Good oarsman? How can I find out?

Okay guys, here's the thing... being "good behind the oars" is something that I read over and over and every single time think to myself "I'm pretty good... I think... um... am I?"

I started rowing when I was a kid with a rubber raft. Yeah, rowing around Green Lake and Fenwick and Meridian and Angle and on an on... over the years just grew to understand the dynamics of wind, water and oars.

Later in life, I got my Bucks Southfork and have floated every inch from Landsburg to Renton on the Cedar which is some of the trickier water I've been on, but not really that challenging.

Then I went on to get my 16' Don Hill drifter, and it scoots around nicely. Never touched a rock with it **but** I've played it safe because I don't want to hurt this beautiful boat.

As was mentioned in another thread on rowing I look at in a "less is more" kinda way... a little touch of the oar that steers you 10" past the rock is much better than over rowing. I feel I can do a very fine job of boat placement, speed control and angle on something easy like the Yak Canyon, spot and point out fish for whoever is in the casting braces, etc. But I want to open it up a bit and get on some cooler water.

Now the question: how to progress and assess my skills at the same time?

I'm thinking it would be awesome of some of you who are experienced, established, even certified, to list out a progression of river stretches that would safely let me know where my limits are. I mean, basically I'm just looking to put my Don Hill on some water that's a bit harder than the Canyon, and then a bit harder than that, etc, until I get a little worried about my abilities and wood boat. Then I will know.

Thanks in advance.


Active Member
I'd have to see you row to make a judgement. But I'd you can row the upper section of the N Santiam in low water, there's not much else you couldn't handle.
Right, so I do a little research on the N Santiam and read the same thing that I was getting at, "proficient oarsman," "experienced oarsman" etc. Point is, I don't want to go drop my boat into a river where I'm going to realize my limits in a bad way, as in destroying my boat and endangering lives. Looking for a progression, preferably not *too* far away, that will give me a better idea of my own skills. If there was, for example, a stretch of the Green that's just a bit more challenging than the Yak - awesome - I could be there in minutes and drop my boat in (when flows are reasonable of course). I don't mind driving across the state now and then, but not looking to drive to a Willamette trib to tear up my boat ;)


still an authority on nothing
Jim, can I suggest if you're going to up the ante, that you do it smart?
Like beg/borrow/rent a solid pontoon and run the water first in a boat that won't break your heart if it gets dinged? That way, you scope the water and make mental notes, then run it with more confidence in your baby.
wood boats make horrible sounds when they break on rock.

Jerry Daschofsky

Staff member
You know what? If you're comfortable on the rivers you row, and you can safely navigate them, then you're good on the sticks. It's not a level of rivers you've rowed that makes you a good oarsman. I know guys who have run class V's and "unclassed" rivers. They think they did a great job, but from watching they've run it sloppily and barely made them through them. Them running these rough stretches make them a good oarsman? Nah, just lucky.

I wouldn't worry about your classification. Worry about the rivers you run and how they change year to year. Being a good oarsman is knowledge, not technique. Knowing you aren't qualified to make a run makes you a better oarsman then the guy who says "He can do it, I think I'm as good as him, so I can too".

Now, if you're only truly asking so you can upgrade to rougher runs, then it's not a question that can be answered by a test. It's a slow gradual moving up in scale of runs. Kind of like skiing. You start on that kiddy slope. Damned thing looks terrifying that first time. After a few runs, you feel comfortable. Once it's kids play, you can move up to the next tougher run. And so on. Just don't jump from the slow/med runs into gut wrenching runs overnight. Look at the waters you've run, then move up appropriately. If you've only run rivers like the upper Cowlitz and then try to do Hell's Half Mile on the Calawah you may be in for a surprise.
Thanks Spey and Jerry. That's helpful. Yeah, I was kinda looking at like the skiing analogy. Renting or borrowing a big toon or raft is a good idea instead of risking "CRUNCH!"

Thanks guys.


Team Infidel
The ability to read water, anticipate trouble spots, understand your limitations and respect the power of the river are all characteristics of experienced oarsman.

True boatsmanship displayed by people in the business can be a fine art. Once you understand the basics, I would look at how well you position a boat with people fishing in front and back, how efficient your rowing motion is, how little water you have to draw to move the boat around and how safely you can navigate the most difficult spots. Understanding how to safely position a boat in moving water only comes from time on the water.

