A Lesson in One-Oarsmanship: Part I

by Ben Fuller
Illustrations by Sam Manning

Small Boat Journal #45 October/November 1985

Sculling --- for some it means an oarsman facing backwards, rowing a skinny boat with a pair of long oars as fast as possible. But for those who prefer to see where they're going, sculling also means putting an oar over the stern and moving it back and forth like a propeller.

Why scull? It's slower than rowing, but because you can look ahead, it's useful in crowded harbors, working up a narrow creek, or through fields of skim ice. You can move a pulling boat sideways when making a landing, or easily propel a boat much heavier than you can row, It is also an ideal way to move an outboard skiff a short way when fishing, or get home if you have a breakdown. Sculling can be especially handy when your dinghy is filled with groceries, or when the dew is heavy and you'd like to start the day with dry trousers. And though it looks difficult, sculling is simple, once you get the knack.

Sculling Roots

Traditionally, all over the world people who work the water scull. I remember seeing a nest of punts (plumb-stemmed roundˇbottomed rowboats) in a harbor in Cornwall with only one oar in each, not a rowlock in sight. In the Bahamas, where fishing techniques and the narrow coral reef channels make it important to see where you're going, everybody sculls. They've even created a special stroke and oar for the job. In the Orient, the Chinese yuloh or sculling oar is the classic way of manually moving boats-- up to sampans of 60 feet and more!

In this country, duck hunters have long used this stroke to sneak up quietly to their prey. I've also seen one man move heavy marine construction floats with a long oar working between wooden blocks. Photographs show oyster sharpies and dugouts being propelled around New Haven harbor, each with a long oar over the stern. Similar photographs show Chesapeake log canoes being moved the same way in the days before engines. And anyone who's traveled the New England coast has seen fishermen sculling dories or skiffs out to their boats.

In contrast to rowing or paddling, which requires the application of large amounts of power in short repetitive bursts, sculling is continuous, like a slowly revolving propeller with a large blade area. As a result, very large loads can be moved without great strength.

There are two basic sculling strokes: the vertical or slalom stroke and the horizontal or falling leaf stroke The vertical stroke (Fig. 1) starts with the oar at rest and the blade perpendicular to the water surface. One edge of the oar always leads and the blade follows a path through the water like a fish's tail. The horizontal stroke (Fig. 2) starts with the flat of the blade facing up. The leading edge alternates, and the oar's wake looks like the path of a falling leaf.

The vertical stroke is usually employed in boats that use an oar for steering, like surfboats or whaleboats. It's easy to start and stop, letting the boat coast, and then pick up the stroke again, for the oar doesn't float up. It seems to develop less force than the horizontal stroke, although its full potential using specialized oars is only beginning to be explored. Generally, regular rowing oars or long steering sweeps are used.

The horizontal or falling leaf stroke is the most commonly used sculling method. It is powerful, makes effective use of body weight, and with the same oar, it seems more efficient, moving the boat faster than the slalom stroke. The primary disadvantage of this stroke is that the oar floats up when you stop, unless the blade is weighted. However, if the oar has a closed oarlock or is captured in a notch under a bit of rope, it is possible to stop or back the boat by reversing the stroke.

Sculling Made Simple

In principle, sculling is the same for both the falling leaf and the slalom strokes: The oar blade is swept back and forth across the stern, with the leading edge always angled toward the boat. If it isn't, the oar will tell you by jumping out of the notch or lock.

First, try the horizontal or falling leaf stroke. Let's assume you've got a regular oar, the longer the better, and a notch on the centerline of the boar. Stick the oar over the stem with the loom or shaft in the notch. A bit beyond the balance point is probably about right, usually a foot or two below the leathers. I prefer standing in a skiff or dory, as you can get more force into the stroke. Don't worry about a little list if you stand to one side.

Grip the oar handle in your right hand, with your forearm and wrist level, or with the elbow dropped a little (Fig. 2). The oar blade should be floating with its blade facing up. Start by rolling your wrist up and knuckles down, and pulling the handle toward you (the port side of the boat). Note how the starboard edge of the blade digs in as it moves to starboard and the blade starts down into the water. When the blade is 10 to 20 degrees off centerline to starboard, drop your wrist, roll your knuckles up and simultaneously push on the handle. If you've done it right, the port edge of the blade heads to port and keeps digging in. If you haven't, the blade comes flying out of the water and you need to begin again.

The pitch and the direction have to be changed at the same time. Delay on either of these means the oar will come out of the water. At the end of the push stroke, roll your wrist up, knuckles down, and pull. Don't pause. When you stop, the oar blade floats up and you have to dig it in again to get moving. Pulling down a bit on both strokes, once the blade is working, keeps the oar in the notch and moves the boat forward. You'll find a rhythm is quickly established: wrist up and pull, wrist down and push.

The vertical or slalom stroke is exactly opposite (Fig. 1). The blade starts vertically, perpendicular to the stern, but you drop your wrist, knuckles up on the pull stroke, wrist up and knuckles down on the push stroke. With this stroke, you'll find yourself starting and stopping with ease, but you can't get up much speed.

As you become more confident with reversing pitch at the end of the stroke, begin to experiment. To turn, take a deeper bite, pulling harder on one stroke. Or with the falling leaf stroke, try almost no pitch on one stroke, plenty on the other. Or work the oar only on one Side of the centerline. You'll turn every time. Reduce pitch and you'll scull at a high stroke rate; increase the pitch and your rate slows. A big blade seems to be happier at a slower rate; a small blade at a higher rate. With practice, you'll find you're putting more weight into each stroke, bearing or pulling down harder. As long as the leading edge keeps digging, the oar won't jump out.

Going Backwards

By reversing the wrist motion, it is also possible to scull backwards. Just like a stroke I've done with a canoe paddle, the continuous draw or "rising leaf" causes the blade to dig in and pull (Fig. 3). You need some means of holding the oar to the stern -- a closed oarlock or a piece of rope run through two holes in the transom on either side of the notch are quite effective -- otherwise the oar will jump ship. One neat arrangement is to use a stern line flipped over the oar and cleated to the transom knee.

You push up under the oar handle with one hand and use the other to change the pitch of the blade, letting the loom rotate in the palm of the pushing hand.

My biggest problem seems to be letting the oar climb out of the water. You need to keep it nearly vertical, more than going forward, and keep a good hard push up under the oar.

Like anything sculling takes practice. A float is a good place to refine your technique. A couple of blocks of wood nailed to the float's edge can simulate a notch or rowlock. If your boat isn't equipped with a sculling rowlock, tie it alongside a dock using a couple of fenders. Then use the regular rowlock and try to scull the boat sideways into the float.

Whether you to move a dinghy through a crowded anchorage, a sailboat in a calm, or a balky outboard, sculling is a skill worth learning.