Still talking about oars!

Above is an image of the recommended hardwood/softwood oar, courtesy of Topher Dawson, complete with the photographer’s shadowy signature.

The oars that we will build are very similar, except that we won’t be having the ball and slot oarlock system devised by Topher, nor his spoon blades.

For that system to work perfectly it’s essential for the pins to be absolutely vertical, something difficult to achieve, given differing crew weights, for example an exceptionally heavy cox brings the skiff down at the stern. Also it’s more difficult to make accurately. Correctly set up, the system works perfectly and smoothly, but we have decided to stick with simplicity.

For those who are interested, here are details of the ball and slot system:

We intend to adopt the pin and gate oarlock system devised by Don Currie, shown here:

Here is Don’s drawing, showing construction details:

You will see from the photograph that Don has made wearing strips from some hardwood. We could use oak, or perhaps source thin strips of polypropylene, which the rules allow. He has provided dowel spacers held by strong woodscrews and the photograph shows plastic bushes round these.

These details are not today’s problem, but will give us something to talk about while getting on with the main work. In the meantime please be thinking about sourcing suitable  polyprop, plastic strips etc that can be recycled for a seagoing future.

We have now sourced sufficient Douglas Fir and Western Red Cedar to make our set of oars.  The first task is to make a cutting schedule, so that the wonderful Mr H in his mountain workshop won’t get annoyed at having his time wasted.

Marking out precisely and very carefully where you are going to cut is far more important that just charging ahead and possibly wasting expensive material. The old adage “measure twice, cut once” applies.

We have more than enough WRC, as I had to buy two pieces – timber yards won’t just cut off the length that you need. We’ve got just enough DF to produce four handles plus strips to go on the front and rear faces of the WRC, to protect the latter from dents and bashes. The strips should be 5mm or probably 6mm thick if we can manage to get that width out of what we have. Each saw cut costs you the width of the blade, about 3mm or 4mm usually, rapidly using up stock.

We will soon run oar building workshops, but for these to be of any benefit it’s important that people understand the problems and help with solutions. As  start please read Topher’s detailed instructions, copied below. We need to modify these somewhat, to take account of the flat blades, and adjust the dimensions to allow for the DF faces on the WRC.  For example I’m inclined to make these faces full length, for strength and ease of building, rather than just the length of the outboard, WRC sections. This means that the handle stock would be machined 78mm x 45mm rather than 90mm x 45mm, allowing for the two 6mm strips.

Here is an image of the handles, per Topher:

 He is suggesting ovoid, 40mm for and aft by 35 deep. I think we should go slightly less depth and also produce a pear-shaped end.

There follow Topher’s Instructions. Please note carefully the suggested dimensions, especially at the outboard end. It makes me think that our current oars are massively over-strength!

Making the Beta test hardwood/softwood oar shaft for the St Ayles oar

The hardwood/softwood shaft has a rectangular cross section with slightly rounded corners for its whole length, tapering down in depth and width towards the tip.

  • The inboard section inside the boat is made of a dense hardwood like oak or ash and the outboard section is made of a light softwood like Western Red Cedar (WRC), spruce or Douglas Fir (Oregon pine). This improves the balance.
  • The number 2 and 3 oars have the thole pin mounted not in the gunwale but in a block screwed and glued to the inside of the gunwale. This moves the pin inboard by about 70mm which allows the oar to be shorter and therefore lighter than current oars. It also allows the bow, 2 and 3 oars to be the same length, 4.3m. The stroke oar is 4.0m. “Short oars” are all 3.5m.
  • The depth and width at each station along the shaft are the same for all lengths of shaft, but the distance between each station varies with the length of the shaft.
  • The spoon blade is a spooned narrow Macon shape made from two blade halves of 4mm plywood. The blade halves are stitched together with cable ties to form a shape which is curved longitudinally and slightly vee shaped in cross section. This is then epoxied and the cable ties removed. The curve allows the light plywood to be stiffer and stronger than a flat blade and more efficient in the water. This light blade contributes to the light balance of the oar.
  • A flat 4mm ply blade can also be made.

