I recently read Eric McKee’s book “Working Boats of Britain: Their Shape and Purpose”, London: Conway Maritime Press Ltd: 1988 (reprinted from 1983), ISBN 0-85177-277-3.  It is a very good book, and I highly recommend it to those who are interested in boats.

Of first note, the book is very much about boats and not ships.  Moreover, it is about working vessels, rather than pleasure craft.  This gives it a focus that is much more in line with my interests than most books.

There are many superlative details in the book, but of especially interest is the section on rowing geometry and on oars.  I highlight only a few of the points from pages 135-139.

  • Oar lengths tend to be twice the beam of the boat when used in fresh water sculling, a foot shorter than this when rowing side-by-each, and up to three times the beam when pulling (using a single oar).  McKee notes that David Steele says that these lengths are 2 1/2 and 3 1/2 times the beam in the early 19th century.
  • Blade area tends from small, short, and wide in protect inland waters to large, long, and narrow in open rough water.  There is a chart on page 136 that shows typically blade areas versus length and conditions.  A 10′ oar used in river conditions has a blade than averages 3/4 sq.ft in area, whereas in open water the area the average is more like 1 1/4 sq.ft.  The area varies 1/4 sq.ft.
  • Freshwater blades are roughly 1/5 the total length of the oar.  Saltwater blades range from 1/4 to 1/3 of the length, with the longer for rougher conditions.

McKee lists a number of points for the geometry of thwarts, thole pins, and foot placement.  When constructing a new pulling boat, it would be good to consult his figures.

I note that his figures are what actual working craft use, not some theoretical model, racing shell, or pleasure skiff.