Tuesday 6 January 2009

Welsford on rowing (concluded)

In this last exclusive extract from John Welsford's forthcoming book on boatbuilding and cruising, he discusses oars. I totally agree with him that the high tech swivels with screw-up gates found on racing boats are over the top for recreational rowing. They also look inappropriately plastic in a boat built for style and comfort rather than out-and-out speed. Bronze rowlocks do the job and look good too.
For oars, John recommends buying 'seconds' and finishing them to taste, but there is another way - go to your local rowing club and you will almost certainly find a pile of lovely wooden blades stacked up at the back of the boathouse, rejected in favour of carbon fibre but too lovely to put on the bonfire. Offer them £30 a pair and restore them to working condition.
The picture above is of the very smart square pattern rowlocks on Nessy, with a reconditioned oar from the local coastal rowing club. The picture at the bottom (ha!) is of the sheepskin seat cover used by transatlantic rower Roz Savage.

"The wondrous rowlocks seen on the rowing club skiffs and shells are a bit too expensive and far too complex for my knockabout use. I stick to a conventional bronze rowlock from a local foundry, and set the pitch by carving a small ‘flat’ in the underside of the oar handle where the thumb grips it. When positioned correctly this will make the oar fit the hand only at the correct angle, and will keep the blade at a constant angle in relation to the hand without having to think about it.
Since I have had the misfortune to injure my hands on a woodworking machine, I have taken the shaping a little further and made a similar small flat on the top side for the first two fingers, which greatly improves the grip of my no longer strong hands. Friends who have rowed with these have, in many cases, gone home and done the same to their oars.
Note that the ‘catch angle’ or ‘pitch’ of the blade should be about 15deg positive on these boats. That means that the blade is angled 15deg to dig into the water as you pull on it. Not only does this prevent the blade from popping back out of the water as you heave on it, but it tends to stabilise the boat as well.
Good oars are essential; they make or break the whole project. My efforts to build good ones from scratch were successful, but I conceived a serious dislike of what was for me a tedious job, one that took too long while my new boat sat waiting to get out on the water. Nor was I prepared to pay through the nose for some craftsman to charge me the earth for ‘specials’ (you will have gathered that I don’t think much of the store-bought models!) so now I buy standard seconds in local pine and doctor them myself.
I cut the blade down to 110 mm wide at the tip, tapering to 90 mm where it begins to curve into the shaft. The loom (the section of the oar’s shaft from the blade inboard end, or ‘neck’, to the leather, where the oar passes through the rowlock) is also tapered, leaving it close to the original dimensions fore and aft (90deg to the blade), but tapering from round where it leaves the leather to only 30 mm at the neck; this is rounded off to a nice oval shape.
A round-mouthed spokeshave is used to thin the blades to about 6 mm at the blade edges, and 9 mm at the centre of the blade, with a full-thickness rib down the centre. This rib can be carried out to the end of the blade, and the tip scalloped to form a strong pointed end to the oar. It doesn’t help the performance but it looks appealing, and gives you something to push the boat off a jetty with without breaking the oar’s blade!
My oars have very long leathers, made of leather of course. But I do secure them with contact cement before stitching them, and then coat the thread with glue which prevents the stitching from being worn away. There are no ‘buttons’ or lugs to locate the oar, but rather a lanyard from the rowlock throat to the neck of the oar. There is a tent rope adjuster on each one should the length need changing; this enables the ‘gear ratio’ to be changed by moving the handles inboard and rowing cross-handed into a headwind, or slid out a little if rowing leisurely downwind.
This system also serves to secure the rowlocks into the boat, meaning that the oars stay with the boat in case of a mishap!
To test an oar’s balance, sit in the boat with the oar in position, resting the hand on the handle with the shaft straight across the boat; the tip of the blade should only just kiss the water with the forearm completely relaxed. If the oar is still heavy in the blade after being ‘operated’ on, it might pay to try a lead collar on the shaft up by the handle.
It can take a while to get used to the feel of a well-balanced pair of ‘sticks’ but it’s well worth the effort; they burn a lot less energy than the overweight ‘clubs’ that most people use.
Earlier when I described the dimensions of the blades, my ears burned a bit. I know that the big spoon blade is the accepted norm for performance boats, and for short distances in flat water; when swung by trained athletes this is certainly the case. However, if you look at the history of rowing boats used in open water, you will notice that they almost invariably had very narrow blades and allowed extra length for slippage.
These slim blades were not only less prone to damage, they had a lot less windage. The old fishermen knew that having to twist the wrists 1500 times an hour for half a day at a time to feather those big blades was just not practical. Should you not agree, think of me when you are sitting out on the water, your forearms near-rigid with tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, or repetitive strain injury.
Still on the subject of bodily comfort, the seat is very important. Sitting at 200mm (8in) high, the knees are too high for the thigh muscles to help the buttocks cushion the pelvis, and the rocking action can make for a very sore tail! I have a piece of soft closed-cell foam over which I have a piece of shaggy sheepskin rug— luxury, no matter what one might or might not wear.
Those big thigh muscles do a lot of work even in a fixed seat boat, they and the belly musculature are what drives the back and forth movement of the torso so freedom of pelvic movement on your chosen seat material is very important.

1 comment:

Ben said...

Excellent stuff. Thanks for that Chris. I see that in many ways I have my boat set up as John suggests and will certainly tinker with other aspects. Using thole pins limits my options somewhat as regards gearing the boat, but I'm fairly happy that I can row long distance in varied conditions.