Archive for February, 2011

What my IC experience led to, other than a realization that I’d finally found a boat that you could learn something from everytime you took it out, was an interest in the whole topic of canoe sailing. Watching over my interest, I think, has been Leo Friede, as close to a patron saint as the sailing canoe has, at least from its early days. That’s Leo above, aboard one of his Mermaid 16-30 canoes, doing what he did best. Most of his competitors only saw the stern of his canoe.

So off we go on a capsule history of the sailing canoe, focusing mostly on sliding seat boats.

It’s all John MacGregor’s fault, really. He was a hinge, a pivot point around which the history of recreational boating turned. His late 1850s travels in North America, during which he ventured far enough north to see skin boats being propelled with double paddles, stayed with him when he returned to Europe. He commissioned a lapstrake oak version of the native craft he had seen. A hybrid of skin boat and lapstrake construction, the first of many Rob Roys was not a kayak, for she was not intended to be rolled, but was, rather, a new form: the double-paddle canoe.

MacGregor was an ardent canoeist who travelled far and wide in his Rob Roy canoes at a time when the notion of travelling for pleasure in small boats was, to say the least, not widely shared. This in and of itself makes him a pioneer, but what was of greater significance for recreational canoeing was that he was also a tireless self-promoter and astute publicist. He wrote a series of immensely-popular books about his travels, and lectured widely throughout Europe about his picaresque adventures.

In 1866 he founded the Royal Canoe Club, and his travelling and writing were the inspiration for literally hundreds of other canoe clubs in North America and Europe. The Rob Roy became an icon, and the Rob Roy type one of the dominant strains in recreational canoeing well into the 1890s. Canoeing took hold among sportsmen on both sides of the Atlantic and became the first of the great recreational crazes, leading to the founding of the American Canoe Association in 1880.

From the earliest days of recreational canoeing, canoeists congregated in clubs. It has often been observed, somewhat misleadingly, that these late 19th century sailing canoes were “the poor man’s yacht.” They weren’t, really, for in relative terms they were expensive small boats, and the leading canoeists of the day tended to be well-established professional men and their wives. What they were really was “the poor [yachts]man’s yacht.” Canoe clubs had all the trappings of yacht clubs, from the elegant waterfront clubhouses which hosted dinners and dances, to the dues and social obligations attendant on belonging, to officers such as Commodore and Vice-Commodore, to a racing schedule organized by classes with handicaps.

Here’s the Gananoque Canoe Club’s headquarters on the Canadian side of the St. Lawrence River in the 1000 Islands. The building still stands today, though it’s now a theatre.

Here are some members of the Toronto Canoe Club in the mid-1880s (the club is still in existance, now called the Toronto Sailing and Canoe Club) on a cruise to Etobicoke Creek west of Toronto. They’ve pulled their cruising canoes up on shore and rigged the tents for sleeping aboard at night. If you’re down in the Adirondacks, the Adirondack Museum, in Blue Mountain Lake, NY, has a wonderful exhibit called “Boats and Boating in the Adirondacks” which features a J.H. Rushton “Princess”-model decked sailing canoe set up with one of these tents.

Until next time. . .

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At the end of the last post I was driving north with what remained of US 78, a Lou Whitman Manana II International 10 square metre canoe, strapped to the roof of my truck. I probably left a little trail of bits of veneer all along the Thruway, because, to tell the truth, there wasn’t much left. A hot-moulded frameless hull is great until it isn’t. With little or no internal framing, they don’t age gracefully and are hard to repair. 

I brought the boat into my friend’s shop in Toronto and had a look in the cold light of day and what I saw wasn’t encouraging. Overall, the boat was old and weathered, but almost everything would have been salvageable. Almost everything, that is, but the bottom. For about the middle one-third of the boat, from turn of the bilge to the keel, the veneers had opened up, and so there wasn’t much left. With nothing to lose, I embarked on a rescue attempt, but in the end I admitted that US 78 was history, salvaged the gear and began looking for another boat.

Back on rec.boats, I heard word of a 1980s Steve Clark King Ferry Canoe Company IC in Utica, NY that was looking for a new owner. One really long one-day road trip later, I was back in Toronto with a new boat–that’s her above, still with the NY state plate on the trailer, temporarily wearing the old main from the perished Manana.

I can honestly say that I thought I knew how to sail, and then I tried a canoe. Boy oh boy, that was different. In a sailing canoe, you’re the ballast. The position of your rear end is critical to the success of the whole enterprise, and subject to more or less constant revision. To tack a sliding seat canoe, there’s a few things that have to happen in more or less the same order, more or less every time. Because the boat is long and relatively light, you also have to sail through the tack with a fair bit of way on or else you’ll end up in irons. As a novice canoe sailor, the only thing more alarming than trying to make the boat go forward with some degree of control was trying to back it out of irons.

Let’s say you’re on port tack, perched out on the seat, admiring your daggerboard slicing through the water. As you begin to head up, you also slide in on the seat as the pressure on the main eases until you have your feet on the gunwale. As you turn into the wind, you let the jib sheet fly, and then you get up and kneel behind the sliding seat. Knee pads help. Grabbing either one of the holes in the seat top or the hiking strap, you throw the seat across to the new windward side as soon as the bow crosses the wind. Once the seat is thrown, you stand up, turn and sit down on the new windward side. Trim and cleat the jib, find the mainsheet, find the 6′ long hiking stick and take the mainsheet with you as you head out on the seat and you’re off. Takes much longer to write about than to actually do. Some of my new rec.boat friends had outlined the procedure for me, but out on the water there’s really no time to read the cheat sheet.

After the first trip, I was sweating, banged up and realizing that I had a heck of a lot to learn about dinghy sailing. I was also hooked. My wife, who observed some of these early outings from shore, asked whether “IC” stood for “inverted canoe,” and suggested that I paint my sail number on the bottom of the hull, since that was what was most often visible. The first time I got the boat dialed in and planed to windward on the end of the seat, however, pacing an International 14 and a Contender, I was completely hooked, and thought that this canoe sailing business was a pretty cool part of the sailing world. 

I sailed US 151, which became CAN 33, until we left Toronto for Rhode Island in 1998, whereupon I sold her to a fellow canoe sailor. I had no boat, but it didn’t mean I stopped thinking about the strenuous but intoxicating experience of sailing a canoe. This photo isn’t me, not by a long shot, but it captures the essence of what sliding seat sailing is about:

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