Most folks who have been on the water, even in a jon boat, have rowed. Those big wooden things that the summer camp counselor gave you (along with the life vest designed by the Boston Strangler) that had splinters on the handles and seemed entirely too heavy are called oars. Those oars that seemed too heavy to you at the time? It wasn’t you. Those standard store-bought things are too heavy. And it’s not a matter of the pure weight of the oar. The problem is that they’re blade heavy, i.e. the part of the oar that’s outboard is far heavier than it needs to be to do that job. If the blades are made thinner and lighter and weight added to the inboard portion of the oar, the oar then balances across the gunnel. That means you don’t waste energy muscling the oar out of the water. You thus spend more of your energy pulling yourself along, which is where you want the energy to go. The short heavy oars from the local chandlery for dinghys and skiffs are usually very blade heavy and you just end up prying yourself along.
Let me dissuade naysayers who think oars are a lower form of propulsion, oh no. Oars are a time-honored tradition. The Greeks and other sea-faring peoples from ancient history turned rowing into an art. The triremes of old were the cruise missiles of the day, with banks of oarsmen driving their ships into other ships with underwater rams doing the damage. The bronze ram installed at the prow of the reproduction ship in the photo is, by the way, completely accurate, copied from a ram recovered from an ancient shipwreck in the Mediterranean. It was designed to provide maximum damage to the attacked vessel and allow the ramming vessel to withdraw and ram again. Cool, huh? But back to the oars.
The figures show that the oars were about 20 feet long. Those oars had to have been balanced across the gunnel or the oarsmen would have been unable to lift the oar from the water let alone row at ramming speed. And think of the coordination of effort it would take, the training and teamwork required to ensure the oars didn’t get tangled up. The image old movies put forward with the muscular drummer and iron-jawed Charlton Heston is a likely scenario. In Greek triremes minus the chains, of course. The men who manned the Greek triremes at the battle of Salamis were free men, citizens of Athens who faced the great Persian empire and won.
The Vikings were also great rowers. The famous long ships were not only powered by the great square sail, but by oars. Oars were used when near the coast or in a river or fjord, to gain speed quickly and when there was adverse or insufficient wind to navigate.
If you look closely at the oars in this replica Viking boat, you’ll see that the inboard portion of the oar is not round like the outboard portion. That is to keep weight inboard to balance the oar across the gunnels.
In more recent history you only have to look as far as the book ‘The Boys in the Boat’ about the University of Washington eight oared crew which represented the United States in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and narrowly beat Italy and Germany to win the gold medal.
Again, teamwork and coordination of effort won the day.
So the next time you go out on a lake for a picnic or fishing, remember you’re continuing one of the oldest seafaring traditions of all by using an ancient tool, the simple oar.