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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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