Is this Rowing or Paddling?

What is this?

14 June 2019

By Larry Fogelberg

The reader may have heard about or seen the way the Intha men on Lake Inle in Myanmar (Burma) propel their long, narrow boats.

This video calls it ‘leg-rowing’, other ones call it paddling.

I feel that the latter are not so knowledgeable about the subject: if it looks like a big paddle, it must be paddling. I believe – as a matter of fact, I will insist – that it is a form of rowing; not to start any arguments, just to expound on my concept of the difference between the techniques.

Paddling, we all know, is facing forward and reaching forward with the blade to draw the boat in that direction. Rowing is pulling or pushing the grip end of the oar in that direction, the oarlock being the fulcrum to make the blade move in the other direction. Not just the Venetians row standing up, facing forward, like the men on the lake, using their foot as the fulcrum.

On Lake Inle, the men sometimes also ‘paddle,’ usually with one hand, the long end of their oar braced against their shoulder.  Ah, one may recognize, their shoulder – or the upper hand when paddling a canoe – is also a fulcrum. The difference being that the primary force is applied between the fulcrum and the blade, moving in the same direction.

But isn’t the leg-rower also swinging his leg forward to the catch and drawing it back, paddling, it isn’t just a fulcrum? True, but it does what the oarlock in our boats and the forcola in a gondola does, change the direction of the force on the other end of the oar. But still, isn’t his leg moving in the same direction as the blade, like the paddler’s lower hand, independent of the boat? True again, just like sliding outriggers, which weren’t rejected for that reason.

I will stick with my definition: leg-rowing, impressed with their skill and sense of balance. On Lake Inle, they would laugh at the thought of a sculler falling out of a skiff.

They also scull, in the different meaning of the word: propelling a boat with a single blade in an oarlock on the transom, weaving it back and forth and twisting the blade to push the boat along. On the lake, they paddle like that, pulling the boat forward or turning.

That is a not well-known technique to push our boats closer to the dock or to align the bow at a racing start (more effective using the convex side of the blade and less disruptive than ‘two on bow’ or ‘three on two’).

Now stand on one leg and imitate the Inle Lake rowers’ motion for a couple of strokes, imagining that your foot, way out to the side, is the fulcrum between the pressure from your hand on the oar and the resistance of the water on the blade, and that your legs, your whole body is passing the force on the fulcrum – your foot out to the side – down to your other foot, pulling the boat along. I won’t try that.

Now, I will forget all my theory and principles and walk down stream to the local canoe club and tell the stand-up paddlers that they need longer paddles and the technique of the people who invented and mastered their sport centuries ago.


  1. Rowing is rowing if the fulcrum is fixed to the boat. If not it`s paddling. The paddler uses his body as a fulcrum. In this case it`s according to my definition paddling.

  2. Okay, okay, have it your way. 🙂
    I think HTBS is of like mind, being very tactful – this email from Göran:

    “Dear Larry,
    Just for fun HTBS writer Greg Denieffe in England set up a survey on
    Twitter, linking to your article, asking if the fishermen in Myanmar
    were rowing or paddling? It was a 24-hour survey. Unfortunately, Greg
    only got 9 people voting. 22% thought it was rowing and 78% thought they
    were paddling. ”

    I shall still call it “leg-rowing” as an expression for a unique way to paddle.

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