answer a few questions about the bracket and your setup? IE, what did you use for a seat? And how high was it? How long were the oars? Did you row cross handed? Do you have any measurements such as the depth and width of your canoe?
What did you use for oar locks? Did you have to make any changes or repairs to the bracket during your trip?
I hope you can take just a few minutes and shoot me a few ideas
and answers. Setting up a row boat is like adjusting a bicycle for the
rider. Everyone is unique and it has to “feel right” when you use it.
So I’d appreciate your help figuring this out. Thanks, Randy”
Essex Industries manufactures the only wooden canoe rowing rig on the market. The internet is full of homemade devices that rowing enthusiasts have attached to their canoes. And there are manufactured drop-in units designed to convert a canoe for rowing.
But the adjustable rowing rig (ARR) by Essex has advantages over any other available option.
The adjustable arms of the rig extend out over the gunwale of the canoe to provide the sufficient width to properly attach oars for the most efficient rowing. This is crucial with canoes since they are so much narrower than more traditional rowing boats. My Old Town is only 39 inches wide at the center thwart. It would be possible to row the canoe with fixed oar sockets attached to the wood gunwales — but it would not be the ideal configuration.
Because the ARR sits on top of the gunwale — it also provides an additional inch or so of height above the hull for the placement of the oar sockets. Many wooden canoes, including my OTCA (and I suspect your Kennebec) are only a foot or so deep at the midships. This can be a problem because the top of the rowing seat should ideally be set about eight inches below the gunwale or other attachment point for the oar socket. Because every inch counts here — the additional inch of spacing above the gunwale is a big help.
This same seat-height issue limits the type of seat that can be used for rowing a canoe. The typical paddling seat won’t work — it’s much too high. I tried a bunch of different rowing seat ideas before I came across an elegant antique design from Old Town Canoe which was then being replicated by Shaw & Tenney of Orono. It was a very lightweight low-profile seat with an integrated foot rest. But it looked delicate and it was fairly expensive.
I had some white cedar decking left over from a home construction project. I had some sheet-rock screws, a power drill and a hand saw. I am not handy with tools or wood working. Now — I know some people say that modestly and then repeatedly turn out museum-quality pieces of hand- built perfection. I am not one of those people.
The seat I built is perfectly functional. It’s about 5 1/2″ high without the cushion. I used a Crazy Creek canoe seat as the cushion and back rest — once again because I had one laying around. The cedar makes the seat lightweight — and because it is slightly softer wood than the red cedar ribs of the canoe — it doesn’t scar the ribs.
The foot rest was essential. Even with a fixed seat like this — instead of a sliding seat — your legs will do most of the work while rowing. I made the length of the footrest adjustable on my seat — but this may not be necessary. The back-rest on the seat also turned out to be essential. It made long-distance, all-day rowing much more comfortable.
While I was experimenting with various rowing rig designs, I bought a pair of plastic/aluminum oars from L.L. Bean. This type of oar is available from many different retailers — and it passes as the modern, inexpensive, standard, mass-produced oar for small boats of all types. I fitted mine with aluminum oarlocks, plastic oar stoppers and oar sleeves from N.R.S. — Northwest River Systems.
I hated this set of oars — almost from the very moment I purchased them. And no amount of accessorizing could change my mind. These modern equivalents of traditional wooden oars are clunky, awkward, noisy substitutes. They feel like a club in the hand. They row poorly and they are ugly to boot.
To be fair — I had already been completely spoiled by a pair of wooden oars I had purchased a few years earlier. Shaw & Tenney has been making wooden oars in Orono, Maine since 1858. Their products are exceptional in every way. For the rowing conversion of my Old Town canoe — nothing less than Shaw & Tenney oars would suffice. I bought 7 1/2′ Shaw & Tenney Spoons (in spruce) w/ sewn-on leather oar protectors and round oarlocks.
You will never regret this relatively expensive purchase. The Shaw & Tenney website has advice on how to size your oars. Wooden Boat magazine carried an article (with diagrams) about the Shaw & Tenney formula for choosing oar length in 2012. Or you can simply call the owner Steve Holt at the shop in Orono. Steve rows canoes himself and is a wealth of information.
The Adjustable Rowing Rig from Essex Industries is the perfect companion for the wooden oars. The rig attaches with clamps at each gunwale and to the center thwart of your canoe. For casual rowing this works fine. But because I anticipated long days of rowing in potentially rough water I made some adjustments.
The metal screw-down clamps at the gunwales are bomb-proof. Their grip is so firm that I use small leather patches to prevent damaging the wood at the attachment point. But the “wood sandwich” arrangement on the center thwart can sometimes slip under very heavy use or in adverse conditions. Also, because I planned a long trip with a fairly heavy load and no passengers, the center thwart was not the ideal attachment point for the correct balance of the canoe. I wanted my body-weight to be at the center point — then I could adjust the trim by moving the load forward or aft.
I removed the antique center thwart from my Old Town OTCA stored it in my barn. Then I replaced the front thwart with a utility thwart that I drilled with two holes to accept the carriage bolts of the ARR “wood sandwich”. This provided a rock-solid attachment point for the rig — which could still be easily removed when paddling or portaging was called for.
The versatility of this set-up was my key objective. I can install or detach the ARR in about 10 minutes. When paddling is preferred the oars, the ARR and the rowing seat lay flat in the bottom of the boat. I made a clamp-on carrying thwart to use for portaging — but otherwise I don’t have a center-thwart on the boat. This has never caused any issues.
Good luck on converting your Kennebec, Randy. You are absolutely right that it is very much like fitting a bicycle — except that there are fewer out-of-the-box options and it requires a bit more innovation.