Rowing a boat

Thu, 09/27/2018 - 7:45pm

As a young kid around age 10, the most transformative experience — besides riding a bicycle — I ever had was when I rented a rowboat on a small pond on Cape Cod. While on a camping trip, I noticed a beat-up rowboat to hire for short money — 50 cents an hour. I flipped a guy four quarters and hopped in and started working the oars for two hours — non-stop. I figured out by trial, error, and frustration how to row the boat in a straight line; more importantly, I learned to pivot the pram so I could get back to the dock. I also learned to read the wind shifts on the pond. All of this nautical stuff was learned on the quick; I went back the next day with six quarters.

Having owned sailboats for over 40 years, I found that having a small dinghy to get out to my boats was a necessity. Aesthetics were never an issue regarding dinghies; they were utilitarian and held no emotional pull — until about two months ago.

One day while noodling around Facebook, I hit an icon for a platform that sold stuff — I never knew you could buy stuff on Facebook — and up popped a small sailing pram called a Nutshell. I looked at the price, and was pinned with excitement and interest. I wanted this boat, but my excitement was dimmed as there were over 500 views for this sharp-looking rig. I figured someone must have scooped up this great deal already. Undaunted, I punched in a note that said, “I’m interested in this boat. Is this boat nearby? My boat is in Newport. My only question is if the centerboard trunk leaks.” (Most centerboard trunks leak on small wooden boats because that’s where all the stress loads up when sailing upwind.) I immediately got a note back from a woman who said the owner would call me when he got back from sailing — the guy’s sailboat is also moored in Newport, and he only wanted a yard and a half for the boat; I was almost dancing a jig as this deal kicked into motion.

The writer E. B. White’s late son was named Joel, and he was the guy who designed the Nutshell sailing pram.

The boat is 7-feet 7-inches and has a four-foot beam. It has a simple sailing rig, and can also be used as a rowboat. It is a kit boat made from marine plywood, screws, glue, and some other simple hardware. The flat-bottomed Nutshell rows easily and it only weighs about 80 pounds;  therefore it tows behind Reverie with very little drag — it has very slight presence below the waterline. The Nutshell is tender and must be fun to sail. Moreover, it has similar lines to an Optimist Sailing Dinghy — a great learning boat.

The next day I was off to Newport. I had a spring — almost a swagger — in my step as I walked down the dock at Oldport Marine to take the launch out to Reverie. The guy called me again to check if I really wanted to buy this boat without looking at it. “Does it look like the picture,” I asked. “Yup,” he said. “And the centerboard trunk doesn’t leak,” I asked. “Nope,” he said, “it’s never been sailed.” “Can you bring it over to my boat,” I asked. “Sure can,” he said. Bingo, I was all in and the deal was done. The boat’s owner towed the Nutshell across Newport Harbor with his Zodiac and I flipped the guy the agreed upon scoots. Then, I went sailing for two days. Win, win, win!

All boats have a learning curve regarding their usage, because they are all different. As I sailed to my favorite anchorage up in the bay, I noticed how easily the Nutshell towed behind Reverie. As stated earlier, the boat is very tender and lightweight; as a result, there was very little drag as she was being towed off my stern. As I sailed into the East Passage of Narragansett Bay, there was an outgoing tide and about 18 knots of south west wind. These conditions caused lots of lively movement for the Nutshell; as Reverie scooted along in a few of feet of fetch from the wind, the Nutshell would spring alongside on the waves crests that were just about even with the cockpit. It was during these conditions that I learned something new about my new row boat.

When I left Newport, the wind was light and the water was flat; however, as I continued north toward Prudence Island, the conditions changed, which they normally do in the afternoon. What was going on without me noticing as the wind and seas changed was that the centerboard trunk was burping up water into the boat as she trailed behind Reverie. Furthermore, as the conditions got rougher, the burping got more consistent and there was a substantial amount of water in the boat which was now squatting lower in the water and getting skittish. At this point the only thing to do was slow the sailboat down by reducing sail and changing the sailing angle from a straight downwind run to a broad reach, which would reduce the burping — it worked.

When I got to the anchorage the first thing I did was hop in the Nutshell and bail out the water. I also learned more about the stability of my new row boat while scooping out the water. After blocking off the exposed centerboard trunk with a scrap of line I found on my sailboat, I continued to row my new boat around the anchorage, which brought me right back to my first rowing experience on Cape Cod. It also brought me an idea for my next column.

To be continued...