Sailing Canoes: Elon Jessup

Canoe Sailing



(p. 183ff)

WHEN a Northwoodsman is ready to paddle across a lake and sees that he will have a favoring wind behind him, he sometimes reaches for his axe and cuts a small cedar before pushing off. This he places in the bow of the canoe. Presently, the green boughs towering above the gunwales become a target for the wind.


An Improvised Sailing Rig. -- Here you have canoe sailing in its most simple form. The tree serving as a sail of sorts augments one's paddling. If you wish to dispense entirely with the task of paddling, you can devise a slightly more comprehensive rig from materials at hand by cutting a couple of spars and attaching to these a canvas camp tarp. The chief drawback to this improvised arrangement is that the mast may pull out and upset the canoe. In case you try this rig, special attention should be given to the mast's security.



The foregoing is about the nearest approach to real sailing that you ordinarily find in the North Woods. When starting upon a canoe trip in such sections, it is hardly worth while to include a sailing rig in your outfit. But there may be stretches in which the suggestions just given may be applied to advantage. In localities where you are unencumbered by equipment and canoeing is mostly a matter of just a few hours' sport, sailing is certainly worthy of consideration: with the qualification that you know how to swim.


The Decked Sailing Canoe. -- The most highly specialized form of canoe sailing is found in the decked canoe, an individual type of craft which has been developed exclusively for sailing purposes. Ordinarily, it is an all-wood canoe of the same general lines as an open paddling canoe, sixteen feet long and about thirty inches wide. But it differs in various particulars. With the exception of a small cockpit amidships, it is entirely decked.

Among other distinctive features are a centerboard and a sliding seat. The centerboard extends about three feet below the bottom and the seat extends twice that distance beyond the boat's side. The canoeist steers and trims his sails from this unusual seating position far out over the water. By means of a sliding arrangement he pulls himself toward or away from the side of the craft as the wind and dipping leeward rail dictate. His weight is needed far to windward in order to offset the great amount of sail the craft carries. There are two sails, these having a total area of perhaps one hundred square feet.

A man has to know a good bit about sailing in order to keep this speedy craft right side up. But even though it does upset, it readily keeps afloat and is easily righted. Sometimes a canoeist, when faced by a bad squall, intentionally upsets the craft, waiting for the squall to pass. The boat is provided with watertight compartments which make it unsinkable and it is self-bailing in that water runs out through the centerboard slot.




Sailing the Open Paddling Canoe. -- Now, then, let us turn to the sailing possibilities of the ordinary open paddling canoe. The decked canoe just described might be likened to a racing yacht. So far as all around usefulness is concerned, the open canoe is a more practical proposition in that it may be used either for sailing or paddling as the spirit moves you.

Once you have the rig it is a matter of only about three minutes to turn the adaptable open canoe into a sailing craft and later the rig can be dismantled with equal ease. The only permanent additions required in the canoe are a special crossbar at gunwale level and a mast step below it -- these to support the mast.


The Single-Lateen Rig. -- Various types of rigging are possible. The single-lateen sail is the safest, easiest to handle, and most generally satisfactory. This is a triangular sail attached to two spars which are linked together at their meeting point, forward of the mast. The slanting upper spar swings from the top of the mast; the mast is short and stiff.



Only two lines are essential in this rig -- the halyard by which the sail is hoisted and the main sheet, fastened to the lower spar near its outer end. The size of the sail may range from forty to seventy square feet, depending partly upon the size of the canoe and partly upon one's skill at sailing. The greater the sail area, the greater the chance of being upset. Ordinarily, a sail area of forty-five square feet is sufficient for a sixteen- or seventeen-foot canoe.

The keel of the average open canoe extends only about an inch below its bottom. This depth is insufficient to prevent the craft from making a considerable amount of leeway when you are sailing to windward. The most satisfactory method of minimizing this side drift is through the use of leeboards -- simple and effective substitutes for a centerboard.


Leeboards. -- Leeboards are a pair of wood blades, each about thirty inches long and ten inches wide screwed to either end of a detachable crossbar which straddles the canoe from gunwale to gunwale. These complete the canoe sailing outfit. A rudder is a convenience but not essential. One can steer with a paddle. It should be a strong paddle and fairly long.

Canoe sailing and ordinary boat sailing are identical in most essentials. The chief point of difference is the matter of balance. The boat sailor of experience in handling a sailing canoe for the first time should be guided accordingly. He is handling (relatively speaking) a featherweight craft that tips easily. As a rule, the floor is the safest sitting position from which to navigate. Perhaps one may climb to the windward rail in a freshening breeze, but he needs to be sure of himself.


