By Benjamin Mayock, Champlain Longboats coach and coxswain
As you might remember last summer, thanks to our Community Rowing club, we acquired a St. Ayles Skiff. Over the winter, the crew in the Museum’s boat shop repaired and repainted the skiff and got it ready for the upcoming rowing season (a season which, as I write this blog post, is only now carefully getting underway when normally we would have started in May). Nick Patch, Director of Champlain Longboats and Champlain Discovery, in an ever present effort to “transform obstacles into opportunities” suggested that we use the pause caused by COVID-19 to design and build a set of oars for the skiff from scratch. So, I joined forces with Museum volunteer, boat builder, and all-around Renaissance man Don Dewees to do just that.
Our oar-building project began with research. We knew we wanted a similar design to the oars that we used at Skiffieworlds 2019. By examining photographs and referencing some welcome sketches sent by Stuart Mack of Boatie Blest in Scotland, we were able to draft an initial design that could inform some prototypes. With an outline in hand, we then set to the task of deciding the more detailed characteristics such as length, inboard/outboard ratio, handle size, and the taper of the loom to give us some prototype ideas. After a lot of reading and email exchanges we arrived at a plan from which Don could start building the oars themselves. [Readers, please beware of online message boards regarding oar design; to say there is an opinionated and impassioned subculture of oar enthusiasts out there would be a wholly understated declaration.]
From his shop in North Ferrisburgh, Don laminated together pieces of white pine to create the basic shape of the oar. He then added a strip of Douglas fir to the loom as a measure of added strength. The #2 oar was the first one built and before I knew it we were ready to give it a try. Our first outing was a dreary afternoon in April but, after a month of strict quarantine, it may as well have been the most dazzling summer day. At the gunwale, the oar performed wonderfully. With mask-muffled voices we discussed the adjustments that we wanted to make and marked out the location of the pin so that Don knew where to cease further shaping
Don Dewees works quickly. The remaining three oars were glued up and shaped within a week. With precautions in place, he welcomed me into his shop to get some photos and video of him working on the oars, each at a different stage of their construction. The visit to Don’s place was certainly bittersweet as I realized how much I could have learned about the oar-building process if I was able to assist in the shop. But, alas, the times are the times and the dangers are real and adaptation is a must. Before I knew it, we were soon ready for another on-water trial.
Our next outing was warm and sunny. Don had all four oars ready to test. Our main focus was on weight and balance. We determined that the first oar built, the #2 oar, was still the best one out of the lot. The decision was made to use the #2 oar as the standard for shaping the other three oars. We also decided to shorten the stroke oar by six inches to compensate for the narrower beam at that position. We marked the pin position for all four of the oars and also started working on the oar-locks and pitch.
Using a level, a protractor/square and, eventually, Don’s very own “Pitch-o-matic” (pictured above, made by Don to help us find the accurate pitches of the oars based on their boat position) we were able to suss out the angles necessary for the oars to rest on the gunwale so that the oar-blades are perpendicular to the surface of the water. A series of wedges were integral in designing the oars’ position-specific pitch. The measurements recorded, the brackets were then dry-fit onto the oars using clamps. Each oar, in turn, was tried, adjusted, tried again, adjusted again, tired once more until we were as close to perfect as our skills would allow. Nick Patch coxed the skiff while Don and I tested the oars. It was a welcome change to our previous outing which found us, mostly, rowing in circles.
Shortly after that final test row, I woke up to an email declaring that the oars were finished and I asked Don if I could stop by for one final photoshoot. I arrived at the shop in the afternoon. The finished oars were on a sawhorses outside. As I approached, I stopped dead in my tracks. The oars were beautiful. The varnished wood was so pristine the oars looked as though they were coated in glass. The blades were painted gray to match the hull of our skiff. Perfectly symmetrical chevrons, stacked to delineate the corresponding seat position, were painted neatly on the blades. The brackets/oarlocks were glued in place, ready to drop over the pins. The oars were finished. It was extremely satisfying to see them all lined up, ready to go. Many hours of research, design, prototyping, trials, errors and shot-in-the-dark decision making had come to a splendid conclusion. Personally, I will be forever grateful to Don Dewees for doing most of the heavy lifting. We are extremely lucky to have skilled volunteers such as Don who are continually willing to share their spirit, skills and time in the service of all things maritime.
Additional special thanks go to Nick Patch for getting this project off the ground and Stuart Mack, of Scotland’s Boatie Blest, for graciously sending over the specs of the oars built by their club. Without the support and generosity of the kind folks at Boatie Blest, our pursuits into the world of St. Ayles Skiff racing would be almost nonexistent.