The Humble Rowboat: From Ancient Egypt to Cambridge University

One of the most commonly used and available forms of water transportation, the rowboat is as old as it is useful!

Ancient Greeks used them for waging war, Europeans developed them for use in sporting events, and millions more used (and still use) the rowboat as a pleasure craft. 

History Of Rowboats

Some types of rowboats were even used in warfare! Galleys, large warships with sails that use a team of rowers to move, were frequently used in ancient wars by Greeks and Romans, jockeying for position in the Mediterranean Sea during the peak of Greco-Roman history.

Using rowboats in sporting events can be traced back to ancient Egypt, though the modern competitions in the arena originated as a popular European sport in the 18th century, gaining traction in America by 19th century. 

The notion of boat racing as a sport is thought to have originated in 1828 at the now-annual Oxford-Cambridge boat race. The two schools, competitive in everything from academics to sports, incorporated their first organized collegiate boating teams in the 1800s, with Oxford’s coming later in 1839. Oxford student Charles Wordsworth was thought to be the founder of the idea of a race between the competing schools; however, Cambridge was the first to issue a rowing challenge to Oxford in 1829.

Types of Rowboats

Different types of rowboats include:

  • Dingy- a small, round-bottomed rowboat that accompanies a larger ship
  • Skiff- a flat bottom rowboat with straight sides
  • Pram- a rowboat with a square bow, short boat, v-bottom
  • Dory- a deep rowboat with a sharp bow
  • Punt- a narrow, rectangular rowboat with a wide u-shaped bottom

Rowboat Racing

The first composite racing rowboat hulls were made with layered paper and adhesive to reduce the weight of the craft. Despite the misconception that a paper boat would be less expensive, these were actually quite costly to keep up, due to the fact that the hull would break if a crack allowed water to seep in. Over time, lightweight wood like spruce and cedar took over as part of a complicated design using many strips and nails to secure the hull to the framework. This design, however useful, was tedious and could easily be compromised if the builder made even a small mistake.

Boat-builder George Pocock began using Western red cedar to build racing rowboats, a wood that was previously imported from Spain at great expense. Due to Pocock’s innovations, the process of building an effective racing boat got easier, due to the cedar’s noted ability to provide a smooth glide and strong hull without compromising speed or weight.

Today, competitive rowboats are made of plastic or carbon fiber. Though the techniques Pocock and other early builders used are still relevant to making rowboats, these modern boats are designed using state-of-the-art materials that have advanced since WWII. 

Modified Rowboats

Attempts to modify rowboats include the Dutchman Cornelius Drebbel’s 12-oar submarine in the 1600s. He believed he could create a submersible watercraft by modifying a rowboat to have a covered top with room for 12 oarsmen to propel the craft forward. Though there are anecdotes of his tests and experiments, the concept never gained a foothold.

Racing shells are long, sharp rowboats that are lightweight and designed to go as fast as possible through the water. Types of shells used are called outriggers, ranging in capacity from one to eight rowers or one sculler. Harry Clasper, notable English boat racer and builder in the 1800s, was the first to popularize the use of outriggers.

Unsurprisingly, rowing is a great source of exercise! The action of rowing is a full-body workout that works muscles from the calves all the way to the shoulders and neck. Ergometer rowing machines can duplicate the action of rowing to provide a landlocked way to keep yourself shipshape and Bristol fashion!