The ORS Int. is the official adjudicator of ocean rowing records for Guinness World Records


Ocean Rowing Boat Designed by Rowsell & Morrison for 1997 Race.

Rewiew by Eric W. Sponberg

Here is a design for you do-it-yourself boatbuilders/adventurers — an ocean rowing boat. This design was commissioned by  Sir Chay Blyth, who, with fellow British paratrooper Captain John Ridgeway, in 1966, rowed their 20' open dory English Rose III from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, to the coast of Ireland. That voyage took 92 days, actually starting out as an informal race. Ridgeway had been inspired to row the Atlantic by British journalist David Johnstone, who with his journalist colleague John Hoare, planned to row the Atlantic in a custom, Colin Mudie-designed rowboat called Puffin. Ridgeway could not afford a custom boat design, and so bought a new stock Yorkshire dory (cost £185), built by Bradford Boat Services in Bradford, Yorkshire. This boat was based on a centuries-old design used by Nova Scotia fishermen. Shortly after purchasing the boat, fellow paratrooper N.C.O Sergeant Chay Blyth showed up in Ridgeway's office saying "Can I come, Sir?" And so it was decided.

Johnstone and Hoare left Norfolk, Virginia, on 21 May 1966, never to return. Puffin was found about a year later floating upside down in mid-ocean with no sign of her crew. Ridgeway and Blyth left 4 June, 1966, and rowed into the history books...

In 1995 Sir Chay approached designer Philip Morrison and his partner/builder Peter "Spud" Rowsell with this commission: "to design a rowing boat capable of undertaking a competitively rowed ocean passage. To accommodate two people with their stores and to allow simple construction worldwide." The Challenge Business was going to organize a rowing race, from Los Gigantes, Tenerife, Canary Islands to Port St. Charles, Barbados, calling it The Port St. Charles Atlantic Rowing Race. It actually happened on 12 October, 1997, with 30 of these identical double-handed boats departing, and 24 actually making it all the way across. This boat is now referred to as the ARR (Atlantic Rowing Race) design.

Fig.2 The scene on the docks in Tenerife, Canary Islands, at the start of the 1997 Port St. Charles Atlantic Rowing Race.

The winner was Kiwi Challenge, with New Zealanders Rob Hamill and Phil Stubbs on board, who arrived in Barbados on 22 November 1997 after 41 days, 2 hours and 55 minutes at sea. The wisdom on the docks after the race was that Hamill and Stubbs took very little equipment over and above the minimum requirements, making their boat the lightest of them all, and therefore, the easiest to row. Sadly, Phil Stubbs died in a small plane crash in New Zealand on 20 December 1998.

Fig. 3. The winners of the 1997 race Hamill and Stubbs in Kiwi Challenge. They knocked over 30 days off the previous Atlantic rowing record set in 1986 by rowers Mike Nestor and Sean Crowley.

Fig. 4. Profile and plan view of the Rowsell/Morrison ocean rowing boat.


LOA 7.1 Meters 23' 4"
B 1.9 Meters 6' 3"
Weight, fully laden 750 Kg. 1,650 lbs.
Number of crew Two people  

The key words in the design commission are, " allow simple construction worldwide." This is accomplished by designing the boat as a multi-chine hullform for easy construction in plywood. All the parts are cut out by Laser and stacked in a complete kit provided by the Challenge Business. Rowsell and Morrison may or may not have originally drawn this boat on the computer, but ultimately a computer was employed to create the cutting data for the individual parts. See the following two diagrams which are derived directly from the numerically controlled Laser cutting computer files.

Fig. 5. Some of the exterior hull panels and bulkheads for the ocean rowing boat. Note how well the hull is subdivided into watertight compartments.

Fig. 6. These pieces are parts of the main deck and its structure underneath.

As you can see, construction can't really get too much simpler than this. It is literally Tab A, Tab B boatbuilding. All the parts interlock in a self-jigging arrangement so that no mold of any kind is needed. Glue the parts together with epoxy resin, tab the joints with fiberglass, then trim off excess wood and edges as necessary for a smooth hull and structure. The accuracy of the computer generated Laser cutting and this self-jigging construction means that no matter who builds the boat or where they are located, all of the boats will be identical to within very close tolerances. When your intention is to test the rowing prowess of individuals coming from anywhere in the world, identical parts and ease of construction with the minimum of specialized skills and equipment is of paramount importance. This has been fully accomplished in the ARR design.

