Adirondack Guideboats-Racing legend Howard Seaman

There are many larger than life Adirondack legends from the 1800’s; Northwood’s man Ruben Carey, guide Honest John Plumley, and the eccentric preacher man Adirondack Murray to name just a few.  But there were also some Adirondackers in the 20th Century who distinguished themselves and became legends in their own right.

Howard Seaman was one of those.  Howard was a pretty ordinary guy.  He served in the Navy during World War II, came home, married his sweetheart Frances, and ran a successful construction business.  But turn him loose in a guideboat and suddenly he became a totally different person.

Howard  Howard Seaman and his son John racing their guideboats.  Notice the flex on John's oar.
Howard Seaman and his son John racing their guideboats. Notice the flex on John’s oar.

I thought I would lift a section on Howard Seaman from my friend Hallie Bond’s book “Boats and Boating in the Adirondacks”.  It is on page 260 of her book.  It is a wonderful description of Howard’s accomplishments.

“Long Lake native, Howard Seaman (1916-1986), was a great promoter of guideboat racing.  He encouraged and taught young racers and entered scores of races himself, winning most of them.  In 1977, at the age of 61, he won the grueling 44-mile solo marathon from Long Lake down the Raquette River to Tupper Lake.

Seaman had a short, sharp stroke.  He was once measured in a sprint at fifty six strokes per minute.  A passenger remarked, ‘every time Howard pulled on the oars he would snatch the boat out from under me, and the stern deck would fetch up on the knobs of my spine and the small of my back, and take off a little hide there.’

Seaman’s winning record was probably due to his strength, build, stroke and knowledge of racing strategy.  Adirondack guides adopted an easy stroke they could keep up for days on end.  They sat up straight, and rowed primarily with their arms, their feet braced for comfort against one of the ribs.  Racers like Seaman, however, used their backs.  He added the broomstick foot stretcher for better leverage.  He also reduced friction on the oarlocks by inserting a neoprene sleeve into the strap and by greasing the pins before each race.  He replaced the original brass oar pins with stainless steel pins for strength.  His boat was probably not built specifically for racing, but its narrow bottom board contributed to its speed; 6 7/8″wide contrasted to the 8″ or wider ones of H.D. Grant.

Seaman’s oars were made by Lyman Beers for him about 1950.  They were used only for long distance races and are lighter and more delicate than Seaman’s sprint oars.  Made of soft maple, they have a great deal of spring in them.  They are also well balanced because of their long overlap of fifteen inches.  The boat pictured below is as if prepared for a racing carry, with the oars shipped with their blades towards the bow, held in place with rubber straps and by the padded yoke.

Howard Seaman raced this boat in one-man competition from the 1940’s until his death.”

Howard Seaman's racing guideboat on exhibit at the Adirondack Museum.
Howard Seaman’s racing guideboat on exhibit at the Adirondack Museum.
Oarlocks and straps on Howard's boat.
Oarlocks and straps on Howard’s boat.
The seat in Howard's racing guideboat.
The seat in Howard’s racing guideboat.

One of these days I will tell the tale of how I won the last running of the Howard Seaman Memorial Guide Boat Race in Long Lake.  The outcome was decidedly due to divine intervention and is a hilarious story.

Building an Adirondack Guideboat-Straps and Horns

Most Adirondack guideboats are propelled by a pair of eight foot long oars.  They are commonly made of cherry, spruce or maple.  The blades and looms of these oars are usually quite lean so that one can feel them bend under the power stroke and spring back just before they come out of the water to begin recovery.  A delicious feeling!

The oar socket/oar lock arrangement for guideboats has always puzzled me.  Every guideboat that I know of uses pinned oars.  The oar lock has a 1/2 inch pin that goes into the “strap”.  The pin is at the base of U shaped “horn” that, in turn, is attached to the upper part of the oar loom by another pin.

Horns on a guideboat oar.
Horns on a guideboat oar.

The strap, oar socket, was usually made of a manganese bronze casting and was often beautifully decorated.

Straps, or oar sockets, for an Adirondack guideboat.
Straps, or oar sockets, for an Adirondack guideboat.

This method of connecting oars to the boat has its advantages.  The narrow beam of a guideboat requires that the oars overlap to gain as much leverage as possible.  Pinned oars automatically set the oars at the proper spacing.  One can always let go of the oars without fear that they will slide out of the oar lock and go overboard.  It is said that the guides favored pinned oars because they could let go of the oars to cast a line or take a shot at a moment’s notice.

The great disadvantage of this arrangement is that one cannot feather the oars, or turn the blade so that it is parallel to the water, on the recovery phase of rowing.  This becomes a distinct liability when rowing into a stiff breeze.  More than once have I found it almost impossible to make headway when rowing into a stiff breeze even when using a oars that I could feather.

The early guideboats apparently used an arrangement whereby the oars could be feathered.  Below is a photo of what I call the “bookcase” boat.   It is perhaps the oldest survivor of the earliest “guide’s boats” that we know of.  It was acquired by Franklin Brandreth and remains in Brandreth Park, a family compound on Brandreth Lake, not far from Raquette Lake here in the Adirondacks.

The bookcase boat, a very early example of a guideboat.
The bookcase boat, a very early example of a guideboat.

Note the date of 1848 on the deck.  It has a flat bottom board and ribs taken from roots.  It employs only four planks on each side rather than the usual seven or eight possessed by later guideboats.  There appears to be a half round cut out on the gunwale to fit a carrying yoke.  The fulcrum for the oars is provided by thole pins rather than an oar lock/socket arrangement.  This is revealed by the block at the midships that has three holes drilled in it.  The tholes, or two wooden pegs, drop into these holes to provide the fulcrum for the oars.

I decided to fit my first guideboat with spruce oars from Shaw and Tenney that had buttons and leathers.  The leather sleeve protects the loom from wear from the ringed oar lock and the “button”, or leather ring,  keeps the oar from slipping overboard.  I must maintain the proper overlap for the oars to get the greatest leverage on the oars but I can easily feather them. Another advantage is that they won’t “jam” when I am around a dock and am trying to push off.  Why guideboat builders never used this system of connecting the oars to the hull I don’t know.  It provides the advantages of pinned oars with the great advantage of being able to feather them.

Buttons and leathers with the ring oar lock.
Buttons and leathers with the ring oar lock.

The button has worn so in eighteen years that the ring can now slip out.  I have been lucky so far that I haven’t lost the ring but I must do some repairs before that happens.

Below is a photo of my son Stewart rowing the Thankful. You can see his intense concentration as he maneuvers the boat to get it going where he wants.  Note the overlap of the oars set by the pinned oar arrangement.

Son Stew at the helm of the Thankful using pinned oars.
Son Stew at the helm of the Thankful using pinned oars.

One final photo.  While out on a dusk motor boat ride on Long lake we were rewarded with this stunning sunset over Owl’s Head Mountain.

Sunset over Owl's Head mountain.
Sunset over Owl’s Head Mountain.

Next time, Howard Seamen, guideboat racing legend.