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I’ve been around canoes for a long time, arguably even in utero. This was courtesy of my parents, who met when they both worked at a YMCA camp in the 1950s. I won’t go as far as Farley Mowat and claim that I was conceived in a canoe, but insofar as the relationship that brought me into the world began and flourished at Camp Widjiwagan on the shore of Burntside Lake, and my father-to-be was in charge of the out-tripping department, I might say I was at least conceived of around canoes.

Like a lot of kids, I went to camp for several summers in my early teens. I knew I was going to camp, but when I arrived I was disappointed to find out that I was also going to church, whether I liked it or not, and that I had to learn to walk like an Indian to get to there. My appreciation of the inevitable lecture about the Great Spirit and the singing of Kum-Ba-Yah was always undercut by a pretty strong feeling, at least in an jumbled, inchoate 12-year old way, that nature, far from enfolding me in her bosom and the oneness of all creation, really didn’t give a damn, and would just as happily have me for lunch as refresh my mind and spirit.

A lot of my discomfort around the rituals and philosophy of camp had to do with Indians. Not  real First Nations, mind you, not actual living, breathing people you could talk to, but the Indian that I, the middle class urban white kid, was expected to become while I was at camp. We learned quickly that it wasn’t an option to go into the woods or into a canoe as ourselves, since we were expected to learn Indian “lore” and “ways” as a rite of passage and an introduction to the mystery. I can lay a lot of this at the feet of Ernest Thompson Seton, whose late 19th and early 20th advice on character formation and masturbation avoidance for young men borrowed heavily from a free-floating, heavily-idealized notion of Indian life, outlined in classic works like The Book of Woodcraft (1912, 1921), The Birchbark Roll of the Woodcraft Indians and (perhaps my favourite title) How Boys Can Form a Band of Indians.

Texts for training the future defenders of the empire, these books combined instructions for parts of your body you were supposed to touch and parts you weren’t with paeans to the Noble Savage and confirmation of the inherent rightness of muscular Christianity. As Seton ever-so-earnestly maintains in The Book of Woodcraft, “. . .more nations have been wiped out by sex abuse than by bloody war. The nation that does not bring up its youth with pure ideals is certainly going to destruction.” (p. 240). If Krupp had manufactured sex toys and dirty magazines instead of artillery, the Germans might have won the war! I can only wonder what became of those lost souls who not only didn’t want to pretend to be an Indian but did want to abuse themselves, and in the woods, no less. They were probably beyond redemption. Imitate the Indians and learn to walk softly on the earth but for goodness’ sake don’t touch yourself because you’ll contribute to the collapse of western civilization.

This philosophy bothered me then and it hasn’t gotten any better in the many years since I last went to summer camp. As an urban white kid, I knew that I couldn’t have become an Indian, or even convincingly acted like one, if I tried for 100 years. Maybe it was just because I suspected that the truth of “the Indian way” wouldn’t manifest itself to non-believers like me, the way only the faithful can see the image of the virgin on the wall of the carwash, or maybe it was because I just didn’t have Grey Owl’s duplicitous sangfroid or his desire to pass in someone else’s culture. I also didn’t want to learn to walk like an Indian in the woods. The woods were fine, to a point, but couldn’t I just learn to walk through them as myself?

The most discomfiting part of the whole experience was unfortunately supposed to be the highlight: the grand council fire. This reminded me of my childhood’s big Sunday roast beef dinners, presented as a treat, and an expensive one at that, for which we were expected to be grateful, but which I usually spent most of the meal trying to re-arrange on my plate to make it look as if I’d eaten some of it. The core of the council fire experience was sitting around a campfire with a bunch of other kids like myself, led through ersatz myth and ritual by a university professor who, for the evening, had turned himself into a great chief who had travelled across the lake in his underwater canoe to lead us in a council fire and tell us legends. This wasn’t my culture, for sure, and it was a little embarrassing to be play-acting at someone else’s, even for an evening. I mean, it wasn’t as if we’d actually sat down and talked about Canada’s First Nations, and who they were, or how they related to canoes and canoeing and the landscape and natural world or, heaven forbid, even had a real Indian come and talk to us directly. This wouldn’t have been possible anyways because there weren’t any Indians around summer camp, at least not the one I went to. This wasn’t thoughtful study, it was a redface minstrel show, and I had to take part whether I liked it or not. It was even worse than skit night.

Much as I enjoyed certain aspects of summer camp (canoes, boats, horses, water, occasionally the dining hall), there were also other parts that were just horrifying. You never knew when you were going to be pounced on and organized into an activity by an overly-cheerful counselor. The most intense of these people were like a combination of the briskly-efficient nurse who tells you, even as she’s pulling on her rubber gloves, that “it won’t hurt a bit and bend over and cough please” and the activity director from a senior citizens’ bus trip. That kind of aggressive cheerfulness, which can’t abide dis-organized, non-group activity, always made me want to run as fast as I could in the opposite direction. The fact that the most aggressively-promoted of these activities took place in groups only made it worse. I worked very hard at perfecting my own version of “capture the flag,” which I called “find a place to hide until it’s all over.”

The camp I went to was pretty hard core in its approach and old-school in its methods. The older you got, the more you went out on canoe trips and the less time you spent in camp. Canoe trips were carried out in a fleet of wood-canvas canoes. They were probably Chestnuts, though I don’t recall for sure. Elderly they certainly were, and covered in layers and layers of paint and patches, to a point where a canoe that originally weighed maybe 75 lbs dry was probably up in the 90s by the time it was placed on our shoulders. And these weren’t broad and mighty shoulders, either. These were skinny, 12-year old shoulders, at least in my case attached to a body that had grown up well before it had grown out.

On “out-trips,” as these expeditions were called, these canoes were accompanied by a traditional backpack known as the Trapper Nelson. The Trapper Nelson was technically a pack-board, a wooden frame with vertical uprights covered by green duck canvas. You could lash all sorts of things to it, but we usually used it with a bag that was held on by wire passed through screw-eyes that protruded through eyelets in a flap at each side of the bag. The whole thing was made from pine or spruce and waterproofed green canvas, a big rectangular bag with a top flap and green webbing straps. The tops and bottoms of the posts were covered with aluminum caps stapled on, and the whole thing smelled like insect repellent, woodsmoke, wax and dirt. In the grand tradition of the army, whose equipment this pack resembled, they seemed to come most often in two sizes with respect to our young shoulders: too large and too small. Sometimes, on one of the interminable character-building portages we endured, if the counselors weren’t looking and you edged forward or back to the right spot in the canoe you were carrying on your shoulders, the gunwales could be balanced on the posts to transfer the weight to a different part of your anatomy for a moment.

We cursed them when we carried them on portages, but for me these canoes were also the saving grace of the whole summer camp experience. With my abhorrence of structured recreation, which extends in a long and awkward arc from childhood’s forced participation in baseball to a complete lack of interest in team sports as an adult, my favourite part of the day was after dinner when the waterfront was opened for free time. All of the boats in the camp’s motley fleet were fair game, including the old Chestnuts, a down-at-the-heels Klepper folding kayak and several much-patched, high-mileage fiberglass whitewater boats. Once you had passed the swimming test, you could choose any boat you wanted to take out. Better still, you didn’t have to pretend to be anyone else to use it.

The high-liners of the waterfront were the counselors. One of these young men (old to us, but he might have been all of 17) in particular could heel his canoe so far over, paddling solo from the middle of the boat, that the bottom of the gunwale just brushed the still evening surface of the lake. This was cool, and we all strove mightily to imitate him. The further down you could go, and the steadier the canoe was, the higher your status rose. I learned later that this style of paddling was awkwardly known as “Omering” after 1930s canoe guide Omer Stringer, latterly more famous as the eponym of the Beaver Canoe t-shirt and sweatshirt empire. All I knew at the time was that this was the “proper” way to paddle solo.

