For recreational and utility boating you will want a vessel that is versatile, easy to handle, and that is safe. Whether you are a keen angler, hunter, camper or just like to enjoy lazy afternoons on your favorite lake, creek or river, a reliable small boat is a great starting point for a lifetime of good memories out on the water. Jon boats and rowboats both fit the bill, but which boat is better?
Jon boat vs rowboat … which one is better for you? Both Jon boats and rowboats are good small recreational and utility vessels. A Jon boat is best suited to calm inland waters that have shallow or extremely shallow areas. A rowboat is better suited to deep waters, like the ocean, and is a good fit for deep inland waterways that experience rough water and choppy waves but that have no shallow areas.
- Decisions, decisions. Jon boat vs rowboat.
- Advantages and disadvantages
- Cost comparison between Jon boats and rowboats
- Select the best boat for the environment and conditions
- Which activities suit which boat type?
Decisions, decisions. Jon boat vs rowboat.
Either a Jon boat or a rowing boat would be a good pick for recreational or utility boating. Both have accessible pricing – though there is a huge difference in price between the two.
The simple classic design of each boat lends itself to easy transport and offers straightforward use and easy maintenance. But how do you choose between the two?
In this article, we will look at the key differences between Jon boats and rowboats, and give an overview of both the advantages and disadvantages of each one.
We will also look at the ideal marine environments and conditions where they will give you the best performance. In addition we outline the environments in which these boats should not be used!
Jon boats and rowboats have distinct but different advantages.
Each boat can be used for similar purposes but each is uniquely suited to a different environment.
It is important to understand where you can use your chosen boat and where you should not use it.
Both boats also have disadvantages.
There are specific marine environments in which these boats should never be used.
Row, row, row your boat
Rowboats are well loved recreational and utility vessels that are a common sight on the water. Rowing boats encompass a broad group of vessels that are propelled with oars and old fashioned elbow grease. However, you can mount an outboard engine on a rowboat just as easily as you can on any other boat.
Modern rowboats are essentially the result of thousands of years of trial and error in boat design and are optimized for stability, speed and capacity, allowing the rower to have maximum control on the water – but not all types of water – as you will see later.
The classic Whitehall rowing boat with its distinctive wooden panels may come to mind when you think of a recreational rowing boat. This traditional design, of course, differs in looks and design from the lean and slick sports rowing boats used in competitions.
When we talk in this article about rowboats we are referring to the classic design and not the modern race boats like those used in the Olympics.
A classic rowboat may have a single scull (one oar at stern) or double scull (classic double oar – one on each side). Sculling units, where the hard work or rowing gets done, may have slide seating to aid in the work of rowing though this is usually only found on race boats.
Rowboats have a v-hull and a deep draft. This means the bottom of the boat has a “v” shape and a pointed bow that helps the boat cut through deep water and ride high waves.
The deep draft and v-hull of a rowboat makes it an excellent vessel for use in the ocean. For a better understanding of draft read this article.
Rowboats are so well suited to the turbulent environment of the ocean that a 60-year-old Canadian rowed across the Atlantic in one.
Rowers usually face sternward to row the boat, with few exceptions in design. In good conditions, an average rower can achieve and maintain speeds of up to 3-4 knots comfortably in a 3 person rowboat.
So how do rowboats differ from Jon boats?
Jon boats are also well-loved small recreational and utility vessels that are, arguably, the most popular personal boat in America (they’re certainly my favorite).
However, unlike a rowboat which is has a deep draft v-hull, a traditional Jon boat has a flat-bottom and shallow draft.
A Jon boat has a flat-bottomed hull and a very shallow draft making it perfect for recreational and utility use on inland waters. Jon boats are prized for their simplicity of design that is paired with incredible versatility.
The flat bottom hull design means a Jon boat almost “sits” on the water rather than “in” the water – unlike a rowboat which sits deep in the water. This makes the Jon a very smooth ride on calm water even at high speed because it almost glides across the water surface.
The flat bottom design also gives the Jon a very shallow draft. The shallow draft of a Jon boat means the vessel can access and easily navigate waters that are only a few inches deep (as long as you can fully trim the outboard and lift the prop completely out of the water).
The flat bottom hull and shallow draft make Jon boats an exceptionally good vessel for inland waterways because most lakes, ponds, rivers, creeks etc., will have multiple shallow areas where a v-hull boat would become damaged or grounded.
Depending on their size, capacity and the particular outboard used, Jon boats can achieve speeds of upwards of 8 knots and offer incredible stability and comfort on calm water.
But … can you row a Jon boat?
Yes you can! We showed exactly how to set the boat up to do that here as most Jon boats are boats are not sold with oarlocks fitted.
Although a Jon boat is usually powered by an outboard motor attached to the transom, it can be fitted with oarlocks and propelled by oars. Jon boats can also be pushed by a pole in very shallow waters and smaller Jons can be propelled by a paddle in a pinch.
