Fifteen Minutes in an Oracle
At the recent Rend Lake Messabout,
Max Wawrzyniak graciously invited me to try out his Michalak
the prototype of that design. Since I am a conversation junkie
first and a boat nut second, I did not get an opportunity to
do so until the rapid approach of both the dinner hour and a
rainstorm left me alone on the beach.
I was predisposed to like the boat; I had liked
the lines when I first saw them in the Duckworks catalog; I
liked the way the she looked in the photos Max had published,
and, having bought the plans, I thought I had a fairly good
idea of what the boat would look like in the real world. Now,
with my hands on the boat, I still liked her very much; she
is a pretty boat, and Max did an excellent job of building her,
but she is much smaller than I had imagined, and scandalously
short of freeboard. On the other hand, that impression was heavily
colored by the gray sky, gray and choppy water, being alone,
and the sudden realization that I had not actually ROWED a boat
in something like 30 years. I pressed on regardless.
Getting into the boat was daunting; attempting
to simply hop over the side was likely to result in a swamping.
I pulled the boat out of its nest in the tall grass and set
the stern on one of the few areas of beach that was not occupied
by another boat, positioned myself with both hands and one knee
on the gunwales, and pushed off. I realized that my next move
required putting most of my weight on one knee in the center
of the boat's aft thwart. I am fairly agile (for, say, a rhinoceros),
but am still well beyond any expected normal human weight. The
thwart suddenly looked awfully fragile. On the other hand, I
was rapidly drifting toward Max's anchored AF4 over increasingly
unprotected and choppy water; I had to either advance or swim.
I advanced, and without mishap, though my imagination did its
usual helpful bit by providing a variety of horrific wood splitting
I made my way to the seat, located a matched pair
of oars (there were two sets available), and managed to get
them mounted. I was aided in this by the fact that the oars
were the Midwestern sort I had grown up with, in which the oarlock
is pinned to the oar. I am not sure what I would have done with
oars whose blades were not automatically at 90 degrees to the
water; I was confused enough as it was.
I found that I had no instincts for rowing whatsoever;
I had to think through the physics of each stroke just before
I made it, all the while trying to avoid the boats on shore
and that AF4 moored nearby. I managed to get out past the AF4
mainly due to Oracle's directional stability; when I found myself
too close to the AF4 to use the port oar at all, a couple of
careful strokes with the starboard oar got me into open water.
Oracle moved beautifully and comfortably across
the dark and choppy lake for all of about six strokes, long
enough for a quick rush of pleasure to develop and be crushed
by reality. There was a rainstorm coming on, I did not know
the lake, I could not see where I was going, and I had to bring
this boat back to a spot on the beach that had barely been big
enough for it when I was wading and in absolute control of its
motion. The thought of plowing this sharp-nosed little boat
(loaded with 300 pounds of biological ballast) into the stern
of one of the other boats on the beach did not appeal to me.
I came about, advanced as far as I dared, and
then did what the tank corps calls a "neutral steer turn"
(there must be a proper nautical term for spinning a rowboat
on its axis by moving the oars opposite each other, but I have
no idea what it might be…) and rowed carefully and ignominiously
into the beach backward.
And that was my entire boating experience for
my first Messabout. Others did more boating under rather better
conditions, and the conversation (to say nothing of the food)
was very good in any case. For myself, it looks like I am going
to have to add a forward-facing oar rig back onto my project
list. I like the way rowing feels, but I REALLY like to be able
to see where I am going…