How to Scull a Boat
Article taken from WOODEN BOAT #100, June 1991.
Text and illustrations by S.F. Manning
"Notch" snorted Robbie Weatherford as he swept up an oar from the float. "Ye don't need a notch if ye do it right!" With that he thrust the Oar over the side of the float we were standing and began a vigorous twiddling with it that sent wavelets breaking into the mangrove roots ,just beyond. I could feel the float depress under the force of' his oar. As he yanked it back and forth while demonstrating how a sculling oar should be handled, the loom of that oar stayed right where he'd placed it on the edge of the float, There was no notch or crack or anything there to keep it put.
Happily, I'd remembered my mother's admonition that you never tell it cowboy that you can ride a horse. You say, "I'll try." And try I did for that 75-year-old Man 0' War fisherman who'd sculled boats all his life the Bahamian way. But I couldn't get the oar to stay put without restraint where it crossed the edge of the float.
The fact is that I too, have been sculling boats all my life , starting on a farm pond way back during the Depression. But up North we do it differently or perhaps I'd never taken notice of how other people scull boats. Robbie's stroke was more powerful than mine .He could make it Man 0' War dingy-boat move as if it were inspired by a small outboard. His oar was straight, narrow bladed, and fully as long as the boat he sculled. Bahamians scull. They do not row, with two oars, nor do they use sweeps. It was once common to see a Bahamian sloop or schooner being sculled by a single oar over the stern when the breeze failed. A single long oar is often primary or auxiliary equipment in boats of that region. The sculling notch, if used at all, is very shallow.
What is sculling? Sculling is traditional way of propelling a boat or vessel through the water by means of a single oar mounted on, or worked from the stern. Consider the various types of oars and how they're used. A paddle is gripped in the hands and is pulled independently of the boat. A rowing oar is pivoted through a lock on the gunwale or a port in the boat's side and is pulled or pushed from a position just inboard of' the pivot point. Small-boat oarsmen normally pull two oars at once over opposite sides of the boat. A sweep is a long rowing oar that is pulled through it pivot point located oil the opposite side of the boat front the oarsman. A scull is another name for a shortrowing oar. A sculling oar call be a rowing oar, a sweep, or even a paddle operated through a pivot point in a propeller-like stroke that pushes the boat front behind. A breed of oars specialized to sculling has evolved in many, parts of the world over millennia The best known of these are the Bahamian oar, the "slat" of tile Chesapeake watermen the bent scull float oar of the duck gunners, and the yuloh of the Chinese. We'll examine the strokes used by scullers, and then we'll have a look at the various oars.
Allied to Sculling, and Sometimes described as sculling, are two types of stern propulsion that most boatmen have done at one time or another. The first might best be Called "levering" This entails jamming all oar blade straight down over the stern and giving the loom at hearty yank forward. A boat moves convincingly, if erratically' this way. The second might be called "fishtailing." Here the tiller of, a small boat is it quick yank in one direction and then a quick yank in the other, back and forth in a vigorous motion. The effect is to push water with the outboard side of' the rudder blade. Dinghy sailors often use this technique to gain steerage in light airs or to move the boat without sails from dock to mooring.
The oar-sculler's stroke is simple in principle, but it is difficult to learn by watching someone do it. Sleight of hand, not easy for a sculler to convey to the watcher, is involved. Basically, the oar is run into the water over the boat's transom, angled outward anddownward about 45 degrees, and pivoted atop the transom. The oar is rotated slightly so that the blade becomes a kind of' diving plane. The loom is pushed against the pivot point so that the depressed edge of' the blade cuts a path through the water, angling toward the stern of a boat on one side. When the limit of the stroke is reached, the blade is rotated so that it dives in the opposite direction. The loom is now pulled against the pivot point until the blade reaches the end of that stroke. The oar is again rotated and the first stroke repeated Since the loom of' the oar is bearing against the boat's stern, the back pres sure oil the blade as it cuts obliquely through the water shoves the stiffly held oar, and the boat itself forward . Simple enough But this whole description reads the same whether one leading edge is utilized, or two. Thus my in frustration in watching Robbie Weatherford sculling without a notch in which to pivot the oar, and possibly your frustration if you've made the effort before We'll get back to it.
