Pulling Boat Oar Commands 1775 – 1783

    In large pulling boats, oarsman are divided into two divisions called “banks,” referring to the side of vessel they are on, LARBOARD or STARBOARD. Further, each oarsman is numbered beginning at the bow with the No. 1, and increasing in number astern, ending with BANK SWEEP. In smaller vessels where beam is not ample enough to allow for two full banks seated side by side, oarsman are staggered behind each other in a single row, but maintain their bank and number identity. Thus a double banked boat, carrying six oars total would have the following oarsman from fore to aft on their respective side, LARBOARD Nos. 1, 2, and 3 or LARBOARD Sweep, STARBOARD Nos. 1, 2, and 3 or STARBOARD Sweep.

    The Coxswain is stationed in the stern of the vessel with the tiller or steering oar. He is responsible for the coordination of the oarsman and the navigation of the vessel. When giving commands to the oarsman, the bank for which it is intended, Larboard or Starboard should precede the order. In practice it is best if the statement, “both sides”, precede an order for the entire vessel. If no bank is specifically designated, then the order is to be assumed for the entire boat. Oar commands should be given in two parts, a preparatory and an execution command. Upon the execution command the current stroke is finished, and the new order carried out.

    The Coxswain should develop the period language used to keep the men at oars motivated to keep up the rhythm and stroke as well the pace. This can be interlaced with the word "stroke" as may be necessary to realign the uniformity of all oars, but should not be constant. The men at oars should have their full attention fixed on the Coxswain and not looking at the scenery around them, and above all, silent to hear the commands.

    For information on the different types of oar powered boats and their use, refer to the lesson on Small Boats found in the index of CBT Lessons.

The Oar Commands are as follows:

Stand By Oars: Oarlocks are shipped, oars are passed outboard, and laid blade forward on the gunwale, the handle of each oar near the user, and the forward oars inboard of the after ones.

Toss Oars: Oars are swiftly brought to the vertical, blades trimmed fore and aft. The handle of each oar is to be between the feet of the oarsman on the floorboard, the outboard hand holding the loom at chin level, the inboard hand holding at thigh level.

Let Fall Oars: Oars are quickly, but in a controlled motion, brought down from the vertical to the horizontal, loom resting in the oarlock, blades parallel with the water’s surface.

Out Oars: (to be used in lieu of toss oars) From Stand By Oars, outboard arm cradles oar at elbow, inboard hand on handle, oar is lifted to a 45 degree angle and swung into the oarlock. Oars are lowered to the horizontal, blades parallel to water’s surface.

Give Way Together: Aftermost oar setting the pace, oarsman row together in a forward direction, keeping time by watching the back in front of them. Oar blades should be vertical when pulling, horizontal when recovering from the stroke.

Pick Up the Stroke: The bank or oarsmen not already giving way together join in on the start of the next stroke.

Oars (also “Ground Oars” was used): Once finished with the current stroke, oars are brought to the horizontal, blades parallel to the water’s surface.

Hold Water: Outboard hand grabs gunwale aft of oarlock, inboard arm is placed over oar so that the handle is in the armpit. The blade is vertical and placed in the water by the raising and bracing of the body of the oarsman. Care should be taken when this command is given at speed, as the force transmitted to the oarsman is great.

Back Water: Oarsman row together in an-astern-motion, with the after oarsman setting the pace. Should not be given at speed, use Hold Water to take way off before backing.

Bank Oars: Oars are slid in until the handle rests under the gunwale on the far side of the boat.

In Bows: No 1 men of each bank finish the stroke, toss oars simultaneously to an angle of 15 degrees and boat them together in the centre of the boat. They move to the foresheets and stand ready with boat hooks held vertical. If personnel are already in the foresheets they should carry out this duty as No 1 oarsmen continue to function at oars.

Way Enough: Inboard hand on the handle, outboard arm lifting oar in the crook of the elbow, the oar is tossed to 45 degrees, and swung in to lay on the gunwale, blade flat, after oars outboard of forward ones. Oarlocks are unshipped.

Boat Oars: The oars are passed overhead into the centre one at a time and stacked along the centreline in between oarsman. The steering oar is placed on top.

Trail Oars: To be used only when no other application will fit. The oar is slid all the way out through the oarlock and allowed to trail alongside the boat in the water. Without lanyards, the oarsmen grab the handle and trail their hand in the water to avoid losing the oar. Recover Oars is used to reship them and return to the Oars position.

Stern All: Given from Oars or Hold Water. The oars are backed, keeping stroke and feathering.

Back Starboard (Larboard): Designated oars are backed as at Stern All.

Use of the Rudder and Steering Oar

Generally the Steering Oar is thought to give better control of an oar powered vessel then the tiller and rudder. This is because the tiller and rudder require way upon the vessel to function, while the steering oar does not. At speed, the steering oar is used as a rudder to keep the vessel straight, or initiate turns by deflecting water to one side or the other. At speeds insufficient for this hydrodynamic action to take place, the steering oar is used to row the stern in one direction or another.

To receive credit for this lesson, click here to login to the exam. A score of 70% must be obtained to receive credit on your certificates for this lesson. Enter you name and e-mail address when you login to receive confirmation of taking the exam and to record the same in the Richmond's course records database. NOTE: This lesson does not qualify one to act as a Coxswain.

About the Author: Russell V. Tucker has many a stroke with an ash oar as an enlisted seaman aboard a 23 foot pulling boat while commander of the Texas Marine Department, a WBTS naval unit in which the boat was based. He has trained several Coxswains in pulling boat surf landings of Marines and troops as well in river operations. Russell is currently the Post Captain of the H.M.S. Richmond living history unit, and also does a seaman rating as a member of a gun crew and boarding party as part of the Richmond's Ship's Company. 

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