by Paul Haynie

Fifteen Minutes in an Oracle

At the recent Rend Lake Messabout, Max Wawrzyniak graciously invited me to try out his Michalak designed "Oracle", the prototype of that design. Since I am a conversation junkie first and a boat nut second, I did not get an opportunity to do so until the rapid approach of both the dinner hour and a rainstorm left me alone on the beach.

I was predisposed to like the boat; I had liked the lines when I first saw them in the Duckworks catalog; I liked the way the she looked in the photos Max had published, and, having bought the plans, I thought I had a fairly good idea of what the boat would look like in the real world. Now, with my hands on the boat, I still liked her very much; she is a pretty boat, and Max did an excellent job of building her, but she is much smaller than I had imagined, and scandalously short of freeboard. On the other hand, that impression was heavily colored by the gray sky, gray and choppy water, being alone, and the sudden realization that I had not actually ROWED a boat in something like 30 years. I pressed on regardless.

Getting into the boat was daunting; attempting to simply hop over the side was likely to result in a swamping. I pulled the boat out of its nest in the tall grass and set the stern on one of the few areas of beach that was not occupied by another boat, positioned myself with both hands and one knee on the gunwales, and pushed off. I realized that my next move required putting most of my weight on one knee in the center of the boat's aft thwart. I am fairly agile (for, say, a rhinoceros), but am still well beyond any expected normal human weight. The thwart suddenly looked awfully fragile. On the other hand, I was rapidly drifting toward Max's anchored AF4 over increasingly unprotected and choppy water; I had to either advance or swim. I advanced, and without mishap, though my imagination did its usual helpful bit by providing a variety of horrific wood splitting sounds.

I made my way to the seat, located a matched pair of oars (there were two sets available), and managed to get them mounted. I was aided in this by the fact that the oars were the Midwestern sort I had grown up with, in which the oarlock is pinned to the oar. I am not sure what I would have done with oars whose blades were not automatically at 90 degrees to the water; I was confused enough as it was.

I found that I had no instincts for rowing whatsoever; I had to think through the physics of each stroke just before I made it, all the while trying to avoid the boats on shore and that AF4 moored nearby. I managed to get out past the AF4 mainly due to Oracle's directional stability; when I found myself too close to the AF4 to use the port oar at all, a couple of careful strokes with the starboard oar got me into open water.

Oracle moved beautifully and comfortably across the dark and choppy lake for all of about six strokes, long enough for a quick rush of pleasure to develop and be crushed by reality. There was a rainstorm coming on, I did not know the lake, I could not see where I was going, and I had to bring this boat back to a spot on the beach that had barely been big enough for it when I was wading and in absolute control of its motion. The thought of plowing this sharp-nosed little boat (loaded with 300 pounds of biological ballast) into the stern of one of the other boats on the beach did not appeal to me.

I came about, advanced as far as I dared, and then did what the tank corps calls a "neutral steer turn" (there must be a proper nautical term for spinning a rowboat on its axis by moving the oars opposite each other, but I have no idea what it might be…) and rowed carefully and ignominiously into the beach backward.

And that was my entire boating experience for my first Messabout. Others did more boating under rather better conditions, and the conversation (to say nothing of the food) was very good in any case. For myself, it looks like I am going to have to add a forward-facing oar rig back onto my project list. I like the way rowing feels, but I REALLY like to be able to see where I am going…

Paul Haynie