SailCraft Pt 1.7: The raincoat boat bed and the shoe-shine missionary

 The story of the early sailing canoes, the first high-performance racers.

 

The next breed of small sailboat was sparked by a very special raincoat, a mistake by a signalman in London’s Nine Elms station, and a psychological condition called “railway spine”. Almost all other popular types of sailing craft were sparked by wider factors like social forces or advances in materials; this was a type that was created by the exploits and promotion of one man. [1]

It all started on May 22, 1848, when John Macgregor, a descendant of the legendary Scottish hero Rob Roy, was shown an inflatable “india-rubber boat which forms a cloak, tent, boat and bed” by Archibald Smith, a scientist and yachtsman.  The inflatable boat piqued MacGregor’s interest.  “Perhaps I shall go to the Lakes next year” he mused in his diary that day.[2]  Instead, this remarkable man spent the next 17 years as an occasional sailor, mountain climber, barrister, world traveller, illustrator for Dr Livingstone of Africa, marksman and philanthropist, equipping the street kids of London with shoe-shine kits so they could earn a living away from begging and crime.

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Peter Halkett sailing his first invention, an inflatable boat that could be deflated and used as a raincoat. The paddle became a walking stick; the sail an umbrella. Halkett’s boat attracted widespread interest in the 1840s and was probably the craft that Archibald Smith showed to MacGregor. It was an unlikely inspiration for the type that was to become the world’s first high-performance small sailing craft. Halkett’s ingenious invention, which he sailed on the Thames and the Bay of Biscay, was highly regarded by Arctic explorers but was a commercial failure; MacGregor’s was a huge success.

On May 15 1865, MacGregor was travelling home from a shooting competition when the 5:10 up train was directed onto the wrong track and into a stationary steam engine.[3] Macgregor was “thrown violently on my head protected by my hat” but in his typical manner, he “attended to the injured before working late on at an Exhibition.”[4]

Victorians were fascinated by the new threat of railway accidents and by the new science of psychiatry. MacGregor seems to have been in every way a Victorian Englishman of the very best type, and in the aftermath of the crash he succumbed to the “fashionable” Victorian English disease of the day – “railway spine”. Today we’d call it post-traumatic stress disorder, but at the time many believed it to be the result of a physical injury to the backbone.

The hangover of the train accident turned MacGregor’s sporting mind away from rifle shooting as a sport, and back to the memory of that “india-rubber boat”. “A smash in a railway carriage one day hurled me under the seat, entangled in broken telegraph wires” he later wrote. “No worse came of it than a shake of those nerves which one needs for rifle shooting; but as the bull’s-eyes at a thousand yards were thereby made too few on the target, I turned in one night back again to my life on the water in boyish glee, and dreamed a new cruise, and planned a new craft, on my pillow.”

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John MacGregor – perhaps the only man to single-handedly create a whole new type of sailing.

The “new craft” that MacGregor dreamed of was not as portable as Halkett’s inflatable. It had been inspired when he saw “the canoes in North America and the Kamschatka with double paddles.”[5]  Like many Victorians, he had been impressed by the Canadian canoe he had seen on his travels in North America. [6]  However, like the kayaks of Kamschatka that he may have seen at the huge trade fair of Nivni-Novgorod, Macgregor’s canoe was wider than a normal kayak, with more Vee than usual in the bottom sections. [7]

Macgregor’s first canoe, named Rob Roy, was more like a sea kayak than an open or “Canadian” canoe, or a modern sailing canoe. Fifteen feet long (4.57m) and 2’6”/76cm wide, drawing just 3″/76mm including the 1″/25mm deep keel, it was small enough to fit into a railway luggage wagon. Searles of the Thames built the little craft in clinker (lapstrake) planking like their lightweight rowing shells, using oak for the hull and cedar for the decks. At only 80lb/36kg, it was light enough to be easily paddled or portaged.  It had a kayak’s low-freeboard bow and stern and was decked over apart from a three foot/90cm long cockpit, with bulkheads six feet/1.8m apart to create buoyancy compartments – something almost unknown in small craft at the time. A small standing lug mainsail and jib were set on a mast just 5ft/1.5m high.  There was no centerboard or rudder; she only sailed downwind, steered by the double-ended paddle.1_robroy

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Macgregor’s first canoe was more like a sea kayak than a modern paddling or sailing canoe.

From July until October 1865, MacGregor and the first Rob Roy made their way across the English Channel by steamer and then through Europe by paddle, sail, train and cart for 1000 miles.  MacGregor was by nature a missionary, and inside the tiny hull of Rob Roy he carried bibles and other religious writings to give to those he met on his travels.  He applied the same crusading zeal to promoting canoe sailing. “A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe on Twenty Rivers and Lakes of Europe“ was one of the best selling books of the year. He soon followed up with tours to the Baltic and the Middle East, each recorded by a best-seller.

MacGregor’s missionary experience, self confidence and crusading zeal made him an excellent public speaker, and his lectures on canoeing met an enthusiastic response among the emerging class of men with time and money on their hands.  In 1870, for example, he lectured about “Rob Roy” 56 times, sharing the stage with a Rob Roy canoe and costumes and earning 4160 pounds; about one million dollars in today’s values.  Like the proceeds from his books, it all went to charity.[8] Macgregor became a public figure; Charles Dickens, the most celebrated of Victorian authors, became a friend and a canoeist. Emperor Napoleon III read MacGregor’s first book and decided to organise the world’s first boat show, to encourage youth into the healthy sport. Robert Louis Stephenson, famous for books like Kidnapped and Treasure Island, started out as an author with a book about his own travels through Europe in a Rob Roy. [9].[10]

MacGregor’s promotion changed canoes from a curiosity to a craze. “The capabilities of the craft were practically unknown until the adventurous cruises of the Rob Roy brought before the public a type of boat at once inexpensive, safe, and sea-worthy, and gave an impetus to a movement which has since expanded beyond the dreams of its originator” gushed American writer WL Alden, the man who kick-started canoeing in the USA.  “The idea was not new; it was older than authentic history; but he gave it an overhauling and brushing up that brought it out in a form that was wonderfully attractive…The Rob Roy was so diminutive that her captain was able to transport her on horseback, but what she accomplished made her quite as famous as any ship of her Majesty’s navy. The English canoe fleet was soon numbered by hundreds.”[11][12]

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Baden Warrington-Powell, the great innovator of the early racing canoes, started off as a cruiser. This plate is from his early book “Canoe Travelling: Log of a Cruise on the Baltic, and Practical Hints on Building and Fitting Canoes.

Cruising was the early canoes’ reason for existence, and it dominated their design as the sport took off. “A canoe that cannot be slept in is an insufficient hollow mockery” thundered Alden.  Even the racing champion A. Bowyer Vaux agreed; “A canoeist who cares for racing only is a sorry fellow and not likely long to remain a canoeist” was his judgement.[13]  Canoeists of the time waxed lyrical about the joys of sleeping under a boom tent and frying bacon on the forehatch in a canoe with all the necessities of 19th-century camping – pipe, collar and tie, laxatives, quinine and a rifle.[14]  There were earnest discussions about storage, and jokes that those who slept under the decks of the original “Rob Roy” type could be identified by the bruises where their foreheads smashed the deckbeams on waking.  The canoe craze made its way all the way to Australia, where canoes raced in Sydney and cruised the Tasmanian coast, and to New Zealand where “Rob Roy” canoes raced as a class.[15]  Canoeists paddled and sailed their way to from England to Egypt, from the US to the Caribbean, and to rivers never seen by European man.

Perhaps it was this emphasis on exploration that made canoeists seem different to other sailors of the time. The Victorian age may have been an era of top hats and formality, but it was also a time of rapid technological progress, a time when the great scientists and engineers were regarded as heroes. The canoe sailors seem to have been swept up in this urge to experiment and perfect designs, far more than those who sailed other small craft. They had one advantage that allowed them to develop faster than any previous craft.  From the very first Rob Roy, their canoes had both wide decks and buoyancy (which led to the name “decked canoes” to distinguish them from open Canadian canoes) in an age when most small craft had neither.  In other small boats, a capsize was the end of the day’s sailing at best, and fatal all too often. To an experienced canoeist, a capsize was just an irritation. The fact that canoes could be quickly righted and sail on was vital in a tiny cruiser, and it seems to have given the racers a chance to push the limits of sailing and design more than any other craft of their time.

For many years, the canoe craze centred around sailing rather than paddling.  “The great desire of nearly all who have any interest at all in canoe racing is to get a canoe that will sail fast” noted Vaux. “Probably more time has been spent by canoeists studying how to improve the sailing qualities of the canoe than on any other branch of the sport.”[16]  They soon discovered that the Rob Roy type was a poor sailer.[17]  It was too low, especially in the bow, too unstable, too wet and too hard to steer. Worst of all, without a centreboard or false keel it could only sail downwind.

The early canoeists, led by Warrington Baden-Powell (brother of the creator of the Boy Scouts) and E.B. Tredwen improved the sailing performance of their canoes by increasing the freeboard, especially at the bow, to stop nosediving. They introduced extra beam and flatter sections amidships, to provide more stability to carry sail and when getting sails up and down or boarding passing steamers. The bow and stern were made deeper, to incrase lateral resistance.  They introduced rudders and sailed and paddled lounging back in their cockpits, steering with foot pedals like the skippers of today’s 2.4m Paralympic racers. They favoured cat-ketch rigs because moving the masts to each end created a cockpit big enough to sleep in.  Despite their small size, canoes like Baden-Powell’s series of Nautilus (Nautilii?) were excellent sea boats.[18]

Until 1871, canoes could not sail upwind effectively. Sailing races consisted only of downwind legs. In that year, Baden-Powell introduced the art of sailing to windward in a decked canoe by fitting a deeper keel to the third of his Nautilus series of canoes, and sailing upwind to the start line. “When Nautilus completed the first leg and came about successfully, a great cheer rent the air” wrote Vaux. “This feat had been considered impossible up to that time…..his Nautilus No. 3 is the starting-point for sailing-canoes.” [22]   Exactly when centreboards arrived is unclear.  William Forwood, of Truant and Mersey sandbagger fame, claimed to have introduced the centerboard into canoes; since he was an innovative person with years of experience with the Mersey centreboarders, his is a believable claim.  Centreboards in canoes were apparently still a novelty in Scotland in 1875. [23] The American decked sailing canoes (as distinct from open Canadian canoes, which were well known but had little influence on mainstream canoe sailing) were relying on keels with 15cm/6” of rocker instead of centerboards as late as 1879, for leeboards “did not seem to work for some unknown reason”[24] Americans were using centerboards by 1881.[25]

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Baden-Powell’s “Nautilus No. 3” canoe plan. The first American sailing canoes were built from a slight modification of this plan by in 1870. These craft were “50/50” canoes, designed as much for paddling as for sailing.  At just 14’/4.27m length, 2’4″/ 71cm beam and 57lb/26 kg in weight, this was a tiny canoe by today’s standards. Alden recommended a sprit rig with a tiny “dandy” or mizzen, giving her around 48ft2/4.6m2 of sail.

 

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The Nautilus of 1881 was a very different craft to her older sister.  She had much firmer bilges, a wider stern and 5″/127mm extra beam to provide more sail-carrying power. The keel line was staighter and when cruising she had a 83lb/37kg centreboard and 100lb/45kg of ballast in lead shot. Both keel and mainmast were placed well forward, to keep the cockpit clear for sleeping. The long straight keel gave her more lateral resistance. Dixon Kemp wrote that her sail area had leapt up to 95sq ft in the main and 25sq ft in the mizzen. This scan from Kyarchy.

The rig posed a difficult challenge for the early canoeists.  Since cruising was one of their main aims, they had to be able to reef and drop their sails from the security of the cockpit so they could handle squalls or use the paddle effectively.  Their canoes were too small to use the heavy fittings meant for boats and too tippy for them to stand up and handle the sails in the conventional fashion, so they were forced to create ingenious rigs and lightweight gear that allowed them to reef and stow their sails by remote control from the cockpit.  As American canoe pioneer C Bowyer Vaux recalled, “a canoe’s rig was made up of brass window-shade blocks, fish-line halliards and sheets, curtain-rings on mast, clothes-line painters, bent-wire hooks, wooden cleats, home-made sails of unbleached sheeting in one width, and all sorts of makeshifts. No boat hardware was small enough or light enough for a canoe. Battens in sails were unknown. A canoe three years of age presented the appearance of a junk-shop, so varied was the assortment of odds and ends that went to make up the rig.” [19]  In the words of one British writer, “the fathers of the sport are remembered as having spent half the season on the lawn of the Royal Canoe Club, devising new combinations of strings, and the remaining half in chanting the virtues of arrangements which were marvellous until the moment came when they had to work.”[20]  [21]

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Loch Lomond Canoe clubhouse around 1873. Pic from the Loch Lomond Sailing Club site.

By the late 1870s, the British had developed a sophisticated mini yacht, carrying up to 180lb/82kg in ballast to keep her upright under a rig that consisted of mainsail, mizzen and sometimes a spinnaker. A canoe of this style was much faster than a Rob Roy under sail, but her bulky hull and ballast meant that she was harder to paddle, and almost portage.  As Baden-Powell said, “though she was successful in racing, she was simply abominable for hauling about or housing.”[26]

Canoes like Nautilus of 1881 were an early example of a problem that sailing still struggles with; perhaps today more than ever before. The increase in performance had come at the cost of simplicity and versatility, and the sport was losing its appeal. “In England canoeing has suffered in popular favor by reason of a few men building special racing canoes with most perfect gear and quietly sweeping the field at every opportunity” warned Vaux. “Many have been discouraged from it by the idea of its being a most complicated and intricate science to master, as it is when looked at through a modern Pearl or Nautilus canoe.” [27]

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“A most complicated and intricate science to master”.  E.B. Tredwen, Baden-Powell’s great rival in early British canoe racing, and the complicated rigging of one of his string of canoes that went by the name of Pearl. Note the hinged sidedeck flap at Tredwen’s elbow, which  allowed canoe sailors to move their weight further to windward while remaining seating.  The rigging of these early canoes was complicated by the fact that they were expected to be reefed and unreefed to sail quickly and safely through the changeable British weather, without the sailor leaving his seat. Pic from the International Canoe class site.
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Both the plan above and the photograph below appear to be the 1886 version of Nautilus.  Some sketches show her using a large spinnaker in her races in New York.

 

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The sailing canoe arrived in North America in 1870, with copies of the design known as Nautilus No. 3.  From the outset, the promoters of the new sport made sure that the decked sailing canoe was seen “not a (Canadian) canoe at all, but a cheap and portable yacht.”

New York’s first canoeists were inexperienced sailors, and at the first regatta at New York in 1872, three of the four sailing entries capsized into the cold October waters. “It was then considered a very dangerous thing to upset, and fatal results were expected as a consequence”.  “The unpremeditated upsets were so frequent as to evoke much mirth from the spectators, and bring the sport of canoeing into great ridicule” claimed a writer years later. It put the Canoe Club off organising any other regattas for years, but nothing could stop canoe sailors from traveling. In 1874 Nathaniel Bishop cruised his 14’ Nautilus canoe 2,500 miles from Quebec to the west coast of Florida.  The canoe Bishop used for this extraordinary voyage was made of sheets of paper, built up to 1/8”/3mm thick and varnished for waterproofing, and weighed just 58lb/26kg.  It was an example of the lightweight path that American canoes were to take. Like many canoe pioneers, Bishop spread the canoe gospel in the successful book “The Voyage of the Paper Canoe”.

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The early canoe sailors were nothing if not intrepid. Would we like to face off an alligator in a canoe made of varnished paper?

While they may not have been much good at sailing at first, the early American canoeists were fast learners and good publicists. When they finally organised another regatta seven years later to celebrate the opening of their new clubhouse, it attracted many spectators who “looked forward to the pleasure of seeing many capsizes.” [28]  They must have been disappointed – despite the strong winds only one canoe capsized.  Instead, the spectators saw C Bowyer Vaux himself doing something unique – sitting on the deck of his canoe Dot instead of sitting inside, and clearly sailing faster than the rest of the fleet.

Once New York’s canoe sailors had a clubhouse to gather around, they quickly improved their technique and their craft. “Sailing scrub races was indulged in every Saturday during the season; rigs were modified, keels reduced in depth, to avoid the drag noticed on regatta day in June, and a very good racing fleet was the result. The deck position for crew was adopted for racing, and the members all followed the Dot’s lead in getting deck tillers to steer with….These improvements very soon were noted by visiting canoeists, and a general movement towards good rigs was inaugurated.” [29]  [30]

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Dot. It was on this canoe that Vaux abandoned the prone position inside the cockpit and moved out onto the windward rail.

By 1880 capsizing, once so feared, had become so routine that “upset races” were common.[31]  A few years later, two British canoeists amazed big-boat sailors  when they “calmly and solemnly” capsized their canoe on purpose “to turn her right over till her mast and sails were in the water, and then stood on her centre-board and equally calmly and solemnly righted her, and sailed away.” [32]   As American yacht design legend L. Francis Herreshoff was to write many years later, “when one has become used to handling a decked sailing canoe he is far safer than in the dinghies, which can be swamped and which cannot be righted and freed of water instantly after a capsize.”

Like their British contemporaries, the American canoes of the era were “as fully fitted and able cruisers as any could be under the knowledge of the time.”[33]  They still followed the ideal that “the general spirit of those interested in racing has always been to condemn any appliance that was a purely racing device. The building of sailing machines is tabooed”.[34] [35]

At a time when other small sailboats were designed for local sailing, the canoe was designed to travel, and travel they didBy the 1880s, the American and Canadian canoeists had formed the American Canoe Association and were arranging regular canoe meetings on remote islands, where up to 300 canoe sailors would camp, dress in drag for amateur theatricals under a circus big top, run firework displays from their craft, wear silly hats, play swiss horns and race under paddle and sail.[36]  The appeal of the cruiser-racer sailing canoe caused 100 clubs to grow in America, and the American Canoe Association itself grew to 700 members.  North America became the centre of canoeing, whether cruising or racing and under sail or paddle.

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The 1881 meeting of the American Canoe Association. These camping events were a proving ground for sailing canoe development. The photograph below shows the original Shadow, one of the first American-designed canoes, with the same style of snug rig as the early American versions of Nautilus. Stoddart pic is from the New York State Museum site.

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The big fleets that gathered at the national and regional camps allowed the American fleets to quickly develop the art of canoe design and sailing; as Vaux noted, “each year at the meets new ideas are tested practically, and every meet is characterized by some special racing device brought prominently forward.” [37]  One “new idea” came from Dr A.E. Heighway of Cincinatti Canoe Club, a tall athlete sailing a slender and tippy 26″/66cm wide Rob Roy canoe, who stuck his toes under the lee deck, his calves on the windward coaming and leaned back until his head touched the water.[38]  It seems to have been the first documented example of a modern hiking style, and it allowed him to carry two huge lateen sails that the Rob Roy was never designed for. It also lead to the development of the tiller extension.[39]  Generations of sailors have been straining bone and sinew copying the doctor ever since.

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Dixon Kemp’s diagram of hiking in a canoe. Ironically, the rising popularity of sailing kayaks may mean that today, the vast majority of canoe and kayak sailors have reverted to the early style of sitting down and steering with pedals.

By 1882, the “deck position” was almost universal among American sailing canoe racers.[40]  “Almost immediately the need for big-bodied heavy canoes, with heavy centerboards and inside ballast, almost disappeared…. The canoe could be built lighter, with finer lines, and it was easier to handle both afloat and ashore”.[41]  By 1884, the newspapers who had once mocked canoes were admitting that they were “manifesting a speed of which we had not thought them capable.”[42]

As racing canoes became more complicated their cost rose, until a typical canoe cost $150; half as much again as an early American Nautilus.[43]  Although the canoe was sometimes called the poor man’s yacht, most of the prominent canoe sailors seem to have been affluent members of the middle-class.  Unlike those who sailed big yachts, catboats, sandbaggers, catamarans and hikers, the canoe sailors did not give cash prizes or valuable trophies and restricted people from sailing other’s boats, for they specifically wanted to avoid professionalism.  The policy did have its victims. The Royal Canoe Club was happy to operate from the premises of the Turk family, boatbuilders along the Thames since 1195, but declined an application for membership from one of the family because he was “in trade.”  In America “the fact that a man depends on canoeing for his livelihood, that he builds or deals in canoes, does not bar him from membership so long as he is a gentleman and a canoeist”.[44]  Another man who became a canoeist only as a paid advertising stunt was declared a professional.[45] But perhaps because they had nothing to win or lose financially, the canoeists were the most innovative of sailors.[46]  “Experimentation ran wild” wrote Stephens, one of the leaders “and each gathering, local or national, saw new ideas, most of them impracticable.”[47] The ideas included every sort of rig; spritsail ketches, junk rigs, gunters, and lugsails.  The simple and light “leg of mutton’ or Bermuda rig had been effective and popular in its small sizes; the whole rig could simply be lifted and dropped to shorten sail or de-rig, which was faster and easier than reefing or unlacing a normal sail.[48]  But when sail size increased under the pressure of racing, the “leg of mutton” proved so hard to reef and had such a tall mast for the area (14’ to 15 high for a 65ft sail) that many Americans adopted the reefable British balance lug. [49]  Others favoured the “Mohican”, which could be reefed by pulling a single line.

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Paul Butler’s Fly, designed by WP Stephens in 1888. Her sections (below) show the American trend towards slender, low-drag Vee shaped hulls with fine ends. Scans from the Int Canoe class site.

fly_body_planfly_sheer_half_breadthsThe passion for development and the easy transport of canoes lead to the world’s first international small-boat contests; the race for the American Canoe Association and New York Canoe Club International Challenges in 1886. From England came Warrington Baden-Powell with the sixth of his series Nautilus canoes– a classic heavily-ballasted British type, with a 56lb/ centreboard and 100lb/45kg of lead shot movable ballast.  She was normally sailed by a helmsman sitting inside the cockpit, British-style, but Baden-Powell was aware of the US developments and fitted a tiller so that he could steer from on deck.  Pearl, owned by Baden-Powell’s arch rival Tredwen but sailed by Walter Stewart was another classic British canoe, carrying the same amount of ballast but so lightly built that she fell apart at the ACA meet and a replacement had to be shipped out before the Challenge Cup event.  Like Nautilus, she was fearsomely complicated; the skilled but inexperienced Stewart had no less than 21 lines to adjust on the rig.[50]

When the heavyweight British canoes arrived at the ACA camp in the Thousand Islands before the International Challenge Cup they met the latest development in American thought; the Pecowsic and the Vesper. “The Pecowsic had fine lines, was a narrow and long canoe, and was fitted with modified mutton sails laced to the mast” wrote Vaux. “The canoe was first sailed with three masts and sails, but did not prove successful. Afterward two sails were used with wonderful result. The canoe had five sails of different sizes, all interchangable, only two being used at one time – which two depended on the power of the wind.” [51]  With her biggest rigs set, Pecowsic’s  100lb/45kg hull could be driven by no less than 122ft2/    of sail, although it seems that she normally carried much smaller sails.

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The canoe Vesper, completely unballasted, won the International Challenge trophy at the 1886 ACA meet, showing that the day of the ballasted canoe was coming to an end. These scans from WP Stephens’ Progress of American Canoeing are from the Dragonfly canoe site.

The Vesper carried a much smaller rig and unlike Pescowic (which carried some ballast) she was completely unballasted.  The lightweight American canoes, lead by Vesper and Pecowsic, left the British boats ten minutes behind in the first International challenge, at the American Canoe Association meet. The later series for the New York Canoe Club’s International Challenge Cup in New York, a four-boat teams event was sailed in enough breeze for the canoes to be reefed much of the time, was much closer. To windward in strong winds it was apparent that Baden-Powell, lounging back inside Nautilus’ cockpit on the beats “had an advantage in thrashing to windward, owing to greater quickness in stays, (tacking) although it did not seem that it had any advantage in pointing.”  Baden-Powell got better starts and “illustrated his advantage in going against the wind, but the American team’s Vaux, demonstrated with much greater emphasis his superiority in reaching, by sitting out far to windward, and thus keeping the boat on a more even keel, and maintaining a press of canvas greater in proportion to continued the size of his boat”.  [52]  After each team’s leader had each won a heat, Vaux passed Baden-Powell on the last run to keep the Cup for the USA.

It was a much closer series than history remembers, but the lessons were clear. As the victorious Vaux wrote, “both Englishmen and Americans learned something. The Americans discovered that the set of the British sails, the rig, cordage and fitting of the foreign canoes far outdid anything the Americans could show. They learned also the advantages of a smooth skin canoe perfectly polished…..The Englishmen found out that their bulky canoes with heavy ballast and heavy centerboards carrying large sails and crew inside were no match in point of speed for the light and slim canoes of the Americans, carrying little or no ballast, having very light plate centerboards, comparatively small spread of muslin and crew on deck to windward.”[53] [54]

The British immediately started hiking and “at once discarded their 56 pound centerboard and 300 pounds of shotbags and cut down the displacement of their models to the American standard.”[55]  But the US fleet stayed one step ahead when around 1888 Paul Butler, a lightweight sailor who had been disabled by polio, fitted his canoe with a seat (76cm/30  in at first, later growing to 5ft/1.52m) that slid from side to side. Instead of just hiking from the gunwale, he could sit outside his craft, with his feet on the gunwale, exerting as much leverage as a modern trapeze hand.

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Paul Butler introducing hiking aids, around 1893. Pic from “American canoes and Canoeists” Munsey’s Magazine, June 1894, courtesy of the International Canoe class site.

Butler was not have been the first sailor to use a device like a sliding seat. The Delaware “hiker” catboats seem to developed a similar idea around the same time. Down on the Chesapeake, the big racing sharpies and Log Canoes of the same era were throwing up to a dozen crewmen to windward on their huge “spring boards” late in the 1800s. But Pete Lesher, curator of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, notes that the Chesapeake was quite isolated from the sailboat racing heartland. The “spring board”, he feels, was a separate development to the canoe’s sliding seat. Ben Fuller agrees that the hiking plank was such an obvious development that it sprang up independently in several areas – but as a canoe sailor himself, he believes that the sliding seat, a much more complicated piece of engineering, was created by Butler. Contemporary histories all seem to give Butler the credit for introducing the sliding seat, which was a step ahead of the springboard in sophistication and ease of use. And it was the canoe’s sliding seat, rather than the “pries” or “spring boards” of other classes, that made an impact on yachtsmen and inspired further development almost a century later.

