Pt 1.32: “The dinghy centre of the continent”; Canada’s small boats

Ackroyd skiff 2
The classic Canadian historic dinghy is the Lake Sailing Skiff Association 14 Foot Dinghy. Over recent years a strong fleet of restored LSSA 14 Footers has grown up on Stony Lake in Ontario. These 14s are said to be examples of the famous production line of Ackroyd Dinghies, which were sold in their hundreds in both racing and “cottage” versions. Looking through the gallery of these excellent Nat Glas pics at the Stony Lake YC website, you can tell from the stance and glance of many of the sailors that they really know what they are doing, and it’s no surprise to find that the little club includes Olympic sailors and coaches. Go here for a larger version of the pic below to get a good idea of the details of the Ackroyd 14.

Ackroyd Dinghy 1.png

While the USA was developing a bewildering menagerie of small-boat types, just to the north the Canadians around Lake Ontario and the St Lawrence River were developing one of the world’s most organised and homogeneous dinghy racing scenes. But for many years, the Canadians of the time didn’t refer to their racing boats as dinghies – to them, almost any small centreboarder that wasn’t a canoe was a “skiff”. “The term itself has at times been subject to pretty hard use, being made to cover almost any sort of small craft from the shapely St Lawrence skiff to the most extreme form of scow and pumpkin-seed” noted Forest and Stream April 28 1900.

The earliest of the “skiffs” to become a significant class was bred out of the graceful and fast double-ended skiffs that were used for transport, fishing and tourism around the Thousand Islands in the St Lawrence River downstream of the Great Lakes. The late 1800s were a boom time for the Thousand Islands region, with up to 20 trains a day disgorging tourists to fish and cruise in the fleets of Skiffs that ran out of the grand hotels lining the lakeside.

The Skiffs had only started sailing around the 1870s, when they adopted the Atwood folding centreboard. They used no rudder; instead they were steered by sail trim and fore-and-aft movement. One assumes that the lack of rudder was related to the fact that the Skiff were was rowed with one end forward when carrying a passenger, and turned around when the rower was alone.

St Lawrence working skiff from canoes and canoeing by C Bowyer Vaux
An earlier version of the St Lawrence Skiff, from Vaux’s Canoes and Canoeing. He called these early sailing Skiffs “very indifferent sailors”.

The veteran canoe sailor C Bowyer Vaux claimed the racing version of the St Lawrence Skiff was born when a bunch of Canoe and Skiff sailors from the Canadian town of Brockville attended the 1884 American Canoe Association meet in the Thousand Islands. There they found some two hundred canoe sailors bursting with new concepts. The Skiff sailors also tried their hand at a race, which they lost partly due to the lack of a rudder. “They took back with them many new ideas about boats, rigs, races and sails, which were digested during the Winter and were put to the practical test the following season” recalled Vaux. “Then began the series of skiff-races on scientific principles, which have gone on developing each year since, quite as fast as the canoe-racing and racers have progressed, and on practically the same lines.”

Vaux’s account ties in with an 1886 article about a species known as the “Brockville Skiff”. Brockville seems to have been a centre of French Canadian craftsmen specialising in complex but light boats, many of them built in 3/8in cedar planks fastened by copper nails just one inch apart into light frames just 4in apart. In the summer of 1885 the Brockville Canoe Club started a class for sailing skiffs, which quickly developed the type. The hull of a 19ft x 41in Brockville Skiff could weigh as little as 70 to 100lb, and unlike the typical “working” St Lawrence Skiff they carried a rudder.

Brockville skiff
Genesta, one of the top Brockville Skiffs in 1885. From ‘The Brockville (St Lawrence) Racing Skiff” in May 1886 American Canoeist

Although some of the sailors from Clayton on the US side of the lake indignantly claimed that the Brockville boats, with their rudders and racing machine style, were not true St Lawrence Skiffs at all, within a short time even the Clayton sailors seem to have adopted rudders and big rigs for racing. “The racing skiff of 1891 is exactly like a canoe-is, in fact, a big canoe” wrote an observer. “Twenty-two feet long and four in beam, it is sharp at both ends, has metal rudder and plate centerboard, pointed, flare coaming, and it is all decked over except the cockpit, which is large enough to accommodate six men, with no room to spare. The form of the hull, disposition of sail-area and shape of sails, and the method of sailing are all borrowed directly from the canoemen. Skiff-racing is canoe-sailing on a large scale.”


Yankee canoe Rudder March 1890
Yankee of 1891 was one of the products of the intense rivalry between the New York town of Clayton and the Canadians from Brockville.  This is her small rig of “just” 350 sq ft. The light air rig had 450 sq ft of sail. Yankee was 22ft overall, had a beam of 4ft, and the bare hull weighed just 150 lb. Less than a year earlier one Clayton correspondent implied that the Brockville boats were not St Lawrence Skiffs because they were mere racing machines with rudders, but it appears from Yankee that the New York sailors had decided to follow the Canadians’ lead. From The Rudder March 1891, digitised by Mystic Seaport Museum.

Yankee canoe lines

The rules of the St Lawrence Skiff class were simple; it had to be sharp at each end, and the length in feet multiplied by the beam had to be less than 88. That was it – no limits on rig, sail area, crew size or hull depth. Within a few years, the sail area of a racing Skiff had leaped up from 150 sq ft or less to 350 to 400 sq ft, set in a cat ketch rig with fully battened “batwing” sails, and the Skiff was said to be “the fastest sailing craft afloat for its displacement—possibly the canoe excepted.”

OUting July 1892 St LAwrence Skiff
You’ll be surprised to know that this is a sketch of the start at the Clayton Regatta in 1890. It’s from Outing of July 1892. Up to 20 Skiffs were starting in races at the time. Now, dear reader, you have as much info as I do. Cheers!

The Brockville or St Lawrence Skiffs must surely have been the model (or a parallel development) for the Skiffs that started racing around Toronto around the same time. “The popular small boat of the 1880’s was a double-ended skiff, completely open or with a very large cockpit, and in both model and rig decidedly “unwholesome” judged by modern standards” says one account of the early Toronto Skiffs. “Skiffs no longer than 16 feet over all, and 4 feet beam, would be rigged as schooners, with flying topsails and a tremendous sail area generally; or as sloops, with eight foot bowsprits and 17-foot spinnaker booms, and mainbooms to match. There is this to be said for these racing extremes – they bred a generation of alert, active and courageous sailors, and while sailing them was as much a matter of acrobatics as seamanship, the seamanship it demanded was of high order.”