Later on, I would find words to describe this experience. At university, I would first read of “the still point of the turning world. . .of the still point there the dance is, but neither arrest nor movement” and think of how much Eliot’s meditations on equilibrium, equipoise and the continuum of time reminded me of balancing that canoe on the boundary between air and water. I would also learn about hull forms and the turn of the bilge and tumblehome and the physics of how bodies move through water. I even tried to learn naval architecture until I was defeated by math.

At that moment, though, what was most important about paddling those canoes was that it was worth everything I had to put up with to get there: the Indian play-acting, the forced jollity of organized games and “ice-breaker” activities, the occasional Lord of the Flies-style cruelty inflicted when groups of young boys are brought together in close quarters and the pantheistic moralizing of summer camp. On those summer nights, alone in a big old canoe on a quiet lake, I learned that while I didn’t always like playing with other kids, or playing at being other people, or being told what to do and when, I really, really liked playing with boats. I’m still at it.

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With three good coats of varnish built up on the outside of the hull, it was time to stretch the canvas. On final precaution against the epoxy filler adhering was to spray the varnished hull exterior with a hefty coat of silicone mould release. If you do this, just remember that you’re also covering the floor around the canoe with slippery overspray and you’ll need to tread carefully until it wears off! (says the voice of experience).

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The canvas is good old #10 cotton duck. For a canoe that will really see heavy service, you could go down to #8, but the heavier grade adds weight. At about 85 lbs, Clementine doesn’t really need to get any heavier. There’s a fair bit of information out there about canvassing and re-canvassing wood/canvas canoes, including The Wood and Canvas Canoe: A Complete Guide to its History, Construction, Restoration, and Maintenance by Rollin Thurlow and Jerry Stelmok, now sadly out of print, and of course videos on YouTube like this one.

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There are different schools of thought about how to stretch the canvas: right side up or upside down, tacks or staples. Personally, I’m a right side up, tack man. It doesn’t really matter in the end, because anything that will stretch the canvas tight and secure it to the canoe will do the job. I’ve even done it outside between two trees using a small child to help weight the boat down. When the canvas is folded in half and stretched tight, the canoe hull is inserted and forced down into the envelope. Here, I’ve got sandbags in both ends and two shore poles pushing down from the ceiling. You want to get it good and tight.

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Working out from the middle, the canvas is pulled up tight to the gunwale with a pair of wide-jaw vise grips or artist’s canvas pliers and tacked into place at each rib. With two people, you can work both sides at once. Here, my colleague Jeremy Ward is clamping the vise grips for another upward pull. The sign of a good job with the right tension is to have little “eyebrows” of puckered canvas above each pair of tacks when the pliers are released.

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As you go towards the ends, it gets harder and harder to pull the canvas in towards the hull, usually somewhere around the ends of the decks. When everything is tacked but the two ends, it’s time to cut the canvas away from the stretching clamps.

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Then, bit by bit, the ends and pulled tight and tacked. It’s not as hard as it seems to get the wrinkles out here, even on a hull like this one that has some hollow in the ends. By pulling on the bias, and occasionally removing and re-tacking some of the earlier fastenings, it will all come right eventually.

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With one side tacked in place, the canvas is cut close to the tack line and the process is repeated with the other side folded over the first. Some people like to add a little glue to help hold the ends in place, but be careful not to add too much as it may affect the adhesion of the filler later on.

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Next it’s on to the filler.

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A little late for Mother’s Day (we’re clearly running on Cultural Standard Time here at Playing With Boats, which is always a bit behind real-world time), here are some images of women in canoes from my collection, all from around the turn of the last century.

Entitled “Landing,” this card shows our friend alighting from a handsome little lapstrake cruising canoe.

Some time later, in the same canoe, with the same lacy shawl (or a gill-net, but somehow I think it’s a shawl. . .) but with a different outfit (but a no less fluffy hat), she bids “Goodbye.” We can only speculate about what’s happened in between these two cards. Judging from how straight the post is, I’d say we’re looking at the stern of the canoe here.

Scenes suggestive of shoreside trysts notwithstanding, the theme of womens’ independence shows up often in these postcards–we might call it the “canoe of one’s own” motif. In a sporty sailor suit, charmingly encircled with two lines of rope and with a decorative background of paddles, our subject is clearly enjoying being out for a paddle. As she’s out on her own doing a sports activity, a pleasure all-too-rarely afforded women of her era, perhaps the most important word is “yourself.” She certainly seems to be firmly in control of her canoe.

“Paddling my own canoe” is another motif that shows up frequently in popular culture images of canoing. I wouldn’t say she looks altogether comfortable, and there’s at least a chance that she’s holding an oar and not a paddle, but the point remains that women like her can and did paddle their own canoes at the turn of the last century.

She’s definitely holding a paddle, but she’s kneeling aft of the bow seat, and I have a feeling that the line tied to the seat frame is holding her fast to the shore, so this shot strongly suggests “studio.”

The more of these cards you look at, the more interesting they get. Here we have several elements from other images, including the same initial “D” painted on the bow as above, albeit on a bright-finished canoe. The red and white striped fabric and the shawl lying on the deck sure look a lot like those in the first image, and come to think of it, her dress and hat are also pretty similar. That’s a pretty wide-shafted paddle she’s holding, too.

OK, strictly speaking Kate Vaughan isn’t in a canoe, but she is wearing the colours of the American Canoe Association in this 1890s card from the Duke Tobacco Company, part of their “Yacht Colors of the World” series. Kate Vaughan (1852-1903) was a well-known English actress and music-hall performer.

While you’re reading the impressive list of yacht clubs on the back of the card, take a moment to enjoy the exquisite typography of the titles at the top and bottom. There’s a font that’s worth reconstructing.

Until next time, when we might have done enough work on it to get back to our sailing canoe design. . .

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As I mentioned in the last post, I started to do some work on the original linesplan for  the late 19th century decked sailing canoe Isalo to explore making the arc bottomed hull suitable for the flat panels of stitch-and-glue construction. I began drawing by hand, but then I decided to put the lines on the computer and see what I could come up with. To do this, I used a hull design program called DelftShip, a development of an earlier program called Freeship (which is still available from SourceForge). Both programs are powerful, full-featured naval architecture packages, and both are free. Once you figure out how to use them for canoes, you could also design yourself an oil tanker, passenger ship or tug if you’re so inclined. A professional version of Delftship with more features is also available for €150, with the latest version slated for release in late February. These programs have a steep learning curve, no pun intended, but are well worth the investment of time.

One thing they’re particularly useful for is projects like Isalo, because with them you can import a scanned linesplan of unknown scale, such as you might find in a magazine, and, as long as you know a couple of the principle dimensions, draw new fair lines on top of the original. There’s a handy tutorial about how to do this, based on, of all things, Leo Friede’s legendary 16-30 sailing canoe Mermaid on the WoodenBoat Forum. If you use this tutorial, go through it with the DelftShip manual in front of you, because author Bruce Taylor leaves out a couple of important steps whose absence will drive you crazy until you also read the DelftShip tutorial on Reproducing An Existing Lines Plan, which you can download from the company’s web site.

Even though I’m planning to add one or more chines, I thought I would start by getting Isalo‘s original arc-bottomed hull re-drawn in DelftShip. After a weekend’s worth of work, here’s what I’ve come up with:

This is the main Delftship window with all four views: perspective, profile, plan and body plan. Much as with regular lofting and fairing, you alternate between them, working iteratively on each one to gradually firm up and reconcile the lines. In each case, the starting point is the original linesplan in a background layer, on top of which you work with curves and the control mesh to shape the new lines.