Phil Morrison explains the thinking behind the boat design:

Obviously, rowing in the open ocean is entirely different to the requirements in smooth water, and it is has been the aim of the design to help as far as possible with the problems encountered with rowing in varying sea and wind conditions.

The arrangement with the protected accommodation aft was chosen as it offered a number of advantages. Primarily in bad weather, where it is sensible to heave to, the intention is for both crew members to shelter in the aft accommodation.

In this situation with drogues deployed from the stern, the boat will lie with the bows high, stern onto the wind and waves, reducing to a minimum the possibility of being rolled over or pitch poled. With the crew in a normal rowing position, however, the windage of the hull and accommodation is balanced by the underwater hull shape and skeg so that with a little judicious fore and aft trimming, the boat may be rowed at an angle to the wind with the minimum of corrective measures from the rudder. With the prevailing winds expected to be from aft of the beam, the aft cabin allows the greatest protection from the wind for the crew member off watch or preparing food, etc.

After the 1997 Atlantic Rowing Race, The Challenge Business circulated a questionnaire amongst the competitors to solicit comments about the suitability of the boat design. Praise for the boat╧s behavior in adverse weather conditions was unanimous, and a small number of comments were made for minor improvements in the design which the Challenge Business is incorporating into the kits for the next Challenge in 2001.

Speaking of which, The Atlantic Rowing Race 2001 will again start from the Canary Islands and finish in Barbados. Each of  fifty, two-handed teams are ponying up about £50,000 (estimated total cost, equivalent to about US$82,000) for the chance to compete. Of this cost, £2,000 plus VAT is for the boat kit itself.

To finish off this review, I have some direct experience with an ARR boat. One of the competitors in the 1997 challenge was Victoria (Tori) Murden, from Louisville, KY. She and her partner Louise Graff started the race in their boat American Pearl, but had to retire early on, due to, of all things, food poisoning (one of four boats so afflicted). After Tori spent three days in a hospital, she and Louise restarted. One week later, the electrical system failed completely, and they retired for good.

But last summer, Tori made a solo attempt on the northern route in the same boat, leaving Nags Head, North Carolina (it is very close to the Gulf Stream) on 14 June 1998, with the intention of reaching France. She was attempting to become the first American and the first woman to row solo across the Atlantic. She was sponsored by Sector Sport Watches of Italy.

Unfortunately, on the 85th day, Tori had to abandon American Pearl in mid-Atlantic after being severely battered by the remnants of hurricane Danielle. In one period of 12 hours during this storm, American Pearl was capsized ten times and pitchpoled once. The seas were horrendous—breaking waves from multiple directions—truly survival conditions for any small boat. Tori hurt her back and dislocated her shoulder and could no longer row. Setting off her ARGOS transmitter emergency signal, Tori was soon picked up by a containership (named, ironically, Independent Spirit), bound for Philadelphia, and was given a hero's welcome when she disembarked. Remarkably, American Pearl was found about two months later, floating alone in the Atlantic, intact and upright, by a tanker bound for France. American Pearl was finally returned to Tori in Kentucky in early May via a round-about route through Le Harve, France and Cologne, Germany, by the generosity of the fine people at United Parcel Service.

Fig.7. American Pearl after salvage in Louisville, KY, before we took cutters to her.

By contact through an intermediary, David Stookey, publisher of the U.S. rowing newsletter Open Water Rowing and who had been following her effort, Tori hired Sponberg Yacht Design Inc. to consult on repairing American Pearl for her next solo transatlantic attempt which will take place this autumn. I had the chance in late May to visit Louisville to see the boat, and in fact, start cutting off a considerable portion of the structure above the deck which had been damaged in the salvage operations. Note that the boat survived the hurricane and abandonment very well; it was lifting it out of the water and transporting it through Europe that caused the most structural damage.