To steer from the seat, Butler created the “cross head tiller”; basically a wooden pole that slid from side to side in a steel frame which was connected by linkages to the rudder.  The links allowed the rudder to be operated by moving the cross-head tiller fore and aft, rather than side to side like a modern tiller extension.  Others tried modern-type tiller extensions, but the primitive materials of the day made them too hard to handle and too fragile.  The cross-head could be strong enough to actually be used as a handhold, whereas the extension tiller was all too likely to snap.[56]

Butler also invented the predecessor of the modern cam cleat, so that he could hike off the plank and dump sheet when necessary by hitting a lever on the cleat with a toe.  Along with others, he reduced the side of the cockpit until it was little more than an easily-drained footwell. [58] For a while, some top American canoe sailors would cleat both sheets and stay hiked out on the sliding seat, “with nothing to do but steer and balance till he comes to the turning mark of the course.  Here he quickly snatches a fresh trim of sheets for the new leg of the course, and off he goes again.  If she gets an extra heavy knockdown puff and capsizes, all the agile acrobat has to do is to jump out on to the centre plane, which is now lying horizontal on the top of the water, and to prise the canoe up, using the slide-seat plank as a lever.”[57]

Butler became known as ‘the father of modern canoe sailing.”  As Maurice D Wilt noted, “he developed by his inventive genius the fastest sailing craft for its displacement that the world has ever seen, a seaworthy, unsinkable boat capable of a speed of fifteen miles an hour… The long deck seat, the thwartship tiller, and the tight self-draining cockpit made it possible to increase sail area to an enormous extent and in complete safety” said Wilt. [59]  “every man who has sailed on a sliding seat and experienced the thrill of the speed owes a debt of gratitude for the invention and development of the finest of all water sports to the memory of Paul Butler.”[60]

While many of the Americans still cruised to races under rigs that could be reefed, Butler and W.P. Stephens, who built Butler’ canoes, and a hard core of racing fanatics turned the canoe into a lightweight, big-rigged racing machine. Hull dimensions settled down to a length of 16ft and a beam of 30in (4.88m x 76cm) and rigs grew until some canoes were carrying up to 190ft2/17.7m2 of sail on hollow spars.  The cat-ketch sailplan was maintained but the balance lug rig, with its heavy battens and reefing gear, was dumped in favour of an improved gunter rig, or “batswing” rigs with huge roaches held out by full battens. Some sailors preferred a return to the lightweight “leg of mutton” or Bermuda rig.  By 1881 W.P. Stephens and Charles J. Stevens had developed a 65ft2/6m2 “leg of mutton” with a hollow mast, batten-less sail and imported English cloth and cordage that weighed just 9lb/4.5kg – lighter than a Laser rig.  [61] Such developments were possible because reefing and lowering sails, so important for the cruising that canoes had traditionally done, was no longer considered.  Sails were lashed to the spars, and instead of reefing the top sailors kept up to five difference rigs, each tailored to a different wind strength.[62]   The affluent Butler, whose family owned the famous schooner America, had a servant to stand by with spare rigs.  Hulls were as light as 45 kg / 100 lb (stripped) or about 125kg/275 lb rigged and sailing.

“Canoe sailing has now reached a point where it can give long odds to any other kind of smallboat sailing” wrote the old champion Vaux. “The canoes have been made to attain a degree of speed and windward qualities not shared in by much larger boats, and now it is far from an unusual thing to see a sixteen foot canoe with a hundred feet of sail beat a good-sized catboat, and at times when the weather is favorable actually outfoot sloops and schooners of twice her length and twenty times her power.”[63]

Dixon Kemp sliding seat
Dixon Kemp’s diagram of the sliding seat. Other canoeists had used short fixed seats, no winder than the hull, but Butler’s device was to change the whole class.

By 1890 it was noted that “the contempt expressed by catboat sailors for canoe sailing was turned to unqualified admiration one day in July, on New York Bay, when four canoes covered the four-mile course in less time than the fastest catboat present, The fastest seventeen-foot catboat about New York, Bon Ton, was in the race. To add to the credit of the canoes it must be added that the water was rough and wind strong, so that the cats had to sail with reefed sails, and made bad weather of it at that.”[64]

But speed came at a price. The cockpits that had once been a comfortable bed became nothing but a footwell for lines.  Hulls that had been wide enough for cruising were now so unstable that racing canoes would capsize under bare poles.  The “racing machines” were so hard to sail that only those who spent all their time training could get them around the course.

The sliding seat “racing machine” and its athletic skipper drove those who were short on training time or interested in cruising as well as racing out of the sport.   “The true canoe, fitted to be useful and comfortable, otherwise than for mere “pot-hunting”, has no chance in racing against this machine type of canoe and man” wrote Warrington Baden-Powell. The sliding-seat canoe, he growled, “has engrafted the athlete and the acrobat upon the sport of canoeing.  Neither of them was wanted….the infinite harm done to sailing and racing by these machines since about 1889 is now beginning to be universally admitted…”[65]  The same year that Vaux exulted about canoes beating catboats was the peak of canoe racing in the USA.[66]

“These extreme canoes in a few years developed themselves out of existence” wrote Wilt  “The huge batswing sails got to be so hard to hold up, in the extreme sizes, and the hulls of the boats had to be so strongly built, and consequently heavy to stand the various strains imposed upon them, that they became useless for anything but match sailing.  They were too heavy for easy transportation, and they were entirely too expensive to build and maintain.”  Even the American Canoe Association admitted that the sharp drop in the number of racing canoes was “probably due to the increasing development of the scientific racing canoe now in vogue.”[67]

mab1
Mab, one of the most extreme canoes of her time. Just 30 inches (76cm wide), she carried 126 sq ft/11.6m2 of sail. Scans from Outing magazine by Tim Gittins.

mab2

In response, the ACA introduced sail area limits; bringing the sail area first down to 130, then 110 and finally 90 sq ft (12, 10.2 and 8.4m2)[68]  The new rules created lightweight boats like the 1897 champion Mab, which was built of 1/8”/3mm thick white cedar and had hollow spars and varnished rawhide leather fittings instead heavier brass gear.[69] The masts were limited to 16’/4.88m height and carried two light, short-battened Bermudan mains in a cat-ketch rig.  The bow and stern were thin and fine-lined, with heavily Veed bottom sections.[70] This was a boat designed for low wetted surface and low wave-making drag, a boat that would “cut through the water in the manner of a modern catamaran hull….with the power provided by the sliding seat they did go a great deal faster than their theoretical hull speed”, as canoe and dinghy designer Gordon “Sandy” Douglass wrote in his autobiography, “Fifty Years Before the Mast”.  While at least one modern expert who has sailed a reproduction of a Stephens 16 x 30 of 1910 vintage is convinced that it did plane, the general consensus is that the deeply Veed sections and narrow stern made it a high-speed displacement hull.

The “16 x 30” class lasted for four decades, but it could not stop the death of canoe sailing as a popular sport.  “The perfection of the racing-machine and the extreme acrobatic skill required in attaining perfection in its handling, has driven busy men for the most part from the sailing courses” ran a report of the American Canoe Association annual meeting.[71]  “There is no prettier work afloat than canoe handling; but, as it is now, it requires the mental skill of the boat sailor with the physical skill of the gymnast, and unfortunately there are few possessing the ability who are willing to devote themselves to so absorbing a sport” reported Outing.[72]  The fans of the general purpose canoe had dropped out of racing.  There were so few keen racers that canoe racing almost died. [73]   The improvement in other types of small craft, like the oar-and-sail dinghy, canoe yawls and Raters, also played a part.[7]

Gordon “Sandy” Douglass, a canoe champion who went on to show his understanding of the American market by designing some extremely popular racing dinghies, later wrote that the arrival of the hard-core racing canoe was the end of the sailing canoe as a popular class; “when the canoe became a racing machine instead of a utility boat for camping, cruising and paddling, as well as for racing, it lost most of the very qualities which had been the reason for its existence.  By 1900, gone were most of the nearly two hundred canoe clubs, gone were the hundreds of campers and competitors who, in the 1880, had made canoe sailing a popular sport.  There still were enthusiasts….but now they numbered only  few dozen.”[75]  It was a story that was to echoed time and again in other classes, at other times and other places.

The canoe lasted longer as a cruising boat; in an echo of the 21st century, cruising was seen as “a revolt against the artificiality of the age. We have grown tired of pulling a lever when we want heat and pushing a button when we want food; we long to grapple fundamentals.” And so the canoeists turned further from racing and towards cruising the inland rivers and lakes, where other craft could not go – but they did it under paddle power.[76]

 

[1] The windsurfer may be the only other type that was created by individuals rather than wider social and technological forces. Like the canoe, it used some leading-edge materials, but neither windsurfer or canoe were created by the possibilities of those materials, and neither of them were developed by a wider group.

[2] “John Macgregor” p 277

[3] http://www.railwaysarchive.co.uk/documents/BoT_NineElms1865.pdf, retrieved 9/12/15.

[4] “John Macgregor” p 275

[5] “John Macgregor” p 278.

[6] The recent writers who have assumed that the Victorians would have looked down upon “native” canoes and kayaks are falling for a stereotype themselves.  In reality, many (although not all) Victorian era-canoeists were very impressed by the older craft; the Canadian canoe, for example, was seen as “incapable of improvement” for its use; “The County Gentleman: Sporting Gazette, Agricultural Journal, and The Man about Town of London”, July 30, 1892 pg. 1026.   As Folkard noted (The Sailing Boat page 534) “it would be difficult, if not impossible, for the most ingenious and scientific of European boat-builders, with twenty years or more experience in their art, to make a boat so admirably adapted to the purpose as the native kaiak.” Supporters of rowing boats did attack the canoe in the wake of Macgregor’s publicity, denouncing it as “the invention of savages….an imperfect, unscientific, uncomfortable imitation of the true boat”; see “John MacGregor” p 291.

[7];

[-Hand cruising and single-hand craft”, Outing vol 36 p 384

[19] History of American Canoeing Pt 1, C. Bowyer Vaux, Outing Volume X issue 3 June 1887 p266.

[20] “The Dry-Fly of sailing” by “Uncle”, The Yachting Monthly, August 1924, p 287

[21] Still, there were occasional tragedies and some had near misses.  The Rector of Cheadle, Commodore of the Mersey Canoe Club, “narrowly escaped losing his life while boating with no other companion than one of his monkeys, who stood on his head until finally washed away by the waves.”[21]

[22], p 216; “History of American Canoeing Pt 1, C. Bowyer Vaux, Outing Volume X issue 3 June 1887 p 260, and letter to the editor by Vaux, Outing Vol 6 p 237. Leeboards had been used in open Canadian canoes in 1860 and centerboards by 1865, but the open decks, high ends and hull shape of such types meant tha

8] “John Macgregor” p 350

[9] John Macgregor p 297

[10] “John Macgregor” p 356 and

[11] The County Gentleman: Sporting Gazette, Agricultural Journal, and “The Man about Town” (London, England), Saturday, July 30, 1892; pg. 1026

[12] New York Times, August 1 1880

[13] C Bower Vaux   , courtesy Dragonfly

[14] See for example “Modern Canoeing” Outing Vol 4 p 217

[15] “John MacGregor” notes at p 359 that a Reverend C.R. Fairey copied Macgregor by canoeing around Australia with religious tracts for watermen.

NZ -Australian Town and Country Journal 26 Feb 1887 p 39 turdaebruary 1887

[16]  CANOE MEET AT THE THOUSAND ISLANDS. BY C. BOWYER VAUX. “  Outing, Vol 14, P 354.  As late as 1897 the Encyclopedia of Sport still referred to sailing as “the leading feature of present day canoeing” (p 171) and in 1892 it was stated that ‘the most remarkable feature in modern canoeing is the extent to which the paddle has been superseded by the sail”;( The County Gentleman: Sporting Gazette, Agricultural Journal, and “The Man about Town” London, England), Saturday, July 30, 1892; pg. 1026

[17] Macgregor’s second major cruise, for example, was one third under sail; John Macgregor p 289.

[18] WP Stephens, “Single

t they could not perform as well under sail as the decked canoe.  Quite why the centerboard and leeboard apparently took so long to be adopted into decked canoes is a mystery.

[23] See for example the report of Clyde Canoe Club racing in Glasgow Herald of 15 Sept 1875.

[24] “History of American Canoeing Pt 1, C. Bowyer Vaux, Outing Volume X issue 3 June 1887 p269.

[25] Outing vol 10 p 364

[26] Forest and Stream Nov 27 1890 p 386

[27] “Canoe Handling”, second edition 1885, Forest and Stream Publishing Co, C Bower Vaux,

[27b] “The Canoe – How to build and manage it” by   Alden, Scribner’s Magazine, August 1872.

[28] “History of American Canoeing” Outing Vol X, Issue 3 June 1887 p268

[29] History of American Canoeing” Outing Vol X, Issue 3 June 1887 p269

[30] History of American Canoeing Pt II, C Bowyer Vaux, Outing

[31] Outing vol 10 p 361.  In “upset races” each canoe had to be capsized and recovered in the middle of a race.

[32] The County Gentleman: Sporting Gazette, Agricultural Journal, and “The Man about Town” (London, England), Saturday, August 22, 1891; pg. 1145;

[33] Encyclopedia of Sport, Canoeing, p172

[34] Outing Vol 14 p 354.

[35] Outing August 1887, History of American Canoeing Pt III by C Bowyer Vaux p 407. CHECK CHECK CHECK

[36] THE CANOEING OF TO-DAY. by c. bowyer vaux. Outing Vol 16 p 214 and THE AMERICAN CANOE ASSOCIATION, AND ITS BIRTHPLACE, by c. bowyer vaux. Outing Vol 12  p 419; Outing vol o4 p 108

[37] The Canoeing of Today, C Bowyer Vaux, Outing Volume XVI, 2 May 1890 p 135

[38] Trads and memos MBing oct 42 p 84.

[39] F & S Jan 8 1891 p 506   and ors – planks strained retrofitted and early  anoes  AND tiller extension?  Short fore and aft tiller and deck yoke applied by Vaux in Dot. “As men learned to sit further out some means of reaching the tiller was necessary, and a second handle, jointed to the first, was added. This same gear has been used on the majority of canoes.  The tiller extension can also be seen in some contemporary canoe plans.

[40] History of American Canoeing Part III, Outing August    p 403

[41] Canoeing Under Sail,      Sailing Craft, ed by SChoettle, p 118

[42] NY Spirit of the Times 1884 p 773

[43] “Modern Canoeing”, Outing Vol 3 p220

[44] “The only requisites for membership are that the applicant must be a canoeist and a gentleman.” THE AMERICAN CANOE ASSOCIATION, AND ITS BIRTHPLACE, by c. bowyer vaux. Outing Vol 12  p 418

[45] F & S Jan 15 1891 p 525   (also referred to pros as “the men who sail sloops an catboats off Coney Island with advertisements of soap and patent medicines pained on the sails”.

[46] History of American Canoeing Vol II, C Bowyer Vaux, Outing Vol 10 p 369

[47] Trad and Mem MotorBoating October 1941 p 84

[48] See for example EB Tredwen quote on p 86 of “Amateur Canoe Building”.

[49] Trad and Mem MotorBoating October 1941 p 84

[49b] These figures from “Rushton and His Times in American Canoeing”, by Atwood Manley

[50] CANOE MEET AT THE THOUSAND ISLANDS. BY C. BOWYER VAUX. Outing vol 14 p356

[51] C Bowyer Vaux, appendix.  Pescowic SELECTED FOR ICC   but as Vaux noted, ““Her performance at the ’86 A. C. A. meet were the talk of the canoeing world for over two years in England, Germany and America. This arrangement did not and cannot prove popular for obvious reasons. It is a racing expedient, and perfectly allowable as such.”[51]

[51b] Progress in canoeing

 

[52] “The International Canoe Race”, Outing vol 9 p 169

[53] Bower Vaux, appendix to          ,

[54] One of the British sailors was already aware of the American position and had fitted his boat with a tiller that could be used while sitting on deck, although he still sat in the boat downwind. Stevens says that it was Baden-Powell (Trad and Memoro,s MotorB Oct 41 p 84) but Vaux, who probably knew better as the winner, says (in  Note Outing vol 9 p 167) that it was the less experienced Stewart, who finished third in the regatta.  Only the first finisher in each nation’s two-man team counted.

 

[55] Stephens Tad and Me Oct 41 MotorBoating p 84

[56] In F & S Jan 8 1891 p 506, XXXX wrote that the modern type of tiller extension that had been used in some canoes was “defective in two points.  It is so weak in construction as to be very easily broken, and also from its weakness and the fact that it swings freely it is of no aid to the main in regaining his position after hiking out…the mishaps to the old tiller in the races at the meet probably settled its fate, and the new (thwartships) one will supplant it entirely wherever the sliding seat is used.”

[57] Encyclopedia of Sport, Canoeing, p 172

[58] Wilt says that the canoes developed by Butler could recover from a capsize easily, but Vaux noted in “THE AMERICAN CANOE ASSOCIATION, AND ITS BIRTHPLACE, by c. bowyer vaux. Outing Vol 12  p 420” that the big rigs of the later canoes made it harder to bring them upright than with earlier craft.

[59] Canoeing Under Sail,    Sailing Craft p 120.

[60] Canoeing Under Sail,     , Sailing Craft p 118-119.

[61] Information on rig from T and M, MBoting Nov 41 p 54.  See “The modern single-hand cruiser” by C Bowyer Vaux, outing Vol 22

[62] Outing vol 14 p 354 saoid that this ‘standing rig” was first used in the famous canoe Pescowid in 1886.

[63] CB Vaux, Editor’s open Window, Outing Vol 14 p 313

[64] “Editor’s Open Window, Canoeing”, Outing vol 16 p 495

[65] “Canoes and Canoeing” Warrington baden-Powell in “the Encyclopedia of Sport”, F.G. Aflolo et al (eds) London, 1897 p 172

[66] Forest and Steam, p 412 May 12 1894

[67] Fordst na Stream jan 26 1893 p 83

[68][68] For every inch the beam was increased over 30”, sail area could be increased by 3 ft2, while for every inch under 16’ the sail area had to be increased by ¼ ft2.  Beam had to be between 1/3 and 5/32 of overall length.  There were also minimum depth, waterline beam and weight limits. “Canoeing Under Sail”, Wilt in “Sailing Craft”, p 120 and 130.

[69] Champion canoes of To-day, R.B. Burchard, Outing vol 30 p 226

[70] Later it was reported that there was a swing back to ballast.  “Canoeing”, Bowyer Vaux, p 20 he says that Toltec, which won the International Challenge Cup for 1891 against a Canadian challenger, had 100lb of ballast.  Her skipper “belayed both sheets in a strong, puffy breeze, and slid in and out on his long sliding seat as required, sometimes having both feet against the outside of his canoe, and directing his course by occasionally touching the tiller with his aftermost foot.”

 

[71] Outing, Vol 29     p 143

[72] Outing vol 30, The champion Mab, reported in the same article, had a 5’3” sliding seat, 16 x 30, silk sails of 136 sq ft, storm sails of 90-, hollow masts, 1/8” wjite cedar planks, toe operated cam cleats but varnished rawhide fittings instead of brass, cockpit draining through CB case.

[73] See also “THE CANOEING OF TO-DAY By LEONIDAS HUBBARD, Jr.” Outring Vol 40 p 700;

BROOKLYN EAGLE 17 May 1896 p16    http://bklyn.newspapers.com/image/50432305/.

[74] Forest and Steam, p 412 May 12 1894.  By “rater types” one means boats like the Scarecrow, wich were nbot designed as Raters but followed the same style. The typical “canoe yawl” was a small double-ended yawl-rigged centreboard cruising yacht about 18-   long, which developed in north England from about     .

[75] Gordon K (Sandy) Douglass, “Sixty Years behind the mast – the fox on the water” p      .

[76] “THE CANOEING OF TO-DAY By LEONIDAS HUBBARD, Jr.” Outring Vol 40 p 705;

 

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1.6: The raincoat boat bed and the shoe-shine missionary

The story of the early sailing canoes, the first high-performance racers.

 

The next breed of small sailboat was sparked by a very special raincoat, a mistake by a signalman in London’s Nine Elms station, and a psychological condition called “railway spine”. Almost all other popular types of sailing craft were sparked by wider factors like social forces or advances in materials; this was a type that was created by the exploits and promotion of one man. [1]

It all started on May 22, 1848, when John Macgregor, a descendant of the legendary Scottish hero Rob Roy, was shown an inflatable “india-rubber boat which forms a cloak, tent, boat and bed” by Archibald Smith, a scientist and yachtsman.  The inflatable boat piqued MacGregor’s interest.  “Perhaps I shall go to the Lakes next year” he mused in his diary that day.[2]  Instead, this remarkable man spent the next 17 years as an occasional sailor, mountain climber, barrister, world traveller, illustrator for Dr Livingstone of Africa, marksman and philanthropist, equipping the street kids of London with shoe-shine kits so they could earn a living away from begging and crime.

halkett_boat_cloak_in_use_cropped
Peter Halkett sailing his first invention, an inflatable boat that could be deflated and used as a raincoat. The paddle became a walking stick; the sail an umbrella. Halkett’s boat attracted widespread interest in the 1840s and was probably the craft that Archibald Smith showed to MacGregor. It was an unlikely inspiration for the type that was to become the world’s first high-performance small sailing craft. Halkett’s ingenious invention, which he sailed on the Thames and the Bay of Biscay, was highly regarded by Arctic explorers but was a commercial failure; MacGregor’s was a huge success.

On May 15 1865, MacGregor was travelling home from a shooting competition when the 5:10 up train was directed onto the wrong track and into a stationary steam engine.[3] Macgregor was “thrown violently on my head protected by my hat” but in his typical manner, he “attended to the injured before working late on at an Exhibition.”[4]

Victorians were fascinated by the new threat of railway accidents and by the new science of psychiatry. MacGregor seems to have been in every way a Victorian Englishman of the very best type, and in the aftermath of the crash he succumbed to the “fashionable” Victorian English disease of the day – “railway spine”. Today we’d call it post-traumatic stress disorder, but at the time many believed it to be the result of a physical injury to the backbone.

The hangover of the train accident turned MacGregor’s sporting mind away from rifle shooting as a sport, and back to the memory of that “india-rubber boat”. “A smash in a railway carriage one day hurled me under the seat, entangled in broken telegraph wires” he later wrote. “No worse came of it than a shake of those nerves which one needs for rifle shooting; but as the bull’s-eyes at a thousand yards were thereby made too few on the target, I turned in one night back again to my life on the water in boyish glee, and dreamed a new cruise, and planned a new craft, on my pillow.”

wadxuey1
John MacGregor – perhaps the only man to single-handedly create a whole new type of sailing.

The “new craft” that MacGregor dreamed of was not as portable as Halkett’s inflatable. It had been inspired when he saw “the canoes in North America and the Kamschatka with double paddles.”[5]  Like many Victorians, he had been impressed by the Canadian canoe he had seen on his travels in North America. [6]  However, like the kayaks of Kamschatka that he may have seen at the huge trade fair of Nivni-Novgorod, Macgregor’s canoe was wider than a normal kayak, with more Vee than usual in the bottom sections. [7]

Macgregor’s first canoe, named Rob Roy, was more like a sea kayak than an open or “Canadian” canoe, or a modern sailing canoe. Fifteen feet long (4.57m) and 2’6”/76cm wide, drawing just 3″/76mm including the 1″/25mm deep keel, it was small enough to fit into a railway luggage wagon. Searles of the Thames built the little craft in clinker (lapstrake) planking like their lightweight rowing shells, using oak for the hull and cedar for the decks. At only 80lb/36kg, it was light enough to be easily paddled or portaged.  It had a kayak’s low-freeboard bow and stern and was decked over apart from a three foot/90cm long cockpit, with bulkheads six feet/1.8m apart to create buoyancy compartments – something almost unknown in small craft at the time. A small standing lug mainsail and jib were set on a mast just 5ft/1.5m high.  There was no centerboard or rudder; she only sailed downwind, steered by the double-ended paddle.1_robroy

1_robroy
Macgregor’s first canoe was more like a sea kayak than a modern paddling or sailing canoe.

From July until October 1865, MacGregor and the first Rob Roy made their way across the English Channel by steamer and then through Europe by paddle, sail, train and cart for 1000 miles.  MacGregor was by nature a missionary, and inside the tiny hull of Rob Roy he carried bibles and other religious writings to give to those he met on his travels.  He applied the same crusading zeal to promoting canoe sailing. “A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe on Twenty Rivers and Lakes of Europe“ was one of the best selling books of the year. He soon followed up with tours to the Baltic and the Middle East, each recorded by a best-seller.

MacGregor’s missionary experience, self confidence and crusading zeal made him an excellent public speaker, and his lectures on canoeing met an enthusiastic response among the emerging class of men with time and money on their hands.  In 1870, for example, he lectured about “Rob Roy” 56 times, sharing the stage with a Rob Roy canoe and costumes and earning 4160 pounds; about one million dollars in today’s values.  Like the proceeds from his books, it all went to charity.[8] Macgregor became a public figure; Charles Dickens, the most celebrated of Victorian authors, became a friend and a canoeist. Emperor Napoleon III read MacGregor’s first book and decided to organise the world’s first boat show, to encourage youth into the healthy sport. Robert Louis Stephenson, famous for books like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Treasure Island, started out as an author with a book about his own travels through Europe in a Rob Roy. [9].[10]

MacGregor’s promotion changed canoes from a curiosity to a craze. “The capabilities of the craft were practically unknown until the adventurous cruises of the Rob Roy brought before the public a type of boat at once inexpensive, safe, and sea-worthy, and gave an impetus to a movement which has since expanded beyond the dreams of its originator” gushed American writer WL Alden, the man who kick-started canoeing in the USA.  “The idea was not new; it was older than authentic history; but he gave it an overhauling and brushing up that brought it out in a form that was wonderfully attractive…The Rob Roy was so diminutive that her captain was able to transport her on horseback, but what she accomplished made her quite as famous as any ship of her Majesty’s navy. The English canoe fleet was soon numbered by hundreds.”[11][12]

canoetravelling00powegoog_0009
Baden Warrington-Powell, the great innovator of the early racing canoes, started off as a cruiser. This plate is from his early book “Canoe Travelling: Log of a Cruise on the Baltic, and Practical Hints on Building and Fitting Canoes.

Cruising was the early canoes’ reason for existence, and it dominated their design as the sport took off. “A canoe that cannot be slept in is an insufficient hollow mockery” thundered Alden.  Even the racing champion A. Bowyer Vaux agreed; “A canoeist who cares for racing only is a sorry fellow and not likely long to remain a canoeist” was his judgement.[13]  Canoeists of the time waxed lyrical about the joys of sleeping under a boom tent and frying bacon on the forehatch in a canoe with all the necessities of 19th-century camping – pipe, collar and tie, laxatives, quinine and a rifle.[14]  There were earnest discussions about storage, and jokes that those who slept under the decks of the original “Rob Roy” type could be identified by the bruises where their foreheads smashed the deckbeams on waking.  The canoe craze made its way all the way to Australia, where canoes raced in Sydney and cruised the Tasmanian coast, and to New Zealand where “Rob Roy” canoes raced as a class.[15]  Canoeists paddled and sailed their way to from England to Egypt, from the US to the Caribbean, and to rivers never seen by European man.

Portaging from 1000 miles
Macgregor’s Rob Roy canoes were small enough to be portaged, carried in a railway baggage van, or carried on an oxcart. Later canoe sailors faced a constant struggle between the need to keep their canoes small and light enough for moving ashore and paddling, and the desire to make them long and powerful enough for good sailing performance.

Rob roy on cart

Perhaps it was this emphasis on exploration that made canoeists seem different to other sailors of the time. The Victorian age may have been an era of top hats and formality, but it was also a time of rapid technological progress, a time when the great scientists and engineers were regarded as heroes. The canoe sailors seem to have been swept up in this urge to experiment and perfect designs, far more than those who sailed other small craft. They had one advantage that allowed them to develop faster than any previous craft.  From the very first Rob Roy, their canoes had both wide decks and buoyancy (which led to the name “decked canoes” to distinguish them from open Canadian canoes) in an age when most small craft had neither.  In other small boats, a capsize was the end of the day’s sailing at best, and fatal all too often. To an experienced canoeist with a well-designed craft, a capsize was just an irritation. The fact that canoes could be quickly righted and sail on was vital in a tiny cruiser, and it seems to have given the racers a chance to push the limits of sailing and design more than any other craft of their time.

For many years, the canoe craze centred around sailing rather than paddling.  “The great desire of nearly all who have any interest at all in canoe racing is to get a canoe that will sail fast” noted Vaux. “Probably more time has been spent by canoeists studying how to improve the sailing qualities of the canoe than on any other branch of the sport.”[16]  They soon discovered that the Rob Roy type was a poor sailer.[17]  It was too low, especially in the bow, too unstable, too wet and too hard to steer. Worst of all, without a centreboard or false keel it could only sail downwind.

The early canoeists, led by Warrington Baden-Powell (brother of the creator of the Boy Scouts) and E.B. Tredwen improved the sailing performance of their canoes by increasing the freeboard, especially at the bow, to stop nosediving. They introduced extra beam and flatter sections amidships, to provide more stability to carry sail and when getting sails up and down or boarding passing steamers. The bow and stern were made deeper, to increase lateral resistance.  They introduced rudders and sailed and paddled lounging back in their cockpits, steering with foot pedals like the skippers of today’s 2.4m Paralympic racers. They favoured cat-ketch rigs because moving the masts to each end created a cockpit big enough to sleep in.  Despite their small size, canoes like Baden-Powell’s series of Nautilus (Nautilii?) were excellent sea boats.[18]

Until 1871, canoes could not sail upwind effectively. Sailing races consisted only of downwind legs. In that year, Baden-Powell introduced the art of sailing to windward in a decked canoe by fitting a deeper keel to the third of his Nautilus series of canoes, and sailing upwind to the start line. “When Nautilus completed the first leg and came about successfully, a great cheer rent the air” wrote Vaux. “This feat had been considered impossible up to that time…..his Nautilus No. 3 is the starting-point for sailing-canoes.” [22]   In the same year, Baden-Powell beat an 16 foot drop keel dinghy in two well-publicised races in the open waters off Southsea, in a convincing demonstration of the performance of the canoes.

Exactly when centreboards arrived is unclear.  William Forwood, of Truant and Mersey sandbagger fame, claimed to have introduced the centerboard into canoes; since he was an innovative person with years of experience with the Mersey centreboarders, his is a believable claim.  Centreboards in canoes were apparently still a novelty in Scotland in 1875. [23] The American decked sailing canoes (as distinct from open Canadian canoes, which were well known but had little influence on mainstream canoe sailing) were relying on keels with 15cm/6” of rocker instead of centerboards as late as 1879, for leeboards “did not seem to work for some unknown reason”[24] Americans were using centerboards by 1881.[25]

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Baden-Powell’s “Nautilus No. 3” canoe plan. The first American sailing canoes were built from a slight modification of this plan by in 1870. These craft were “50/50” canoes, designed as much for paddling as for sailing.  At just 14’/4.27m length, 2’4″/ 71cm beam and 57lb/26 kg in weight, this was a tiny canoe by today’s standards. Alden recommended a sprit rig with a tiny “dandy” or mizzen, giving her around 48ft2/4.6m2 of sail.

 

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The Nautilus of 1881 was a very different craft to her older sister.  She had much firmer bilges, a wider stern and 5″/127mm extra beam to provide more sail-carrying power. The keel line was straighter and when cruising she had a 83lb/37kg centreboard and 100lb/45kg of ballast in lead shot. Both keel and mainmast were placed well forward, to keep the cockpit clear for sleeping. The long straight keel gave her more lateral resistance. By this time, there was huge variation in canoe sail areas.  Dixon Kemp’s 1895 edition said that in the 1881 version of Nautilus the sail area had leapt up to 95sq ft in the main and 25sq ft in the mizzen, but the 1884 edition of Kemp said that the 1880 cruising version of Nautilus had just 52 sq ft of sail. In contrast, it seems that the 1884 racing version of Nautilus had a 100ft2 main, 50ft2 mizzen, and 60ft2 spinnaker hanging from an 11ft pole. This scan from Kyarchy.

The rig posed a difficult challenge for the early canoeists.  Since cruising was one of their main aims, they had to be able to reef and drop their sails from the security of the cockpit so they could handle squalls or use the paddle effectively.  Their canoes were too small to use the heavy fittings meant for boats and too tippy for them to stand up and handle the sails in the conventional fashion, so they were forced to create ingenious rigs and lightweight gear that allowed them to reef and stow their sails by remote control from the cockpit.

As American canoe pioneer C Bowyer Vaux recalled, “a canoe’s rig was made up of brass window-shade blocks, fish-line halliards and sheets, curtain-rings on mast, clothes-line painters, bent-wire hooks, wooden cleats, home-made sails of unbleached sheeting in one width, and all sorts of makeshifts. No boat hardware was small enough or light enough for a canoe. Battens in sails were unknown. A canoe three years of age presented the appearance of a junk-shop, so varied was the assortment of odds and ends that went to make up the rig.” [19]  In the words of one British writer, “the fathers of the sport are remembered as having spent half the season on the lawn of the Royal Canoe Club, devising new combinations of strings, and the remaining half in chanting the virtues of arrangements which were marvellous until the moment came when they had to work.”[20]  [21]

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Loch Lomond Canoe clubhouse around 1873. Pic from the Loch Lomond Sailing Club site.

By the late 1870s, the British had developed a sophisticated mini yacht, carrying up to 180lb/82kg in ballast to keep her upright under a rig that consisted of mainsail, mizzen and sometimes a spinnaker. A canoe of this style was much faster than a Rob Roy under sail, but her bulky hull and ballast meant that she was harder to paddle, and almost impossible to carry (or portage) easily ashore.  As Baden-Powell said, “though she was successful in racing, she was simply abominable for hauling about or housing.”[26]

Canoes like Nautilus of 1881 were an early example of a problem that sailing still struggles with; perhaps today more than ever before. The increase in performance had come at the cost of simplicity and versatility, and the sport was losing its appeal. “In England canoeing has suffered in popular favor by reason of a few men building special racing canoes with most perfect gear and quietly sweeping the field at every opportunity” warned Vaux. “Many have been discouraged from it by the idea of its being a most complicated and intricate science to master, as it is when looked at through a modern Pearl or Nautilus canoe.” [27]

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“A most complicated and intricate science to master”.  E.B. Tredwen, Baden-Powell’s great rival in early British canoe racing, and the complicated rigging of one of his string of canoes that went by the name of Pearl. Note the hinged sidedeck flap at Tredwen’s elbow.  The rigging of these early canoes was complicated by the fact that they were expected to be reefed and unreefed to sail quickly and safely through the changeable British weather, without the sailor leaving his seat. For 16 years, Tredwen and his series of Pearls and Baden-Powell and his series of Nautilus canoes were first and second in almost every British canoe race. Pic from the International Canoe class site.
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Both the plan above and the photograph below appear to be the 1886 version of Nautilus. Her broad ends and flat bilges gave her much more form stability than the early canoes. The bottom sketch shows the same canoe carrying her spinnaker in the 1886 races in New York.  Reports in Field and Stream indicate that this version of Nautilus carried less sail than some of Baden-Powell’s earlier canoes.

 

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Nautilus under spinnaker

The sailing canoe arrived in North America in 1870, with copies of the Baden-Powell design known as Nautilus No. 3.  From the outset, the promoters of the new sport made sure that the decked sailing canoe was seen “not a (Canadian) canoe at all, but a cheap and portable yacht.”  New York’s first canoeists were experienced publicists but inexperienced sailors, and at the first regatta at New York in 1872, three of the four sailing entries capsized into the cold October waters. “It was then considered a very dangerous thing to upset, and fatal results were expected as a consequence”.  “The unpremeditated upsets were so frequent as to evoke much mirth from the spectators, and bring the sport of canoeing into great ridicule” claimed a writer years later.

The disastrous regatta put the Canoe Club off organising any other regattas for years, but nothing could stop canoe sailors from cruising. In 1874 Nathaniel Bishop cruised his 14’ Nautilus canoe 2,500 miles from Quebec to the west coast of Florida.  The canoe Bishop used for this extraordinary voyage was made of sheets of paper, built up to 1/8”/3mm thick and varnished for waterproofing, and weighed just 58lb/26kg.  It was an example of the lightweight path that American canoes were to take. Like many canoe pioneers, Bishop spread the canoe gospel in the successful book “The Voyage of the Paper Canoe”.

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The early canoeists were intrepid souls; above, a brief interview with a bear (Outing, August 1894); below Nathaniel Bishop faces off with an alligator in a canoe made of varnished paper.

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While they may not have been much good at sailing at first, the early American canoeists were good learners and even better innovators. When they finally organised another regatta seven years later to celebrate the opening of their new clubhouse, it attracted many spectators who “looked forward to the pleasure of seeing many capsizes.” [28]  They must have been disappointed – despite the strong winds, only one canoe capsized.  Instead, the spectators saw C Bowyer Vaux himself doing something unique – sitting on the deck of his canoe Dot instead of sitting inside, and clearly sailing faster than the rest of the fleet. It was the start of a new era that was to change the shape and speed of the sailing canoe – and, perhaps, to kill it as a popular craft.

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It was C B Vaux, an all-round paddling, cruising and racing expert, who started sitting on deck instead of lying inside his canoe Dot as Macgregor and his followers had done. In this Fred Cozzens woodcut, Vaux is seen driving his canoe to victory in the New York Canoe Club regatta of 1879. Item from Outing vol 10 1887 p 269, digitised by Hathi Trust.

Once New York’s canoe sailors had a clubhouse to gather around, they quickly improved their technique and their craft. “Sailing scrub races was indulged in every Saturday during the season; rigs were modified, keels reduced in depth, to avoid the drag noticed on regatta day in June, and a very good racing fleet was the result. The deck position for crew was adopted for racing, and the members all followed the Dot’s lead in getting deck tillers to steer with….These improvements very soon were noted by visiting canoeists, and a general movement towards good rigs was inaugurated.” [29]  [30]

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Dot. It was on this canoe that Vaux abandoned the prone position inside the cockpit and moved out onto the windward rail.

By 1880 capsizing, once so feared, had become so routine that “upset races” were common.[31]  A few years later, two British canoeists amazed big-boat sailors  when they “calmly and solemnly” capsized their canoe on purpose “to turn her right over till her mast and sails were in the water, and then stood on her centre-board and equally calmly and solemnly righted her, and sailed away.” [32]   As American yacht design legend L. Francis Herreshoff was to write many years later, “when one has become used to handling a decked sailing canoe he is far safer than in the dinghies, which can be swamped and which cannot be righted and freed of water instantly after a capsize.”

Like their British contemporaries, the American canoes of the era were “as fully fitted and able cruisers as any could be under the knowledge of the time.”[33]  They still followed the ideal that “the general spirit of those interested in racing has always been to condemn any appliance that was a purely racing device. The building of sailing machines is tabooed”.[34] [35]

Radix centreboard from 1884 Kemp
The “Radix” centreboard, which opened its brass leaves out like a fan, was used in some American canoes because it did not require a centreboard case, leaving the cockpit clear for sleeping. Each blade slid inside a slot in the next blade up when retracted. Some great photos of an original Radix board can be found at here at the Dragonfly Canoe Works site. Vaux noted that they were “somewhat prone to get out of order and check the speed considerably when lowered and are, consequently, not popular.” Illustration from Dixon Kemp.

At a time when other small sailboats were designed for local sailing, the canoe was designed to travel, and travel they didBy the 1880s, the American and Canadian canoeists had formed the American Canoe Association and were arranging regular canoe meetings on remote islands, where up to 300 canoe sailors would camp, dress in drag for amateur theatricals under a circus big top, run firework displays from their craft, wear silly hats, play swiss horns, race under paddle and sail, and talk canoe sailing, paddling and design.[36]  The appeal of the cruiser-racer sailing canoe caused 100 clubs to grow in America, and the American Canoe Association itself grew to 700 members.  North America became the centre of canoeing, whether cruising or racing and under sail or paddle.

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The 1881 meeting of the American Canoe Association. These camping events were a proving ground for sailing canoe development. The photograph below shows the original Shadow, one of the first American-designed canoes, with the same style of snug rig as the early American versions of Nautilus. Stoddart pic is from the New York State Museum site.

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The big fleets that gathered at the national and regional camps allowed the American fleets to quickly develop the art of canoe design and sailing; as Vaux noted, “each year at the meets new ideas are tested practically, and every meet is characterized by some special racing device brought prominently forward.” [37]  One “new idea” came from Dr A.E. Heighway of Cincinatti Canoe Club, a tall athlete sailing a slender and tippy 26″/66cm wide Rob Roy canoe, who stuck his toes under the lee deck, his calves on the windward coaming and leaned back until his head touched the water.[38]  It seems to have been the first documented example of a modern hiking style, and it allowed him to carry two huge lateen sails that the Rob Roy was never designed for. It also lead to the development of the tiller extension.[39]  Generations of sailors have been straining bone and sinew copying the doctor ever since.

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Dixon Kemp’s diagram of hiking in a canoe. Ironically, the rising popularity of sailing kayaks may mean that today, the vast majority of canoe and kayak sailors have reverted to the early style of sitting down and steering with pedals.

By 1882, the “deck position” was almost universal among American sailing canoe racers.[40]  The switch to using body weight instead of ballast for sail carrying power soon changed the whole design of their craft. “Almost immediately the need for big-bodied heavy canoes, with heavy centerboards and inside ballast, almost disappeared…. The canoe could be built lighter, with finer lines, and it was easier to handle both afloat and ashore” wrote canoe sailor Maurice D Wilt.[41]  By 1884, the newspapers who had once mocked canoes were admitting that they were “manifesting a speed of which we had not thought them capable.”[42]

While many of the Americans still cruised to races under rigs that could be reefed, menm like Paul Butler and W.P. Stephens, who built Butler’s canoes, and a hard core of racing fanatics turned the canoe into a lightweight, big-rigged racing machine. Hull dimensions settled down to a length of 16ft and a beam of 30in (4.88m x 76cm).  The cat-ketch sailplan was maintained but the balance lug rig, with its heavy battens and reefing gear, was dumped in favour of an improved gunter rig, or “batswing” rigs with huge roaches held out by full battens. Some sailors preferred a return to the lightweight “leg of mutton” or Bermuda rig.  By 1881 W.P. Stephens and Charles J. Stevens had developed a 65ft2/6m2 “leg of mutton” with a hollow mast, batten-less sail and imported English cloth and cordage that weighed just 9lb/4.5kg – lighter than a Laser rig.  [61] Such developments were possible because reefing and lowering sails, so important for the cruising that canoes had traditionally done, was no longer considered.  Sails were lashed to the spars, and instead of reefing the top sailors kept up to five difference rigs, each tailored to a different wind strength.[62]   Butler, a wealthy man whose father gave him the schooner America (yep, the schooner America) had a servant to stand by with spare rigs.  Hulls were as light as 45 kg / 100 lb (stripped) or about 125kg/275 lb rigged and sailing.

As racing canoes became more complicated their cost rose, until a typical canoe cost $150; half as much again as an early American Nautilus.[43]  Although the canoe was sometimes called the poor man’s yacht, most of the prominent canoe sailors seem to have been affluent members of the middle-class.  Unlike those who sailed big yachts, catboats, sandbaggers, catamarans and hikers, the canoe sailors did not give cash prizes or valuable trophies and restricted people from sailing other’s boats, for they specifically wanted to avoid professionals and “their twin companions, betting and gambling.”  Today we may see this as class consciousness, but the reality is that betting, gambling and the related race-fixing and corruption were definitely major problems for sport in the 1880s, as they are today.  Canoeing’s amateurs-only policy had its own victims in England, where the Royal Canoe Club was happy to operate from the premises of the Turk family, boatbuilders along the Thames since 1195 but refused to allow one of the family to become a member because he was “in trade.”  In America the policy seemed fairer.  A man who became a canoeist only so he could do a canoe trip as a paid advertising stunt was deemed a professional and barred, but the Association decided “the fact that a man depends on canoeing for his livelihood, that he builds or deals in canoes, does not bar him from membership so long as he is a gentleman and a canoeist”.[44]  [45]

Perhaps it was this combination of professional boatbuilders and amateur sailors who had nothing to win or lose financially that made the canoeists the most innovative of sailors.[46]  “Experimentation ran wild” wrote Stephens, one of the leaders “and each gathering, local or national, saw new ideas, most of them impracticable.”[47] The ideas included every sort of rig; spritsail ketches, junk rigs, gunters, and lugsails.  The simple and light “leg of mutton’ or Bermuda rig had been effective and popular in its small sizes; the whole rig could simply be lifted and dropped to shorten sail or de-rig, which was faster and easier than reefing or unlacing a normal sail.[48]  But when sail size increased under the pressure of racing, the “leg of mutton” proved so hard to reef and had such a tall mast for the area (14’ to 15 high for a 65ft sail) that many Americans adopted the reefable British balance lug. [49]  Others favoured the “Mohican”, which could be reefed by pulling a single line.

Perhaps the most telling illustration of the innovative attitude of the era was the tests by the famous American canoe builder J.H. Rushton. As well as tank-testing, in 1886 Rushton conducted extensive full-size tow tests to determine the drag of half a dozen canoes. He took about 3,000 readings, accurate down to about half a pound, in what must have been one of the most intensive small-craft design studies ever conducted.

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Paul Butler’s Fly, designed by WP Stephens in 1888. Her sections (below) show the American trend towards slender, low-drag Vee shaped hulls with fine ends. Scans from the Int Canoe class site.

fly_body_planfly_sheer_half_breadthsThe passion for development and the easy transport of canoes lead to the world’s first international small-boat contests; the race for the American Canoe Association and New York Canoe Club International Challenges in 1886. From England came Warrington Baden-Powell with the sixth of his series Nautilus canoes– a classic heavily-ballasted British type, with a 56lb/ centreboard and 100lb/45kg of lead shot movable ballast.  She was normally sailed by a helmsman sitting inside the cockpit, British-style, but Baden-Powell was aware of the US developments and like some other British sailors he had already fitted a tiller so that he could steer from on deck.  Pearl, owned by Baden-Powell’s arch rival Tredwen but sailed by Walter Stewart, was another classic British canoe, carrying the same amount of ballast but so lightly built that she fell apart at the ACA meet and a replacement had to be shipped out before the Challenge Cup event.  Like Nautilus, she was fearsomely complicated; the skilled but inexperienced Stewart had no less than 21 lines to adjust on the rig as well as deal with the fact that both the original and the replacement canoes had major structural issues.[50]

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Contrast in canoe rigs, as seen in a Fred Cozzens sketch illustrating Vaux’s article “Canoe Meet at the Thousand Islands” in Outing of August 1886. The English rig (centre) was complicated but allowed the sailor to reef deeply down for the variable English conditions. Pecowsic’s “standing sail” sailplan (to the right) required the whole rig to be lifted out when wind increased. A typical American rig (to the left) had one reef.  The photograph of the regatta site below, with canoes stretching to the distance, comes from the same article.

1886 Canoe meet

When the heavyweight British canoes arrived at the ACA camp in the Thousand Islands before the International Challenge Cup they met the latest development in American thought; the Pecowsic and the Vesper. “The Pecowsic had fine lines, was a narrow and long canoe, and was fitted with modified mutton sails laced to the mast” wrote Vaux. “The canoe was first sailed with three masts and sails, but did not prove successful. Afterward two sails were used with wonderful result. The canoe had five sails of different sizes, all interchangable, only two being used at one time – which two depended on the power of the wind.” [51]  With her biggest rigs set, Pecowsic’s  100lb/45kg hull could be driven by no less than 122ft2/    of sail, although it seems that she normally carried much smaller sails. Where other canoes had complex reefing gear, Pescowic’s skipper changed sail area simply by lifting out the entire rig.

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The canoe Vesper, completely unballasted, won the International Challenge trophy at the 1886 ACA meet, showing that the day of the ballasted canoe was coming to an end. Vesper was one of the boats that her creator J H Rushton had tested during his full-size tow-testing programme. These scans from WP Stephens’ book “Progress of American Canoeing” are from the Dragonfly canoe site.

The Vesper carried a much smaller rig and unlike Pescowic (which carried some ballast) she was completely unballasted.  The lightweight American canoes, lead by Vesper and Pecowsic, came through later in the race and to leave the British boats six minutes behind in the first International challenge, at the American Canoe Association meet.

The later series for the New York Canoe Club’s International Challenge Cup in New York was much closer. It was a four-boat teams event sailed in variable breezes, often strong enough breeze for the canoes to be reefed. To windward in strong winds it was apparent that Baden-Powell, lounging back inside Nautilus’ cockpit on the beats “had an advantage in thrashing to windward, owing to greater quickness in stays, (tacking) although it did not seem that it had any advantage in pointing.”  Baden-Powell had got to know and prepare his boat better, got better starts and “illustrated his advantage in going against the wind, but the American team’s Vaux, demonstrated with much greater emphasis his superiority in reaching, by sitting out far to windward, and thus keeping the boat on a more even keel, and maintaining a press of canvas greater in proportion to continued the size of his boat”.  [52]  Each team had a win in the first two races. In race three, Baden-Powell was well ahead in light airs when the time limit had expired. In the resail, Vaux passed Baden-Powell on the last reach to keep the Cup for the USA.

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The American canoe Lassie, with Vaux hiking from the deck, leads the British canoe Nautilus, with Baden-Powell sitting inside, in the New York Canoe Club challenge of 1886. This Fred S Cozzens sketch is from Outing magazine. Although it’s sometimes said that the American canoes were unballasted, a report in The American Canoeist indicates that Lassie carried 60lb of ballast and two 10lb centreboards, compared to Baden-Powell’s 120lb of ballast and 56lb board.

It was a much closer series than history remembers. In the usual fashion, today the victory margin is exaggerated and the series is seen as an American whitewash. But the lessons were clear. As the victorious Vaux wrote, “both Englishmen and Americans learned something. The Americans discovered that the set of the British sails, the rig, cordage and fitting of the foreign canoes far outdid anything the Americans could show. They learned also the advantages of a smooth skin canoe perfectly polished…..The Englishmen found out that their bulky canoes with heavy ballast and heavy centerboards carrying large sails and crew inside were no match in point of speed for the light and slim canoes of the Americans, carrying little or no ballast, having very light plate centerboards, comparatively small spread of muslin and crew on deck to windward.”[53] [54]

The British immediately started hiking and “at once discarded their 56 pound centerboard and 300 pounds of shotbags and cut down the displacement of their models to the American standard.”[55]  But while the British were adopting the “deck position”, the US fleet was taking another step. Paul Butler, a lightweight sailor who had been disabled by polio, had turned up to the 1886 ACA meeting with the innovation that was to make the sailing canoe the fastest of all singlehanded monohulls for over a century. Butler had got WP Stephens to build him “a very ingenious deck seat, two boards as wide as the boat, the lower fixed to the coaming, the upper sliding in grooves on top of the lower and locked by a spring catch. The upper piece is slid far out to windward and locked there, making an outrigged seat on which the canoeist sits. By means of the spring catch it may be quickly shifted and locked in going about.”

Butler’s first “sliding seat” extended less than 76cm/30in. It doesn’t seem to have given Butler a major boost in performance at first.  He wasn’t a winner in the 1886 championship races, and his brilliant innovation went almost unreported in articles of the time, which concentrated on the international challenges. But within a few seasons, Butler had developed the sliding seat until it extended a full 5ft/1.52m. Instead of just hiking from the gunwale, the canoe sailor could now sit outside his craft, with his feet on the gunwale, exerting as much leverage as a modern trapeze hand.

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Paul Butler introduces the sliding seat. Pic from “American canoes and Canoeists” Munsey’s Magazine, June 1894, courtesy of the International Canoe class site.

Butler wasn’t the first sailor to get extra stability by slinging a board out to windward and sitting on it. The big racing sharpies and the Chesapeake Log Canoes were throwing up to a dozen crewmen to windward on their huge “spring boards” in the same era. But Pete Lesher, curator of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, notes that the Chesapeake was quite isolated from the sailboat racing heartland. The “spring board”, he feels, was a separate development to the canoe’s sliding seat. Ben Fuller agrees that the “spring board” was such an obvious development that it sprang up independently in several areas – but as a canoe sailor himself, he believes that the sliding seat, a much more complicated piece of engineering, was created by Butler alone. Contemporary histories all seem to give Butler the credit for introducing the sliding seat, which was a step ahead of the spring board in sophistication and ease of use. And it was the canoe’s sliding seat, rather than the “pries” or “spring boards” of other classes, that made an impact on yachtsmen and inspired further developments.

To steer from the seat, Butler created the “cross head tiller”; basically a wooden pole that slid from side to side in a steel frame which was connected by linkages to the rudder.  The links allowed the rudder to be operated by moving the cross-head tiller fore and aft, rather than side to side like a modern tiller extension.  Others tried modern-type tiller extensions, but the primitive materials of the day made them too hard to handle and too fragile.  The cross-head could be strong enough to actually be used as a handhold, whereas the extension tiller was all too likely to snap.[56]

Butler also invented the predecessor of the modern cam cleat, so that he could hike off the plank and dump sheet when necessary by hitting a lever on the cleat with a toe.  Along with others, he reduced the side of the cockpit until it was little more than an easily-drained footwell. [58] For a while, some top American canoe sailors would cleat both sheets and stay hiked out on the sliding seat, “with nothing to do but steer and balance till he comes to the turning mark of the course.  Here he quickly snatches a fresh trim of sheets for the new leg of the course, and off he goes again.  If she gets an extra heavy knockdown puff and capsizes, all the agile acrobat has to do is to jump out on to the centre plane, which is now lying horizontal on the top of the water, and to prise the canoe up, using the slide-seat plank as a lever.”[57]

Butler became known as ‘the father of modern canoe sailing.”  As Maurice D Wilt noted, “he developed by his inventive genius the fastest sailing craft for its displacement that the world has ever seen, a seaworthy, unsinkable boat capable of a speed of fifteen miles an hour… The long deck seat, the thwartship tiller, and the tight self-draining cockpit made it possible to increase sail area to an enormous extent and in complete safety” said Wilt. [59]  “every man who has sailed on a sliding seat and experienced the thrill of the speed owes a debt of gratitude for the invention and development of the finest of all water sports to the memory of Paul Butler.”[60]

These construction of these canoes was a miracle of lightweight strength given the technology of the times. The planking was just 2.3mm or 3/32 in thick, “strengthened by strong, light cloth, cemented to the inside…specially braced by sticks of the diameter of a pencil, each located with respect to some special strain or stress” and with masts that were “built up of three layers of thin veneer, wound spirally in opposite directions and glued together.”[62]

The lightweight sliding seat canoe took small-craft sailing to new heights of performance.  “Canoe sailing has now reached a point where it can give long odds to any other kind of smallboat sailing” wrote the old champion Vaux. “The canoes have been made to attain a degree of speed and windward qualities not shared in by much larger boats, and now it is far from an unusual thing to see a sixteen foot canoe with a hundred feet of sail beat a good-sized catboat, and at times when the weather is favorable actually outfoot sloops and schooners of twice her length and twenty times her power.”[63]

Dixon Kemp sliding seat
Dixon Kemp’s diagram of the sliding seat. Other canoeists had used short fixed seats, no winder than the hull, but Butler’s longer sliding seat and its added leverage changed the whole class.

