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We were talking in the last post about canoe clubs. Here are some more of the members of the Toronto Canoe Club out on a cruise in the late 1880s. Canoeing offered sportsmen a whole separate world of rituals, activities and annual meets and cruises. Of course, one had to be properly equipped and attired for such activities. It wasn’t long before specialized canoeing gear began to be offered for sale:

One of the centres of sailing canoe activity was in the 1000 Islands region of the St. Lawrence River. This beautiful area, with Ontario on the north bank of the river and New York state on the south, was home to a thriving recreational economy. Frequent trains brought vacationers north to any number of palatial hotels on the mainland and some of the islands. Fishing guides waited to take city “sports” out in the region’s eponymous St. Lawrence skiff and cook them a shore dinner afterwards. Most summers, members of the American Canoe Association gathered at Sugar Island, on the Canadian side of the river, for two weeks of racing, cruising, sailing, paddling and fellowship.

That’s a St. Lawrence Skiff in the right foreground, lurking as a light-air canoe race drifts by in the twilight. What were canoeists sailing at these meets? The first generation of boats were multi-purpose cruising canoes, able to be paddled (generally with a double paddle) or sailed. Derived from MacGregor’s original Rob Roy, they were generally round-bilged and often lapstrake planked. If smooth skinned, their hulls were generally of batten-seam carvel construction. Mostly decked over, they had cockpits and deck hatches to allow access to storage compartments.

The rig was usually divided into two sails, a main and a “jigger” or “dandy” at the stern, to keep the centre of effort low and allow for trimming and balance. The masts were usually unstayed, and seldom sported jibs. As above, the sail plan was usually either a lateen or some variant of the lug. Sometimes the plans were mixed, and one boat would carry both a lug main and a lateen mizzen. Lugs, either standing (as above) or balanced, offered a powerful, low aspect ratio sail that didn’t require a long mast and was divided into easily-reefable sections with full-length battens. This latter was important as canoe sailors couldn’t exactly get up out of the cockpit and walk forward to take in a reef.

Canoeists debated endlessly about the merits of particular hulls and rigs. Significant early canoes lent their names to design types, and the sporting press of the day was filled with disquisitions about the relative merits of the Shadow, the Pearl, the Nautilus and the Ringleader. North American canoeists discussed types within their own clubs and within their own national organizations but also with British enthusiasts across the Atlantic. Out of these discussions arose an international sporting rivalry that is still contested to this day for a trophy first awarded in the 19th century: The International Challenge Cup.

At the centre of this international rivalry was a famous canoeist and his even better-known canoe: Warington Baden Powell and his Nautilus.

To be continued. . .

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By the mid 1980s, I has been sailing  for a while, beginning with Flying Juniors and Lasers in Vancouver, and extending eventually to anything I could cadge a ride on, including a Chinese junk and a Bristol Channel Pilot Cutter. I was browsing in a bookstore, looking for something boat-related to spend that week’s grocery money on, when I picked up the April 1985 issue of The Yacht. I think it’s folded now, but at the time it was a glossy, swanky publication with wonderful photography. Paging through it, I came across page 94, which carried an article by Steve Clark entitled “The International Canoe: Mercurial Fantasy.” I can’t honestly recall if I’d ever really thought too much about sailing canoes before that moment, but reading Steve’s article fixed that pretty quickly. The image above smacked me between the eyes just like the handle of the rake that you left lying in the back yard, and I haven’t been the same since.

I mean, how could you look at that old-school Swedish IC photo and not want to go do that right away. Planing to windward, the skipper is perched at the end of his sliding seat, perfectly balanced (for the moment) between his rig (a foil in the air) and his centerboard (a foil in the water) with only a little hull between the two. All of a sudden, I needed to know more about canoe sailing, and about International Canoes in particular.

I posted a message to rec.boats [remember Usenet?] asking for anyone who could provide some information about these wonderful boats, and maybe help me find one of my own. Replies came back from a couple of stalwarts of the Chesapeake Bay IC community [one of whom, sailmaker and Moth afficionado Rod Mincher, runs a great sailing blog of his own]. Some chatting back and forth did nothing to diminish my enthusiasm. The grapevine told me that there was a boat located just outside NY City that might be available. Its owner had recently passed away, and his widow was cleaning out the garage. It was IC US 78, a Lou Whitman Manana II design. Here’s Lou aboard one of his boats off City Island in the 1960s.

So, off I went down to New York City to have a look (just a look, mind you, I wasn’t going to buy it. . .) at this canoe. As I drove south, I was thinking of what Steve Clark had said at the end of his article.

