Ocean Rowing: What You Need To Know Before Starting

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Ocean Rowing: What You Need To Know Before Starting

There is nothing like rowing on the ocean. It will challenge you both physically and mentally, but trust us - the rewarding feeling of conquering this cruise is well worth the work you’ll have to put in. The depth and vastness of the ocean cannot be replicated on even the biggest of lakes. And when you factor in the intensity of the surf, you can see why many consider ocean rowing to be the toughest style out there.

Is this something you’re looking to get started with? If so, you’ve come to the right place. At Red Beard Sailing, we’re here to provide the tips and equipment you need to enjoy safe, successful rowing in the ocean. In this guide, we’re going to explain what exactly this is, and what makes it different from other styles. Then, we’ll cover everything you need to know before attempting it yourself - including techniques, safety equipment, and boat recommendations. We’ve got a lot to cover so let’s not waste any more time. 

What Is Ocean Rowing?

Ocean rowing is not new - but the popularity surrounding this style has ramped up dramatically in recent years. The first “deliberate” attempt at rowing across the ocean was in 1896. Two men crossed the Atlantic ocean in 55 days, departing New York (Manhattan) and landing at the Isles of Sicily. This excursion spanned a whopping 3,250 nautical miles. What really makes this feat impressive is the lack of modern equipment and technology used to accomplish it. In fact, the Ocean Rowing Society separates rowing done before 1981 and today’s rowing efforts due to the new equipment and technology available. This means no GPS, EPIRBS, life rafts, and of course, no cell phones.

Ocean Rowing Today

These days, rowing across the ocean falls under the umbrella of “modern-day rows”. There is a wide range of boat styles - with the largest vessels accommodating up to 14 rowers at once. However, it’s far more common to see ocean rowboats that accommodate solo rowers, tandem rowers, or groups of four rowers. We’ll talk more about ocean rowboats later on. The Ocean Rowing Society oversees frequent races and events challenging rowers in unique settings. However, the Atlantic ocean is still the most commonly crossed sea. 

Another huge distinction between excursions of the past and modern-day rows is the technology used. All those things we mentioned above that weren’t in existence yet are in play today. This makes ocean rowing today far safer. With that said, it is not inherently “safe”. But, you can make it as safe as possible with proper preparation and guidance. We’ll cover all that later. First, we want to compare ocean rowing to other styles.

How Open Ocean Rowing Is Different From Other Styles

rowing in the ocean

We don’t recommend open ocean rowing to anyone who isn’t an experienced rower. With that said, how does this style compare to others? What can you expect transitioning from the lake to the open waters of the sea? Lassi Karonen, a Swedish Olympic rower, was on the record having said that the similarities between the open ocean and flat-water rowing start and end with the rowing stroke itself. When we say this experience is unlike anything you’ve experienced, we mean it.

Water Intensity 

The most obvious difference is the intensity of the water. You will encounter much more aggressive surf while traversing the ocean. That’s why it is so important to carefully plan your trip to minimize the chance of you encountering outright dangerous water.

Overnight Trips & Food Planning

Another key difference? You don’t just row for the day, pull your boat into a dock, and call it quits. You’ll be sleeping in your boat overnight more often than not. This isn’t the most comfortable experience - but you’ll be so exhausted by the end of the day that falling asleep is the least of your concerns. Because ocean rowing trips take weeks or months in some cases, you’ll need to stock up on food and supplies as well. If you don’t eat well, you won’t recover well. And that can lead to dangerous situations where you’re incapable of continuing your excursion - the last thing you want.

Boat Style & Gear Differs Too

As you can imagine, the rowboat and gear you use on flatwater will differ from those of an ocean rower. Ocean rowboats are generally wider and heavier to account for the more aggressive surf and winds you experience on the open sea. Sometimes, they also have faster slides to make for easier rowing through rough conditions. Furthermore, you’ll be required to wear a PFD (personal floatation device) as an ocean rower - it’s recommended, but not required on flat water. While you may be able to use other parts of your arsenal, such as your oars, you may find that upgrading to a coastal-style version is worth it.

Ocean Rowing: Pointers We Wish Someone Told Us

We’re going to use this section to share some pointers we wish someone had told us prior to starting out on our first adventure. The rowing itself will be slightly different. You’ll find that being relaxed while you row is far more important on the water. You need to feel the water beneath you and make your strokes accordingly. The manner in which you stroke in the first 30 minutes may be different from the next 30 minutes - as conditions change as you move through the water. You’ll be forced to constantly adapt to wind, waves, and current. You’ll also need to constantly change your hand heights in order to keep blades in the water.

Another key tip is to keep up your momentum. This is important even as you turn, as these larger boats need propulsion to keep steering and of course, to prevent capsizing as waves crash into the boat. Here are a few more tips before moving on to what you need to know leading into your first trip:

  • Use a soft catch and apply your power mid-stroke once you’ve felt the water and have a decent connection
  • Row more upright with a shortened slide. You will want to sacrifice stability over reach. You’ll make up for this loss in reach by using your leg drive to generate speed.
  • If conditions are especially rough, a faster slide will help you gain more stability. You’ll also want to get some separation between your hands in these rough conditions.

5 Must Haves Before Attempting Ocean Rowing

Now that we’ve covered a few of the key differences that set rowing in the ocean apart from flatwater styles, let’s talk about what you need to know to prepare yourself for that first excursion. With proper planning, you’ll enjoy your first trip and get there safely. Let’s start by discussing proper planning.

1) Prepare Yourself Mentally & Physically

It’s no secret that rowing in the open ocean is more exhausting physically and mentally than on the lake. If you have some time to train your body to prepare for this rigorous undertaking, you’ll set yourself up for success. It’s not just about getting stronger - but building up endurance, too. You need to cross as much water as possible each day along your trip, so being able to row for at least 8-10 hours a day is essential.