By 1890 it was noted that “the contempt expressed by catboat sailors for canoe sailing was turned to unqualified admiration one day in July, on New York Bay, when four canoes covered the four-mile course in less time than the fastest catboat present, The fastest seventeen-foot catboat about New York, Bon Ton, was in the race. To add to the credit of the canoes it must be added that the water was rough and wind strong, so that the cats had to sail with reefed sails, and made bad weather of it at that.”[64]

But speed came at a price.  As Stephens noted, structurally the new-style canoe was “a beautiful specimen.of engineering” that could handle racing loads but was “in every way unfit for the ordinary uses of a canoe.”  The cockpits that had once been a comfortable bed became nothing but a footwell for lines.  Hulls that had been wide enough for cruising were now so unstable that racing canoes would capsize under bare poles.  The “racing machines” were so hard to sail that only those who spent all their time training could get them around the course.

The sliding seat “racing machine” and its athletic skipper drove those who were short on training time or interested in cruising as well as racing out of the sport.   “The true canoe, fitted to be useful and comfortable, otherwise than for mere “pot-hunting”, has no chance in racing against this machine type of canoe and man” wrote Warrington Baden-Powell. The sliding-seat canoe, he growled, “has engrafted the athlete and the acrobat upon the sport of canoeing.  Neither of them was wanted….the infinite harm done to sailing and racing by these machines since about 1889 is now beginning to be universally admitted…”[65]  The same year that Vaux exulted about canoes beating catboats was the peak of canoe racing in the USA.[66]

“These extreme canoes in a few years developed themselves out of existence” wrote Wilt  “The huge batswing sails got to be so hard to hold up, in the extreme sizes, and the hulls of the boats had to be so strongly built, and consequently heavy to stand the various strains imposed upon them, that they became useless for anything but match sailing.  They were too heavy for easy transportation, and they were entirely too expensive to build and maintain.”  Even the American Canoe Association admitted that the sharp drop in the number of racing canoes was “probably due to the increasing development of the scientific racing canoe now in vogue.”[67]

mab1
Mab, one of the most extreme canoes of her time. Just 30 inches (76cm wide), she carried 126 sq ft/11.6m2 of sail. Scans from Outing magazine by Tim Gittins.

mab2

In response, the ACA introduced sail area limits; bringing the sail area first down to 130, then 110 and finally 90 sq ft (12, 10.2 and 8.4m2)[68]  The new rules created lightweight boats like the 1897 champion Mab, which was built of 1/8”/3mm thick white cedar and had hollow spars and varnished rawhide leather fittings instead heavier brass gear.[69] The masts were limited to 16’/4.88m height and carried two light, short-battened Bermudan mains in a cat-ketch rig.  The bow and stern were thin and fine-lined, with heavily Veed bottom sections.[70] This was a boat designed for low wetted surface and low wave-making drag, rather than generating planing lift. While at least one modern expert who has sailed a reproduction of a Stephens 16 x 30 of 1910 vintage is convinced that it did plane, the general consensus is that the deeply Veed sections and narrow stern made it a high-speed displacement hull -a boat that would “cut through the water in the manner of a modern catamaran hull…..with the power provided by the sliding seat they did go a great deal faster than their theoretical hull speed”, as canoe and dinghy designer Gordon “Sandy” Douglass wrote in his autobiography, “Fifty Years Before the Mast”.

The “16 x 30” class lasted for four decades, but it could not stop the death of canoe sailing as a popular sport.  “The perfection of the racing-machine and the extreme acrobatic skill required in attaining perfection in its handling, has driven busy men for the most part from the sailing courses” ran a report of the American Canoe Association annual meeting.[71]  “There is no prettier work afloat than canoe handling; but, as it is now, it requires the mental skill of the boat sailor with the physical skill of the gymnast, and unfortunately there are few possessing the ability who are willing to devote themselves to so absorbing a sport” reported Outing.[72]  The fans of the general purpose canoe had dropped out of racing.  There were so few keen racers that canoe racing almost died. [73]   The improvement in other types of small craft, like the oar-and-sail dinghy, canoe yawls and Raters, also played a part.[7]

Gordon “Sandy” Douglass, a canoe champion who went on to show his understanding of the American market by designing some of the country’s most popular racing dinghies, later wrote that the arrival of the hard-core racing canoe was the end of the sailing canoe as a popular class; “when the canoe became a racing machine instead of a utility boat for camping, cruising and paddling, as well as for racing, it lost most of the very qualities which had been the reason for its existence.  By 1900, gone were most of the nearly two hundred canoe clubs, gone were the hundreds of campers and competitors who, in the 1880, had made canoe sailing a popular sport.  There still were enthusiasts….but now they numbered only  few dozen.”[75]  It was a story that was to echoed time and again in other classes, at other times and other places.

There were, as usual, other factors at play too. While canoeists had been developing craft that were ever harder to sail, bicycle manufacturers had been developing bikes that were easier and safer to ride. Many of the pioneering canoe sailors took to the roads and played the same leading role in organising cycling as they had done for canoeing.  As The Rudder noted later, “the bicycle dealt canoe-sailing its mortal blow…(canoeing’s) novelty attracted thousands of men, who followed the pastime until something fresh came on board. Then they flew to this and the sailing canoes were left to rot in the houses”.  Like the windsurfers of a century later, the canoe sailors learned that early adopters are also early abandoners once the next new invention arrives.

The canoe lasted longer as a cruising boat. Although we think that the desire to escape from technology is a modern emotion, it was present even in the 1800s, when canoe cruising was seen as “a revolt against the artificiality of the age. We have grown tired of pulling a lever when we want heat and pushing a button when we want food; we long to grapple fundamentals.” And so the canoeists turned further from racing and towards cruising the inland rivers and lakes, where other craft could not go – but more and more of them did it under paddle power.[76]

But while the canoeists of North America turned their backs on sailing, a small group of sailors from the river where the first Rob Roy was built started to develop a new type of sailing canoe and a new type of sailing.  Read on for the next part in the history of the sailing canoe – the arrival of the planing hull.

Note; for the footnotes and references for this post, go here.

 

Pt 1.22 – Painted boats, varnished ships and yellow dogs – the ancestors of the skiffs Pt 1

under-construction-caution-sign-s-0816

Plover
The 22 Footer Plover slides downwind under a vast rig including a mainsail (700 sq ft) balloon jib (521 sq ft), topsail (108 sq ft) and “ringtail” (629 sq ft)  set outside the mainsail leach. Pic from the Tyrell Collection, Powerhouse Museum

Considering how famous the indigenous Australian breed of over-canvassed centreboarders has become, there’s something ironic in the fact that it wasn’t until the “yachties” of Sydney and the sailors of  New York, Liverpool, Hamburg and Melbourne had been sailing centreboarders for twenty years that the small-boat sailors  of Sydney adopted the centreboarder. By the 1870s, the old “deep keel dinghies” and other heavily-ballasted open boats were dying out in Sydney. A new breed of classes was being built with centreboards, and to build a new boat without one was “a rare thing nowadays”.[35]  [36]

Today the classic over-canvassed Australian open boats are usually called “skiffs”, but to the sailors of the time the time the “skiffs” were a specific sub-genre of the general type that was known simply as “the open boats”. From about 1870, when Sydney sailors referred to a “skiff” they meant one of the classes in which beam and hull depth (and sometimes rig and crew size) was restricted, which kept the hulls something vaguely like a rowing skiff.  In the 1870s, the “skiff” classes included 16, 19 and 22 Footers. And so we read 19th-century accounts of 19 and 22 Foot Skiffs that were “of the skiff style, the beam being limited to 5ft., and the depth 20in.” and we see regatta rules that referred to classes just for “skiffs” and specified the same sort of hull restrictions. Because the beam limit meant that the skiffs had limited stability, they carried rigs that were big, but not absurdly big.

Just to confuse the modern sailor more, to the sailors of 19th century Sydney a “dinghy” was a small boat (normally 14, 10, 8 and 6 Footers) which had no restrictions apart from overall length. Because they had no rules on beam, crew size or rig, the “dinghies” could pile on more sail and more and more beam and crew to keep it all upright. “Many were the wiseheads who believed that the only thing that could beat a big, wide boat with a big sail was a bigger, wider boat with an even bigger sail” the successful 16 Foot Skiff designer Bryce Mortlock wrote in the 1940s. [67]  And so the people to whom we owe the word “skiff”, as modern dinghy sailors use it, gave it the opposite meaning – a “skiff” was a narrower boat with a smaller rig, while a “dinghy” was the stereotypical beamy boat that staggered along under a vast mountain of canvas, and the craft of 18 feet and more were normally just called “open boats” and known by their overall length.

When the open boat sailors of Sydney finally adopted the centreboard in the 1870s, the most popular classes were the 16, 19 and 22 Foot Skiffs and the 24 foot “Fishing Boats”. But even after they adopted the centreboard, the boatbuilders of Sydney were slow to adopt the shallow and beamy “skimming dish” style of hull.  “In adopting the centreboard principle for pleasure-boats, our builders have designed a new type of hull quite unknown where centreboard models are most numerous, and their best form has occupied the attention of designers and builders for years” noted one puzzled local writer. “According to American authorities, the acme of perfection is a form of hull …..that will sail over rather than through the water. ……”[39]

Unlike their sandbagger contemporaries, the early centreboard open boats had deep hulls with fine sterns. Like the “deep keel dinghies”, they relied on fixed ballast rather than beam for stability. “In the construction of the newer craft now used in this harbour, builders have sought to arrive at speed by not depending on the centreboard alone, as they have also enlisted the aid of a sharp garboard strake, and some a moderately sharp rise of floor in the midship section” wrote a commentator of the era. “The inevitable consequence has been the introduction of ballast, without which some would hardly stand on an even keel with the mast on end. Thus the evil has increased until it becomes a simple test of ballast v sail.”

The glamour class of the era was the 24 Footers, which bore the nickname of “fishing boats” because of their descent from fishing craft like the “Schnapper boats” boats that worked in the rough ocean off Sydney Heads. [42]  [43]  “Those of us who remember the 24-footers hard at it competing with one another for victory in those days of long ago will not forget the excitement of the game” recalled H.C. Packham decades later. By 1876 it was said that there “are no races sailed in this harbour more looked forward to by the boating public than the so-called “Fishing Boat Races.”[64]   “Of all the open boats that ever sailed in or out of the bay no other provided excitement o the same liberal scale as the 24-footer”.

The “fishing boats” were the heroes of tough races around the harbour and also up and down the local coastline. They were driven hard; a famous account of an 1878 race refers to  a race in which half the boats capsized when gybing or, in one case, when  “the immense press of canvas drove her clean under”.  But despite their local fame, these early 24 Footers were actually not very different from the sort of big centreboarders that could be found in many other places around the world. They were half deckers,  described as “a more beamy and weatherly craft” than the earlier “skiffs”.[44]  The “fishing boats” were described as “real pleasure boats, being constantly kept afloat, and used for camping, fishing etc…” on the bushland shores of Sydney Harbour and on Broken Bay, 15 nautical miles north. [45]  Where the 22 Foot Skiffs had a maximum beam of 5ft, the 24 Footers had a minimum beam of 7ft.

Adelphi and others sailing
Adelphi (seen on the right in the pic above and in the contemporary drawing below) was one of the “painted boats” that raced in the early days of the 24 Footer class. A sistership to the famous Coryphene, Adelphi had a very long life.  The “painted boats” were an early stage in the development of the Sydney classes, and were quite similar to the half-deckers to be found in other areas. For instance, Coryphene and Adelphi were 7’4″ in beam, over two feet or more less than the later 24 Footers. Pic above from the Australian National Maritime Museum collection.

Adelphi

Tradition says that the men who sailed the open boats were all hard-nosed hard-knuckle waterfront workers, professional boatmen and labourers who sorted out problems with fists instead of protests. Accounts of the day indicate that, just as in the sandbaggers, the reality was different, and much more interesting. Packham recalled that the early open boat sailors included “some of our straightest and most respectable citizens”; doctors, senior public servants, a reverend and mayors.  [2]  An expatriate English baronet was a major supporter of the Open Boats over in Perth.[3]  Two of the biggest merchants in Sydney, Mark Foy and Sam Hordern, were among the biggest supporters of the open boats for decades. Patrick W Creagh, owner/skipper/designer of the top 24 Footers Victor and Aileen, was a successful lawyer and Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron member for years.[6]

Although Australia was fiercely proud of its egalitarian nature (with the highest wages and some of the shortest working hours in the world it was, as the visiting Mark Twain said, the working man’s paradise, ) portraits of members of the open boat clubs show faces that to our eyes seem to be as stiff and formal as those from the yacht clubs. George Holmes, scion of a famous open boat dynasty, was depicted in yachting jacket and cap in a pen portrait, and was proud to say that he had always been amateur sailor.  Given that he was reckoned to have earned 5000 pounds in prizemoney (a small fortune in those days) it seems that his definition of “amateur” was as loose as that of W G Grace or other upper-crust sportsmen who earned a good living as “amateurs” – but the fact that he stressed his status seems significant. [4]  [5]

The socio-economic mix seems to have been seen as a bonus; “a man who goes yachting will meet with more men of a different class from his own than he would at cricket, golf or tennis” wrote the sailing writer Taffrail “and it is not one of the least charms of cruising to meet those who gain their livelihood on the salt water.”[7]   For many years the most generous patron of all was the merchant and politician S.H. Hyam, who was commodore of the Sydney Amateur Sailing Club, the first club formed for the Open Boats and paid for several boats at a time for others to sail. “He had four crew going out from his sheds every Sunday and holiday, and in addition to finding the boats, gear, and entrance fees, he furnished refreshments for the crews, and in no niggardly fashion” it was said. The presence of men like Foy, Hordern, Hyam and Creagh seems to indicate that the Sydney open boat sailors were a mix of all types of people, which seems a much healthier situation than the monoculture it’s often said to be.[5b]

It was Hyam who sponsored young boatbuilder Joe Donnelly to introduce the “flatiron” type of hull which seems to have kicked off the transition from the Fishing Boats and skiffs to the stereotyped open boat staggering under a vast rig. “What may now be called the old fashion were about three beams to length, with round bottoms and slightly tumble home topsides” recalled one writer of the 1800s. “Then straighter bottoms were found to give greater stability, and by throwing off the topsides greater leverage could be obtained.  With this in view the tucks were also made much broader, and a modern racer therefore gets her crew out some fifteen inches further to windward than was possible three or four years ago: today 9 feet are not considered too much beam for a boat of 20 feet length, whereas 7 feet or 7 feet 6 inches were broad.” [54]

Reeks drawings 2
These sketches, prepared for an 1888 article by Sydney yacht designer Walter Reeks, show the difference between the early centreboard open boats (bottom) and the new breed (top). They show the transition from rounded sections and a narrow wineglass stern to a beamy, wide-stern “flatiron” shape with a finer bow and an “all deadrise and no bow” shape like the sandbaggers. A 24 Foot flatiron like Victor had 24 degrees of deadrise.  Illustrated Sydney News, 31 May 1888.

The beamy, wide-stern shape of the flatirons was “evidently aimed at giving the craft the greatest possible power within the limit of 24 feet in length.”  Donnelly’s pioneering  boats like the 24 Footer Lottie of 1876 were said to have a fine entrance, wide flare at the bow, and “an enormous tuck, 5ft 4in, and consequently great power aft.”  Lottie’s “great power enables her to set a fine spread of canvas, and carry it withal.”[49]  She was a bit slow to get tuned up, but when she did she set a new standard for the class.

The “flatirons” seem to demonstrate a different approach to design, represented by the move from painted to varnished hulls which led to them becoming known as the “varnished boats”.  To call boats after their colour scheme may seem superficial, but in fact the name seems to represent a fundamental change in design. The old 24 Footers, which were to become known as the “painted boats”, were “built more for pleasure than for racing”. They spent weeks at a time moored or cruising and needed durable painted topsides and a tarred bottom that resisted weeds and barnacles. [57]  But the new breed of “varnished boats” didn’t need a tough painted finish; they were pampered racing machines, pulled out of the water after every sail; a “varnished cedar racer with gold stripe and a ‘d___n the expense’ outfit” “varnished and polished beauties (which) would be rather out of place among the schnappers” it was said at the time.

The varnished 24 Footers seem to have been the first example of what has become the stereotyped Australian boat, carrying a mob of bodies and staggering along under skyscraping canvas. They were the first examples of a breed that carried more sail than any dinghy before or since. But what caused, and allowed, this development? It’s been put down to the fact that the open boat sailors were inspired by the hard-driving of the clipper ship captains like the legendary James Forbes – but then why would he have had more effect on the Australian psyche than in his homeland of Scotland where Cutty Sark and Thermopylae, the fastest clippers of all, came from?  If hard-driving clipper captains led people to sail open boats with vast sails, why didn’t they do the same in Marblehead, home town of Josiah and Eleanor Creesy who skippered and navigated the legendary Flying Cloud to her record passages?

The sailors of Sydney and Brisbane may have been hard-driving working men – but so were the sandbagger sailors and the professional seamen and fishermen who drove the huge schooners and cutters around the racetracks of Britain and the USA and were paid to win, and they didn’t carry as much sail. The Australians came from a pioneering culture – but so did the sailors of San Francisco and Auckland, and they didn’t carry as much sail. It wasn’t as if they were all wild colonial boys – many of them, like the great George Holmes who had lived in San Francisco until he was 16, were not locally born.

It may have been the geography and economy of Sydney (and the northern city of Brisbane, which was soon to play a major role in the open boats) that played a vital role in the development of the classic Australian breed. As well as warm protected waters and fairly predictable winds, both Sydney and Brisbane had small populations and long sheltered shorelines lined with small businesses and private boathouses where boats could be pulled ashore, rigged and stored. Neither faced the same sort of massive industrial development and pressure on the harbour and waterfront that had killed small boat racing of New York, the lower Thames and Philadelphia in the same era.

Because the “varnished boats” could be kept ashore when not racing, they didn’t need the ballast that the sandbaggers and painted boats required to stay upright on a nmooring. Ballast, in fact, would have been a hindrance when dragging the boats ashore, and it soon vanished from the open boats. The “painted boat” 24 Footer Snowdrop of 1877 carried 610kg of ballast. Just two years later, the “varnished boat” 24 Footer Bronte  carried a mere 152kg/336lb ballast.[56]  By 1881 there are reports of 24 footers racing “having no ballast”. [59]  The only ballast would come in human form, in ever-increasing amounts. The few pictures of the “painted boats” seem to show them carrying only about half a dozen crew. In 1879, Bronte carried 12 crew; by 1882 Victor was carrying 16 to 20.

Lottie cropped
Lottie, one of the first of the “flatiron” or “varnished boats” that changed the face of Sydney sailing. Compare the beam, rig and stern shape of Lottie to that of the “painted boat” Adelphi above.

As crews got bigger and beam got wider, stability and rig size both increased. By the late 1870s, the 24 footers were carrying booms up to 34’6” long, with a 25’6” mainsail hoist, 26 foot gaff and 17’ bowsprit.[52]  [53]  But what set the rig of the varnished boats apart from the simple rigs of the sandbaggers and the fishing boats wasn’t really their upwind sails, but the vast and complicated ones they set downwind.

The geography of the sailing courses seems to have played a role in rig design, as Frank Bethwaite noted. The geography and comparatively steady winds of Sydney Harbour and Brisbane lent themselves to mainly windward/leeward courses, instead of the reaching legs that the sandbaggers had often sailed. The square runs favoured massive downwind sails that dwarfed the rigs of English and American craft. By 1881 the  bigger open boats were setting squaresails downwind, topsails downwind (and in some cases upwind) and “watersails” that hung down from the boom.[60]  Soon they were setting “mainsail, jib, topsail, squaresail, raffee, spinnaker, ringtails, watersails; in fact anything that could be set.”

These complicated rigs must have been made more practical once the boats were kept ashore. Rigging such complex sails as spinnakers and “ringtails” would have been a nightmare on a moored boat in those days of heavy and rot-prone cotton sails, hemp lines and heavy dinghies. It must have become much easier when it was done at a beach alongside a boatshed.  Perhaps even more important was the fact that although stepping the mast was still a job for four men, it would have become practical to change the rig to suit the expected winds each day – a feature that became an absolutely vital factor in the development of the type that ended up being known as the skiffs. No boat could survive and sail fast under the vast light-wind rigs if a hard wind was blowing – sails and spars had to be changed to suit the conditions, just as they still are today in the 12, 16 and 18 Foot Skiff classes.

7444047148_8d243d8b56_b
The 18 Footer Argo III, formerly HC Press III, ashore at Berrys Bay. She was owned by the Barnetts, whose descendants have been winning in 18s for decades. The small population of Sydney and Brisbane and their long shorelines meant that the waterfront was not taken over by industry as it had been in the lower Thames, New York and Philadelphia. The open boat sailors of Sydney could find a quiet and convenient sport to pull their boats out of the water for storage and rigging.  It may have been a critical factor in the development of the type we now know as the skiffs.

At some stage, many of the open boats also morphed from half-deckers to true undecked open boats.  It was said of the undecked boats that  “owing to their being less bound up by the weight of decks and deck beams they are ever so much faster than the decked boat, even those with large open cockpits.”  The danger and the extra care required to sail a boat without decks also added to the thrill, the writer said!

With boats like Lottie, the open boat classes had come close to the style that they were to maintain for the next half century or more.  “It was from (the Americans) that we have acquired our present type of open boats which have not only had the effect of completely banishing the deep keel type, but by experience have proved themselves so suitable in every way, that their adaptability for our waters is now beyond question” commented a writer in 1882.[55]  “Surely we shall soon lead the world, cease to speak of the American type and the English type, and have a type of our own, which other countries will look at with envious eyes, and call Australian” wrote another proud local.[54]

24 Footer from Kemp
No one has located a set of plans or a builder’s model of a 24 Footer, and none of the boats remain. This sketch of a 24 Footer from Dixon Kemp’s famous Manual and Reek’s drawings above are the only representations that I can find. There is no information about what design this represents, or the vintage. Compared to the sandbaggers or the Reeks sketch, this boat appears to have less deadrise and more volume down low in the midsections. This could be caused by inaccurate drawing, but it could have been a move towards a more powerful shape to handle the increasing size of the rig and crew, or perhaps to make this heavy boat buoyant enough to handle the chop and swell they sometimes met at the northern end of the Harbour. Note the little “mouldings” or “box gunwales” on the outboard edge of the gunwales -precursors to the wings of modern skiffs. Kemp says that this boat had a beam of 10ft/3.05m, not counting the mouldings. The other 24 Footers I can find information about are narrower than this. It’s possible that this is a later boat; the famous Aileen, which was so fast she almost killed the 24s, was said to have been more powerful than the earlier boats.

Not everyone approved of the move towards these beamy, powerful craft. “I don’t call them boats” was the later complaint of Andrew Reynolds, builder of the older and narrower types of 19 and 22 foot Skiffs. “They are ships”.[68]  Ships they may have been, but the power of the massive rigs, great stability and huge low-aspect steel centerboards made the 24s fast in many conditions. “Length for length there are no boats afloat which will hold these Sydney “flat irons” in a light day….on the wind in smooth water they have never been beaten by any boat which has been brought to race them” wrote Dixon Kemp. “The great area of lateral resistance, the small displacement, and the very powerful sail plan are all in favour of weatherly qualities of no small order.” [69]  Even today you can get a taste of what they must have been when the replica 18s thunder downwind under their mountain of light-air sail.

In other conditions, Dixon (who claimed to have seen them race) believed that the 24s were slow. “In a seaway they pound frightfully, and a Clyde 23ft boat would do what she liked with them in a thrash to windward under such conditions” he reported. “Off the wind they tend to bury, and their great beam will prevent great speed”.  One contemporary report rates the 24s “faster than any of the 5 tonners”; a conventional racing keel yacht of roughly about 36ft/11m overall. [70]

Lady Loch
The 24 Footer Lady Loch staggers down the shoreline of Balmain under squaresail, mainsail, jackyard topsail, squaresail, and balloon jib. The square sails with their heavy and cumbersome yards were replaced by spinnakers, which were easier to set. A cropped version of a photograph from the Australian National Maritime Museum’s Hall Collection.

Inevitably, the new style came at a cost. The old “painted boats” retreated to racing under handicap or with crews limited to amateurs or in numbers, leaving the most prestigious and richest events for the “varnished boats” and their crowd of paid hands.[58]  [50]  There was a cost for the owners of new breed, too. By 1882, the Australasian newspaper reported that owners were having to pay their 16 to 20 professional crew a pound each race, with more for the skipper. Each start was costing the owner 10 to 40 pounds – a lot of money when a labourer could earn about 100 pounds per year.

As early as 1881, there were reports that some owners of the “ships” had “become tired of that very expensive commodity – the professional element” and were no longer racing in events open to pros.[71]  The big 24s started to fade, to lose their cachet as the premium class. Aileen, the fastest of them all, spent years in a shed and then was sold to the southern colony of Victoria where she was modified in an unsuccessful attempt to make her able to handle the rougher conditions of the open waters of Port Phillip Bay. Although there was a small revival of the 24 Footers later in the century, the centre of attention turned to smaller boats.

The 22 Footers

The 24 Footers seem to be important historically because they show us how the characteristic open boat evolved from a typical half decker into something unique. The 22s don’t seem to have been involved in any major design change like the 24s had. They just took the same concepts, and took it even further.  The tale of the 22s can be expressed pretty easily in numbers – big numbers that kept on getting bigger.

Probasbly the new Esmerelda leadig Portia, 22s, Balmain regatta 1889 henry king tyrell pwhr
Judging from the regatta reports and cross-referencing from other photographs it seems that this Henry King photograph, titled “Luffing Match” and taken at the 1889 Balmain Regatta, may show the new 22 Footer Esmerelda (to windward) passing Fortia to take a win in her first race. The boats all seem to be carrying their small sail but even allowing for the strong wind, Fortia’s bow is kicking up serious spray considering how flat the water is in this narrow part of upper Sydney Harbour. Tyrell Collection, Powerhouse Museum.

In some ways one of the earliest 22s was one of the greatest of them all. Built by Donnelly in 1887, Irex was 9ft6in/2.9m in beam and measured 60ft/18.29m from the tip of her bowsprit to the end of her 28ft/8.53m boom. Downwind, her rig stretched about 68ft/20.73m from the end of her spinnaker pole to the tip of her ringtail. Her upwind sail area was said to be 900 to 1000 sqft (83.6 to 92.9m2) and downwind with her balloon jib, ringtail and spinnaker set she was said to carry from 3,400 to 4,000 sq ft (316 to 371.6m2) of sail – about as much area as a TP52’s mainsail and spinnaker! Compared to a sandbagger of the same size and era, the upwind rig of a boat like Irex seems to have been smaller but slightly higher in aspect, but the downwind rig was over twice as large. [78]

Irex’s greatest victory came in an arena the 24s never had – competition from another city. In the 1800s Australia was still a collection of separate British colonies rather than a nation, and there was a small fleet of 22s in the northern city of Brisbane in the colony of Queensland. In 1894, the Sydney sailors packed a team of three boats onto coastal steamers and sent them 475 nautical miles north for the first Intercolonial championship. It was a major logistical effort in an era when few small-boat sailors looked outside their home regions, and it may well have been the first “national” sailing championship outside of canoeing. The winner was the Brisbane boat Bulletin, owned and sailed by J.H. Whereat. It was an apt victory – although the cliche says that the skiffs and open boats were a Sydney phenomenon, Brisbane that was to drive many of the design developments for decades. As the Sydney sailors admitted, it was the Brisbane sailors who brought in innovations like the spinnaker (replacing the cumbersome square sail), multi-part spinnaker poles, “lee cloth” to stop water washing over the leeward gunwale, and the high-aspect Linton-Hope style “dagger” centreboards.

