Rowing, and paddling (which includes canoeing, stand-up, and kayak paddling) are fun activities that are a great upper body workout. This is important because many aerobic activities like walking, hiking, running, and cycling are lower-body dominant, so you either should supplement them with resistance training or complement them with upper body activities (or both!). I’d recommend lessons because novices tend to just “arm paddle” which is exhausting and not fun. Proper canoe and stand-up paddling involves leaning forward with the torso and then pulling back so you’re using your back muscles as well as arms, while kayak paddling involves your oblique muscles in a torso twist. As for rowing, you can perhaps muck about in a rowboat without any training but I don’t know if it will be as enjoyable as if you are rowing more efficiently. And it’s pretty much impossible to row a scull without lessons. Once you get the hang of it, paddling and rowing are both smooth relaxing movements. And you can sure get to some nice places on the water.
I am personally not experienced with rowing except for messing around in rowboats as a kid. There are local rowing clubs you can learn from. The camaraderie of a club and rowing as a group are especially fun. When I go kayaking on Elkhorn Slough I sometimes see an older gentleman out with his single scull, close up as he’s passing me and then further away as he zooms away, he’s fast! I love watching the smooth elegant motion.
As an adult I first tried kayaking on vacation, in Monterey Bay and at Lake Tahoe. It was fun because of the beautiful locations but tiring because I was an inexperienced arm paddler. Later I got into it more seriously and took lessons from Monterey Bay Kayaks in Monterey and at Elkhorn Slough. That changed everything. When you know how to paddle properly with your torso, and can get into a rhythm, you can glide along for hours. And you can make is as high intensity as you want by sprinting.
With the lessons I qualified to rent sea-touring kayaks, which are faster than the ones they rent to novices, and can handle rougher weather. I also took a surf-zone course which was fun, we had to learn to launch through larger waves and land through larger surf. It’s a good thing they make you wear a helmet for that, because on my first try landing, the surf picked me and my kayak up, turned it sideways, and dumped me on the beach, whacking my head in the sand. My favorite place to kayak was the length of Elkhorn Slough, about 10 miles round trip, with amazing wildlife including sea otters, sea lions, harbor seals, and many varieties of birds. Learning the more advance stuff is optional, you can have a great time once you learn the proper stroke technique if you stick to calmer water.
Around 2010, I was kayaking in Monterey bay and noticed their local outrigger canoe club out practicing and it looked like fun, so I looked into it and found there was a San Jose club about 15 miles north of my home. We practiced on some weeknights and Saturday mornings, and in the summers attended regattas in various parts of Northern California, where we raced against other clubs in 6-person canoes. This was very vigorous exercise, but fun because of the camaraderie. I found you can push yourself a lot harder when you don’t want to let your crewmates down. We did races that involved 180 degree turns, a tricky task in 44 foot long canoes. After the turn we’d have lost all momentum and the steersman (or woman) would yell out “dead water, get us moving!” Even though your arms would be burning and feel ready to fall off at that point, you could still dig deeper and respond.
You can also paddle solo in single person outrigger canoes. But I highly recommend finding a club to learn properly and for the fellowship. I ended up giving it up when my right hip got bad, but I do miss it. There’s no reason I couldn’t do it again now that the hips are fixed. So many fun things to do, how to fit them all in…
What is normally thought of as canoeing is more recreational, like on lakes or rivers. But you can get as adventurous as you want with this sport as well, especially if you get into portaging (carrying your canoe or rolling on a cart between different bodies of water to cover longer distances). I just read a great story of a woman thru-paddling the Northern Forest Canoe Trail in the book Upwards, by Laurie Chandler.
Again I would still recommend lessons if you want to enjoy it. Proper canoe paddling involves leaning forward with the torso and then pulling back so you’re using your back muscles as well as arms. It is much more effective and less tiring.
Stand up paddling has a similar stroke to regular canoe paddling but with a longer blade. It is a great workout for older folks like me, developing stamina, core strength, and balance. A lesson is essential or you can’t even stand up. I learned on Monterey Bay which is challenging, but we paddled kneeling until we entered the harbor which is flat water and then learned to stand up there. It probably took me about 20 minutes to get comfortable standing. The key was when the teacher told me to stop clenching my feet! I guess I was instinctively trying to grab onto the board with my toes because I felt wobbly. As soon as I relaxed my feet so did the rest of me, and then I had a blast. For me this is a nice relaxing activity for calm water, but you can also do it in rough conditions or even surf.
One of the best benefits of paddling for me is on dry land. It motivates me to do strength training for my upper body which I might normally consider a chore. But if I think “this is making me a better paddler” it becomes fun.
In my post “Fitness Motivation- Making It Enjoyable” I discussed “meditation in motion”. This is certainly one of the sought after joys of rowing and paddling. Rowers in crews talk of “swing” when they are in perfect sync and “one with the boat”. I’ve never had the good fortune of knowing that feeling, not having rowed crew, but I experienced something quite like it in 6-person outrigger canoes. The canoe and crew together can weigh 1200 lbs or more. But once in awhile you get in perfect sync. Six strong paddlers are putting out a decent amount of power. And the crew and the canoe feel like one entity, bigger than the sum of its parts. And you just glide, and the 1200 lbs feels like a feather.
But you can also get that feeling solo, I have felt it kayaking, canoeing, and SUPing, when the rhythm of your motion feels effortless, and you glide along, 100% in the present moment. And all of this is happening in some gorgeous location on the water. If you’ve never tried this, what are you waiting for? Now I’ve got myself fired up to get back out there as soon as my collarbone’s mended!