6 steps to a million stroke boat

How long should a new rowing shell last? Three years? Five years? Longer?

Barring any unforeseen tragedies like fire, theft, or a major collision it is not unreasonable to expect a brand new rowing shell to last well past the year 2015. That's a lot of hard strokes if you're an average rower—about one million. And that's also a lot of dockings, trips to away races, and wear and tear. Should you be an optimist and expect your shell to last 10 years or more? With a little tender loving care, and using the following expert's advice, the answer to that question is an definite yes!

You don't to be a mechanical genius to get many years of rowing out of a shell, but you will find that some foresight can be very helpful. To assist you I talked to several experts who have been around shells for quite some time. With their insight, combined with a little elbow grease here, a little money there, and some planning on your part you can add years to your shell's life.

To start let's picture a shell consisting of three main components. The first component is the hull. A healthy hull is critical-not only does it separate you from the fish below but its condition makes a big difference in your boat speed. More on that in a moment. The second component is the superstructure. It gives the boat its strength and rigidity-done by different methods depending on the manufacturer. For example, some boats are made with supporting braces throughout the boat, while others may use a monocot decking system. Regardless of the method used the superstructure takes a lot of wear and tear, in fact, every time a stroke is taken there are forces that work against the structure. Therefore its critical that the boat's structure is maintained, for if it is not the boat will lose its rigidity and become inefficient to row.

That brings us to the third component-the moving parts. They consist of the

  • oarlocks
  • rudders
  • tracks
  • seats

—you get the point-anything that moves. There aren't many moving parts in a shell, however, the ones that are there take the brunt of the wear and tear. And if the wrong two dollar part wears out then a thirty-thousand dollar boat may well end up in slings and off the water.

A plan designed to keep these three components in sound condition will help your boat be rowed well into the twenty-first century. Assuming that you are highly motivated to keep that boat of yours zipping along you should realize one fact-there are a horde of things out there waiting to demolish your shell, ranging from  dirt to fire to pollution. Following is advice from our experts to help you fight off these boat killers and keep your shell rowing longer. Keep it clean. Besides satisfying people who waltz around your boathouse yodeling "A clean boat is a happy boat" there are several benefits to keeping your shell clean.

The first and foremost is that you'll probably feel better when you row in a tidy boat. And in most cases the better something looks the better we take care of it. Yet more importantly, a good cleaning will greatly reduce the wear and tear on the moving parts and protect your hull.

"The best way I've seen to keep a boat clean is to work on a schedule," says Dickie Perelli, boatman for the collegiate rowing team at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and owner of Still Water Designs. "Rinsing and wiping down the hull and tracks daily will remove much of the filth," Perelli adds. In addition, a good wash with soap and water once a week will keep most of the gear-eating grit away. For a plan on keeping your boat clean see the accompanying sidebar article.

Baby Your Hull We've already mentioned what a hull does, so how do you help it do its job? The experts suggest four steps. First, keep it waxed. Waxing is a great way to protect your boat's finish. It will keep the pollution that lurks in the water at bay and greatly reduce the dose of ultraviolets that the hull may get (this is especially vital for those of you who store your boat outside). Use any high quality car or boat wax. Just pick one brand, follow the direction, and stick to it forever. Second, avoid wet sanding. Perelli notes this about sanding, "Sanding theoretically increases speed, however, in many years of working with boats I have never noticed any correlation between those who sanded and those who won." One main reason to be wary of sanding is that most boats will need repainting after 2-5 wet sandings.

Third, polish the hull. Treating the hull once or twice a year with a good polish (rubbing compound) is an excellent way to remove wax and scum  build-up. There are several excellent makes of polish on the market, just be sure you use one with a high grit number-around 1200-1500, and follow the directions. Finally, make repairs immediately, which leads in to our next step.

Fix it-Now! One of the keys to keeping an older boat in shape is to make repairs as soon as they are needed. A loose foot stretcher rowed for weeks can cause damage to the structural members that hold it, and could damage the hull. If you row with it loose-waiting to repair it a later date-you very well might be taking months or years off the life of your shell.

Now there certainly are quick fixes that you can do that work well, like a piece of clear tape over a small ding in the hull, or a minor miracle with five-minute epoxy. These fixes can get your boat back on the water quickly, however your boat can suffer greatly if you let those temporary fixes turn into long term ones. Broken or worn parts, especially in one of the three main areas should be fixed immediately and permanently. "I can't emphasize enough the importance of not waiting to make repairs," notes John Wagner, former rowing coach and Waterfront Director at Washington College. "The longer you wait the greater the potential for serious damage to the boat."

