Managed by Muscles
Before Boat Moves
by R. C. Taylor
(Excerpted from The Mariner's Catalog - Volume 3)
The above heading is a brief form of the Chinese
definition of the yuloh, one of the greatest marine inventions
of all time. It is a sculling oar for small, medium, and large-sized
The full definition, as the late Ham de Fontaine
mentions in his piece on the yuloh reprinted on the opposite
page from a 1948 issue of Yachting magazine with the kind permission
of Dorothy de Fontaine and Yachting, is: "The thing on
the boat's sides which is to be managed by strong muscles before
the boat moves." Ham's description and drawing described
the thing well, and here are an additional comment or two.
First of all, we can testify that the thing works.
We used a 10-foot yuloh on our old Herreshoff sloop, a 32-footer
displacing not too much less than 5 tons. It shoved her along
very nicely in a calm at about 2 knots. I say "it shoved"
because once you got her going, the yuloh really did seem to
do most of the work of keeping her going. At any rate, the yuloher
only had to put out a modest effort.
There was always something very satisfactory
about sculling with the yuloh. The yuloh follows exactly the
same path through the water as does the sculling oar) but the
yuloh provides so much mechanical advantage compared to the
normal form of sculling, that it somehow seemed as if the thing
was cheating the basic forces of nature. Of course it wasn't;
it was just taking full advantage of them.
A critical point that Ham didn't mention, I believe,
is the method of attaching the lanyard to the inboard end of
the yuloh. On our 10-footer, the attachment was made not to
a fitting snug up under the end of the yuloh, but rather to
a long, strong screw-eye, whose eye stood 2-3/4-inches out from
the bottom edge of the yuloh's handle. As Ham points out, the
lanyard takes the thrust of the oar, thus relieving the yuloher
of the job of pressing down on the inboard end of the yuloh,
as the unfortunate sculler has to do with his clumsy oar. The
lanyard also keeps the yuloh's blade from diving too deep.
But the lanyard has another important function:
it allows the yuloher to alter the degree of feather that the
yuloh naturally assumes due to the convex shape of the top of
its blade, thus enabling him, with practice, to get the most
out of the thing under varying conditions and particularly at
the end of each stroke. The more the point of attachment of
the lanyard stands out from the yuloh handle, the more a pull
on the lanyard will change the angle of feather of the blade.
A yuloher working alone has one hand on the loom
and one hand on the lanyard. He pushes and pulls the yuloh back
and forth with both hands, but the lanyard hand leads the loom
hand by a bit, particularly at the end of the stroke, when it
swings out quite far from beneath the loom and then swings back
with a quick snapping motion that changes the feather from one
direction to the other.
The degree of importance of the work on the rope
may be gauged by the fact that in China, with two men working
together on a yuloh, one works entirely on the rope. If there
are as many as eight men working on a big yuloh, at least two
would be working the rope. These would be the most skilled in
the yuloh crew: "This latter is a very specialized branch
of the art; the rope-men throw themselves backwards with great
abandon until they lie almost flat on their backs, their opposite
numbers, doing the same thing, bringing them to their feet again."
This last from G.R.G. Worcester, the late, great, English expert
on Chinese watercraft, quoted from his fabulous book: The
Junks and Sampans of the Yangtze.
Worcester mentions that some yulohs have iron
edges worked into the blades. This is to give the blade more
weight and also to give it a sharper cutting edge as it moves
through the water. The blade on the yuloh I had was quite heavy,
being made of oak, but I believe some extra ballast in the blade
would have made it even easier to use.
Worcester shows drawings of six types of yulohs,
some straight and some curved. He describes the Shanghai yuloh
as being curved, with a large blade, making an angle of about
45 degrees with the surface of the water. He says the Szechwan
yuloh was straighter, with a long, narrow blade making a flatter
angle to the water. The former provided more power than the
latter, but the latter gave the boat a bit more maneuverability.
Try this thing. It does take "strong muscles
before the boat moves," but once she gets going, then weak
muscles can keep her moving.
—R. C. Taylor—