Seat Rowing

A New Type of Water Aerobics

By Susan P. Gateley 

I love quiet boating. In the summer, I teach sailing on Little Sodus Bay. It’s a pleasure I have yet to tire of after 50 years at the helm. However, as much as I love the silent power of the wind as it brings my little ship to life, I have to admit sailing is not great exercise. It’s wonderful for my mental state. There’s no better way to leave the stress and frustration of daily life astern, but it doesn’t do diddly for my physical fitness.

A few years ago, when a friend of mine took up sliding seat rowing, I was intrigued. Here was a way to enjoy being on the water, while also getting a bit of cardio in. I had rowed traditional, fixed seat pulling boats for years, but the sliding seat was a revelation.

Suddenly, I felt my power stroke afloat had tripled. Rowing the two-mile length of the bay with the help of my leg muscles was a snap. I was hooked by the easy glide and the Zen-like rhythm of the oars. And unlike my sea kayak with double-bladed paddle, there was little strain on my wrists.

I promptly fired up the search engine, and found a used drop-in sliding seat for sale online. I acquired a pair of nine-foot oars, and turned my 14-foot double-ended rowboat into an exercise machine!

I joined the growing ranks of a number of women of all ages discovering rowing. It’s a great low-impact exercise that’s easy on the joints. With a sliding seat and properly sized oars, you can use almost every major muscle group in your body.

Rowing is gaining traction as a fitness activity for women. Many are trying the sport in college competition. They learn on sleek tippy lightweight shells — as the long, narrow racing boats are called — sometimes with as many as seven other rowers aboard. However, you can also row solo with a more stable, seaworthy boat, or even use a cheap, plastic canoe equipped with a sliding seat and outriggers.

I row on the bay where I keep my sailboat. In the summer, it gets crowded with motorboats that kick up waves, so I needed a boat able to handle the occasional one-foot wake. I can take a friend or a large dog along, and my boat is sturdy enough to beach for a walk ashore. Traditional “pulling boats” — like the Adirondack Guide Boat or variations on the Whitehall skiff or wherry — are now built of fiberglass. New ones are pricey and too heavy to car top, but are safer in open water than the shells.

My bayside neighbor, with his racing shell, can easily row circles around me while I’m going flat-out with my boat. For speed afloat and portability ashore, the shell is the way to go. The“trainers” are light enough to car top and are somewhat less tippy than all-out racing boats. A compromise I’m seeing more of late is a small lightweight catamaran rowing trainer. It’s far more stable, and handles more chop and wake action than a traditional shell, yet lighter than a pulling boat or canoe.

You’ll need a sliding seat if the boat doesn’t have one, and a pair of oars (called sculls). The racers use lightweight carbon fiber sculls that can set you back hundreds of dollars. To try rowing, you can visit a local boat club. There are a half dozen in the area that offer lessons and a chance to try out a sleek but tippy trainer. Google “Syracuse Boat Clubs” to find a club. A supplier of new and used gear I trust is Adirondack Rowing. They also offer lessons.

When the wind and waves pick up, then it’s time to go for a sail! SWM

Susan P. Gateley has been messing with boats since 1967 and has taught sailing for 20 years on Lake Ontario and Little Sodus Bay. She also writes books about Lake Ontario history and ecology. Visit for info on sailing and women-only classes.