The difference between an ordinary, run- of-the-waterfront rowboat and a proper pulling boat is the anchor: Once you've rowed a well-designed rowboat, anything else under oars will feel as though it's dragging one.
If all your rowing has been confined to the typical flat-bottomed, slab-sided, broad- sterned craft that pass for rowboats these days, a real treat awaits you. To lay to a pair of long, limber ash oars properly matched to a hull that slices through the water is to understand that, yes, form does follow function.
The outboard motor all but obliterated the eye-sweet shapes that had developed over a couple hundred years. In their place came boats designed to skim over the surface with the aid of clamp-on engines, to be rowed only when the machine broke down or ran out of gas.
Soon, rowing for pleasure, as distinct from the competitive sport of crew, was left in boating's wake. And it's only within the last few years that a proper pulling boat could be had except on special order from a boatbuilder -- if you could find one.
Today, the same types of boats that under oars alone once took the lobsterman miles to his traps, or the lighthouse keeper to the village for supplies, or the lady and her parasol for a turn around the lake are again available. Now you can find -- in modern, low- maintenance materials -- just the stout little ship to take the spouse and kids, plus a picnic lunch and the dog, to those quiet little islands just offshore, or to poke around in that thin water above the bridge where nobody goes.
Signs of the pulling-boat revival are popping up all across the country. Maine and Connecticut have had traditional dory races for some years now, and Puget Sound has its share of small-boat regattas. In Florida, there are rowing competitions for traditional sponge skiffs.
Closer to home, what last year was an informal gathering at St. Michaels, Maryland, has blossomed into a full-fledged small-boat event sponsored by the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. It will be held this Friday through Sunday.
Commercial builders have begun to adapt such types as the Maine Peapod, the Grand Banks Dory and the Whitehall Boat to construction in modern materials, and if you don't want to build your own, there are at least a dozen small firms offering such boats in fiberglass. Some have even adapted the sliding seats used in racing shells to traditional pulling boats to give the rower maximum power and more complete exercise.
But chances are you won't be able to walk into your friendly local marine dealer and buy a new pulling boat off the floor. Building these boats is something of a cottage industry, and most builders sell direct, through magazine advertising and by word of mouth. Prices run from $500 for a bare hull that you finish yourself to about $3,000 for an elegant yacht-finish pulling boat and all the fixings.
"This is still a limited market," says George Surgent, who builds the rowing/sailing 18-foot Island Creek Boat in fiberglass at his shop in St. Leonard, Maryland. "Dealer markup on boats like this would put them beyond the range of the buyer. So most of us sell directly to the customer.
"It's a very specialized market, too," Surgent says. "Not everyone wants the same type (of pulling boat), so it's hard to gear up on a mass-production basis."
But the number of small-scale builders is increasing, judging by the number of ads in such publications as Small Boat Journal. "Over the past two years, we've had a steady growth in the number of advertising pages for all types of boats, rowing craft in particular," reports editor Dennis Caprio.
With the revival have come organizations such as the Traditional Small Craft Association, which sponsors rowing meets, workshops and overnight expeditions in local chapters while serving broader goals of preserving designs and building skills nationwide. Dues for the association are $10 a year; P.O. Box 350, Mystic, Connecticut 06355. In about the only book on the subject, Boats, Oars and Rowing (International Marine Publishing, Camden, Maine), the late R.D. (Pete) Culler, a Cape Cod boatbuilder, offered this recipe for the ideal rowing boat: ". .. Long length, modest to narrow beam, and very modest freeboard -- enough, but no more -- are essential to all good rowing craft of whatever type."
"I consider anything under 16 feet . . . as not being able to get the full potential out of a good pair of oars and a man's not necessarily good back and arms."
The best design is arrow-like and will carry its own length between strokes. But light weight is not necessarily an asset as, once under way, weight will help keep up the momentum.
Oars, Culler tell us, are invariably too short. After all, they work on the lever and fulcrum principle, and the longer the lever, the more efficient the transfer of energy. Even a poorly designed boat will row more efficiently with the proper length oars.
Culler says most of us who have used the typical rowboat have probably developed bad habits, like digging the oars in too deep, reaching too far forward for the beginning of the stroke, and pulling too hard.
Another tip is that if the oars are long enough to allow you to row directly in front of your chest, or even overlapping -- one above the other as you pass through the middle of the stroke -- you will have more leverage.
And handles that taper in toward the loom of the oar, rather than the barrel- shaped handles seen on most standard oars, will be less fatiguing on your hand, he notes.
Culler also advocates lubricating the oars ("either tallow or Vaseline will do quite well") because they are the boat's crankshaft. Most pulling-boat oars have leather sleeves where they pass through the oarlocks and these should be greased ("be a bit sloppy with it") as should the sockets of the oarlocks.
Once you have the proper boat fitted with adequate oars, there's little more to spend beyond buying the usual gear like life preservers, lines and anchor.
You'll find you've never been closer to the water. Joining the pulling-boat revival means planning your voyages to let the wind and tide work for you, gliding through the ripples to the sounds of seabirds on the dawn and chasing sunsets into quiet backwaters all your own. A TASTE OF ROW-MANCE Pulling boats will be featured at the Mid-Atlantic Small Craft Festival at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, Friday through Sunday. It will include lectures, workshops on boat handling, oarmaking, building a small skiff, sail- making and marlinspike seamanship, a small-boat regatta, rowing and sailing races and a crab feast. Participants will be able to try out one another's boats. Registration, including boat, is $15 for an individual, $25 per couple, and $35 for a family. It includes all activities and admission to the museum. Spectators are encouraged and will be admitted for the day at the regular museum admission fee of $2.50 for adults, $1 for ages 6 to 16, under 6 free. (Admission does not include the crab feast or lectures.) For more information, call 301/745-2916. GETTING THERE -- From the Beltway, take U.S. 50 across the Bay Bridge to Easton, then east on Route 33 to St. Michaels. Follow the signs for the museum.