Things Managed by Muscles


Things 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 vessels.

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—