Making the hardwood/softwood shaft:

Whatever species of timber is used, it has to be clear of knots and straight grained. In the UK the most likely timbers for the inboard are ash or oak, but elm or beech could also be used. Outside the UK there will be favoured local woods of at least 700kg/m^3 density.

The outboard timber needs to be light, straight grained, clear and available in lengths of 3.5m, although they can be scarphed. Western Red Cedar, spruce, and Douglas Fir all fit this bill. WRC is the lightest, spruce is the most expensive, and Douglas is the heaviest. Slight variations of the width and depth of the tapered outboard are in the design to take account of the different density, strength and stiffness of the three timbers. If you are using other timbers, measure the density and stiffness of a sample of your timber and pick the design for the timber which most resembles yours.

The procedure depends on what dimension of timber you start with. If you use 100×50 thicknessed down to 90×45 then make one 45mm face straight, flat and at right angles to the 90mm face. Use this face for the aft face (nearest to the cox). Mark the stations on it and draw the widths at each station. Cut this taper leaving enough timber to plane to a smooth curve. You may want to use this blank to draw around on the other shafts.

If you are using Western Red Cedar in the commonly available 150×25 sawn finish house cladding plank size, you will need to thickness it to clean up the sawn surfaces and then glue two layers together to make a blank. Your blank will likely be a bit under the 45mm thickness needed near the gunwale, but only short padding pieces 150mm long are needed because it thins rapidly.

Then on the fore and aft faces, mark a centre line and set off the depth equally on both sides of the centreline. You want to take wood off both sides, perhaps with a hand held power planer to begin with, and then a hand plane as you get near the line. Finally you knock off the sharp edges with a hand plane and some sandpaper, aiming for a 5mm radius or whatever seems right. This is to make the oar shaft more robust against knocks, and kinder to rowers.

The oar needs a big scarph joint just outside the gunwale where the hardwood meets the softwood. This is just like the scarphs in the skiff planking but bigger. Make sure the final oar is straight!

It is easiest to make a hardwood blank 90x45x1500 and work the end down to the handle size, make the slot and line it with 3mm plastic, and make the scarph, before gluing it to the outboard.


This table shows the width (fore and aft) of the shaft at each station, in mm. Station 0 is at the gunwale, and the ten stations are equally spaced going out from the gunwale to the tip of the oar. The cross section of the oar is everywhere rectangular, with  slightly rounded corners, about 5mm radius.

The depth of the shaft (top to bottom) is exactly half of the width at every station.

The inboard part of the oar, from the handle end to the gunwale, is hardwood of a constant 90×45 rectangular section.


The dimensions vary a little for different timbers, to take account of the different density, stiffness and strength of each timber. It is important to avoid knots, especially near the forward and aft faces of the shaft.



If making this oar out of Western Red Cedar, the lightest of all three timbers, the shaft can be made of two layers of 150×25 plank which is the most commonly available size, used for house cladding. It needs to be thicknessed down to clean up the surface, but taking off as little wood as possible. Depending on the plank, you may end up with 19-22mm thickness. A small section on each side may be needed to thicken up the 150mm nearest to the gunwale to make 45mm.

The oars come in three lengths. The shortest, 3.5m, is for short oar clubs, and all four oars are 3.5m long.

For long oar clubs the stroke is 4.0m long, and oars 1, 2 and 3 are 4.3m long. To allow oars 2 and 3 to be this short, the pins need to be mounted on blocks glued to the inside of the gunwale.

The dimensions at each station are the same, but the distance between each station is less for the shorter oars.


The inboard and outboard are joined with a 6:1 scarph, 270mm long. The scarph joint is cut so that the feather end of the outboard is at the top of the oar, and the feather end of the inboard is at the bottom of the oar.

The handle needs to be 400mm long, and around 40mm in diameter according to taste. A good section is oval 35mm deep and 40mm fore and aft, which allows smaller hands to grip but keeps more strength. It is sensible to make a gradual transition to the rectangular section for rowers’ comfort and to reduce stress concentrations.

Varnish or paint the oar well, as the additional weight is less than the weight of moisture soaked up by an inadequate paint job.

