1.6 Tuckups and Hikers -the lost dinghies of the Delaware

Hiker lithograph large
Hikers on the Delaware. The boat in the foreground has slung two men onto the “pry board”, a plank slung over the windward rail, to keep the 15 foot long hull upright under the press of a sail that could be as much as 450 sq ft.  The masts could be up to 28 feet tall, and to achieve a wide enough shroud base these Hikers were fitted with “whiskers” projecting out three feet from each side of the bow.

Smaller boats seem to have been almost ignored around by the sandbagger sailors. Although there are mentions of people sailing the famous Whitehall rowboats, searches reveal no races for them. There are reports of some racing catboats as short as 12’/3.66m, which were said to be so tippy that their skippers had to part their hair down the middle, and laugh only out of the centre of their mouth.[40]  But it was said that to the sandbagger sailors, boats under 16 feet didn’t count.

There’s a reason they called these Delaware 15 footers “Hikers”. In this Thomas Eakin painting, three crew up forward hike outboard hanging onto ropes leading up from the bilge.

However, a few miles further south, another group of Americans were sailing  smaller boats that were much closer to the modern dinghy than the big, heavy sandbaggers. Several types of clinker (lapstrake) 15 footer were developed for hunting waterfowl or picnicking along the still-unspoiled Delaware River near Philadelphia.

The Delaware sailors cruised and raced out of hundreds of small (10ft by 20 ft) boathouses that occupied the piers jutting out from the riverfront, crammed so closely together that 90 boathouses of the Southwark Yacht Club burned in one day in 1881. “Here there are several long wharves, lined on each side with rows of two-story boat houses, twenty to thirty in a row” wrote W.P. Stephens. “In these houses are stored hundred of duckers and tuckups, while the upper story of each is fitted up more or less comfortably for the use of the crews; gunning, fishing and camping outfits, with sails and gear, being kept there.”

Perhaps it was the confines of the small boatsheds, in which 15 footers were stacked one above another in racks, and the practicalities of launching from piers that caused the Delaware classes to evolve towards slender, lightweight and efficient hulls instead of following the sandbaggers and other catboats down the path of great beam and power.

“Starting out for rail” by Thomas Eakins, shows a Ducker, smallest of the indigenous Delaware classes, setting sail on a hunting trip.

Although the exact classifications varied from era to era and club to club, the Delaware 15 footers were generally divided into three or four classes. The double-ended canoe-like “duckers” were restricted to 42″ or 48” beam, about 115 sq ft of sail in a sprit cat rig, and two or three crew.[41]  The transom-sterned “tuckups” carried four crew, a beam of 4 feet, and about 112 to 144 sq ft of sail – due to rule changes and the unique local way of measuring sails, exact figures are hard to find. The biggest of them all were the hikers, which had a beam of up to 6ft (later restricted to 5ft) and carried up to eight or ten crewmen to handle a vast cat rigged main of up to 450 sq ft. The hikers carried masts as high as 28 feet, using “whiskers” or outriggers that extended out each side of the bow in the style of a modern Open 60 shorthanded racer to spread the shroud base to give the mast enough support. Centreboards were light by the standards of the time, with some boats using wooden foils instead of metal ones, and even a “first class hiker” could have a bare hull weight as low as 175lb/79kg – light even by today’s standards.

feb 24 1887 F and S with Delaware classes cropped
Forest and Stream newspaper for February 24 1887 carried information about the Delaware classes at the time. The correspondent noted that duckers were allowed to use larger sails, but that most used sails of “only” 112 sq ft.

Perhaps because the narrowness of the river required short tacks or perhaps because they chose light weight instead of power, the Delaware classes relied on crew weight for ballast instead of sandbags.  “Fastened to the center-board the mast and the lower yard of the sail are five or six ropes, which are long enough to hand over one side into the water. On the ends which go over the side are fastened bars of wood, and on these bars of wood hang the human ballast” wrote a story by the Philadelphia Press which was reprinted in newspapers across the USA. “The captain yells frantically “hike over”.  In an instant the ropes are stretched taut and the wooden bars disappear into the water, followed by the men or the posterior part of them. Only their legs remain in the boat as they sit on the transverse bars and hold on to the ropes. Every other wave surges up to their necks, and often a dip to windward submerges them completely, with the exception of their legs, which flourish wildly up over the side at the boat, but when they reappear again the craft has been saved from capsizing by this sudden hanging out of from 800 to over 1,000 pounds on the windward side. Sometimes an entire tack across the river is made with the crew “hiking
out in this manner.”