Jon boats can also be propelled from the transom by sculling, which has become something of a lost art. It is similar to the technique used for moving a gondola. With this technique, a Jon boat can be moved through the water with a single oar, using a ‘figure-of-8’ movement. You can see how to do it here.
If you wish to learn more about the specific design characteristics of a Jon boat and the many applications it can be used for, read this article.
So, a Jon boat is great for use on calm inland bodies of water where shallow areas would ground other boat types. But what about inland waters that experience more challenging conditions?
Semi-v Jon boat
Jon boat owners learned that, due to the flat-bottom, shallow draft hull design, Jon boats don’t handle choppy water well. They may be great in calm shallow waters but when the wind picks up they don’t like it too much.
In fact, in very rough water a Jon boat can get into trouble quickly and sitting in one can be a dangerous place to be.
Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation online about using Jon boats in rough water so we put the record straight here.
If you plan to use your boat in challenging conditions we recommend you read the above mentioned article.
Unfortunately, although standard Jon boats are very versatile watercraft their inability to handle rough water means they are not ideal for every inland waterway mariner.
Many inland bodies of water may have shallow areas but they may also experience choppy water and challenging weather. For boaters who navigate these type of waters a standard Jon boat does not offer enough flexibility and using one would mean limited time on the water.
However, because a Jon boat is so adapt at navigating shallow inland waters some boaters wanted the benefits of the Jon but with a modified hull design that would allow them to ride fairly choppy water. Thus was born the semi-v Jon boat.
The semi-v Jon boat has a more pointed bow and a less flat bottom. The bottom has a slight “v” shape allowing the boat to sit deeper in the water, but only slightly so that the boat maintains a shallow draft (it doesn’t sit too deep in the water).
This semi-v hull deign means boaters can navigate water areas that have shallow waters but that also experience choppy water.
For more information about the flat bottom Jon and the semi-v Jon read our article on that subject.
Advantages and disadvantages
The key difference between a Jon boat and a rowboat lies in the hull design.
Rowboats have a V-hull which cuts through the water rather than floating on top of it. Though they are usually propelled with oars they can be fitted with an outboard motor.
They offer a smooth ride and easy maneuvering because of their hull shape.
Rowboats also have more freeboard, retain their waterline length, and the prominent keel of classic rowboats will contribute to smooth tracking through even choppy water.
- The v-hull design means a rowboat can navigate very deep waters safely.
- The deep draft allows a rowboat to ride even high waves comfortably.
- If propelled by oars this means you save on outboard motor related costs.
- Can be powered by an attached outboard motor.
- Large storage area.
- Excellent fishing vessels in rough water.
- Ocean-worthy vessel.
- A rowboat can ride choppy water smoothly.
- The main disadvantage of rowboats is ‘tippiness’ in calm water.
- Their instability at rest makes certain activities, like standing to cast off, rather precarious.
- When relying on oars for propulsion it may be difficult for an inexperienced rower to get underway quickly in rougher conditions or strong currents.
- Only suitable fro large bodies of deep water.
- Not suitable for many inland waterways, like creeks and braided rivers, due to the deep draft.
The characteristic flat hull of a Jon boat is known for its stability, particularly when at rest in placid water. You will definitely have more room to move and be able to stand and move about easily in larger Jon boats than you would in a rowboat.
Jon boats draw less water, and when they are powered, they are able to get on plane easily and almost glide across a calm body of water.
Their lightweight wood, aluminum or fiberglass design is readily portable and typically lighter than a traditional rowing boat. Most Jon boats are made from aluminum.
- The flat-bottom design of a Jon boat means it glides across the water for a smooth comfortable ride.
- The shallow draft means Jons can easily navigate shallow water – even just a few inches deep.
- You can stand easily on a Jon in calm water.
- Jon boats are easy to load and offload onto a trailer (see our guide for doing that here).
- Jons are easy to launch even when on your own (see our guide to solo boat launching).
- Jon boats are lightweight and easily transported over land (see our towing guide).
- Jons can be powered by even a cheap, low-output outboard engine.
- A Jon can use other propulsion methods such as: oars; a paddle; a pole when in shallow water; a single oar at the stern (known as single-oar sculling).
- The flat bottom hull of a Jon boat rapidly becomes a major disadvantage in windy or choppy conditions.
- Jon boats basically sit on the top of the water and can be blown about, becoming unstable in strong winds and currents.
- The shallow draft can put the vessel at risk of swamping in the above mentioned poor conditions.
- Only really suitable for calm water (with the exception of a semi-v Jon and then only under restrictions).
- Not suitable for ocean use.
- Only suitable for deep water use if the water body is protected from wind and remains calm.
- These boats also have a far lower weight capacity than an equivalent v-hull rowing boat.
Cost comparison between Jon boats and rowboats
Although cost for both types of boat will be influenced by the materials used in its construction and fabrication there is a big difference between the price points of these two boats.
