Oars, part 2. Outboard, inboard, handle and sleeve

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After part 1, now we move on to outboard, inboard, handle and sleeve.

To decide your overall oar length you need to agree first your outboard length (in conjunction with blade area and shape – see later), then your inboard length.


The outboard length of the oar is measured from the blade tip to the centre of the sleeve. This length sets your “gearing” in conjunction with the arc through which you row, and with fixed thole pins, there is a finite limit to this arc length at both ends of the stroke. “Gearing” refers to the ratio between the size of the arc through which you row and the outboard length of the lever (oar).

In gig rowing the maximum size of the arc is dictated by the width between the rowing thole pins and so the size of the arc is something that you cannot change (although many crews may actually be rowing less than the full arc potential). However, it’s worth pointing out that some 50 year’s worth of data shows that in fixed or sliding seat rowing the arc from the catch to the point where the oar is at 90 degrees to the centreline of the boat (the “orthogonal” – new word for the day?) ideally needs to be about 60 degrees, and from the orthogonal to the finish not more than 35 degrees. This gives a total of 95 degrees.

In gigs it’s possible to achieve this total arc, but unfortunately you can’t get much more than about 50 degrees at the catch (in bow seat, helped by the curve of the gunwhale of the boat), whilst it is possible to row more than 35 degrees at the finish. Gig rowers over the past 20 years have been striving to get a longer arc at the finish by rowing the handle past their body, but this extra 10 degrees does not actually move the boat – rather, the boat is towing the blade out of the inside of the puddle, and this is even more pronounced if the finish is not accelerated. In fact rowers may benefit by concentrating on maintaining acceleration all the way through to the finish (ie “shorter but harder”).

Imagine in this diagram that a crew is rowing through an arc of 90 degrees with an outboard oar length of 295cm (pins to point A) – this would represent a very hard gearing. You can see from the diagram that for the given arc the “chord length” (A to A) represents the distance the boat is moved per stroke. Equally with a less strong crew using an outboard oar length of 278cm (pins to “B”, and chord length of B to B in diagram), the gearing is much easier because, for the same arc angles, the boat is moved a lesser distance.

It is interesting therefore that some leading men’s crews are currently using an outboard the same length as their ladies crews (!) this suggests that either the men’s crews are geared easier than their optimal (and maybe also rating higher), or that the ladies crews are geared harder than their optimal…?

(images showing position of leather in different places mens vs womens crew – same boat, same seat. Yes, ok, they’re probably using different kit but you get the idea – Ed.) You can see that the Men’s Crew (left) are rowing towards the inboard end of their sleeve (harder gearing, but perhaps too short inboard length?), whereas the Ladies Crew (right) are rowing towards the outer end of their sleeve (easier gearing, but perhaps too long inboard length?)


This length is measured from the end of the handle to the middle of the sleeve. The traditional inboard length of gig oars prior to the resurgence of gig rowing in the 1980’s has been quoted as “3 inches less than the width of the boat” at each seat across from the rowing pins. [If anyone could confirm this please contact us! – Ed]. In those days the longest pair of oars at 3 & 4 seats were about 14ft (426cm) overall, and the shortest around 12’6” (381cm). It’s interesting to note that whilst the outboard lengths of gig oars have reduced to be more appropriate to the shorter racing distances, the inboards have also reduced significantly!

The reduction in length inboard has had a significant effect on technique because with longer inboards (3 inches short of gunwhale etc) the oar handle was rowed into the ribs. During the 1980’s and 90’s the inboards got a lot shorter in order (we presume) to row the handle past the body. Over the last 5 years however we observe that fewer crews are rowing the handle past the side of the body, and more have elected to use a stronger finishing position with the end of the oar finishing to the ribs roughly in line with the centre line of the body.

Amongst the top crews this trend may be more evident in the ladies crews, and this would be because they are often not rowing on the centre of their sleeve but have pulled the oar more inboard in order to reduce the outboard length (gearing). This has also had the added benefit that they now have slightly longer inboard lengths and are therefore drawing the middle to the finish of the stoke with their bodyweight much more behind the oar handle, rather than leaning out away from it and rowing the handle past the side of the body.

(images of leaning in, handles past and leaning out at finish)

In summary, inboards have gone from traditionally much too long for our current “sprint” racing, to too short inboards in an effort to increase the arc angle at the finish. (NOTE – it’s one thing to row a low and efficient rate for mile upon mile to meet a ‘Tall Ship’, compared to 10 or 20 minutes flat out on a race course). Rowers may now be finding a more optimal inboard length to facilitate the required 90 degree arc, whilst at the same time keeping the upper body weight and power behind the handle.


When choosing your overall oar length, first decide how long the outboard should be to give the optimal gearing, then decide the inboard length, all based on the physique and technique of the rower. The sum = the overall length.


This is essentially the narrower part of the inboard which is not varnished. Simply measure from the inboard end of the oar, to the end of the bare wood. We don’t have any dimensions for the diameter of the oar handle, but this should vary, dependent on the rower. Ladies with smaller hands will require narrower handles, whilst men with larger hands will require wider handles (fairly obvious really). If the diameter is too small the fingers will be very flexed when hooking round the handle and this will create extra tension and fatigue in the forearms. Too big, and the fingers will not be able to hook round the handle sufficiently to grip at all.

The diameter of the handle should be narrowest at the inboard end because all that is needed for the outside hand is to hook the fingers rounds. For the inside hand, the handle should be slightly thicker because the inside hand feathers the oar and a bigger thickness here means a smaller wrist movement to feather.

