The first time I used the XPL Oars from Duckworks I didn’t even notice them. I was focused on the performance of the company’s new 10′ skiff I was rowing during speed trials, quick sprints, and sudden stops. If I had noticed the oars, it would have been for their faults. The XPLs went unnoticed because they had none.
When I took the XPL Oars along to row my Whitehall I could turn my attention to their virtues. They are exceptionally light. The 7′ 11″ oars weigh an average 2 lbs 9.2 oz. By comparison, one of the 7′ 4″ spoon-bladed oars I made of spruce weighs 3 lbs 2.9 oz, 9.75 oz heavier for an oar that’s 7″ shorter than the XPL. The XPL blades are 23″ long and 6 7⁄8″ across at their widest point. Their basswood handles are 10″ long with a grip area 1 1⁄4″ in diameter.
The XPL Oars are sectional and have a built-in ferrule with a spring-loaded button to lock the two pieces together. The fit is snug and assembly requires a bit of effort, which is as it should be. There is no play in the joint. A rubber sleeve covers the joint and the button and gets curled back on itself to take the oar apart.
The looms are 1 3⁄4″ in diameter and fitted with Seadog oar collars, which are made of molded polyethylene and split down one side. They’re meant to be secured by nails to wooden oars, but for the XPLs, they’re held in place by a heavy-duty heat-shrink tubing that extends from the buttons and 1 1⁄2″ beyond the sleeves to grip the looms. The loom, plus collar and tubing, has a diameter of 2 5⁄32″, too large to fit a standard 2″ oarlock.
The oars were delivered with Gaco oarlocks, sold separately by Duckworks. Designed to fit oar sleeves up to 2 1⁄4″ in diameter, these are a good fit for the XPLs. They can be slipped over the loom before the two pieces of the oar are joined, avoiding the harder task of opening the lock with a screwdriver. The Gaco locks have 10mm stainless-steel shafts and adapter sleeves to fit 1⁄2″ oarlock sockets. The adapters seemed to be a bit oversized—I couldn’t get them inserted into any of my 1⁄2″ sockets so I trimmed them down with a scraper until they had an easy slip fit. (If the fit is too tight, the adapter will come off the shaft and remain in the oarlock socket.)
A dab of tallow—the same lube I use with oar leathers and bronze oarlocks—provides freedom of rotation to the oars for easy feathering. At the catch, the blade’s edges, only 1⁄16″ thick, cut into the water without disturbing it and the centerline ridge on both the back and face of the blade has gentle transitions that slip beneath the surface cleanly. I could consistently make hard catches without having the blade drive any air into the puddles.
While I couldn’t feel any give in the looms during the catch and drive, there is some flex when I try to bend an XPL oar by levering it against the ground. There is enough give in the loom and the end of the blade to ease the shock on one’s hands during a hard catch. The blade doesn’t flutter during a strong pull and exits the water cleanly at the finish of the stroke.
The swing weight of the XPL Oars is exceptionally light. It takes almost no effort to move the blades from the finish to the catch, even when rowing at a high cadence. I keep the blades low on the recovery, and inevitably slap waves and wakes with the back of the blades. The blades go quickly up and over, and I can maintain a light touch on the handles.
Sculling the boat sideways with one oar was made easy by lack of lateral resistance offered by the blade’s slim profile. I kept the blade deep in the water to get the most efficient use of its thrust and it would take several seconds before the produced upwelling reached the water’s surface. I was impressed by how much water the blade could set in motion. When I took the oars apart later, some water came out of the joint, likely a result of sculling, which put the rubber sleeve between the sections low enough to allow water under pressure to seep past it. Foam plugs in the loom on both sides limit how much water can get in, and keep it from the loom’s outboard ends where it would increase the swing weight.
After rowing the Whitehall with a fixed thwart, I switched to the sliding seat I made for the boat. The oars performed equally well with the longer stroke. I could feel the weight of the boat during the drive, an indication of how little the blades slipped in the water. I would have liked to change the gearing of the oars by moving the collars outboard a couple of inches. If you were to order the oars with the sleeves and heat-shrink tubing, you could hold the sleeves in place with tape or hose clamps until you determine the best location and gearing for your boat.
The XPL Oars perform very well during all phases of the stroke and are a great pleasure to row with. They have only one flaw: The feather-light touch they require on the recovery is going to make the oars I’ve been enjoying for decades seem clunky.
Christopher Cunningham is the editor of Small Boats.
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