Oars for Coastal Rowing

coastal oars.jpg

Following my blog about coastal rigging, I had a few inquiries about oars, so here we go…

First order of business: Although I’d love to pretend I have the glamour of a basketball or football star who is cashing million-dollar checks every time I mention a brand, the fact is that I am not getting royalties from any of the particular companies that I am going to discuss! These are oars that I have used extensively so I’m able to share my experience and comment on their suitability for coastal rowing. I’ll try to get more oars tested in the future, but will start here with a review of options from Concept 2 and Croker. 

Generally, you can use any oar that you already own for coastal rowing. However, if you do really get into coastal, you may find that not every oar is as well-suited for the sport as others. For instance, I don’t think the Concept 2 Fat2 blade is ideal for coastal. It’s way too heavy at the catch. I’m not arguing for or against its efficiency on flat water, but with the big coastal boats in big waves, there is too much lock at the catch with this blade. I used the Fat2 on a very short shaft for awhile with decent results, but find the blades a little less technical/nimble in rough conditions, in addition to sporting a loading profile that I believe to be less than optimal for coastal rowing (see Coastal Drives).

 Sticking with Concept 2 offerings, I believe that the Smoothie2 Vortex edge works better than the Fat2 for coastal conditions. I find the Smoothie2 Vortex still a little heavy at the catch, but other athletes have found significant racing success with this blade.  

I prefer the Smoothie2 Plain Edge. It’s softer and more forgiving at the catch, and remains locked well through the critical mid-drive and finish, an aspect that I find so helpful in coastal. In rough water, this blade is easy to handle and therefore fast, so represents a good choice for an all-conditions oar.

With any of the above C2 blades, I recommend the regular Concept 2 ultralight shaft. Definitely not the Low I, which doesn’t take impact well (remember that coastal racing can be a contact sport!). I have my doubts about the Skinny shaft as well. Go with C2’s most durable offering for this sport that beats up equipment. 

 The C2 Bantam is a really interesting blade for coastal. The smaller surface area gives a very light feeling to the stroke. It’s surprisingly efficient considering how light it feels (I did some testing of the bantam vs “regular” blades in controlled conditions with a few different GPS speed units to discover this). I’ve found this blade to be great for long rows in moderate conditions. So if you are generally cruising or touring in your coastal boat, this blade could be the way to go. It will keep you fresh as the miles add up. I’ve also recommended it to smaller/lighter rowers for racing. It allows lower-horsepower rowers to turn the drive over more quickly, keeping the stroke lively and the boat kicking along. This is in perfect sync with the Rigging philosophy of running a lower gearing for coastal.

However,  I do find that the Bantam blade falls short in surf work or really nasty waves. It gives me a little less control on my brace technique and in pulling the boat over breakers. But these are specialized conditions. In paddle sports (surf ski racing for instance), there are various blades available of greater or lesser surface area, and they are geared towards the paddler’s size, expected conditions, paddling technique, and trip length (short racing, long racing, touring, etc). It would be neat to see oar makers apply that logic to coastal rowing oars also.

My current all-around favorite setup is the Croker Slick blade on the S3 (intermediate) shaft. The Croker loading profile matches my preferred coastal stroke. It catches solidly but with a forgiving softness (this is helped by the flex in the S3 shaft), while loading up really well through the mid-drive. I like how clean the Slick blade is at the catch and finish, which is critical in rough water. Its a nimble blade, that handles well in all conditions.

The S3 shaft is awesome for coastal because it is seriously strong. As far as I know, this is the toughest shaft on the market while still carrying reasonable weight. In coastal rowing oars get broken pretty regularly. I’ve seen lots of shattered carbon fiber in races, clinics, surf, and even in casual beach landings. I have abused the heck out of my S3’s, rowing them through everything: from boat-busting offshore breakers to swim landings in heavy surf. I’ve had instances where I’ve had to throw my oars up the beach to save my boat (and myself) from being bashed to bits on rocky shores. Like I said, abusive handling!

The S3 shaft is a bit heavier than the accepted standard for flat water racing. I felt the extra weight in my hands when I first demoed them, but now I don’t notice it at all. The small amount of extra weight is actually helpful in challenging coastal conditions anyways: they are better-behaved in a headwind, and help to stabilize the boat in cross winds. But plain and simple, it’s disappointing to crack an oar in a race, and dangerous to break an oar offshore. I’ll gladly recommend this robust offering from Croker.

You may have noted (check out Instagram!) that the Croker oars I use have white shafts. This is simply an epoxy based paint that Croker offers. It reminds me of the glaring white zinc sunscreen that I lather on my face – and it’s there for the same reason! My boat and oars hang out on the beach a lot, soaking in hours and hours of damaging UV every day. Unprotected epoxy resins do not mix well with sunlight. The white finish prolongs the oars’ life, and thus becomes a safety feature: I often row well offshore in marginal conditions, and I don’t want to hang my well-being on a UV-weakened shaft.

Overall, I think a coastal oar should have a loading profile that favors the mid-drive. It should enter cleanly and have a sharp release. The blade should feel nimble in all wave conditions, and have a solid connection during all aspects of the stroke without being overly heavy. The shaft shouldn’t be overly stiff. You need some flex to absorb the potentially high shock loads that come with the boat bouncing around and waves suddenly bashing against the hull. Durability is paramount. In fact, I would like to see more companies offering a more robust shaft that still offers good performance. 

From Concept 2, I recommend the Smoothie 2 Plain edge on an Ultralight Shaft (soft-medium stiffness). The Bantam is well worth considering for long distance rowing and smaller athletes (in moderate conditions).

From Croker, the Slick blade on an S3 shaft won’t let you down in any conditions.