The length of the handle will depend on how far apart the hands are on the oar. In any sort of rowing the longer the inboard length of oar, the wider will be the hand grip naturally, and conversely, the shorter the inboard length, the narrower will be the grip.

The 1980’s and 90’s development of shorter inboard oar lengths have led to many gig rowers closing their grip up to even touching, whereas with the traditional long inboard oars the hand grip was very wide. Again, the ideal is something between the two, with the hands about 1 to 1 ½ hand’s width apart.

With the hands very close together, the shoulders tend to hunch at the catch, and through the middle to finish of the stroke there’s much less lateral control of the blade especially in rough seas.

Rowing with the hands 1-1 ½ widths apart encourages the body to twist in to the catch, and in behind the work at the finish (following the arc of the oar), and this ensures that the maximum force, and correct angle of force, of the body is applied to the blade.

(images, close grip and wide grip. Yes, the boat on the right is a sliding seat boat. The surfboat pic we had was even more extreme. Forgive me!)

If the hands are too wide apart, the inside arm will start the catch very bent, and this is likely to cause early fatigue in this arm.

Finally, it is probably better to have longer handles than at present (increase from the current 40cms to around 48-50cm). This will cover the variable inboard lengths required when men’s and women’s crews are sharing oars.


The length of the sleeve will be decided by how much length you want inboard and outboard of the rowing pin, and this is normally 18 inches (46cm) which assumes 9 inches inboard/outboard. This provides sufficient length of sleeve to give less strong crews the option to reduce their gearing by rowing with more oar inboard. Equally, in a strong tail wind a very strong crew may wish to move their sleeve outboard to make the gearing harder.

If the oars are always used for the crews for whom they were made, then a shorter sleeve of say 12 inches would suffice. However, because most oars are used by a range of rowers from juniors to top class men, then the basic sleeve “setting” for each crew will need to be different, and therefore an 18” sleeve is optimal.

Over the last 5 years some crews have tried using the plastic sleeves used by sliding-seat rowers, but it seems that they have been rejected by most, although not all.  The plastic sleeve is harder and therefore more “pitch” sensitive, and crews have found them harder to control, and particularly harder to keep covered in the water.   This is not a problem for sliding-seat rowers because the oars have a “D” shaped cross-sectional sleeve which fits into a rowing swivel.  Leather is more ‘forgiving’ and easier to control, especially with the latest narrow lacing, however, the thick lacing on older oars does reduce arc length because of the thickness of the leather plus the lacing.  Also, the thick lacing can interfere with the accuracy of the catch if the lacing touches the aft tholepin.

On the other hand, the plastic sleeve offers a narrower diameter sleeve, and this in turn enables fractionally larger arc angles to be achieved.  Also, the smoothness of the plastic reduces the friction on the pins, and there is less need to grease them compared with leather sleeves.  Finally, the plastic sleeves can be replaced in minutes since they only need to be slipped on and then heated with a hair dryer to ‘shrink’ them into position.   Only time will tell if more crews use plastic sleeves or not.

Coming up in part 3 – blade development, dimensions and shapes…

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4 Comments on "Oars, part 2. Outboard, inboard, handle and sleeve"

  1. Pingback: Oars, part 1. Measuring to provide a spec. : GigRower … Pilot Gig, Cornish Pilot Gigs, Gig Rowing

  2. Hey, I’ve discover some cultural diversity here. In the Netherlands (I know, what the heck do they know about gigs) there has been an ongoing debate about “shorter but harder”. At least in our club. Some prefer a long arc (the “chord length”) others are strong believers of a short but powerful stroke or “arc”. Is this debate going on in many clubs?

    • GigRower

      Hi Arjan, the debate is not about how large the arc should be from the catch to the orthogonal (oar @ 90o to the boat), as it is universally known that the ‘Peak Force’ is reached before the orthogonal, and the longer the arc at the catch, the better.

      The debate in gig rowing is about how large the arc should be from the orthogonal to the extraction. In sliding seat rowing where all the leading rowing nations have equipment which can measure actual arc angles, force:time curves, boat speed and fluctuation, etc., etc., it has been known since the 1970’s, if not before, that arcs in excess of 37 to 40 degrees from the orthogonal to the extraction result in less efficiency – the boats are shown to slow-down when the arc is over-long, as the boat (now moving at its peak speed) effectively ‘tows the blade out of the inside of the puddle’.

      Since the 2000 Olympic Games, the increasing sophistication of the measuring equipment, and the fact that many more National Rowing Teams have access to such equipment on a daily basis, has actually led to a further reduction to the optimum arc from 37 to 35 degrees.

      In sliding seat sculling (each person using a pair of sculls), this angle has to be larger, simply because it is impossible to reduce it, except by making other compromises to the stroke which in turn result in slower boat speed.

      The over-long finishing arcs used by many gig rowers may have resulted from the early days of the resurgence of the sport when there were very few rowers left from the post-war days to offer guidance, and, (to our knowledge), there hasn’t been any bio-mechanical analysing equipment designed for fixed-pin/fixed-seat rowing. When gig rowing used oars with a very long inboard length (pre-1960’s), the arc angle from the orthogonal to the extraction had to be much less than during the 1970’s until the present, because the long inboard lengths physically restricted the finish arc.

      Also, in all the other branches of fixed-seat rowing (that we are aware of), none use the over-longer finish arc used by gig rowers.

      At some stage GigRower may produce another article on the bio-mechanical analysis of the blade in the water from the catch to the extraction, in conjunction with the acceleration/deceleration of the boat, but first the series of articles on ‘Choosing Oars’ needs to be completed! (Ed).

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