Other Hiker crews used their crew weight even more effectively, hanging onto their enormous rigs by sending three or four men out to windward on giant “pry boards”, like those of the racing sharpies or the Log Canoes further south. Maritime historian Ben Fuller (who wrote an excellent article on the Delaware classes for the May/June 1999 edition of Wooden Boat magazine) notes that some boats even used hinged hiking racks, like those of 1980s 18 Foot Skiffs.

Of course, carrying such a  big crew in a small boat became a disadvantage in light winds, and the Delaware sailors found the same antidote as other early dinghy racers.  If the wind dropped off, “the captain glances significantly at one of the crew, the yachtsman grins, pulls off his boots and drops overboard” noted the Philadelphia Press. Perhaps he is picked up, perhaps he is not noticed in the excitement of the race, and is left to take care of himself. In this case he calmly strikes out for the shore, half a mile away. Sometimes half a dozen men are dropped over in this manner from one boat, in order to lighten her and keep her rivals from crawling ahead. But woe betide the captain who sacrifices too many of his men. There may come an unforeseen wind and bowl over the too-lightly ballasted boat in the twinkling of an eye.”

From 1880 to 1890, these spectacular and fast open boats of the Delaware could attract fleets of up to 100 boats, with spectator crowds and fleets to match; indeed judging from the number of accounts of races where a racer was hindered by a non-racing boat, sometimes the line between “spectator” and “racer” was blurred, perhaps because of the influence of gambling. These races were extraordinarily long and risky by modern standards, with 30 mile races common and the 15 footers sometimes racing over 100 miles.

The Delaware sailors formed an egalitarian mix, where doctors sailed alongside labourers, trolleys to move the boats were shared communally, and boats were used for cruising as well as for racing.[42]  “On Sundays in particular the wharves and houses are crowded, the boats are off for short cruises up or down the river, or races are sailed between the recognized cracks, handled by old and skillful captains and trained crews” recalled W.P. Stephens.



Lighter and slimmer than the sandbaggers, the Delaware 15 footers seem to be the most modern boats of their era in some ways, but they still clearly showed a close kinship to rowing boats. A “tuckup” like Priscilla, above, earned its name because the planks along the keel at the stern were “tucked up”, or curved up high towards the waterline instead of running out along the keel line. The keel was then added on, instead of being formed by the hull planks. Despite the unusual plank layout, the lines below show that tuckups like Priscilla had the narrow, Vee shaped stern sections and highly curved buttock lines of a rowing boat. As maritime historian Ben Fuller notes, the tuckups resembled the famous Whitehall rowboats of New York, but were slightly flatter and fuller to improve their performance under sail. Fuller also observed that the later Delaware tuckups were starting to develop fuller, flatter sterns. The lines below come from Forest & Stream of May 3, 1888.

Tuckup priscilla cropped

In some ways the Delaware classes seem to be the most technologically advanced small dinghies of their day, but unlike the sandbaggers and the beamier catboats further north, they had little impact outside their home waters. Exactly why they stayed so low profile is unknown; perhaps newspapers like Forest and Stream concentrated more on New York because it was their home city, or perhaps the 15 footers were seen as too small to be newsworthy.

Sadly, a type that promised to add so much to the dinghy racing scene died late in the 19th century. As Fuller notes, the rise in other sports like cycling and baseball had an effect. So too did the fact that the Philadelphia sailors only rented their boatsheds. By the mid 1880s, the waterfront boathouses had been demolished, as the piers were replaced by industries and railways. The hikers and tuckups vanished almost entirely from our knowledge, and with them went what could be seen as the healthiest and most advanced small-boat scene of the era – probably an innocent victim of economic and geographical changes outside its control.


SailCraft Pt 1.7: The raincoat boat bed and the shoe-shine missionary

 The story of the early sailing canoes, the first high-performance racers.


