Posts Tagged ‘sailboat’

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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