Rowing and kayaking might seem like distant cousins; both involve propelling a narrow craft through the water using just a paddle and sheer strength.

However, a closer look will reveal glaring differences between them.

To clear up any confusion, we’ll navigate the distinction between rowing vs kayaking in this guide. 

rowing vs kayaking

What Is Rowing?

Rowing is a water sport that involves steering a boat using oars. Participants, called rowers or crew members, work perfectly in sync to move the craft forward.

The origin of rowing dates back to ancient civilizations. The Egyptians and the Roman Empire used galleys as state vessels and warships for rowing on the Nile River and the Mediterranean Sea.

In England, rowing began on the River Thames, where groups of watermen ferried passengers. What started as impromptu races—with passengers betting—turned into organized competitions and later an Olympic event.

Types of Rowing

Rowing is classified into two types:

  • Sweep Rowing: Rowers use a single oar in alternating positions, gripping it with both hands. A coxswain sits in the stern (boat’s rear) to steer, coach, and coordinate the crew.
  • Sculling: Scullers have one oar in each hand, and the crew doesn’t have a coxswain.
man sport rowing single scull
Sport rowing, single scull

What Is Kayaking?

Kayaking hasn’t always been a beloved recreational activity or a water sport. In the olden days, the kayak was a means of transport for the Inuit people of the Arctic, specifically in Alaska, Greenland, and parts of Canada.

The original kayaks were made of driftwood frames wrapped in animal skin. Its slender design was highly effective at gliding through icy waters.

The word kayak itself originated from the Greenlandic word “qajaq.”

Types of Kayaking

There are different kinds of kayaking, and some require more training than others. If you’re serious about getting into the sport, consider these options:

  • Recreational Kayaking: It’s beginner-friendly and done on calm waters like ponds or lakes.
  • Whitewater Kayaking: Kayakers navigate through fast-moving, turbulent waters or rapids.
  • Kayak Surfing: Kayakers ride the ocean waves on a sea kayak, performing tricks and maneuvers like surfers.
  • Slalom Kayaking: Paddlers race down a course marked by gates suspended above the water.
Couple paddling in kayak on lake
Couple paddling in kayak on lake

Rowing vs Kayaking: Differences

Rowing and kayaking are worlds apart, and here’s why:

  1. Equipment
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Rowing uses a long, skinny boat called a “shell.” A racing shell can have seats for rowers and a coxswain, abbreviated with a number and a plus sign. For example, a coxed four (4+) indicates four rowers and a coxswain.

Shells where each rower has two oars are called “sculls” and can be single, double, quadruple, etc., depending on seating capacity.

Newer shells made of carbon fiber-reinforced plastic are light but incredibly strong. But you can still find gorgeously handcrafted wooden boats today.

Oars are long poles with a flat blade at the end, held in place by the oarlock, which also functions as a fulcrum. Sculling oars for sliding seat rowing systems are longer than the standard oars for fixed-seat rowboats.

Like a scull, a kayak is a small, narrow watercraft. Popular materials for kayak building include:

  • Softwood or marine plywood
  • Polyethylene plastic
  • Fiberglass
  • Carbon fiber
  • Kevlar

Unlike an oar, a kayak paddle has blades at both ends.

Orange kayak on the lake at sunset
Orange kayak on the lake at sunset
  1. Seating Direction

Rowers sit facing the stern with their legs stretched. This arrangement allows them to move the vessel forward by pushing against the water in a coordinated motion.

Kayakers, on the other hand, sit facing forward with their legs inside the cockpit. In group kayaking, the paddle is alternately used on both sides to maintain balance and forward momentum.

  1. Technique

A rower maneuvers the oars in a stroke made up of two phases: drive and recovery.

The legs initiate the drive by pushing against the foot stretcher. As the oar sweeps the water, rowers engage their upper bodies to propel further. During recovery, the crew returns to the starting position to prepare for the next stroke.

Rowers can refine their skills off the water using indoor equipment called an erg, short for ergometer. Erg training improves muscle memory and is especially valuable during adverse weather or limited water access.

Meanwhile, kayaking involves torso rotation and efficient paddle entries and exits. Paddling involves three basic strokes, including:

  • Forward stroke
  • Reverse stroke (to brake)
  • Seep stroke (to turn the boat) 

Even if you have zero experience, kayaking is easy with proper instruction. Of course, there are several tricks to learn to move up a few skill levels.

rowing and kayaking
Rowing vs kayaking
  1. Water Conditions
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Rowing favors calm, flat waters like lakes and rivers. Rowing races typically occur in controlled environments to ensure safety and fair competition.

Conversely, kayaking encompasses a broader range of environments, including calm lakes, open oceans, and whitewater rapids.

This versatility allows kayakers to explore different water conditions and levels of challenge.

  1. Physical Demand and Difficulty

Rowing requires a high level of cardiovascular fitness and muscular strength. The repetitive rowing motion engages major muscle groups in the legs, back, and arms, making it a demanding full-body workout.

Kayaking also provides an excellent upper-body and core workout. However, paddling places slightly less emphasis on leg strength compared to rowing.

  1. Affordability

Rowing as a sport can put a dent in your wallet—equipment and maintenance don’t come cheap.

If you have a competitive streak for rowing, joining a club should be at the top of your list. That said, membership fees can be sky-high, depending on your location.

Meanwhile, kayaking is much more budget-friendly. A used kayak in great condition won’t break the bank and, with proper care, will serve you well for ages.

Costs will rise as you get into more intense kayaking, but overall, it’s more affordable than rowing.

  1. Risks

While rowing is physically demanding, it’s low-impact and safer than most sports.

In fact, it’s one of the least dangerous Olympic events. The risks stem mainly from overuse injuries, including sprains and fatigue.

Additionally, capsize drills are mandatory for most rowing clubs.

Kayaks, especially the smaller and more maneuverable ones, have a higher incidence of tipping over, particularly in rough waters and changing tides.

Here is a great video explaining many differences between rowing and kayaking.

Wrapping Up

Rowing vs kayaking isn’t really a debate.

Whether you like the rhythm of synchronized rowing or the freedom of paddling to your own beat, both sports can be fun hobbies. It all boils down to your goals and appetite for adventure.

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