The Adirondack Guideboat-Guideboat Oars

The choice of oars for guideboats has always puzzled me.  It is somewhat an enigma.  It is really the choice of how to connect the oar to the hull that seems odd to me, not that the oars themselves are odd in any way.  The very earliest Adirondack boats used thole pins to direct the force generated by the sweep of the oar through the water to propel the hull.  Thole pins are nothing more than wooden pegs mounted upright on the gunwale.  The loom of the oar fits between them.  The main advantage is that they allow the oar to be feathered, that is the blade is turned parallel to the water as the oar is being retrieved to begin the next power stroke.

Here is a photo of the very earliest Adirondack wooden craft.  I call it the bookcase boat because it was made into a bookcase once its useful life had ended.  It resides in Brandreth Park in a compound owned by the Brandreth family.  Franklin Brandreth, the patriarch, collected Adirondack boats and this is one of his most precious acquisitions.  On the deck of the bookcase boat is this inscription “1848” so this is a very old boat.  It would have rotted away out of sight somewhere had it not been made into a piece of furniture.

The bookcase boat.  Holes to provide for insertion of thole pins are found on each side of the hull about midway down from the bow.  

Thole pins had the advantage of being cheap, lightweight, and allowed the oars to be feathered.  The disadvantage was that one could never take their hands off the oars or they would likely go overboard.

This disadvantage was overcome by using pinned oars.  Here the oar has a pin connected to it via a “horn”.  The oarlock, attached to the gunwale,  accepts the pin and is called a “strap”.  Here is an example of a horn and strap.

Horn and strap arrangement for guideboat oars.

Horns and straps eliminated a major concern of guides.  They had to take their hands off the oars from time to time, either to cast a line or take a shot.  Thole pins wouldn’t do for that, the oars would be overboard in a flash if you took your hands off them when hole pins were in play.

To get that advantage by using pinned oars you gave up feathering.  During days when the wind kicks up with gusts to 20 to 30 miles per hour it is next to impossible to row upwind with pinned oars.  It becomes a real struggle to make any progress at all.

A secondary advantage of pinned oars is that they maintain the proper distance from the oarlock to the grip.  Because guideboats have such a narrow beam the oars must overlap in order to get enough leverage.  Pinned oars automatically set this distance.

Another disadvantage of pinned oars is that they do not cushion any collision with something like a dock or bank.  If you try to fend off either one using these oars you will likely capsize or damage your boat.  John found that out in the Ninety Miler race when his oar go stuck in a bank.  The momentum of his boat moving forward split the gunwale and necessitated emergency repairs.

John’s guideboat damaged in the Ninety Miler race when his oar lodged in a bank causing the gunwale to split.  Quick repairs were made with a C clamp to allow him to continue the race.

There is an alternative arrangement, called “buttons and leathers”, that solves just about all these drawbacks.  In this case the pin is joined to a ring that can slide up and down the loom of the oar.  The ring is prevented from sliding off the end of the oar by a “button”, or ring made of leather.  The oar is protected from wear from the ring by a leather sheath called the “leather”.  Buttons and leathers allow you to feather your oars and the oars won’t go overboard if you let go of them.  However, they do not set the proper distance between the oarlock and the oar grip.  But I have used buttons and leathers ever since I built my first guideboat and setting the proper distance has not been a problem.  It becomes an automatic sort of thing.

I don’t know why guides did not switch to the buttons and leathers arrangement.  It is probably the same reason that every guideboat builder (and there were over 70 at one time) kept scrupulously to the same basic guideboat design.  They were so precise in copying the basic design that even experts find it difficult to identify who the builder of a certain hull was.

These thoughts on guideboat oars came about because I just finished a set of oars for the latest boat I am building.  They are made of figured cherry and are a beautiful example of it.  Some have called it “quilted” cherry while others “flame” cherry.  Here it is.

Oar blades of quilted cherry.
Upper end of oars made of quilted cherry.
Long view of guideboat oars made of quilted cherry.

Finally, I wish you all the joy of the Holidays and a great New Year!  Thanks for following my posts.

Happy Holidays!

3 comments on “The Adirondack Guideboat-Guideboat Oars”

  1. Gordon,
    Beautiful oars. Really enjoyed the article. The pinned oars allowed the guide to catch fish or do other things in the boat possibly for a sport. And the task was completed he could continue without missing a stroke. Happy Holidays to you and your family.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *