A Canoe With Sails

By: Steve Cormack

Volume 17, Issue 5, May 2022

A canoe with sails?

Wait, what?

Let me explain.

MacGregor canoe, rigged and ready to go. [Photo by S. Cormack]

A while back I came across a magazine article in Thousand Islands Life titled “Paddling in the Thousand Islands,” by Lynn McElfresh. In that piece, Lynn talks about the early days of recreational canoes around the Thousand Islands, including some she claimed “Don’t look like canoes at all.” I knew exactly what she meant.  The same thing had happened to me more than three decades ago.  I was leafing through the product catalogue from WoodenBoat Magazine, when I came across an advertisement for the plans of a glued lapstrake sailing canoe. Not one of those after-market flimsy gadgets that you attach to your canoe, no, this was a real sailing canoe. The ad didn’t say much about these “poor man’s yachts” as they were sometimes described, but I was intrigued; I had to know more. And find out more I did. It turns out there’s a lot of history with these small craft that originated before the turn of the last century.

Canoe Travel in the Age of Enlightenment – Tales from Two and a Half Lawyers

Steam trains and ships in the 19th Century revolutionized European travel in a way that was unimaginable only a few generations before. A Scotsman and lawyer, John MacGregor had an idea.  Wanting to embrace this new form of travel, he designed, for himself, a decked-over canoe that could be transported by rail—in a baggage car. He called the canoe Rob Roy after a distant relative with an interesting history of his own. He then set off to cruise the rivers and canal systems in Europe.  Five months and a thousand miles later, he arrived home and published “A Thousand Miles in a Rob Roy Canoe (1866).”

In the book, he imparts his memories from the journey and his advice for anyone interested in such an endeavour. His book immediately caught the interest of the Victorian public and others were soon to follow his lead. Warrington Baden-Powell, also a lawyer, set out, this time across Sweden, with his Nautilus, a canoe that was designed with improved sailing qualities. Upon his return, he wrote Canoe Travelling (1871). This was quickly becoming a favourite past time. These adventurers would soon grab the attention of Robert Louis Stevenson, who did pass the bar exam, but who chose instead to travel and write stories. Stevenson, with a friend, toured the canals of Belgium and France with their canoes. He returned to publish his travelogue An Inland Voyage (1878). Stevenson would go on to become a popular essayist and novelist; he never would practice the law.

On this side of the Atlantic, the Americans built canoes that emphasized speed over exploring.  Oversized sails and hiking out on the rails contrasted with sitting on the floor boards, as practised by the Brits. What better way to cool off on the hot summer days? Regattas were held regularly and were hotly contested events, taking place in upper New York state and the Thousand Islands.

Enthusiasts arrived with their latest incarnations, hot off the drawing boards, only to race home afterwards, and tweak a little more. The races featured both paddling and canoe-sailing events; the winners published in local papers kept everyone vying for first place. Nobody’s interested in “a poor man’s yacht” that came second. C. Bowyer Vaux and W.P. Stephens, members of the American Canoe Association, were well known names in canoe circles.  Each published articles in the popular sports journals of the day, promoting the sport and telling about the latest invention or trend.

Vaux, when not tearing up the racing circuit in his boat “Dot”, contributed pieces for Forest and Stream Magazine and published his book Canoe Handling (1885). Stephens, a boat builder and fellow competitor, wrote Canoe and Boat Building: A Complete Manual for Amateurs (1885). A must on every builder’s shelf, the book included details on building the original Rob Roy. These early enthusiasts encouraged many to seek even further and more daring expeditions. All this reading got me thinking of all the places I too, could explore.

I was enticed; I had to have one.

A Modern Rob Roy Canoe – Iain Oughtred’s MacGregor Double Paddle Canoe [Photo credit to come]

I purchased the plans—without a plan. I had no idea how to build a boat. No skills, and even fewer tools. Luckily for me, the plans included patterns for all of the major pieces.  Simply lay the patterns on the plywood, cut them out—watching your fingers—and glue the pieces together. Almost too simple.


There were curves. All kinds of curves. Curve balls, even learning curves. In the end, the pieces eventually fit, or were made to, and after about half a year, I had my boat—and all my fingers.

Tiny Dancer [Photo by S. Cormack]

Tiny Dancer is 13’7” by 32” wide and weighs about 40 lbs. Her sail area is 57 square feet. The boat is fully decked except for the 25 x 50 inch cockpit opening. It takes around 10 minutes to rig the boat at the launch. Camping gear and other larger items are stowed under the fore and rear decks, which are accessible through hatches in the bulkheads. Each mast is stepped through a deck opening and slid into a mast step on the keelson (floor). The masts are unstayed; they do not require wires to hold them in place. The balanced lug sails are raised with their halyards (ropes), then held fast with jam-cleats. Sheets are led to the cockpit and are within easy reach. Only rarely do I cleat the main sheet, preferring to hold it instead. The plans have instructions for a lee-board, but I did not make one. Foot pedals for steering are inside the cockpit and the rudder is retractable. I grabbed what few camping possessions I owned and packed the car; I was eager to get going.

Fine day for a sail. Lake Okanagan B.C. [Photo by S. Cormack]

There are many small lakes to explore where I live—about two hours north of Vancouver, B.C. Most within about a half hour drive. I launch the boat by pulling the truck to the waters edge and slide the boat right off the back of the truck. The boat can be easily carried by two people, and a dolly is helpful for longer distances. The boat is unballasted and demands your constant attention.  My kayak paddle comes apart in the middle and stows out of the way inside the cockpit when sailing. I prefer protected waters in winds up to about 12 knots. Winds above that, down goes the mizzen and then a reef in the main after that. If I need a break, I simply drop the main sail; the mizzen holds the boat into the wind while I rest or eat. The boat is perfect for an afternoon, a week, or longer.

Back from another sail. Lake Okanagan B.C. [Photo by S. Cormack]

All Things Do Come Full Circle

Well, I don’t think that I’ll be writing a book on my canoe travels any time soon. And until such time that I round a corner and come face to face with another sailing canoe, I doubt that I’ll have the urge to become one of those “dangerous racing freaks,” as Stephens called them. I’d likely come second anyways. But I digress. No, I’m quite happy poking and puddling along.  Nobody’s interested in the tales of “a poor man’s yacht” poking and puddling along, are they? Maybe some of Stevenson’s temperament has worn off on me after all. I suddenly feel the urge to travel and write about small sailing canoes. Maybe I’ll plan a trip out east. I hear that there are some great canals and rivers by the Thousand Islands.

Of course, I’ll have to take the train . . .

By Steve Cormack

Steve Cormack is a self taught amateur boat builder with a boat shop in Pender Harbour, B.C.  He started building boats nearly 40 years ago and has completed several small plywood kayaks, canoes, and other small boats.  He is currently finishing a 32’ Lake Union Dreamboat based on a "Katherine 30" design by William Hand Jr. When he’s not building boats, or writing about them, he enjoys taking them out and experiencing a wee bit of history!

To find out more about sailing canoes, you can visit the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton, NY, and The Museum on Blue Mountain Lake, Blue Mountain Lake, NY. Plans for several models can be purchased through Mystic Seaport Museum. The original Rob Roy canoe is in the collection of The River & Rowing Museum in Oxfordshire, England.

Posted in: Volume 17, Issue 5, May 2022, Architecture, Sports

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