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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Putting the Old Woman to Work

Ways to Harness the Wind

By Farwell Forrest

December 6, 2005

A Note to the Reader. By rights, this column should be headed "Part 2: Ways to Harness the Wind," but since Part 1 ("A Short History of Canoe Sailing") appeared more than three years ago, that would probably test the memory of even the most dedicated reader. It would certainly test mine. Nevertheless, Part 1 ended with the words "to be continued," and since I'd like to think I keep my promises, it's only right that I pick up where I left off, however tardily. So here goes.…

All paddlers complain about the wind, but few of us do anything about it. And what could we do, you ask? How can we fight the wind? Don't fight it, I reply. Use it, instead. Use the wind to make your boat go where you want it to go, whenever and wherever you can. It's not a new idea. You'll find the story of canoe sailing in my "Short History," but here's the executive summary: The voyageurs hoisted sail to get the Old Woman's help in bringing their heavily laden canoes across the big lakes before the next storm sent them (and their valuable cargo) to the bottom. The first recreational canoeists followed suit.

There was an important difference, however. The voyageurs were always reluctant sailors. Fearful of sudden gales and all too aware of the chilling lethality of icy northern waters, they never completely trusted the Old Woman. They had to take the weather as it came, too. They had a schedule to keep. On the other hand, well-heeled gentlemen like John "Rob Roy" MacGregor didn't have to hurry. They could wait out any contrary winds, dozing by the fire in a comfortable hotel. After all, sportsmen sailed simply for the fun of it. They made some remarkable voyages, nonetheless, and to these nineteenth-century adventurers, sailing was as much a part of their sport as paddling. But then the wind shifted, so to speak. Canoeing and sailing went their separate ways. Canoeists paddled. Sailors sailed. And their wakes seldom crossed. This wasn't true everywhere, of course. Specialized sailing canoes are still raced on some Adirondack lakes, and they've hung on in a few other places, as well. Yet sailing as a means of going somewhere in a canoe just about disappeared by 1920. From then on, when the average American paddler wanted a little help moving his canoe, he turned to an outboard motor. It never even occurred to him to hoist a sail.

The whys and wherefores of this curious act of collective amnesia needn't concern us here. Instead, let's see if we can rediscover what was lost in the century between the first American Canoe Association regatta on New York's Lake George and the victory of the American yacht FREEDOM in the America's Cup race of 1980. In 1880, sailing was a sport open to everyman, or at least to any everyman who could afford to drop the equivalent of a year's salary on a "poor man's yacht." Of course, a year's wages add up to a lot of money, no matter what century you're in, and not many truly poor men could afford one of these yachts. Still, millions of Americans have paid as much, or more, for an RV in recent years, and few of them would consider themselves to be rich. The professional men of the late nineteenth century were no different. Newspaper editors, physicians, lawyers, and even piano makers sailed their little ships wherever fancy (and the wind) took them. A century later, however, sailboats had become — for the most part, at any rate — playthings for millionaires. Something had changed.

Not that canoe sailing disappeared completely. Several manufacturers, notably including Grumman, whose aluminum canoes ushered in a new era in paddlesport in the years following World War II, offered aftermarket sail conversion rigs for their boats. But the sport never really took off. By the late 1960s, whitewater was where the action was for canoeists and kayakers alike, and no one sailed in whitewater. Sailing canoes were relegated to upscale summer-camp colonies, and canoe sailing was something that only a handful of adult eccentrics practiced, at least on the American side of the Pond.

Today, however, there are signs that the wind may be shifting again. Maybe it's high gas prices, with the prospect of still higher prices to come. Or maybe it's the growing number of Baby Boomers who've retired to waterfront homes and who are already getting tired of driving their jet-skis around in circles. Or…could it just be the crowded conditions on many of North America's whitewater rivers? If you have to reserve space months (or years) in advance, it's mighty hard to take a trip on the spur of the moment. And waiting in line to pick up your permit and pay the fee isn't most folks' idea of a wilderness experience, anyway. Suddenly, the local lake seems like a tempting alternative, and sailing starts looking like an interesting way to spend time on the water.

First things first, though. You can't sail anywhere without a sailboat, and few paddlers have one stored in the garage. So if you're beginning to wonder if the day has come to put the Old Woman to work, how are you going to do it? Let's begin at the beginning, with the…

Quick and Dirty Option

Most paddlers hate headwinds, and neither Tamia nor I is an exception to this rule. A tailwind is another story, however. On the infrequent occasions when the breeze is at our backs, we do our best to make the most of our good luck. After all, what bowman, struggling down a long lake on a hot day and blessed with a rare following wind, hasn't grabbed a poncho or tarp, yelled a warning to his partner in the stern, and then stood up, spreading his arms wide in imitation of the yard on a square-rigger's mast while anchoring the bottom corners of the improvised sail with his feet? I'll bet that very few of us have resisted the temptation. And though the results are uniformly unsatisfactory — if the bowman's arms don't give out, a wayward gust is likely to topple the mast-man into the water, and the sternpaddler along with him, if she's slow to snap a brace — there's no denying that it's great fun to get a helping hand from the wind, even if it's only for a few minutes.

