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.
The strap, oar socket, was usually made of a manganese bronze casting and was often beautifully decorated.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Next time, Howard Seamen, guideboat racing legend.