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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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I ended the last post by introducing Charles P. Kunhardt (1848? 1849? – 1889), another of the titans of late 19th century American yachting. In a short life of 40 or 41 years, he produced a tremendous body of work, and one can only wonder at what might have been accomplished had he not perished in a shipwreck long before his time. He was born only a few years before W.P. Stephens, his fellow traveller in the world of yachting and boating.

Kunhardt was the Yachting editor of Forest & Stream from 1878 to 1884. W.P. Stephens had become the journal’s Canoeing editor in 1883, and added Yachting to his portfolio after Kunhardt’s departure. I’ve thought quite a bit about an analogous early 21st century publication that I could cite to give an idea of the influence and importance of Forest & Stream to the late 19th century sporting world, but I’ve come up short. Sports Illustrated doesn’t even come close. In its densely-packed pages, set in eye-strainingly small type, this weekly journal (and its English equivalent, The Field, covered the whole of the sporting world, from the turf, to shooting sports, to canoeing, yachting and later bicyling. It was quite simply the publication of record, and it afforded Kunhardt the perfect pulpit from which to preach.

And preach he did, for he was a yachtsman and designer of decidly strong opinions, and a polemicist of fierce and deadly skill. A proponent of wholesome and seaworthy yachts, he advocated English-style cutters over the then popular wide, shallow American centerboarders. So fiercely did he argue the virtues of the cutter type that he became the unofficial leader of the whole faction, dubbed the “Cutter Cranks” by fans of other types. A number of his letters to W.P. Stephens survive in the W.P. Stephens collection in the archives of Mystic Seaport, many written in a purplish-colored pencil. Reading them, one can imagine him writing furiously, the words pouring out onto the page, as he argued a point of design doctrine or demolished a foolish opponent or poorly-designed yacht.

In addition to vast numbers of articles and editorials, Kunhardt was a prolific designer of yachts and small boats, and a draftsman of remarkable skill. Let’s take a moment of silence and admire his work on the inboard profile of the cutter yacht Yolande.

This is beautiful drafting work, executed on glazed linen sheets with a ruling pen that had to be charged anew with ink for each line that was drawn. Work like this represents hundreds of hours of patient effort, with the whole project hanging in the balance, always on the verge of being spoilt by a single blot. There is life in this drawing, and it’s not hard at all to picture oneself snug below or preparing a hot drink in the galley, located in the 19th century fashion up in the eyes of the boat and not aft at the foot of the companionway. Yolande‘s deck plan is just as nicely delineated.

Note how fastidiously the shadowing under the deck furniture is drawn, and the care taken to show the button tufting in the settee cushions, and the harlequin pattern of the linoleum on the sole of the saloon. These drawings, and much much more of Kunhardt’s impeccable drafting and pungent prose, can be enjoyed in his book Small Yachts: Their Design and Construction Exemplified by the Ruling Types of Modern Practice.

If your pocketbook will stand it, find and buy an original copy of this remarkable book, and leave it open on the reading stand in your library to a different yacht each week. You may want to consider a loan, though, as such quality doesn’t come cheap. In 1997, a first edition sold for more than $1000 at auction in the UK. If that’s a little too rich for your blood, by all means enjoy WoodenBoat magazine’s edited and abridged paperback edition from 1985. In either case, reading Kunhardt is a bracing way to immerse yourself in the fascinating world of late 19th century yachting and pick up some of the flavor of the times.

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If W.P. Stephens had written only Canoe and Boat Building: A Manual for Amateurs, his place in boating history would be secure. He clinched his nomination for the all-time boating hall of fame, however, with Traditions and Memories of American Yachting.

Traditions and Memories

1981 edition by International Marine Publishing Company is on the right; the 1989 edition by WoodenBoat magazine is on the left.

The book began as a series of 83 articles that Stephens wrote for Motor Boating magazine between 1939 and 1946. Appropriately for a project of such biblical proportions, the first article was titled “The Genesis of American Yachting.” In a characteristically self-deprecating preface, he wrote

In offering this book to my fellow yachtsmen I feel that a few words of explanation or excuse are necessary: first, for the absence of formal style which is usually found in the recording of serious history; and secondly, for the lack of chronological order. . .The method of narration which suggested itself as the most fitting is that pursued by yachtsmen about the fire in winter and afloat or on the club porch in the season–reminiscent, discursive, argumentative, often wandering from the immediate subject.

We all have reason to be thankful that Stephens went about writing these articles in his own style, for the manner in which they are presented is thoroughly charming, and the side tracks and digressions, which are, after all, the way that history proceeds, are nothing that cannot be surmounted by the use of the very complete index.

