Drift boats are a symbol of river running. They encapsulate the adventure of whitewater rapid riding in a boat. Their distinctive curved shape sets them apart from all other inland water boats and makes them easily recognizable both on and off the water. But why are drift boats curved?
Drift boats are curved so they can better handle river running. The curved shape was first added to the open water dory to create a drift boat that could ride the whitewater rapids of the McKenzie river in Oregon. By curving the bow and stern, so they sit out of the water, and by retaining the dory flat bottom, the “turning circle” of a drift boat is greatly reduced thus making critical maneuvers and course corrections easy and fast.
Why the drift boat needed a curved shape
The drift boat is an evolution of the ocean dory. For those that don’t know, the ocean dory is a flat-bottomed open water rowboat that was launched from larger vessels when out at sea. The dory was carried on a mother ship, usually a large schooner, where it would be lowered into the water to fish when out at sea. It would return its catch to the larger ship several times before being hoisted back onboard at the end of the fishing day.
Although the ocean dory was used in open water its flat bottom hull and shallow draft meant it worked very well in calm inland waters. It was only natural therefore that inland fishermen would take advantage of the shallow draft of the dory to navigate inland waters such as lakes and rivers. However, this didn’t come without problems.
As dories started to be used for inland fishing and transportation in Oregon it became apparent that the basic dory design was not entirely well-suited to Oregon rivers. The whitewater rapids and boulder filled areas of the Oregon waterways, like the McKenzie River, required a boat that was a little different.
Over the years Oregonians started to modify their boats in an attempt to adapt them so they were better suited for use in the white waters they were regularly navigating. Hence the drift boat was born.
The drift boat, as we know it today went through several different changes until the 1950’s when its hull design became the permanent curved shape that we see on drift boats today.
Why the curve works so well
One of the most iconic features of a drift boat is its signature curved shaped. This shape, which is often referred to as the boat’s rocker, is what allows the boat to be so maneuverable while river running.
For a better understanding of rocker, and to see exactly what it is, view the comparison image below where you can see the curved rails of a rocking horse (its rocker) and the rocker of a drift boat, created by its curved shape.
When you view a selection of drift boats you will notice that some of them have more rocker than others. Why is this?
Well, that distinctive curve that is created by extending both the bow and the stern sections of the boat, and then curving them out of the water, means that drag is greatly reduced and current has less impact on the boat. It also means the boat has less contact with the water.
By reducing contact with the water, and localizing it to the area directly beneath the oars, a pivot point is created. This, along with the flat bottom, allows a drift boat to turn “on a dime” with very little effort because its turning circle is so small and the bottom encounters little friction from the water around it.
Obviously this is very advantageous in situations when maneuvering quickly is critical to avoid boulders and obstacles. The pronounced rocker, caused by the curved shape of the hull, allows a drift boat to literally spin in any direction in response to the oarsman.
The high curved bow is not only advantageous to the rocker but it also allows the boat to execute vertical drops of up to 8′ without the nose plowing straight into the water.
The addition of flared sides means that water is kept from lapping over the rails when the boat is moving sideways, such as when it is moving through rapids.
The flat bottom has no keel and no rudder. This not only allows the boat to be used in very shallow waters but also allows the oarsman to make quick lateral movements midstream to avoid collisions.
Over the years different types of drift boats were developed for different uses. Although all drifts are curved some have a much more pronounced curve design for more rocker, while others have less curve and are wider to allow for more carrying capacity.
A word about the bow and transom of a drift boat
The bow of a drift boat is narrow and flat and is thus often mistaken for the transom. The transom is actually the pointed end of the boat (the reverse of other boats).
The reason the bow and stern appear to be at the wrong ends (compared to other boats) is because the oarsman in a drift boat is facing the bow but rowing the boat in the opposite direction. Why does that matter?
Well, the bow of the boat is the end that the boat operator faces. Because the boat operator usually faces the same direction the boat is moving in, the bow is therefore in front of him and the transom is behind him.
This means the bow is usually more pointed to allow it to move through waves more easily (with some exceptions like Jon boats that have a squared bow) and the transom will be flatter. In a motorboat, for example, the operator would be facing the same direction that the boat is moving in and therefore the bow needs to be pointed.
But because the oarsman in a drift boat is essentially rowing”backwards” the end of the boat that is behind him (the transom) moves trough the water first and therefore needs to be the pointed end.
Hence on a drift boat the bow looks like the transom and the transom looks like the bow. Some drift boats, in particular “McKenzie double-enders”, are pointed at both the front and the back of the boat.
Different curved drift boat shapes
The first drift boats to become well-known were the McKenzie River Dory and the Rouge River Dory.
Both boats take advantage of the curved drift boat shape but have slight differences in their hull design.
McKenzie River Dory
The McKenzie Dory derives its name from the river it was designed to navigate, and the boat from which it evolved. Although it is called a dory it is much more accurate to identify the McKenzie Dory as a drift boat. As we covered previously a drift boat differs from an open water dory in some very fundamental ways.
Basically, a drift is a dory but a dory is not necessarily a drift boat. Drift boats mostly differ in their very curved shape.
McKenzie dories are drift boats that have been adapted to better ride the whitewater rapids that are such a common staple of the McKenzie river. They have a lot of rocker and are very curved.
With their curved bow and flat bottom McKenzie dories are well equipped to run the rapids that frequent the McKenzie River. These unique drift boats have a wide flat bottom that gives the boat a shallow draft and small turning radius.
McKenzie River drift boats are excellent at river running. Many people are surprised to learn that a McKenzie Dory is actually much more responsive in whitewater rapids than a modern raft that has been designed for the purpose – this is testament to the design of this amazing boat.
The McKenzie Dory is the most common type of DIY dory boat on the water.
Rogue River Dory
Although also named after its ancestor the Rogue River Dory is also, most definitely, a drift boat.
The Rouge River Dory also has a completely flat bottom but unlike the McKenzie Dory it has upward rakes under the bow and the stern.
Because guides on the Rogue River required a boat with greater carrying capacity, and one that could better hold the current, different design changes were incorporated into the dory to create a different and unique type of drift boat.
In order to accommodate a greater load the Rogue River Dory was designed to be larger than the McKenzie Dory. However, this increase in carrying capacity comes at the cost of responsiveness. Though the boat is still able to traverse rapids fairly easily and is also easy to row it does not respond as quickly as the McKenzie River Dory.
The increased carry capacity, shallow draft and ease of rowing make the Rogue River Dory the most common drift boat used by guides.
All drift boats can be fitted with outboard motors though you need to be very careful with the type of motor you fit – see our guide on fitting a motor to a drift boat.