Arguments for a proper rowboat

Guest perspective/Christopher Birch

The longer I have been around boats, the more I have come to appreciate the small ones. When I was young, I dreamed of how grand it would be to have a massive sailing yacht of my very own. Now, some years later, my heart skips a beat for a more simple craft. For pure simplicity, nothing beats a rowboat.

I love rowboats. They cut to the heart of what we all admire about boats. The rower, low to the sea, diligently repeats the same arc of motion, and in so doing fruitfully propels him or her self from point A to point B with grace and dignity. The rower is content in the knowledge that nothing more than skill and effort made the trip possible.

The boats themselves can reach the highest levels of yacht style. Form following function on a fine rowboat provides for low freeboard, a graceful sheer, sharp ends, and the most perfect waterline. The oars are so basic, and, much like the ivory tusk of an elephant, so potent. Long, balanced, lean, powerful – a fine oar is fine art.

Then there is the rubber tender with its heavy outboard motor, a blight on the sailing community worldwide. Never before have such ungainly lines emerged from a naval architect’s pencil. Little more than a car-tire inner tube, the inflatable dinghy cannot be rowed into the slightest breeze – even by the finest rower. And this is a task that certainly will need to be accomplished with great regularity thanks to its sour marriage to the filthy, unreliable menace named the outboard motor.

Ten things you will never hear the proud owner of a proper rowing tender say:

1. “My boat blew up when my dinghy gas can spilled in my cockpit locker.”

2. “My child was maimed by the prop on my dinghy motor.”

3. “I can’t go sailing this weekend; my dinghy motor is in the shop.”

4. “The ethanol in my dinghy fuel is ruining my summer.”

5. “I can’t attend your graduation, son, because I need to go to the RMV to renew the registration on my dinghy.”

6. “The ugly registration numbers keep falling off my dinghy, making it look even uglier.”

7. “I wish my dinghy wasn’t so sticky and ugly.”

8. “I threw my back out trying to lift my dinghy motor.”

9. “I can’t believe how much it cost to have my dinghy engine winterized.”

10. “I don’t know how to row.”

The rubber tender is an excellent example of change in the name of progress that came up short. It is the snowboard to the ski, the leaf blower to the rake, the text to the letter, the skinny mango-berry daiquiri to the martini.

One of the finest joys in life is teaching a young person to row. Don’t miss a chance at that. Don’t miss the magnificent, silent drift just after the last stroke. Don’t miss out on the simple satisfaction that comes with rowing your own boat, perhaps even one you built yourself. Choose to skip all the silliness associated with having a condom craft on your towline.

I have learned that I can accurately gauge how well I will like a new harbor by taking a quick look at the dinghy dock. If I see a lot of rubber getting old under a cloud of gas fumes, I should probably move on. If I see a handsome collection of lovingly varnished clear spruce oars with mahogany inlaid tips, well that’s the place for me.

Chris Birch is the proprietor of Birch Marine Inc., on Long Wharf in Boston, where he has been building, restoring and maintaining boats for the past 33 years.