Leeboards: E.F. Knight

Excerpt from:

E.F. Knight

Small Boat Sailing

in which he discusses a very simple leeboard
arrangement which works fine for canoes,
and incidentally he has an adventure.


A SMALL boat that can be sailed single-handed without difficulty, and which is easy to row -- so if the wind fail, one can put out the sculls and pull her along at a fair pace -- is the best sort of craft on which the novice can pass his early apprenticeship. That he can lower his canvas if he himself in a difficulty, and take to his oars, considerably lessens the risk consequent on his inexperience.

This chapter will be confined to the description of open boats only...



The simplest method of supplying a boat with the means of offering lateral resistance to the water, and so checking leeway, is to fit her with leeboards. Leeboards are not often to be seen in England save on Thames barges; but on the shallow Dutch waters, where small-boat sailing is as well understood as it is here, leeboards are to be found on nearly every yacht. Leeboards have several advantages over centerboards; they do not jam, break off, or strain the boat when one runs aground, but always come up at once on touching the bottom. Some shallow waters (the Danish fjords, for example, among which the author once cruised in a leeboard boat) are in summer overgrown with weeds, through which a centerboard craft could never force her way: the long water growth would wind round the plate and choke the trunk; on the other hand, a leeboard can always be pulled up without difficulty when it gets foul, and be quickly cleared of the weeds.

If expense is a consideration, the novice cannot do better than fit his first little boat with leeboards. We will suppose that he has purchased a secondhand craft for a few pounds. To fit a centerboard into her would be a costly bit of work, only to be undertaken by a skilled boatbuilder. But any boy who has even a very small experience of the use of carpenter's tools can construct a leeboard and fit it to his boat. The author once placed leeboards on an old P. and O. lifeboat, and sailed with her from Hammersmith to Copenhagen and back, cruising round the Zuider Zee, coasting up the Frisian islands, winding in and out among the many pleasant fjords,


FIG. 41. -- KETCH RIG WITH Leeboards.

straits, and islands of the Baltic. With her varnished teak sides and oaken leeboards she looked very well, and her sailing powers were as excellent as her appearance. She was double-ended -- that is, her stern was pointed like her bow; she was ketch-rigged; and, drawing little over two feet with her leeboards up, she could put into all sorts of interesting little creeks and rivers closed to bigger craft. Fig. 41 will give some idea of her appearance and of the shape of her leeboards. Leeboards for large boats are made in sections held together by stout iron bands, and are hauled up by chains and tackle; but for a small boat, a leeboard made out of a single plank will do very well, and no ironwork is needed.

Almost anything that can float can be made to sail to windward by lowering a plank vertically over the side; for that is practically all a leeboard amounts to -- a fact to be borne in mind when one wishes to extemporize a sailing-craft in some out-of-the-way corner of the world where means and appliances are few. Thus some years ago the author, being in Florida, on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, took it into his head to undertake a cruise down the shallow channels that divide the mainland from the long line of palmetto-covered keys or islands that fringe that beautiful coast. He found nothing in the way of a craft available for his purpose, save what the natives were pleased to call a canoe; she was a little punt, a shallow, clumsily built trough, in shape resembling rather one of the trays in which photographers develop their plates than a boat.

He made a sail for her, and then out of a pine plank cut a leeboard about three feet long, shaped as in Fig. 42, stout at the head and down the centre, but tapering away to a narrow edge at the foot and sides. Having determined by experiment at what part of the boat's side the leeboard was most effective, he fitted an iron pin (see the Fig.) on either gunwale. A rope was then rove through the head of the leeboard, and knotted so as to prevent it from slipping through. The other end of the rope was made fast to a cleat at the bottom of the boat amidships. The leeboard could thus be easily thrown over from one side to the other, according to the tack on which the boat was sailing; the rope, being always passed over the fore side of either iron pin, kept the leeboard in its place, and prevented it from sliding aft.



Another rope, rove through a hole at the lower end of the leeboard, led aft, and served to raise it. The above is the simplest method of fitting leeboards, and the result will be found to be perfectly satisfactory. In the punt he has described, the author, provided with rod and gun, for game and fish were plentiful, undertook a long cruise among the bayous and channels of the Gulf Coast, camping out each night in pine forests on the mainland or on the sands of desert key, much astonishing the few natives he met; for a leeboard was an unknown mystery to them, and they marveled to see one of their rough country punts turn to windward so well when provided with this strange invention. The punt drew but three inches of water when her leeboard was up, and skimmed over the water at a wonderful rate.