An 1887 champion of the Toronto 16 Ft Skiff class, Clio, is illustrated in WP Stephens’ “Canoe and Boat Building for Amateurs”. Clio carried 239 sq ft of sail upwind, a fairly big rig for a boat 3ft 8in wide and lacking the stability of a transom stern, and a spinnaker pole that is about the same length as the boat. Like the St Lawrence Skiffs, they were so slim and carried so much sail that they could not stay upright at a dock or mooring. Here is a boat that is as radical as anything the sailors of the Delaware River, Sydney Harbour or Brisbane had produced at the time.

What was just as radical, in a different way, was the body that began to organise the class. From 1893, the Lake Sailing Skiff Association arose. The Canadian small boat sailors probably felt the influence of the American Canoe Association on one side, and Canada’s own Lake Yacht Racing Association (which claims to be the world’s first regional yachting association) on the other. Here was what appears to be the small boat world’s second class (or multi-class) association, following on the heels of the American Canoe Association. The LSSA’s members were clubs, rather than individuals as with the ACA and modern class associations, but the Association probably played a major role in creating a coordinated small boat sailing scene in central Canada.

Skiff Clio.png
Clio, from the ever-informative Forest and Stream. Dec 1 1887 issue.
double endeds skiff
This photograph from  Library and Archives Canada is from Carleton Place, between Brockville and Ottawa, around 1890. It appears to show a large LSSA Skiff of similar style to Clio – any information would be appreciated.


At a time when small boat sailing in places like the UK and USA was in a state of uncoordinated turbulence, the LSSA ensured that Canada was in a state of coordinated turbulence. Never before or since has almost the entire dinghy scene of a major sailing country changed as dramatically and as quickly. In the mid 1890s the entire species of double-ended open Skiffs like Clio seems to have dropped out of sight when the LSSA adopted Rater-style boats. The double-ended open Skiffs and their sisterships from Brockville and the St Lawrence seem to have vanished from history almost without trace, and no reasons are given for their passing. The Thousand Islands area went powerboat-mad early in the new century with a strong racing scene, and many powered Skiffs were built. Perhaps the excitement of sailing the tricky double-ended Skiffs faded while the hassles remained.

The open Skiffs were replaced by a very breed of centreboarders that retained the “skiff” label but  seem to have raced under a modified “length and sail area” rating system and therefore had the long overhangs, light displacement and medium-size rig of a classic Rater. The most popular of them were the “16 footers”, which were 16ft on the waterline but had long overhangs to bring their overall length to around 25ft. Despite their yacht-like looks, like many other types of Rater, they were unballasted centreboarders. About a hundred were sailing around Toronto by 1900.

Kootenay Lake rater
The centreboarder scene outside the Ontario region appears to have been smaller and less organised. Above; a Rater-style boat on Kootenay Lake in British Columbia around the turn of the century. Below: a mixed fleet in a regatta on Kelowna Lake, BC in 1909. Given what appears to be the tiny population around these lakes at the time, racing seems to have been surprisingly popular with a significant number of Rater-style boats, but photos show that understandably the fleets were mixed and unlike the strong and organised dinghy scene around Ontario.  The fleet below seems to include Rater-style boat, canoes, dinghies that could perhaps be LSSA 12 Footers, and what appears to be a Rudder Swallow scow. Anyone got any more information about these Library and Archives Canada pics?

Kelowna reegatta 1909

Not surprisingly, the writers of Forest and Stream described Dodo, one of the best of the Rater-style Skiffs, as “very different from the popular conception of a “skiff”….. a curious combination of the leading features of the canoe, the small-rater, and the modern scow, having the elliptical waterlines of the latter, with canoe sections and canoe fittings, and at the same time showing the outline of the conventional sailing boat above the water.”  With a waterline of just 12ft on an overall length of 22ft, a healthy 330 sq ft of sail and efficient-looking foils, this must have been a swift little boat. The way she took cues from a number of different design streams could have been symbolic of the entire Canadian centreboarder culture of the day.

Dodo photo
Dodo. Above the water she looked pretty much like the sort of Raters that could be seen racing around the world. Under the water she shows a very hard-bilged scow-like hull, and a Linton Hope style “dagger” board.


By the time Dodo came out, the Rater-type Skiffs were fading away. By 1904 the class, so strong but a few years earlier, was all but dead; apparently they were killed by the poor rough water performance of their long, flat ends. The LSSA abandoned the type. To some extent they were replaced by an even less-skiffy “skiff”, of similar dimensions but carrying 600lb of ballast, but few were made.  The small boat bodies and sailors of Ontario had turned their attention to a very different type of boat.

In 1896 prominent Toronto yachtsman and skiff organiser J Wilton Morse decided to get a new dinghy for his yacht. “I wanted a little boat for sailing where I spend the summer, among the islands of Georgian Bay” he recalled years later. “She had to be big enough to carry two people and a camping outfit, and to sail whenever we wanted to sail; and she had to be small enough to hang on a yacht’s davits, to row easily, to tow well, to be portaged where necessary….and, moreover, she had to be a boat that one man could haul out and put away in the boathouse.”

To my eyes, the little boat that Morse designed shows many lessons of a yachtsman’s experience. There’s heavy rocker and a little overhang at the bow, so it can get up close to the shoreline and you can step ashore with dry feet. There’s lots of rocker in the stern to stop it surfing into the transom of the mothership – a major problem with these heavy boats that could cause a lot of damage to a wooden yacht. There are flat sections for stability, decent sail area with a high-peaked lug to keep performance (relatively) high but spars low and the sail easy to hoist or lower, and cheap and light clinker or lapstrake construction.

Morse dinghy lines
Morse’s 12 Foot dinghy design, as shown in Outing vol 40 1902. In the article, WP Stephens recommended it as a model for one design classes. The waterline was 10ft6in; beam 4ft 7 1/2 in; displacement 800lb; sail area 85 sq ft. Yes, I will get around to giving measurements in logical form one day.

