If the wind will not serve, take to the oars

As a young boy fishing in the river, the one thing I hated more than anything, was keeping up to the nets with an oar.  Pity the boy that let his mind wander and the boat blow off the nets, or worse, onto the mud on the flood tide on the coolagh (cool ya) mud.

I first began regular fishing in 1979, finishing first year in secondary school.  The holidays coincided with the Peal run, when the salmon men reduced the driftnet net mesh size to catch the smaller, younger salmon entering the rivers.  I'd fished before this, but only occasionally.  Maybe a drift of a summer evening, or a few tides, doing little more than watching from the bow twart. 

To be asked to fish was a big thrill.  It meant long hours, hard work, plenty of wettings and plenty of excitement.  It also meant some cash in your pocket, and my father always said unless you could jingle a few coins in your pocket that you had earned for yourself, we weren't yet a man.  But it was also an education...a real education after the excuse of a one I had suffered over the winter.  We learned the nets, tides, weather, river, fish and hard work.  But of all of it, it was the oars that caused me the most hardship.  It wasn't so bad if you were part of a younger man's boat like Pat Moran or Anthony Fortune.  He wasn't wedded to the oul ways...but if you happened to be fishing with his fathers generation, or my fathers, the best ways were the old ways which included many hours at the oars. The week started at 6am on the Monday morning and ran for the week, 24hrs up to the 6am on the Saturday.

In the past the oars had been the only method of propulsion for the punts in the area, apart from the use of sail, which was not a common method and something I never saw used.  It would remain so until the introduction of outboard motors after the second world war. 

A modern styled rowlock
The oars used were of red deal and generally fitted into the punt to allow for secure stowage.  The oar was made from 6"x'6" red deal timber plank.  It was made from one piece for strength.  It had a carved handle, which allowed for the palm of the hand to cover it, a counterbalance, which meant that the oar was easier to manage when being used singlehanded.  A collar of leather was fitted where the oar fitted into the rowlocks.  This meant that the rubbing of timber on timber didn't happen as it would quickly wear away.  When using the oars in dry weather you'd have to use the bailer to throw water over the collar or the sqweeking of it would drive you mad.  The shaft of the oar tapered off to the blade which was again the width of the plank and allowed the rower to catch a good piece of water to drive the boat forward.

The rowlocks on the punt were carved from oak and shaped to allow the oar fit nicely in place.  The Rowlocks were bolted to the gunwhale and two Thole Pins (pronounced Towel here) were hammer into 1" drilled holes on either side of the oar.  Ash was commonly used as it was a durable timber.  I once used Hazel as it was nice and straight and I thought it looked smart.  But when rowing hard on the mud the thole pin snapped and I went head and arse into the bow, so never again.

An old oar in a sunken punt

There were particular points to be learned about rowing.  One was when you were told to row, you rowed, if you were told to "row hard" you really put your back into it.  "Back" was another command, and if your mind had wandered, or you weren't paying attention you could be in real trouble.  "Pulling" when you were supposed to be "backing" could mean loosing a fish - a cardinal sin, and one to be reminded of time and again.

After leaving the shoreline or the quay we would "steam" (use an outboard) to the start of the particular drift.  This could mean a wait or perhaps we could set straight away, determined by the time of tide and the particular drift.  Waiting  with other punts was usually fun, as you would hear all manner of yarn.  The nets would be set with the engine and once set we would "out oars" and for the remainder to the drift would row to "keep up with the nets".  The skipper would be on the aft oar the boy on the bow or for'ad oar.

Row hard(ish) Chris Doherty Bow oar & Mick Murphy

On some drifts only part of the nets were set, like flood tide on the Coolagh mud or ebb tide on the point.  You would keep up to the nets for a particular place and then would set the rest.  The older men preferred setting the remainder with the oars, meaning you had to keep on rowing on the bow oar while the skipper rowed with one hand and set the nets with the other.

After a winter sitting at a school desk your hands would be soft.  As a consequence those first few days at the oars would be hell.  The welts would rise within a few minutes.  By the half hour mark they would be black and blue and swollen.  You might think putting them in the water would ease the pain, but it was of no benefit.  There was a partial ease when the welts burst but then the when the salt water leaked in it stung like hell.  There was also the muscles in your arms that would be aching and the back to which you could find little ease.  Of course by the end of the summer these would be only memories, but to be relived the following summer.  

Tom Fergison (bow oar) Michael Ferguson, "keeping up to the nets"
Photo credit: Tomas Sullivan

Hauling the nets also required the skipper using the oars to keep the punt "on the nets"  As you hauled the skipper stayed midships and the boy went astern and each took a rope.  As you hauled the punt would either drift across or off the nets and with the momentum of the haul the skipper could put out either the aft or for'ad oar to bring the boat back in or out off the nets.

Once aboard it was time to set again and if you were lucky, the boy got to lower the outboard and steam back to the start of the next drift.  If you were really lucky you might get to set the nets with the engine...a real step up.

Over time the use of the oars diminished and in recent times, up to the closure of the Salmon driftnet fishery in 2006, many punts would not have even carried an oar.  The outboard which had become more dependable and men more skilled in their use, took over in many aspects of the fishery practice.  Today if you look around the quays you will see few enough timber punts and fewer oars.  Something that diminishes the village in my opinion. 

In case anyone thinks I'm complaining about the work we had to do let me offer you this quote by the American comedian George Carlin on a definition of hard work; "hard work is a misleading term. physical effort & long hours do not constitute hard work. hard work is when someone pays you to do something you'd rather not be doing. anytime you'd rather be doing something other than the thing you're doing...you're doing hard work.”  

Comments

  1. Aaargh, unhappy memories of going rowing on the River Dart with two brothers who lived beside it - I was only visiting. We took two boats out on the river and rowed downstream a piece. Rowing back against the set of the stream and the change of tide was brutal hard work (as defined by George Carlin) for [soft, wet, middle-class, 12 y.o] me could not keep with up his oar. Tears of rage and frustration were shed - and not by my pals.

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