Drift Boat 101: Part Two – The Basics

Rowing Technique

Let’s get started with the basic rowing technique. As kids we probably at one time or another found ourselves on a lake in a row bow. To get around you’d be facing the bow (front) and you’d reach forward with your hands as the oar blades went back, dip the oars, and then pull them backwards, which resulted in moving the boat backwards. This is the same technique that will be the basis of rowing either a drift boat, a raft with a rowing frame or a pontoon boat.

You will be pulling on the oars and not pushing forward on the oars. In essence when rowing you will never row with a forward motion with the oars. The only time where pushing forward on the oars (forward rowing) is useful, will be in a situation where you are in slack water or in a run and you want to accelerate the speed to move downstream to get downstream faster. That’s it. You should never row forward to maneuver the boat or to position the boat or to avoid obstacles.

Hand Positioning and Technique

When getting started with rowing a drift boat, having a pair of rowing gloves can come in handy. You will probably be rowing for a good part of the day. It’s not fun to be rowing the next day with blisters.

When you sit down in the rowers seat and grab the oars, your hands will be over the oars in a natural position and you will be looking at the backs of your hands.

You will want to rotate the oars so that the blades of the oars are roughly perpendicular to the waters surface. My Hyde oars have nifty little knobs on the ends to help you feel when they are in the right position.

The Basic Stroke

The basic backward rowing stroke consists of the following actions:

(1) Lift the oars out of the water
(2) Raise the oars a few inches out of the water or higher to clear obstacles or turbulent water.
(3) After lifting the oars out of the water move your hand forward while the oar blades move upstream (towards the stern) to set up the back rowing pull. Dip the oars in quietly. Don’t splash down the oars.
(4) Dip the oars barely under the water and immediately pull backwards and lean into the oars. Bend at your waist.

You want to achieve a shallow, smooth quiet stroke. The tempo should be easy and continuous. Your goal is to slow down the downward progression of the boat. You want to be constantly looking up and ahead for river hazards and obstacles while keeping the boat positioned correctly for the anglers. It is easier to take 3 shorter compact strokes than 2 longer stokes.

Back Rowing

The 1st rule of rowing is that all maneuvering shall be done with back strokes pulling on the oars and not pushing. When an obstacle is encountered and you row forward you only increase the speed and rate of approaching the obstacle. Back rowing must become a firm and good habit.

There are many times when the boat is positioned mid stream and the anglers will be casting towards the slower water along the bank. As the rower, your job is to slow down the progression of the boat downstream to enable the boat to keep pace with the slower water along shore. This requires a constant rhythm of back rowing. The rowing pace is about one stroke every three seconds. A good steady pace needs to become second nature.


When rowing a drift boat, a raft with a rowing frame or a pontoon boat it’s all in the planning. You must learn to anticipate your next move like;

  • Where should the boat be positioned to optimize the fishing conditions?
  • Are there boulders, rocks, snags, hazards or obstacles coming up?
  • How should I avoid them?
  • How much effort and speed will be required to avoid the hazard, obstacle or boulder?
  • When do I need to start my maneuver?
  • When encountering an island or side channel, which way should I go and where should I position the boat prior to heading that way?
  • Should I alert the people in the boat to put on their PDFs?


As we have discussed so far in Part II, all maneuvering of a drift boat, raft with a rowing frame or pontoon boat should be done with back strokes. The next habit to develop is that of pointing the stern (rear) of the boat in the direction that you want to go. This is done through oar manipulation. It is called “pivoting”. After the boat is pivoted, with the stern pointed in the direction that you want to go, pull back with both of the oars at the same time and move the boat at 45 degree angle to the current. Lets look at how you actually do the pivoting.

There are two ways to pivot a boat. The first way is performed by moving one oar while the other is stationary in the water as a brake. The brake side is the side that you want to pivot towards. You then take several backstrokes with other oar. This will swing the stern around in the direction that you want it to be pointed, which is the direction you want to go. It will just take a few strokes to change direction. You will want to start pivoting using this method and getting comfortable with it.

Once you’ve got the pivoting with one oar as a brake mastered, you will want to work on the second method which is done by pulling back with one oar and pushing forward with the other. This method speeds up the pivoting process. It becomes important when you have to make quick moves working your way through a bouldered run and maneuvering around them. These areas require quick decisions and instant action.

Pivoting moves need to become second nature and as a rower your job is to move the boat deliberately and smoothly. Making a quick pivot can result in an angler loosing balance even when standing in a knee brace. Anglers positioned in the rear of the boat have been know to be throw out of the boat by a quick pivot. It is the rowers job to make smooth pivots which enable the anglers to continue fishing without hardly realizing you have just pivoted the boat. If a hard pivot must be accomplished to avoid an obstacle in is the rowers job to tell the anglers to get ready for the move and to hold on or even sit down. Communication is key!

The best thing to do when first getting into a rowing seat is to find a calm stretch of water and practice the pivoting and ferrying moves. Visualize a boulder in the middle of the river and making a pivot to the left, back row away from it, pivot back straight, pivot back right, back row back behind the imaginary boulder and pivot back straight. Do this over and over again using the pivot with the brake and then with the pivot using both oars.

Practice makes perfect.