Herreshoff: The Sailing Canoe
L. Francis Herreshoff is one of the most famous of American yacht designers. Even so he had a place in his heart for double-paddle canoes and sailing canoes as this excerpt shows:
The sailing canoe is not only one of the most interesting things that God has let man make, but it gives more thrills with less actual danger than most anything else. While the racing automobile, the aeroplane or the high speed motor boat have their thrills, still the top notch ones are extremely expensive, noisy and dangerous. But the sailing canoe has more beauty, longevity and, we might say, verve than any of the manmade objects. In what I am saying I am referring to the so called decked sailing canoe with a sliding seat, and I use the word "verve" because almost nothing else will express the lively movements of a sailing canoe when she is sailing in a good breeze and a chop of a sea.
On the usual sailboat one cannot see her in action even if he can feel her movements, but when one is out on the sliding seat of a sailing canoe he has a picture before him that is more thrilling. He sees the stem of the canoe as it knifes its way through the water, often (from his point of view) throwing up an halo of spray which takes on rainbow hues. Now she pitches slightly til her stem head is under water, now she raises her forefoot and planes out three or four feet, always changing her wave formation, always dancing, always jumping forward, and all the while under the sliding seat the water whizzes by.
It seems to move like lightning because the sailor is in such close proximity to the moving water. At times his seat just clears it, and at times it dips into it. He sees before him the centerboard and the rudder clearly silhouetted in the moving tide. In fact when the sun is opposite him, if the water is clear, he sees the whole outboard profile of the bottom.
At these times his sensations of speed are more pronounced even than in flying, and all this without the menace of serious danger. I say without danger for 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. It is a fact that a skillful sailor can be capsized in a decked sailing canoe and right her again without getting wet much above the knees, while a capsize in an open sailing dinghy is a serious matter and, if the water is cold, may be nearly fatal.
Perhaps though, the most appealing thing about the sailing canoe is her sheer beauty, and almost nothing else is as dainty and petite. No other craft has such perfection in her fittings and finish, no other craft is as nicely modeled. As she rests upon the beach beside the water, with her delicate wings stretched above her shapely hull, she seems more akin to some great flying fish than the handiwork of man. It is this prettiness of the sailing canoe that has appealed to several artists....
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The reason the sliding seat sailing canoe is faster than all other sailboats of her size or sail area is because she combines ability to carry sail together with light displacement, and... the great lever arm the sliding seat gives to her ballast or crew....
You will see that the sailing canoe and the sandbagger, which have their ballast above the center of flotation, lose stability as they heel more, while the keel boats with their ballast below the center of flotation gain sail carrying ability with more heel.... The sailing canoe is much the fastest when kept on quite an even keel....
To quite an extent, the art of sailing the sailing canoe is to keep her upright, which a good hefty man can usually do with sail areas less than 100 square feet in winds of less than fifteen or twenty miles an hour, so the sheets are carried belayed and the canoeist depends on his agility at loving in and out on the sliding seat to keep her upright.
This is quite a different procedure from sailing a dinghy, where the sheet is best carried in the hand ready for slacking away. While it takes a little practice to sail with the sheets belayed, after confidence is acquired the decked sailing canoe is a remarkably seaworthy craft and a skillful sailor can drive her through conditions which will swamp or capsize the open dinghy.
One of the great proofs of the seaworthiness of the decked sailing canoe is the remarkable cruises that have been made in them, and perhaps the greatest of all is the cruise of the Yakaboo with Frederic Fenger as captain, for they cruised the tide and windswept Caribbean from Grenada to Saba, a distance of about 1500 miles, as delightfully told in the book Alone in the Caribbean.... This book is of course in most yachtsmen's libraries, and if it isn't it should be, for not only does it give valuable information to those who are contemplating a cruise in this region, but it is all fine and inspiring writing.
Fenger, who is a yacht designer by profession, designed the Yakaboo.... She had a well-rounded off forefoot and stern to match; her length was about 17 feet and beam 39 inches. Yakaboo was among the last of the decked canoes that did not have a sliding seat, so like her predecessors she had the bat-winged sliding gunter rig which could be easily and quickly reefed.
In such a short discussion of the sailing canoe as this must be I cannot go much into their early history, but to those who are interested in the matter I would recommend the fine book Tradition and Memories of American Yachting....
The Sliding Seat
After the sliding seat had come into general use, the sail plans of the canoe could be greatly simplified. So eventually, about 1905, the leg-o'-mutton sail in its simplest form had become the usual thing. (The simplest form... is when it is seized to the spars and not lowered away, but the whole rig unshipped, as in the old fashioned dory.) You see, the sliding seat had done away with the necessity of constantly reefing, for if the canoeist hiked well out on the seat he could carry whole sail in anything but the puffiest weather.
The sliding seat in its present form was invented by Paul Butler... [who] brought out the sliding seat in 1886 and he subsequently worked out the steering gear and quick action jam cleats about as used at present. Perhaps he did more to develop the modern canoe than anyone else. His last canoe was named Wasp, and after his death I sailed her for a couple of years on the Charles River Basin in Boston. She was later presented to... [MIT] but unfortunately got into the hands of people who had no understanding of light craft so she is now a casualty.
The sliding seat had the effect of making our canoes narrow and light. They generally had aluminum rudders and centerboards. Many were built which were 16 feet long and 30 inches wide. But in the meantime in England the sliding seat was barred, so... they were developing canoes of about 40 inches beam with heavy centerboards. I believe the centerboards at times weighed as much as 75 pounds ... and eventually some beautiful sloop rigged canoes with heavy centerboards were developed.
So when Uffa Fox and Roger DeQuincey came over in 1933 they had little competition in a breeze. Their canoes were wide able sloops of the English type with straight sides to sail on, and they had rigged up sliding seats for the races in America. Most of the races were in a good breeze, so that the wide sloops with heavy centerboards and sliding seats had a great advantage over our narrow unballasted craft which had not advanced in design since the death of Paul Butler.
After Uffa's visit we in America... built several sloop rigged canoes of 40 or so inches beam, and I understand some of them go as well in light weather as our narrower and lighter canoes.... But the decked sailing canoe can be greatly improved (particularly the sliding seat and steering gear are in need of some engineering), so there is a great opportunity for some young designer with Yankee ingenuity. I am fully convinced that the sailing canoe will come into great popularity in the next few years, not only because it can be carried on top of an automobile. It is easy ... to launch and haul out ... and it can be store in a small space. While it is perhaps the most spectacular of all sailboats, it is really comparatively safe. It is pretty, yet the fastest of all for its size.
The American Canoe Association has rules for several classes of sailing canoes, some of which are undecked, and some one of these classes will suit most any locality or purse. The American Canoe Association... was organized in 1880 and incorporated in 1901, and its membership includes canoeists throughout the United States and Canada.
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