Guide School: Using Your Oars

Forward stroke in action; photo: Todd Langford

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Oars are an eloquent way to maneuver a raft through whitewater. They enable you to raft solo, give you better control when taking down guests, and supply the leverage needed for hauling heavy gear. They’re like the appendages of a superhero suit, allowing you to control great weight in strong current. But as with any new skill, there’s a learning curve, especially if your background is paddle rafting. To gain a better understanding of how to use oars, guides must first learn how oars move the raft.

The Equipment
Oar and frames can be set up with pins and clips, oarlocks, or oarlocks with oar rights. What system you use may be personal preference, dictated by the company for which you work, or restricted by gear availability. Although they all function the same way, guides should be familiar with how to fine-tune each set-up for best performance.

Guides on multiday trips, especially ones on high volume rivers, tend to prefer open oarlocks. Oarlocks are fashioned of a malleable metal such as brass, so they can be adjusted to accommodate different size oars. You don’t want an oar coming out of the lock while you’re in the middle of a rapid, and with a lot of use, oarlocks will widen. By hammering the top of the “U” together, you can tighten the oarlock until the oar can only be removed by slipping it past the sleeve. On more difficult rivers, guides may make the opening even snugger, so that the oar can only be inserted at the narrow point where the shaft meets the blade.

A lot of guides on shallow rocky rivers prefer to use oar rights, or pins and clips, to make sure that the blade always has good purchase in the water. To prevent the blade from getting turned by rocks, some guides tighten the oar right housing, or the hose clamps securing clips, as tight as possible. However, if the blade gets knocked off kilter, it’s very hard to get it lined back up. You may have to use a screwdriver to loosen it enough to straighten the blade.

The other theory is to run everything a little loose. The clip or oar right should be secured just tight enough that you can’t twist the blade with one hand, but if you tuck one oar under your knee and use both hands on the other oar to twist the housing, you should be able to readjust your blade angle without having to use tools. Although the blade is more subject to getting turned when the housing or clamps aren’t as tight, it’s easier to fix.

The oars should be positioned for comfort and power. Most guides like to have the handles of the oars close but not touching so that when the oars are level, the ends of the handles will be about 3-6 inches apart. This enables them to push the handle forward like they are throwing a punch out of their chest rather than out of their shoulder. Experiment to find out what works best for your rowing style and the rivers you run.

Make sure your frame is set up so that you can comfortably use your body to maneuver the oars. You should have a cross bar, thwart, or cooler in front of you, close enough to push off of with your legs when necessary. And you should have room to bend your other leg and place your foot to the side for extra support when doing forward strokes.

Forward Strokes
As with using a paddle, if you rely on just your arms for power, you will find yourself with weak strokes and a sore body. To have adequate force and endurance, you need to incorporate multiple muscle groups into your rowing technique.

If you’re going to do a forward stroke on the right oar, twist your torso so your naval faces the right. Your right shoulder should be behind you and your right elbow bent. Now lift your hand up, to drop the blade in the water.

Unwind your body releasing the energy into your oar, extending your right arm to finish out the stroke. Think of it as throwing a hard punch. If you need a little extra ump, you can also lean your body slightly forward to put your weight in the stroke, but don’t get off balance. Now you should be in a good position for doing a stroke with your left oar using the same principle of twisting your torso.

Moving the raft forward with alternate forward strokes is called bicycling. Watch your hands as you do the stroke sequence; they should be tracing the same circular path but staying on opposite ends of the circle as if you are pedaling a bicycle with your hands.

If you make your strokes too long your bow will wobble off track. To keep the momentum of the raft going forward rather than side-to-side, find a rhythm so you are planting your next stroke as soon as the bow starts to move past straight.

The great thing about an oar rig is that unlike a kayak, you also have the ability to paddle on both sides at once. Pushing forward with both oars is a great method for bursting through big waves or hydraulics. Planting the oars in the foam pile will maintain resistance on the outwash and help propel the raft forward.

When pushing forward with both oars, you won’t be able to use torso rotation. Instead, rock your body back and forth to gain extra power. Place a foot on the floor and slightly underneath you for bracing. Plant the blades in the water and lean forward, putting your weight into the oars. This takes practice before finding the point where you can get the maximum force without coming out of your seat. Finish the stroke by extending the arms as if you’re shoving someone.

Backstrokes
When doing a backstroke on one side, you want to use the same torso rotation found in the forward stroke, but with the addition of incorporating the legs.

For a backstroke with the right oar, begin with the right shoulder slightly forward and your right arm slightly extended. Plant the blade in the water. Twist your torso and pull your right elbow and shoulder back, while pushing with your legs on the foot bar.

