Cover image: Oarsport / Wintech Racing

If you’re a boat club manager, you’re dealing with transporting rowing equipment all the time.  Of course a trailer is the best way to get everything to your destination in once piece, but if you have to make do with rooftop transport, there’s a few things you need to consider before you set out on your journey.

We’ve republished some handy advice for transporting a rowing scull on roof racks, courtesy of Doug Rathburn.  You can read the full article on his blog: Suggestions for Car-Topping a Rowing Shell.”

All images used in this article belong to Doug Rathburn unless otherwise credited.

Let’s Start With Roof Bars

rowing roof bars roof rackrowing roof rack roof bars       

The first step is to use high quality roof racks. The best are Thule and Yakima. Typically, the roof bars provided by the manufacturer have too much bounce (too springy) in them and this has the potential to put a lot of strain on your shell. I’ve personally had luck with Yakima racks. They use a round bar versus the square bar used by Thule. The round bar is very stout and I’ve never seen it flex. At many regattas, I’ve seen Thule racks with a slight bow to them, which I presume occurs after years of use and heavy loads. My Yakima bars are from 1994 and still straight as an arrow.

The one potential downside of round roof bars is that u-clamps usually fit better with the bolt ends facing the shell. If possible you want to avoid this because the bolts can wear through your boat cover or into the gunwale of your boat. If you put the flat piece of the clamp on the round bar you risk bending your clamp. I trust my own attention to detail so I usually save the clamp and watch out for any rubbing.

Another tip I like to do is alternate the direction of the clamps on the rack. You can see in the left photo how the clamps face the opposite direction as they span the rack. In strong cross winds I’ve had the rack slide across the roof bars when the clamps are in the same direction.

Rowperfect sell a range of U shape and V shape car roof racks, including an adjustable rack for carrying singles or larger shells. Check them out here.

Protecting Your Shell Rack

securing roof rack with electrical tapeshoelace roof rack secure fitting

I see this all the time… Someone drops their boat off at the race course then heads to the hotel with their rack still on the roof. However, without a shell in the rack the nylon straps flutter at 70mph. Nylon doesn’t hold up well at that speed so I’d suggest simply winding some electrical tape or a bungee cord around the slings. As you can see I just used electrical tape and it stays there whether there’s a boat or not. I use electrical tape as opposed to other types because it doesn’t leave much glue residue, is flexible and is relatively UV stable.

Hudson racks come with a shoelace to prevent them from fluttering (right photo). The Burnham racks have a heavy nylon cover with padding with enough mass to protect from fluttering. Anyway, just do something to prevent the fabric from fluttering if you’re driving without a boat.

Attaching Oars to Roof Bars

transporting oars on the roof racktransporting oars on the roof rack

When attaching oars to the roof bars I just use two good quality bungee cords. However, when transporting with oar bags, I usually like to secure the oar bag handles. Burnham includes some nice nylon handles that like to flutter wildly at 70mph. To counter the fluttering I simply run the bungee cords through each end of the handle as shown. Not perfect, but seems to work so far.

If you do not have oar bags, I usually place the sleeve on the front rack. The flat spots on the sleeve when held down with bungee cords help prevent the blades from twisting at highway speeds. Always place the spoons toward the rear of the car. If the blades face the front of the vehicle they will catch the wind and will mostly likely sway back and forth or just get pinched to something sideways.

I’ve had people write and say they don’t recommend nor prefer bungee cords for holding down oars. Yes, you have to be very careful and make sure the hooks on the bungees will not rotate and come off. Alternatively, you can use straps. I have also made a set of very short straps (about 2 feet) that I also sometimes use to secure my oars. You simply cut off an older, worn strap to the desired length. Then use a lighter to melt the end a bit so the loose strands don’t unravel. Below are a couple pictures of the oars being held down by straps instead of bungees. Even with straps I still secure the handles of the oar bags so they do not flap in the wind.

Carrying Doubles and Multiple Boats

car rowing roof rack for multiple boatscar rowing roof rack for multiple boats

I routinely transport two singles and a double on top of my car. You can see the setup above comfortably accommodates the three required racks with sufficient room for 3-4 sets of sculls between the racks. We have 58″ bars for the Yakima rack. The boats nest nicely with the double guts down and the singles lifted a bit by the racks. The extra gap is required for the oars.

I place the double in the middle since it’s the longest boat and helps with turning radius when driving. You can place the single racks just inside roof rack towers or just outside. I’ve done both, but with this particular vehicle it seems better to place the single racks just outside the towers. As I mentioned above, my preference is to place the flat bar of the U-clamp on the flat part of the rack and the round part on the round bar beneath. However, with our double there is interference with the gunwales so I must place them facing the car’s roof. This put small marks into the aluminium rack, but it doesn’t damage the integrity of the rack.

When loading the boats start with the center of the roof and work outwards. So in this case, it was Double, Oars, and then Singles. Many, many people have written me about guide ropes, and I’ve seen many people successfully transport single without them. In terms of doubles, please, please, use guide ropes. I have no idea how you’d transport such a long boat without stopping the forward and backward rocking.

Doubles are loaded guts down onto the rack as shown. You tie the boat down to the rack similarly as I outlined above for singles. One strap in the front and rear of the rack near the shell rack cross bar. If you’re leery of the setup you can add a strap or two around the hull and the Yakima/Thule roof bars. However, those added straps are not substitutes for the ones at the end of the rack.

This article was originally published by Doug on his blog: Suggestions for Car-Topping a Rowing Shell, published on Space Saver Rowing Systems June 2012 and updated on February 2017.

All photos credited to Doug Rathburn unless otherwise credited.

Oh and no, the image at the top is not real.. 🙂