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Racking Your Shell Up Right

There are not enough rewards in life so fulfilling as sculling and rowing.  Unfortunately a sometime unrewarding experience involves the necessity for many scullers and rowers to transport their shell on top of their vehicle every time they want to go sculling and rowing.  It is no small wonder that ancient tortures often made use of the rack! The racking experience can be a time drain and safety problem if not done right, however if done properly it can be done safely with minimal time and energy expenditure. 

If you had your driver’s license before 1990 you may remember that most automobiles, foreign and domestic, had rain gutters over the doors.  These rain gutters made using roof top racks fairly simple and very secure.  Today’s cars, dating back to about 1990, have almost all lost those universal-fit rain gutters.    Almost every car now is sans rain gutters and usually requires a custom fit. 

Fortunately, there are a handful of companies helping boaters (rowers included) bikers, skiers and active people fit their cars with high quality racks to carry their recreational gear.  Unfortunately, not the carmakers or the rack makers knew much or seem to care much about rowers racking needs.  This is not a reflection on rowers or their sport.  Unfortunately the financial rewards to the company are limited since rowers are purchasing racks in minuscule numbers compared to canoers, kayakers and cyclists. 

Most rowers racking their shells are racing or open water single scullers.  The 4’s and 8’s are almost always transported by trailer.  Scullers are quick to figure out that it doesn’t matter if you drive a two-door compact economy car, a four-door luxury car, a station wagon or van; all vehicles may well have a very short roofline.  A short roofline in racking terms is defined by the maximum spread between your front or forward most cross bar and your rear cross bar.  A carrack system has one pair of bars that lie (usually after being attached to the car via towers) perpendicular to the car.  The rooflines of many cars only allow for a maximum of 28” to 32” spread between the bars.  This span is hardly enough to support a single shell adequately, let alone transport it.  Many scullers are forced to improvise or purchase a shell rack to attach to their carrack to allow a safer transport of their single or double shell.

The largest companies of carracks are Yakima (a US company) and Thule (a European company).  Both companies compete heavily with each other in the US and both make excellent rack systems.  There are a few smaller companies in the US that make good racks too, but they are not widely offered like Yakima and Thule.  Choices of racks are many times a subjective experience but consulting a rack expert is a smart step to take.  

Once a choice of the basic carrack system has been made the rower/sculler then is faced with the decision whether or not a rack designed to carry shells is also needed to be added to the basic rack system.  There are many variables but a good rule to follow is that if your roofline is short and you have a single shell between 20’ and 28’ long a shell rack is advisable if you are traveling more than a mile or two on good roads at slow speed.  The anonymity of being a sculler may pay off in this regard: most shells on small cars are, by the letter of most Department of Motor Vehicle laws, illegal to car top because the shells extend over four feet beyond each bumper.

That much advised, if you are attempting to safely transport your shell then apply the following rule of three to which strives to maintain a good ratio of boat length to support structure on your car rack, and or shell rack.  For every three feet of boat make one foot of shell rack support.  This is not always possible given our roofs, which are small and sloped.  If your car has such a roof than you can change the bar span to a 1:4 ratio. (1 foot of shell rack per 4 feet of shell) but use caution when using this ratio, since your shell has less support than a 1:3 ratio. 

Contact points, or support points are extremely important in securing and creating a safe transport for your shell.  This is true for all the different shell carriers.  There should be a contoured cushion between the shell and the support structure.  Even if your support structure is a strap or sling there should be a cushion.  Our boat shop has done many repairs on shell’s hulls and shell’s decks because they haven’t had cushioning.  The best rack systems contour to the hull, almost fitting the shell to form. Strapping your shell is also very important.  Distributing the tension by double strapping the same strap is the best way to secure the shell.  Basically double strapping means you lace the strap over the shell, under the bar and back up and over the shell so the strap lies parallel to itself and has the buckle so it is toward the outside of the center of the car.  This allows you to place the buckle where you need it (away from the shell) and you can check it easily as needed. 

Quality of straps varies but the best ones we have seen are made especially for shells by Specialty Hull Haulers.  They have safely racked thousands of shells through the decades and never had a shell damaged with these super wide soft straps.  Making or buying the best quality of a shell rack as you can is worth the cost since safeguarding your shell is paramount in transporting it.

If you would like information born of experience regarding shell racking, carracks, shell racks and a bias toward rower’s needs, contact Pete or Karen at at 518-745-7699 or email us at adkrowing@adelphia.net. Although not every shell can go on every car your shell can have the best options made available to you through the experts at Adirondack Rowing, where we really enjoy helping rowers get the best selection and the best pricing on the best equipment.

Please take a look at the shell rack we offer.