The Middle Path Philosophy
Middle Path Boats was established to serve the needs of discriminating, non-competitive boaters. Our primary aim is to provide our customers with beautiful, seaworthy, high-performance craft, each tailored to the users' specific set of requirements. While all boat designs are the result of compromise, we feel that compromise need not feel like sacrifice. High performance need not be achieved at the expense of seaworthiness. And ugliness needn't be the price of scientific design.
Experience has shown us that racing designs are often over-specialized and cranky, while "workboat replicas" tend to be uninspired performers. We have chosen the middle path, tempering high performance with civility and elegance. Each of our designs will richly reward skillful, competent handling without overtaxing the concentration of the average boater. We offer neither the fastest (though most of our boats are quite fast), lightest, nor least destructible boats; we simply offer the best balanced. Every Middle Path boat is a specific blend of the best historically proven elements of design and materials combined with the best and most practical products of modern thinking. With reasonable care, our boats can be joys forever. Examination and trial of any of our craft will convince any discerning boater that the main ingredient of all Middle Path Boats is common sense.
The Middle Path Effect
In the course of our lives most of us will encounter individuals, organizations
or companies that have achieved more in, or contributed more to a certain field
than we would have immediately thought. That you are looking for a lightweight,
fixed seat, high performance open water rowing cruiser* at all can be traced to
the efforts of Middle Path Boats and its owner/designer Andre de Bardelaben. The
folks at Middle Path Boats didn’t invent the type - our great-grandparents knew
it well - but they did reintroduce the concept to modern audiences and updated
it by incorporating modern building technologies and applying the considerable
knowledge gained about small craft design over the last hundred years. At a time
when most authors and most boat companies were seemingly preparing and
outfitting rowers to become either bully docents at maritime labor museums or to
qualify to compete in the Olympic Games, Middle Path Boats was turning out
rowboats that fit the way most of us live our lives. Consequently Middle Path
Boats is connected with more historical “firsts”, “mosts”, “onlys” and design
awards than any other company currently producing craft of that type.
*A rowing cruiser is a rowing craft designed and proportioned specifically for
recreational pursuits, like exercise, sightseeing, picnicking, sport angling and
camping. In the Victorian Era they were often referred to as ‘pleasure
In the late 1970s, after designing a series of sophisticated solo recreational
canoes, Mr. de Bardelaben designed his first rowing cruiser, the 16’ x 33”, 70
lbs. Sockeye. Andre’s career path could be said to have followed in the proud
tradition of many of the most notable rowing craft designers of the late 19th
century, when rowing was America’s most popular outdoor activity. Designers like
J. Henry Rushton and Fletcher Joyner were also master canoe designers. Shaping
narrow, low-sided, undecked canoes that are stable, seaworthy and efficient is
no mean feat. It requires a thorough understanding of hull design and minute
attention to detail. Those kinds of skills and that kind of effort when applied
to the design of rowboats, which are typically deeper, wider and overall more
forgiving than canoes, can yield tremendous performance dividends.
The Sockeye was followed by more than a dozen other rowing designs (please see
photos of examples of our varied models), ranging in length from 14 to 18 feet,
with molded beams from 30” to 46”. Some of those designs were pure sliding seat
craft, others were fixed seat only and some were outfitted for both. We believe
that Andre has more experience rowing from both a fixed and a sliding seat, in
the same hulls, than any other living person. His observations led him to
conclude that boats of moderate length can derive no meaningful performance
boost from installing a sliding seat apparatus. Furthermore, he believes that
complex sliding seat rigging actually renders these craft less efficient than
the same designs with simpler, stationary thwarts. That his fixed seat rowboats
often beat most or all of the recreational shells in multi-class, open water
races only bolstered his beliefs. As a result, for more than two decades Andre
has been America’s most outspoken proponent of high performance, fixed seat
rowing craft1. Not since the death of L. Francis Herreshoff has an individual
spoken with such clarity on the virtues of sensible recreational rowboat
Getting the message out has not been easy. Through the 1970s, 80s and early 90s
most people thought that any sliding seat shell, no matter how short, was fast.
They also believed that any fixed seat rowing craft needed to be deep, beamy and
heavy in order to operate safely in rough water. Things began to change in 1990
when a group of open water rowing enthusiasts on Cape Cod, called the Vikings,
decided to find out, conclusively, which designs performed best in the coastal
environment. They did this throughout the 1990s by hosting an annual event
called the Oarmaster Trials. The ‘Trials’ were held at various ocean-front sites
around the Cape selected to test the speed and handling of all the invited craft
in real-world conditions. The volume of data they gathered on a wide range of
boat types is staggering. The Vikings’* near decade long experiment was the most
complete and most important of its type. Sadly, it remains underreported and
largely unknown within the general rowing community. Were Trials findings better
publicized there would be much less confusion about rowboats and rowing, and our
sport would likely appeal to a wider segment of the populace.