Why scull, why not row? Well there are, times when a boatman find himself with only one serviceable oar . At other times there might be neither established rowlocks nor-deck room to swing two oars or a long sweep. The sculler, usually standing to his oarhas a clear view ahead and can maneuver through clustered boats, marsh channels, or ice leads where oar room is lacking on either side. The sculler call propel his boat ahead or astern by simply reversing his stroke while standing in the same posture if his oar notch has beenclosed with restraint at the top. He can spin the boat around within itsown length. He call move it sideways if he positions his oar over the side amidships. The sculling oar, like the canoe paddle, is a water lancet that offers tremendous potential for thosewho can exercise skill. With a suitable oar you can propel a dinghy , a motorboat ,a gondola, a barge, a junk, a schooner. It's all been done to practical advantage, somewhere in the world.
Is sculling faster than rowing? For most of us, no. However, on one morning several years back, my wife and I were overtaken and passed by the black skipper of' a Bahamian yacht who was sculling a rubber inflatable. Susan and I were double rowing a Banks dory at a reasonable clip. The Bahamian was working his single (plastic!) rowing oar through one of the oar-grommets in the inflatable's side. The thing was moving fast and forward. It wasn't even crabbing. Now, there was skill with an oar. We gaped, as did others.
While Robbie Weatherford made that float gyrate under our feet with his powerful Bahamian sculling stroke, I began to feel the frustration that others have exhibited during my efforts to teach them how to scull at home. Robbie and I both seemed to be doing the same thing: the oar was run into the water and pivoted at the edge of the float while the blade cut a zigzag path toward our feet. His oar stayed put and propelled water vigorously. Mine flopped about on the edge of the float, and the blade stayed pretty much where I'd run it in. I longed for a deep notch, all oarlock, tholepin, or even a lashing over the oar at the edge of' the float to show this old man that I could really do it.
Clearly it was he bottom of a notch that was important to Robbie's way of sculling. I needed a deep notch with sides. Susan and I were home from the Bahamas it dawned on me what the distinction was, and why it had been too obvious to be seen that day. The distinction is this. Robbie's Bahamian oar operated like a double edged sword being wielded side to side in a shallow falling-leaf pattern. Both edges of the blade were alternately the leading edge as the oar- cut the water- back and forth. The flat of the blade was essentially horizontal, with the leading edge depressed slightly to make it dive as the oar moved in that direction. At the end of the zig stroke, Robbie rotated the loom just slightly to depress the opposite edge to make it dive oil the zag stroke. His effort, if any, seemed to be in pressing the loom downward on his side of the pivot point so that the upper side of the blade pushed water away from us in the course of each cutting stroke. With Robbie pressing downward on the grip, at one end of the oar, and with water- pressing down on the flat of the blade at the other, the middle of the loom stayed right where it was on the edge of the float despite the tweaking and rotating that made the stroke work. Had he been in a boat instead of on a moored float, the oar would have driven the boat forward instead of pushing water astern. As the boat's speed increased, Robbie would have added more and more angle to the diving edge of the oar so that it steepened the path of the zigs and the zags. If he didn't, the oar would float up or. he would have to increase the frequency of strokes in order to keep up with the moving boat.
The Bahamian sculling stroke, as show me by Robbie Weatherford is a falling-leaf Pattern with the blade cutting both ways in a horizontal stroke. It is a powerful stroke, not tiring and well suited for long-haul propulsion. The sculling stroke that I'd grown up with looked about the same but was very different in its effect. Here the oar is operated like a single-edged knife cutting a downward, slalom pattern in the surface of the water. There is only one leading edge employed. The flat of the blade floats vertically in the manner of a steering oar, which it essentially is, in this form of sculling. For a power- stroke, the oar is rotated slightly so that the lower- leading edge can be slashed across the stern in one direction, rotated back, and slashed the other way. The blade is given considerable twist (toward horizontal) at the outset of the stroke when the boat is stopped or moving slowly, then less and less angle is applied as momentum is gained and the slalom pattern is deepened. At maximum speed about 2 1/2 knots for me in a good skiff, the wagging back and forth has narrowed considerably and the blade remains almost vertical on both left and right strokes. The end result is almost fishtailing with an oar in the manner of the rudder scullers. But you can see why rise of a deep notch is necessary for this vertical or slalom stroke. The sculler's effort is directed as much sideways as downward on the grip of the oar. Without a notch, the loom slips. There are merits to both the vertical and the horizontal scullingstrokes The latter is at more powerful propulsive stroke because the force vector against the water is more directly astern Body weight of the sculler is the main force pressing the loom downward too lever the boat for ward Only at little effort goes into guiding the oar from side to side. Steering is accomplished by loading the oar more on one slash than the other or by giving it more angle to increase side resistance A long oar is highly desirableThe vertical stroke in my hands isbest for a jackrabbit start in still water and it is more responsive for intricate steering through congested areas But it can be more wearing on the sculler over a long pull because arm strength not body weight is the main propellant The fishtailng aspect of the vertical stroke demands side-to-side exertion against the resistance of water. The force vector of each stroke is more diagonally astern today I combine the two strokes The vertical stroke is an excellent "low gear" for underway and for threading the boat through crowded harbors Then I shift to "high", with the horizontal to make speed and distance There are variations but these are the two basic strokes that scullers use.