The plywood varies between 1/4" (6 mm) and 3/8" (9 mm) thick. The design is very well subdivided into small compartments which may be used for storing any and all types of stores and gear. Hardware options are pretty open. Use what hatches and safety gear that you will (I am sure there is a minimum equipment and communications list), and include whatever else makes you comfortable on a very small boat floating on a very big ocean.



Fig. 8. View looking forward on deck of American Pearl. The side compartments are for food storage. The center compartments are for two 25-gallon (427 lbs., total) bladder-type water ballast tanks which are filled at night and during storms. The two black rails are for attaching an Oarmaster sliding rowing seat. The slot near the centerline just behind the forward compartment is for a daggerboard which is not in the original design. Tori added the daggerboard for better control in contrary winds.

Fig. 9.
View looking aft on deck of American Pearl. The little cockpit is a handy place to handle housekeeping chores like cooking and making water. The watermaker is kept in the starboard cockpit locker (open in photo). The main hatch in the bulkhead leads to the main accommodation. Solar panels are normally mounted on top of the cabin.

 In the rebuild of American Pearl, we are making the cabin 4" taller and using a 1/2" thick foam-cored plywood called Rigid Plus, from Maine Coast Lumber [tel. 800-899-1664] which will be strong and stiff enough to eliminate the deep frame. By these changes, American Pearl will no longer be a regulation ARR boat for any of The Challenge Business¹ races, but it will be a better design for living on board. The Challenge Business has been very supportive of Tori¹s activities, and they very kindly emailed me the AutoCad drawings of the Laser cutting patterns for the parts we need to replace. I plotted these shapes onto Mylar sheets and sent them to Tori where her crew is transferring them to the plywood and cutting out the new parts.

Weight is everything in an ocean rowing boat. The lighter the weight, the faster you¹ll go, stroke for stroke, over the long haul. In ocean rowing, you go so slow, not more than 2 knots, that wetted surface, friction drag, and hydrodynamics are not important issues. Besides light weight, the one other very important design factor is stability. You want the boat to re-right itself after a capsize (and you are guaranteed to capsize!) without any additional effort by the crew. Therefore, the shape of the hull (narrow and deep) and a low center of gravity are the key factors for the best stability. The ARR design self-rights admirably.

Fig. 10.
Inside the cabin on American Pearl. I do not like this space. See the main frame that supports the cabin walls and top, which is about 4" deep and is a real rib crusher. Tori bruised herself many times against all edges of this frame. At one point, her back hit the top portion so hard the frame broke. That gives you some notion of the violence that occurs in small rowboats at sea. Also, the hatch at the back is for reaching the rudder and steering cables. The cabin height is so low that I had great difficulty getting through the hatch, this while the boat was sitting on a trailer, never mind when bobbing around on big waves.

Fig. 11.
American Pearl and Tori Murden after we finished with our cutting tools. We weighed the boat and trailer on a truck scale before and after our work, and then weighed the trailer empty. Intact, with only the hatches installed and no other gear on board, the boat weighed 980 lbs. We removed 220 lbs. of damaged and broken wood, and will be replacing about 100 lbs. of that. Therefore, the finished intact weight of the boat should be about 860 lbs.

The ARR boat is designed for two rowers on an ocean crossing, and not intended for single-handing. It really is too big and heavy a boat for a single. While Tori and I were discussing her options on her next solo voyage, we knew we'd really like to give her a brand new boat, about 19'-20' long, built out of carbon fiber and honeycomb core. Sector Watches is sponsoring Tori again for her next transatlantic attempt, but we do not have enough time nor money for a new smaller boat to be designed and built. The press to cross again this autumn is being driven by two other women (one from Norway, the other from France) who are themselves trying to become the first woman to row solo across the Atlantic. Careful consideration must be given to the current hurricane season which stacking up to be the worst on record. Prudence dictates a departure from the Canary Islands in November, rather than September. You will be able to look in on the progress of these adventurers by accessing the Ocean Rowing Society's website in England.


Kenneth F. Crutchlow
211 Royal College street, London NW1 0SG, England 
phone 44 (0) 207 485 8807  fax 44 (0) 207 284 2849
e-mail: oceanrowing@compuserve .com

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