You should also take the time to prepare yourself mentally. If you ask those who have successfully crossed open seas - or even those who go short day trips in coastal settings - rowing in the ocean is mentally taxing. You need unparalleled focus. And the longer your trip is, the stronger your “why” needs to be. You can’t expect to push through to the end if you’re not fully emotionally invested.

2) You Need Ample Experience Rowing In Calmer Waters

We said it before and we’ll say it again - do not attempt open ocean rowing if you’re a novice. This is a rowing style reserved for those who have ample experience in calmer waters. We know you’re eager to brave the open ocean - but take the time to learn in a lake first. It will pay off in the long run. After all, you want to enjoy your first experience out on the ocean, right? You won’t be able to do so if you’re new to rowing.

3) Stay Safe With A Float Plan & The Buddy System

We cannot stress this enough - safety is paramount when rowing in the open ocean. There are two things you can do to stay safe: have a float plan and row with a buddy (or 3!). Of course, having the right gear goes a long way in staying safe. We’ll share an essential gear checklist later.

A float plan is essentially telling someone your exact route, the time you’re going out on the water, and any stops along the way. This allows people to track you as you row and in a worst-case scenario, head out to search for you if you don’t end up where you’re supposed to be, when you’re supposed to be there. Here are the specifics of what your float plan should contain:

  • Vessel description (length, make, registration number, etc.)
  • Vessel transportation description (license plate on trailer/vehicle used to get boat to the water)
  • Passenger information (number of passengers, names, addresses, emergency contacts)
  • Route information (where exactly are you starting and when are you starting? What is your expected return time? If there are any stopping points, dates, or times, include those as well)
  • Phone numbers for local authorities or the US Coast Guard

It’s also advised that your first few outings aren’t solo rows. We encourage you to find a more experienced rower than yourself for that first trip. Better yet? Get a team of 4 together with the other 3 rowers all having some experience out on the open sea.

4) Choose Your Ocean Rowing Boat Carefully

ocean row boat

As we’ve mentioned throughout this discussion, ocean rowing boats are different from what you may be used to. They are typically bigger and heavier to account for the larger surf and more aggressive water conditions you’ll encounter. So, what type of ocean rowboat should you choose?

One recommendation is the XCAT Multi-Sport Catamaran. This beast can accommodate 1-3 adults and doesn’t even require a trailer for transportation, assembling in as little as 3 minutes. The wider frame of this ocean rowboat makes it easier to carry all your gear, stand up, and of course, camp. You can choose between a forward-facing or traditional rear-facing configuration to suit your own preferences. All things considered, you can’t go wrong with an XCAT Catamaran

Another great choice is the ROWonAIR Rowing System. You can attach these systems to your existing sea kayak or canoe - or you can purchase a boat built with this system. There is exciting news coming from ROWonAIR, too. Their iCoaster is coming soon (summer 2022 hopefully) - and specifically designed for coastal rowing! It will feature new dry bags, an additional seat, and many other exciting features - so stay tuned!

However, there are many other styles you can choose from too. At Red Beard Sailing, you’ll find a range of small catamarans for sale that will serve you well over the years - helping you transverse any water you come across. If you’d like to talk more about which boat makes sense for you, just reach out - we’re passionate about helping people like you get the boat they need at prices that work for them. 

4) Stay Up To Date On Weather & Water Conditions

Leading up to your first trip you need to stay up to date on weather and water conditions. The last thing you want to do is push your departure date back - we get it. This leads to rescheduling other stuff in your life, perhaps changing your lodging plans, and other added costs. But trust us - these minor setbacks and inconveniences are not an issue compared to the hazard of setting out in unsafe conditions.

5) Get All The Necessary Gear Ready

There are two types of gear we’re going to talk about: required gear and “nice to have” gear that we still suggest you get. 


  • Coast Guard Approved PFD
  • Coast Guard Approved Signaling Kit
  • Coast Guard Approved Navigation Lights
  • Reserve Floatation or Bulkheads
  • SPOT
  • An EPIRB (406MHz)
  • Submersible radio
  • Cell phone
  • Square paddle
  • Bailer
  • Self Rescue Device
  • System for boiling water/cooking
  • Shelter/sleep systems
  • Hypothermia emergency survival kit
  • Emergency fire starting kit
  • On the water clothing and camping clothing
  • Compass, watch, and charts
  • Boat/equipment repair kit
  • First aid kit
  • Spray skirt

Suggested gear:

  • GPS
  • Strobe for your PFD
  • Food
  • Water
  • Street clothes
  • Rubber boat cradles/straps
  • Hat for sun/weather
  • Paddling shoes
  • Cash & roll of quarters
  • Credit card
  • Sunglasses
  • Sunscreen
  • Bug repellant
  • Boat sponge

Final Thoughts On Safe Ocean Rowing

By now, you’re well equipped with everything you need to know for a safe first ocean rowing experience. There is just one thing left to do - start preparing yourself physically and mentally while securing all the essentials. Happy rowing!

Red Beard Sailing is a US dealer for ROWonAIR and XCAT, both brands are supreme coastal rowing crafts.

Both the XCAT and ROWonAIR products offer traditional sculls and our innovative forward-facing rowing system that makes rowing in the ocean safer and easier than ever before!

The XCAT Row is a a 7' 2" wide car-toppable rowing catamaran that can take you anywhere!

ROWonAIR is a range of universal rowing systems for paddle boards and other boats as well as an innovator in inflatable designs specifically curtailed to rowing.

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