To many people rowing and paddling are the same thing. They say they are going to row a canoe and they call the paddle an oar. To be sure, there is a bigger difference between rowing and canoeing or kayaking than semantics.
Of course there are tiny similarities such as sitting in a narrow boat that is propelled by the hands pulling and pushing a blade through the water or the fact that these boats can be paddled solo or with others in the boat. But, technically speaking, that’s where the commonality between the two sports ends and the differences between rowing and paddling become apparent.
The best way to point out the differences is perhaps to simply list them. After just a cursory reading of these points it will become pretty clear that paddling canoes and kayaks is a totally different sport than rowing boats, sweep-oar boats, and sculls. This will also help with your understand of Olympic Canoe/Kayak and Olympic Rowing.
- The first notable difference between padding and rowing is in the mechanism that is used to propel the boat. 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.
- Along the same lines as the first difference and to put it in more specific terms, this means that paddlers go forward while rowers actually travel backwards.
- 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 actually attached to the boat being rowed. They sit in oarlocks which act as a fulcrum for the pushing and pulling rowing motion.
- 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 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 row boats.
- 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.
- 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 is a much more common sport that is accessible to the average person than rowing a sweep-oar boat or scull.
So, now you have an idea of the differences between rowing and paddlesports such as canoeing and kayaking. It is important to note however that this list represents mere differences and is not an endorsement of which is better. They are both water sports and there is no objective way to determine which is better in a generic sense. As far as I'm concerned, a person enjoying their time out on the water is what's important. So have fun!