To my eyes, Morse’s design is no racer, but an eminently sensible yacht’s dinghy for the era. To Toronto sailors, used to skinny open Skiffs and canoes, she seemed to be a joke; the first boatbuilder he approached “laughed in his face and refused to build such a tub”. Her beam “seemed monstrous in those days, when our only sailboats were lean sharp-ended skiffs in which you had to hike to windward all the time and part your hair in the middle to keep right side up.”

The laughter stopped when Morse’s 12 footer went sailing; “at last a craft had been found that men could have a lot of fun sailing and that women and children could manage” said a 1909 writer.  Other sources say that Morse had the idea of a junior class in mind when he designed the little tender; both ideas could be true. Soon “practically all the existing yacht and sailing skiff clubs started to hold races for the dinghies and some new Dinghy Clubs were started.”  A class was quickly formed, with rules that kept the 12 Footers “sane and serviceable, and practical single-handers” and “effectually prevented it from becoming any such monstrosity as the sailing dinghy of Bermuda or Australasia”. But within a year or two the 12 Footer was “found to be rather slow for sport” and Morse designed a 14 foot version.

The 14 Foot class that developed had sensible rules; beam of 5ft 6 in to 5ft; minimum depth 16in; area of largest vertical cross section, 875 sq in maximum and 140 sq ft of sail. Like their fellow sailors south on the midwest’s inland lakes, the Canadians set sensible scantling or construction rules, including clinker construction, a thickness of 3/8” for planking and frames of a minimum 1 x ¾ in spaced at 12 inches. Although the boats were always cat rigged, the LSSA required a two-person crew. The lug rig of the first 12 was soon replaced with a high-peaked gaff rig that was almost like a bermudan sailplan in outline.

Douglas 14 Footer
An early James Douglas designed 14 footer, champion of 1905. From Rod and Gun in Canada, August 1905

Morse’s 14 Footer set Canadian dinghy sailing on a firm footing. “Being a  more wholesome and faster boat than the 12-footer (it) quickly supplanted the 12-footer”. The early 14 Footers were described as “quite tubby, with very full bilges carried well forward and aft, and full deck line forward” and it was noted that “they had plenty of power and stability for such tiny craft.”  They were cheap, at $125 fully rigged, and prizemoney from clubs meant that a young skipper could win the price back in a season.

Inevitably, designs changed when the racing scene got hotter. Norman R Gooderham dominated the 1904 season with a boat with more deadrise and slacker bilges. “In the desire for speed the bilges have been slacked off, the flat bottom has given way to one with considerable dead rise, and the lines forward and aft have been fined down so that in some of the later boats we find considerable hollow in the forward waterlines. In this development for speed, stability has been considerably sacrificed, but the up-to-date dinghy is a better school ship for your sails, and in the hands of a skilful skipper and crew, will carry its full sail in a breeze of about 15 knots.”  With their fine bow and rockered stern these were, from all accounts, a boat that was designed to excel in light winds rather than a planing design.

By 1905 the LSSA 14s seem to have developed a general shape they would stick to for almost a quarter of a century, Toronto had become “the dinghy centre of the continent”, with over 170 14 Footers racing, and the class had extended across the lake to the USA and east to Halifax in Nova Scotia. It was the US fleet that introduced the next major advance in design when they brought in the bermudan rig in 1921 and took the Douglas Cup, the US/Canada challenge trophy, for the first time.

The Canadians also developed much smaller fleets of other types along similar lines; a 16 Footer for those who needed a more “lakeworthy” boat and a short-lived 18 Footer. The little 12 Footer kept on racing at least into the 1920s, when there was an international event with the clubs on the US side of the Lake and at least one boat had an unusually efficient-looking bermudan rig.

Lakes 14 in froint of royal Canadian YC 1916
A 14 glides past the Royal Canadian YC in 1916. Ontario’s yacht clubs seem to have been more supportive of dinghy sailing than many others at the time, and the city’s various clubs appear to have cooperated well. Can anyone give more information on the boat? Library and Archives Canada.
rodandguncanada1905_0235 Gooderham pic
Norman Gooderham. This pic gives some interesting details on what is probably a 14 Footer. Note the early tiller extension, which seems to have a swivel and not a universal joint. Gooderham was an outstanding sailor and even when young he was skippering top class big boats with success. Rod and Gun July 1905


Sailplan Mower LSSA 14
A LSSA 14 designed by Charles D Mower for The Rudder magazine in 1909. The accompanying article by Dawson says that by this time deadwoods (or skegs) had been added to most 14s to solve the catboat’s problem with directional stability downwind. Although Mower was a very successful designer who could draw up boats as varied as the Lark, Swampscott Dory, top A Scows and big Universal Rule racing yachts, this 14 seems to be fairly old-fashioned by LSSA standards although Mower did offer an alternative bermudan rig very similar to the high peaked gunter rig pictured.


Mower LSSA 14.png



regatta probably Toronto
Hamilton regatta 1927.  Some of the 16 Foot LSSA Skiffs that were popular around Hamilton had rounded stems like the ones in the photograph, others had vertical stems like the 14s. Normally the longer and finer waterlines of the vertical-stem boats would make them faster, and it would be interesting to see why the round-stem boats were popular for so long. The full size version is here .  


Canadian 14 Footer.png
A 14 Footer from ‘Sailing Craft’ in 1928. The high-peaked gaff rig and Vee shaped sections had been standard in 14s for some time by this stage. The curved rocker lines aft show that this was basically a displacement shape.

Where the double ended Skiffs and the Rater-type Skiffs had bloomed so briefly, the LSSA Dinghies became a fixture. Perhaps it was because they were more seaworthy than the double-enders or the Raters; perhaps it was the strong influence of the many expatriates from Britain and Ireland, where clinker dinghies were so popular. Whatever the reason, from about 1900 until the late 1920s, Lake Ontario’s fleet of LSSA 14 Footers was possibly the strongest local dinghy fleet in the world. A list in Schoettle’s book Sailing Craft shows that in the late 1920s there were 25 boats in Montreal, 26 in minor centres, and over 150 in Toronto, where the fleet was normally divided into three grades. The LSSA 14 was also the basis for the famous Ackroyd dinghies, which were turned out by the hundred in both racing and “cottage” versions. Today up to 18 Ackroyd LSSA 14s can be found racing on Ontario’s Stony Lake, normally sailing one-up. In an interesting illustration of the progress of design in one hundred years, they are rated faster than a 420 up to Force 3 winds, but almost 2% slower overall.

