Ocean Rowing – Equipment

ANCHORS , SEA ANCHORS, AND DROGUESDuring rough weather a non-powered vessel can be driven by the wind and waves at two knots or more.  The natural inclination for the boat is to broach, or turn sideways to the seas, leaving it vulnerable to capsizing.  Drogues and sea anchors are essentially aquatic parachutes that are lowered into the sea creating substantial drag.  They are connected to the boat via a length of rope and secured to the bow or stern.  The end connected to the drogue/sea anchor will weathercock into the wind and waves presenting a safer angle to the waves. Anchors, such as a Danforth, are used near land in more shallow waters.

Colin holding a Danforth Anchor.

Anchors:  Your ground tackle can be the last line of defense from being blown onto a lee shore.  A Danforth Anchor is suitable for a rowboat, being relatively lightweight, and offering good holding on a variety of surface types.  Danforth anchors are especially effective in mud and sand, but also work on rocky bottoms.  Heavier and bulkier anchors such as the CQR and Bruce are good in larger boats, but are too unwieldy for rowing usage.

In order for an anchor to be effective, and avoid dragging, the pulling force must be almost horizontal.  This is achieved by using a ratio of at least one to four (one being the depth of water and four being the length of line), and to weight the line near the anchor.  The easiest way to apply weight to the line is to use a length of chain.  Chain is also more durable than rope, so is less likely to chafe on rocks and coral.

The combination of rope and chain connecting the boat to the anchor is called rode.  Your local yacht chandler can offer advice with the specifics.  Rope used should be elastic to absorb the jerking motion and be chafe resistant.

The line should be marked with string or paint at every fathom or two so you can measure the depth of water and the amount of line being released.  The four to one ratio is the bare minimum, and in rough conditions six to one or greater should be used.  The line should be connected to the bow of the vessel the boat weathercocks into the wind and waves.

Once the anchor and line have been dropped, it is important to set it.  As soon as the anchor touches the bottom, quickly release all the slack line and start rowing as hard as possible away from the anchor (making sure the line is connected to boat).  As soon as the boat reaches the end of the slack, the boat should jerk to a stop, and this force will be transferred to the anchor and set the flukes into the bottom.  If two people are in the boat, one can place his hand on the rope when the anchor is set, and feel for dragging.  This is usually indicated by a series of jerks, or the boats momentum is not arrested.  If the anchor drags, try re-anchoring in a different location.

If the anchor line passes over the lip of the deck, it needs to be protected from chafing with a leather strap or similar material.  Anchor lines can be chafed through in 24 hours with disastrous consequences.  Also, ensure all knots are secure, and any shackles in the system have systems (such as cotter pins or wire) that will prevent the bolts from unscrewing.

Anchoring can only take place where the water is shallow enough for the gear.  If you carry a total of 400 feet of rode, the maximum depth for anchoring is 100’.  Consult your charts to gauge approximate depths when looking for a suitable area to anchor.

Drogues: Drogues are usually conical in shape with a hole in the middle allowing water to flow through.  A halter of straps or rope connects it to a single line that leads back to the boat.  Nylon rope is best since it stretches and is capable of absorbing the jerking motion.  The length of the rope should be one-and-a-half wavelengths, so the drogue is at the top of the waves when the boat is at the bottom.  Weight, such as a small length of chain, should be attached near the drogue to ensure it remains properly submerged.  A thin line can also be attached to the opposite end of the drogue and left slack for ease of retrieval later on.

Sea Anchors:  Sea anchors are shaped more like parachutes and provide more resistance than drogues.  Drogues are designed to provide just enough resistance to cause the boat to point into the wind, while sea anchors are meant to slow backwards drift as much as possible.  A sea anchor would be used if the wind were blowing you in a direction you don’t wish to go, while a drogue would be used if the storm is blowing you in the right direction.

***Beware of chafing***  Any time a rope of varying tension runs over an irregular surface (such as over the side of the deck) it will quickly wear through.  It must be protected with a strap of leather or something similar.