Irex cropped
In some ways Irex was the greatest of all 22s. Built by Donnelly in 1887, she won the Intercolonial Championship of 1897, and was still rated among the top three boats in the class in 1898. By that time she was about 18in/50cm narrower than the current 22 Footers and Australian Yachtsman and Canoeist magazine was describing her as “only a dinghy compared with latter-day 22-footers”. Photo from the Australian National Maritime Museum site.

The lure of Intercolonial racing was said to have spurred competition in the 22 Footers. In 1898, merchant Sam Hordern had a 22 Footer designed and built by England’s Linton Hope. It seems that Hope’s Bronzewing V had a rounded stem rather than the normal vertical stem. She had a beam of 10ft/3.03m – 1ft/30cm wider than Irex – and displaced two tons (    kg).  Bronzewing was deemed a failure, for unknown reasons, and was replaced by the locally-designed Plover. Plover was about 18″ wider than Bronzewing and set about the same amount of sail as Irex, with a 700ft2 mainsail with a 32’6″ foot; a 261 ft2 jib; and a 108ft2 topsail.  Downwind she added a 521 ft “balloon jib”, 1061ft2 spinnaker 44ft on the foot and 43′ on the hoist; 629ft2 ringtail; and a 156 ft jib topsail.  A boat like Plover cost about 200 pounds, half of the cost going to the hull and half going to the three rigs. Sources of the time said that this was three times as much as a racing keelboat of similar performance.

Plover unknown tyr pow zoomed in
The glass negatives that the Victorian photographers used can be amazingly crisp, as in this shot that I’ve zoomed in on to show the details of the 22 Footer Plover. In some ways this is my favourite picture of a big open boat, because its clarity allows so much detail to be seen. Note the clew of the  enormous balloon jib and the vast “gin board” centreboard pulled up by the big handles along the top. I count 19 men in the crew; a fairly typical mob. The open boats were normally planked in Australian cedar, a beautiful and light timber that was logged almost to extinction, and a cedar-planked boat with a rich owner like Plover’s Sam Hordern must have been a stunning sight. Tyrell Collection, Powerhouse Museum, unknown photographer.

Keriki, launched the same year, was 11’5″ in overall beam, 8ft across the “tuck” or transom, and had 9in of fore-and-aft rocker along the keel line. Her vast rig included a 31′ mast and a boom listed as either 36ft or 38’6″ long (almost as long as that of the sandbagger Parole, which was 5ft longer), a 22ft long gaff, a topsail yard 21ft long, and a 40ft spinnaker pole.[77]

keriki and wonga cropped
The 22 Footer Keriki, left, leads the famous Effie. Both boats are carrying their enormous light-wind rigs, with the tip of the topsail jackyard about 44ft above the deck. Effie, the 1898 Intercolonial champion, had the same midsection as the champion 24 Footer Ida. Pic from the Australian National Maritime Museum.

Despite their enormous rigs, as late as 1895 the 22 Footers were rated 3 minutes slower per race than the 24 Footer champion Ida, which had the same midsection as the top 22 Footer Effie. [73]  It was probably an indication of the vital importance of effective waterline length in these powerful boats, which must have reached their hull speed early, but were too fat and heavy to plane.  But the 22s were certainly fast compared to contemporary yachts, and in a series of challenges in a variety of conditions they proved to be able to beat conventional deep-keel racers like the 2 1/2 Rater Bronzewing, about 11m/36ft long.

Wonga Tyurell powerhouse

Wonga upwind cropped
The 22 Footer Wonga reaching (top) and going upwind (above). She was owned by A.W. Crane, owner of the “Rater type” yachts Mercia, Lauren and Sunbeam and Vice-Commodore of the Royal Prince Alfred Yacht Club. The fact that 22s were owned by such rich men sheds an interesting light on the tradition that they were a boat sailed only by working-class men. The size of the wake in the top pic shows how far these heavy, powerful hulls were from being planing boats.  Top pic; Tyrell Collection, Powerhouse Museum. Lower pic, Australian National Maritime Museum photo.

Like the 24s before them, the interest in the 22s faded due to their cost and big crew; “Owners found that they were too costly to keep up, and the difficulty in getting a sufficient crew to man them was another drawback.” [72]  “As far as the 22ft. unlimited crew class is concerned there is very little hope of progress” said a report of a meeting of the famous Johnstones Bay Sailing Club. “The cost of fitting out a 22-footer, and the difficulty of getting together the large crews that are required to man them, are becoming more and more appreciated, and it seems to be only a matter of a year or two, when the class will be extinct.”[97]  By 1899 there were only five active 22s in Sydney.[107]  Although a small Queensland fleet of 22s survived until the 1920s, they were no longer popular.   [108]   [109]   The smaller Open Boats were now where the action was.

Yellow dogs

One of the least-known types of all the open boats may also have been one of the most significant in some ways. Late in the 19th century, commercial hire boat operators in Sydney operated dozens of open boats around 24 ft/7.3m long. They were built of the wonderful New Zealand kauri wood, slightly heavier but much more durable than the Australian cedar of the “varnished boats”, and the golden hues of their varnished topsides gave them the label of the “yellow dogs”.

Yellow dogs cropped

Photographer William King titled this photograph simply “Half Decked Boats”, but from the lack of topsails, ballooners and any apparent spinnaker gear they seem to be a group of “Yellow Dogs” or “hired boats”, which normally raced just under jib and mainsail. Tyrell Collection, Powerhouse Museum

The “yellow dogs” were said to be “well found and fast, and some of them are second to none in the harbour.”  Not surprisingly, groups of boatless sailors often clubbed together to hire them for races, but both the major open-boat clubs, the Balmain and the Sydney Amateur Sailing Clubs, refused to allow the hired boats to race “on the grounds that they are hired by professionals, although they are manned and sailed by amateurs”.  The sailors of the “yellow dogs” responded by forming the Port Jackson Sailing Club, restricted only to hired boats and normally racing under just jib and mainsail, as few of the hired boats had full racing rigs.

8160279812_08a4a1a704_k
The 24 Footer Craigielee was one of the fastest of the “Yellow Dogs” and also one of the fastest boats in the mixed-fleet handicap racing that the later 24 Footers did most of the time. Bruce Stannard’s famous book “Blue Water Bushmen” states that her beam was 12ft and that she carried up to 24 crew. Here she is seen in 1882. Photo from the Tyrell Collection, Powerhouse Museum

The Port Jackson SC and the Yellow Dogs were examples of a scene where a combination of geography, economy and society made sailing available to a wide strata of society.  As late as 1907 it was written that “some of the boats are still extant and may be recognised by the boisterous fun their crews indulge in, and the music hall songs they sing. Boat sailing is the monopoly of no caste in Sydney, and the harbor, one of the best playgrounds in the world, is open just as much to the youngsters who put their sixpences together and hire a yellow dog as to the owner of a 40-tonner.”

From early in the PJSC’s short life, it started using a handicap system where slower boats and crews were given a handicap based on their actual performance, as in golf, alongside normal “scratch” racing. Handicap racing was to become a staple of open boat sailing, and it still is. The handicapping kept less skilled sailors and boats that had been out-designed in the hunt for prizes,which helped the fleets maintain critical mass. It probably encouraged development, because a boat that had been out-designed could still be sold as a handicap racer, maintaining its second-hand value and allowing their vendors to build again. Other regions used personal handicaps, but none of them seem to have put such emphasis on the system as the open boats did. In Australia and New Zealand even national championships included handicap series running in parallel with the elapsed-time racing, and many still do. Even today, in skiff clubs a boat that finishes half an hour after an identical boat can still be declared the winner and earn as much prizemoney as the boat that took the gun.

The Yellow Dogs and other big open boats were also regularly used for day cruising. The shores of Brisbane’s Moreton Bay and Sydney Harbour offered miles of unspoiled bushland. Contemporary sources indicate that weekend cruising was one of the major attractions of the big open boats. Their big cockpit was ideal for picnic sailing, and their shallow draft allowed them to come into shore without the hassle of dealing with the big heavy dinghies and anchors of the time. Many open boat sailors spent their weekends sleeping under a boom tent or camping ashore and swimming in the nude (which caused the occasional issue with policemen who did not believe that the naked swimmer they were scolding was a respectable politician or businessman).

But cruising also showed the darkest side of the open boats. Like the catboats of New York, they left a shocking trail of death and danger behind them. The Sydney racers don’t seem to have been too concerned with the safety of the open boats. Compared to the ballasted half-deckers like the old deep keel dinghies, the centreboarders must have seemed safe. The loss of the well known and successful half-decked yacht Haidee in 1839 showed how dangerous the ballasted half-deckers could be. She rolled over and sank in Sydney Harbour with the loss of five lives, including her owner’s brother and two women. An old sailor was asked to dive down during her salvage, but only blood came up; he had been taken by a shark. Attempts to recover the bodies were abandoned when one was eaten by a shark as it was raised. Weeks later, the limb from another crewman was found in the stomach of another shark. It was not normally a one-sided fight; the famous open boat sailors of the Barnett clan, the legendary pro skipper Chris Webb and boatbuilder Langford once armed themselves with harpoons and fought a day-long battle in front of hundreds of spectators with sharks swarming over a dead cow.

The fit and skilled young men who raced the open boats were rarely lost in Sydney, where the waterways were narrower and there was ample other traffic, but as with the catboats of New York there was a terrible toll of women encumbered by long skirts and of less experienced sailors.  In the decade from 1892, almost 30 lives were lost in capsizes of open sailing boats in Australia. In the wide open waters off Brisbane, even fit young men could die horribly. When the fast 22 Footer Zenobia capsized in Moreton Bay off Brisbane five men died; two brothers died in the arms of the sole survivor and two more went insane as they clung for days to the upturned hull. A couple of years later on the southern end of the Bay, no less than nine men died when an 18 foot half-decked boat that occasionally raced capsized in a squall. In those days with scanty social security, the plight of families who lost their sole breadwinner when sailing must have caused lifelong issues for the surviving wife and children.

The tragedies of the big open boats showed that the type was basically unsuited for use as a dual-purpose cruiser/racer. The arrival of lighter, cheaper and more efficient racing types showed that the 22s and 24s were no longer the ideal type for speed. As the century drew to a close, the attention moved to the smaller boats, and the 22s, 24s and Yellow Dogs faded into history.

REFERENCES

under-construction-caution-sign-s-0816

[1] “Port Jackson’s Pleasure Fleets, No 9”, Evening News, 7 Dec 1907 p 6; and Referee, 15 Dec 1920 p 21

[2] See “Port Jackson’s Pleasure Fleets No 9”, Evening News 7 Dec 1907 p 6;

[3] The Ausralian motor boat and yachting monhly, Oct 1 1925 p 31

[4] Sydney Sportsman, 27 Nov 1901 p 6

[5] In fact it seems that the Open Boat sailors were just as interested in protests as the yachties; J McMurtrie, owner of the top class 22 Footer Effie, once brought his lawyers and threatened to sue the committee of the Johnstone’s Bay Sailing Club after they disqualified him. To make it worse, McMurtrie was the club’s own president at the time! ( (The Telegraph (Brisbane) 20 Jan 1899 p 6). Langford, another famous Open Boat sailor and builder, protested a competitor in a Sydney Flying Squadron race for the pretty technical breach of having an inadequate sail insignia (Referee 24 April 1895 p 8).

[5b] Although another club claims to be the oldest Open Boat club, this appears to be based on a definition that excludes the older half deckers and amateur crews. As early as 28 April 1879 the Sydney Morning Herald was reporting on claims that the SASC under Hyam had brought “open boats, and open boat sailing in Sydney Harbour” to its “present state of perfection.”

[6] Referee, 13 Aug 1913 p 15

“with the highest wages and almost the second shortest working hours”; see ‘Real incomes in the English-speaking world, 1879-1913’ by Robert C. Allen, in G. Grantham and M. MacKinnon, eds., Labour Market Evolution, London Routledge, 1994.

[7] “Port Jackson’s Pleasure Fleets No 8”   30 Nov 1907 p 11

[9] The Globe and Sunday Times War Pictorial, 1 Apr 1916 p 15

[10] The Globe and Sunday Times War Pictorial, 1 Apr 1916 p 15

[17] Sydney Morning Herald, 20 Sep 1856 p 1

[18] SMH 14 Jan 1859 p 5

[19] The South Australian Advertiser, 2 Feb 1859 p 3

[20] SMH 1 Dec 1859 p 3

[21] SMH 7 Feb 1860 p 1

[22] SMH 10 Feb 1857 p 5

[23] Sydney Mail Jan 30 1897 p 233

[24] Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertister, 30 Jan 1897, p 239

[25]

Bell’s Life in Sydney and Sporting Reviewer (NSW : 1845 – 1860)

(about)

Previous issueSaturday 7 February 1857

[26] Sydneyt Morning Herald 1 Feb 1858 p 4

[27] Moreton Bay Courier, 12 Jan 1859 p 4

[28] Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertister, 30 Jan 1897 p 233

[29] Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertister, 30 Jan 1897 p 228. This article written with first hand information from several of Sydney’s pioneer yachtsmen.

[30] Illustrated Sydney News, 15 April 1886 p 10;

[31] “Evolution of the broad tucked boat”, The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 5 Jan 1910 p 36

[32] “Port Jackson’s Pleasure Fleets” No 1” Evening News, 12 Oct 1907 p3

[33] Australian Motor Boat and Yachting Monthly, June 1927 p 9.

[34] See for example Sydney Mail, 2 December, 1865 p 9 re Balmain regatta

[35] The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser 14 Sep 1878 p 421

“And so we read 19th-century accounts”: see also

[36] The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser of 26 June 1875 p 814 called the centreboarders “handy and safe” and said that they were becoming so popular that they would offer better racing than larger boats.

“were of the skiff style”;  The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 30 Jan 1897 p 239

[37] “Early Open-Boat Sailing”, H R Pckham, Referee, May 24 p 16

[38] The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser 30 Jan 1897 p 239

[39] The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 4 March 1876 p 312

[40] Bells life in Victoria and Sporting chronicle, Melb, 16 Sep 1865 p 4

[41] “Sydney’s Old Sailing Days”, Referee, 15 Dec 1920 p 21

[42] As in for example Australian Town and Country Journal, 29 Sept 1877 p 28 and 13 Nov 1875 p 31

[43] “Port Jackson’s Pleasure Fleets, Ancient and modern, no 1”Evening News (Sydney) 12 October 1907 p 3

[44] Saturday Referee and the Arrow, 11 Oct 1913 p 3

[45] The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 28 Feb 1880 p 412

[46] Austr Town and Coiuntry Journal , 29 Sept 1877 p 28

[47] “Racing 24 footers of Past Generations” HC Packham, Referee, 19 July 1916 p 9

[48] Australian Town and Country Journal, 30 Sept 1876 p 31

[49] Australian Town and Country Journal, 4 Nov 1876 p 31

[50] Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 28 Feb 1880 p 412

[51] Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 6 Nov 1880 p 892

[52] A Manual of yacht and Boat Sailing, Dixon Kemp, facsimile of 1898 edition, p 441.

[54] Illustrated Sydney News 31 May 1888 p 7-8. DRAWINGS

[55] The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 14 January 1882

[56] The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 19 Oct 1878 p 620

[57] The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser 18 Jan 1879 p 100

[58] See for example The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser 11 Jan 1879 p 61,

There are many tales of crew being asked to leap overboard when wind dropped off, as early as 1898 this was banned. [88]

[59] The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 28 Feb 1880 p 412.  The same report notes that Lizzie had flotation tanks for 16cwt ballast, but that appears to have been because she was originally “built more for cruising than racing purposes”, having internal linings and “a ballast deck”.  It was noted that her rival Snowdrop had all her own similar fittings and her ballast removed.

“Although there was a small revival of the 24 Footers”;- Open Boats, Sydney Mail and NSW Advertiser, 30 Jan 1897 p 240. The passage goes on to note that the new breed of 24 Footers, such as Craigielee, Mantura, Volunteer and the trio built by the ferry-owning Stannard family of Our Tom, Our Jack and Our May, normally raced on handicap in mixed fleets rather than in class racing. Ida, not a hired boat, was said to have joined in and proved too fast for the class.

[60] The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 30 Dec 1882 p 1190.

[61] “Port Jackson’s Pleasure Fleets No 4”,  Evening News 2 Nov 1907 p 13

[62] “Port Jackson’s Pleasure Fleets No 3”, Evening News 26 Oct 1907, “Port Jackson’s Pleasure Fleets No 4”,  Evening News 2 Nov 1907 p 13

[63] “Early OIpen-Boat Sailing” H C Pakham, Referee 24 May 1916 p 16

[64] Australian Town and Country Journal, 4 Nov 1876 p 31

[65] Evening News Sydney 22 June 1910 p 11

[66] The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 2 Aug 1879 p 180

[67] “Evolution of the 16-Footer”, Bryce Mortlock, Seacraft Sep 1948 p 157

[68] Port Jackson’s Pleasure Fleets No 9”, Evening News 7 Dec p 6

[69] A Manual of Yacht and Boat Sailing, Southampton 1988, reprint of 1895 edition p 441-2

[70] Port Adelaide News and Lefevre’s Peninsula Advertiser, 11 Dec 1883 p 5

[71] Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 28 May 1881 p 867

“Irex was 9ft6in/2.9m in beam”:- Irex’s dimensions come from “We were one” by Maud Wyllie and Australian Yachtsman and Canoeist September 1898. The magazine gave her sail dimensions as; mainsail gaff 17ft; boom 28ft; mast 30ft; balloon jib 35ft x 25ft; spinnaker 42ft by 32ft; ringtail 37ft x 15ft; jib foot 17ft.

[72] Saturday Referee and Arrow, 11 Oct 1913 p 3

[73] Sunday Times (Sydney) 27 Oct 1895 p 7

[74] The Queenslander, 8 Jan 1898 p 75

[75] Bluewate Bushmen, Bruce Stannard,

[76] Auatralian Motor Boat and Yachting Monthly June 1925 p 34

[77] Port Jackson’s Pleasure Fleets No 4, Evening News, 16 Nov 1907 p 11

[78] The Brisbane Courier, 23 Sept 1898 p 7

“Plover was about 18″ wider than Bronzewing”;- Brisbane Courier, 21 Oct 1898

“Keriki, launched the same year”;- Brisbane Courier, 21 Oct 1898

“Wonga was owned by A.W. Crane” – The Amateurs, p 63

“The major open-boat clubs, Balmain and the Sydney Amateurs”  Evening News, Sydney, 22 Aug 1888 p 8

“the boats as a rule are well found and fast” Evening News, Sydney, 22 Aug 1888 p 8

[79] Sydney Morning Herland 17 September 1869 p 7

[80] Sydney Morning Herald, 25 June 1879 p 7

[81] Brisbane Courier 13 March 1899 p 7; Referee 8 Mac 1899 p 9

[82] Queanbetan Age, 13 November 1895 p 3

[83] Western Mail, 9 October 1896, p 43

[84] Evening News 27 Dec 1899 p 6

[85] Wagga Wagga Express, 29 Oct 1907 p 4

[86] Evening News, 6 Nov 1907 p 5

[87] Cairns Post, 26 November 1919, p2

[88] The Brisbane Courier, 23 Sept 1898 p 7

[89] Sometimes other vessels were too close – The West Australian or 14 October 1907 detailed how one crewmember of the 18 Footer Zena drowned when the boat capsized just in front of a ferry during a race, and the crewman was jammed a sponson.  It was the second death in a capsize within a cople of miles that day.

[90] The Telegraph, Bris, 15 Nov 1895 p 6

[91] Bris Courier       21 May 1894

[92] Sydney Morning Herald, 14 September 1897 p 5.  The Zenobia, a Hamilton design, had been launched for racing in 1894 (The Telegraph Brisbane 20 Jan 1894 p 6)  She was a clinker boat, about 12’ in beam “shallow and flat on the floor, and not regarded as a good sea-boat. On this occasions she is said to have been under racing canvas but double-reefed” according to the Darling Downs Gazette of 15 September 1897.

Reports of the enquiry said that she was “of great beam – very shallow – and consequently destitute of any safe freeboard.  Her sail area was greatly in excess of what she could prudently carry, and in its general construction and equipment the boat belonged to a type of vessel that can only be styled a racing machine, and which is utterly unfitted, by reason of unseaworthy qualities, for navigating waters outside the shelter of a harbour”. The Week, 5 Nov 1897 p 23  . She had been third in one race in the 1895 Intercoloinlia, regatta, she had already capsized and swamped during racing.

[93] The Teleg

[94] The big open boats were not the only types that lost crew; the Brisbane Courier, 9 Jan 1933 p 10 reported that the Rater-type Romp lost four crew one terrible night off Brisbane, and a        , but they seem to have a wildly disproporionate number of casualties.

[95] Goulbuorn Evening Penny Post, 28 Jan 1936, p 1

[96] Leader, 16 March 1918 p 38

[97] The Queenslander, 18 Feb 1899 p 294.

[98] Referee, 12 Oct 1898 p 5. The Sydney Morning Herald of 19 Sep 1898 p 5 gives Maid’s dimensions as 24’ LOA, 22’ LWL, 7’6” beam. Ilex had 9’7” beam.

[99] The Telegraph (Brisbane) 28 October 1898 p 6

[100] Sydney Morning Herald 29 Sep 1898 p 5

[101] The Telegraph (Brisbane) 28 Oct 1898 p 6

[102] The Telegraph (Brisbane) 28 Oct 1898 p 6

[103] Sydney Morning Herald 6 June 1910 p 10

[104] The Queenslander, 18 Feb 1899 p 294

[105] The Queenslander, 29 April 1899 p 775

[106] For esample, the Sunday Times Sunday 14 Apr 1895 p 6

[107] The Telegraph (Bris.) 13 Jan 1899 p 6

[109] As late as 1925 there were still seven 22s racing as a class in Brisbane; Australian Motor Boat and yachting Monthly, Dec 1925 p 49.

The hired half-decked 18 Footer Mona capsized with three deaths in Sydney Harbour in 1895. [82]  The same year, a Brisbane yachting correspondent thought it was worth noting that “for over two years…there had not been any lives lost in accidents to sailing boats, so far as I can remember”, but then had to report the death of a man when the 22 footer Vivid capsized. [90]   His memory must have been faulty; the 22 Footer Margeurite had lost a man in a capsize the year before. [91] An entire family of four died when a cruising-style dinghy with a small spritsail capsized in Perth in 1896.[83]  On 27 December 1899, the hired 22 Footer Splendour lost three young women and a young man in a capsize in almost the same part of Sydney Harbour where four lives were lost in a rowing skiff the same day.[84]

Two years after Zenobia was lost, nine died when the old-fashioned handicap racer 18 foot “half decker” Roxana “which carried a large sail” capsized in Brisbane.  Her skipper and all three sons, aged    were among the dead.[93]   The Brisbane Courie of 31 Dec 1906 also reported that the 22 foot long Blue Spec had capsized near Green Island with fatalities.  In 1907, the 22 Footer Vigilant lost a man in a capsize in Sydney Harbour.[85]  The coroner’s report came through the same day as that of the 18 fooer Zena and another man, lost in the capsize of a small sailing. [86] On Perth’s Swan River, all four aboard the 16 footer Cynthia died after a capsize in 1919.[87]   The entire crew of the national champion 14 Footer Sunny South was drowned when she capsized in a race off Adelaide. Not even the fishing boats that raced were spared; a football team sailing home from a match in Melbourne were drowned, and the skipper’s brother was lost with his crew on a sistership during a race a few years later.

The big open boats were not the only types that lost crew; the Brisbane Courier, 9 Jan 1933 p 10 reported that the Rater-type Romp lost four crew one terrible night off Brisbane, and there were similar tragedies elsewhere, but they seem to have a wildly disproportionate number of casualties.

“They are

deep roomy boats, with fine entrance and great beam, and carry from one to two touB

of ballast stowed underneath a platform, forming a sort of deck below the thwarts” wrote one sailing correspondent. “[40]

SailCraft Pt 1.22: “We just wanted a nice little boat!” The story of the Laser

In the late 1960s, the world’s dinghy sailors were watching the long process of selecting a new International singlehander. For years, the world’s best designers drew plans, made prototypes and sailed them in three trials in front of the IYRU and the sailing press.

But while the world was watching the triallists in Europe, the singlehander that was to be the biggest of them all was brewing in North America. The Laser didn’t come from any serious attempt to create a major new class, or from the tense singlehander trials in Europe. It came from a very different regatta – a light-air weekend of fun racing on the private lake of “Playboy” magazine publisher Hugh Hefner, towards the end of the great dinghy boom.

The year was 1969, and successful Canadian industrial designer Ian Bruce had a sideline building Contenders and International 14s. Ian Bruce was an Olympic Finn sailor and a winner of the Prince of Wales Cup, the greatest title in I-14s. The I-14s he produced to designs by compatriot Bruce Kirby were not only fast, they were famously simple – the mast on his PoW winner was made from a drainpipe. “All my earlier boats were rigged very simply and people used to look at them and ask me where I’d hidden the strings to pull!” he remembers today.

But Ian Bruce realized that he could not build a full-time boatbuilding career from specialized racing machines like 14s and Contenders. He phoned Bruce Kirby and asked him to design a “fun boat” to suit recreational sailors. It had to be simple and cheap, easy to car-top, and fast enough to attract people moving up from the Sunfish-type “boardboats”.  “I just wanted a little boat that I could build enough that I could actually make a living building boats” he recalled at an interview in the Bethwaite factory in Sydney, when he was redesigning the rig for his Byte singlehander. “I figured, 400 a year and I could retire. It was going to be a cottage boat – that’s why we called it the Weekender.”

Like Ian Bruce, Kirby was a Canadian Olympian, in Finns and Stars. When he took the call he was working south of the border, editing One Design and Offshore Yachting, the magazine that is now Sailing World. “I’m sure you’ve heard the story of how it was designed on a napkin. Or the back of an envelope” Kirby told me by email. “The original sketch, which hangs above me as I type, was done while I was on the phone talking to Ian Bruce in 1969. And it was done on a lined, yellow legal pad – the type of pad I use for nearly all my conceptual drawings.”

“Ian asked for a ‘cartop sailboat’ and that was pretty well the total commission. That little freehand sketch looks surprisingly like the final boat. I took the sketch home that evening and began expanding it to the one inch to a foot scale at which the final drawings were produced.”

Laser
The million-dollar doodle.