The next breed of small sailboat was sparked by a very special raincoat, a mistake by a signalman in London’s Nine Elms station, and a psychological condition called “railway spine”. Almost all other popular types of sailing craft were sparked by wider factors like social forces or advances in materials; this was a type that was created by the exploits and promotion of one man. [1]

It all started on May 22, 1848, when John Macgregor, a descendant of the legendary Scottish hero Rob Roy, was shown an inflatable “india-rubber boat which forms a cloak, tent, boat and bed” by Archibald Smith, a scientist and yachtsman.  The inflatable boat piqued MacGregor’s interest.  “Perhaps I shall go to the Lakes next year” he mused in his diary that day.[2]  Instead, this remarkable man spent the next 17 years as an occasional sailor, mountain climber, barrister, world traveller, illustrator for Dr Livingstone of Africa, marksman and philanthropist, equipping the street kids of London with shoe-shine kits so they could earn a living away from begging and crime.

Peter Halkett sailing his first invention, an inflatable boat that could be deflated and used as a raincoat. The paddle became a walking stick; the sail an umbrella. Halkett’s boat attracted widespread interest in the 1840s and was probably the craft that Archibald Smith showed to MacGregor. It was an unlikely inspiration for the type that was to become the world’s first high-performance small sailing craft. Halkett’s ingenious invention, which he sailed on the Thames and the Bay of Biscay, was highly regarded by Arctic explorers but was a commercial failure; MacGregor’s was a huge success.

On May 15 1865, MacGregor was travelling home from a shooting competition when the 5:10 up train was directed onto the wrong track and into a stationary steam engine.[3] Macgregor was “thrown violently on my head protected by my hat” but in his typical manner, he “attended to the injured before working late on at an Exhibition.”[4]

Victorians were fascinated by the new threat of railway accidents and by the new science of psychiatry. MacGregor seems to have been in every way a Victorian Englishman of the very best type, and in the aftermath of the crash he succumbed to the “fashionable” Victorian English disease of the day – “railway spine”. Today we’d call it post-traumatic stress disorder, but at the time many believed it to be the result of a physical injury to the backbone.

The hangover of the train accident turned MacGregor’s sporting mind away from rifle shooting as a sport, and back to the memory of that “india-rubber boat”. “A smash in a railway carriage one day hurled me under the seat, entangled in broken telegraph wires” he later wrote. “No worse came of it than a shake of those nerves which one needs for rifle shooting; but as the bull’s-eyes at a thousand yards were thereby made too few on the target, I turned in one night back again to my life on the water in boyish glee, and dreamed a new cruise, and planned a new craft, on my pillow.”

John MacGregor – perhaps the only man to single-handedly create a whole new type of sailing.

The “new craft” that MacGregor dreamed of was not as portable as Halkett’s inflatable. It had been inspired when he saw “the canoes in North America and the Kamschatka with double paddles.”[5]  Like many Victorians, he had been impressed by the Canadian canoe he had seen on his travels in North America. [6]  However, like the kayaks of Kamschatka that he may have seen at the huge trade fair of Nivni-Novgorod, Macgregor’s canoe was wider than a normal kayak, with more Vee than usual in the bottom sections. [7]

Macgregor’s first canoe, named Rob Roy, was more like a sea kayak than an open or “Canadian” canoe, or a modern sailing canoe. Fifteen feet long (4.57m) and 2’6”/76cm wide, drawing just 3″/76mm including the 1″/25mm deep keel, it was small enough to fit into a railway luggage wagon. Searles of the Thames built the little craft in clinker (lapstrake) planking like their lightweight rowing shells, using oak for the hull and cedar for the decks. At only 80lb/36kg, it was light enough to be easily paddled or portaged.  It had a kayak’s low-freeboard bow and stern and was decked over apart from a three foot/90cm long cockpit, with bulkheads six feet/1.8m apart to create buoyancy compartments – something almost unknown in small craft at the time. A small standing lug mainsail and jib were set on a mast just 5ft/1.5m high.  There was no centerboard or rudder; she only sailed downwind, steered by the double-ended paddle.1_robroy

Macgregor’s first canoe was more like a sea kayak than a modern paddling or sailing canoe.