The articles were collected and published in a book several times, with the most complete collection brought out in 1981 by International Marine Publishing Company. In 1989, WoodenBoat magazine performed a great service to yachting and boating history by bringing out a new and comprehensive edition on the 50th anniversary of Stephens’ death. All of the previous collections had been printed exactly as they originally appeared in the magazine. For the new edition, WoodenBoat re-set the articles in new type and devoted considerable effort to sourcing originals of the illustrations used in the articles, and added some 40 new images.

And what is in this wonderful book? Just about anything you could want to know about North American yachting and boating, from the sport’s beginnings in the middle of the 19th century, through the epic era of the America‘s Cup, to the great sloop vs. cutter and keel vs. centerboard debates to sandbaggers, catboats and of course, sailing canoes and canoe yawls.

The book is profusely illustrated with lines plans, sail plans, general arrangement drawings, photographs, engravings and paintings. As you page through the many drawings, you will from time to time see one of exceptional quality, such as this arrangement plan of the cutter Yolande.

Close examination of the finest examples of draughting in the book will often reveal the initials “C.P.K.” somewhere on the right-hand side of the drawing. Those stand for Charles P. Kunhardt. And who was he? Well, that’s another book. Until then. . .

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I’m going to take a break from writing about the restoration of the Old Town sailing canoe to talk about some boating books. Reading books about boats and boating (and buying books about boats and boating!!) is something I enjoy almost as much as boats themselves. Turning away from my desk to look over my bookshelves, I’ve made a quick selection of some volumes I think are worth talking about. At the top of my list are works by William Piccard Stephens.

Better known as W.P., Stephens (1854-1946) is one of the giant figures in late 19th and early to mid 20th century boating. A true polymath, Stephens participated in his chosen sports as a builder, designer, yachtsman, editor and writer. Among his most enduring contributions to yachting and boating are his written works. Over the course of hundreds of thousands of words, he performed an invaluable service by documenting the history of North American yachting and boating, working from both meticulous research and considerable first-hand knowledge and experience.

My favourite book of his, hands down, is Canoe and Boat Building, or, to give its full magnificent 19th century title: Canoe and Boat Building. A Complete Manual for Amateurs. Containing Plain and Comprehensive Directions for the Construction of Canoes, Rowing and Sailing Boats and Hunting Craft. . .With Numerous Illustrations and Fifty Plates of Working Drawings. The copy I have to hand as I write this is the 5th of many editions, published in 1891. One can find copies on the second-hand market, but they are usually shorn of their plates. These 50 large-format drawings were sold in a separate folder, printed on very thin, almost tissue-paper-like stock, and most have not survived. Mystic Seaport Museum performed a great public service in 1987 when they compiled and published a complete set of plates, at the original size, from two original editions of the book. Canoe and Boat Building has been reprinted in paperback by Dover, that indefatigable reviver of out-of-print materials. You can also read a scanned copy of the 9th edition, along with the original plates, at the website of Dragonfly Canoes.

This book could be a litmus test for whether you are the least bit interested in small boats and boatbuilding. If you think you are, I defy you to read through even the first chapter and not want to head straight for the workshop, and/or the lumberyard, to start a project right away. Canoe and Boat Building is an almost inexhaustible well to which I return regularly for advice, inspiration or simply daydreaming. An added bonus for me is that the greater part of the book is given over to the building of decked sailing canoes, of which Stephens was one of the chief American exponents. Though there are some classic examples of sneakboxes, canoe yawls, sailing skiffs and a handsome little Delaware River Tuckup, it’s pretty much all sailing canoes, all the time.

The writing is characteristic of Stephens and his late Victorian age. It is sensible, practical, energetic and straightforward, and assumes that you want to roll up your sleeves and get on with it. In 18 chapters, an appendix and descriptions of the plates, Stephens gives you all that you need to know about building a sailing canoe, from making a model through lofting, building methods, rigging, rudders and centerboards and finally canoe-cruising accessories such as tents, stoves and camp beds. While the gear you take with you (and what you pay for it!) has changed, much of Stephens’ basic advice about laying down, building and rigging is as fresh and useful as the day it was written.

Stephens was involved in recreational canoe sailing and travelling from its earliest days, and in addition to its other virtues, Canoe and Boat Building is a history of the sport written by someone who was not only there but in it up to his ears. The decked sailing canoes illustrated in the plates, from Stephens’ own Shadow-model canoe Dot through the British Invasion Nautilus and Pearl boats of Warington Baden Powell and E.B. Tredwen to Robert Gibson’s game-changing Vesper and later developments such as Pecowsic, are a hall of fame of the most significant sailing canoe designs of the late 19th century.

Canoe and Boat Building is a book well worth owning and reading repeatedly for anyone interested the history of recreational small craft in North America and also, of course, the wonderful sport of canoe sailing. In the next post I’ll talk about Stephens’ other monumental work: Traditions and Memories of American Yachting. Until then. . .

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