There is a large difference between the price of rowboats and Jon boats.
Jon boats are by far more cost effective with a basic welded aluminum 12′ Jon boat costing between $800 – $1500. Even high-end large Jon boats will usually only cost a few grand.
Of course you will have to add the cost of an outboard engine onto the overall cost of your Jon boat but with cheap outboards starting for less than 200 bucks this won’t increase your budget by much compared to cost associated with buying a rowboat.
Rowboats are considerably costlier.
A classic crafted wooden rowing boat can be expensive even when purchased used. Some Whitehall-style small rowing boats can cost upwards of $6,500 new.
A set of oars for a rowboat will cost in the region of $100+ with high quality oars costing considerably more.
Select the best boat for the environment and conditions
As you have already learned choosing between a Jon boat and a rowing boat is not only about deciding between rowing or having an outboard motor. Due to the design differences between the two boats, you must also take into consideration the marine environment where each boat will perform best.
Jon boats are designed for use on calm inshore waters, where they can sit on the water surface with minimal displacement.
Their flat bottom is also of use when navigating shallow bodies of water which could cause a v-hulled rowing boat to run aground.
Rough water and strong currents should be avoided, as these boats were not designed for waves, which can rapidly swamp or capsize a Jon. Though tempting, a Jon boat is not seaworthy, except, perhaps, in the most sheltered of coastal bays.
Rowboats are the opposite.
Rowboats are designed to navigate deep waters while easily and smoothly riding rough waves.
Despite being powered by oars, the v-hull shape of a rowboat gives it an advantage where there is choppy water or where there are high waves present. This means rowboats perform impressively in a range of challenging conditions, including at sea.
Which activities suit which boat type?
Both rowboats and Jon boats are fairly versatile vessels and can be used for a range of different purposes. But obviously due to the difference in their hull deigns there will be certain activities that suit one of the boats better.
When reviewing the specific activities best associated with each boat type be sure to take into consideration the environment in which the boat will be used. A rowboat may offer more room for boat camping gear but it will be of no use if you plan to reach your camping destination by travelling along a shallow creek or river.
Both a rowboat and a Jon boat are great for recreational purists.
Obviously some water-based recreational activities, such as water-skiing will require a boat with an outboard engine (though in truth a speedboat is best for that particular activity).
Either a Jon boat or a rowboat would be a fine choice for most recreational use. A lazy day spent on the water is pleasure in either boat.
If you like, or plan, to go on a boat camping trip then either boat type would work well.
Of course for inland waters a Jon boat will probably be a better choice … but not always. Large deep lakes with no, or few, shallow areas and that experience choppy water means a rowboat is a better choice.
A rowboat will offer a lot more space for camping gear and equipment though a large Jon boat will offer just as much room and probably feel more comfortable.
If you intend to go boat camping be sure to read our boat camping guide.
Rowboats have been used as fishing vessels for centuries and for good reason. A rowboat is perfect for fishing especially in deep waters and the ocean.
It can be difficult to cast-off in a rowboat though, as standing on the deck will make the boat feel incredibly tippy. There’s a knack to casting-off from a rowboat that requires a learning curve. It is even more difficult in choppy water.
For freshwater fishing a Jon boat works just as well. If you plan to take a Jon boat on a saltwater fishing expedition be sure to read our article about using a Jon boat in saltwater as you will need to take precautions to protect the metal on your boat.
A Jon boat offers exceptional stability on calm waters and you can easily stand up and cast-off without the slightest worry about rocking the boat. In fact, Jon boats are so stable that many people modify their boats by adding a shooting platform for bowfishing.
When it comes to duck hunting there is only one boat capable of making the grade. A Jon boat is perfect for duck hunting.
Being able to access shallow banks and being able to do it in stealth mode, via oars, a paddle or pole, a Jon boat is the hunter’s best water-borne friend.
A rowboat is not really suitable for any type of hunting due to the instability issues faced when standing up. It is also incapable of accessing the shallow areas you would need to get to in order to duck hunt.
Jon boats and row boats are both great small boat picks for recreational use and utility work. But they differ greatly in design and are best suited to completely different environments.
Jon boats are lightweight, cheaper and easily powered with a cheap outboard motor.
Rowboats use oars for propulsion though they can be retrofitted with an outboard motor.
Rowboats are much more expensive than Jon boats.
To sum up the advantages and disadvantages of each boat:
- A Jon boat has a flat bottom and shallow draft. It is ideal for calm inland waters with shallow or extremely shallow areas. It is unsuited to rough water and ocean use except under very specific conditions.
- A rowboat has a v-hull and a deep draft. It is ideal for deep waters that experience choppy waves. It is unsuited to inland waterways that have shallow areas and is best used in deep waters such as the ocean or large deep lakes.
As you can see the boat you choose will largely depend on where you intend to use it. But, whatever boat you end up picking you can be sure it will give you many hours of pleasure on the water. Both boats are a great pick.