You should end with your arm bent, your legs nearly extended, your naval pointed right, and your body leaning slightly backward. The backstroke gets a lot of its power from extending the legs, so be sure you’re braced well on the foot bar.

By pulling back on both oars at the same time, you can almost bring a light boat to a stop in moderate current. Rather than torso rotation, pulling on both arms relies on rocking your body while pulling from your arms and pushing with your legs. Once the resistance starts to diminish, slice the blades up and be ready to repeat as necessary.

As with using a paddle, you turn a raft with an oar by catching resistance against the blade as it travels through the water. But with an oar rig we produce the power needed to turn the raft through the leverage gained by the long oar shafts, which places the blade farther away from our pivot point. Therefore, a lot of resistance against the blade is not necessary, and in strong current, it may be detrimental.

When you plant a backstroke in an eddy, you have more resistance against the blade than in the downstream current. This is usually what you’re aiming for, but sometimes the oar may move you rather than you moving the oar. Every guide who has ever used oars has had the sensation of being yanked out of his or her seat by placing too much of an oar blade in a strong eddy.

As a guide on the oars, you have to be mindful of how to catch the correct amount of surface area on the blade. If you’re using open oarlocks, you can feather or twist the blade until resistance is reduced to a more manageable level. If you’re using pins and clips or oar rights, then you can compensate by only placing part of your blade in the water to make minor adjustments. Sometimes, just skimming the surface of strong current with the blade is enough to change the angle of the raft.

Forward stroke in action; photo: Todd Langford

Turning Strokes
Now that you can go forward and backward with each oar, you can use this in various combinations to turn the boat. If you do a backstroke with the left oar and a forward stroke with the right oar, the center of the boat stays in place while the bow swings to the left and the stern moves to the right. But if you do a forward stroke on the right side only, then the bow will move to the right, and the pivot point will be just behind your seat. If you do a backstroke on the left only, the stern will go to the right and pivot point will be around your foot bar. You can adjust the angle of the raft with either forward or backstrokes, but the forward stroke has more effect on the bow, while the backstroke has more effect on the stern.

Another stroke combination is to do a forward or back on one side, while using the other oar to rudder the boat. If you’re in a flat pool, hold the left blade in the water, perpendicular to the boat. Engage your left arm and shoulder muscles so the oar stays perpendicular to the boat despite resistance. Now do either forward or backstrokes with the right oar. Not only does the boat’s angle change, but also its trajectory to the left, via either the bow or stern, is much more pronounced. It’s as if you’re spinning the boat around the left blade.

If you’re trying to ferry across the river, but your angle keeps getting blown, holding the upstream oar in the water and moving it slightly can help control your angle. Pushing on the downstream oar (in the case of an upstream ferry) or pulling on a downstream oar (in the case of a back ferry) will provide the power needed to traverse the river. If you try to adjust your angle by pulling one oar while pushing on the other, you may turn the raft quicker, but you’ll kill your lateral momentum and wash downstream instead of crossing the current.

In high volume rivers that cut through narrow corridors, the swirling eddy lines in the flat water may give beginner guides as much trouble as the rapids. But if you position the raft nearly sideways to the current you can use your oars as upstream and downstream rudders. By holding resistance against the current with one oar and pushing forward with the oar that’s in the eddy, you can maintain downstream momentum.

Alternating a backstroke and forward stroke.

Shipping Your Oars
Long oars give you power for maneuvering the raft; however, they make it hard to fit through narrow slots. As you navigate close to rocks, you may have to pull in or ship your oars. You can do this by pushing your hand out to the side while spinning the handle tip of the oar in your palm to place the blade over the bow.

But just because the raft is four foot off a canyon wall doesn’t mean you’re helpless. A good stroke for this situation is called a bow push. If you have a few feet on the side of the raft, you can drop the blade in the water and move your hand like you were turning a crank to keep the bow off the wall. You can’t get much power, but the small strokes provide enough push to keep the raft going straight.

You can see the effectiveness of this stroke without having to try it in a rapid. In a calm stretch of river start paddling the raft forward. Now ship your right oar close to the raft and start pushing the bow left by moving the blade from one o’clock to two o’clock, while continuing to push normally with the left oar. The right bow isn’t really pushing the raft forward, but is counteracting the turning force of the left push, thus keeping the raft on a straight track downstream

Shipping oars in action; photo: Chugach Outdoor Center

It takes practice to use the leverage of oars efficiently. And to complicate matters, various set-ups are going to react differently. The overloaded gear boat you’re in charge of getting down the river isn’t going to back ferry like the nimble cat boat on which you trained. But with time and patience, you’ll find oars the most powerful way to navigate boats down the river.