Mark Wallace's Black Skiff

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Feathering Without Pain

To feather an oar is to spin it forward approximately 90 degrees so that the blade, during recovery, is almost level (keep the leading edge of the blade slightly above horizontal) to the water. Why feather? Two reasons:

  1. Wind resistance is reduced, especially when rowing upwind. When rowing upwind and I don’t feather, I can definitely feel the resistance.
  2. In rough water, sometimes we don’t raise the blade high enough. If the oar is feathered, then the blade will cut through the wave… if not feathered, it’s called “catching a crab”, which not only slows the boat down but can be dangerous if only one oar catches.

In private correspondence with Christopher Cunningham, Editor of Small Boats Monthly, we discussed feathering and why people find it uncomfortable after just a couple of minutes. I mentioned to him that I feather by rolling my fingers, rather than cocking my wrist. He told me that his father, a rowing coach for many years (see for a write-up about his late father) taught his rowing students this technique to feather.

Hand and Wrist During the Pull Portion of the Stroke
This photo shows the hand position during the power portion of the stroke. Notice the blade is almost vertical and the wrist is straight.

Hand and Wrist When Feathering by 'Cocking' the Wrist

Here, the oar has been feathered (blade is horizontal) by cocking the wrist. I found, after a couple of minutes of feathering this way, my wrist starts to feel uncomfortable… soon leading to pain.

Hand and Wrist When Feathering by 'Unrolling' Your Fingers

And here the oar is feathered the same amount, but the wrist is straight. Just ‘unroll’ your fingers and loosen the thumb (exaggerated here). When the oar is all the way forward, raise your hand and ‘reroll’ your fingers at the same time for the ‘catch’. Your hand will look like that in the first photo above.

If you don’t feel the need to feather your oars, you may want to practice feathering in case you are in a situation (high wind, rough water) when it will be essential that you do. Try it and let us know your experience.

The next blog will have tips on rowing in rough water.


  1. Amazing. Why have I never heard of this technique?

  2. Hi Rick... Glad you're amazed (-:

    BTW... that's one fine looking set of wheels you have behind in your photo... Looks like about vintage 1932-33... Maybe a Chevy?

  3. See also Dr. Steven Price's comment in the post "Is This the Perfect Oar Cruiser."