Safety: Rowing in a single

One of Claire's friends had a terrible rowing accident

One of Claire's friends had a terrible rowing accident

Claire shared the sad stories of 2 single rowers dying in rowing accidents.

Whenever such accidents  are published, I follow up as much as I can to find out what happened, why did it happen, and how could it have been prevented.

  • Fact 1: in none of the published cases did the rower wear a PFD.
  • Fact 2: in all stories, the rowers are described as “experienced”
  • Fact 3: with very few exceptions (the lady from Occoquan) the rowers were 50+ men
  • Fact 4: Of the bodies missing for a long time, none of the rowers wore a “person locator beacon”


Special Rowing PFDs come in 2 varieties:

  • Those that automatically inflate when hitting the water
  • Those where rower has to pull some tab to inflate the vest

The automatically inflating PFD would have saved Claire’s friend.

The story of Claire’s friend also demonstrates

  • “I will swim to shore” is not a very safe rescue plan
  • Rowing with a buddy does not help you getting back in the boat and thus does not prevent you from drowning

The problem with the automatically inflating PFDs: once they are inflated, it is very difficult to get back into the 1x because they are in the way.

My decision tree:

  • If you are 100% sure that you can get back on the 1st or 2nd try even in cold conditions: wear a manual PFD
  • If you have ANY doubt whether you can get back in your 1x: wear an automatic PFD and stay within 300 yards from the shoreline (and take your shoes in the boat because you will be walking home).

We will be offering capsizing classes once the water reaches 70F.

The safety boat question: could you stay afloat long enough for your buddy to row back to the dock, get the launch and drive back to save you?


With age it becomes more likely that your brain or hart takes a short break (doctors will explain the correct terms). If that happens in a chair watching a football game, nothing happens. If it happens in a 1x, you flip, hang upside down in the water and drown.

The automatically inflating PFD would prevent drowning.

Also correlating with age is the refusal to wear a PFD. My experience is: world champions from the 60s and 70s flat out refuse to wear PFDs and are now the ones we read about.

Going for the record

The missing female rower in Occoquan was on a mission. She wanted to row the distance from New York to San Francisco. She was behind schedule. She went out alone for longer and longer distances in more and more challenging conditions. One day she did not come back. Her boat was found very far away, her body is still missing.

Among kayakers, the rule is: if you go alone for a long distance paddle, you take a personal locator beacon with you.

If you shy the expense, there are tracking apps for your smartphones where you can allow your partner to track/ locate you.

If the lady from Occoquan had a personal locator beacon with her, she would have been found, and maybe been saved.


You as the individual rower decide how much risk you want to take.

We as a club make you aware of the risks and suggest options to reduce the risks. That is why our waiver has the following two sections (which of course nobody reads before signing):

  • I acknowledge that rowing a single in winter is extremely dangerous. If I row in winter, I do so at my own risk and am solely responsible for my actions. I am aware of additional safety measures such as – but not limited to – Personal Flotation devices (PFD), personal locator beacons, carrying a cell phone with me, rowing with a buddy, taking capsizing classes to become proficient in reentering my boat – or staying at home and do an erg session.
  • If wind chill conditions are at or below freezing I will only row after taking extra precautions (e.g. dress appropriately, use a personal flotation device, stay within 100 yards of the shore) and only if my spouse, partner, significant other agrees. I will not row if I cannot close the oarlock with my bare hands.

Please row safely!