“When we did the Laser, the idea was to be very, very simple” recalls Bruce Kirby. “In the original drawings I did, the Laser was a bit too simple. We didn’t even have a proper boom vang. There was a bracket at the gooseneck that was supposed to be the vang, and the mainsheet was attached to the top of the rudder so there was no means of using a traveler. If you look at that boat, that tells you what it was designed for. It was not designed to be what it became.”

Ian Bruce was responsible for the spars, deck layout, and construction, while the sail was produced by a third Olympian, Hans Fogh. An expatriate Dane, he was one of the early movers in the OK class, a Flying Dutchman silver medalist and Paul Elvstrom’s former training partner and helmsman. Like Ian Bruce and Bruce Kirby, his heritage was the comparatively light International classes, not the traditional hard-chine North American one designs that Kirby had once described as “overweight and clumsy” when compared to the “lighter, faster and more enjoyable craft popular in Europe.”

The sailplan was minimalist in size as well as in fittings. The standard Laser carries just 7.1sq m (76 sq ft) of sail, about 10% less than most comparable boats, because Kirby felt that the narrow, light hull would not need any more, and possibly couldn’t carry any more.

The project stagnated for a while as Ian Bruce tried get the backing of the huge leisure-goods manufacturer Coleman so they could compete with the major companies that had been lured into the booming dinghy market and were throwing vast resources at promoting their own brands of singlehanded beach boat. AMF, a conglomerate that built nuclear reactors, intercontinental ballistic missiles, Head skis and Harley Davidson motorcycles, had taken over Alcort and was promoting the Sunfish. The retail giant Sears had its own Sunfish competitor, the Jetwind, which was built in ABS plastic like many windsurfers of the ‘80s. MFG, manufacturer of car parts and a huge range of powerboats, was selling the Copperhead designed by famous British catamaran designer Rod Macalpine Downie and US boatbuilder Dick Gibbs. The prolific duo created about 75 sailboat designs for major manufacturers, who churned out over 225,000 of them[1].  Chrysler itself, then the third largest car maker in the USA, was selling the Man O’ War, another Macalpine Downie/Gibbs production that Gibbs later described as “not as effective as the Laser as a performance boat, a bit weak in the bow”.[2]  Chrysler’s marine division was promoting its dinghies with all the might of corporate America – a team of 75 salesmen on the road, five warehouses, four sailing simulators on boat trailers, and an advertising budget to match.[3]

After Coleman turned the concept down, the trio decided to present their creation to the world at the ‘America’s Teacup’, a regatta organized by Ian Bruce’s magazine at the Playboy mansion on inland Lake Geneva  to promote the emerging breed of fun boats costing less than $1200. Among the 51 entries were three craft that changed the sport – the Laser, Hobie 14 and Windsurfer. It included events like a slalom and a rigging race and was plagued by light winds, but rarely has any event such a window to the future. The first race was only 40m long and started with the boats unrigged and on the trailer.  The Man O’ War won because the Chrysler Corporate team gave it a mighty shove off the beach.[4] They were to find that corporate might was less useful when it came to sailing and selling.

Launched on the first day of the regatta, the Laser (still racing under the “Weekender” label) raced very closely with the Banshee (“a very good little boat, a Flying Junior with the sheer cut down and the deck and rig changed” recalls Kirby; “very light and slightly inelegant” was the verdict of Macalpine Downie) before an overnight recut to the sail gave Fogh the winning edge. Competing designer Macalpine Downie described it as “a simple and attractive little singlehander, rather reminiscent of the Contender” which was “going beautifully” after the sail was recut. The two ended up tied for first in the “high performance” mono division. [5]

the-weekender-tgif1-prototype-laser-1969
The prototype Laser/Weekender, complete with “TGIF” (Thank God Its Friday) sail logo. From the very start, it was a  boat that not only was simple, but looked simple. Perhaps the fact that the Laser is so obviously simple is a significant factor in its success.
bansheesf
The Banshee, the Laser’s early rival, was a good boat with a useful cockpit, but a more complicated appearance. It still has some small club fleets. Photo from the class association site.

The Banshee and the Laser were almost dead even on the water, and in fact the Banshee was to beat the Laser in their next high-profile duel at a “one of a kind” regatta. But the simple, modern-looking Laser caught the eye of world-class sailors who had gathered for the regatta. The reaction of sailing legends like Peter Barrett showed Kirby, Bruce and Fogh that they had a potential market they could reach without corporate backing. “What I noticed was that the really good sailors looked at this and said ‘what a neat little boat, does that look good and fast” remembers Ian Bruce. “At that point I said ‘jeezers, I don’t know how we would ever advertise a recreational boat to replace the Sunfish without spending zillions of dollars. But we could talk to this little peer group of ours. In one paragraph, we could say all they needed to know. We all saw it as a fun second boat.”

sail-2
The Chrysler Man O’ War (above) was supported by the might of the Chrysler corporation and had some interesting features, but it never reached the Laser’s popularity and was soon dropped by the manufacturer. Pic from Chryslersailing.lizards.net

 

Once they had realized the potential of the design, Kirby, Fogh and Bruce settled into a period of intensive development to turn the beachboat into a simple performance machine. “The fact that Kirby and Fogh and I were all Olympic sailors meant that once we started to work on it, we instinctively got things better and better” remembers Ian Bruce. Because Fogh felt that the first prototype had too much weather helm, Ian Bruce fitted the second prototype with a mast step that could be moved fore and aft to develop the balance across the wind range. The final version ended up with the mast 3” further forward, with 3” more luff length, a 2” shorter foot, and less rake. The Weekender’s flexy bottom section was replaced with a longer and stiffer extrusion that moved the maximum bend further up. A foam sandwich deck, one of the first to be seen in a production boat, reduced weight while the solid ‘glass hull and rolled gunwales reduced cost and increased durability.  After two hard-sailed prototypes (one at 50kg/110lb and one of 54kg/118lb) proved too light, they settled on a production weight of 58kg (128lb) – slightly heavier than the original target but much lighter than comparable boats.

The industrial design expertise of Ian Bruce – a man Julian Bethwaite calls a genius – can be seen in the deck design and fittings. They are almost too Spartan (as the many who have struggled with the self bailer or capsized because of the mainsheet arrangement will agree) but many of them worked better and lasted longer than the systems on comparable boats of the time. The stark lines of the low hull and small cockpit didn’t just make the boat look modern; they also made it look sublimely simple.

The final work on the rig was completed in late November 1970. Kirby, Bruce and Fogh sailed the two prototypes in a cold and windy weekend, then stood in the showers for an hour, thawing out and toasting the new boat with hot buttered rums. At a party later that night, a young student asked “why don’t you call it something scientific the young people will identify with?” Ian Bruce replied ‘do you mean something like Laser?’ and the final piece came together.

The “second generation beach boat” turned racer was an immediate success.  One hundred and forty one boats were sold at the launch at the 1971 New York Boat Show, setting a new record for the show.  “With Ian Bruce as the builder (he did a great job in the detailing and in running the prototype program) and Hans Fogh as the sail developer, we were able to use all three names in our promotion. All of us had been Olympic sailors, and were reasonably well known in the international racing community. It was all good friends and good vibes” remembers Ian Bruce.

The hot-shots of North American dinghy sailing helped to kick-start the new class by buying Lasers as their second boat – the one they sailed when they weren’t racing in the “serious” classes. “Once that group developed, a bunch of younger people looked in at the elite of sailing in NA at the time, and saw that we all had Lasers as a second boat” remembers Ian Bruce. The younger sailors moved into the class to take on the established stars and the Laser became the hot new class in North America. From there, it snowballed into today’s phenomenon. Within a few months of the public launch, there were 4500 Lasers afloat at $650 each, and the plant in Montreal was running double shifts to build 16 boats per day. It was barely enough; “the dealers supported the company during the first summer of production through horrendous delivery problems, but they made it very clear that they couldn’t face the same problems again” claims one 1973 account.

People like Rod Minchner (who worked on the production side of the rig design) say that much of the credit for the Laser’s success has to go to Ian Bruce’s efforts to lift the production standards well above most of the competition, and also maintain the strict one-design ethos. He developed laser sail-cutting machines to ensure that sails were uniform, and developed foam-core foils to replace the wooden rudder and centreboard which were inherently variable. To meet the demand for new boats, he started up factories in Europe, Australasia and the US West Coast.

Today, some say that the Laser’s success relied on intensive promotion and support, but looking back it’s striking to see how little publicity the Laser had in its early years; so little that its initial growth is hard to track. “My position at Yacht Racing at the time did not do us any harm, although we never discounted an ad” says Bruce Kirby. “A Banshee sailor wrote a letter complaining that I was giving the Laser more ink that the Banshee.  My assistant editor did a careful count and found that the Banshee had in fact had more editorial space in the previous year than the Laser.” The builders’ support went mainly into other avenues – the class association and their own networking.

Although the Laser had beaten its earliest competitors, like the Banshee and Man O’ War, it still faced stiff competition from the big corporations. AMF produced the hard chine Force Five to complement the Sunfish and attack the Laser market.  Chrysler and the Macalpine Downie/Gibbs duo brought out the Dagger. Japanese giant Yamaha copied the Laser hull, added a larger cockpit with rounded edges, and created the Seahopper.  Christian Maury, designer of the 420, created the X4 which was basically a Laser-clone modified with a bigger cockpit and built by a wide variety of builders, from professionals to clubs.  Despite being supported by the French national sailing authority, the class collapsed; it’s been said that the larger cockpit collected too much water and the variation in builders destroyed both the structural integrity and the one design characteristics. Even Communist Russia had a Laser clone, the Luch (beam or ray in Russian).  Although the Seahopper remains strong in Japan and fleets of Luchs and Force Fives survive, none of the classes backed by big organisations threatened the boat built by the three Olympians.

SONY DSC
Like many boats “inspired” by the Laser, the French X4er (above) had a larger cockpit. Some say that the bigger cockpit’s tendency to fill with water and restrict the skipper’s movement was one of the reasons why the class failed despite the support of the national sailing federation. Pic from the regat vaires sur marne site.
800px-luch-standart_dinghy
The Luch, a Soviet-era Laser clone.
start1
The Force 5, created by Sunfish manufacturer AMF Alcort as a Laser competitor and one of the few hard chine examples of the genre. Like many Laser competitors, it had about a metre of extra sail area and a few kilogrammes extra weight. Perhaps the success of the Laser and the Radial indicate that the Laser’s small rig was one reason for its success. Pic from the Force 5 class site.
14292361_895878260542336_4453346184909017304_n
The 99er, a South American Laser copy so-called because it’s 99% like a Laser. The boat is apparently popular because of the high price of a real Laser in the area, due partly to exchange rates.

So could the Laser’s success be cloned to rejuvenate the rest of dinghy sailing? “Something happened with the Laser in those early days which is impossible to account for” says Bruce Kirby. “I like to think it was a good little boat, and the builder did a great job of quality control and distribution (compared to other boats of the time) but there was some sort of cult that built up for which I certainly cannot claim credit.  The little thing just seemed to grab people, and before long it was the boat you had to sail. Sailmakers and ex-Olympic sailors were buying it.  It was a magic that would be virtually impossible to capture again – a good boat, the right time, the right people.”

Apart from its initial appeal as a second boat for the elite, Ian Bruce is also at a loss to understand the extent of the Laser’s success. “I wish I had the answer to that, because it would be the secret to an enormous marketing success. I used to be called upon to go and talk to places like schools of business and universities. They were all looking for a magic bullet – how did you find the niche, how did you market it. And I’d always say, you don’t understand – we just wanted a nice little boat!”

Enter the Radial

In the Laser’s early days, sailors of medium height and weight were competitive to top level. That changed as specifications to spar temper and sailcloth were made, and as sailors started throwing their weight around to force the boat over and around waves.

The M rig of the mid ‘70s was the first attempt to create a smaller Laser rig that would appeal to lighter sailors, especially women. It used the stiff lower section from the big rig, with a shorter top section. Initial trials in light winds were so successful that the rig was launched without extensive testing. As soon as the wind picked up, the M rig turned out to be a failure. “The minute we started taking roach out of the sail, we got lee helm” remembers Ian Bruce. “So it had a closed leach, to get the balance right, but in a breeze the closed leach made it actually harder to sail upwind than the full rig.”

The failure of the Laser M scared the Laser corporation from further development. Fogh, whose son Morton had tried the M rig without success, and Ian Bruce decided to develop a better small rig by themselves. They decided a more flexy bottom section would give the boat an open leach without upsetting the balance. They investigated making a mast that was thinner from side to side, like Bruder’s Finn masts, but it turned out to be too expensive, so they turned to another Finn idea. “I sailed Finns a lot in my days with Paul Elvstrom” says Fogh. “We had wooden spars and I knew how we used to adjust them by planing them down. We found that a soft spar at the bottom allows the sail to twist off very early.”

“Hans and I were talking one day and I was looking at my old (Bruder) Finn spar. Right about the gooseneck we planed them in, to get them to hinge back,” recalls Ian Bruce. “That’s when I started talking to Hans, I said what we really need to do is to peel off the back end of the sail. I went back to the original section on the original Weekender which sailed in the original Teacup regatta, which happened to be the original section of 4 metre 2 3/8” outside diameter irrigation tube.”

Fogh, who had earned an FD silver medal with one of his radial-cut mains, used the same panel layout for the new rig. From its first outing, when Morton Fogh sailed competitively at the CORK regatta in 20-25 knots, the Radial was a success. It is now a candidate for the title of the world’s biggest and fastest-growing class. “I made the prediction that one day it would be sailed more widely than the Laser, because it fits more people” recalls Bruce. “It’s just about there now…..”

To read more about the Laser design, go here

 

[1] Dick Gibbs interview 02, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zidgdZKO5fU, retrieved 11 August 2015.

[2] Dick Gibbs interview 03, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g0xL7vOMroo , retrieved 8 August 2015.

[3] Dick Gibbs interview 03, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g0xL7vOMroo , retrieved 8 August 2015.

[4] “American’s Teacup”, Rod Macalpine Downie, Yachting World,   p 202

[5] “American’s Teacup”, Rod Macalpine Downie, Yachting World,   p 202.  Other winners included the Hobie 14, Sunfish and three classes never heard of again.

 

Pt 1.25: “We just wanted a nice little boat!” The story of the Laser

Most of SailCraft will be published in chronological order. Even now and then, I’ll pop in something out of sequence. The following two posts have been put up in memory of Ian Bruce, who died earlier this year. I met Ian when I was out windsurfing on Sydney Harbour one day and noticed an interesting looking rig playing with the Lasers. It didn’t take long to find out that it was one of the prototypes for the Byte CII and that the man watching over it was Ian himself. I took the CII for a run and then agreed to meet Ian for an interview a few days later at the Bethwaite office, where he was working on the CII rig. We talked about Lasers, Int 14s and sailing in general for a couple of hours, and this material is scattered throughout SailCraft. After talking to Ian, I corresponded with Bruce Kirby by email and had a very pleasant phone call to the friendly Hans Fogh, the Laser’s rig designer, who sadly has also since passed away.

This post concentrates on the Laser’s development. It’s always hard to try to extract some new information about a story that’s so well known, but I hope that this piece may help dispel the myth that the Laser succeeded only because of corporate backing. In reality, it succeeded despite the corporate backing of its rivals- in fact the Laser’s lack of big-money backing may have been one reason it became a worldwide success instead of just another local class.

The second post about the Laser looks in more detail at the boat’s hull shape, and explains in detail the choices and trade-offs that Bruce Kirby made in designing the hull and foils.

In the late 1960s, the world’s dinghy sailors were watching the long process of selecting a new International singlehander. For years, the world’s best designers drew plans, made prototypes and sailed them in three trials in front of the IYRU and the sailing press. But while the world was watching the trialists in Europe, the singlehander that was to be the biggest of them all was brewing in North America. The Laser didn’t come from any serious attempt to create a major new class, or from the ISAF trials that eventually chose the Contender. It came from a very different regatta – a light-air weekend of fun racing on the private lake of “Playboy” magazine publisher Hugh Hefner, towards the end of the great dinghy boom.

The year was 1969, and successful Canadian industrial designer Ian Bruce had a sideline building Contenders and International 14s. Ian Bruce was an Olympic Finn sailor and a winner of the Prince of Wales Cup, the greatest title in I-14s. The I-14s he produced to designs by compatriot Bruce Kirby were not only fast, they were famously simple – the mast on his PoW winner was made from a drainpipe. “All my earlier boats were rigged very simply and people used to look at them and ask me where I’d hidden the strings to pull!” he remembers today.

But Ian Bruce realized that he could not build a full-time boatbuilding career from specialised racing machines like 14s and Contenders. He phoned Bruce Kirby and asked him to design a “fun boat” to suit recreational sailors. It had to be simple and cheap, easy to car-top, and fast enough to attract people moving up from the Sunfish-type “boardboats”.  “I just wanted a little boat that I could build enough that I could actually make a living building boats” he recalled at an interview in the Bethwaite factory in Sydney, when he was redesigning the rig for his Byte singlehander. “I figured, 400 a year and I could retire. It was going to be a cottage boat – that’s why we called it the Weekender.”

Like Ian Bruce, Kirby was a Canadian Olympian, in Finns and Stars. When he took the call he was working south of the border, editing One Design and Offshore Yachting, the magazine that is now Sailing World. “I’m sure you’ve heard the story of how it was designed on a napkin. Or the back of an envelope” Kirby told me by email. “The original sketch, which hangs above me as I type, was done while I was on the phone talking to Ian Bruce in 1969. And it was done on a lined, yellow legal pad – the type of pad I use for nearly all my conceptual drawings.”

“Ian asked for a ‘cartop sailboat’ and that was pretty well the total commission. That little freehand sketch looks surprisingly like the final boat. I took the sketch home that evening and began expanding it to the one inch to a foot scale at which the final drawings were produced.”

Laser
The “million-dollar doodle” sketched by Bruce Kirby while he chatted to Ian Bruce on the telephone.  The sketch includes weight calculations, the design of the hull to deck join, a rigid vang, and raked transom and rudder. In this sketch and in the photo of the Weekender below there is plenty of headroom under the boom; Bruce Kirby did not realise how much sailors would use the vang and mainsheet to drag the boom down.

“When we did the Laser, the idea was to be very, very simple” recalls Bruce Kirby. “In the original drawings I did, the Laser was a bit too simple. We didn’t even have a proper boom vang. There was a bracket at the gooseneck that was supposed to be the vang, and the mainsheet was attached to the top of the rudder so there was no means of using a traveler. If you look at that boat, that tells you what it was designed for. It was not designed to be what it became.”

Ian Bruce was responsible for the spars, deck layout, and construction, while the sail was produced by a third Olympian, Hans Fogh. An expatriate Dane, he was one of the early movers in the OK class, a Flying Dutchman silver medalist and Paul Elvstrom’s former training partner and helmsman. Like Ian Bruce and Bruce Kirby, his heritage was the comparatively light International classes, not the traditional hard-chine North American one designs that Kirby had once described as “overweight and clumsy” when compared to the “lighter, faster and more enjoyable craft popular in Europe.”

The sailplan was minimalist in size as well as in fittings. The standard Laser carries just 7.1sq m (76 sq ft) of sail, about 10% less than most comparable boats, because Kirby felt that the narrow, light hull would not need any more, and possibly couldn’t carry any more.

The project stagnated for a while as Ian Bruce tried get the backing of the huge leisure-goods manufacturer Coleman so they could compete with the major companies that had been lured into the booming dinghy market and were throwing vast resources at promoting their own brands of singlehanded beach boat. AMF, a conglomerate that built nuclear reactors, intercontinental ballistic missiles, Head skis and Harley Davidson motorcycles, had taken over Alcort and was promoting the Sunfish. The retail giant Sears had its own Sunfish competitor, the Jetwind, which was built in ABS plastic like many windsurfers of the ‘80s. MFG, manufacturer of car parts and a huge range of powerboats, was selling the Copperhead designed by famous British catamaran designer Rod Macalpine Downie and US boatbuilder Dick Gibbs. The prolific duo created about 75 sailboat designs for major manufacturers, who churned out over 225,000 of them[1].  Chrysler itself, then the third largest car maker in the USA, was selling the Man O’ War, another Macalpine Downie/Gibbs production that Gibbs later described as “not as effective as the Laser as a performance boat, a bit weak in the bow”.[2]  Chrysler’s marine division was promoting its dinghies with all the might of corporate America – a team of 75 salesmen on the road, five warehouses, four sailing simulators on boat trailers, and an advertising budget to match.[3]

After Coleman turned the concept down, the trio decided to present their creation to the world at the ‘America’s Teacup’, a regatta organized by Ian Bruce’s magazine at the Playboy mansion on inland Lake Geneva  to promote the emerging breed of fun boats costing less than $1200. Among the 51 entries were three craft that changed the sport – the Laser, Hobie 14 and Windsurfer. It included events like a slalom and a rigging race and was plagued by light winds, but rarely has any event such a window to the future. The first race was only 40m long and started with the boats unrigged and on the trailer.  The Man O’ War won because the Chrysler Corporate team gave it a mighty shove off the beach.[4] They were to find that corporate might was less useful when it came to sailing and selling.

Launched on the first day of the regatta, the Laser (still racing under the “Weekender” label) raced very closely with the Banshee (“a very good little boat, a Flying Junior with the sheer cut down and the deck and rig changed” recalls Kirby; “very light and slightly inelegant” was the verdict of Macalpine Downie) before an overnight recut to the sail gave Fogh the winning edge. Competing designer Macalpine Downie described it as “a simple and attractive little singlehander, rather reminiscent of the Contender” which was “going beautifully” after the sail was recut. The two ended up tied for first in the “high performance” mono division. [5]

the-weekender-tgif1-prototype-laser-1969
The prototype Laser/Weekender, complete with “TGIF” (Thank God Its Friday) sail logo. From the very start, it was a  boat that not only was simple, but looked simple. Perhaps the fact that the Laser is so visually simple is a significant factor in its success; its stark appearance may send a subconscious visual message that this is a simple boat to own and rig. 
bansheesf
The Banshee, the Laser’s early rival, was a good boat with a useful cockpit, but a more complicated appearance. It still has some small club fleets. Photo from the class association site.

The Banshee and the Laser were almost dead even on the water, and in fact the Banshee was to beat the Laser in their next high-profile duel at a “one of a kind” regatta. But the simple, modern-looking Laser caught the eye of world-class sailors who had gathered for the regatta. The reaction of sailing legends like Peter Barrett showed Kirby, Bruce and Fogh that they had a potential market they could reach without corporate backing. “What I noticed was that the really good sailors looked at this and said ‘what a neat little boat, does that look good and fast” remembers Ian Bruce. “At that point I said ‘jeezers, I don’t know how we would ever advertise a recreational boat to replace the Sunfish without spending zillions of dollars. But we could talk to this little peer group of ours. In one paragraph, we could say all they needed to know. We all saw it as a fun second boat.”

sail-2
The Chrysler Man O’ War (above) was supported by the might of the Chrysler corporation and had some interesting features, but it never reached the Laser’s popularity and was soon dropped by the manufacturer. Pic from Chryslersailing.lizards.net

Once they had realised how much the design appealed to experts, Kirby, Fogh and Bruce settled into a period of intensive development to turn the beachboat into a craft that retained the original concept’s simplicity, but offered higher performance. “The fact that Kirby and Fogh and I were all Olympic sailors meant that once we started to work on it, we instinctively got things better and better” remembers Ian Bruce. Because Fogh felt that the first prototype had too much weather helm, Ian Bruce fitted the second prototype with a mast step that could be moved fore and aft to develop the balance across the wind range. The final version ended up with the mast 3” further forward, with 3” more luff length, a 2” shorter foot, and less rake. The Weekender’s flexy bottom section was replaced with a longer and stiffer extrusion that moved the maximum bend further up. A foam sandwich deck, one of the first to be seen in a production boat, reduced weight while the solid ‘glass hull and rolled gunwales reduced cost and increased durability.  After two hard-sailed prototypes (one at 50kg/110lb and one of 54kg/118lb) proved too light, they settled on a production weight of 58kg (128lb) – slightly heavier than the original target but much lighter than comparable boats.

The industrial design expertise of Ian Bruce – a man Julian Bethwaite calls a genius – can be seen in the deck design and fittings. They are almost too Spartan (as the many who have capsized because of the mainsheet arrangement will agree) but they worked better and lasted longer than the systems on comparable boats. The stark lines of the low hull and small cockpit didn’t just make the boat look modern; they also made it look sublimely simple.

The final work on the rig was completed in late November 1970. Kirby, Bruce and Fogh sailed the two prototypes in a cold and windy weekend, then stood in the showers for an hour, thawing out and toasting the new boat with hot buttered rums. At a party later that night, a young student asked “why don’t you call it something scientific the young people will identify with?” Ian Bruce replied ‘do you mean something like Laser?’ and the final piece came together.

The “second generation beach boat” turned racer was an immediate success.  One hundred and forty one boats were sold at the launch at the 1971 New York Boat Show, setting a new record for the show.  “With Ian Bruce as the builder (he did a great job in the detailing and in running the prototype program) and Hans Fogh as the sail developer, we were able to use all three names in our promotion. All of us had been Olympic sailors, and were reasonably well known in the international racing community. It was all good friends and good vibes” remembered Ian Bruce.

The hot-shots of North American dinghy sailing helped to kick-start the new class by buying Lasers as their second boat – the one they sailed when they weren’t racing in the “serious” classes. “Once that group developed, a bunch of younger people looked in at the elite of sailing in NA at the time, and saw that we all had Lasers as a second boat” Ian Bruce explained. The younger sailors moved into the class to take on the established stars and the Laser became the hot new class in North America. From there, it snowballed into today’s phenomenon. Within a few months of the public launch, there were 4500 Lasers afloat at $650 each, and the plant in Montreal was running double shifts to build 16 boats per day.

As US dinghy historian Rod Mincher notes, a lot of the credit for the Laser’s success has to go to Ian Bruce’s efforts to lift the production standards well above most of the competition, and also maintain the strict one-design ethos. He developed laser sail-cutting machines to ensure that sails were uniform, and developed foam-core foils to replace the wooden rudder and centreboard which were inherently variable. To meet the demand for new boats, he started up factories in Europe, Australasia and the US West Coast.

Today, some say that the Laser’s success relied on intensive promotion and support, but looking back it’s striking to see how little publicity the Laser had in its early years; so little that its initial growth is hard to track. “My position at Yacht Racing at the time did not do us any harm, although we never discounted an ad” Bruce Kirby wrote in an email to me. “A Banshee sailor wrote a letter complaining that I was giving the Laser more ink that the Banshee.  My assistant editor did a careful count and found that the Banshee had in fact had more editorial space in the previous year than the Laser.” The builders’ support went mainly into other avenues – the class association and their own networking.

Although the Laser had beaten its earliest competitors, like the Banshee and Man O’ War, it still faced stiff competition from the big corporations. AMF produced the hard chine Force Five to complement the Sunfish and attack the Laser market.  Chrysler and the Macalpine Downie/Gibbs duo brought out the Dagger. Japanese giant Yamaha copied the Laser hull, added a larger cockpit with rounded edges, and created the Seahopper.  Christian Maury, designer of the 420, created the X4 which was basically a Laser-clone modified with a bigger cockpit and built by a wide variety of builders, from professionals to clubs.  Despite being supported by the French national sailing authority, the class collapsed; it’s been said that the larger cockpit collected too much water and the variation in builders destroyed both the structural integrity and the one design characteristics. Even Communist Russia had a Laser clone, the Luch (“beam” or “ray” in Russian).  Although the Seahopper remains strong in Japan and fleets of Luchs and Force Fives survive, none of the classes backed by big organisations threatened the boat built by the three Olympians.

