bow-facing oars

Giovanni da Verrazanno logged that in 1524, he was near Block Island, slowed by heavy seas and unfavorable winds, when 20-man rowed dugouts intercepted him. At first, they kept their distance, circling him.

They wore embroidered deerskin and were immaculately groomed, their hair tied up behind. After studying the alien craft and crew, they shouted approval, came alongside, and brought him to Newport Harbor, about 25 miles away.

Many things about these natives and their culture and their technology impressed Verrazanno and his crew. They spent months and hated to leave. Like the ancient equivalent of destroyers, their craft had seaworthiness, speed, and endurance. I?ve read that pirates were so impressed two centuries later, that many switched to rowed canoes to attack ships and land bases. Some held 120 men.

Other sources have said the 1524 canoes were similar to early Viking vessels. Verrazanno was impressed that the natives could manufacture them so quickly and with so little labor. Their ingenious mechanism for rowing while facing forward amazed him. He didn?t describe it. He didn?t say whether the rowers were scullers or sweep rowers, or how long the boats were.

Bow-facing oars intrigue me. You can?t row well pushing, so the device would have to reverse your pull while letting you control the elevation of the blade. The earliest inventions I know of, date from about 1900. They depend on metal for high-stress gears, hinges, and linkages.

How could natives of 1524 have rowed while facing forward? How long would a boat have to be for 20 oarsmen?

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J Burns
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