Lake skiff 16
Rudder in 1922 featured this Ian L McKensie design for a LSSA 16. The 16 Footers carried 187 sq ft of sail on a bermudan rig with a tall 27′ mast, had 7ft beam, a 100lb centreboard, and 3/8″ planking. Below: some of the LSSA 16s carried sloop rigs. From Dawson, Rudder 1909.

LSSA 16 foot skiff sloop

The dinghies of Toronto are perhaps unique in the sailing world, in terms of the way they combined so many of the major development streams and in such a short period. In the history of the Lake Skiffs we see almost all of the strands of the dinghy encapsulated. Through the original double-ended Skiffs we see influence from both the oar-and-sail working types and the canoes.  Boats like Dodo brought in ideas from Raters and Scows.  The yacht tender influence then came to the fore with the 12 Footer. No other type seems to have directly absorbed so many different influences, and within such a short time.




“These 14s are said to be examples of the famous production line of Ackroyd Dinghies”:- Classic Int 14 blogspot, which provided much background information. Further info TBA

“The Skiff sailors also tried their hand at a race, which they lost partly due to the lack of a rudder.”:- The American Canoeist, April 1886.

“Some of the sailors from Clayton on the US side of the lake”:- The Rudder July 1890

“He called these early sailing Skiffs “very indifferent sailors”:- Outing Dec 1891.

“They took back with them many new ideas about boats, rigs, races and sails”:- Outing  July Vol 20.

“Brockville seems to have been a centre of French Canadian craftsmen”:- ‘The Brockville (St Lawrence) Racing Skiff” in American Canoeist, May 1886

NOTE: for more information on the St Lawrence Skiffs see Wooden Boat Jan/Feb 2002, which details the sailing and construction of two replicas.


Information on the Rater-style 16s from a variety of sources including the Slee articles from the Queen City Yacht Club site (further details TBA) and Forest and Stream April 28 1900. And yes, it’s technically incorrect to call them “Raters” but just referring them by their rating or waterline length is confusing….. sorry, W.P.

“The History of the Lake Yacht Racing Association 1884-1962” indicates that the minimum size for a racing “yacht” in the association was 16ft LWL. It appears that the LSSA 16ft class was essentially a Seawanhaka Rule 15 Foot rater (the same as the Seawanhaka Cup boats) with a minimum waterline set so that it could qualify as a yacht under LYRA rules.

“I wanted a little boat for sailing where I spend the summer, among the islands of Georgian Bay”:- ‘The Sailing Dinghy of Lake Ontario’ by M A Dawson, Rudder 1909.

“laughed in his face and refused to build such a tub”: – Dawson

“at last a craft had been found that men could have a lot of fun sailing and that women and children could manage” Dawson, Rudder, 1909.

“Other sources say that Morse had the idea of a junior class in mind all the time”:- TBF Benson in ‘Sailing Craft’ Schoettle (ed)

“practically all the existing yacht and sailing skiff clubs started to hold races for the dinghies and some new Dinghy Clubs were started.” Schoettle

“quite tubby, with very full bilges carried well forward and aft, and full deck line forward.” Schoettle

“”sane and serviceable, and practical single-handers” and “effectually prevented it from becoming any such monstrosity as the sailing dinghy of Bermuda or Australasia”:- Dawson, Rudder

“they had plenty of power and stability for such tiny craft.” Rod and Gun June 1905

“Norman R Gooderham dominated the 1904 season with a boat with more deadrise and slacker bilges”:- Rod and Gun  June 1905.

“In the desire for speed the bilges have been slacked off”:- Schoettle

“By 1905, Toronto had become “the dinghy centre of the continent”:- Rod & Gun July 1905


“The little 12 Footer kept on racing at least into the 1920s”:- New York Times, August 24 1920



Pt 1.31 – “Of all models and builds”: US one designs 1895-1925

Marblehead around the 1930s, and what appears to be a fleet of Brutal Beasts is waiting for a start. Pic from the wonderful Boston Public Library Flickr page.


The late 1800s and early 1900s seem to be a period of turbulent growth in American centreboarder sailing. The sandbagger era was over. The canoes and the Raters had been almost killed by their excesses. The industrialisation of the Delaware had killed the tuckups. In their place came a shift to the one design concept, but a version that was quite different to the one we hold today.

The rise of the one designs in the USA was, as WP Stephens noted, “a protest against the extremes of modern racing” under simplistic rating systems and restricted class rules that had created expensive and fragile racing machines that quickly became obsolete.  It was an issue that ran from the elite Seawanhaka Cup racers all the way down to local club level. As early as 1887, Forest and Stream had recognised the difficulty;  “there are thousands of miles of water throughout the United States and Canada which are suitable for sailing and racing in small boats with as much benefit and as keen sport to the sailor as is found in yachts of the largest class. Already these streams and rivers float an immense pleasure fleet of canoes, sailing skiffs, catboats and similar crafts”.  The problem lay in organising fair racing between such a variety of boats. “At first the fleet includes a lot of odd boats of all models and builds, perhaps a few rowboats with sprit sails, a duckboat or two, a sneakbox, and a few canoes, the dimensions varying from 12 to 16ft., with beam from 2 ½ to 5ft…..It is an extremely difficult matter for a rule which will afford fair racing to the mixed fleet of boats, canoes and sneakboxes that are usually found in first forming a club, and yet it is necessary that all be given a fair chance.” The technology of the time allowed for no such rule. The racing machines always won. One designs seemed to be the answer.

