Rowing And Kayaking – What Are The Differences?

Rowing And Kayaking – What Are The Differences?

A common error that is made by many people who are new to the sport of kayaking is to mistake rowing and kayaking as the same thing. We are here to disseminate the truth that they are indeed separate sports and we will shed some light on their major differences.

This will include more in-depth definitions of each sport, the types of people that primarily participate in each sport, and where you can enjoy each sport in terms of water environments.

To be clear, both of these sports are great ways to get on the water and enjoy some outdoor exercise. They do, however, require different skills and techniques, so this guide should give you a better idea of which sport is best for you.

Let’s get into it!

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What is Rowing?

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Have you ever heard of a college crew team? Well, rowing is technically the sport they are participating in with their “crew”.

Rowing is a racing sport that, somewhat like kayaking and canoeing, began simply as a means of transportation. Some of the first races date back to the 16th Century, but today’s rowers are mainly interested in competitive pursuits.

That said, some simply use the sport as a means to stay in shape because it is an excellent full-body workout. Rowing has been an Olympic men’s sport since 1900 and a women’s competitive event since 1976.

The boats used for crew are either called shells or sculls. The former is powered by a total of eight oars by the latter is slightly smaller and powered by either two or four oars.

If you see them on your local waterway, the shells and sculls will often be accompanied by a coach in a motorized boat, which is known as a launch.

What Is Kayaking?

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Kayaking is a sport that involves using a double-bladed paddle that is not attached to the actual watercraft in any way. There are a huge variety of kayak designs out there for different types of paddling.

Kayaking is a wildly popular recreational sport during the summer months. However, it can also be a popular year-round activity in warmer environments and even in colder regions with the proper equipment.

Kayaking is different from rowing because the paddle is not connected to the boat using oarlocks. It is also different from canoeing in that the paddle has two blades on either end instead of a blade on one end and a T-grip handle on the other.

There is almost no limit to the specific kinds of paddling you can do with a kayak. Some common examples, however, include river, coastal, pond fishing, running whitewater rapids, surfing, long or short-distance touring, and recreational paddling.

Also Read: Tandem Kayak vs Canoe

Rowing and Kayaking – What Are The Differences?

The most important difference between these two sports is that one utilizes two oars while the other requires the use of a single paddle. You don’t ever row a kayak and any kayak guide or experienced paddler will probably politely correct you if you use the term incorrectly.

Oars Versus Paddles

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When it comes to the oars and paddles used for these respective sports, there are some additional key differences to address. Mainly the oars used for rowing are fixed to the boat while the paddle for kayaking is not.

The equipment that is used to fix rowing oars to the vessel is called an oarlock. These oarlocks are similar to what you might find on a larger whitewater raft for paddling Class IV and V rapids.

In addition, the best kayak paddles have blades on both ends while the oars used for rowing have just a single blade on one end and a handle on the other. Oars used for rowing also tend to be much longer than kayak paddles and the blades are shaped a little bit differently.

Vessel Design

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There are also some differences in the shape of the watercraft used for these sports. For rowing, the boats are much longer and skinnier because they are built for speed above all else.

With a kayak, you will find some long and skinny models built for long-distance efficiency, but you will also find many other shorter and wider models that are built for kayak fishing, recreational paddling, and whitewater kayaking.

Seat Design

Another key difference is the design of the seats in these two types of personal watercraft. In kayaks, the seats are generally fixed in a single position, although they can be adjusted slightly for comfort.

In rowing shells or sculls, the seats slide back in forth along tracks with the paddler’s movement. This is why rowing can be a total body workout because it involves leg drive as well as arm pull.

Seating Position

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If you have ever seen a crew team rowing toward you on your local lake or river, you have probably thought to yourself, “Do they know where the heck they are going?”

That is because rowers face towards the stern of their sculls (or shells) while kayakers face towards the bow. This difference in seating position is what accounts for the substantial difference in paddling technique required of these two water sports.