You also can scull a boat in reverse Its the horizontal stroke falling upward rather than down You'll need a loop or lashing over the oar's loom where it crosses the transom because you'll be lifting the grip rather than pressing I it down to make the blade "climb" astern Tryit. You'll The applauded
In mid-June of 1983 an informal group of sculling enthusiast met at Camden Harbor to try out various kinds of strokes and oars The group was organized by Ben Fuller then curator of the Mystic Seaport Museum who was researching anarticle on sculling for Small Boat Journal The event was hosted by editor Dan Segal and his wife , Judy who had traveled from Vermont to participate. Lance Lee, then director of the Rockport Aprenticeshop gave us a demonstration of Bahamian sculling done with a proper Bahamian oar. Lance had spent much of his boy hood Man O' War Cay, where he'd learned to scull under the critical eye of old Robbie Weatherford and other local fishermen. the oar , lie pointed out was always operated from the port side of the transom allowing the sculler to lean into the oar on one stroke and too pull it back with both hands on the other This placement allows relief of the right hand for fish over the side. A shallow notch wasdesirable. Lance bent to his work with a slow, easy rhythm. He leaned into the oar with both hands on the push stroke; then, thrusting his right arm out horizontally to cause overbalance on that side, he leaned to the right while towing the grip of the oar with his left. The boat he sculled boiled along . He used a straight, thick, narrow-bladed 11' oar .
Dave Jackson of Camden an enthusiastic duck gunner, showed us how the duck hunters scull His boat was a camouflaged fiberglass reproductionof the traditional Merry- Bay gunning "float" with pointed bow, flared sides, and round- bottom. It was fully decked except for a narrow cockpit stretching from about center to nearly all the way aft . The wide transom was pierced on the port side for a tight oar port that accommodated only the looms of his sculling oar. the oar was square lightly fashioned and curved along its whole 7' length so that it arced nearly 3 " upward when laid flat on the ground Dave stretched full length in the cockpit with his head against the headrest on the coaming ,aft, gun (presumably) at right, and the loom of the oar extending into the cockpit over his left shoulder From his prone hidden position Dave could propel the boat quite comfortably by wagging the oar with his right hand in a shallow figure- over his chest. Since the oar was slightly bent it automatically capsized into the proper diving angle of a horizontal sculling stroke each time the loom was reversed with a push or a pull His stroke was rapid, smooth and efficient Steering was accomplished by lengthening the stroke on one side or the other
Ben Fuller's classic 16' wooden Delaware Bay ducker is at slim low-sided half-decked, double-ended boat traditionally meant to be rowed or sailed to the gunning site, then poled close to flocks of birds In a departure from tradition Ben addled a sculling bracket mounted slightly outboard on an exposed crossbeam just abaft the cockpit coaming This boat could be sculled right or left-handed with a bent oar from at lying down position Or it could be sculled while sitting kneeling or standing to a straight oar in either a horizontal or vertical stroke The sculling/rowing/ sailing (and paddling) capabilities of Ben's boat are plain delights to anyone who seeks freedom with an oar Lines of this common style of American hunting skiff', circa 1870-85 are in Howard Chapelle's A American Small Sailing Craft . We didn't have a Chesapeake 'slat" too experiment with. Nor was there a waterman to show us how one might be used Tradition has it that they, operate through a V-shaped notch in the stern of' a boat. Ben Fuller who spent curatorial years at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum could not remember seeing a sculling notched indigenous to the slat- e oar and he wondered whether itmight have been worked against alternate Sidles of a protruding stern post The "slat" I've drawn was done from an isolated oar in a photo Itappears to be a long flat stave of wood molded in a straight taper from the tip of the blade to the narrowed grip. I can't tell whether the blade end is ribbed on both sides in the fashion of a Bahamian oar or whether it is ribbed or arced only on the upper side as a yuloh would be. Possibly a knowledgeable reader can tell us The flat, sectioned loom of the "slat" would make this oar a natural for the horizontal sculling stroke However, with a deep-V notch it could be used like a steering oar too with a vertical sculling stroke