Winter job list

Work starts in  John McFarlane’s big new shed at 10.00 am on Sunday 12 January – see Sue’s comment in last post

With Selkie safely inside (see pics of the trip across below) we’ve got two weeks to complete her winter maintenance, so here goes with the start of a job list. The good news is that it’s extremely short, as she’s travelled a lot of sea and road miles with remarkably little damage.

The hull will take a few days to dry out and we’ll start on the outside, which will be ready for the first session on Sunday. 

Please treat the following as a provisional list and feel free to add suggestions by way of comments.

 Outside of hull

Lightly sand the lowest five strakes to give a key. Apply two coats top coat.  

Repair small damaged section where stem has been caught by the trailer. This needs thickened epoxy, which can only be applied once the stem is totally dry, so this area must be kept clear of paint.

The sheerstrake requires touching up where needed. I don’t think it needs a complete coat of paint.

Inside of hull

Remove mast step and stroke footrest fitting. I’ll take these away and coat them with epoxy to stabilise them.

Remove thole pins.

Clean then sand interior, removing any paint runs etc. Apply two coats paint.

Forward Seat

Make and instal a seat to same pattern as the cox seat. We can measure for this and I’ll make a kit of parts for it.

We can source a piece of heavy duty netting to go under the seat as an alternative to a locker for the anchor, flares etc.


I’ll do a separate note about shifting the pin positions aft and changing the stroke side to starboard. Most of this to be done off the boat, apart from drilling the gunwales.


The existing ones at positions 1, 2 and 3 need adjusting to give intermediate positions, also to make them easier to use. Eventually we can make new ones if we adopt longer oars.

Launching trolley

Add some wood to position the bow in correct position when loaded on.

Road trailer

Adjust forward block so that it engages with the polyprop strip.

Drill number plate supports for pins to give a positive position.

Jan trip to Balvicar 1 Jan trip to Balvicar 2 Jan trip to Balvicar 3

We’ve got a Trolley

trolleydollyOnce again we’ve picked the brains of the Ullapool people and copied their ideas for a trolley, which is 90% there, just needing some paint, some scrap carpet glued to the supporting pads and the axles drilled to take big washers and pins to stop the wheels falling off.

Image completed by Sue, fighting fit from the worlds in her new St Ayles skiff teeshirt. Which reminds us, serious work now needed to organise teeshirts, hoodies,car stickers and our flag. 


Rowers wanted

The plan is to have Selkie in the water by 1st May at the very latest, so it is time to start putting together Seil’s rowing teams. You can register your interest using the small form in the right hand column immediately under the search box.

Ladies rowing

Age is no barrier. While it is unlikely that Seil could ever support this many teams, these are the categories that will be racing at the World Campionships in Ullapool this Summer:

  • Open Men
  • Open Women
  • Mixed Open
  • Under 17 Men Under 17 Women
  • Under 19 Men
  • Under 19 Women
  • Over 40 Men
  • Over 40 women
  • Over 40 mixed
  • Over 50 Men
  • Over 50 women
  • Over 60  Men
  • Over 60 women

So the more the merrier. Register your interest today.

Islay’s Festival of the Sea

The 2013 diaries are filling up fast with events for 2013 and the following message has just arrived from Islay:-

Dear St Ayles communities in and around Argyll,

I am emailing to invite all of you to Islay for a St Ayles regatta during our annual Festival of the Sea which will be taking place on the 2ndand 3rd of August 2013. The event aims to celebrate the rich seafaring heritage of Islay and showcase the seafood, talent and sportsmanship the island has to offer. It is a fairly new Festival (this will be the third year) but coastal rowing has been an important part of the event from the very beginning as the first Festival of the Sea accompanied the Colmcille Rowing challenge between Moville, Co. Donegal and Islay (This is bi-annual and will be taking place on the same weekend). It is an important aim of the Festival to re-establish historical links the island had with Ireland but we are also keen to forge new connections with other communities close by.