From July until October 1865, MacGregor and the first Rob Roy made their way across the English Channel by steamer and then through Europe by paddle, sail, train and cart for 1000 miles.  MacGregor was by nature a missionary, and inside the tiny hull of Rob Roy he carried bibles and other religious writings to give to those he met on his travels.  He applied the same crusading zeal to promoting canoe sailing. “A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe on Twenty Rivers and Lakes of Europe“ was one of the best selling books of the year. He soon followed up with tours to the Baltic and the Middle East, each recorded by a best-seller.

MacGregor’s missionary experience, self confidence and crusading zeal made him an excellent public speaker, and his lectures on canoeing met an enthusiastic response among the emerging class of men with time and money on their hands.  In 1870, for example, he lectured about “Rob Roy” 56 times, sharing the stage with a Rob Roy canoe and costumes and earning 4160 pounds; about one million dollars in today’s values.  Like the proceeds from his books, it all went to charity.[8] Macgregor became a public figure; Charles Dickens, the most celebrated of Victorian authors, became a friend and a canoeist. Emperor Napoleon III read MacGregor’s first book and decided to organise the world’s first boat show, to encourage youth into the healthy sport. Robert Louis Stephenson, famous for books like Kidnapped and Treasure Island, started out as an author with a book about his own travels through Europe in a Rob Roy. [9].[10]

MacGregor’s promotion changed canoes from a curiosity to a craze. “The capabilities of the craft were practically unknown until the adventurous cruises of the Rob Roy brought before the public a type of boat at once inexpensive, safe, and sea-worthy, and gave an impetus to a movement which has since expanded beyond the dreams of its originator” gushed American writer WL Alden, the man who kick-started canoeing in the USA.  “The idea was not new; it was older than authentic history; but he gave it an overhauling and brushing up that brought it out in a form that was wonderfully attractive…The Rob Roy was so diminutive that her captain was able to transport her on horseback, but what she accomplished made her quite as famous as any ship of her Majesty’s navy. The English canoe fleet was soon numbered by hundreds.”[11][12]

Baden Warrington-Powell, the great innovator of the early racing canoes, started off as a cruiser. This plate is from his early book “Canoe Travelling: Log of a Cruise on the Baltic, and Practical Hints on Building and Fitting Canoes.

Cruising was the early canoes’ reason for existence, and it dominated their design as the sport took off. “A canoe that cannot be slept in is an insufficient hollow mockery” thundered Alden.  Even the racing champion A. Bowyer Vaux agreed; “A canoeist who cares for racing only is a sorry fellow and not likely long to remain a canoeist” was his judgement.[13]  Canoeists of the time waxed lyrical about the joys of sleeping under a boom tent and frying bacon on the forehatch in a canoe with all the necessities of 19th-century camping – pipe, collar and tie, laxatives, quinine and a rifle.[14]  There were earnest discussions about storage, and jokes that those who slept under the decks of the original “Rob Roy” type could be identified by the bruises where their foreheads smashed the deckbeams on waking.  The canoe craze made its way all the way to Australia, where canoes raced in Sydney and cruised the Tasmanian coast, and to New Zealand where “Rob Roy” canoes raced as a class.[15]  Canoeists paddled and sailed their way to from England to Egypt, from the US to the Caribbean, and to rivers never seen by European man.

Perhaps it was this emphasis on exploration that made canoeists seem different to other sailors of the time. The Victorian age may have been an era of top hats and formality, but it was also a time of rapid technological progress, a time when the great scientists and engineers were regarded as heroes. The canoe sailors seem to have been swept up in this urge to experiment and perfect designs, far more than those who sailed other small craft. They had one advantage that allowed them to develop faster than any previous craft.  From the very first Rob Roy, their canoes had both wide decks and buoyancy (which led to the name “decked canoes” to distinguish them from open Canadian canoes) in an age when most small craft had neither.  In other small boats, a capsize was the end of the day’s sailing at best, and fatal all too often. To an experienced canoeist, a capsize was just an irritation. The fact that canoes could be quickly righted and sail on was vital in a tiny cruiser, and it seems to have given the racers a chance to push the limits of sailing and design more than any other craft of their time.

