Martyn's building a Walkabout like mine and he got in touch to ask about the length of my oars and the how I set them up. I thought others might be interested so, here's the story.

John Welsford, Walkabout's designer talks in his book – now sadly out of print – about how he dislikes making oars as he'd rather be on the water! However he finds ready made oars too heavy and unbalanced for decent rowing. He recommends buying oars and then doctoring them.

I bought a pair of 10 foot oars (304cm) and cut off the horrible barrel shaped handle. I then tried them for length in the boat and progressively cut off a little at a time to find the length that worked for me. I think I also consulted various tables about the recommended length relevant to the distance between the rowlocks – but I can't remember! I've ended up with 9 foot (275cm) oars, and the distance between the rowlocks is 140cm. The pivot point is adjustable but judging by the wear on the leather I generally row with 71 cm of the oar inboard – a very slight overlap on the return. (I'm British, I'm schizophrenic with Imperial/metric.)

I was intimidated by the various instructions for leathering oars so I originally chose this plastic sleeve. Sold by Collars, one of the most famous names in oar making, the heat shrink sleeve is vile. It's hard and slippery, and the oar slides around in the rowlock. To be fair, Collars suggest using it with a 'button' which may avoid this problem.


Over the winter I decided to doctor the oars and replace the plastic sleeve with proper leather which I also bought from Collars. The top oar is the original and the bottom one has been doctored. As well as reducing the size of the blade I also tapered the shaft and gave it a slight oval cross section (following John Welsford's advice). I did all this with a small block plane and sandpaper.


The leathers I sewed on following Christine DeMerchant's instructions. Other instructions suggested epoxy as belt and braces. I added a couple of spots of moisture curing polyurethane glue to prevent the leather sliding – if necessary this should be easier to remove than epoxy; I finished the oars with Varnol. (Searching just now found no manufacturer or supplier page – is it still available?) I found Varnol to be lovely stuff – so long as one has dry, warm, sunny conditions to dry it reasonably quickly. The leathers I rubbed with tallow.


After a season's use the oar, leather and finish are holding up pretty well; though there is a bit of staining where the blade has lain in damp conditions. Taking part in Sail Caledonia last year is realised I needed to solve the problem of storing oars while sailing. Sitting on an oar which lies on the side seat is not comfortable – especially on a long trip! My solution was to keep the oars in the rowlocks, held in place by a bungie cord with a large bead on one end. I have three pairs of rowlocks – one for rowing alone and two pairs for rowing two up.

I rarely need to sit out, but when I do, resting on the oar is no more or less comfortable than resting on the gunwale. I tend to sit near the forward rowlock to avoid stressing the oar – but I doubt this is really a problem. I also followed John Welsford's advice regarding keep the oar safe when rowing – I have a lanyard from the narrow part of the oar near the blade which loops around the throat of the rowlock and then attaches to itself with an tent guy rope adjuster. This prevents loss and allows the gearing to be adjusted; I only do this if rowing into a strong head wind. The lanyard is actually looped to the rowlock throat with a loose clove hitch for security. The throat of the rowlocks are rather crowded – I also take a lanyard from the throat to a hole in the nearest frame to prevent lose of the rowlock. Much easier than a lanyard from the hole at the bottom of the rowlock shaft which always jams in the socket when you're in a hurry to put the rowlocks in place.

You can see the oars in action and the set up in this video:

Rowing starts around 3m 30s. Although John's book is out of print, he also writes about oars here on Duckworks.



About Osbert Lancaster

Creating ripples to foster sustainability. Seeking solace & clarity on the sea by sail & oar.


  1. MIke

    Nice video.You didnt say if you had balanced the oars.This would be easy to do with your nice thick handgrips. I wouldnt go for totally balanced oars as this would make the oars very heavy . Drill about 18mm hole down the handle (put a 6mm pilot hole in first) about 120-140mm(Drill straight!).Buy some round 2 or 3 oz sinkers and bash them into cylinders with a hammer . For 9ft oars you need at least 8oz of lead in each oar. Ideally the oar should balance about 12 inches outboard of the rowlock but that would require too much lead(i’d guess about 15oz)Try them out with the lead held in by plasticine or putty and wedges to see if you like them. With 8oz they would still be quite blade heavy. Once you are satisfied with the balance Vs lead weight, epoxy the lead in for good. Stand then vertically and pour in epoxy from above-I did it from my 2nd floor deck. My 7ft 6inch oars needed 11oz to be balanced perfectly(160mm long hole) but it made the oars rather heavy so I would go ‘lighter lead” next time . Beam 45 inches on a 14 1/2 ft boat. Weight of boat 88lbs without accoutrements such as sail, spars ,rudder, centreboard,lunch etc.Hard chine, arc bottom of 4mm Okoume and western Red cedar.Well decks fore and aft.bow height 22inches.Tuck 30 inches wide.4 1/2 inches of spring in keel and a very springy shear line. Rowing thwart 8″high. My original oars weighed 4 1/2lbs before doctoring -more or less as you have done.Cheers Mike

  2. Wayne Jorgensen

    Good comment. I built the first walkabout and did similar with lead in the oar handles. I can also recommend GACO oarlocks. They work very well. I also used to leather oars but now use heavy string binding soaked with titrebond.

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