The Islay Rowing Club originally started with two fibreglass skiffs based on a traditional design of a skiff from Moville and these are still used for many of our regular races in the summer. However, more recently Jack Glover introduced the St Ayles movement to Islay and the club now have two beautiful St Ayles skiffs based in Portnahaven. In addition, the Festival last year invited renowned Irish boatbuilder Donal MacPolan over to build a Currach during the festival using local hazel and some synthetic seal skin so that has been a proud new addition  as well.

Coastal rowing is really taking off on the island and we are keen to make the rowing activities a focal point of the events schedule for the Festival this year and we’d be thrilled if you could join us for it. Bringing boats over would be optional but obviously the more the merrier. We have invited Galgael Trust over to run events and they are happy to bring their St Ayles skiff over with them so we will have three to start with. We can’t offer accommodation as such unless you were booked in quite early but there is plenty of space to camp, shower and laundry near the pontoons and we can see about making arrangements for transport to the youth hostel.

There will also be plenty of other entertainment with ceilidhs on Friday and Saturday night, a food fair, sailing, Coasteering, kayaking, tug o’war, talks and exhibits, crabbing, beach golf and a range of others (we are just trying to confirm the programme at present).

To follow on from the Currach build last year the Coracle society are joining us and will offer the opportunity to build your own Coracle over the weekend. We’d have to fit in the timing but it could be a good opportunity for each of the teams involved to build one for their club and they could be raced at the regatta too if people were willing.

Please let me know if you think this is something your teams would be interested and don’t hesitate to get in touch if you’d like more information.

We have a basic website at and there are lots of pics of last years event on our facebook page

Tips from Ullapool


Ewan had a great visit to the far North to look at the Ullapool skiffs and reports as follows.

If we have weather like now the Skiffie Worlds will be fantastic. Ullapool was sparkling in the winter sun and a trial row in the school boat was arranged specially for me. Her official name is Cul Mor but her builders have named her “Pull” to go with her sister Ulla.



At first Topher had some problems raising a crew, as the other boats were going out later, but Jan hijacked a couple of mountaineers who were heading for Stack Polly and so Dougie and Struan got an introduction too. This seems to be one of the best things about the skiffs – they are so easy to set up and row that everyone can take part, although I admit the two pressganged climbers were pretty fit.


Ullapool rows with shortish oars, 11 feet 2 inches I think. It seems proven that oars between say 12 and 15 feet are liable to cause bumping. With short oars you sit slightly off-centre on same side as your oar; above that length you sit opposite the oar port, so 16 feet is fine if you can actually lift an oar that weight. For smaller and unfit older people like me the shorter ones are fine. If the rowing experience isn’t comfortable and unthreatening only alpha-people will take part, so don’t let’s put anyone off.


On Sunday morning I rowed two miles with light 11ft 2in oars and wasn’t out of breath. We had a great excursion down past where the Worlds will take place to an abandoned croft, where we climbed a hill and breathed in the view.

I noticed that Topher was feathering his oars, which is unusual as it isn’t easy with the kabes and pins that most skiffs have. He told me that people who have rowed before usually want to feather. New recruits don’t.

Feathering heavy oars is hard on the wrists and probably doesn’t increase speed. The intention is to reduce windage on the return. Narrow blades don’t catch as much wind as modern racing blades, so it may not make much difference.

There may be an attempt to ban feathering, but right now you can feather if you can work out a way of doing it..

This ties in with oar and oarlock design. Rectangular oars are strong, easy and cheap to make. Feathering oars need round(ish) sections where it matters.

It is extremely difficult but possible to make oarlocks in wood that allow easy feathering. It can be done with two pins if you like the noise of the constant clunking. The Cornish gigs tried feathering but I’ve heard they may have banned it.

It’s good to “gear” oars to vary length for conditions, basically ending up with more inboard in rough conditions or a small rower, extending out in calm water. You do this by adding little buttons that catch on the pins, or a pad underneath with holes to go over the pins. This is difficult with feathering oars and it ends up being down to the skill of the rower.

I would like to make a set of lightweight rectangular non-feathering oars 11ft 2ins. I can work up a good design for these.

Our most likely frequent competitors will be Kilmelford and some will row on both boats. Hence I’d like to persuade them to do the same as we do.

I got some information about rudders too.