But what should you do if something is in need of repair and you don't have the time or skill to fix it? Try contacting a local expert.

Marinas usually know those in the area who are competent with fiberglass work, and metal shops might be able to help you with rigger repairs. But before you have just anyone work on your boat Wagner offers a word of warning, "A quick fix is good, however, making the repair correctly is critical. A bad repair job can cause more damage and end up costing you money and time. Make sure that the person doing the repair knows what he or she is doing." With that said a sound suggestion would be to call the manufacturer, asking for their advice. You should also ask if the problem might be covered under any warrantees they offer.

Lubrication Whenever your boat is rowed there is a constant battle being waged by the forces of friction against your moving parts. So you'd probably think that you're helping matters by keeping things well lubricated-right? Nope! In many instances a good cleaning is better than splashing on a lubricant. In fact, lubricants may actually hasten the wearing process.

Dave Trond, Sales-Service Manager at Vespoli USA makes this suggestion, "We have found that it is usually more important to keep things clean instead of keeping them lubed-and this is especially true of the tracks." Shawn LaRose, from Concept II, recommends that you need not lubricate the oarlocks or the sleeves of the oars at all. The reason why is that the oils or spray used for lubrication can attract and hold dirt. LaRose says "Those plastic surfaces are fairly frictionless, and using lubricants can speed up their wear due to the dirt the lubricants attract. Keeping them clean will give you the longest use."

Not using lubrication and keeping parts clean will extend their life, however, there are a few parts that you should lube. Ball bearing seats, which come in many of the new shells made today, should be treated. About every three months or so you should place several drops of a light machine oil on those bearings. Trond suggests another place to treat are areas where unlike metals are in contact. "Often in a wet environment when unlike metals touch corrosion occurs," states Trond. Using an anti-corrosive compound, such as Versachem's Antiseize Thread Lubricant, can reduce the corrosion, and extend the life of your parts. Versachem's and other anti seize compounds can be found at most autopart stores or marinas.

Move It Let's face it, rowing shells are big. Ranging in size from 30 to 60 feet they are down-right difficult to move. Put them on the back of a bouncing trailer or on top of a car cruising down the interstate at 65 miles per hour and what was a difficult thing to move has turned into a dangerous thing-especially dangerous to the health of your shell. Each year more shells are damaged in transit than in any other way.

Fred Leonard, one of the principals of Leonard, Cantrill and Clark, an insurance company in Philadelphia that specializes in shell insurance sees many claims annually for accidents. "A majority of the claims on shells happen in transport," says Leonard. "Each year about 50% of the claims I get are for shell damage due to mishaps while the boat is in transit."

While there is not much research on how often a shell is on the road, unless it was built at the boathouse where it is to be rowed it has to be transported at least once. And that means that it is at risk. So how do you reduce the risk? Leonard has a couple of suggestions. "Regardless of whether the shell is trailered or car-topped make sure it is strapped correctly, with good quality straps. If the strap is bad-replace it. And check the straps frequently, like every time you get gas. I also think that putting a line from the stern and bow to the car bumpers is a great idea when car topping."

Leonard also has one more suggestion, "Probably the most important thing in reducing the risk is to make sure the driver is knowledgeable about driving a trailer or a car with shells attached."

Store It Well And that brings us to the last area of discussion-storage. How you store your boat, whether overnight or for several months can have a big impact on your boat's life span. Fire, ultraviolets, heat, or being blown off of racks have destroyed many a stored boat. When storing a boat common sense is critical.

Almost all our experts agreed that boats dropping off racks happen more often than people would think. Fred Leonard says, "Falling or being blown off racks is a major cause of damage to shells." So as a concerned boat owner what should you do? First, rest the boat on balanced racks. Next, see that the boat is protected from the elements, especially the sun. Finally,  if it is stored outside, even for two minutes, make sure it is tied down. These steps will greatly extend your boat's life.

So there you have it from the experts, six steps to a one million stroke boat. In the end, how long your shell lasts depends on how well you care for it. Be a vigilant owner: keep your boat clean, be careful how you store, move and repair it, and you should be rewarded with a boat that is rowed well into the next millennium.