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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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