Appendices -- Useful Supplemental Information

(Adapted from an article by S. K. Hopkins in the December, 1979 Small Boat Journal, Vol. 1, No. 5. Note: Since writing this article 20 years ago, I have made many sails for little boats that could be sculled easily -- but rarely see a design where sculling is even hinted at, and those few all show the notch in the middle of the transom. Joel White‘s Nutshell Pram comes to mind, since there’s an active fleet of them nearby. Not one of the dozen or so gents who race these lovely little boats has discovered the joy of sculling, because you just can‘t get your body adjusted in a 9‘6“ by 4‘4“ space to handle your oar over the middle of the transom. I have a baby Nutshell -- 7’6” -- as tender to the company boat Muskrat. Cut the notch way off to port. Sculling it is a joy. Hardly ever row.)


Sculling a dinghy, skiff, or other small boat has several advantages over rowing:

1) Sculling is the only manual method of propelling a small boat (peddling aside) that leaves one hand free -- to fish, take soundings, use a look bucket, wave a greeting, nurse a pipe, or hold a can of beer.

2) With only one oar to pick up and put in use, you’re underway more quickly and with less fuss.

3) You sit sideways or facing forward and can see where you’re going without rubbernecking.

4) You can come alongside another vessel or dock under perfect control, without the nuisance of having to unship the onside oar and rowlock.

5) If you know how to scull, you can still get where you’re going if one of your oars or rowlocks is lost or broken.

6) Sculling is more relaxing than rowing.

7) Sculling makes even less noise than rowing (in case you want to sneak up on something).

Granted, if you want speed, or for a long haul against wind and chop, rowing comes back into its own. Sculling is for lazy going, touring the anchorage, browsing alongshore, and all those short inter-boat and boat-shore trips.

What is sculling? Simply, it is the art of making a small boat go forward with a single oar worked over the stern. In Cruising Under Sail Eric Hiscock described the technique succinctly: “Thrust the oar into the water at an angle of about 45 degrees, place its loom in the half-round sculling notch, and start to scull immediately or the oar will float to the surface. It is easier to start sculling if the dinghy has no headway. Move the handle of the oar from side to side, and your wrists, which should be well under it, will automatically turn the blade through a small angle so that on each stroke it tends to be forced down towards the stern; but the pull of your arms and the grip of the sculling notch will prevent it from doing so and the dinghy will move forward instead.”

Although Hiscock doesn’t mention it, the British favor a centerline notch, in which case the sculler must face aft or twist his torso to keep weight amidships while still manipulating the oar with two hands. The Yankees have traditionally used the same method -- scull notch on centerline. In a very small boat, with no room to get off center, it forces the sculler to face aft -- canceling the ability to look where one is going.

With all due respect to Olde and New England, there is a much better way to go about sculling, and it has been perfected by native sailors in the Bahama Islands.

In the Bahamian method, the sculling notch is well out on the port quarter. It is thus convenient to keep one’s weight amidships while facing athwartships or forward, using only the left hand to scull. The left hand adapts very easily to this simple task, and frees the right for any other task that might arise.

Pete Culler remarked the advantage of left-handed sculling in Boats, Oars, and Rowing: “In this country the slot is usually in the center of the stern. In the Bahamas it is offset to port for a couple of good reasons -- to account for the method of sculling, and to allow the oar to be used with a rudder in place, so a sailing craft can be helped out in a calm. I think any small boat should be rigged this way.”

In his beautifully illustrated Bahamian Sailing Craft, Wm. R. Johnson, Jr., explains the island technique in detail. “The sculler,” he says “stands (or sits) aft, facing forward. The sculling notch is invariably on the port crown of the transom. The oar is balanced in the notch and grasped in the left hand. By a subtle flip of the wrist the heavy pine oar is worked athwartships with assistance from the right hand on the pull stroke . . . in this manner a dinghy is propelled through the water with great power and minimum of effort.”

Notice that the pull stroke is accentuated. This is a distinctive and necessary feature of the Bahamian method of sculling. Since the oar is driving against the port side of the transom, there is a tendency for the boat to turn to starboard, like a twin-screw powerboat going ahead on port engine only. Obviously some “left rudder” is needed to counter this tendency, and the heavier pull stroke, with a correspondingly greater “bite” or angle on the blade, provides just that. This curious feature of the off-center-to-port notch thus allows most of the work to be done while leaning away from the oar -- an efficient and restful circumstance!

The Bahamian fisherman has refined the art of sculling as perhaps nowhere else in the world. It is worth looking more closely at his equipment. The sculling notch is usually just a half round carved in the top plank of the transom. Sometimes a separate piece of wood is let in or bolted on to take the wear, or raise the notch slightly to obtain the required angle of the oar in the water. His scull has a long, straight loom, and a long, rather narrow blade. Most importantly, the blade is diamond (or half-diamond) shaped. This special shape of the upper surface of the oar greatly facilitates the sculling action, making the oar flip-flop automatically as it is swept back and forth. Without it, the wrists would have to do most of the work of turning the blade.

If your boat is rigged for sailing, all the more reason to take up sculling. You have perhaps already discovered that rowing is awkward or impossible while sharing the skiff with a furled sail and spars. By contrast, it is wonderfully handy to scull when you have run out of wind. You can even “motor sail” in light airs, leaving the tiller free and steering with alternate “thick” and “thin” bites of the blade.

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