Herreshoff’s beautiful keel/centreboard Buzzards Bay 15 is obviously no dinghy, but it illustrates the lack of cohesion among early one design classes. The Buzzards Bay 15 was one of the many 15 foot waterline length one-designs inspired by the Seawanhaka Cup. The original design was for the Beverly YC in Buzzards Bay. In the typical fashion of the day, when two other clubs requested such boats the design was modified slightly, so although over 120 of the three designs were built they could not race as a combined class.

As Stephens wrote, the move to one designs arose “with no concerted action on the part of clubs and associations”. It also occurred in an era when the concept that “one-design boats….are confined to special local waters” was almost universal.  “The idea seemed to be that each club must have a distinctive one-design class of its own, a boat especially designed for its particular weather conditions and different from any other one-design class” explained George W. Elder, who bought into a local 22′ Long Island Sound one design in 1914. “In other words a one-design class was considered a strictly local proposition and the private property of a given club. That was fine for the designers, but it isolated every group of small boat skippers and prevented them, as well as the clubs, from having any interests in common.”

The logistical issues of getting small boats from club to club in those days before trailers and hoists were part of the problem, but so was the mindset.  As late as the early 1920s, Elder claimed, “the hundreds of little one-design classes, each restricted to one club, were keeping yachtsmen apart.”  One design sailors, he wrote, “just could not visualize any small one-design being successfully developed on a widespread scale. Their yachting horizon was limited. They knew that yachts were being raced in some other places, but it was too far away to amount to much. It is difficult to understand such a frame of mind today, but conditions were very different them.”

21 footer Fore'n'Aft volume 2
Above: Even after the Raters died, North America still had some radical development-class or box-rule yacht classes, like the 21 Footer above. The “21”, of course, referred to the waterline length. Fast but fragile boats like this encouraged sailors to move to one designs, the largest of which was the New York 70, 106ft overall without including the bowsprit. Designed and built by Herreshoff, the four NY70s (below) suffered from construction issues and the class effectively only lasted a season. They are a symbol both of the move to one designs, and of the short life of many such classes. JS Johnston pic.


The parochial viewpoint that Elder lamented and the lack of cooperation between clubs and associations meant that the idea of joining forces to create national classes was foreign to most sailors. Even when two clubs did adopt the same design, often they had so little interest in building a wider class that they would call it by a different name. Many sailors probably believed that no one design class could survive long enough to spread from coast to coast as the Universal Rule rating yachts had done, for the horizon of early one designs seemed to be limited in time as well as in space. Sailors, sailing journalists (who were normally vocally against one designs, claiming they stopped the development of the sport) and designers commonly expected that interest in such small local classes would fade away within two to three seasons; as late as 1902, WP Stephens found it notable that the Newport 30s had survived for seven years.

This mindset meant that just when small boat sailing was growing, it became largely restricted to small and isolated pockets of local one designs that sprang up in a confusing array of widely different classes, with no national classes or overall structure.  There were classes derived from Raters, and fishing dories, from little duck-hunting “sneakboxes”, from scows, sharpies, skiffs and skipjacks, from rowing dinghies, prams and working catboats. Dozens of types appeared and faded, leaving no influence on the wider world of dinghy design. Small boat sailing had become a disorganised and localised sport without a high-profile type such as the canoes or sandbaggers. Just when centreboarders had taken over the lead in design development, they retreated into local racing and the shadow of the big yachts.

Many of the small US local classes were specifically designed for young sailors. In Elder’s words, “these were the days of the large yacht, when racing was a rich man’s game….. small boats were considered playthings for boys”.  Once young sailors had learned the ropes, they were to move into a “real” boat – one that carried lead and was 25 ft long or more. There was no almost US equivalent to the contemporary expensive high-performance adult centreboarders that were sailed in places like England and Australia; perhaps there was no place for them in the colder waters, lighter winds and more affluent society of the USA’s sailing heartlands.

Lark class start.png
A James S Johnston pic of a what appears to be a Lark class start. Around this time Larks were sometimes racing as a class at the Knickerbocker Yacht Club and at Philadelphia’s Corinthian YC. WP Stephens, never a fan of the scow type, noted that while many scow one-designs were started in the late 1890s, they were “suited only for the aqua-acrobatic performances of boys in bathing suits” and they soon vanished.


Given the credibility boost that the Seawanhaka Cup gave to small boat racing, it was not surprising that some clubs adopted Raters or similar types, such as the modified versions of Question that were sailed at Yale Corinthian YC. Some of them were designed by the top designers of the day, like Herreshoff, Clinton Crane, but they seem to have been comparatively expensive boats and few of them seem to have survived long or spread far. One of the most popular types, and perhaps the last survivor, was the Herreshoff 15 footers. Over one hundred were built for three clubs, but in the typical style of the day instead of sharing a single design that could allow interclub racing, each club had its own variation on the basic design. As George Elder wrote, clubs “wanted a special class of their own…unless the designer made some changes, he would hardly feel entitled to his fee.”

The expensive Rater-style one designs were an exception. Most one design fleets were modelled off the bewildering variety of cheap local working and hunting craft that had been bred by the diversity of America’s waterways. One of the first and most popular such types was the dory. In the 1890s, dory racing became popular around Massachusetts, with the usual sequence of events;  “each season there would be new boats built of a newer design and perhaps larger in some ways, and would consequently be faster, which would mean that the owners of the old craft must sell at a great sacrifice and get a new one. After a while it got too expensive and the interest died out”.

Cohasset 15 footer
The Rater-style Cohasset YC 15 foot LWL one design followed the lines of WP Stephen’s Scarecrow. Like the original, it had a lifting keel that was normally left down.

The result was the formation of the one design Swampscott Club dory class in 1898. The ubiquitous and versatile Charles Mower designed the boat, which retained the dory style “because it could be built and maintained for much less than any other type”.  The Swampscott sailors were an evangelical lot who promoted their class to other clubs and formed the Massachusetts Racing Dory Association in 1903. It may well have been the first class association of the modern style in the sport. Previously classes had been run by more general bodies like the American Canoe Association, regional sailing associations or a powerful club.

