What’s the Difference Between an Oar Raft and a Paddle Raft?
On a rafting trip, you’ll often come across two different types of boats: an oar raft (or oar rig) and a paddle raft. While at first glance they can look similar, each craft has its distinct advantages and purposes on the river.
Oar Raft vs. Paddle Raft
An oar raft, which utilizes oars and an oar frame, is often used to carry large loads on multi-day rafting trips. Stacked high in front of, behind, and underneath the rower might be large dry bags full of clothes and sleeping bags, thick sleeping pads, heavy ammo cans, coolers, and large dry boxes. These rafts, laden down with gear, can weigh thousands of pounds.
An oar raft is controlled by just one person. The oars either sit in U-shaped saddles called oar locks, which are in turn attached to a frame, or can be attached with a pins and clips system. Cam straps attach the frame to metal rings on the raft. Often, the rower will utilize oar leashes to prevent losing an oar in the event the oar pops out of the oar locks in a large rapid, or more commonly, while floating in an eddy next to the campsite.
Oars are much longer than paddles. The length varies depending on the size of the raft and height of the rower, but they will generally be between seven and ten feet long. A symmetrical blade attaches to one end while a grip is on the other.
Given the size of the oars, an oar raft is ideal for wide, deep rivers. You’ll see setups like these on high-volume rivers like the Colorado. The rower is seated in the middle or a little to the back of the middle and uses long, smooth strokes in a lower frequency than a paddle raft. A rower can propel the boat forward and backward, although a backstroke is more powerful as the rower can brace their legs to generate power. A backstroke is handy for slowing the raft in rapids and pulling away from obstacles with those powerful strokes. At times, the raft may be better off entering a rapid backward to utilize forceful backstroke. The downside here, of course, is that the rower has to crane their necks and turn to see where they’re going.
A paddle raft, on the other hand, is a whole different business. Here you’ll find one guide in the back of the raft directing a number of passengers on when and how much to paddle in a rapid. It is better for carrying passengers than gear. You must employ a great amount of teamwork in a paddle raft, and the guide is more reliant upon their crew. One misplaced paddle stroke from a crew member can botch a crucial move in a rapid, much to the chagrin of the guide.
Paddles are about half as long as oars. Again, the length varies with the size of the paddler, but they will typically be around 57 inches or 4.75 feet. Due to their shorter length, a paddle raft is excellent for low volume, technical rivers like California’s American River where the raft must navigate around rocks and through tight spaces. Contrary to oars, the paddles are not attached to the raft in any fashion, running the risk of being lost if a paddler loses hold of it.
The paddle raft itself is smaller than one that may be used in an oar raft. Shorter, quicker paddle strokes are ideal here. Paddling is not as energetically efficient as rowing since the legs are only really used for bracing the paddler into the raft and cannot be employed to generate more power.
A paddle raft is maneuvered facing downstream, charging at obstacles such as big waves and making tight moves. Passengers are able to anticipate the rapid jolts and use the power of the paddle backstroke to move laterally or upstream. An oar raft guide’s long, broad strokes can be less effective and challenging when navigating narrow, boulder-strewn stretches of river.
You may indeed have a paddle raft on a multi-day river trip, but they are often tucked away on long flatwater days. You may prefer to paddle and be more of an active participant in navigating a rapid, or you may prefer to sit on a stack of soft sleeping pads in an oar raft and let your guide take the wheel entirely. Each one is designed for a specific manner of navigating rapids. Take a turn at both, and notice the pros and cons of each.
Photo credits: Chad Schmukler, Josh Miller, Hot Shot Imaging, Jim Block, Dylan Silver