Last fall I took two sorry oars home from my beach house on Oak Island. I used these oars for over twenty years with my skiff and they had more than lost their luster. When I purchased them they were beautiful “feather lights” made of highly varnished ash and over the years were subjected to a flooded bilge of abuse. It was time to refurbish them. My grandson, Nate, proceeded to take this project on. He sanded, bleached and sealed them. Then proceeded to give them seven coats of Spar varnish between light sanding. They turned out amazing considering how bad they were. They’ll definitely outlast this old scupper. All the sawdust and aroma of varnish got me thinking about the development and history of oars in general.
Today our vessels are graced with all types of modern techno gadget propulsion systems from standard inboards, IOs, water jet propulsion, computer enhanced sails and increasingly sophisticated outboard engines to electric battery systems and the latest heavy weight diesels outboards just hitting the market. They enhance our pleasure boating experience and many are used for commercial vessels as well.
POLES - The beginning.
Before modern methods of water propulsion were invented, some prehistoric Neolithic member of humanity decided he needed to control his hide stretched boat (called a “coracle”) and not spin drift aimlessly down the river to the ocean like his neighbor “Garth the Stupid”. This genius took a long branch of wood and starting poling through shallow water in the direction he wanted to go. The age of water propulsion arrived! Poling is still used for small boats in shallow water environments like the Everglades, Louisiana and Georgia swamps, and in local bays where duck bill poles, which have a tip like an open duck bill prevents the pole from sinking into the mud. They are primarily used by duck hunters and clammers.
PADDLES TO OARS (The Transition)
Where the water was too deep for polling, new techniques were needed. Eventually, someone used his stone axe to experiment with different shapes of wood that could be hand held with a wide end and a handle that could be dipped in the water and pushed in the opposite direction he wanted to go. These first water paddles and their derivatives are used worldwide to this day. You see long paddles being used on stand up boards and double bladed ones used on kayaks. Most paddles are made with light carbon fiber or aluminum handles and molded blades. Traditional canoeists still tend to use the classic wooden paddles but lighter carbon materials are beginning to gain here also.
It is important to note the difference between paddles and oars. Smaller paddles, as described above, have short handles and one blade. Larger paddles have long handles for use on stand up boards and kayak paddles have two blades, one at each end. Paddlers face forward in the direction they are traveling and the blade of the paddle is placed in the water ahead of the paddler and pulled past the paddler enabling forward movement.
THE OAR - The big brother.
Paddles served their purpose but humans began to expand the size, shape and type of materials used in their vessels in order to explore further and carry more cargo as the age of trade arrived. The humble paddle was just not up to the task. Someone had to come up with something better. Whoever the unheralded inventor was, he had the ability to think “Out of the box’’ and imagine “facing backward to go forward”. You got to give the guy credit, after all why would that make sense?
Historical and archeological research indicates the first oars were used in China about 4500 BCE. Evidence shows they reached Japan in 4000 BCE. As they spread throughout the world, I wonder if there was ever a tariff placed on them? Who knows? The world changes but barely changes.
The difference between paddles and oars is that oars have a long handle or shaft called a “loom” with only one blade. The “loom” can be 6 ft. long for use in small row boats and up to 12 ft. and more in larger boats where multiple rowers would pull on oars as they did in ancient Greco /Roman Trimarines, Viking Long Boats and often in combination with sails on larger war and trade vessels into the early 19th century.
Oars are used in pairs from a sitting position. On large ships, they are attached to the vessel by holes in the upper sides of the gunnels. In smaller boats like skiffs, they were places through in oarlocks attached to the top of the gunnels. Rowers sit facing backward looking at the stern from a seating position. This is opposite to the paddling position and gives the rower more power as they lean back and “Pull on” the oar. In nautical terms, this is called “Putting your back into it”. The larger the ship, the more rowers there would be on each oar.
When a single rower sits in the center of a boat and rows, it is actually called “Sculling”. When there are more than one rower using oars on each side of the boat, then it is called “Rowing”. However, today most people use “Rowing” as the general term.
Oars can be used as a hand held rudder on smaller sailing craft in emergency and many boaters keep one or two in their pleasure boats to pull or push out of shallow water when running aground. Oars also come in various shapes, the most popular being the flat bladed, but there are also wooden ones with curved blades. These oars act like a cupped hand of a swimmer giving more pull to the oar at the beginning of each stroke. Though they increase speed they are more prevalent in competition racing.
There are also wooden oars that have added weight at the end of the handle that helps the rower lift the oars and pull back. This weight can be carved thicker shaft ends of the oar or lead weights added to the shaft acting as counter weight as the blades push through the water and then lifted for the next stroke. The life saving stations that once dotted our coasts in the late 19th and early 20th century used this method on their surfboat oars. The crew had to row through storm tossed seas to reach endangered ships. This was extremely dangerous and the counter weighted oars helped to save many passengers and crews when ships foundered on the sandbars and rocks along our coasts.
OARS AND COMPETITIVE ROWING -The real fun.
Competitive rowing began in England in the 16th Century. Passengers would wager bets that their boatman, taking them up or down the Thames River in London, would beat a neighboring boat. Elizabethan England turned it into a spectator sport. Citizens watched from shore and bet on their favorite oarsmen. By the late 18th century ferrymen were betting and competing on New York's rivers and harbor in their spare time.
By the mid 19th century in the United States, rowing clubs were formed at the most prestigious educational institutions. Crews used light racing shells or sculls, as their narrow, shallow, long boats are called. Four to eight oarsmen sat in tandem. An additional crew man (The coxswain) perched on the stern set the pace and direction of the rowers. This water sport is still very popular today in colleges, high schools and private clubs. Harvard is known for continually being amongst the fastest clocking 14mph strictly using oars. In the past, the oars these rowers used were long, thin and made of lightweight wood. Today they are primarily strong, lightweight, carbon fiber with various styles of molded blades available. The best oars can actually be customized to the rower for ultimate performance.
TIME TO DOCK
We tend to take a lot for granted in life. The history and legacy of the oar could actually take several book volumes. Would they make it onto the New York Times Best Seller List?
I more than doubt it. But this taste of what it means to hold and use an oar helps us view other implements we see or use in a new way.
Now it’s time to step into my 8 ft. rowboat, sit down, place my newly restored oars, courtesy of N8, in their oar locks and scull away! (Or row, if you prefer!) Hold up there matey! Linda! Throw me my life jacket! Yes, dearest, I’ll put it on…… and my insurance is paid!
Story and Illustrations
C. 2018 by Mark C. Nuccio. All rights reserved
Mark C. (Sea) Nuccio is a writer, poet and artist.
You can reach him at - firstname.lastname@example.org