It must be confessed that she was not a good sea-boat: she had very little freeboard, and was easily swamped. In fact, whenever the wind rose and the water became choppy she was in imminent danger of filling. And yet her skipper felt no anxiety, for the peril was not so great as one would gather from the above statement. The water through which he sailed was generally considerably under two feet in depth, often so shallow that foundering was a physical impossibility. When it got very rough he adopted a bold course. He used to lighten his vessel by stepping out of her into the tossing waters, and, walking ahead of her with towline over his shoulder, would tow her against wind and sea until calmer weather permitted him to re-embark and hoist his canvas. The working of leeboards is very simple. When running before the wind they are raised; when turning to windward the weather one is raised and the lee one is lowered.

If a boat's sides are not straight up and down, but flare out, as is usually the case, a chock of wood must be nailed on either side a little above the waterline to support the leeboards and keep them perpendicular.

The Florida canoe above mentioned was practically what we should call in England a sailing-punt. Such a boat is only suited for sailing in smooth water, and though not exactly beautiful to look upon, she will sail fairly well, and is incontestably the cheapest of all boats to build. Indeed, so simple is the construction, that, if proper instructions are given to him, any village carpenter can turn out a craft of this description; and an amateur of small means, possessing some knowledge of the use of tools, can build one for himself out of a few deal planks, and some hard wood for stem, keel, and knees. If the boat has a centerboard (which is far more difficult to construct than leeboards) this should be of wood, not of iron; and, having plenty of beam, she should need no ballast. With such a boat, which with sail, oars, etc., should not cost more than four pounds, the novice can with advantage pass his first apprenticeship at sailing.

Of course, with such a craft one should not venture into rough water. I was compelled to do so once, and passed through strange experiences, in the course of which I made some discoveries as to the seaworthy qualities (in a novel sense of the term, as I shall have to explain) of this sort of boat. It was during the Spanish-American War, and in my capacity of war correspondent of the Times, attached to the Spanish side, I was ordered to go to Havana, which was then being blockaded by the United States squadron. Having made several attempts to get through the blockade, either by running it or legitimately, and having failed to accomplish my purpose in consequence of the difficulties put in my way by the American authorities, I had at last to adopt the one plan left open to me.

I bought in Key West the only small boat I could find, a flat bottomed punt such as I have described, fourteen feet in length. She had somewhat more freeboard than most of her class, but still she was the last sort of boat I should have selected for use in rough water. One night I gave the slip to those who were spying my movements, smuggled my boat on to the deck of a little steamer that was starting for the South, and the next morning I was off the Cuban coast. When we were yet six miles off the land my boat was lowered into the water; the skipper would approach no nearer, fearing to draw the fire of the Spanish batteries. My intention was to pull towards the shore, which was there uninhabited and exposed to a heavy surf, land when I found a convenient place, and then walk in the direction of Havana, and hand myself over to the officer of the first party of Spanish troops I should meet with, avoiding, if possible, on my way any encounter with Cuban insurgents or Spanish guerillas, for the Spanish irregulars were known to have an unpleasant habit of shooting first and challenging afterwards.

As bad luck would have it, it had been blowing hard for two days, and a nasty sea was running. I knew it was a perilous adventure, and had it not been that there was no other way of carrying out my mission I should not have thought of making the attempt. But I had no choice, so I leapt into the boat from the pitching and rolling steamer, and pulled off alone towards the distant shore.

The steamer stood by for a while to see that all went well with me. The sea was running parallel to the shore, the fresh trade-wind being here nearly always opposed to the strong current of the Gulf Stream. For some time I got on well; but I found that I had to exert the greatest care and vigilance, keeping the boat dead before each high sea, and edging shorewards in the 'smooths.' When I was about a mile from the steamer, which was still lying to, I entered a succession of steep and dangerous seas. A few had rolled safely by me, when there came one which broke just as I was about to top it; a volume of water rushed over the stern of the boat, filling it and then capsizing it. Clinging to the keel with one hand, I held up an oar with the other as a signal to the steamer, which was still lying to. She immediately began to steam ahead, and I took it for granted that she was making for me; but soon, to my dismay, I realized that she had turned, and was proceeding on her voyage, directly away from me. My signal had been mistaken for an intimation that all was right with me.

