29 April 2022
By Bill Miller
Bill Miller finds a newsletter from December 1991.
Perhaps it would be fun to turn the calendar back to a time when everyone used conventional symmetrical oar blades – 1991. The last major change in oar shape had been in 1959 when, at the European Championships in Mâcon, France, the West Germany national team showed up with oars with a shorter blade that was widest near the middle of the blade then tapering toward the tip. It came to be called the Macon Blade. It lasted until 1992.
Now let’s go to October 1991. At the time, I was the U.S. Rowing Northeast Regional Technical Coordinator. Quarterly, I would edit a newsletter for the Northeast (New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine). The Northeast Regional Newsletter describes a revolutionary oar design – the asymmetrical Concept2 Big Blade.
Revisit the December 1991 Newsletter below introducing the breakthrough. I wrote:
This fall I had the opportunity to race with a substantially different blade design from Concept II. The Motley Boat Club eight raced at the Head of the Connecticut and the Head-of the-Charles (where we placed seventh) using Concept II’s new blades. This new oar blade was an unconventional design with a large surface area and a shape like a meat cleaver. At first we thought that the designers at Concept II had a nightmare that spilled into one of their work days. But after the Head of the Connecticut Regatta, we conceded that the oars felt conventional but made the boat feel lively. (Considering that most of us are in our mid-forties, not much feels lively to us anymore.) Perhaps the theory behind the design might actually be significant.
Dick Dreissigacker explains the “Big Blade Theory” this way: “Let’s suppose we shorten the outboard lever of an oar or scull and leave the spread the same. We all know from experience that this will result in a lighter load at the handle. Now, let’s increase the blade size until we feel the original load again at the handle. Because of the shorter lever arm, the same force and velocity at the handle will now generate a greater force and slower velocity at the blade. This greater force at the blade will propel the boat faster while the slower velocity means that the blade slips less through the water. In other words, more work is done on the oarlock and less work is done on the water – therefore a more efficient oar. So goes the theory.
“Any theory is only as good as it proves out in practice. So at Concept II we began cutting, pasting, rowing and timing. We discovered that there are numerous factors which complicate the application of the Big Blade Theory. The result of our efforts is a short, fat and some say, ugly oar which is a bit faster and surprisingly easy to row.
“The blade is generally rectangular in shape and is wider and shorter than the traditional blade. This idea is to go as wide as can be easily handled, 21-22 cm. for sculls and 25-26 cm. for sweeps. The length of the blade is shortened to prevent back-watering at the shaft end of the blade. The outboard dimension of the oar is also shortened such that the overall length of the oar is 290 cm. versus 298 cm. for sculls and 376 cm. versus 383.5 cm. for sweeps.
“Although the jury is still out on this theory, we have found that most people laugh when they see these oars, but smile when they row with them.”
The first Cleaver blades were patented in the USA on the 7th August 1883 by M.F.Davis, patent number 282.856
I think Concept might be twenty years too late in claiming the “big blade theory”. I rowed in the Great Britain 2+ at the World Juniors in Bled in 1971, winning a silver medal. The blades we used were 2 inches (50mm) wider than standard 9 inch macon shaped blades, more like a “tulip”. Our testing with three sets of blades (standard, 1 inch and 2 inch wider clearly showed the bigger blades were more efficient. Not hatchet style but certainly “big blades”. With thanks to our inquisitive coach Arthur Truswell and the highly skilled Ron Cousins, foreman at Collar Oars who made the blades.
At CUBC in Spring 1992 we had on loan what we believed to be the first set of cleavers in the UK (our coaches had strong C2 connection). They had much bigger spoons than nowadays, we tried them at Ely, perhaps not very scientifically, weren’t sure of any benefits and didn’t use them for the boat race. We lost. But then again, Oxford had Macons too! But then only 3 months later, they were everywhere (with a spoon closer to current design) and I think only one winning Henley crew still had Macons – that’s how fast they took over.
Hi Steve we are coastal fixed seats. Quite heavy boats. We are trying to educate people to switch from heavy pencil type oars with huge blades to lighter oars. Macons or spoons but we’re hitting brick walls. Can you send me a link please for advice. Thank you