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Peter Mallory's Blog

By pmallory - Posted on 12 January 2013

15 December 2012

What with my new coaching responsibilities, I have not spent quite as much time working on or writing about my vintage oars. Time to give you an update.

Nearly a year ago I managed to acquire the last five wooden 1960s-era Pocock sweep oars, one pencil blade and four Maçons, from a storied Ivy League program in return for a generous donation. I’m sure a large pile of oars in the boathouse had gradually dwindled over more than forty years as one after another were put to good use . . . mementos for graduates . . . souvenirs for alumni . . . at least one became a stair rail . . . until only the dregs were left for me.

The oars I got from the bottom of the proverbial barrel came to me displaying the wounds of a very hard life. One was missing the tip of its blade. A couple showed stress cracks beneath their collars. I suspect these were retired just in time after they began to groan on each pullthrough. One more good pull or two, and they would have broken in half for sure.

All five had deep scars around their necks and sleeves where they had been carelessly dropped in and slammed home to the brass oarlocks of the period. Remember those oarlocks? They were simply beautiful, elegant sculptures with slender and graceful curves. Wipe away the Crisco we used to apply to the oars back then, and their brass surfaces would gleam brightly, having been being perfectly polished by the motion of feathering and squaring repeated thousands upon thousands of times.

That polishing turned the edges of the oarlock knife-sharp after just a year or so, all the more ready to inflict damage on oars carelessly inserted, oars like mine. This required every team boatman to sand and revarnish oars every year, but the marks always remained.

Oh, how the tasks of a boatman have changed! When I began my coaching career at Penn, some of my most pleasant moments were spent with our rigger, Wayne Neal, as he taught me all I needed to learn if I were to become a complete coach: how to take a file to the sharp edges of an oarlock, how to adjust the pitch of a Pocock rigger . . . with a crowbar, how to glue a blade back together, how to sand and varnish in the dead of winter, how to paint a blade by hand, how to drill one more set of adjustment holes for a footstretcher, how to modify a Pocock seat so it had one more inch of travel on its short 30” tracks, how to fix a check in the hull, how to replace a kneebrace and what wood to use to make a new one from scratch, how to drill holes so a boat could be starboard stroked and then how to rearrange the riggers so the spread would still sort of work out, how to make rigger plates to increase the spread, how to make splashboards so the boat wouldn’t take on water on rough days, how making sure there were no shoes or shirts at rowers’ feet could help the bow pair hear the coxswain, how roughening the wooden handles with a saw helped a rower maintain his grip. I remember the sounds and the smells of that workshop like it was yesterday.

Those sounds and smells are pretty much all gone now, even when I go back and visit that same Penn workshop, no saw dust and spar varnish, all replaced by resin and epoxy. Most of the skills I just listed are no longer even relevant to today’s rowing. Hard to find anything at all in a modern boathouse that isn’t adjustable. Hard to find anything made of wood. Imagine that! We’ve lost a lot. Maybe that’s why I like working with my old oars so much.

A few months ago I acquired another Pocock oar from the same era. Of my six Pocock oars, two are now hanging at home, one is in the Long Beach boathouse, two more have been completely refinished with blank blades awaiting assignment to good homes, and one remains untouched, just as it was when it arrived. Reminds me how far the others have come.

Soon it will be time to return to my other project, two 1960s-vintage Ayling sweep oars with Maçon blades. These were the ones which arrived last August virtually unused, in pristine condition and hardly darkened at all from the sun, but they had nearly white portions of their shafts which over the decades had been protected from any exposure to light by sleeves and labels. They looked like “bikini lines,” and I couldn’t simply strip the oars and bleach them because of their lovely Ayling labels, which are no longer available anywhere.

I thought long and hard about trying to reproduce those labels, like I did with the Pocock logo. The difference was that Stan Pocock provided me with several unused Pocock labels which I could scan and then Photoshop into artwork better than the originals. I couldn’t do the same to the Ayling labels because they wrap around their shafts. I suppose somebody has equipment to accurately scan a complex curved surface, but I sure don’t know them. I suppose I could take the oars to a professional graphic artist and pay them to create exact replica artwork from scratch, but the cost would be astronomical . . . and preserving the originals appealed to my sense of history anyway.

So what to do with those pesky bikini lines? I have mentioned in an earlier newsletter that I went to the one true artist in wood amongst my many good friends in the rowing community, John Van Blom, and basically he told me there was no good solution to artificially stain the unexposed wood to permanently match the rest of the oars, so I decided to do it the old fashioned way. If the sun had caused the problem, then I would harness the sun to provide the solution. I masked off all of both oars except for the lighter parts (which required a fair amount of careful cutting and placing of masking tape), set the oars out in the strong Los Angeles sun and waited.

That was sometime late last summer, if I recall correctly. First I checked every few days . . . and then every few weeks . . . and now months have gone by, kind of quickly considering first the Pocock oars that have occupied my time and then my return to the coaching launch. Now it is nearly Christmas, and this morning I sneaked another peek. I peeled back a bit of the masking tape on both oars, licked my finger, wet the dividing lines, crossed my fingers, held my breath . . . and looked.

It’s finally working! You can still see the difference if you look carefully, but the task is almost complete! Good thing. I had to bring the oars in twice in the last week to avoid rain storms. We are entering the monsoon season around here when the winter sun doesn’t shine every single day. But hooray! The end is in sight.

Where will these oars eventually go? I plan on keeping them right here. Two glorious moments in my rowing career occurred when I had in my hands Ayling Maçon sweeps just like these! Both were in 1966. That spring my grandfather graciously donated two sets of Aylings to the Penn Lightweights. On April 23 of that spring, I stroked our Lightweight Varsity to victory in the Marcellus Hartley Dodge Cup over Yale and Columbia on the Schuylkill with two of my Kent classmates in the Yale boat and my Yale alum father in attendance.

This is the photo I sent to my grandfather [sadly missing here]. You can tell how proud we were of those oars, the first modern wide blades we had ever had! It was a very big deal!

And that was the only time Dad ever saw me race. My grandfather passed away in 1975, my father in 1986, I will see my Kent classmates at our 50th Reunion in a few months, and the memory of that race in 1966 will be with me until the day I die. How nice to have an oar to commemorate my grandfather’s generosity and a golden memory of my past!

Just a few months later, between July 28 and 30, 1966, I held another Ayling Maçon sweep oar in my hands as I stroked boats from Undine Barge Club in Philadelphia to four victories at the Royal Canadian Henley in Port Dalhousie, Ontario.

Besides our gold medals, we won huge trophies! Here we are: coach Fred Leonard, me, Tom Cassel, Geoff Holmes, John Hanson, and manager Joe Burk"e". Joe died just a few months ago, not terribly long after the more famous citizen of Boathouse Row with almost the same name. My, he was proud of that final "e"!

Kids stopped us on the street and asked for our autographs as we walked back to our cars carrying those trophies! Holy cow! That’s heady stuff, a once-in-a-lifetime experience for someone who was at best a only pretty good athlete. Worthy of a commemorative oar on the wall of Old Oar Cottage to remind people I'm not just a guy who wrote a book.

But those lovely Ayling oars may not be finished until spring or summer as I wait for the sun to complete that task I set out for it. In the meantime, I have plenty of coaching to keep me busy.