Sailing Canoes – a brief history, published in 1935


This 1935 history of sailing canoes originally published by the American Canoe Association is well worth a look.

It has been republished online by the editors of the excellent Skinny Hull magazine. (There’s another link to this document at the Dragonfly Canoe Works website (I’m guessing this may be the original source).

The photos in the brief history may be a little fuzzy, but they tell an amazing story of early diversity before the uniformity of the ACA classes was established, and extreme sailing long before the invention of the wetsuit.

The text itself is US-oriented, as might be expected, but interesting nonetheless, and makes a good job of summarising the development of the decked sailing canoe on both sides of the Atlantic, starting with John Macgregor’s Rob Roy.

I wonder what happened to Nathaniel Herreshoff’s beautiful but scary-looking proposed class of 1935?

Turning to Skinny Hull magazine itself, I’m particularly taken with an article in the first issue – it’s by John Summers of the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ontario, and features what I think is a fabulous little craft. There are supposed to be stitch and glue plans to buy too, though it might be necessary to contact Mr Summers directly as I can’t see them where they’re supposed to be.

Finally, there’s this sequence of photos on YouTube to consider…

Tony Bibbington sails and paddles Macgregor’s route in a Rob Roy canoe

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Rob Roy canoe gear – click on the drawing for a larger image

I’ve just learned that Mersey Canoe Club member Tony Bibbington last year sailed and paddled from Oslo to the Baltic, following Victorian pioneer John MacGregor’s paddle-strokes all the way. My thanks to Brian Smith for letting me know about this, and for pointing out that there are some great photos online at – click on the 2009 calendar and then on Nov 4, and you will find photos of his trip round Heligoland.

It was a 500km trip that he had to complete in three weeks due to the that old enemy work, but perhaps the most jaw-dropping aspect of the whole thing is that Tony was  determined to follow exactly the same route as his hero and did so using a 138-year old original Rob Roy canoe made by Sewells of London that he restored himself.

This insistence on following Macgregor’s route caused a few problems along the way – the first  of which was that the spot from with Macgregor first launched his canoe in Norway is now someone’s back garden. Thankfully, the owner proved friendly and Tony was on his way.

An article in the magazine Canoe Focus tells the story of a varied journey, sometimes tedious, sometimes  beautiful, and with plenty of incidents worth retelling, with Tony dressing as a Victorian gentleman canoeist and meeting an artist determined to paint his portrait; moments where, like Macgregor before him, Tony had to drag his canoe out of a stream water and use a car or other means to reach the next patch of water; and a final landing in which he landed inside the perimeter of a factory security fence. Luckily, on that occasion his path was smoothed by the security man who had read about Tony’s expedition in the newspapers.

How did Tony get on with his canoe, and how did she stand up to the journey more than a century after she was first made? In the Canoe Focus article Tony himself was happy to quote Macgregor: ‘The Rob Roy has proved herself able ”to sail steadily, to paddle easily, to float lightly, to turn readily, and to bear rough usage on stones and banks, and in carts, railways and steamers; to be durable and dry, as well as comfortable and safe” just as she was originally designed to be. MacGregor’s theory was that ”a canoe ought to fit a man like a coat”. The Rob Roy had been a perfect fit on my journey and I look forward to our next adventure.’

I think the whole thing is an extraordinary story with at least four heroes in addition to old John Macgregor himself: Tony for being brave enough to set out on an arduous 500km paddling and sailing trip in unknown country  in a 138-year old canoe, his family for travelling with him and enabling him to make the journey in a modern age without horses and carts in wide use in remote areas, and the dear old boat itself.

For more on Macgregor, click here; to read Macgregor’s account of his own trip to the Baltic, click here.

A new edition of Practical Boat Building for Amateurs from Ken Hanson

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The Rob Roy canoe, from Practical Boat Building for Amateurs

‘To be able to build a boat well, and to his own ideas and plans, requires that the amateur should be both a designer and builder, which, in their turn require that he should be an efficient draughtsman and carpenter. No one can hope to succeed in building a boat to his own plan, unless he is fully able to design and lay down the lines and body plan of the proposed craft, and added to this in many kinds of boats, such as a small sailing boat, or a steam launch, it is necessary that he should be able to calculate the displacement and the position of the centre of buoyancy. With this knowledge at his command, an unlimited field is opened to the amateur boat-builder, as he will be able to build after his own ideas.’

Ken Hanson is about to publish a new edition of Adrian Neison’s famous book Practical Boat Building for Amateurs – as he says,  he has scanned the book, cleaned up the illustrations and then did some editing to catch the odd mistake and to re-paragraph some of the overly-Victorian sections to make them easier to read. The new layout has larger type for the same reason.

I’m delighted to say that he’s also made a pdf file of the new edition available for download from click here to receive it.

I should warn you that this is about 10megs in size, and even with a broadband connection it’s likely to take some moments to arrive safely on your computer!

The new PBBA will be available at Amazon or through special order at any booksellers (distribution from Ingram and Blackwells) at the most attractive, Christmas stocking-filler price of $9.99 (US) and  £5.37 (UK). Click here for the book details.

For earlier posts including a full set of scans of my personal copy of Practical Boat Building for Amateurs, click here.