The Vikings devised a clever formula for comparing rowboat designs that tapped
into the competitive spirit present in nearly all individuals. It’s been said
that anytime two boaters in similar craft are going in the same direction at
least one of the skippers is racing. While few fixed seat rowers are serious
racers, none of us likes to lose. In the true spirit of consumer product testing
the organizers of the Oarmaster Trials made a conscious effort to separate the
effects of design from human factors, like advanced skills, competitive
experience and strength. To do otherwise might have skewed the results in favor
of specialized designs that are best left in the hands of experts.
(Incidentally, all of the boats that were tested in this study could carry
camping gear sufficient for several days and/or safely accommodate a passenger
or two in moderate conditions). They did this by having all of the rowers in
each of the events race in all of the participating boats. Simply put, if there
were 10 rowers and 10 boats taking part in an event a series of ten races would
be run with each rower in a different boat for each race. Thus the handling
flaws of each design would be exposed by the weakest rowers. At the conclusion
of each event the boat with the lowest accumulated time would be declared the
overall winner of the Trials and the rower with the lowest accumulated time
would be declared the “Oarmaster”, hence the name of the event.
As might have been expected, the first couple of Trials were dominated by
dories, Whitehalls, peapods and other husky, coastal workboat inspired types,
measuring between 10.5’ and 17’long, weighing 150 to 400 lbs. The really heavy
craft, 250 to 400 pounds, including a very shapely Whitehall, were the worst
losers. The 1990 and 1991 Oarmaster Trials were won by a 150 lbs, 15’,
“knuckle-sided” Gunning dory, with a 12.5’ waterline and about a 4’ beam.
In 1992 everything changed when Middle Path Boats was invited to bring one of
their “radical”, lightweight rowing cruisers to take part in the experiment.
Twenty rowboats turned out that year, including several built to designs from
the boards of very famous designer/authors. We chose to bring a low-sided,
round-bottomed, keel-less and skeg-less, 85 lbs., 16’strip-built rowing craft
with a molded beam of only 38 inches and nearly plumb stems. Our low profiled
Skua not only ran completely dry, but remained controllable in the 20 knot winds
that blew from the first race to the last. Skua’s combination of low “sail area”
and long, fine underwater lines proved to be a winning formula, easily handled
by even the weakest rowers. The final result that day was not close, there was
Skua, way out front, and then there were the other boats. After Middle Path
Boats’ Skua won in 1992 and our similar Sockeye (Sockeye was declared the
overall winner) dominated the 1993 Oarmaster Trials from beginning to end, the
“Middle Path form”, low, narrow and light with a long waterline, became the
archetype for all future high performance open water rowing craft. All
subsequent Trials winners could be described as being long, low and light. So
ultimately, what were the overall findings of the Oarmaster Trials? In a
nutshell this is what was learned. Without exception, lighter rowboats performed
better than very heavy ones. Boats over 200 lbs. always finished near the
bottom. Overall, boats with rounded hull sections tended to outperform those
with sharply angular sections. When comparing boats of similar length, those
with softer, more sophisticated sectional shapes generally performed better than
those with harder shapes. We also learned that open water rowboats can be too
deep, often dangerously so. The effects of excessive depth were particularly
apparent in the longer boats in strong winds. Fixed seat rowboats of normal
design (undecked, oarlocks on gunwales) can be too long. Those longer than 17’
often had problems dealing with wind, and those over 18’ never did well. This
was probably due to the combined influences of increased weight, windage and
wetted surface. From 1992 until the end of the Trials all of the winning boats
weighed under 135 lbs. and had waterline lengths between 15.5 and 16.25 feet.
The final important thing learned from the Trials is that the ability to design
and build quality rowboats hasn’t diminished since the 19th century. Starting
with Skua in 1992, four of the seven events rowed by solo oarsman (1995 and’96
were rowed double) were won by boats whose designers are still alive. Over the
entire run of the Oarmaster Trials, Andre de Bardelaben is the only designer to
have had more than one design declared event winners2. At 85 lbs. and 70 lbs.,
respectively, the Middle Path Boats Skua and Sockeye became the lightest craft
ever to have won an Oarmaster Trials. In doing so they set the standard for the
kind of performance and convenience that recreational rowers would demand going
Encouraged by the success of Skua in the 1992 Oarmaster Trails, in 1993 we put
our Skua prototype into the able hands of oarsman Cliff Punchard of Wells,
Maine, who absolutely dominated the men’s single class on the Fixed Seat Open
Water (FSOW) rowing circuit. In 8 races Cliff won 6, with no finishes worst than
third place. One of Cliff’s wins was in the Blackburn Challenge, an 18 nautical
mile race around Cape Ann, which he won by 22 minutes in very rough conditions.
It was during the 1993 season that Skua earned the distinction of being the
first sub-100 lbs. fixed seat craft to enter, and win, a major, regularly
scheduled, open water race, in modern times3.