Our experience with the drogue was fairly disappointing.  Drogues work differently with every boat depending on hull shape, weight distribution and windage.  Our boat didn’t round into weather as much as we’d hoped, and often the boat was left swinging sideways to the waves.  It was arguable as to whether the boat was better off free drifting with the rudder lashed hard over, or riding on the drogue.

COMMUNICATIONSVHF Radio: A VHF Radio is the main means of close range-communication on the ocean.  An impending collision with a freighter can quickly be averted by hailing them with the VHF radio.  Most ships monitor their VHF radios.  The range of a VHF radio is line of sight, so the higher the antennae, the further it will transmit.  An antennae placed on the mast of a sailboat will transmit for twenty miles or more.  Unfortunately on a rowboat, with no lofty perches, range will seldom exceed five miles.  Two hand-held radios are recommended.HAM/Sideband Radio:  Ham and Sideband are used for long-range communication using long wave frequency.  The radio waves actually bounce off different layers of the upper atmosphere and can be transmitted for great distances around the world.  They are quite complicated and often quality of transmission is poor.  They also consume large amounts of electricity,  which is impractical for rowboat use.  A long range received, however, is useful, and stations such as BBC broadcast worldwide on these frequenciesSatellite Telephone:  Iridium satellite telephones are the modern answer for long-distance quality communication.  The handsets can be purchased for about $1300 or rented for about $200/month.  Airtime ranges from $1.39/min – $2.00/min depending on the plan.To cut down on airtime costs the phones can also be used to transmit data.  Properly configured with additional hardware and software, the phones can be used more efficiently for communication and relaying text.  The folks at Explorers Web offer some excellent solutions for satellite telephone communication.
COOKINGIt is important to have a reliable cook stove.  Woodvale Pair Ocean rowboats are designed to have the cooker mounted just outside the entrance hatch and behind the rowing seat.  This allows the cook to sit inside the cabin, while performing the messy cooking duties outside through the hatch.  Additionally this area is close to the spot where the axis of pitch (up and down movement of the stern and bow),   and axis of roll (side to side motion) intersect.  In other words, the cooker is placed where there is least movement on the boat (picture the centre of a teeter totter), which makes cooking infinitely easier.Stove Gimbals: Sailing yachts and motor boats often use a gimballing device, which allows the stove to pivot counter to the ship’s direction of roll.  Similar to the principle of a swinging hammock, this allows the stove to remain level, reducing the chances of spillage and pots toppling off the stove.  Gimbals are not required in a rowboat because of the stove’s strategic placement, and relatively limited movement.  The stove will not remain level; however, so good supports are required to keep the pots firmly on the stovetop.Alcohol:  There are a few varieties of alcohol stoves. A common type utilizes air pressure (delivered by hand pump) to drive the alcohol to the burner where it is vaporized (by running the fuel line through the flame) and burned.  There is a similar variety where the alcohol is gravity fed by placing the fuel tank above the burner. Like the pressure variety, gravity-fed burners vaporize the fuel in advance of burning.  These stoves need to be primed before use. The final type of alcohol stove is the simple wicking variety that works on the exact same principles as an oil lantern.The pressure pump type isn’t ideal because the moving parts increase the likelihood of failure.  The gravity fed models apparently work well.  The wicking variety is the simplest stove in existence and is unbreakable.  Electrolux makes a good model called the CleanCook.   This is the model we used on our Atlantic crossing with good results.

Alcohol has a low BTU to weight ratio, which means kg for kg it doesn’t possess as much energy as other fuels.  This disadvantage is partially made up for the fact that it is not very reactive and isn’t stored under pressure, meaning it can be stored in lightweight containers which wouldn’t be sufficient for other fuel types.

Propane: A good propane system is the most convenient way to cook.  It consists of no moving parts apart from the on/off valves, so is unlikely to break.  The gas runs through a fuel line, which connects the burner to a large propane bottle secured below deck.  This system does away with the finicky job of refilling the small fuel tanks (difficult in rough weather), and the flame can easily be controlled.  Propane is dangerous if it leaks, and substantial buildups are explosive.  Always take a sniff before sparking up.  Also, European and American propane bottles have different sized filler nozzles, so be sure to bring an adapter if you intend to fill elsewhere.  The bottle should be properly painted or covered in grease to prevent corrosion and explosion.  The prudent sailor would also wire it to the sacrificial zinc anode.