SONY DSC
Like many boats “inspired” by the Laser, the French X4er (above) had a larger cockpit. Some say that the bigger cockpit’s tendency to fill with water and restrict the skipper’s movement was one of the reasons why the class failed despite the support of the national sailing federation. Pic from the regat vaires sur marne site.
800px-luch-standart_dinghy
The Luch, a Soviet-era Laser clone.
start1
The Force 5, created by Sunfish manufacturer AMF Alcort as a Laser competitor and one of the few hard chine examples of the genre. Like many Laser competitors, it had about a metre of extra sail area and a few kilogrammes extra weight. Perhaps the success of the Laser and the Radial indicate that the Laser’s small rig was one reason for its success. Pic from the Force 5 class site.

So could the Laser’s success be cloned to rejuvenate the rest of dinghy sailing? “Something happened with the Laser in those early days which is impossible to account for” says Bruce Kirby. “I like to think it was a good little boat, and the builder did a great job of quality control and distribution (compared to other boats of the time) but there was some sort of cult that built up for which I certainly cannot claim credit.  The little thing just seemed to grab people, and before long it was the boat you had to sail. Sailmakers and ex-Olympic sailors were buying it.  It was a magic that would be virtually impossible to capture again – a good boat, the right time, the right people.”

Apart from its initial appeal as a second boat for the elite, Ian Bruce was also at a loss to understand the extent of the Laser’s success. “I wish I had the answer to that, because it would be the secret to an enormous marketing success. I used to be called upon to go and talk to places like schools of business and universities. They were all looking for a magic bullet – how did you find the niche, how did you market it. And I’d always say, you don’t understand – we just wanted a nice little boat!”

Enter the Radial

In the Laser’s early days, sailors of medium height and weight were competitive to top level. That changed as specifications to spar temper and sailcloth were made, and as sailors started throwing their weight around to force the boat over and around waves.

The M rig of the mid ‘70s was the first attempt to create a smaller Laser rig that would appeal to lighter sailors, especially women. It used the stiff lower section from the big rig, with a shorter top section. Initial trials in light winds were so successful that the rig was launched without extensive testing. As soon as the wind picked up, the M rig turned out to be a failure. “The minute we started taking roach out of the sail, we got lee helm” remembers Ian Bruce. “So it had a closed leach, to get the balance right, but in a breeze the closed leach made it actually harder to sail upwind than the full rig.”

The failure of the Laser M scared the Laser corporation from further development. Fogh, whose son Morton had tried the M rig without success, and Ian Bruce decided to develop a better small rig by themselves. They decided a more flexy bottom section would give the boat an open leach without upsetting the balance. They investigated making a mast that was thinner from side to side, like Bruder’s Finn masts, but it turned out to be too expensive, so they turned to another Finn idea. “I sailed Finns a lot in my days with Paul Elvstrom” said Fogh. “We had wooden spars and I knew how we used to adjust them by planing them down. We found that a soft spar at the bottom allows the sail to twist off very early.”

“Hans and I were talking one day and I was looking at my old (Bruder) Finn spar. Right about the gooseneck we planed them in, to get them to hinge back,” recalled Ian Bruce. “That’s when I started talking to Hans, I said what we really need to do is to peel off the back end of the sail. I went back to the original section on the original Weekender which sailed in the original Teacup regatta, which happened to be the original section of 4 metre 2 3/8” outside diameter irrigation tube.”

Fogh, who had earned an FD silver medal with one of his radial-cut mains, used the same panel layout for the new rig. From its first outing, when Morton Fogh sailed competitively at the CORK regatta in 20-25 knots, the Radial was a success. It is now a candidate for the title of the world’s biggest and fastest-growing class. “I made the prediction that one day it would be sailed more widely than the Laser, because it fits more people” recalled Bruce. “It’s just about there now…..”

 

[1] Dick Gibbs interview 02, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zidgdZKO5fU, retrieved 11 August 2015.

[2] Dick Gibbs interview 03, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g0xL7vOMroo , retrieved 8 August 2015.

[3] Dick Gibbs interview 03, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g0xL7vOMroo , retrieved 8 August 2015.

[4] “American’s Teacup”, Rod Macalpine Downie, Yachting World,   p 202

[5] “American’s Teacup”, Rod Macalpine Downie, Yachting World,   p 202.  Other winners included the Hobie 14, Sunfish and three classes never heard of again.

SailCraft Pt 1.4: The Sandbaggers

 

buttersworth_sandbaggeryachtrace

While Truant and Una were awakening the British to the potential of the beamy “skimming dish” centreboarder, the Americans were taking the concept to the extremes. [1]  By 1885 there were 1000 catboats and jib and mainsail boats in the USA. [2]  Although some followed the deeper and narrower style of pilot boats and the schooner America, most were beamy centreboarders, especially around the New York area.  “The whole tendency of the time, in small and large classes alike, was toward the extreme development of the smooth-water skimming-dish, of great breadth and limited draft” wrote Stephens. [3]    “Local conditions, as exemplified in the shoal waters of the anchorage ground and of parts of New York Harbor where short cuts were possible to yachts of light draft, with the reaching course down the river and back, all tended toward the one dominant type that prevailed from 1860 to 1880.” [4]

Although designs were becoming more sophisticated, there was still often little distinction between workboats and pleasure craft. Even yachts as fast and famous as Maria ended their careers as working craft, while the New York Yacht Club allowed Hudson River working sloops into its early races, and at least two big oyster sloops, Cap’n Joe Ellsworth’s 60’ Admiral and 45’ Commodore, raced as part of the Brooklyn YC fleet when they were not earning a living. [5] [6]

Of all the many breeds of working boat turned racer, the breed that became the fastest and most famous was the “sandbagger”, which seems to have evolved from the oyster fishing catboats that harvested seven million oysters a year from the shoals of New York harbour.  In time-honoured fashion, the inevitable informal races between working craft probably developed into match races and regattas.  Boatbuilders found that a working boat worth $250 (about 15 weeks’ wages for a carpenter or blacksmith) could be sold for $400 to $600 if it was was a winner, and inevitably, the boats became faster and more extreme.

Susie S cropped

The Susie S, one of the fastest and most famous sandbaggers. She was built quite early, in 1869, but raced successfully into the 1880s.  Stephens noted that she “lacked the power of later boats, but she was very fast in light winds”. Although Susie S was slightly narrower than some later boats (3.35m/11′ beam on 8.23m/27′ length) her lack of power may have been due to the hollow in her forward waterlines and in the floors, each side of her keel. The top illustration is a painting from Frederick S. Cozzens, who did many illustrations of New York boats and yachts of the era. Illustrations from Stephens’ Traditions and Memories of American Yachting.

Like so many boat types, the sandbagger was the creation of local winds (in this case, the light airs of the New York summer), geography and economy.  “The superior speed of the light displacement, lightly built centre-board yacht over the keel boats of the pilot-boat type in the races which were each year becoming more popular, and the convenience of very light draft in mooring off the flats of Hoboken, Communipaw, and Gowanus, appealed strongly to both owners and builders” wrote W.P. Stephens [7] ;[8]  “The farmers who dwelt along these shores in the fifties were amphibious by nature, many of them fishermen and oystermen.  This entire community was devoted in one way or another to yachting.”.[9]

“Racing was the regular amusement of the community” noted Stephens in his encylopaedic book “Traditions and Memories of American Yachting”.….. “here, as well as along the Staten Island shore and in sheltered nooks on the East and North rivers, were boat shops, waterside saloons frequented by boat sailors, and fleets of cat-boats, jib-and-mainsail boats, and small cabin yachts, all of the centre-board type. It was not until well along in the sixties that yacht clubs became general, but from the first a strong community of interest and friendly rivalry united all these localities”.

illus5
Communipaw New Jersey in the 1800s. The unspoilt shallows of areas like this bred the watermen and the boats they sailed. The marine life gave them their work, their work gave them the experience to handle the tough sandbaggers, the shallows gave them free moorings, and the waterfront pubs gave them unofficial clubhouses and sponsors.

“All that was now needed was a foothold on shore for a dinghy and a landing float, and these were provided by a waterside pub.  This popular institution provided, in default of a yacht club, shore shelter, landing facilities and social discourse, while mine host was at least an enthusiastic sailor if not a builder as well.”[10]

The races organisation was simple.  Boats were normally divided into four classes based on their length,[11] although boats that were outclassed could be moved to a different class.  Many regattas had four classes; First Class, 26 to 30 feet in length; Second Class, 23 to 26 feet; Third class, 20 to 23 feet; Fourth class, under 20 feet.  Within each class there was normally an allowance for length, typically two minutes per foot over a 20 mile course.[12]

Sail area was not measured.  This was standard at the time, from the biggest boats to the smallest.  Apart from the fact that no one had worked out a good measurement system for sails, it was often felt that “a tax on sail is a tax on skill”.  The simple rules almost inevitably meant that, as sandbagger and America’s Cup designer A Cary Smith noted, “the intention was to get as large a boat for the length as possible.”  Designers and crews created boats of vast beam, kept them upright with movable ballast, and crammed on sail area until, as one sandbagger sailor recalled, they became “a thing of small body and great wings.” [13]

annie-under-sail

The last of the sandbaggers. The remarkable 29’/8.8m Annie was built around 1880 in Mystic, Conn. Her racing rig measured 68’/20.7m from the tip of the bowsprit to the clew of the main. Annie was preserved by the Maine Historical Association in the early 1900s and is now at Mystic Seaport Museum. Pic from the Museum site.

The claims that the sandbaggers broke convention by using movable ballast seem to be one of those myths born of a desire to paint “mainstream” sailors as archaic throwbacks trying to hold back the tide of development. [14]  Shifting ballast had been common in racing yachts when sandbaggers were still evolving. Ironically, the practise had become common in English yachting because of rules intended to make boats less extreme. When clubs and regatta organisers banned boats from setting larger sails in light winds, racing sailors started to keep their their largest sails up all the time, and stacked ballast to windward to make the boats stable enough to handle the extra power.

The British soon found that shifting ballast with 19th century technology was an expensive, unpleasant hassle. Before each race, interiors had to be stripped out so that bags of lead shot could be thrown from side to side during tacks. Ledges were fitted to hold the ballast bags, hidden behind ornate Victorian cabinets. Amateur crews quickly rebelled when they were asked to spend a day cramped down below heaving weights and being covered in muck oozing from the shotbags, so owners had to pay professionals to smash up their expensive furniture with dirty bags.  By the time the sandbaggers were evolving the British were already starting to ban shifting ballast, to their general relief.

But while the sandbaggers didn’t invent shifting ballast, they did take it to a new level. The flat, beamy shape of the sandbaggers meant that shifting ballast was more effective than it had on the narrow English cutters.  The typical sandbagger of around 26’/8m overall carried from 25 to 34 bags, each weighing around 55lb/25kg, and a crew of about nine men (in addition to the sheet handlers and bailer boy) to throw them up to the windward gunwale each tack. “When quick work was not done some sandbags went over board, not infrequently a man or two, and sometimes also, all hands and the skipper” remembered sandbagger sailors William E Simmons years later. Despite the “sandbagger” label, gravel was the preferred filling because it dried out faster. [17]  Some boats, especially in New Orleans, piled the sandbags onto a board mounted on 3ft/1m long swinging “arms” that pivoted out to windward like a modern skiff’s wings, but it was too cumbersome for general use. [18]

In spite of the lack of class rules, the sandbagger hulls became “standardised to an extent seen today only in the one-design classes; plumb stem and stern-post, a breadth of about 36 percent of the length, a draft of about 7 percent, the midship section about 66% of the total length from the bow.”[15]  This stereotyped shape had “the stern well cut away, so that when the boat was afloat the tuck was well out of the water in order to leave the water cleanly (so that)… the boat steered better when well down by the stern.”[16]

The sandbagger followed the trends of the time in adopting a fine bow and wide stern, in place of the old-bluff-bowed “cod’s head and mackerel tail” shape. The sections showed the same “all deadrise and no bilge” soft-bilged shape as Una, but where the older catboat flattened out along the keel line the sandbaggers had a deeper vee, normally with about 19 degrees deadrise. Some of them, like the famous Susie S, had hollow sections in the floors, just outboard of the keel.

228
Two famous sandbaggers. Top, the small 1868 sandbagger “Cruiser”, which was successful both racing around New York with movable ballast, and with her ballast fixed in place when she raced under Boston rules. Although only 6.35m/20’10” long, her beam measured 2.9m/9’9″.  The contrast with Truant’s beam of around 2.1m/7′ shows how far the sandbaggers moved to increase their beam and power. Cruiser’s deadrise was measured by Stephens at 15 degrees, which was flat for a sandbagger. It may have been her flatter, wider shape that allowed her to win even when she was racing in Boston, where shifting ballast had been banned decades before.Below is La Parole, created by the famous Jake Schmidt. Both Cruiser and La Parole show the stereotypical sandbagger shape – vast beam, a shallow hull, slack sections and buttock lines that rose steeply at the stern to form a “wineglass” transom.  Cruiser  Illustration from George Belitz’s Seglers Handbuch.

Although most illustrations show boats carrying just a jib and mainsail, other accounts say that sprit topsails and jib topsails were sometimes being set in light winds (especially among the New Orleans fleet) but that “the extra gear involved kept it from general use”. [19]  [20]  The stability provided by the movable ballast allowed the sandbaggers to carry longer gaffs and more area up high in the mainsail than earlier American boats.[21]   The vast fore-and-aft spread of the sail meant that the sail trimmers, especially the jib trimmer, had a vital role in steering; if the jib was not eased in a gust the helmsman could not luff and the boat was likely to fill or capsize. [22] Spinnakers, which were still new, were rarely carried. [23]  Many of the smaller and earlier boats had two mast steps so that they could sail under cat rig.  They carried vast low-aspect centreboards and enormous “barn door” rudders, in line with Bob Fish’s mantra “the more sail a boat has, the more board she wants”.[24]

 

229
La Parole. Although she was only 27′ overall, she measured 70′ from the tip of her bowsprit to the end of her 39′ boom.  Her jib and mainsail measured 1574 sq ft – almost half as big again as the jib and main on a Farr 40.

By the 1870s a typical sandbagger like the 27’ Parole, by the renowned builder/skipper/saloon owner Jake Schmidt, was 11’3” wide at the gunwales, 10’ wide on the waterline, and drew 7’3” draft with board down. The outrigger that supported the mainsheet extended 10′ from the transom, while the bowsprit stretched  22’6″  from the stem. A mainsail of more than a thousand square feet and a jib of nearly 500ft2 were hung from a mast that was a full 10″ in diameter. With a full load of 77 sandbags, an extra 600-700lb of lead or iron ballast (to keep her upright at anchor) and 17 crew, she had a displacement of 4.1 tons.  In contrast, a heavy displacement long-keel Itchen Ferry from England of the same length could weigh 6.5 tons and spread 1041ft2 of sail when racing, and other displacement British cutters of similar length could weigh 3.5 to 5.2 tons with masts of half the diameter. Such figures confirm that the sandbaggers were not ultralight boats, even by the standards of their day.[25]

Although A Cary Smith wrote in 1860 that “lightness of construction was then considered as vital to speed as it is now”[25] and some boats were made in clinker to save weight, the sheer power of the sandbagger demanded a strong hull.  Hull planks could be as thick as ¾”.  Even then, the sandbaggers were famously flexible, and old photographs show them clearly twisting under the battle between the power of the rig and the weight of the sandbags .  Despite the strain, the boats lasted well by the standards of their age, and some returned to fishing when their racing days were over.[26]

McGiehan ad
An ad for the sandbagger builder and skipper Pat McGeighan, described by WP Stephens as “a good judge of bad whisky”. The artist made McGieghan’s boatyard look a bit more mpressive than it was in the 1894 pic below, from the Bayonne Public Library.

 

McGiehan 3

As Ben Fuller, former curator of Mystic Seaport Museum and one of the few people who are experts in both traditional and modern  small craft says, the sandbagger’s design was all about speed in the light breezes typical of the New York harbour area, rather than a high top speed. The sandbagger shape was nothing like a planing hull.  When Fuller tried towing a replica of A Cary Smith’s 18’ sandbagger Comet, it merely sank into the water further without changing the attitude of the fore and aft trim. But the sandbagger’s combination of beamy light displacement hull and movable ballast made them the fastest boats of their length, and Americans were not surprised if a sandbagger ran a cabin yacht “hull down” in smooth water. [28]

Sandbagger races attracted fleets of up to forty boats, but as W.P. Stephens wrote “the gambling element, however, predominated: and exercised a controlling influence over both building and racing.”[29]  Many of the most famous races were privately arranged match races where the winner would take home $1000 to $1500, three times the annual average wage, and the public on the spectator steamers would bet up to $50,000. Races and boats were adopted by waterfront bars, whose patrons would fight hard for the honour of “their” boat.

sandbaggers_556px

Sandbagger racing, as the newspapers saw it.

While some of the owners were working “watermen”, the cost of the big rigs and powerful hulls and the demands of professional crews meant that owning a sandbagger was not a hobby for poor men; “the average cost was about $1,000 and the cost of maintenance, on account of the large crews required was considerable” noted Rudder magazine.[30] Some of the rich owners merely watched from a steamboat, but the sandbaggers were not sailed only by the working watermen. Every club apart from the New York Yacht Club openly encouraged the sandbaggers, and even prominent NYYC members owned them and raced them with other clubs.[31] “No better evidence of the popularity of the sandbagger in its day can be offered than the fact that some of the smallest of them were owned and raced by wealthy men who either then or afterwards were prominent members of the New York Yacht Club” wrote a former sandbagger sailor years later.[32] “The recognition of the sandbagger was not therefore confined to yachtsmen of moderate means and obscure associations.”   While the list of sandbagger owners included men like immigrant hatmaker, saloon keeper and boatbuilder “Jake” Schmidt, boatbuilder Pat McGeihan, and the sea captain turned oysterman “Cap’n Phil” Elsworth, they raced alongside establishment figures like Judge Charles F Brown and former NYYC commodore William Edgar.  Even the forbidding and aristocratic C Oliver Iselin, who later led the syndicate that owned Reliance (the largest America’s Cup yacht in history) “not only learned the alphabet of sailing from them, but also first came into yachting notice as a sandbag racer”….. [33]

The close and serious racing in tricky boats bred outstanding sailors. “With the single exception of Charlie Barr, all of the famous yacht skippers learned the trick in the sandbagger” it was said. [34] “Them’s the boat that makes sailors” wrote a correspondent in Outing magazine. “When a man’s fit to be trusted with a racing sandbagger in a blow, he’s forgot more about sailing, ballast and trim, than half these (other) skippers ever dreamed of.”

Sandbagger racing was hard work for hard men. As one report put it, a sandbagger crew was “a mass of human ballast warranted to stick three feet overboard to windward in spite of anything in the shape of sea or motion (with) the minimum of pleasure, the ballast working for so much a day and agreeing to get wet – drowned even if necessary – at that figure.”  Accounts of one of the last sandbag ballasted classes, the 20 ft Sneakboxes of Barnegat Bay, noted that the bags put “a tremendous strain…. on the hull and rigging, to say nothing of that on the crew and skipper…one of the disadvantages of this class was the difficulty of obtaining crews and when procured, sufficient in number, the physical effort was too much, except for the well seasoned.”  [35]

Crewing a sandbagger was such hard work that few people would do it without pay. The modern commentators who claim that there was a backlash about paid crews simply don’t know their history. Paid crew were accepted universally in those days in all types of boat, from the biggest cutter or schooner of the NYYC or RYS, all the way down to the part-timers in dinghy clubs or aboard small cruisers. Even basic of books about sailing would include advice about pay rates and allowances.

1007629r

A late sandbagger (A.H Sloet?) in its element; flat water, light winds, and a vast spread of sail.

Racing for cash brought out the bad sportsman as well as the honest fan.  The sandbagger owners included men like Nick Duryea, who ran one the illegal gambling operations known as “policy dealing” or “the numbers racket”.  He pulled a gun on a race judge before being expelled from one club for punching a fellow owner, from another club for breaching club rules against racing for cash, and being stabbed to death in the street by a fellow and being shot dead by a fellow gambler.[36] From the safe distance of years such tales sound colourful, but those who were there were unhappy about sharing the racecourse with men like Duryea – “as bad an egg as I ever came across” and ruthless enough to kill a drunk who knocked him into the water, according to one of his own pro skippers. “You had to fight all the way around the course, and if you should win you had to fight again to get the prize” recalled Iselin.[37]  “There is no one cause which has brought the matches of this class of boat into so much disrepute as the fact that in almost every instance where the stakes have been above a $10 bill, there has been a dispute over the money after the race” noted a sports newspaper. “Clearly the men that have, for the most part, owned the sand-bagger in the past, are not the men to sustain the yachting of this neighborhood in the future……[38]

Despite the thuggery that went on, the sandbagger’s speed in flat water and light winds made the type famous across the world. [39]  New York builders were soon exporting sandbaggers to Germany and France, while French merchant seamen who saw sandbaggers took the style home, modified it with a deep keel to handle the Mistral, and called them “houaris Marseillais.”

 

black-and-white1

While the sandbaggers were the most extreme and influential examples of the move to beamy centreboarders, they were far from the only example of the beamy centreboarder. Out at Boston there was keen racing in “splashers”, which were similar to sandbaggers but with fixed ballast and smaller rigs.  Less extreme cat-rigged open catboats from about 18 to 30 feet overall were to be found racing all across the north-eastern USA. But none of them were as influential in the wider world as the sandbaggers and the earlier catboats, which can justly be acclaimed as the boats that introduced the world to the  beamy “surface sailing” centreboarder.

Smaller boats seem to have been almost ignored around by the sandbagger sailors. Although there are mentions of people sailing the famous Whitehall rowboats, searches reveal no races for them. There are reports of some racing catboats as short as 12’/3.66m, which were said to be so tippy that their skippers had to part their hair down the middle, and laugh only out of the centre of their mouth.[40]  But to the sandbagger sailors, boats under 16 feet didn’t count.

1874sailboatsracingonthedelawareoiloncanvas
There’s a reason they called these Delaware 15 footers “Hikers”. In this Thomas Eakin painting, three crew up forward hike outboard hanging onto ropes leading up from the bilge. Note the “whiskers” projecting from the gunwales. They increased the width of the stay base, making it easier to support the huge cat rig.

However, a few miles further south, another group of Americans were sailing “real” dinghies.  Four types of clinker 15 footer were to be found hunting waterfowl or picnicking along the still-unspoiled Delaware River near Philadelphia. In typical fashion, as time went by they started racing their rigs grew bigger, but they did not follow the catboats down the route of great beam and great power.

Because the narrows of the river required short tacks, the Delaware classes relied on crew weight for ballast instead of sandbags.  Some of them even carried wooden centreboards instead of the iron ones customary in other areas. The double-ended canoe-like Duckers were restricted to 48” beam, about 115 sq ft of sail in a sprit cat rig, and two or three crew.[41]  The transom-sterned Tuckups carried four crew and about 144 sq ft of sail. Like the Ducker crew, the Tuckup sailors hung onto lines secured in the bottom of the cockpit, so they could extend their weight further outboard.

plate46b

The Delaware Hiker catboats relied on human ballast instead of bags of rocks. Lighter and slimmer than the sandbaggers, they seem to be the most modern boats of their era in some ways. A “tuckup” like Priscilla, above, earned its name because the planks at the stern were “tucked up” at the stern. As maritime historian Ben Fuller notes, the Tuckups resembled the famous Whitehall rowboats of New York, but were slightly flatter and fuller to improve their performance under sail.

The transom-sterned Hikers had unlimited sail area that stretched up to 450 sq ft, wider beam for stability, and masts over 20 feet tall that were supported by stays that ran to “whiskers” or outriggers that extended out each side of the bows in the style of a modern “Open 60” shorthanded racer.  They supported their vast sail by squeezing up to eight hard-hiking crewmen into their 15 foot long hull.  If the wind dropped off, some of them would be thrown overboard and (hopefully) picked up by the spectator steamers following astern.  If the wind picked up, two or three of them would creep out onto a huge hiking board that projected several feet from the windward gunwale.

The Tuckups, Duckers, Hikers and sailing canoes were stored in boathouses along the Phladelphia riverfront. “Here there are several long wharves, lined on each side with rows of two-story boat houses, twenty to thirty in a row” wrote W.P. Stephens. “In these houses are stored hundred of duckers and tuckups, while the upper story of each is fitted up more or less comfortably for the use of the crews; gunning, fishing and camping outfits, with sails and gear, being kept there. On Sundays in particular the wharves and houses are crowded, the boats are off for short cruises up or down the river, or races are sailed between the recognized cracks, handled by old and skillful captains and trained crews.”

It was an egalitarian mix, where doctors sailed alongside labourers.[42]   From 1880 to 1890, the open boat races of the Delaware could attract fleets of up to 100 boats, with spectator crowds to match. In some ways they seem to be the most technologically advanced small boat of their day, but unlike the sandbaggers and the beamier catboats further north, they had little impact outside their home waters.

 

 

 

[1] In The History of American yachting,      ed, Captain RF Coffin noted that The Southern yacht club,

with its head-quarters at New Orleans and

its racing course on Lake Ponchartrain,

was the second club organized, but it was

purely a local organization ; its yachts

were small open boats,

[2] SMh 28 feb 1885 p 10 quotin Satuday Review

[3] American Yachting, WP Stephens p 100

[4] American yachting, WP Stephens p 81

[5] American Yachting p 32-33

[6] The Gaff Rig Handbook, John Leather, p 83-4.

[7] History 73

[8] History 77

[9] History 77

[10] Memories and traditions of American yachting, MotorBoating June 39 p 118

[11] L Francis Herreshoff notes that after some boats developed “ram bows”, the mean of the length waterline and length on deck was adopted.  Golden Age of Yachting, p 75.

[12] Spirit of the Times, 1884 p 773

[13] Traditions and Memories., MotorBoating Sept 39 p 35

[14] For example, it has been claimed that “sandbaggers and skiffs were the first racing yachts to employ movable ballast” (Higher Performance Sailing p 8) but this is clearly incorrect since the use of movable ballast was common in English keel yachts before sandbagger racing formed.

[15] Traditions and Memories, MotorBoating Sept 1939 p34.

[16] Small yacht Racing in 1861 by A Cary Smith, The Rudder (Vol 17) 1906

[17] Normally used instead of sand because it dried out faster. BAG

[18] Traditions and Memories, MotorBoating Sept 1939 p34.

[19] BAG Fuller.  The North River sloops had carried square topsails, ringtails, water sails and studding sails in light winds (Rudder 1890 Nov p 6) so the sandbagger sailors would have been obviously aware of them.

[20] Traditions and Memories of American Yachting, MotorBoating September 1939 p 34.

[21] How Sails are Made and Handled, Charles G David, Rudder publishing, p 24

[22] See for example A Cary Smith “Small yacht racing in 1861” The Rudder vol 17 1906 and How Sails are Made and Handled, Charles G David, Rudder publishing Company 1917, p 33.