In 1994 Cliff Punchard loaned his Skua to Ben Booth of Mashpee, MA, and Ben took
up where Cliff left off by handily winning nearly every race he entered,
including the Blackburn Challenge. Ben was so happy with the performance of
Cliff’s Skua that he purchased his own Skua for the 1995 FSOW season. In 1995
Ben shattered the existing men’s, fixed seat, single class record in the
Blackburn Challenge by more than 19 minutes! Though he never defended it, Ben’s
record, set in Skua, stood for many years. At one time or another, Skua has won
nearly every major, regularly scheduled race on the East Coast. For more than
twenty years Andre de Bardelaben was the only living designer of a men’s, fixed
seat, single class Blackburn Challenge winner.
We can only wonder what sort of performances we might have seen from Skua had
she to deal with more worthy opposition. Since shortly after Skua appeared on
the open water scene the folly of pressing any obsolete coastal workboat design
into the role of a general recreational rowing craft should have been obvious to
everyone. Almost unrecognized in Skua’s dominance of the fixed seat, open water
class was the fact that, in mixed class races, Skua was outperforming most of
the entry level sliding seat shells too4. Those in the rowing industry noticed,
and within a few years other companies entered the market with their
interpretations of the Skua concept. Some of those introductions were built to
new designs while others were more than a century old. None has quite equaled
Skua’s blend of civility, versatility, seaworthiness and performance. As a
platform for activities as diverse as hunting, fishing, camping, photography and
competition none of the new designs can compare. The greatest effect of Skua’s
success is the influence it has had on the buying habits of recreational rowers.
Following the absolute dominance of this pure cruising craft in open water
competition in the early to mid-1990s the average beam of new, fixed seat
rowboats has decreased by nearly one foot and average weights have dropped by
nearly 100 lbs. In so many ways those new craft are much easier to handle both
in and out of the water. As a result modern rowers are enjoying a level of
performance and convenience that has not been known in over a century.
In the mid-1990s the decision was made to make our most popular designs
available to more rowers by offering them in an affordable fiberglass layup,
starting with Skua. In less than two years the fiberglass version of this
versatile, history making design outsold all of our models in
wood/epoxy/fiberglass composite, combined. By 2007, in order to keep up with
demand, we dropped the wood based boats entirely.
Middle Path Boats remains the leader in the field of modern, scientific, fixed
seat rowboat design. In 2003, at the Mid-Atlantic Small Craft Festival at the
Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum (www.cbmm.org) in St. Michaels, MD, in addition
to winning both the men’s and women’s rowing races, Skua received a design award
for its new one-piece liner that rendered this craft unsinkable and as
self-righting as a rowboat this size and type can be.
Congratulations to Brian Shexnayder and Lacey England on their fine victories at MASCF XXI in 2003.
If you’re reading all of this for the first time, you’re probably wondering why
you’ve never heard of most of these historically significant events. Though we
achieved nearly every meaningful goal that a design-oriented rowing craft
company can many years ago, our most difficult, time consuming, and very lonely,
task since then has been to convey to the general rowing community what
characteristics a proper recreational rowing craft should have. Most often that
message has been delivered to individuals or very small groups as currently
there are no periodicals devoted to covering the sport of fixed seat rowing. And
though most of the hard data on fixed seat rowing craft design has been gathered
in the last 25 years, and all of the important events have been witnessed by
well-known, published authors, nobody has produced a major new book on fixed
seat rowing since 1980s. Should activities like hand-lining for
cod, gillnetting for salmon or riverine log driving from rowboats make an
unexpected return, there’s a shelf of texts that will explain what equipment
you’ll need, but there hasn’t been a comprehensive book published on
recreational fixed seat rowing in more than a century. The gap between what we
know about fixed seat pleasure rowboats and what you can read about them has
never been greater than it is right now. While we can only speculate as to why
some parties might prefer that you not know about some of the above reported
events, we at Middle Path Boats feel that a fully informed consumer will likely
be a satisfied consumer.
*Nobody from Middle Path Boats is a member of the Cape Cod Vikings. No one at
Middle Path Boats was involved in choosing the event sites or participants, nor
were they involved in organizing or running the Oarmaster Trials. None of the
rowers or boat suppliers paid or was paid to take part. The prize awarded at the
end of each event was a small handmade plaque that had no cash value.
1“Back to the Future What Does Rowing Offer Today?” Messing About In BOATS,
Vol. 11, No. 3, June 15, 1993, pp. 10 – 13.
2“The 1993 Oarmaster Trials,” Messing About In BOATS, Vol. 11, No. 14, Dec. 1,
1993, pp. 11 – 15.
3“Blackburn Challenge 1993,” Messing About In BOATS, Vol. 11, No. 9, Sept. 15,
1993, pp. 6 – 7.
4“Fixed- versus Sliding- Seat Efficiency,” Open-Water Rowing, Issue 10, Nov.
1998, pp. 4, 16.
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