Here’s the profile with the three main lines defined: the centreline of the hull [composed of bow, stern and bottom], the chine and the sheer.

And here’s the body plan, with the control curves [red] and stations [green]. Once you begin to develop the wireframe, you can add the other side of the hull and shade it to check on your progress.

 One of the most useful features for a project like this is that you can also run a developability check on the panels to see if they can be gotten out of plywood, which nominally doesn’t like to do compound curves, though you can torture it into shape to a certain extent. When you use that feature, the program adds red shading to show you areas that can’t be expanded into flat sheets.

DelftShip is telling me that the sections below the chine aren’t developable, which is not surprising since they’re still the original rounded arc bottom. The good news is that I seem gotten the topsides pretty straight, as it’s all green from sheer to chine. The next step is to go back to the body plan and make sure I’ve added enough curvature to the bottom to capture the volume of the original hull below the waterline. After that, I’ll  ask DelftShip to calculate the hydrostatics to get some numbers against which I can compare my multichine versions as they’re developed.

Until next time. . .

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I recently received a note from my friend Ed Maurer down in Florida. A couple of years ago, Ed took the brave step of starting a new magazine called Canoe Sailor, which is a noble project in its own right. In this case, it was even better because the magazine was focused on, of all topics, sailing canoes–imagine such a thing!

Ed’s note let me know that he’s just re-formatted the original Canoe Sailor a new, all-digital page-turn publication called Skinny Hull. In his own words,

Skinny Hull covers sailing canoes and kayaks, proas and similar style boats, Chesapeake log canoes and a variety of purpose-built two- and three-hull boats that are essentially canoes (or kayaks) with outriggers. (We’re even working on bringing you ice boat sailing!) So, essentially, if it mounts a sail and has a skinny hull we cover it!

The first few issues will contain archived content from Canoe Sailor, and there’s some good material there. Like any editor, though, Ed will be looking for new content too. I’m going to try do do my part, and I’d encourage anyone who’s interested in contributing to contact him at editor@canoesailingmagazine.com, and also to subscribe, which I’m going to do as soon as I finish writing this post.

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As I mentioned in the last post, I’ve started to explore whether the 1893 sailing canoe design Isalo would be suitable for re-designing for construction in modern materials. One of the first big questions to is how to build the boat.

If I follow through with the idea that this cruising canoe and the 16-30 are “bookends” that between them cover a nice range of sailing canoe history, then it would be best if Isalo was rendered in stitch-and-glue plywood. This has worked well for the 16-30s, proving to be light and durable and reasonably quick to build.

The body plan for the 16-30, showing its single chine hull made up from four separate stitch-and-glue panels.

The original 16-30 was a perfect choice for stitch-and-glue construction, with a single hard chine and a V-shaped bottom. The only difference from the original to the new version was that the plank keel was replaced by a filleted epoxy joint.

An interior shot of the original 16-30, showing the top of the plank keel. The bottom planks converge in a slightly rounded V-joint on the bottom of the hull.

The interior of the plywood 16-30, showing the filleted and taped seam on the interior bottom.

Our original 1893 canoe, however, has an arc bottom, much like a Star-class keelboat.

Body plan for Isalo from the original 1893 drawings.

You could likely make the plywood conform to this shape, but not in stitch and glue. In order to get the compound curve in the bottom panels, you’d have to introduce some interior framework, as on the 15 1/2′ sailing canoe Zephyr, and this would take us away from the idea of making both canoes as similar in construction as possible.

The arc-bottomed sailing canoe Zephyr, published in Yachting in 1925, was designed for traditional batten-seam plank-on-frame construction.

There are (at least) three possible ways to tackle the bottom of the new canoe, starting with the original lines. Here’s a sample section.

The original body plan at midships, with an arc bottom.

Option one is to take all of the arc out of the bottom and connect the chine and keel with a straight line, as on the 16-30:

Bottom section straight from chine to keel, with the dotted line showing the original arc section.

