I’ve spent more than my fair share of time on the water, and I’ve always had a soft spot for the boats propelled by hand power. Whether I’m paddling a kayak or exploring a bay in a rowboat, there’s just something nice about the experience.
What is the difference between paddles and oars? Paddles are designed to be free from the boat, and are held by the user. They are most frequently associated with kayaks and canoes. Oars are structurally similar to paddles, but they are attached to the boat by an oarlock. Oars are typically associated with rowboats, but other vessels utilize them in competitions.
In the coming sections, we’ll go into deep details about the two unique mechanisms. And as we discuss the nitty-gritty of each, you might be inspired to try out rowing, paddling, or both!
Rowing or Paddling: Which Is Better?
The method you use to move your vessel is directly related to its design. That’s why there’s no better or worse when it comes to boating. There’s a matter of preference and how suitable the oar or paddle is to the intended usage.
Here are the main points that show the difference between rowing and paddling.
Type of Vessel
Oars are typically used for rowboats, sweep-oar boats, or sculls. The most common are the rowing boats, and these have a multitude of uses from sports, fishing, and recreational. That’s probably why my first experience in watercraft was on a rowboat.
Paddles are generally used with kayaks and canoes, which is the historical mechanism for sailing these vessels. There’s an additional type, which is the standup paddleboard. It’s not nearly as ancient as the previous boats, but it’s quickly gaining in popularity.
How the oars or paddles are mounted on a vessel is probably the main differentiator between both.
Oars are often attached to the boat through an oarlock. This applies to regular rowboats, whose oars are on the sides, just like in sweep-oar boats, where the oars are mounted to the bow and stern. The same applies to sculls, naturally, even the ones with multiple oars.
It’s worth noting that ancient Egyptian commercial boats were propelled by hundreds of oars’ combined action. Old Roman and Greek warships used a similar method but added multiple rows of sailors. Sometimes more than one rower handled each one of these gigantic oars.
Contrary to that, paddles are not attached to the boat, and they are only held in the paddler’s hands. To move the vessel forward, the person in the boat does all the steering, propulsion, and balance. There’s no other fulcrum for the paddles.
Oars are basically long sticks with a flat blade at the end. One end is where the oarsman holds the oar, and it should have a strong, comfortable grip. The blade side is where the real design takes place, and the focus is often on granting maximum propulsion per stroke.
Paddles are either single-blade, used for canoes, or double-blade, and these are mostly used in kayaks. The blade part has plenty of design factors proportional to the complexity of the stroke itself.
The paddle needs to cut through the water sharply, without bending or fluttering. It has to scoop a fair amount of water as it goes under, then sweep it with maximum power. When the stroke is done, and the blade is on its way out of the water, it shouldn’t scoop up any water at all. This would be an extra unneeded burden.
That’s why paddles often come with composite shapes, with a combination of straight parts and curved parts. The best paddles are the Euro-style blades, which often come with the best attributes for speed and power.
Traditionally, oars were made from hardwood. And in fact, you’d find many rowboats using this heavy material up to this day. It certainly takes muscle-power to operate these things!
That’s probably why we’ve seen lighter polypropylene oars or carbon-fiber oars come onto the market recently. They’re mostly seen in a competitive context, where speed optimization means less weight. The fishing and recreational boats aren’t too big on that change, though, as the lighter materials often greatly increase the price.
Paddles are often made from fiberglass, carbon fiber, or aluminum. This gives a combination of lightweight and durability. The weight factor is important in paddling as there’s no support or fulcrum, which is what oars have. The whole burden is on the talents and technique of the kayak or canoe paddler.
This is another major difference between what an oarsman does as opposed to kayak or canoe paddling.
If you’re propelling a rowboat, then you’ll be moving your whole body throughout the stroke. Moving your arms, and counting on the strength of your back, is understandable. What some people aren’t aware of is that the legs are important too.
In stationary-seat rowboats, the oarsman pushes against the floor to deliver maximum sweep of the water. In sculls, the seats move with the rower to provide maximum power in each stroke. If it’s a tandem or multiple-oar scull, then all the rowers should be in complete sync.
Paddlers move their upper body mostly. And they need to have an extra-strong core to weather the consistent cutting through the waters.
Most rowboats move backward. The oars are designed to sweep the water back-to-front, thus pushing the boat in the opposite direction.
Sometimes this rule is reversed, though, and it’s a trick fishermen know so well. They can just as well change the direction of their stroke and move forward, but it’s not as powerful as moving backward. This is also the mechanism by which rowers change the direction of the boat.
Paddling is a straightforward affair. The strokes cut the water front-to-back, and the vessel obediently sails ahead. Even when the padding is done with a single or double paddle, same thing. Always moving on.
The support granted for the oars certainly assists in making the water sweep much larger than pedaling. In addition to that, there’s an extra push that the oarsman gives by using his footwork. Both factors give rowboats plenty of propulsion power.
Regular rowboats are often heavy and a bit too broad in the middle to gain speed in the water. But that’s hardly the case with the rowing sculls that are streamlined and designed to sail like an arrow.
The exception to that could be the sporting kayaks. These things fly off the water!
The Bottom Line
The kind of boat you have ultimately decided whether you’d be using a paddle or an oar. Having used both, I can tell you that using either one is an absolute pleasure.
If you’re still standing on the shore and weighing the pros and cons of each, I’d say that the deciding points are speed and required effort. Speeding comes easily with rowing. But it also entails using every muscle of your body. Paddling can be a meet-me-halfway sport.
The bottom line is: rowboats are great for a day out on the lakes or fishing on a Sunday morning. Rowing-sculls were created for the free spirits looking to achieve maximum speed. At the same time, canoes and kayaks are versatile vessels that go from recreation to sports. All of them are unbelievable fun!