Within a few years there were fleets of Swampscott Dories and the related Massachusetts Racing Dory restricted class as far north as Nova Scotia, west to the Great Lakes, as far south to the Panama Canal Zone, and apparently as far east as Holland. A 1907 challenge between the Nova Scotia and Massachusetts fleets may have been the first international event for an indigenous American dinghy type, and fittingly the US team dominated. In 1908, Massachusetts sailor George Gardiner Fry (a man who could afford a big boat but preferred a small one) won an international event in Holland, although I can find no details about the event at all.

Swampscott Dory.png
Above; a Swampscott Dory from the pages of Forest and Stream Jan 21 1905. Below dory racing in 1898; Bolles pic. Dories like this could cost as little as $60 to $250 in 1909.


Despite the promising start, dory racing seems to have quickly faded so completely that few traces remain. Perhaps the problem was that in the typical chaotic style of the era, many clubs adopted similar but not identical one-design or restricted classes. Perhaps the Swampscott Dory’s low initial stability was another problem; most boats it inspired, like the Indian One Design and the Gravesend Knockabout, had firmer bilges and wider sterns. Sadly, not only is the class long dead but even the Swampscott Dory Club itself, once so keen and innovative, is now a social club with no interest in sailing or the boat they created.

Dorchester YC dories
Dorchester Dories. I can find no information about this class, apart from this picture in Rudder of 1902, but they show the way that Dories tended to develop fuller, more powerful lines, especially at the stern. The more sophisticated shape, and the bigger rig it allowed, may have robbed them of the economy that made them so attractive.

Further south in Massachusetts around the same time, the 14ft Cotuit Skiff was developed as the “Mosquito” class for an unusual club reserved for unmarried people under 25. The Cotuit Skiff was derived from from local hard chine clamming and oyster skiffs, and remarkably it has survived to the present day almost unchanged – even tiller extensions are still banned.  At one time few more than half a dozen Cotuit Skiffs were left active, but the classic boat resurgence has seen fleets climb to 30 and sometimes more. As with so many other classes of its day, the Cotuit Skiff remained a local class only.

Cotuit Skiffs are another example of a unique local one design derived from indigenous working boats. This pic from Mary Keally is so sharp that it deserves to be seen at high res.

In the same area and around the same time, the brilliant America’s Cup designer, aircraft creator and poet Starling Burgess created the Brutal Beast, named after his Great Dane dog. Another hard chine 14 ft catboat with a wide (6ft2in) beam, by the 1930s it was so popular around Marblehead that it had to be sailed in several divisions. Like many classes, the boats built for many fleets differed slightly, which would have done little to help the class grow widespread momentum. The Brutal Beast died out in the ’60s, apparently killed by construction costs and probably the move to more widespread classes.

Sea Mew
The Sea Mew. It was modified with different rigs, which may have improved its performance but destroyed the class racing it had developed in California.

Several other classes followed the same general (and logical) style of hard-chine catboat. There were designs like the Cricket, St Petersburg One Design, Flattie and Shelter Island Sharpie mentioned earlier. The 14ft Sea Mew, a design from The Rudder, was sailed on the Gulf, Pacific and Atlantic coasts and on the Great Lakes. Some can still be found in California, but widespread class racing never seems to have become organised.

The most popular of all the hard chine cat-rigged classes was the Snowbird, designed in 1921 by boatbuilder Willis J Reid and quickly adopted by several clubs around Boston. The Snowbird also became popular around southern California, and when Los Angeles was chosen as the host for the 1932 Olympics it was the obvious choice for the singlehander in an era when local cities traditionally chose a local boat.

Snowbird Rudder April 1921 sailplan.png

Snowbird Rudder April 1921 hull.png
Above – the plans of the Snowbird as seen in The Rudder of 1921. Below – the Flight of the Snowbirds, the largest one-design race in the world for years.

Flight of the Snowbirds

In the typical style of the era, the Snowbird’s loose rules meant that in California many of the earlier boats and those built for hire fleets soon became uncompetitive, but in the ’50s and ’60s the annual “Flight of the Snowbirds” race around Newport Harbour attracted over 150 boats, making it allegedly the world’s biggest one-class sailing event.  The Snowbird’s weight and construction cost killed the Californian class in the late 1960s, although there’s one mention of them sailing at Quincy YC in Massachusetts, one of the original clubs, as late as 1982. But despite a “national” association, its brief Olympic glory, its popularity in Southern California and its toehold in the east, like so many other designs of its era the Snowbird remained essentially a local class.

Rudder 1921 Beetle catboat.png
Beetle Cat sketch, from The Rudder of 1921

Many other catboats followed the more traditional round-bottomed form. One of the smaller and longest-lasting ones is the Beetle Cat, designed in 1921 as a junior boat and still not only racing today, but still being built in traditional timber planked construction.

Oddly enough, few of the local US classes followed the style of the classic round-bilge sailing dinghy or oar-and-sail boats. Small groups of 12 and 14 footers could be found along the southern shore of the Great Lakes and the New York Canoe Club adopted a one design dinghy, but until Frostbite sailing evolved there seems to have been few US equivalents of the International 12 or the British classes that were to form the genesis of the International 14. Sailors of the USA stuck firmly to a preference for types developed as working and hunting boats.

A montage from Yachting magazine in 1914, showing the activities of the little Genesee Dinghy Club of Rochester on Lake Ontario. The 12 footers they raced were one of the few “dinghy type” one-designs in the USA at the time. The montage shows some of the trials of the dinghy sailor’s life a hundred years ago; tiny fleets, unsuitable clothing, and poor facilities to handle the heavy boats. The Genesee sailors had no harbour, so they made their own little marine railway (top row) to bring the boats ashore.


One of the oldest and most popular types that was developed from hunting boats was was the Sneakbox, which evolved on the lagoon-like waters of Barnegat Bay in New Jersey south of New York. The Sneakbox is one of those rare traditional types that can be traced back to being the creation of one individual, boatbuilder and enthusiastic wildfowler Captain Hazelton Seaman. About 1836, he developed the low-sided spoon-bowed boat he called a “devil’s coffin”, but which others called the Sneakbox.  The typical hunting sneakbox was only about 12 ft long, so it could easily be paddled, poled or sailed and lifted over patches of land and marsh. They were almost completely decked over, with a crowned deck. The low profile allowed the sneakbox to slip up to unsuspecting wildfowl, while the wide decks allowed them to handle the windy waters of Barnegat Bay. Equipped with a cockpit cover and an offset centreboard to keep the cockpit clear, the hardy hunters could sleep aboard a 12 ft Sneak Box for days.