As you can see from the sketch, this takes a fair bit of volume out of the bottom. It might be ok, but I wouldn’t know until I did some hydrostatic calculations. Another option would be to introduce a second chine below the waterline.

The straight section from keel to chine has been broken into two parts by the addition of a second chine, with dotted line showing the original arc section.

This option preserves more of the original volume, but we’re now up to six hull panels, which will be more work to construct. Another way to do this is to give the canoe a narrow flat bottom panel:

Introducing a flat bottom panel equals or exceeds the original volume of the arc-bottom hull.

There are a few reasons why I like this option: it only needs 5 panels; it will make the boat easy to beach; and finally, the flat bottom will give a good solid anchorage for the centreboard trunk and mast steps without the complications of fitting them over a filleted centre seam. I built and sailed a little canoe with a hull like this for several years in the 1990s and it worked quite well. It was designed by John Bull, who used to own Solway Dory in the UK. He’s since retired, but the company continues, though I don’t believe they offer this design any more. The only drawback is that you need to install some floorboards so that you’re not sitting in any water that happens to come aboard!

Next step is to lay in the flat bottom on the original hull, re-draw the lines and do some calculations.

Until then. . .

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 The history of the canoe building companies that were a significant part of the economic life of Peterborough, Ontario, for more than one hundred years is as rich and tangled a story as you’re likely to find in Canadian business history. Invention, entrepreurship, patents, lawsuits, rivalries, mergers, acquisitions, bankruptcies and catastrophic fires: it’s a tale that has all this and more. It is also a complicated story, and those who are interested in canoeing history, Canadian history, Canadian business history and the story of how the city of Peterborough, Ontario came to be synonymous around the world with the canoe will have a much easier time figuring it out after they have read Peterborough author Ken Brown’s new book: The Canadian Canoe Company & the early Peterborough Canoe Factories.

This isn’t Brown’s first crack at the subject. In 2001, The Canadian Canoe Museum published published his book The Invention of the Board Canoe: the Peterborough stories from their sources, which compiled primary source material to explore competing claims for the origin of the Peterborough area’s unique wide-board method of canoe construction. This first book was a modest pamphlet, which did invaluable service in clarifying an important part of the local canoeing story. It wasn’t, however, a book that you would be likely to leave out on your coffee table, or give to anyone but the most hardened canoe-head as a Christmas or birthday present (don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a criticism. I’ve read and enjoyed and used it, and I’ll be forever grateful that he wrote it.) With the publication of this new volume, which has been more than fifteen years in the making, Brown has really raised the bar. Now we’re definitely in gift and coffee table territory, and several people I know will be getting one for Christmas.

Reading through this book and learning about the challenges that faced these entrepreurs as they developed their businesses, we are reminded that although the canoes they built are revered today for their craftsmanship, they were originally made in an un-romantic, hard-headed commercial environment. Brown has done an excellent job with the business history of this industry, not surprising considering that his working life was spent as a chartered accountant. This is an aspect of maritime history that is often neglected, and it is refreshing to see it treated in such detail. It also helps to bring the story out, for we see both the sucesses and the failures of these companies, both the good decisions and the bad.

The book is amply illustrated and visually sumptuous, and publisher Karen Taylor and graphic designer Louis Taylor have done a fine job bringing the story to life. The 16 pages of colour plates at the end are a real treat, as is the back inside cover, which identifies the sites of companies connected with Peterborough’s canoe industry from 1858-1961. This map is particularly valuable because few of these structures are still extant today and these industries which were such a prominent part of downtown Peterborough for so many years are now invisible.

Highly-recommended and just in time for Christmas, The Canadian Canoe Company & the early Peterborough Canoe Factories is available from Cover to Cover Publication Services and from The Canadian Canoe Museum, which also carries The Invention of the Board Canoe: The Peterborough stories from their sources.

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