If you really want to test your abilities, take the Don Hill back to it's roots on the upper McKenzie. Be careful though; you may find what you're looking for. That river loves to eat wood boats.
A good rower knows their limits, and puts the safety of their passengers, their property, and themselves first. Whether they've been in the boat thirty minutes, or thirty years, that's about it.


Active Member
Here's the progression in kayaking....

1. Person boats Class II.

2. They survive it and boat Class III. They survive that.

3. They boat Class IV and survive that, so they figure that they are a Class IV boater.

From a Level IV Kayak Instructor Trainer Educator's standpoint, here's the progression...

1. You start in flatwater and you work on technique. You ingrain those movements so your body only knows the right way to do them, embracing the "patterns of grace, moments of pressure" principle.

2. You move on to moving water, and are able to nail all moves, forward and back, with grace and poise.

3. You go back to flatwater to further hone technique.

4. You go to Class I / II water and are able to nail all moves, forward and back, with grace and poise.

5. You go back to flatwater to further hone technique.

6. And the progression continues.

In hard boating - both canoe & kayak - it is the person who can better execute those basic skills, as instinctively as breathing while asleep, that are the better boaters.
Thanks guys. I'll be scoping some green river stretches when things calm down I think.

martyg, well stated. I can see how the honing of paddling technique would apply 100% for canoeing or kayaking - and certainly the use of the blades on oars is not so far off.

With my canoe I've gotten it down to the point where I can solo a straight line on flat water without switching sides... but not much beyond the array of basics like a pry and so forth. Little experience with it on moving water... I'm a hack ;) And it's been a long time since the canoe has touched the water, probly about 3 years, when I bought my drifter.


Keepin' It Reel
Good Oarman, Just take me with you and I'll let you know! Haha, all joking aside...a lot goes into being good on the sticks. You are practically fishing the other persons rod. By that I mean that you need to position the boat the right way, slow the boat down enough for the proper presentation, and still be able to navigate any type of problem water. All this takes expierence. Confidence my man, you should be able to know if your a good oarsmen of not, however; don't get too cocky and wind up floating in a confluence. Wish you all the best out there on the water!!!
I share your dilemma, with one exception, my boat is an old Alumaweld.

When selecting a new river to challenge my skills, there are two questions I ask myself;
1) Do I feel comfident I can get down the chosen stretch of river safely? and
2) Is it a river that I want to fish?

It is never a question of whether I will hit a rock or two, I always manage to do that...
If I was worried about getting a scratch or a dent in my boat, I wouldn't run many of the rivers that I fish. In fact, I bought my drift boat so that I could fish more of the rivers that l enjoy wade fishing.

Some of my biggest challenges have been on the more moderate rivers, like the Madison and the Klickitat. While the Deschutes (Pine Tree to Mack's) although a little scary the first time, turned out to be relatively easy for me.

Over time I have established a limit on myself as far as rivers go. I never run more than Class II+ rapids on any river, period. This limit has proven to be a good one for my skill level and experience. But I would never have found my personal limit, if I had been more worried about my boat.

Smokin', yeah I'm plenty confident, just not cocky. This question sprang from the little dude that stands on my other shoulder and asks me, "Uh, this isn't your field dude, you're self-taught... what the hell do you know?" So, I think I got what I needed to hear from these posts and more comfortable with expanding my range of exploration with a grain of caution.



Active Member
Smokin', yeah I'm plenty confident, just not cocky. This question sprang from the little dude that stands on my other shoulder and asks me, "Uh, this isn't your field dude, you're self-taught... what the hell do you know?" So, I think I got what I needed to hear from these posts and more comfortable with expanding my range of exploration with a grain of caution.

Let me introduce you to the four questions that I introduce to all of my paddling students, instructor candidates, and business partners:

1. What re the moves to get from point A to point B?
2. Do I have he ability to make the moves?
3. What are the consequences if I don't?
4. Am I willing to accept the consequences?


still an authority on nothing
not to be a wiseass or anything, but can I add it's good to be anchored in slack water or standing on the bank while mulling such things over...otherwise the river decides for you:)