Thus left alone, with but small chance of receiving any assistance, for there were no boats on that portion of the coast, my first idea was to make an attempt to swim for the shore, but I saw that the distance was too great, and that it was extremely unlikely I should reach the land, even if I escaped the sharks that swarm in these waters; indeed, I saw several while I was clinging on to the boat. I therefore decided to remain with the boat, and taking advantage of a smooth, I succeeded in righting her, but I found that it would be impossible to bale her out, however smooth the sea; for, empty though she was, only her bow and stern rose above the water, her sides being immersed. After trying some experiments with her, I soon discovered that, though the boat was unfit to carry one through a rough sea, she was, in consequence of her breadth and her flat floor, a much better boat to cling on to when swamped and capsized than a far better sea-boat would have been in the same position. This is what I meant when I spoke of her seaworthy qualities. She was frequently rolled over by the waves, now floating keel upwards and now righting herself; but it was always possible for me to lie upon one side or the other without fatiguing myself to any great extent, though I was, of course, lip to my shoulders in water, and the waves were constantly passing over my head. Then, holding on to the stern, I swam behind the boat, endeavoring thus to direct her shorewards, but with no appreciable result; and soon, seeing the fin of a shark not far off, I promptly resumed my former position on the boat, where my body was not so exposed to view.

I thus drifted until the evening, when the wind freshened and the sea rose, so that the boat's capsizings became more frequent, and the waves dashed over my head more often than before. I had little hope now, and thought it almost certain that, tired out, I should be washed off the boat before the morning. But I contrived to hold on all night, and found myself at dawn not much exhausted. I was now apparently about three miles from the coast, which was evidently unpopulated. The sea was so much smoother that I found it possible to sit in the bottom of the water-logged boat, and, by paddling first on one side and then on the other with the one oar that remained to me (I had lashed it to the thwarts immediately after my capsize), I endeavoured to direct her towards the shore.

But it was hopeless work; after I had been thus toiling for hours, the palm-clad hills and yellow sands appeared as far away as ever. While doing this I contrived to balance the boat pretty well; it was only occasionally that she capsized, threw me out, and had to be once more righted. To get into her again when this occurred was no easy matter ; for the sea was still choppy, and the boat was apt to roll over with me again before I could get my balance properly. But I was now pretty well accustomed to her ways, and was able to do with her what I certainly could not have done with the ordinary, deeper, and better sea-boat. When swamped she certainly displayed a remarkable seaworthiness; that may be the wrong term to apply to this quality of hers, but whatever it was it saved my life. Had she been provided with watertight compartments in her bow and stern, I could have baled her out and got into her so soon as the sea had sufficiently gone down.

At last, with a violent squall, the wind shifted to N.N.E., thus blowing towards the land, instead of parallel to it as before. Here I saw my chance; my hope revived, and I determined to employ all my remaining strength in a struggle to reach the shore. I sat in the stern, and, paddling hard with the oar, I kept the boat before the wind, which, striking her uplifted bows, gave her some way through the water, and I soon discovered that she was making distinct progress. I paddled steadily on for, I should say, three hours, the boat capsizing and having to be righted every quarter of an hour or so. To cut short this long yarn -- which, however, may prove instructive, and provide the reader with some useful wrinkles if he ever gets into a similar predicament -- I neared the shore, and saw before me a steep rocky beach on which the surf was breaking furiously -- a most dangerous place at which to attempt a landing. But the landing had to be made, so I pushed on. When about forty yards from the shore I got into a succession of steep rollers, and the boat gave her final capsize. Springing clear of her, I swam for the shore.

Three times I came in on the crest of a wave, was battered and bruised by the rocks, and then carried out to sea again. But the fourth time I succeeded in clinging tightly to a rock, and, before the next wave was on me, scrambled on to dry land, having passed twenty-four hours in the Gulf Stream, rolling over and over with my swamped boat. My capture by Spanish troops, my imprisonment, and my subsequent adventures before I reached the city of Havana -- which was not until seven days later -- have nothing to do with yachting or boating, so I will not recount them here.


Back to the Canoe Sailing Page.