I very much enjoyed reading 'Brother are you saved?' and concur with your second metaphor, which is pretty much the Buddhist position. The problem for the Buddhist of course is that before being able to row he would have to arrive at a deep and thorough understanding as to the true nature of an oar taking particular care not to reify the oar into a 'thing'. In addition he would have to have a complete understanding of the elemental make up of the oar in addition to understanding it's symbolic place in relation to visualization and mantra recitation meditation pratice.
The Theravadin would only be able to use the oar if it was ochre yellow on all surfaces and that the procedure for rowing was in complete and minute accordance with the rowing techniques laid down by his remote ancestors who were fisherman before Christ was born, and who rowed fishing boats in accordance with the customs of a pre global, pre industrial revolution, village agrarian society.
The Mahayanist on the other hand would need to be able to demonstrate to the masses imagining themselves to be drowning that the oar was indeed of the same substance as Buddha nature, and that the action of rowing with the oar was in fact a means of transcending ones self centred habitual tendencies. Furthermore he would point out that it was not necessary for the oar to be yellow or that the rowing action needed to be in accordance with the customs of old, and that new rowing actions might even be better. The main thing of course being the spirit with which one rowed. By way of ensuring that prospective drownees were left in no doubt as to the 'good news' the Mahayanist would be able to draw upon several scholarly Sanskrit texts recently translated into English with particular emphasis being paid to the sanskrit original term for oar and new information revealing the actual roots of the discipline for rowing which differed in three major laws of discipline and 24 minor laws of discipline dating back to texts written on palm leaves during the reign of King Asoka in India 250 BC. And finally out of great compassion the Mahayanist would, him or herself, spend ten years writing a treatise on the subject of rowing for the benefit of the masses which would be published under the title of ' The Rowing of Not Rowing - Radical Fear Therapy in Action' (Wisdom books, 2008, with an introductory article taken from Tricycle magazine written by one of the new crop of American meditation teachers).
The follower of Tibetan Buddhism on the other hand would intuitively understand that the action of rowing symbolically represented the primordial nature of the diamond vajra mind and would see that in the act of rowing each dip of the oar released a flight of beneficial mantras into the atmosphere blessing all beings imagining themselves as drowning. Once the Dalai Lama had given his official blessing to the venture, and the astrological charts had been consulted for the most auspicious day to undertake the rowing, a Rinpoche would join the crew and rowing could begin. Instructions would be given in Tibetan, with a translator, as the most suitable language for conveying the subtleties of rowing. Some work would need to be carried out on the structure of the boat to ensure that when all were seated the Rinpoches head was at least 3 ft above that of everyone else, being a symbolic representation of the Buddha himself. The harmony of the rowing would be maintained by strict adherence to 1200 year old practices of rowing and in accordance with heart instructions given to each individual member of the crew by the Rinpoche himself.
Of course there would be the inevitable debate between the three boats themselves as to the actual direction of the rowing with particular attention paid as to whether instructions should be given in Sanskrit, Pali or Tibetan and whether the navigation techniques were actual, relative or absolute. Much attention would of course have to be given to the nature of the food during the journey with the differences between the vegetarians and the meat eaters needing to be resolved before the journey could progress. Most importantly, the issue of whether or not the consciousness of a dead animal, eaten by the crew, was blessed by fueling such meritorious action as rowing would have to be 'aired', in addition to which some people would feel they couldn't row in a boat where meat was eaten as it compromised their practice of metta, or loving kindness.
And finally, the Mahamudra and Dzogchen people would not want to row at all as they would recognise that the act of imagining oneself as drowning was none other than the nature of Buddha mind itself and that outside of the mind there is no suffering, so that any attempt to go anywhere involving mind would be to add to the delusion. They would therefore concentrate their efforts on maintaining pure awareness of the situation in refined dialogue with other people of a like mind bobbing around in whatever boat spontaneously liberated itself into their presence.
I hope that this is helpful in presenting the Buddhist perspective.