[23] A New York Times report of the Newburgh regatta 1877, published June 19, refers to sandbaggers like W.R. Brown, Fidget and Freak using “spinigers”.  However,  “The History of Small yacht design part II” by Russell Clark, Wooden Boat July/August 1981 p 30 says that spinnakers were only used from 1879 in the USA.

[25] Small yacht Racing in 1861 by A Cary Smith, The Rudder (Vol 17) 1906.  A very heavy centreboard was fitted in the well-known Dare Devil in 1882  but it did not perform well; see Stephens in Forest and Stream p 433. Another sandbagger was fitted with a bulb keel, before Nat Herreshoff introduced the idea successfully with Dilemma.

[26]  The Rudder of     p 105 mentions that the 35 year old sandbagger Walter F Davids was still working as a fishing boat. The Jan 1906 number of that magazine included a photo of the Pat McGeighan sandbagger Sadie, perhaps the most successful sandbagger of them all, still sailing actively.

[27] Belitz, Kemp and Stephens give slightly different measurements for Parole. The “lighter English cutters” are the Dan Hatcher design shown on p    of Uffa Fox’s and Primrose, whose dimensions are in the 1884 edition of Dixon Kemp.

[28] Kunhardt,  Forest and Stream  Sep 21 1882 p 156

[29] Trad and Mem MotorBoating Sep 1939 p 88

[30] See for example Bethwaite Higher Performance Sailing p 10).

[31] The Sandbaggers by William E Simmons, The Rudder, Vol 17 No 3 (1906)

[32] The Sandbaggers by William E Simmons, The Rudder, Vol 17 No 3 (1906).  Other “establishment” sandbagger sailors include charter members of the Larchmont YC and Frank Bowne Jones, who WP Stephens credits as the main organiser of US Sailing  (latter May 44 MotorBoating p 109)

[33]

[34] Spirit of the Times April 29 1876

“Match sailing has latterly become such a business with a certain class of vessels and owners, and the tonnage of the yachts themselves is so great, that an owner who used to steer and handle his own craft now shrinks from the responsibility…owners have got more and more into the habit of trusting every thing to their skippers, and even often to the builders, who are thus made much more the real proprietors of the vessels than the men who pay for them….like passengers on board.”[34]

[35] “Barnegat Bay Sneak Boxes” by Edwin B Schoettle, “Sailing Craft” p 607.

[36] Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 18 Dec 1872 p 4 and 25 Nov 1888 p 6.

[37] Golden years of yachting p 75. From the description, it was probably Iselin who ended an argument about who had won a sandbagger race by grabbing the winnings and swimming away with them, as described by WP Stephens. Sandbagger sailor A Cary Smith and Thomas Day of The Rudder also confirmed that cheating, such as using pie tins to paddle in calms, was common in the sandbagger fleets; see for instance Smith’s first hand account of building and racing his sandbagger Comet in “Small yachting racing in 1861”, The Rudder Oct 1906 p 592.

[38] Spirit of the Times 1884 p 773

[39]

[40] Forest and Stream,   1878 p 49

[41] The sail area was controlled by limiting the circumference to 48’. “The Delaware Ducker” by BAG Fuller, Wooden Boat Sept/Oct 1982 p 83

[42] Information from Ben Fuller and Traditionalsmallcraft.com.

Pt 1.4: The Sandbaggers

 

buttersworth_sandbaggeryachtrace
Sandbaggers Racing in Long Island Sound by James Edward Buttersworth (1817-1894).

While Truant and Una were awakening the British to the potential of the beamy “skimming dish” centreboarder, the Americans were taking the concept to the extremes. [1]  By 1885 there were 1000 catboats and jib and mainsail boats in the USA. [2]  Although some followed the deeper and narrower style of pilot boats and the schooner America, most were beamy centreboarders, especially around the New York area.  “The whole tendency of the time, in small and large classes alike, was toward the extreme development of the smooth-water skimming-dish, of great breadth and limited draft” wrote Stephens. [3]    “Local conditions, as exemplified in the shoal waters of the anchorage ground and of parts of New York Harbor where short cuts were possible to yachts of light draft, with the reaching course down the river and back, all tended toward the one dominant type that prevailed from 1860 to 1880.” [4]

Although designs were becoming more sophisticated, there was still often little distinction between workboats and pleasure craft. Even yachts as fast and famous as Maria ended their careers as working craft, while the New York Yacht Club allowed Hudson River working sloops into its early races, and at least two big oyster sloops, Cap’n Joe Ellsworth’s 60’ Admiral and 45’ Commodore, raced as part of the Brooklyn YC fleet when they were not earning a living. [5] [6]

Of all the many breeds of working boat turned racer, the breed that became the fastest and most famous was the “sandbagger”, which seems to have evolved from the oyster fishing catboats that harvested seven million oysters a year from the shoals of New York harbour.  In time-honoured fashion, the inevitable informal races between working craft probably developed into match races and regattas.  Boatbuilders found that a working boat worth $250 (about 15 weeks’ wages for a carpenter or blacksmith) could be sold for $400 to $600 if it was was a winner, and inevitably, the boats became faster and more extreme.

Susie S cropped
Susie S, one of the fastest and most famous sandbaggers. She was built quite early in the sandbagger era (1869) but raced successfully into the 1880s. W.P. Stephens noted that Susie S “lacked the power of later boats, but she was very fast in light winds.” Although Susie S was slightly narrower than some later boats (3.35m/11ft wide on an overall length of 8.23m/27ft) her lack of power may have been due to the hollows in her waterlines forward and in the floors, each side of her keel. The top illustration is a painting by Frederick S Cozzens, who did many depictions of canoes, yachts and boats of the era. This plan and illustration are from Stephens’ ‘Traditions and Memories of American Yachting.’

Like so many boat types, the sandbagger was the creation of local winds (in this case, the light airs of the New York summer), geography and economy.  “The superior speed of the light displacement, lightly built centre-board yacht over the keel boats of the pilot-boat type in the races which were each year becoming more popular, and the convenience of very light draft in mooring off the flats of Hoboken, Communipaw, and Gowanus, appealed strongly to both owners and builders” wrote W.P. Stephens [7] ;[8]  “The farmers who dwelt along these shores in the fifties were amphibious by nature, many of them fishermen and oystermen.  This entire community was devoted in one way or another to yachting.”.[9]

“Racing was the regular amusement of the community” noted Stephens in his encylopaedic book “Traditions and Memories of American Yachting”.….. “here, as well as along the Staten Island shore and in sheltered nooks on the East and North rivers, were boat shops, waterside saloons frequented by boat sailors, and fleets of cat-boats, jib-and-mainsail boats, and small cabin yachts, all of the centre-board type. It was not until well along in the sixties that yacht clubs became general, but from the first a strong community of interest and friendly rivalry united all these localities”.

illus5
Communipaw, New Jersey, in the 1850s. It was shallow areas like this that bred the sandbaggers, and the sandbagger sailors. The fisheries gave them their work, their work gave them the sailing experience to handle the tricky sandbaggers, the shoals gave them free moorings, and the waterfront bars gave them docks and clubhouses.

“All that was now needed was a foothold on shore for a dinghy and a landing float, and these were provided by a waterside pub.  This popular institution provided, in default of a yacht club, shore shelter, landing facilities and social discourse, while mine host was at least an enthusiastic sailor if not a builder as well.”[10]

The races organisation was simple.  Boats were normally divided into four classes based on their length,[11] although boats that were outclassed could be moved to a different class.  Many regattas had four classes; First Class, 26 to 30 feet in length; Second Class, 23 to 26 feet; Third class, 20 to 23 feet; Fourth class, under 20 feet.  Within each class there was normally an allowance for length, typically two minutes per foot over a 20 mile course.[12]

Sail area was not measured.  This was standard at the time, from the biggest boats to the smallest.  Apart from the fact that no one had worked out a good measurement system for sails, it was often felt that “a tax on sail is a tax on skill”.  The simple rules almost inevitably meant that, as sandbagger and America’s Cup designer A Cary Smith noted, “the intention was to get as large a boat for the length as possible.”  Designers and crews created boats of vast beam, kept them upright with movable ballast, and crammed on sail area until, as one sandbagger sailor recalled, they became “a thing of small body and great wings.” [13]

annie-under-sail
The last of the sandbaggers. The remarkable 8.8m/29ft Annie was built around 1880 in Mystic, Conn. Her racing rig measured 20.7m/68ft from the tip of the bowsprit to the clew of the main. Annie was preserved by the far-sighted Maine Historical Association in the early 1900s and is now at the Mystic Seaport Museum. Pic from the Museum site.

The claims that the sandbaggers broke convention by using movable ballast seem to be one of those myths born of a desire to paint “mainstream” sailors as archaic throwbacks trying to hold back the tide of development. [14]  Shifting ballast had been common in racing yachts when sandbaggers were still evolving. Ironically, the practise had become common in English yachting because of rules intended to make boats less extreme. When clubs and regatta organisers banned boats from setting larger sails in light winds, racing sailors started to keep their their largest sails up all the time, and stacked ballast to windward to make the boats stable enough to handle the extra power.

The British soon found that shifting ballast with 19th century technology was an expensive, unpleasant hassle. Before each race, interiors had to be stripped out so that bags of lead shot could be thrown from side to side during tacks. Ledges were fitted to hold the ballast bags, hidden behind ornate Victorian cabinets. Amateur crews quickly rebelled when they were asked to spend a day cramped down, below heaving weights from side to side and being covered in muck oozing from the shotbags, so owners had to pay professionals to smash up their expensive furniture with dirty bags.  By the time the sandbaggers were evolving the British were already starting to ban shifting ballast, to their general relief.

But while the sandbaggers didn’t invent shifting ballast, they did take it to a new level. The flat, beamy shape of the sandbaggers meant that shifting ballast had more leverage and was more effective than it had been on the narrow English cutters.  The typical sandbagger of around 26’/8m overall carried from 25 to 34 bags, each weighing around 55lb/25kg, and a crew of about nine men (in addition to the sheet handlers and bailer boy) to throw them up to the windward gunwale each tack. “When quick work was not done some sandbags went over board, not infrequently a man or two, and sometimes also, all hands and the skipper” remembered sandbagger sailor William E Simmons years later. Despite the “sandbagger” label, gravel was the preferred filling because it dried out faster. [17]  Some boats, especially in New Orleans, piled the sandbags onto a board mounted on 3ft/1m long swinging “arms” that pivoted out to windward like a modern skiff’s wings, but it was too cumbersome for general use. [18]

In spite of the lack of class rules, the sandbagger hulls became “standardised to an extent seen today only in the one-design classes; plumb stem and stern-post, a breadth of about 36 percent of the length, a draft of about 7 percent, the midship section about 66% of the total length from the bow.”[15]  This stereotyped shape had “the stern well cut away, so that when the boat was afloat the tuck was well out of the water in order to leave the water cleanly (so that)… the boat steered better when well down by the stern.”[16]

The sandbagger followed the trends of the time in adopting a fine bow and wide stern, in place of the old-bluff-bowed “cod’s head and mackerel tail” shape. The sections showed the same “all deadrise and no bilge” soft-bilged shape as Una, but where the older catboat flattened out along the keel line the sandbaggers had a deeper vee, normally with about 19 degrees deadrise. Some of them, like the famous Susie S, had hollow sections in the floors, just outboard of the keel.

228
Two famous sandbaggers. Top, the small 1868 sandbagger “Cruiser”, which was successful both racing around New York with movable ballast, and with her ballast fixed in place when she raced under Boston rules. Although only 6.35m/20’10” long, her beam measured 2.9m/9’9″.  The contrast with Truant’s beam of around 2.1m/7′ shows how fat the sandbaggers became in the name of increasing their power to carry sail. Cruiser’s deadrise was measured by Stephens at 15 degrees, which was flat for a sandbagger. It may have been her flatter, wider shape that allowed her to win even when she was racing in Boston, where shifting ballast had been banned decades before.Below is Parole, created by the famous Jake Schmidt. Both Cruiser and La Parole show the stereotypical sandbagger shape – vast beam, a shallow hull, slack sections and buttock lines that rose steeply at the stern to form a “wineglass” transom, ensuring an uninterrupted flow of water onto the huge rudder.  Illustrations from George Belitz’s Seglers Handbuch, digitised by the http://www.yachtsportmuseum.de/

Although most illustrations show boats carrying just a jib and mainsail, other accounts say that sprit topsails and jib topsails were sometimes being set in light winds (especially among the New Orleans fleet) but that “the extra gear involved kept it from general use”. [19]  [20]  The stability provided by the movable ballast allowed the sandbaggers to carry longer gaffs and more area up high in the mainsail than earlier American boats.[21]   The vast fore-and-aft spread of the sail meant that the sail trimmers, especially the jib trimmer, had a vital role in steering; if the jib was not eased in a gust the helmsman could not luff and the boat was likely to fill or capsize. [22] Spinnakers, which were still new, were rarely carried. [23]  Many of the smaller and earlier boats had two mast steps so that they could sail under cat rig.  They carried vast low-aspect centreboards and enormous “barn door” rudders, in line with Bob Fish’s mantra “the more sail a boat has, the more board she wants”.[24]

 

229
La Parole. Although she was only 27′ overall, she measured 70′ from the tip of her bowsprit to the end of her 39′ boom.  Her jib and mainsail measured 1574 sq ft – almost half as big again as the jib and main on a Farr 40.

By the 1870s a typical sandbagger like the 27’ Parole, by the renowned builder/skipper/saloon owner Jake Schmidt, was 11’3” wide at the gunwales, 10’ wide on the waterline, and drew 7’3” draft with board down. The outrigger that supported the mainsheet extended 10′ from the transom, while the bowsprit stretched  22’6″  from the stem. A mainsail of more than a thousand square feet and a jib of nearly 500ft2 were hung from a mast that was a full 10″ in diamater. With a full load of 77 sandbags, 600 to 700lb of fixed lead or iron ballast (to keep her upright at anchor) and 17 crew, she had a displacement of 4.1 tons.  In contrast, a heavy displacement long-keel Itchen Ferry from England of the same length could weigh 6.5 tons and spread 1041ft2 of sail when racing, whereas a lighter English cutter would displace as little as 3.5 tonnes.[27]

Although A Cary Smith wrote that in 1860 “lightness of construction was then considered as vital to speed as it is now”[25] and some boats were made in clinker to save weight, the sheer power of the sandbagger demanded a strong hull.  Hull planks could be as thick as ¾”.  Even then, the sandbaggers were famously flexible, and could be seen clearly twisting under the battle between the power of the rig and the weight of the sandbags.  Despite the strain, the boats lasted well by the standards of their age, and some returned to fishing when their racing days were over.[26]

McGiehan ad
An ad for the sandbagger builder and skipper Pat McGeighan, described by WP Stephens as “a good judge of bad whisky”. The artist made McGieghan’s boatyard look a bit more impressive than it was in the 1894 pic below, from the Bayonne Public Library.

 

McGiehan 3

As Ben Fuller, former curator of Mystic Seaport Museum and one of the few people who are experts in both traditional and modern  small craft says, the sandbagger’s design was all about speed in the light breezes typical of the New York harbour area, rather than a high top speed. The sandbagger shape was nothing like a planing hull.  When Fuller tried towing a replica of A Cary Smith’s 18’ sandbagger Comet, it merely sank into the water further without changing the attitude of the fore and aft trim. While the sandbaggers could not beat the big schooners or sloops – waterline length and stability were too important in those days of heavy rigs and displacement hulls – their combination of a beamy hull and movable ballast made them the fastest boats of their length, and Americans were not surprised if a sandbagger ran a cabin yacht “hull down” in smooth water. [28]

Sandbagger races attracted fleets of up to forty boats, but as W.P. Stephens wrote “the gambling element, however, predominated: and exercised a controlling influence over both building and racing.”[29]  Many of the most famous races were privately arranged match races where the winner would take home $1000 to $1500, three times the annual average wage, and the public on the spectator steamers would bet up to $50,000. Races and boats were adopted by waterfront bars, whose patrons would fight hard for the honour of “their” boat.

sandbaggers_556px
Sandbagger racing, as the newspapers saw it. Although the sandbaggers got vastly less publicity than the big boats, and even less than sailing canoes, they were the best known of the medium-size craft.

While some of the owners were said to be working “watermen”, the cost of the big rigs and powerful hulls and the demands of professional crews meant that owning a sandbagger was not a hobby for poor men; “the average cost was about $1,000 and the cost of maintenance, on account of the large crews required was considerable” noted Rudder magazine.[30] Some of the rich owners merely watched from a steamboat, but some of the rich joined the watermen in fighting it out on the water. Despite popular myths, this was not an underground hobby for the underclasses – every club apart from the New York Yacht Club openly encouraged the sandbaggers, and even prominent NYYC members owned them and raced them with other clubs.[31]

“No better evidence of the popularity of the sandbagger in its day can be offered than the fact that some of the smallest of them were owned and raced by wealthy men who either then or afterwards were prominent members of the New York Yacht Club” wrote a former sandbagger sailor years later.[32] “The recognition of the sandbagger was not therefore confined to yachtsmen of moderate means and obscure associations.”   While the list of sandbagger owners included men like immigrant hatmaker, saloon keeper and boatbuilder “Jake” Schmidt, boatbuilder Pat McGeihan, and the sea captain turned successful oysterman “Cap’n Phil” Elsworth, they raced alongside establishment figures like Judge Charles F Brown and former NYYC commodore William Edgar.  Even the forbidding and aristocratic C Oliver Iselin, who later led the syndicate that owned Reliance (the largest America’s Cup yacht in history) “not only learned the alphabet of sailing from them, but also first came into yachting notice as a sandbag racer”….. [33]

The close and serious racing in tricky boats bred outstanding sailors. “With the single exception of Charlie Barr, all of the famous yacht skippers learned the trick in the sandbagger” it was said. [34] “Them’s the boat that makes sailors” wrote a correspondent in Outing magazine. “When a man’s fit to be trusted with a racing sandbagger in a blow, he’s forgot more about sailing, ballast and trim, than half these (other) skippers ever dreamed of.”

Sandbagger Hurley.png
It’s sometimes implied that Australians and New Zealanders were the first to really use human ballast. It’s a silly claim, as the examples of sailing canoes and even ancient Greek writings prove, and here’s a pic that seems to underline the point. Nathaniel L Stebbings took this pic of the sandbagger Hurley on 6 September 1886 and it shows 12 men, most of them hiking hard, on a boat just 22ft 6in overall. Around this time Hurley was sailing in the Delaware, where human ballast in even more radical forms was popular. Although it was commented that she did surprisingly well in a race against big schooners and sloops that year, she was still well beaten by the big yachts – more evidence that, contrary to myths, the big boats could match (and exceed) the speed of the sandbaggers. In the days of heavy displacement boats, length and power ruled. Pic from the Stebbings Collection from Historic New England. For a better image, go here. Details of Hurley’s dimensions from The American Yacht List 1889.  Race details from Amateur Yachting by Benjamin Adams, 1886.

Sandbagger racing was hard work for hard men. As one report put it, a sandbagger crew was “a mass of human ballast warranted to stick three feet overboard to windward in spite of anything in the shape of sea or motion (with) the minimum of pleasure, the ballast working for so much a day and agreeing to get wet – drowned even if necessary – at that figure.”  Accounts of one of the last sandbag ballasted classes, the 20 ft Sneakboxes of Barnegat Bay, noted that the bags put “a tremendous strain…. on the hull and rigging, to say nothing of that on the crew and skipper…one of the disadvantages of this class was the difficulty of obtaining crews and when procured, sufficient in number, the physical effort was too much, except for the well seasoned.”  [35]

Crewing a sandbagger was such hard work that few people would do it without pay. The modern commentators who claim that there was a backlash about the sandbagger sailors because they were paid simply don’t know their history. Professional crewmen and skippers were accepted universally in those days in all types of boat, from the biggest cutter or schooner of the NYYC or RYS, all the way down to the part-timers in dinghy clubs or aboard small cruisers. Even basic of books about sailing would include advice about pay rates and allowances.

CE Bolles 1896 pic of E.Z Sloat
A sandbagger in its element – reaching in light winds and flat water under an enormous amount of sail. Photos of sandbaggers racing are rare, because they came and went before marine photography was common. Charles Edwin Bolles caught this classic photo of the 21 footer E.Z. Sloat in 1896.

Racing for cash brought out the bad sportsman as well as the honest fan.  The sandbagger owners included men like Nick Duryea, who ran one the illegal gambling operations known as “policy dealing” or “the numbers racket”.  He pulled a gun on a race judge before being expelled from one club for punching a fellow owner, from another club for breaching club rules against racing for cash, and being stabbed to death in the street by a fellow and being shot dead by a fellow gambler.[36] From the safe distance of years such tales sound colourful, but those who were there were unhappy about sharing the racecourse with men like Duryea – “as bad an egg as I ever came across” and ruthless enough to kill a drunk who knocked him into the water, according to one of his own pro skippers. “You had to fight all the way around the course, and if you should win you had to fight again to get the prize” recalled Iselin.[37]  “There is no one cause which has brought the matches of this class of boat into so much disrepute as the fact that in almost every instance where the stakes have been above a $10 bill, there has been a dispute over the money after the race” noted a sports newspaper. “Clearly the men that have, for the most part, owned the sand-bagger in the past, are not the men to sustain the yachting of this neighborhood in the future……[38]

Despite the thuggery that went on, the sandbagger’s speed in flat water and light winds made the type famous across the world. [39]  New York builders were soon exporting sandbaggers to Germany and France, while French merchant seamen who saw sandbaggers took the style home, modified it with a deep keel to handle the Mistral, and called them “houaris Marseillais.”

black-and-white1
A Houaris Marseillais, the deep-keeled French version of the sandbagger. Similar boats with centreboards were sailed  on the Seine.

While the sandbaggers were the most extreme and influential examples of the move to beamy centreboarders, they were far from the only example of the beamy centreboarder. Out at Boston there was keen racing in “splashers”, which were similar to sandbaggers but with fixed ballast and smaller rigs.  Less extreme cat-rigged open catboats from about 15 to 30 feet overall were to be found racing all across the north-eastern USA. But none of them were as influential in the wider world as the sandbaggers and the earlier catboats, which can justly be acclaimed as the boats that introduced the world to the  beamy “surface sailing” centreboarder.

 

 

[1] In The History of American yachting,      ed, Captain RF Coffin noted that The Southern yacht club,

with its head-quarters at New Orleans and

its racing course on Lake Ponchartrain,

was the second club organized, but it was

purely a local organization ; its yachts

were small open boats,

[2] SMh 28 feb 1885 p 10 quotin Satuday Review

[3] American Yachting, WP Stephens p 100

[4] American yachting, WP Stephens p 81

[5] American Yachting p 32-33

[6] The Gaff Rig Handbook, John Leather, p 83-4.

[7] History 73

[8] History 77

[9] History 77

[10] Memories and traditions of American yachting, MotorBoating June 39 p 118

[11] L Francis Herreshoff notes that after some boats developed “ram bows”, the mean of the length waterline and length on deck was adopted.  Golden Age of Yachting, p 75.

[12] Spirit of the Times, 1884 p 773

[13] Traditions and Memories., MotorBoating Sept 39 p 35

[14] For example, it has been claimed that “sandbaggers and skiffs were the first racing yachts to employ movable ballast” (Higher Performance Sailing p 8) but this is clearly incorrect since the use of movable ballast was common in English keel yachts before sandbagger racing formed.

[15] Traditions and Memories, MotorBoating Sept 1939 p34.

[16] Small yacht Racing in 1861 by A Cary Smith, The Rudder (Vol 17) 1906

[17] Normally used instead of sand because it dried out faster. BAG

[18] Traditions and Memories, MotorBoating Sept 1939 p34.

[19] BAG Fuller.  The North River sloops had carried square topsails, ringtails, water sails and studding sails in light winds (Rudder 1890 Nov p 6) so the sandbagger sailors would have been obviously aware of them.

[20] Traditions and Memories of American Yachting, MotorBoating September 1939 p 34.

[21] How Sails are Made and Handled, Charles G David, Rudder publishing, p 24

[22] See for example A Cary Smith “Small yacht racing in 1861” The Rudder vol 17 1906 and How Sails are Made and Handled, Charles G David, Rudder publishing Company 1917, p 33.

[23] A New York Times report of the Newburgh regatta 1877, published June 19, refers to sandbaggers like W.R. Brown, Fidget and Freak using “spinigers”.  However,  “The History of Small yacht design part II” by Russell Clark, Wooden Boat July/August 1981 p 30 says that spinnakers were only used from 1879 in the USA.

[25] Small yacht Racing in 1861 by A Cary Smith, The Rudder (Vol 17) 1906.  A very heavy centreboard was fitted in the well-known Dare Devil in 1882  but it did not perform well; see Stephens in Forest and Stream p 433. Another sandbagger was fitted with a bulb keel, before Nat Herreshoff introduced the idea successfully with Dilemma.

[26]  The Rudder of     p 105 mentions that the 35 year old sandbagger Walter F Davids was still working as a fishing boat. The Jan 1906 number of that magazine included a photo of the Pat McGeighan sandbagger Sadie, perhaps the most successful sandbagger of them all, still sailing actively.

[27] Belitz, Kemp and Stephens give slightly different measurements for La Parole. The “lighter English cutter” is the Dan Hatcher design shown on p    of Uffa Fox’s

[28] Kunhardt,  Forest and Stream  Sep 21 1882 p 156

[29] Trad and Mem MotorBoating Sep 1939 p 88

[30] See for example Bethwaite Higher Performance Sailing p 10).

[31] The Sandbaggers by William E Simmons, The Rudder, Vol 17 No 3 (1906)

[32] The Sandbaggers by William E Simmons, The Rudder, Vol 17 No 3 (1906).  Other “establishment” sandbagger sailors include charter members of the Larchmont YC and Frank Bowne Jones, who WP Stephens credits as the main organiser of US Sailing  (latter May 44 MotorBoating p 109)

[33]

[34] Spirit of the Times April 29 1876

“Match sailing has latterly become such a business with a certain class of vessels and owners, and the tonnage of the yachts themselves is so great, that an owner who used to steer and handle his own craft now shrinks from the responsibility…owners have got more and more into the habit of trusting every thing to their skippers, and even often to the builders, who are thus made much more the real proprietors of the vessels than the men who pay for them….like passengers on board.”[34]

[35] “Barnegat Bay Sneak Boxes” by Edwin B Schoettle, “Sailing Craft” p 607.

[36] Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 18 Dec 1872 p 4 and 25 Nov 1888 p 6.

[37] Golden years of yachting p 75. From the description, it was probably Iselin who ended an argument about who had won a sandbagger race by grabbing the winnings and swimming away with them, as described by WP Stephens. Sandbagger sailor A Cary Smith and Thomas Day of The Rudder also confirmed that cheating, such as using pie tins to paddle in calms, was common in the sandbagger fleets; see for instance Smith’s first hand account of building and racing his sandbagger Comet in “Small yachting racing in 1861”, The Rudder Oct 1906 p 592.

[38] Spirit of the Times 1884 p 773

[39]

[40] Forest and Stream,   1878 p 49

[41] The sail area was controlled by limiting the circumference to 48’. “The Delaware Ducker” by BAG Fuller, Wooden Boat Sept/Oct 1982 p 83

[42] Information from Ben Fuller and Traditionalsmallcraft.com.