Chapelle sneakbox.png
A classic Sneakbox with offset centreboard. Illustration from “American small sailing craft, their design, development, and construction” by Howard Chapelle.

The unique structural design dispensed with the normal keel timber; instead it relied for longitudinal strength on the planking itself. The keel-less structure and rounded bow sections allowed builders to simply run the planks up to the gunwales at the bow, rather than taking on the complex job of fitting them to a conventional stem. Many Sneakboxes were built with frames that followed different parts of a master curve to further simplify construction and cut costs.

As the renowned historian Howard Chapelle noted, “the sneak box, being practically a small racing scow in model, is a very fast boat under sail when properly modelled, rigged, and fitted” and racing and cruising sailors started adopting and adapting the Sneak Box late in the 19th century. To the apparent disgust of observers like Chapelle they abandoned the offset centreboard and moved it to the conventional centreline position, which required the boat to be extended to about 15ft to maintain sufficient cockpit space.

In 1875, Nathaniel Bishop sailed a sneakbox from Pittsburgh to the Gulf of Mexico and made the type famous with his book “Four Months in a Sneak Box”. By the 1890s, sneakbox racing had developed in 16 to 18 footers which soon developed into 20 foot sandbaggers. The 20 foot sandbagger Sneak Boxes sound like beasts of boats, carrying up to eight crew and 35 30lb sandbags and hard both on the crew who had to throw the bags from side to side, and on the helmsmen, who often required a second man to handle the weather helm. In 1914, the versatile designer Charles D Mower, of Lark and Swallow fame, created a lighter 20ft “sneakbox” that was basically an inland racing scow. The Mower type was a sneakbox in name only (as Chapelle noted, the yachtsmen had basically ‘improved’ the sneak box out of existence) and it was itself made obsolete in the 1920s by true inland scows from the Midwest. Barnegat Bay remains the eastern-most stronghold of the inland Scow classes.

Sneakbox ad


But after the 20 foot sneakboxes died out, the smaller versions kept on sailing on Barnegat Bay and far further afield. Boatbuilder J H Perrine, whose grandfather had built one of the very first sneak boxes, built almost 3,000 sneak boxes from 1900 to 1958. From 1918, strong fleets of Perrine-built 15 Foot Sneak Boxes developed around Barnegat Bay and in pockets along the US east coast and even into other countries. Strong club fleets and a regatta circuit developed in Barnegat Bay, with most of the racing restricted to sailors under 17 and only boats built by Perrine and one other builder were allowed. Weighing in at 400lb, they cost only $225 and performed well for their time, although an old yardstick seems to indicate that they were barely faster than a Mirror and slower than a Sunfish. The 15 ft Sneak Box was claimed to be perhaps the most widespread one design in the world, with some 3,000 boats spread across the world, but although the Barnegat Bay fleet formed probably the biggest centre of junior racing in the USA the 15 ft Sneak Box never seemed to become organised as a widespread class. An even smaller version, the 12 ft Duck Boat, was designed in 1951 and became an established junior class around Barnegat Bay.

Above: the 15ft Sneakbox still survives as a small class on Barnegat Bay. BBYRA pic. Below: the Butterfly, a 14 ft one design built by Perrine, was one of the many Sneakbox types that were to be found outside Barnegat Bay.  In 1916 future America’s Cup skipper Arthur Knapp had his first Butterfly bought for him for the princely sum of $20. Note the use of the spritsail, as in the early hunting type Sneakboxes. Pic from Rudder 1913.

Butterfly Sneakboxes Rudder 1913

The performance of the smaller Sneak Boxes seems to be the subject of dispute; some early fans praised their seaworthiness while others called them tender, hard to steer in a breeze, and prone to nosediving. Others steer a middle course and say that while they do not handle when when pressed hard and unforgiving of bad handling,  they are safe when sailed conservatively and well.

Despite their spread, their popularity and the strong class scene around Barnegat Bay, the Sneakbox had oddly little effect on the general course of dinghy design. Even in its home waters, it almost died out decades ago. As historian Eric Stark noted, it took much longer to build than a chine boat, took more time to maintain, could only carry a small crew, and it was hard to make in fiberglass. Not surprisingly, the arrival of Optis, Sunfish and Lasers carved a swathe through the ranks of the Sneak Boxes. Today, results show only a half a dozen 15 Footers apparently racing regularly. But the Sneakbox is part of the history of Barnegat Bay, an area that has its own sailing culture and history, and once a year local sailors dragged out their old 12 Ft Duck Boat sneak boxes together for an event they call the “Duck Boat worlds”.  For years, the Duck Boat Worlds has been sponsored by philanthropist Phil Kellogg (a classic boat fanatic, who helped revive the bigger local catboats and paid for the replica Sandbaggers Bull and Bear) who provides a donation to charity for each Duck Boat that came to the line. Today the Duck Boat Worlds sees a fleet of  70 or more restored 12 ft Sneakboxes (and even one or two new ones) crossing the line every summer.

12 Ft “Duck Boat” Sneakboxes fighting it out in the World Duck regatta.

But the traditional sneakbox was more than boat for summer racing; it was a boat for winter work, and the ‘box or one of its descendants may have developed that heritage to be the fastest sailing dinghy in history. One of the sneak boxes’s tricks was that it became an amphibious boat in the winter. When the shallow waters of Barnegat Bay started to ice over, the rounded hull and sloping bow of the sneak box allowed it to be dragged onto the ice and even sail over it, steered by dragging a pole. Sneak box sailors claimed to hit speeds of up to 40mph as they careered across the ice.

While the racing sneak boxes of Barnegat Bay were evolving into boats for “soft water” only, further north in the Great South Bay of Long Island off New York a descendant of was evolving the other way. The Great South Bay freezes, but because it’s sea ice it is often rough, unstable and full of “air holes” or patches of unfrozen liquid water. Back in the 1800s, hunters and lifesavers found themselves blocked by the Bay in winter; a normal boat could not cross the ice unless it was dragged on a sled, while a normal iceboat could not handle the rough ice or the water gaps in between.

