Archive for November, 2010

I have long had a hankering for boats that are slightly out of the ordinary, and that’s one of the things that has led me to sailing canoes. The more obscure the better, really.  Over the years, it has been from time to time observed by friends and family that most of these “slightly out of the ordinary” boats that I like to play with are either uncomfortable, hazardous, awkward and/or wet to use, and therefore fine for me but not really suitable for a relaxing afternoon outing.

A decked sailing canoe, the perfect example of a boat I really like that is "uncomfortable, hazardous, awkward and/or wet to use." Not relaxing at all, but a great deal of fun.

The Old Town was perfect for us, then. It was, with all the extras removed, just a nice, older, wood-canvas canoe in which one could take either a long trip or a relaxing afternoon paddle. However, it also had a complete sailing rig, and in just a few minutes I could change over from paddling to sailing. “Sail when you can, paddle when you must,” the old guys used to say, and I’ve always agreed with them. So what was in box when I unwrapped my new-to-me Old Town?

The as-yet-unamed canoe was a 1937 17′ HW model canoe, produced in what the company called its “CS” grade, which the catalogue described this way:

This grade provides a hardwood and spruce trimmed canoe of thorough construction, good finish, and with the omission of no detail essential to strength, serviceableness and long wear. No shaky or unsound lumber is used, but the wood parts are subject to slight discolourations, small knots etc. Planking and ribs are of cedar; gunwales of spruce, decks, thwarts and seat frames of oak, birch or ash. . .bang plates of brass, and fastenings throughout of brass, copper and galvanized iron. . .For general use where a superior finish is not desired C.S. Grade provides a common-sense canoe of guaranteed dependability.

The canoe was still wearing its original canvas, which was intact except for a couple of small tears under the keel. The varnish finish was in bad shape, and peeling, cracking or just plain gone. The caning in the seats was shot and would have to be replaced. Overall, the canoe was tired, but structurally sound and eminently fixable.

Because the Old Town company records are largely intact, I was able to find out that the canoe had originally been ordered by a Mr. O.A. McPeek of Netcong, NJ. The hull was completed by January 19th, 1937 and canvassed and filled on January 20th. A second coat of filler was applied on March 30th, and on April 10th it was “railed,” or given inwales and outwales. Painted on April 16th, it had received two coats of varnish by April 19th, and Mr. McPeek presumably picked up his new canoe not long afterwards. The build record indicates the color as “orange,” which was likely the “Princeton Orange” shown in the middle of the catalogue color chart.

The canoe also had a complete factory sailing rig, including mast, yard, boom, rudder, leeboards and leeboard thwart, mast step and the special bow seat which incorporated the mast thwart.

I am indebted for the images from the original Old Town catalogue, as is everyone with an interest in old canoes, to Dan Miller and Benson Gray, who scanned and reproduced a great many old canoe and boat company catalogues. You can buy these fascinating documents from the web site of the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association.

(to be continued. . .)

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We were talking in the last post about Henry K. Wicksteed, and what he had to do with Old Town canoes. Wicksteed was a designer of small craft like the beautiful canoe yawl Myra, but he was by profession an engineer, who spent a lot of time working and surveying in the northern bush. For many years, the legendary Old Town Canoe Company of Old Town, Maine, had in its catalogue a wood-canvas canoe called the “H.W.” model that was described as follows:

Instead of having a perfectly flat floor, the H.W. model tends toward the shape of the well-known salt water yawl boat below the water line. This gives the shape more draft and hence greater steadiness in windy waters. . .For cruising, carrying heavy loads, for use on large rivers, lakes, ponds and salt water, this is an excellent canoe. . .It’s a good sailor.

There has been a great deal of discussion in the canoeing history world, especially amongst members of the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association, a wonderful group of folks, about what “H.W.” stands for. Through the seductive explanatory power of folk etymology, conventional wisdom has decided on “heavy water.” In Susan Audette’s The Old Town Canoe Company: Our First Hundred Years, she says that at first H.W. was thought to stand for Henry Wickett, the builder at Old Town, except that his first name was really Alfred. She settles for saying that “the H.W. was intended for ‘heavy waters,’ as the sales literature attested.” Unfortunately, the sales literature quoted above doesn’t mention “heavy waters,” and outside perhaps of a sailor who also works at a nuclear power plant, it’s not a term that appears in the maritime vocabulary. “Rough water,” yes;  “heavy weather,” yes, but no “heavy water.”

In When the Chestnut was in Flower, Roger MacGregor advances the case that “H.W.” stood for Henry Wicksteed, who designed a number of canoes for the Chestnut company, including “The Canadian Northern Railway Freighting Canoe” and a shorter version called “The James Bay Railway Travelling Canoe.” We may never settle this for certain, but the association of Wicksteed and his small craft design talents with a particular model of Old Town canoe was sufficient for me to become officially interested in owning one. Imagine my delight, then, when an opportunity to own an Old Town came my way.

Not only was it an H.W. model, in wonderfully original condition, but it had also been equipped by its first owner, when he ordered it in 1937, with the complete factory-made sailing rig. The only thing better than a nice old canoe, IMHO, is a nice old canoe set up to sail. Here’s what the H.W. looked like when I first made its acquaintance (it’s the greenish one on the right):

(to be continued. . .)