Canoes combine power with lack of drag. Their speed potential is outstanding, but what probably makes the Canoe most attractive is the nature of that potential, for it is not realized without consummate technique and finesse. For this reason, the Canoe lives on a frontier of the imagination that historically few have ventured to cross, and from which even fewer have chosen to return.

What I saw when I arrived at the house in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge was a very tired boat that had been outdoors a little too long. The Manana hulls had been produced by Max Andersson in Sweden, who was normally a builder of racing canoes and kayaks. In the technology of the 1950s, they were hot-moulded, laid up from layers of veneer adhered with resorcinol glue which had to be cured by heat and pressure in an autoclave. This produced a light, strong frameless hull with one great disadvantage: it didn’t age well. By the time I saw US 78, she had been sitting out in the back yard for too long, and water had gotten into the veneer seams on the bottom. The result looked like an old head of Savoy cabbage, with the veneers sprung up in all directions.

Nevertheless, I loaded her on top of the truck, along with all the gear and a nice piece of stained oak which the sailor’s widow thought was part of the boat but which was really the center leaf from an old dining room table, and headed back north. What I didn’t take, and I regret it to this day, was the William English paddling canoe that was hanging overhead in the garage, and was in much better shape. I only had room for one boat on the truck, though, and I had IC on the brain. Now I had one in my hands, too.

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So I was now the proud owner of a 1937 Old Town HW. After I moved the boat into my shop, the first step was to sit down and have a good think about how I was going to do this project. This was going to be a practical boat, a “user boat,” as the Antique and Classic Boat Society folks would call it, and if it ever went to a boat show, it would only be an observer, not a participant for judging. I wanted it to float, and to be useful, so there were clearly some things I had to address, but how far should I go?

For a number of years now I’ve found “restoration” to be a really problematic word. It can mean: 1) a boat that’s only 2% original structure, but still presented as a restored old boat; 2) a boat that is far shinier or better-appointed than it was when left the builder; or 3) a project involving meticulous research, scrupulous attention to detail and a great concern for accuracy of materials, fit and finish. I knew that the project I envisioned for the Old Town wasn’t going to involve massive repairs, so 1) wasn’t an issue. I wanted a workmanlike finish, not 10 hand-rubbed coats, so 2) wasn’t going to be a problem. But I bumped my head on 3), because I wasn’t going to spend an inordinate amount of time on this, either. I wasn’t going to do anything really perverted, like re-covering the hull with naugahyde, but at the same time, I wasn’t going to sweat it if I couldn’t match the original fasteners exactly, or if I changed a detail, like adding sheet copper around the mast where it was severely worn from chafing in the mast ring on the seat, or if I gave the boat a new synthetic sail.

In the end, I settled for describing the end result of the project as a “return to usefulness.” To me, this means more than a repair, but less than a full-blown, super-accurate restoration. It’s a phrase that describes most of the boats I’ve worked on over the years, I think, and I’ll probably use it more. With the philosophical part out of the way, the first practical question was canvas. The canoe was still wearing its original 1937 canvas. On top of the original filler and orange enamel were a couple of coats each of bright blue and then greenish blue. All of the paint was cracked and peeling, and there were “dry lakebed” cracks in the underlying filler, too.

Aside from the aforementioned two small tears in way of the keel, however, the canvas was sound. A careful look along the underside of the outwales revealed none of the usual problem, which is water pooling in that area during prolonged inverted storage outdoors and rotting the canvas so that it separates right below the outwale. Nor were there any problems at the ends. The oak keel was gone at one end, and a little punky in two or three other places, but it was nothing that couldn’t be addressed by scarphing on maybe 2′ at one end and graving in a couple of little filler pieces. All this led me to consider trying to refinish the canvas rather than replacing it.

Re-canvasing would mean removing the stembands,  keel and outwales, and given the state of the oak keel and the boat’s spruce outwales, I didn’t think either of them would survive being taken off and put back on. So, the plusses to recanvasing were that I would have an exterior skin that would be good for a nother 40 or 50 years. That minuses were a longer and more expensive project, and probably some new wood. In the end, I decided to try refinishing the exterior first, and if that didn’t work, or if I really damaged the canvas in the process, I would re-do it entirely.

So, out came the stripper, and I took a small square patch right down to the filler as a test. With some care, good sharp scrapers with rounded corners and 3 applications of stripper, it went ok, and I embarked on stripping the whole hull. This was just as exciting as paint stripping usually is, so I amused myself while I was doing it by playing loud music and thinking about sailing next summer.

 (to be continued. . .)

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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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