The Differences Between Rowing and Paddling

Rowing team in a scull
Hero Images/Getty Images

Many people unfamiliar with water sports may think rowing and paddling are the same things. Misusing the terms, they may refer to "rowing a canoe" or may mistakenly refer to the paddle as an oar. But greater differences exist between rowing and canoeing/kayaking than mere semantics.

Some similarities exist: In both rowing and paddling, you sit in a narrow vessel propelled by hands pulling and pushing a blade through the water. Canoes, kayaks, and rowing boats can all be used solo or with others. But technically speaking, that’s where the commonalities between rowing and paddling sports end.

There are distinct differences between paddling canoes and kayaks and rowing boats, sweep-oar boats, and sculls. In fact, Olympic canoe/kayak and Olympic rowing are very distinct competitions.

Means of Conveyance

The first notable difference between padding and rowing is the mechanism used to propel the craft. Paddles are used in paddling. Oars are used in rowing. Paddles propel boats in the same direction as the paddler is facing. Oars propel boats in the opposite direction from the way the rower is seated.

This means that paddlers go forward while rowers actually travel backward.

Paddles are not attached to anything. They move freely through the air and are supported only by the paddler’s hands. The oars used in rowing are attached to the boat being rowed. They sit in oarlocks, which act as a fulcrum for the pushing and pulling rowing motion.

Different Strokes for Different Boats

The method of propulsion of paddling and rowing is also completely different. Paddling strokes are driven by the paddler’s torso. The rowing stroke is mainly a function of the legs and arms.

To allow the legs to do the work in rowing, the seats inside sweep-oar boats and sculls actually slide forward and back to allow the legs to push and apply power to the stroke. The seats inside of kayaks, canoes, and rafts are stationary.

Paddlers paddle kayaks, canoes, rafts, and standup paddleboards. Rowers row sweep-oar boats, sculls, and rowboats.

In some rowing events, there is what is known as the coxswain, or simply cox . This person sits in the back of the boat and is the only person in the boat who is facing the direction of travel. The cox does not maneuver an oar. Instead, this person is in charge of steering the boat and keeping the timing of the members of the crew. Of course, in canoeing and kayaking, there is no such member as in crew.

Other Differences

Paddlers are able to paddle a boat straight with just one blade and on one side if they wish. In rowing, two blades are required, one on each side of the boat to move the boat in a straight line.

You can practice rowing in your home or in a gym on a rowing trainer. There is no paddling trainer or way to effectively practice how to paddle at home.

Paddling canoes and kayaks are a much more common and accessible to the average person than rowing a sweep-oar boat or a scull.

Was this page helpful?