Number of Paddlers

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You will also generally find a larger number of paddlers in a rowing scull than you would in a kayak. To our knowledge, we haven’t seen a kayak out there with more than two or three seats.

However, many rowing shells are designed for up to eight paddlers. The smaller sculls are designed for two or four paddlers, but there are certain rowing boats out there for single paddlers.

Ease of Transport

Rowing sculls and shells are generally much longer than most kayaks. While they aren’t particularly heavy (especially if designed for competitions), their length alone makes them harder to transport than kayaks.

In addition, there are a growing number of inflatable kayaks out there, which are arguably the most easily transportable watercraft out there. In comparison, you will most likely struggle to find an inflatable option for rowing.

Ability to Practice

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The last difference we want to mention is the environment in which you can practice these two types of paddling. Kayakers are mainly limited to their local waterways for practicing new techniques.

If you have a particularly dirty or reptile-infested waterway in your backyard, for example, you will probably want to find a local pool to practice skills like a screw roll or put-across roll.

Rowers, on the other hand, have the ability to practice more on land using a rowing machine. In fact, many new rowers will start on one of these machines before they are ready to transition to the water.

Who is Rowing For?

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Theoretically, anyone can enjoy the sport of rowing with the proper training. However, the key to that statement is proper training.

Because rowing shells are much skinnier than most kayaks, they can be more susceptible to tipping if you are not training in how to balance them. They can also be harder to flip over and climb back into than most kayaks.

In addition to the logistics of keeping a rowing shell upright or flipping it over if it tips, rowing also requires a more time-synced technique that takes a little while for beginners to master.

If you are interested in rowing, you should certainly start by finding a rowing dock near you that offers lessons. They may even start you out on a land-based rowing machine to learn the basic technique you will use on the water.

It is unlikely, however, that they will throw you right into a shell and let you figure things out yourself. For these reasons, you don’t see almost any rowing rental businesses in waterside towns like you do with kayak rental businesses.

Who is Kayaking For?

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Everyone! While kayaking certainly does require learning some new skills like the forward sweep stroke and the draw stroke, it is a very accessible sport for beginners.

In fact, most people can enjoy a casual hour or two on a kayak after receiving five to ten minutes of quality instruction.

Of course, certain types of kayaking require more instruction than others. Recreational paddling is the most accessible for beginners, but kayak surfing and whitewater kayaking require more technical expertise and knowledge of river flow rates, wave conditions, and tidal flows.

Where Can You Go Rowing?

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Rowing is mostly done on wide, calm, slow-moving rivers and inland lakes because shells and sculls don’t tend to handle waters with larger waves or even chop from boat traffic very well.

For this reason, you will also find many rowers taking advantage of the calm waters during the early morning hours before afternoon winds pick up.

For races, buoy-marked lanes are set up for each team and they must remain between their marked buoys in order to maintain eligibility.

Where Can You Go Kayaking?

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Kayaks are actually made for different environments. While there are some ”˜all-around’ kayak models out there, it is somewhat rare to find a kayak that can handle every kayaking environment you can imagine.

The good news about that is that there is a kayak out there for the precise environment you plan to paddle in. The tough part about that is that you need to make sure you make the right kayak choice for your location.

So let’s break things down a little further by suggesting some types of kayaks that are best for the four main environments you will find.

Lakes and Ponds

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Lakes and ponds come in all shapes and sizes. Generally speaking, however, you will always be able to use a recreational kayak in lake and pond environments.

Of course, you will still need to check the weather to avoid trying to paddle in heavy winds on a large lake like Lake Michigan or Lake Tahoe.

Larger lakes like these, however, can also be great environments for touring kayaks. Some folks use touring kayaks to circumnavigate larger lakes and camp overnight in several different destinations along the way.

Also, fishing kayaks are popular choices for lakes and ponds. As inflatable technology improves, you will also find a larger and larger number of inflatable kayaks in these environments as well.

To sum it up, the only type of kayak that you really won’t find on lakes and ponds is a whitewater kayak. This is because these kayaks rely on moving water for their stability and don’t perform very well on calmer waters.