There’s a discussion going on and clubs have been asked to send in a photograph of their existing rudders, just to find out what teams are doing. I’d like to keep the Seil rudder right in terms of the concept – looking traditional and “right” even if not state of the art – with the stock following the line of the aft stem, the leading edge of the blade as vertical as possible without an outrigger, the blade itself a nice hydrofoil shape. Also controlled by an oak tiller to the side with fore and aft extension, as central rudders are very uncomfortable for the cox and a yoke with strings can be tricky.

I found a great idea for low cost rudder gear – glue in end pieces from old stainless steel rigging screws, connect with stainless rod. Strong, looks good and works.


Rubbing strips along keel can be made from heavy polypropylene cut into strips. Tough and slippery with an element of “give” looks fine and works. You get a sheet and rip it up, can be profiled with a hand plane.

Launching trolleys at Ullapool are made from cheap timber, supporting the skiff at frame 6. We need two wheels and some stainless tube for axles.



Vote for a name for the skiff

We’ve drawn up a shortlist of ten names  from suggestions  made by the school, by shareholders and by members of the building team. The names are going to be published in this month’s Seilachan.

( Some Gaelic translations: Sguman = skimmer        Mara  =  sea        Siaban = sea-spray, spray,  spume, spindrift )

There are two  polls, for first choice and second choice. In the event of a tie second choices will be taken into account.

The poll closes on the 28th of February.

What is your first choice for a name for the skiff?

  • Selkie (28%, 18 Votes)
  • Kelpie (26%, 17 Votes)
  • Sguman (12%, 8 Votes)
  • Soul of Seil (9%, 6 Votes)
  • Siaban (8%, 5 Votes)
  • Mara (5%, 3 Votes)
  • Cuan (3%, 2 Votes)
  • Tornal (3%, 2 Votes)
  • Seamew (3%, 2 Votes)
  • Scarba (3%, 2 Votes)

Total Voters: 65

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What is your second choice name for the skiff?

  • Kelpie (24%, 16 Votes)
  • Selkie (24%, 16 Votes)
  • Sguman (14%, 9 Votes)
  • Soul of Seil (8%, 5 Votes)
  • Siaban (8%, 5 Votes)
  • Tornal (8%, 5 Votes)
  • Seamew (6%, 4 Votes)
  • Scarba (5%, 3 Votes)
  • Mara (3%, 2 Votes)
  • Cuan (2%, 1 Votes)

Total Voters: 66

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Looking good

From the bow

Today was more sanding and tidying, plus finishing off the stems. We need to cut some douglas fir for the gunwhales, as the meranti proved too brittle to take the curve at the stern; that should happen later this week, and hopefully at least the inwhales and possibly the gunwhales will be in place for next Sunday.

From the sternFrom the bow

Names again

We are hoping to put a list of possible names in the next Seilachan, including at least a couple of those already suggested by the school.  People will then be able to vote on the website (or by phone or letter if they do not have internet access).  If you have any suggestions for names please let us know within the next few days, as the copy deadline for February’s Seilachan is fast approaching.

The team at work

Chris Spotted

Just after Hogmanay phones started ringing on the shores of Seil Sound as recovering residents tried to find out exactly what had just passed their windows. Those of us in the know were able to tell them that the long double-ended boat now speeding under the bridge at Clachan Seil was Chris o’Kanaird enjoying his first trip of 2013. He (she?) had come over from Anstruther for the holidays.

The long-awaited Kilmelford Rowing Club has now been formed and hope to start on their kit later this month. Babs and Alan kindly brought Chris round to Loch Melfort today and the weather allowed some of the team to get out on the water. We had a good few circuits of the top end of Loch na Cille and got a nice introduction to skiffing.

Personally the thing that struck me most was finding how little resistance there is as the skiff gathers speed. There was probably less effort involved than in sculling about in a much smaller dinghy. One minute we were at the edge of the moorings, the next right up at the head of the loch, so fast that the photograph Iain B took of us is a wee bit blurred.

I’ve been left mad keen to get our own skiff on the water and slightly frustrated that we haven’t managed to get our remaining wood machined yet, so it will be another week before construction resumes.