Sunday, September 19, 2010

Motors and Moral Purity

Earlier I have stated that Birdwatchers make demoralizing boats to row. This is no great discovery of mine, just an affirmation of the accepted wisdom about this boat. Jim Michalak, the early adopter of this design, has plenty to say about this aspect on his fantastic website. Phil Bolger himself accepted this verdict to the point that he drew the Birdwatcher II to accommodate a motor.

During the La Ronge cruise that I described in the last post, I intentionally skipped over the first part of trip, which was a long row to open water. There is an excellent marina on the lake that we wanted to use, but it sits at the head of an extremely narrow bay several kilometres long. As usual, it was glassy when we launched and I got out the oars. 

This was the first time I was obliged to row for an extended run. Just getting the oar ports opened up and threading the blades through is far more fuss than using oars over a gunwale. You need to find something to sit on, slide it into place. Visibility forward is poor when you swivel around for a peek between strokes. Even in the perfect calm of the narrow bay, I found the boat would not track at all well. I spent much energy in corrective strokes. My long carbon fiber oars, borrowed from a recreational rowing boat I own, were wasted on this boat without a sliding seat; shorter, wooden oars would be just as good, which is to say not very good either, just cheaper. 

Having used the oars previously over shorter distances I already knew that the boat was all but uncontrollable in any kind of cross wind. You sit so far astern that it is impossible to get sufficient leverage from the oars to combat the windage of the high-sided sharpie. Bolger had written that, in any kind of wind, you would simply sail. For maneuvering around docks, getting into and out of the shallow anchorages that make this boat such a delightful cruiser, some improvement over Bolger's oar arrangement had to be made. 

I tried placing inexpensive oar-locks at several locations around the boat's perimeter and experimenting with rowing while standing. It worked moderately well except that you need really long oars to reach the water from such a high boat. My nine-footers were too short. To cope with wind, the only way to dock was to drift down upon your landing, back rowing to control your speed. You have to have a nimble person on the bow, ready to jump onto the dock, to fend off the boat and yet not lose her. You only get one chance. In crowded areas, around expensive plastic boats, it would be hair-raising. 

Anyway, back to the long bay. I rowed about two-thirds of it, maybe six kilomtres or four miles, before giving up. I was very sweaty, which I did not mind. I did mind that the boat was a such a dog to row. It wandered. There was no carry between strokes. The sun was setting and we had to make camp within hailing distance of the launch. It was a pleasant spot, and Mark, my usual crew, was good company. But while we drank our wine and chatted, I had motors in the back of my mind. 

Among many criteria, I had chosen this design because it accommodated no engine. Given the exciting yet troubled times we live in, the beautiful places I have to sail and the reasons I go there — peace and quiet — going motorless had a lot of appeal to me. Moral purity? Yeah, maybe. At least in this one aspect, why not be a purist? Except that it did not work in practice. 

Upon returning from that trip, I promptly went out and bought what I thought was a still-noble compromise: an electric trolling motor. I'll write about that in the next post.

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