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So I know I said this blog was going to be about boats, and here I am talking about canoes. Well, let’s be clear from the start that a canoe is a “boat” too (as is a submarine, if you happen to be in the Navy, or a Great Lakes bulk carrier, or a towboat on the Mississippi)–in fact, the blog is really about (to lift a phrase from the title of William Kaplan’s book on notorious waterfront union organizer Hal Banks) “anything that floats.”

Now that that’s out of the way, let me tell you about my canoe. This will go on for a while, so settle in and get comfortable. A long time ago, pre-me, my parents both worked at a YM/YWCA camp in Minnesota called Camp Widjiwagan. This was a pretty hard-core canoe-tripping camp, and they had a large fleet (at one point, the third-largest one in North America) of wood/canvas canoes that they used for tripping. Many of them were Old Towns, manufactured in Old Town, Maine, and I’ve often heard my dad talk about using and repairing them. I have a great photo up on my office wall of my dad in his early twenties about to lift one onto his shoulders for a portage. So I heard about Old Towns a lot (and Chestnuts, and Peterboroughs and other makes of canoe), and that’s how this particular thread started.

Fast forward a few decades. My dear friend Roger MacGregor, who modestly describes himself as a “canoe fancier,” was working on a book about the Chestnut Canoe Company (called When the Chestnut was in Flower). Roger is the proprietor of the Ivy Lea Shirt Company, which sells clothing, books and other stuff in celebration of some of the great canoe marques of earlier times. Roger worked on this book for some time. In fact, Roger was working on this book, and telling me about it, for so long that by the time it was published I sort of felt it was an old friend. For all of the years we’ve known each other, Roger and I have traded research back and forth. He’s been all over Canada in search of canoeing history, and I’ve spent a lot of time in archives and libraries, and especially the great Metropolitan Reference Library in Toronto. While we were both out and about, I’d keep an eye out for stuff he was looking for, and he’d do the same for me.

In the course of researching the Chestnut Canoe Company, Roger several times came across the name of one Henry K. Wicksteed of Cobourg, Ontario and asked me if I had ever heard of him. I had, as it turns out, because Wicksteed was identified as the draftsman of one of the loveliest small boats I’ve ever laid eyes on, at least in plan form. The boat, a canoe yawl called Myra, is included in W.P. Stephens’ magisterial work Traditions and Memories of American Yachting. Here’s a shot of Myra‘s profile view from Stephens’ book (If you’re interested, Wicksteed’s original drawings are in Mystic Seaport Museum’s Ships’ Plans collection, numbers 1.645.1 and 1.645.2. This is a massive collection, and a treasure trove for the student of maritime, yachting and boating history).

Myra's outboard profile and sail plan.

There’s no indication on the original drawings of whether Myra was ever built or not, but building her is certainly on my list of “things to do when I win the lottery.” In the mean time, as a slightly (!) cheaper alternative to building the entire boat, I made a basswood and cherry half model.

Myra, designed in 1892, is what sailors in those days would have called a “canoe yawl,” an outgrowth of the canoeing craze that began in the 1870s. That’s a topic on its own, but what’s important here is the Henry Wicksteed connection as the second Old Town-related thread in my canoe story. . .

(to be continued)

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But Really John, Why Boats?

Still life with plastic catamaran.

I’ve set you up for a big answer, asking a question like that. I hope it’s not a letdown, but I might take the “Hillary Option” (Sir Edmund, not the one who’s married to Bill) and answer my question by saying, “Because they’re there.” This statement of Hillary’s about Everest is almost too good to be true, and perhaps he never said it, but it will do for me, because really, I just like boats. Always have. Probably always will. Because they’re there.

Not sure where it comes from, this boat thing. There’s no history of seafaring in my family, no boatbuilders, no admirals, no captains in the China trade. We’re inland Germans on my father’s side, the Volga Deutsche, moving back and forth between Germany and Russia as politics dictated. Well, ok, the Volga is a river, and there are boats on rivers. And on my mother’s side, there are Swedes, who have done a bit of boating in their time, and may have known a few Vikings. But these are faint and distant influences. My parents were ardent canoeists, but for them a canoe trip was as much about the journey, and what might be around the next  bend, and spending time out doors, as it was about how you got there. Me, I don’t care so much about where I’m going in a boat as I do about just being in the boat, and I’m frankly as interested in how the boat was made as I am in where it’s going.

All I know is that I’ve always liked boats. As a child growing up on the West Coast in Vancouver, we often went to Horseshoe Bay for a picnic. Over in West Vancouver, it’s a busy harbour where you catch the ferries to Vancouver Island. After lunch, the family would head to playground, all five kids, where there were the usual assortment of swings and other apparatus. I might have swung once or twice, but soon it was down to the docks for me, walking up and down and looking at the hundreds of fish boats and pleasure boats in the harbour. My parents always knew where to look for me when it was time to go home.

So, this blog will be about boats: boats I like, boats I don’t like. Boats I’ve built, boats I’d like to build. Books about boats, and pictures of boats, and more or less random thoughts about boats. I hope I’ll fall into conversation with some of you out there who, whatever your age, experience and station in life, are still playing with boats.

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