No one in our group had operated a Chinese yuloh . Just about everyone was intrigued by the prospect of propelling a large boat with at long bent oar perched atop a pivot and tethered inboard by a lanyard Plenty of photographs have shown Chinese women yulohing lengthy and loaded sampans with abandon Roger Taylor made and used a yuloh as auxiliary power in a 37' skipjack But Roger away that weekend so we made our own a 10footer from a bent oak plank and mounted it on a 14' crab skiff with a trailer-hitch ball for pivot It worked very well so well, in fact that Jim Benson a bystander drove home and returned with a homemade yuloh that he gave us. He'd given up on it, apparently not having fully worked out the pivot for it before find- a buyer for this boat. Sad. With a block attached underneath to receive our trailer ball, it turn out to be a better, wider-blade propeller than the one we had cobbled Our time together was up before there was opportunity to lengthen its loom to try it out on at lobster boat
Despite our amateurish handling of a homemade yuloh in at miniscule craft the thing seem to have real potential for someone who doesn't trust his engine The stroke is easy back and forth with a yank on the lanyard at the end of pass to capsize the oar into the diving angle for the stroke to follow the properly timed yank on the lanyard also gives the blade a bit of a kick outward and upward increasing the power of the stroke considerably Deft steering with a yuloh would require more skill than We developed that day. The yuloh seemed to The an automatic sculling machine that develops a perfect horizontal stroke without any need for skill to keep the oar from sliding.A full discription can be found in G.R.G. Worcester's The Junks and Sampans of the Yangtze River .The authority on Chinese water craft notes it would seem that the junksand indeed many seagoing junks have generally straight yulohswhich is probably the most primitive variety The curved yuloh is more generally found on the rivers the man or womens at the yuloh holds the rope in one hand and with the other works the yuloh too and fro in a circular manner If more than one is at the yuloh the second works the rope while the others work on the loom".
I'm tempted too draw all illustrations for Worcester next paragraph which talks about eight men on the loom and two on the rope the rope-men throw themselves back- wards with great abandon until they lie almost flat on their backs their opposite members doing the same thing bringing them too their feet again But I'll leave this drawing for the, future and show instead how the oar actually worked during our trials at Camden Man Can you imagine a yuloh the size of a small telephone pole being worked this way by your friends en route to an outer island beach party? What a people that wouldA sculling oar with a shaped blade was brought to our Camden sculling meet by Douglas Martin designer and manufacture of ocean rowing craft based at Kittery Maine This oar with an appended upright has one leading edge obviously intended for use in a vertical sculling stroke It was mounted through an oarlock at the end of a slim cross-deck timber much in the fashion of the ducker coati- mounting on Ben Fullers gunning float Those who tried Martins oar said it was efficient and easy to use I don't know whether or not the oar was patented He allowed us to measure it for publication I offer it here in a dimensioned perspectiveBen Fullers subsequent article "Sculling" A Lesson in One Oarsman ship Part 1 appeared in Small Boat Journal No. 45, (1985). It is a clearly written treatise on handling a straight sculling oar in the horizontal vertical and reverse stroke modes Along with this how-to is at good deal of colorful observation of aboriginal sculling in this on that kind of boat as Beth has witnessed it in various parts of the world I must here confess that we coined the words "horizontal", "vertical"' "falling-leaf," and "slalom" as a means to sort out the various ways that sculling oars are handled Part 11 of Ben's article "Sculling Putting Your Best Oar Behind You " appeared in SmallBoat Journal #46(1986). It covered the bent oars of the duckers the yuloh and Doug Martin"s scientific blade Now all that remains is for you to learn to scull if you haven't already. If you have neither boat nor oar, practice the various strokes with your hand in the bathtub Grip your elbow (the pivot point with your other hand while you do it. Go out to a dock. Make a "slat" oar. Try it there. It's fun and who knows, knowledge Of sculling may get you home someday if you find yourself up a creek without a paddle.
Sam Manning learned how to scull when he was eight years old. His stepfather a civil engineer experienced in building harbor works taught him, and Sam's been at it ever since.