With rowing getting underway at the Paralympics today, the Australian athletes won’t be the only local products on display – an Australian oarmaker is also hoping for success.
- Howard Croker started carving oars from wood in the 1960s in Sydney and moved the business to Oxley Island
- The oars are renowned across the world and used by many international rowers at the highest levels of competition
- The coronavirus pandemic has had a big impact on the business but also enabled time to develop new products
Since the 1970s, Croker Oars has been making oars of global renown at Oxley Island, east of Taree, on the south arm of the Manning River.
Founder Howard Croker moved the business up from Sydney, where he had started making oars it the 1960s, fuelled by a passion for rowing that he still has 60 years on.
“I used to come up here rowing and loved the area,” he said.
“I loved the surrounding areas, the mountains, the beaches, Taree was a lovely little town, there was a lot of boat-building going on in town.”
When Howard started making wooden oars he carved each one by hand.
Nowadays machines play a large part in manufacturing the oars, with the separate components put together by hand.
“Early ’90s we went into carbon fibre and we haven’t looked back since,” he said.
“Carbon fibre has been fabulous … the physical work was taken out of it and we can now make multiple parts per day.
Oars made under the Croker name were first used in the Tokyo 1964 games and have come to be known by their distinct pink sleeves.
“You can see it 500 metres away, you can identify your oars 500 metres away,” he said.
At this year’s Tokyo Olympics, their oars were used by gold-medal winning Croation brothers Martin and Valent Sinkovic, among others, and at the Paralympics the Australian team will be among those to use Crokers.
Preference for Australian made
For four-time world champion, Kathryn Ross, using an Australian-made oar is important.
“Australian made and locally made, that excites me, I love to see what we can produce,” she said.
“The quality of the make, the feel that I have with them, and the connection with the water and they just seem to fit like a glove for me.”
It is not just the oars, but the relationship with their makers.
“They show an interest in not just the sport but actually the individuals in the sport,” she said.
“I’ve been in it a long time and they’ve seen me develop over the years and it’s nice to be, almost like a part of that family.”
The Canberra-based athlete is paired up with first-time Paralympian Simon Albury, from South Australia.
The pandemic has had an impact on their preparation, particularly not being able to train together much.
“That’s been the biggest hurdle we’ve had,” she said.
“We’ve had only a couple of weeks together so we’re pretty raw, actually as a team or a crew going in. But sometimes that can have its benefits.”
Pandemic allows for innovation
In recent years, Howard’s son Darren has taken over the business.
In that time the family’s farm has dealt with drought, bushfires and floods, then the Covid-19 pandemic hit the oar business hard.
But with the travel to international regattas on hold, it gave him time to develop ideas.
“We did a lot last year that’s been in my head for a long time that I had the actual time to sit down with my guys and go right we’re going to do this and that stuff’s coming to fruition now,” he said.
With the Manning River so close, testing was easy.
“That’s the beauty of being here on the river,” he said.
“The guys can machine something up and I can have it testing that afternoon.
He also hopes to have people back at the riverfront property for rowing camps in the near future.
“We’ve got the best water in the world here — there’s 100 kilometres of rowable water,” he said.
“The kids that come here … there’s quite a few actually that were in Tokyo that came here rowing as 14-year-old kids, 15-year-old kids.
“All of a sudden now they’re on the world stage, so that’s probably the most satisfying thing, seeing those people develop over the years.”