Friday, 28 December 2007

Rowing and Sailing

I'm so excited. My little brother Nick got me Gavin Atkin's new book, Ultrasimple Boatbuilding, for Christmas and I am in it! Practically at the beginning on page 226! There I am, in glorious black-and-white, grinning stupidly out of the page next to my Conrad Natzio-designed Sandpiper. Conrad himself is on the next page, looking properly sailorly rigging his Oystercatcher.
Gavin's central premise is that building your own boat need not involve a seven year apprenticeship, a lavishly equipped workshop or expensive materials. You too can create a boat to fulfil your own needs in your back garden using basic tools at modest cost, and he shows you how in straightforward language.
I realised he was speaking to my level of craftsmanship when he explains how to create breasthooks (the pieces of wood in the angles of a boat) by tracing round jam jars with a pencil rather than using instruments.
The book has enough information to build several of Gav's own designs including the famous Mouse boat. If you would like to build your own boat but don't feel confident enough to actually make a start, reading this book should give you the impetus to get going.
Just one thing, though.....
In an otherwise admirable chapter on making oars, Gavin falls into a rant against feathering. He believes that "the insistence that rowing with feathering is the only 'real' rowing may be one of the key reasons why we see so few people rowing around harbours and rivers in the United Kingdom."
He makes the entirely valid point that you don't have to feather, especially with narrow blades. Indeed, traditional boats that worked in rough waters, especially surf boats, work on thole pins and cannot be feathered at all.
I don't see any pressure to feather oars. It's not compulsory, and if the rowlocks are the standard circular type it is actually quite difficult to move the blade accurately from the horizontal to the vertical.
But if you have a pair of good sculling blades working in square rowlocks, feathering makes rowing significantly easier and with practice becomes second nature. I actually dislike rowing without feathering - it feels wrong somehow, but that is just the result of feathering since childhood, I suppose.
What Gavin inadvertantly exposes is the difference between rowers and sailors.
Sailors 'sail when they can, row when they must'. As a result, they never get comfortable with not being able to see where they are going, which is why Gavin sees more people sculling with an oar over the transom than rowing. And they never build up the muscles so rowing always feels like hard work.
Rowers, in contrast, use the oars to get places and hoist a sail to go downwind (like having seven league boots, as a New Zealand offshore rower once told me). As a result, we get fitter and, crucially, acquire skills like eyes in the backs of our heads and yes, feathering.
I have been experimenting with a square sail for downwind sailing, steering with one of the oars. Here I am fiddling with the halyard at the Home Built Boat Regatta 2007 (Chris Perkins took the pic). I hope to be able to use the sail in the same way that sailors use oars - as a very useful auxiliary propulsion.
Interest in recreational rowing is increasing. It is just about the best exercise you can get, and gets you out in some of the loveliest places on the planet.
So if you are thinking of taking up rowing, my advice is to get a rowing boat rather than trying to row a sailing boat. You don't have to feather the oars, but if you begin to row any kind of distance, you will soon feel the need to learn this rather lovely skill.


Baddaddy said...

I thought that might ruffle some feathers somewhere!

OK Chris, I admit it. I'm a sailor, and I love it ;-)


Chris said...

My feathers ain't ruffled, no sirree! I just think you're wrong about the reason why people don't row - the much more obvious reason is that they prefer to see where they are going. This is also the reason why you see more people sculling over the transom - they are not rowing for pleasure, but simply to get out to their mooring.

George and Julia said...

Hi Chris
If you check the Henley Whalers' site you will find their account of their New Years Day outing Lymington/Yarmouth and back. This is a boat which really sails (up and down wind) and really rows, rough water and smooth. It's partly a function of design: many years of development of the ideal type in the whaling trade; and of size, where you can get a number of good-sized rowers on board to tap her along - 5-6 knots achieved and maintained with the right crew.