Expedition paddlers crossing big lakes have also been known to rig square sails, using spare tarps and rough-hewn spars quarried from the "closet of the woods." So long as the wind holds steady from somewhere abaft the beam — and provided that the crew unfailingly obey the small-boat sailor's maxim to never, ever, make a sheet fast to a cleat — the miles slip by with delightfully effortless regularity. But when the wind moves forward, as it inevitably does, it's back to the paddle for all hands.

There has to be a better way, right? And there is, if you can bear the cost. It's an old story, brought up to date:

The Poor Man's Yacht Reborn

A sailing canoe is more than a canoe with a sailing rig. Or is "sailing kayak" a better label? Many sailing canoes resemble kayaks more than they do the familiar open canoe. Still, I'll stick to "canoe," if only for convenience' sake. By either name, however, these are purpose-built craft, boats designed from the keel up to harness the wind. Most are decked, wholly or partially, and almost all are wider than paddlecraft of comparable length. You say you've never clapped eyes on one? I'm not surprised. They're rare beasts. You won't see them in any big-box retailer. For that matter, you won't find one in most outfitters. And if you do, the price tag will likely take your breath away. Sailing canoes aren't cheap. Most are custom built by one of a handful of dedicated craftsmen, and their cost reflects this lineage. In fact, it's hard even to set a range of prices. A reasonable starting point? The price of a high-end home theater, perhaps, complete with high-definition flat-panel TV. And the top end? The sky's the limit.

Get the picture? When you go shopping for a sailing canoe, it's good to keep nineteenth-century millionaire J. Pierpont Morgan's advice to would-be yachtsmen in mind: "If you have to ask the price, you can't afford it." Sailing canoes are beautiful boats. They're worth every penny of their cost — and more besides — but they're not for everyone.

Where does this leave the rest of us? Becalmed? Not at all. There's a middle way between holding a tarp in your outstretched hands and mortgaging your home to buy a boat: the aftermarket sailing rig. Think of it as…

The Happy Medium

If you're reading this, you probably already own a canoe or kayak. That means you've got the makings of a sailboat. You just need to add a mast, one or more sails, and a leeboard — and maybe an outrigger (or two) and a rudder, as well. Search most canoe and kayak makers' catalogs, whether print or electronic, and you'll probably find a sail conversion kit somewhere. These kits bundle together everything you'll need. Your boat doesn't even have to be a hardshell. Makers of folding kayaks, including the venerable Klepper, have long offered sailing kits for their boats, ranging from simple downwind sails to sophisticated fore-and-aft rigs. You can even buy sail rigs for some inflatables. No, aftermarket kits aren't exactly dirt cheap, but they're a whole lot less expensive than a purpose-built sailing canoe.

And if the price is still too high, what then? Easy. Build your own. Old editions of the Red Cross primer Canoeing had plans for home-built sail rigs, as do occasional issues of magazines like Wooden Boat. The experimentally inclined can venture further afield. One possible starting point is the discussion of the Micmac rough-water sailing canoe in Adney and Chapelle's classic Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America. Here's a sail rig reduced to its essence — a simple spritsail, with no leeboard or rudder, though Adney admits the possibility of hanging "a short plank…vertically over the lee side" of the canoe to permit sailing close-hauled (i.e., sailing into the wind). A similar minimalist approach can be found in E.F. Knight's Small-Boat Sailing, a much-reprinted 1901 volume that occasionally shows up on the shelves of used-book shops. "Almost anything that can float can be made to sail to windward," Knight wrote, and went on to prove his point by describing an epic cruise "among the bayous and channels of the Gulf Coast" of Florida, in a boat "the natives were pleased to call a canoe."

'Nuff said? Does this sound inviting? Then you'll want to start thinking how to put the Old Woman to work for you.

Pierpont Morgan was wrong. Sailing isn't just for millionaires. With only a little money and a bit of ingenuity, any canoeist or kayaker can harness the wind to his craft and go along for the ride, at least now and then. You'll have to learn a new set of skills, of course, but it's more than worth the effort. In fact, it's great fun in itself — a good way to spend a winter holiday or pass the time between dam releases in high summer. Future articles in this series will help you start off on the right tack, and I promise that you won't have to wait another three years for them, either!

Copyright 2005 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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