Kerosene: Kerosene is used commonly in sailboats, but is not suitable for a rowboat.  It needs finicky alcohol priming, and frequently the jets plug.

Camping Stoves: Any of the camping variety are not good for offshore conditions.

Fuel Consumption and Backup Stoves:  Do some testing at home to calibrate how much fuel you will use.  Cook up a days worth of food and hot drinks on your stove and measure how much fuel it consumes.  Multiply this figure by the number of days planned on the ocean.  Be generous with calculations and take into consideration potential delays.  Backup stoves should use the same fuel as the main stove.

HATCHES All entrances to storage compartments or the cabin must be sealable using good-quality hatches.  The entrances of the main cabin and the ventilation hatch should be transparent to let light through and to offer visibility.  Lewmar makes excellent-quality aluminum framed hatches with Plexiglas panels. Hatch prices are exorbitant but unavoidable.  The cost of hatches for a new boat can be $4000 or more.

Whale Henderson TCL4 Hatch (about $60)
One-part lid round hatch (about $25)

Choosing appropriate round hatches for deck locker access is crucial.  The deck area is constantly awash, and if low-quality hatches are used, you will pay the price later.  The Whale Henderson TCL4 Hatch works well.  The lid is made from two pieces – the outer threaded ring which pivots around the stationary centre cap and O-ring.

Important: Never use deck hatches where the lid is made from just one part.  These lids twist and contort the O-ring when they are being screwed down.  Some rowers, trying to save money, have used these hatches with disastrous results

All fittings on a boat, including hatch bases should be bolted on andnever screwed.  Bolts should be backed with adequate washers or plates. Caulking techniques are essential, and follow precisely instructions provided.

Testing Hatches:  Inspect all gaskets and O-rings on hatches for signs of decay or damage, and replace if necessary.  Also examine the connecting surfaces for dings or distortion.  And finally, and very importantly, seal your entire boat and fire a high-pressure water hose over the entire structure and on the joining surfaces of all hatches.  Any leaks should be remedied.

NAVIGATIONALGPS: The GPS is the mainstay of modern navigation.   Global Positioning Systems work with a series of satellites to give instantaneous latitude and longitude.  With this information the unit can also calculate direction of heading, speed and many other useful navigational data.  The main GPS should be a plotter type mounted outside so the rower can continually see his direction of heading.  Plotter GPS’s (which illustrate your course with a black path across the screen) are especially beneficial for giving you a precise feel for the localized currents and effects of the wind.  The main plotter GPS should be powered directly by the ships battery.  At least one (preferably two) hand- held GPS’s should be carried as a back up.  Be sure to carry a plentiful supply of batteries for the back ups, in case the main power system fails.Sextants: Sextants are the traditional instruments of navigation and can also be used as a back up system; however celestial navigation is not recommended.  The accompanying almanac and volume of tables is quite voluminous and heavy and tough to squeeze into a packed rowboat.  This information can be stored in a laptop, but this creates an overall system less reliable than a GPS.Charts:  Charts are expensive but essential.  Your chart collection should include an overall (small scale), chart of the ocean or distance you will be crossing.  It is also very important to have large-scale detailed charts of the areas you will be departing and arriving.  Also include charts of neighbouring regions in case plans change enroute.  Pilot charts (which give weather data) are also very important.Navigation Tools: Compasses, sliding rules, dividers, pencils should be part of your navigational tool collection for plotting your position on the charts.  A good log- book is also important for recording this information.

Ocean rowing oars
Colin inspecting an ocean rowing oar.

Oars: Oars traditionally have been made from wood, although now composites are used exclusively for rowing.  Croker  Oars in Australia makes excellent quality oars and has specialized in blades for ocean rowing.  It is possible to break oars on rough seas, and three pairs (six in total) are recommended for an ocean crossing.