Rivers, Creeks, and Streams

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This is where whitewater kayaks make their name. They are specifically designed to be the most maneuverable kayaks out there so that whitewater paddlers can easily avoid rocks, logs, and other objects on their river runs.

Moving waters can also sometimes be classified as creeks and/or streams, and whitewater kayaks are also really the only type of kayak you would want to use in these environments.

That being said, the odds are good that you have seen an especially wide river in which the current is actually relatively slow. Think larger rivers like the Mississippi or portions of the Colorado River through places like Black Canyon.

The current in slow-moving rivers will not be substantial enough to warrant the use of a whitewater kayak. This is why you will also find recreational kayaks, inflatable kayaks, fishing kayaks, and sometimes even touring kayaks in this type of environment.

Coastal Bays and Protected Inland Waterways

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The main difference between coastal bays and protected inland waterways versus lakes, ponds, and slow-moving rivers is saltwater versus freshwater. Fortunately, this doesn’t have a large impact on the types of kayaks you can use in these environments, even if it does mean you will need to more thoroughly clean your kayak off after a saltwater paddle.

Depending on wind conditions and tides, you will find recreational kayaks, ocean fishing kayaks, inflatable kayaks, and touring kayaks in these types of environments.

If the bay or waterway is particularly well known for having high winds, you will likely see a higher number of touring and fishing kayaks with rudders and skegs to help with tracking.

In some cases, you will also find a lower number of inflatable kayaks in these environments because of concerns over what would happen to them if bitten by a particularly large ocean predator with sharp teeth.

Open Ocean

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The open ocean is typically reserved for the longest of touring kayaks and the most well-equipped of ocean fishing kayaks. You will not find many recreational kayaks in these areas because they don’t handle winds or tides very well.

Occasionally, you will find a whitewater kayak being used to play in the surf along the shoreline, but that kind of kayak would be rendered incredibly ineffective once paddled out past the breaking waves.

Open ocean kayaking is usually reserved for the most experienced and prepared paddlers. You need to know wind patterns, study tidal charts, and have your kayak 100% prepared for the unexpected if you are going to paddle on the open ocean.

That said, the open ocean can be an exceptional place for sport fishing or wildlife viewing. Before you buy an ocean fishing kayak and head on out past the break, however, we strongly recommend taking a few lessons and hopping on a guided tour in your area to learn more about the risks and how to read conditions.

Final Thoughts

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If you are new to watersports in general, kayaking is a great place to start because it offers a very manageable learning curve. After a guided tour or two, you will have the basic knowledge in place to safely kayak for an hour or two on your own.

As your skills increase and your interest in longer paddles grows, you may need to invest in another course or find other paddlers in your local community who don’t mind sharing their expertise on planned adventures.

Local Facebook groups or groups that meet via other social platforms can actually be a great way to build your paddling community. There’s also nothing better than having a friend or two around when you are learning how to self-rescue in a sea kayak, for example.

We hope that this article has cleared up any confusion you might have had over the differences between rowing and kayaking. We also hope you learned a little more about kayaking in general and how to gain skills and confidence with this awesome sport.

If you are just dipping your toes into kayaking, we would encourage you to look at some of our other resources to help you learn the necessary techniques and criteria for choosing your first kayak.

Also, feel free to leave a question or comment below if anything in this guide wasn’t quite clear or sparked additional questions for you!

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Rowing And Kayaking - What Are The Differences?

Peter Salisbury

Peter Salisbury

Pete is the Owner of Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, he grew up kayaking, fishing, sailing, and partaking in outdoor adventures around the Great Lakes. When he’s not out on the water, you can find him skiing in the mountains, reading his favorite books, and spending time with his family.

Welcome! I’m so glad you are here :-) I’m Pete. I am the owner of I was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, I grew up kayaking, fishing, sailing, and partaking in outdoor adventures around the Great Lakes. When I am not out on the water, you can find me skiing in the mountains, reading my favorite books, and spending time with my family.