Rules of Safety. -- The canoeist who has never sailed a boat should become familiar with the theory and practice of the knack of sailing and some of its fundamental rules of safety. There are two rules which have general application. The first of these is as follows:

Head into the wind when you see trouble coming or something goes wrong, perhaps a sudden squall or jam in the rigging. The nautical term for this is "luffing." When you luff, the sail flaps idly and you cease to make progress, but in nine times out of ten it will prevent serious trouble. Luffing is the great cure-all in navigating almost any kind of a boat.

The second fundamental rule of safety is the following:

Opportunity for instant release of the sail when a sudden puff or change in direction of the wind demands this. Inability to pay out the sail quickly is one of the chief causes of upsets. Therefore, the mainsheet should never under any circumstances be made fast to the canoe. It should be held in the hand.

A third rule of safety, not so generally applicable as the foregoing two, but certainly so in a heavy sea, is as follows:

Don't sail squarely abeam of the wind. In other words, don't have the length of the canoe at right angles to the wind so that you wallow between wave troughs. This position is sometimes a temporary necessity when you change your course.

That which makes a sailing canoe travel is a sail full of wind. The full breadth of the sail should be exposed to the wind although this means that the sail is at one time hanging far out over the water, while a few moments later it may be hauled in close to the side of the craft.


Sailing to Leeward. -- To sail in the same general direction that the wind is blowing is known as "sailing to leeward." This is the most simple part of sailing. Even a piece of driftwood with a favoring wind behind it can travel from one side of a lake to the other. But, of course, the knack of sailing a canoe to leeward isn't always so easy as that.


The waves show you the direction of the wind. When you are sailing to leeward, the position of the sail and boom in relation to the wind's direction should be at a right angle or nearly so. The boom, therefore, is reasonably parallel to the waves. When you sail with the wind directly behind you ("running free"), you release the main sheet until the boom is at a right angle to the length of the canoe.

When "running free" in this manner, one should keep a watchful eye for "jibing," a trick usually caused by a puffy uncertain wind. When this happens, the boom suddenly sweeps from one side of the craft to the other. There is need for an extra amount of caution until the sail again meets steady pressure from behind. And at such times, a well-centered position on the floor of the canoe is highly desirable from the navigator's standpoint

When the wind shifts or you change your course, it becomes necessary to haul in the mainsheet in order to keep the sail full. The amount that you haul it in is dependent upon the force of the wind and the angle at which it strikes the side of the canoe. With practice one soon acquires the knack of alternately hauling in and paying out the mainsheet as the wind or your course dictates. Keep the sail full of wind. But don't keep it too full, for that's risky.

Although a piece of driftwood can travel from one side of a lake to the other with the wind behind it, it can't travel back again against the wind. A sailing craft can. That's where skill comes in.


Beating to Windward. -- Sailing against the wind, the nautical term for which is "beating to windward," is the reverse of sailing to leeward. In this case, the boom and sail are very nearly parallel to the direction of the wind. Of course, you don't sail directly against the wind; that would be impossible. You compromise by taking a zigzag course consisting of a series of angles and a number of long tangents known as "tacks" connecting these angles.


Each angle is a turning point in your zigzag course, where you "come about." That is, you reach the end of one tack and wish to turn and start off upon another. To do so, you steer the bow of the canoe head-on into the nose of the wind or, in other words, "luff." The bow swings slowly around to the opposite direction from which it has recently been pointed; the sail, now on the other side of the craft, fills again and you are off on your next tack.

Successfully to sail a canoe to windward during these tacks, you should keep the bow of the craft nosed as much into the wind as possible and still have the sail full. When you nose too much into the wind, the sail begins to shiver and shake -- an indication that the wind pressure upon it has diminished. Therefore, you must "fall off"; one comes to learn how close to the wind one can sail and make good headway. This is the secret of beating to windward.


As in the case of sailing to leeward, one hauls in and pays out the mainsheet as various maneuverings demand. When pointing close into the wind you sail "close-hauled." In other words, you haul in the mainsheet until the boom is almost parallel to the length of the canoe.

A word concerning the operation of leeboards. When you are sailing with the wind, there is no real need for the boards being in the water; in fact, they may even prove a slight hindrance to progress. Whenever they are not needed to prevent side drift, they can be swung upward in much the same manner that a centerboard is raised from the water. Similarly, they should be swung clear of the water if an obstruction is encountered.

It is in beating to windward that special attention must be given to the element of leeway. If the leeboards are not in the water (one, at least) you will drift sideways, crab-fashion at almost the same rate you go ahead.



The most important requirement of canoe sailing is the ability to swim. A cautious paddler may paddle half a lifetime without having an upset, but a canoe sailor, irrespective of how clever he may be, is pretty certain to go over sooner or later. A bathing suit is suggested as appropriate clothing. As regards various types of open canoes for sailing, the sponson canoe is by all odds the safest.

  Back to the Canoe Sailing Page.