The answer was the South Bay Scooter, a development of the sneak box. Like the sneak box, the Scooter could be rowed, poled or sailed over both the water and the ice, but it soon developed lower freeboard and a shape aimed more at ice sailing. Instead of the sneak box’s standard cat rig, the Scooter developed a sloop sailplan with a long bowsprit, to allow the boat to be steered on ice by easing the jib in and out. Inevitably, they also started racing during the winter.

Scooter plan.png
South Bay Scooter plan from Forest and Stream, Feb 27 1904 . It was claimed that “in smooth water its rowing and sailing qualities are all that could be expected in any boat the same size”.

“Roughly, the scooter is a Barnegat “sneak box”, mounted on runners” said one 1909 guide to building a Scooter. “This craft will sail in the water as well as on ice, consequently the sailor does not fear soft ice or air-holes, but sails merrily along taking ice or water, whichever happens to be in his course….when crossing an air-hole less than forty or fifty feet…the speed of the scooter, with a good wind, is sufficient to carry her across and out on the ice again in jig time…This ability to pop in and out of the water constitutes a novel sensation and makes scootering a very fascinating sport”.

Ice Scooter, 1909
Above; a 1909 pic of a Scooter doing its party trick of planing off the ice and across the water. From the site for the book Along the Great South Bay by Harry W Havemeyer. Below: the first Scooter race on “soft” water was held in 1906 and was won by one of the boats that had been winning on the ice, fitted with leeboards. The organiser commented that handling their comparatively big rig with only a steering oar required both physical effort and skill. Fore’n’Aft November 1906.

Scooters sailing on water

“No scooter sailor would call the day complete unless he had dashed into and out of a dozen or more air holes” wrote a Scooter sailor in Rudder. “The water, cleaved as if by a shot hurled from a cannon, is thrown into the air a distance of twenty feet, completely shrouding the schooter from view until, with speed little diminished, it glides smoothly and triumphantly out upon the ice at the other side of the opening” said one account.


A modern Scooter. I sometimes wonder whether the low US interest in high performance dinghies could be related to iceboating. If you can do 50 knots on hard water, even a 49er may seem a bit dull. Pic from

As they developed the Scooters became optimised more for ice sailing, and by the early 1900s they were capable of averaging 27 knots around a course. By the 1940s they had developed roachy full-battened pocket luff rigs, but the hull had wasted away to little more than a board-like platform for the rig and runners.

Today, the Scooters reach 50 knots or more on the ice – way faster than any sailing dinghy, but they can no longer sail on “soft” water.  Well, actually, they can – but only for short distances. Scooter sailors still delight in finding waterholes in the ice and planing across them. The problem is that, like a waterski or a sinker sailboard, the modern Scooter is so low on buoyancy that it sinks when it drops off the plane. If they don’t get to the ice on the other side of the hole soon enough, the Scooter and Scooter-ers will end up in icy water.  Scooter sailors, obviously a strange breed, think the occasional swim in icy water is all part of a good day’s sailing. And who’s going to argue with members of a class that can claim to have been the fastest-sailing dinghy ever??




round-bowed little lug riggers”:- The Rudder   . At the time they had just been changed to gunters of 96 sq ft. See also Yachting feb 1914

“There were 18 foot Prams in Portland Oregon”:- Rudder May 1911 and

“WP Stephens, never a fan of the scow type”:- ‘One Design Classes in Yachting’, WP Stephens, Outing 1902 p 481

“The influence of the Seawanhaka Cup”:- ‘Fifteen-Footers from a Massachussets Standpoint”, Forest and Stream, April 9 1904

“”The idea seemed to be that each club must have a distinctive one-design class of its own’:- Forty Years Among the Stars”, George W Elder p 36

” “wanted a special class of their own…unless the designer made some changes, he would hardly feel entitled to his fee.”  Elder p 44

“”the hundreds of little one-design classes, each restricted to one club, were keeping yachtsmen apart.” George W Elder and Ernest Ratsey, ‘The International Star Class’ in Sailing Craft, Schottle (ed) 1928

“”these were the days of the large yacht, when racing was a rich man’s game….. small boats were considered playthings for boys”. Elder and Ratsey, ibid. Numerous biographies of US yachtsmen of the day show them being bought yachts of 30 ft or longer when still in their teens or early 20s.

““each season there would be new boats built of a newer design and perhaps larger in some ways:”- Forest and Stream Jan 21 1905

“The Swampscott sailors were an evangelical lot”:- ‘The Massachusetts Racing Dory Association” by J Samuel Hodge, Fore’n’Aft, April 1907

“A 1907 challenge between the Nova Scotia and Massachusetts fleet”:- Fore’n’Aft October 1907. Part of the US domination was because they hiked until “there was nothing in the boat but their feet” which is just one more piece of evidence contradicting Antipodean sailors who claim that they created the art of keeping a dinghy afloat by hiking.

“They included the Cohasset YC one design class, modelled off WP Stephens’ Scarecrow”:-  Forest and Stream, Oct 10 1895.

“The typical hunting sneakbox was only about 12 ft long”:- American Small Sailing Craft; their design, development and construction, Howard I Chapelle, 1951, p 214.

“as Chappelle noted, the yachtsmen had basically ‘improved’ the sneak box out of existence”:- American Small Sailing Craft p 211. This was probably a reference more to the 20 footers than to smaller Sneak Boxes, which still bore a strong resemblance to the originals.

“built almost 3,000 sneak boxes from 1900 to 1958”:- Eric Stark, Wooden Boat magazine issue 47.

“As historian Eric Stark noted”:- Eric Stark, Wooden Boat magazine issue 47.

“”In winter when used for gunning,” Sailing Craft TBA

” “No scooter sailor would call the day complete unless he had dashed into and out of a dozen or more air holes” The Rudder. Vol 17 1906 p253

“The water, cleaved as if by a shot hurled from a cannon, is thrown into the air a distance of twenty feet, completely shrouding the schooter from view until, with speed little diminished, it gliges smoothly and triumphantly out upon the ice at the other side of the opening”. Sci Am