Sliding Seat, Rollicks:  Pocock of Seattle produces good quality rowing hardware.  It is important to bring spare parts.  Various components of the rowing system wear down or break and it is essential to have spare wheels (two extra sets), spare rails, spare oarlocks and spare seats.  Feet can be strapped into the foot brace or rowing shoes can be permanently affixed.  Spare shoes or foot straps should be carried.

WATER MAKINGA rowboat cannot carry enough water to cross an ocean.  Instead fresh water must be made.  Usually electric powered reverse osmosis units are used for water production.  The unit most commonly used in rowboats is the Powersurvivor 40.  This is a reliable unit that can produce 10 litres of fresh water in about 2.5 hours.  A Powersurvivor 40, along with it the necessary pre-filters, hoses, fittings, and repair kit costs about $5000.It is also strongly recommended to carry a backup system.  A Survivor 06 produces just under one litre/hour manually for about $800. Better still is the Katadyn 35 hand-crank watermaker which produces almost five litres/hr manually for about $1900.
Bilge Pump:  A good quality bilge pump, such as a Whale Pump, should be installed.  Be sure to bring a spare diaphragm and valves.  Also bring multiple large sponges for mopping up water.  It’s a good idea to have a portable hand pump too.
Buckets:  Buckets are the unbreakable bilge pump, and can be used for many purposes.  Bring several.
Julie holding a Dorado she caught
Julie holding a Dorado she caught while rowing across the Atlantic.

Fishing: Fishing is not only fun, but will provide you with the healthiest, tastiest food of the expedition.  In tropical waters Dorado (also known as mahi-mahi) will school around your boat and follow you across the sea.  Dorado eat only fast-moving prey such as flying fish and squid, and are not interested in a lure moving slower than five knots.  Since trolling at five knots is impossible in a rowboat, the way to catch them is to move the tip of the rod back and forth over the water causing your lure to jerk across the surface with great speed.  If dorado are around, success is guaranteed.  All you need is a good fishing rod and flying-fish-shaped lures or hootchies(rubber squid).  No additional weights or floats are required.

Barbed fishing spear guns also work.  With these you wait patiently, perched on the edge of the boat, and fire when a fish swims by.


Navigation Lights: At night all boats should display lights which alert other boats of their presence and orientation.  The basic navigation display is red, white and green shuttered lights.  A green light is shone from the starboard side, red from port, and white from the stern.  An observer can tell what side of the boat he is looking at by the colour of the light he is seeing.  Seeing red and green together means you are seeing the bow.  In other words the boat is coming straight towards you.  Rowboats should carry a display of red, green and white navigation lights.  Often rowboats display a bright strobe light which is more visible from a distance, and are probably worth using.  Strobes can be confusing for other vessels, however, as they are not a standard marine display.

Sacrificial Zinc:  Due to the corrosive nature of salt air and water, the electrical system and other metals will quickly corrode.  It is essential to have all metals susceptible to galvanic corrosion attached to a sacrificial zinc anodes.  Zinc is a metal which is very susceptible to corrosion, so any other metals linked to it with conductive material (such as copper or aluminum wire) will be spared much of the abuse.  On a rowboat the electrical system is most vulnerable to corrosion, so this should be linked to a zinc anode which is secured to the outside of the hull and immersed in seawater.
Tools/ Repair:  An extensive tool kit is mandatory.   You should be able to fix or replace absolutely everything on the boat.  Spend long hours looking over your boat and pondering how you would repair the various components.  What if the rowing seat broke in half? What if all the oars snapped?  Learn new skills if you must.Some of the tools you will need include a wood saw, hand saw, assorted spanners and ratchet set, electrical tools including miniature screwdrivers, pliers, scissors, mixing jars (for mixing fiberglass resin), disposable brushes, and much more.Materials you should have include epoxy glue, crazy glue, rubber cement, polyester resin (for fiberglass repairs), glass matting, thin sheets of plywood (for hull repairs), caulk and caulking gun, repair kit for water maker, spare filters for water maker (and cleaning chemicals), bailing wire, duct tape, electrical tape, portable voltage meter (for helping to find a bad connection in the electrical system), assorted screws, nuts and bolts, and much more.