Managing the Oars: A Case Study on the Rogue


Dropping into Black Bar Rapid on the Rogue River the conservative line is unanimously known as a hard right, hugging a two-story cliff that spans the length of the rapid. First, thread the needle between a center channel flake and a jagged rock wall that marks the entrance on the right bank.

If you hit the line just right, depending on the weight of the boat, the narrow channelized current combines with the momentum gathered in the drop to set the boat up perfectly square to hit a second right-side jagged rock wall. Or so it seems. In fact, if you stow or ship your right oar and say your prayers, 99.99% of the time the boat will clear the second jagged right wall by inches (feet if the boat is on the lighter side).

©️Sarah McMillen

There isn’t a lot of literature available on advanced oar management practices. When learning the art of shipping (pulling your oars inside or next to the the boat), for example, there aren’t a ton of resources that explain the benefits and best techniques. It can feel very unnatural when you first start shipping your oars, but keep it up. When rowing in tight shoots, canyons or boulder gardens many would agree that no one singular rowing skill is more powerful or important. To add to the oar management best practices literature pool, I break down what I have learned about the nuance of shipping and other oar management practices while guiding on the Rogue River.

Forward Shipping
The nuts and bolts of oar shipping include a couple dos and don’ts. First, do ship forward, or orient the blades toward the bow. To do this, push grips out and rotate your hand 180 degrees on the grip. When done correctly, your arms should stick straight out from the body to either side, thumbs pointed down the shafts. The advantage of shipping forward is that the grip never leaves the captain’s hand, therefore you never forfeit control of the oar and raft.

In addition, with a forward ship, it’s easy to quickly slip the blade back in the water without the helter-skelter of regaining control of the grip and repositioning the oar forward, which is all required when oars are released and blades are shipped toward the stern. Oftentimes it’s useful to ship one oar at a time rather than shipping both oars in tandem.

The Crab Stroke and Bow Push
Another advantage of a forward ship is the ability to slip a singular forward-shipped oar in a sliver of water between the boat and an obstacle and pull the blade toward the boat repeatedly—called feathering. You can then propel the boat forward by simultaneously using a traditional forward stroke with the non-shipped oar. I have heard this called a bow push or a crab stroke (the latter in the drift boat community). Movement of the shipped oar isn’t always required. Sometimes you can use the unshipped oar as a rudder. With minimal feathering, you can pilot and steer the boat safely with one oar.

Underwater Recovery
The natural progression of a bow push, crab stroke or side feather is full underwater recovery with the blade when the oars are in the forward push position. This is particularly stylish and very useful during long stretches of flat water. Learning to feather, or not lifting the blade out of the water when returning it to a power stroke position, is efficient and taxes the rower less during the flats. There are many styles of feathering; this style of underwater recovery is best used in slow-moving or flat water. By feathering more on one side and keeping one oar more static, the rower can manipulate the boat into a turn or hit a desired angle to stay in the current or trace a river bend.

Backward Shipping and Crossing the Oars
Generally speaking, don’t get in the habit of shipping backward (or pointing the blade toward the stern). Same goes for waiting too long to ship until your only option is crossing the oars across the captain’s bay. This is unideal for a few reasons. First, it doesn’t provide as much clearance as a traditional ship. A traditional ship minimizes the overall width of the boat, while crossing the oars will leave the blades sticking out cockeyed from the oar towers, adding a foot or two of girth on either side of the boat.

Besides not providing max clearance, crossing the oars is incredibly dangerous. If the oars are crossed over the rower’s seat and one, or both, gets caught on a rock or obstacle, like the walls of Mule Creek Canyon on the Rogue, the oars could impale or apply extraordinary pressure across the lap or abdomen of the person rowing. No bueno.

A backward ship can be useful, though, in the right scenarios.

Jesus, Take the Wheel
Like isolated rapids that require a Superman ship, there are also rapids that require the rower to relinquish all control and let “Jesus take the wheel.” As mentioned above, the Mid Shoot is a popular alternate route to Raine Falls on the Rogue. However, the Fish Ladder (Class 3) is the most accessible alternate route to both stout options.

The passage, a toboggan sled-like channel, was originally blasted with dynamite sometime in the mid-20th century to make it easier for drift boats to descend the river. Today, perching or sticking to a rock at the entrance, and many more times in the rapid, is so common that the local advice is to stow or even remove your oars the first time you stall out on a rock and then hop out and push from there on out with each inevitable stick. The boat will have some free fall runs for short periods, which will feel like Jesus is taking the wheel. But the rapid is so tight, it’s impossible to get a stroke in, so it’s better to take your oars out of the equation altogether. This prevents breaking an oar or putting yourself in a position where an oar could possibly hurt you.

Rafting Up or Parking in an Eddy
Shipping is an especially helpful move when another raft approaches and wants to roll side-by-side. Instead of dropping your oars cattywampus in the water, ship them and make a clean space for your boats to raft up without spider webbing in each other’s leashes. Shipping can be as simple as resting the oar blades on the front bench or princess pad or resting the blades on the spare oar grip lashed to the side of the raft. This is a benefit of stowing a spare with the grip on the bow and the blade on the stern. If you rock two spares, even better for shipping on both sides.

Rigging a Spare
Speaking of spare oars, you can rig them with a blade forward or backward. I prefer backward for a couple of reasons. First, I tend to hit the quarter panels on my stern far less than my bow. In the crossfire of bumping a rock with a quarter panel of your boat, it’s possible to crack or break the blade of your spare. It also helps to have the rig straps loose enough that the blade doesn’t hang at an angle but flush with the tube. Yet you don’t want the straps so loose that the spare oar gets cockeyed over time and becomes cumbersome. Additionally, many choose to rig their oar leash below their spare so that if an oar pops and becomes stuck in the water or under the boat, the leash won’t restrict the release of the spare.

Oar Leashes
I’ve found the discussion of oar leashes to be controversial, to say the least. I prefer using the thinnest gauge cord possible as a leash, or ½-inch webbing in a pinch. I like a medium to low-strength leash because in some scenarios, if an oar gets stuck or lodged, I believe it’s better for the leash to break than keep the oar in place any longer and pose additional dangers. Use leashes at your own discretion and be aware, if your boat is moving into a wrap position and nothing can be done, ship your oars so they don’t become a part of the collateral damage.

Closing Note
Someone once said to me, the grips of your oars are like two gun barrels, never point them at yourself, or others. This might be the most valuable advice for oar management that anyone has ever given me. Rowing, shipping, or operating oars in general, do not point the grips of the oars at yourself. This puts you in the line of fire.

I was also told while paddles are like hammers, oars are like sledgehammers. Sledgehammers produce orders of magnitude more damage than paddles. Therefore, treat them with more respect and care when enlisting their use.

Lastly, there is more than one way to spread butter. If you have a different opinion than what’s shared here, that’s okay. As long as you’ve thought it out and have reasons for the methods that you utilize, that’s all that matters. We all row on different rivers and have different experiences, which lead to the rigging and rowing practices that we choose.