The lost oar

October 2021

By Christopher Birch

Heidi, under tow, with some very nice Shaw & Tenney oars clamped in place with their special Edson oar clamp. The clamp wasn’t used and one of the oars is gone. Photo by Christopher Birch

An old salt told me the most dangerous thing on a boat is a clock, second only to a calendar. Pushing your luck with the weather at sea in order to meet a schedule on land is bad seamanship, and Mother Nature is a hanging judge.

I ignored this prudent mariner standard recently and paid the price.

We were anchored in the serene protection of Hadley Harbor, enjoying a lazy morning of reading in the warm September sun with the cockpit dodger protecting us nicely from a stiff northeast breeze. The close reach back across Buzzards Bay to our home mooring in Mattapoisett would be manageable in the 25-30 knot wind, but staying in Hadley sure sounded a lot more comfortable. We had plenty of food, and the forecast called for moderate weather the next day. At issue was a birthday party back on land that we felt obliged to attend. Scheduled for that afternoon, the party hung like a dark cloud over our calendar.

So off we went into the wilds of Buzzards Bay, with hat chin-straps firmly secured.

Earlier that morning, while rowing Bill, the dog for a walk on Bull Island, I ran into Will Keene from the Edson Corporation. I complimented him on my favorite Edson product: The simple and elegant two-piece bronze casting, designed to secure a pair of oars to the center seat of a rowboat. Hours later, I regretted not using the one I had onboard.

Our well-founded twenty-two-year-old tender, Heidi, tows like a dream. We only pull her up on the foredeck when we’re headed offshore. Regular readers of this column will know this dinghy has no motor but is powered by oars. Over a decade ago, the first pair were lost when the boat suffered her one and only capsize on the towline. In that ordeal, Heidi was just fine, but the oars were long gone by the time we noticed what had happened.

The esteemed Maine oar builder, Shaw & Tenney, delivered a second pair of lovingly crafted spruce spoons, with mahogany inlaid tips. We made sure to secure them properly with our Edson oar clamp in the dinghy or stow them somewhere aboard the mothership. For years, we diligently attended to this pre-departure routine… until we didn’t. On the day, with the birthday party looming and the wind blowing 25-30 out of the northeast, we neglected to prep the oars for sea. I guess we were so busy securing our chin straps; we forgot to secure the oars.

The dinghy didn’t flip on this crossing, but it was rough out there, and one oar bounced out of the boat. I was looking back this time and actually saw it happen. We immediately began our man overboard drill in the high winds. First under sail, then under power. Every time we got close; our bow wave would push the oar just out of reach. Geometrically, oars are not conducive for boat hook retrieval, and it’s a surprisingly long way down to reach the sea from the rail of a 36-foot boat in wind and waves.

Fearing one of us might end up in the water alongside the drifting oar, I eventually altered course back toward our home mooring and reluctantly accepted a failing grade for this man overboard drill. Only a fool has a dinghy with one oar, and that fool was me.

My father coached me to “Never get run over by the same trolley car twice.” Regrettably, I failed to abide and managed to accidentally set oars free in Buzzards Bay for a second time. The prudent mariner standard smartly warned me against prioritizing a birthday party, over sound judgment, about when to put out to sea. I failed to heed that advice too.

The lost oar was exquisitely crafted and a prized possession. As errors at sea go, though, it could have been a lot worse. It was sobering to realize how difficult an actual man overboard retrieval would be in rough weather. We left the boat on her mooring and headed off to the birthday party with crew morale down at ever-given levels. I felt like I deserved to be stuck in the Suez Canal instead of celebrating the anniversary of a birth at a party.

While we partied, the wind was blowing the lost oar toward Naushon Island, and I was optimistic it might wash ashore somewhere I could find it. Dawn brought glorious weather, and I returned to Naushon to search. I methodically combed over every inch of that island’s shoreline for eight hours with my binoculars. All the rolly miles spent straining to focus made me sick. The fact that no oar was found didn’t help my disposition.

Every decade or so, it seems I need to get back on the phone with the good people at Shaw & Tenney to order a new set of oars for a bad reason. This time, I had them engrave my name and phone number on the blades. I’m hoping I don’t get run over by this trolley car a third time, but if I do, at least I’ll have an ID in my pocket.

Christopher Birch is the proprietor of Birch Marine Inc. on Long Wharf in Boston, Mass., where he’s been building, maintaining and restoring boats for the past 34 years.