Sculling and lessons learned

Sculling (Watertribe Lessons Learned)

There were several reasons why I wanted to give the Watertribe Challenges a try, but I think the single strongest motivating factor was my own curiosity. I guess I simply wanted to see what all the fuss was about. People like Matt Layden, my long-time sailing mentor, participated in these events year-after-year, and I was curious to know what kept drawing him back annually. Obviously he derived some satisfaction by simply completing each grueling challenge; but, I think he also found these events to be a perfect arena to field test his latest creations and to prove his mental and physical toughness against equally skilled competitors in their chosen watercraft. As for me, I thought it would be neat to join this fraternity of adventure racers to evaluate my own abilities and to see if those techniques that I had learned while micro-cruising really worked. It also would provide me with a reason to improve my own solo boat handling talents and to possibly pick up some new tricks along the way.

One of the skills I thought I could improve upon the most was in the area of sculling. In the past I had relied heavily upon outboard motors to move our 15' sailboat, “Little Cruiser,” during our winter long Bahamas cruises. This had worked reasonably well for several trips until the day we broke down far from shore during a prolonged calm, and we ended up having to take a tow to the nearest harbor. Once there my wife Mindy and I soon discovered that we couldn't move our 1600 pound boat easily or very far with just our dinghy paddle. This experience convinced us to bring along a yuloh next time and to learn how to use it. Though we continued to rely on the outboard motor as our main means of mechanical propulsion during our cruises, I practiced rowing in earnest with the Chinese style oar at every available opportunity. When it was calm in the morning, I would scull instead of turning on the motor. Interestingly enough, I discovered I could do this with one hand while drinking a cup of coffee or while holding a tasty snack in the other. After becoming fairly comfortable rowing in these easy conditions, I then challenged myself by sculling in small breaking surf or by going up inlets against a strong foul tide. I figured that if the motor failed us again I could get us safely into port even under the most trying of conditions. At night, I would move “Little Cruiser” silently around the anchorage so that I would get used to rowing in the dark. This proved handy whenever a noisy boater anchored nearby and we wanted to relocate to a quieter spot without having to start the engine.

However, even with all the sculling practice that went on over the years, we never really weaned ourselves entirely off the outboard engine habit. In the end, I always felt a bit guilty about this fact because I knew that my sailing heroes like Sven Yrvind and Lin and Larry Pardey had traveled all over the world with just an oar as auxiliary power. Therefore, around 2008 I finally decided to leave the motor behind when we went to the WCTSS Cedar Key gathering for small boats. During the week that we spent there in “Little Cruiser” I realized that we didn't really need the motor. I had no problem sculling the boat out to Atsenie Otie Key or to any of the other nearby islands when the wind failed. The following year, we went back to Cedar Key for the same event and we picked up a new sharpie “Enigma,” which we also enjoyed sculling all over. Now the question remained whether we could do this for longer distances, and the 100 mile North Carolina Watertribe Challenge provided a great opportunity to explore this possibility.

To get ready for the inaugural 2009 NC Challenge I mostly paddled my kayak and I rode my bike a few times a week to get into shape since it wasn't always convenient to bring “Enigma” to my local lake for just an hour or two. This worked out pretty well because sculling requires that you use your whole body to develop a strong stroke. When I employ my legs, my back and my arms in unison, I can drive “Enigma” at 3 knots flat out in calm conditions. To achieve my best strokes, I first spread my feet apart and I bend at the knees. Then I push with my arms and drive forward with my back leg while leaning hard into the oar. To reverse the stroke, I readjust the pitch of the blade, and I start pulling the oar back using my legs and my whole body as before. One thing I've noticed while practicing at longer distances is that you can really conserve a lot of energy by using more of your body in the stroke. Instead of pulling and pushing so hard with your arms and your legs, you can use your entire body to lean on the oar while you rhythmically rock it back and forth. This does of course cause smaller boats to roll somewhat, but it doesn't seem to effect the speed.

So how has all this practicing worked out? Well, in the 2009 NC Challenge I sculled about 11 miles to finish first in my class with a fully loaded cruising boat weighing about 400 pounds. I did about 9 miles in the Harlowe Canal with a favorable tide and the other 2 miles was spent coming in or leaving checkpoints. I probably averaged about 2 knots except when I had to scull against the tide and a strong headwind out of Beaufort. In the 2010 Everglades Challenge I sculled about the same distance in "Enigma" and at a similar speed, but this effort was completed over the course of several days. The only challenging rowing came as I attempted Gasparillo pass at night. My first attack against a foul tide and 5 foot breaking seas was thwarted by the bad sea state, and I had to wait a few hours for better conditions. Then at the change of the tide, I sculled right in and I carried on to the checkpoint at Grande Tours. I had to scull a few more times for a few hours here and there over the next few days, but the real test that year was a strong headwind near the end of the race. Luckily, “Enigma” and I were up to the task, and we finished our first 300 mile Watertribe Challenge. This distance was important to me at the time because it represented the same mileage from Angel Fish Creek, our usual starting point in Florida for our winter trips, to our main destination in the Bahamas, Georgetown. The 2010 NC Challenge proved to be the biggest hurdle in terms of rowing because I had to scull "Enigma" a lot more than usual the first day, 14 miles or 7 hours to be exact. I wasn't quite prepared to do that much given that I generally go out and paddle or row for only about 2 hours at a time. Nonetheless, I still managed to get around the course in a time that was a few hours faster than the year before. So now after successfully completing 3 Watertribe Challenges, I think that I've proven to myself at least that even a person in average physical shape can coastal cruise their micro-cruiser without a motor even when under the severe time constraints associated with a race.


Reasons for Using a Yuloh

I've found that my yuloh moves ENIGMA happily at about 2 knots in flat conditions, but this is probably no faster than what is possible with a set of regular oars on any other small cruising sailboat. However, I do believe that the yuloh may have some unique advantages that might be helpful for the micro-cruiser. To begin, I can row effectively looking forward with just one hand which leaves the other available to do things like grab a water bottle, steer my boat, hold a GPS or even talk on the phone. Don't laugh. I actually had a nice long conversation with my wife as I sculled down the Harlowe Canal in the first NC Challenge. It sure made those 9 miles fly by. During the 2010 Everglades Challenge I was thankful I could cradle my mapping GPS while I sculled and navigated in the dark through the twisty passages leading out of Chokoloskee Bay back to the Gulf of Mexico. I'm sure I could think of 10 other good reasons to have a free hand while rowing ; but suffice it to say, it's just plain handy. Then there is the fact that a yuloh works pretty well in waves and rough water where all you have to do is focus on keeping the one oar down deep to drive the boat forward. However, I think this Asian oar is really superb in the shallows where it can either be used as an oar or an excellent push pole, transforming itself from one to the other at a moments notice. You can scull along handily in a few feet of water and then pole your way across a skinny shoal and then back into navigable waters without changing anything. Should you run aground or be drifting towards a hard object, the yuloh is always at the ready to either push, pole or scull you in the right direction. All in all, it's something I'll always have on board my micro-cruisers.