As a racing sailor I love technology — lighter, faster, stronger — but as a professional sailor and someone who grew up in wooden boats I’m also a fan of tradition — wooden boats and spars, even old wood oars. I know I should try those newfangled lightweight aluminum-shaft oars with the cupped plastic blades, but when I started looking for a set of oars some time ago for my eight-foot pram, they just had to be wood.
They had to be the right length too, six-footers, and preferably the kind that have feathered edges on straight blades and perhaps leather collars to prevent chafe in the oarlocks. I’ve been looking for quite a while. Not wanting to pay retail, I’ve been searching yard sales and second-hand nautical stores, and I do find the occasional single oar — but not a matched set.
So one day I found myself driving along a country road, when a clapboard colonial house with an antiques sign beckoned me to pull over and stop. A quick tour of the shop was interesting, but fruitless. Then, I stepped outside and saw the barn, door open and inviting. The first thing I saw was a pair of oar handles sticking up behind a pile of lumber. I couldn’t get to them without moving the pile, but by then the proprietor had followed me outside, and he quickly gave me permission to extract the trapped oars.
It’s a matched pair of six-footers, a used varnished set of Feather Brand made by Caviness Woodworking Company located in Calhoun City, Mississippi. I purchase the pair for $30 without a squabble — a new set would go for around $65.They aren’t quite the antique set I had in mind, but basic and serviceable.
It’s a little strange to me that good oars are so hard to find. Almost everyone who has a boat under 25 feet needs a pair. When I was a kid I had a string of old unreliable Scott Atwater outboards, and so rowing always got me wherever I pleased.
My long search for oars took me from the basic Caviness models to custom oars from Shaw and Tenney in Orono, Maine. The Shaw and Tenney oars are beautiful, traditional, and pricy. I’m not comparing the quality of the Caviness oars to Shaw and Tenney’s, but the price for a pair of six-foot straight-blade Caviness oars at $65 versus $438 (not including the leather kit)… Well, let’s just say you’d expect the custom ones to be a little finer.
Spruce is the most common choice for wooden oars, and Jamestown Distributors also sells handsome spruce oars at a reasonable price of $95 for a pair of six-footers. Carlisle is another company that makes wooden oars today.
Whether you’re headed out to fish in a quiet spot, or for a picnic on the pond, or just for a bit of exercise and exploration, nothing makes the experience better than a fine rowing boat and a matched set of leather-padded wood oars. That combination trumps technology every time – at least in my mind.