For many years, the canoe craze centred around sailing rather than paddling.  “The great desire of nearly all who have any interest at all in canoe racing is to get a canoe that will sail fast” noted Vaux. “Probably more time has been spent by canoeists studying how to improve the sailing qualities of the canoe than on any other branch of the sport.”[16]  They soon discovered that the Rob Roy type was a poor sailer.[17]  It was too low, especially in the bow, too unstable, too wet and too hard to steer. Worst of all, without a centreboard or false keel it could only sail downwind.

The early canoeists, led by Warrington Baden-Powell (brother of the creator of the Boy Scouts) and E.B. Tredwen improved the sailing performance of their canoes by increasing the freeboard, especially at the bow, to stop nosediving. They introduced extra beam and flatter sections amidships, to provide more stability to carry sail and when getting sails up and down or boarding passing steamers. The bow and stern were made deeper, to incrase lateral resistance.  They introduced rudders and sailed and paddled lounging back in their cockpits, steering with foot pedals like the skippers of today’s 2.4m Paralympic racers. They favoured cat-ketch rigs because moving the masts to each end created a cockpit big enough to sleep in.  Despite their small size, canoes like Baden-Powell’s series of Nautilus (Nautilii?) were excellent sea boats.[18]

Until 1871, canoes could not sail upwind effectively. Sailing races consisted only of downwind legs. In that year, Baden-Powell introduced the art of sailing to windward in a decked canoe by fitting a deeper keel to the third of his Nautilus series of canoes, and sailing upwind to the start line. “When Nautilus completed the first leg and came about successfully, a great cheer rent the air” wrote Vaux. “This feat had been considered impossible up to that time…..his Nautilus No. 3 is the starting-point for sailing-canoes.” [22]   Exactly when centreboards arrived is unclear.  William Forwood, of Truant and Mersey sandbagger fame, claimed to have introduced the centerboard into canoes; since he was an innovative person with years of experience with the Mersey centreboarders, his is a believable claim.  Centreboards in canoes were apparently still a novelty in Scotland in 1875. [23] The American decked sailing canoes (as distinct from open Canadian canoes, which were well known but had little influence on mainstream canoe sailing) were relying on keels with 15cm/6” of rocker instead of centerboards as late as 1879, for leeboards “did not seem to work for some unknown reason”[24] Americans were using centerboards by 1881.[25]

Baden-Powell’s “Nautilus No. 3” canoe plan. The first American sailing canoes were built from a slight modification of this plan by in 1870. These craft were “50/50” canoes, designed as much for paddling as for sailing.  At just 14’/4.27m length, 2’4″/ 71cm beam and 57lb/26 kg in weight, this was a tiny canoe by today’s standards. Alden recommended a sprit rig with a tiny “dandy” or mizzen, giving her around 48ft2/4.6m2 of sail.


The Nautilus of 1881 was a very different craft to her older sister.  She had much firmer bilges, a wider stern and 5″/127mm extra beam to provide more sail-carrying power. The keel line was staighter and when cruising she had a 83lb/37kg centreboard and 100lb/45kg of ballast in lead shot. Both keel and mainmast were placed well forward, to keep the cockpit clear for sleeping. The long straight keel gave her more lateral resistance. Dixon Kemp wrote that her sail area had leapt up to 95sq ft in the main and 25sq ft in the mizzen. This scan from Kyarchy.

The rig posed a difficult challenge for the early canoeists.  Since cruising was one of their main aims, they had to be able to reef and drop their sails from the security of the cockpit so they could handle squalls or use the paddle effectively.  Their canoes were too small to use the heavy fittings meant for boats and too tippy for them to stand up and handle the sails in the conventional fashion, so they were forced to create ingenious rigs and lightweight gear that allowed them to reef and stow their sails by remote control from the cockpit.  As American canoe pioneer C Bowyer Vaux recalled, “a canoe’s rig was made up of brass window-shade blocks, fish-line halliards and sheets, curtain-rings on mast, clothes-line painters, bent-wire hooks, wooden cleats, home-made sails of unbleached sheeting in one width, and all sorts of makeshifts. No boat hardware was small enough or light enough for a canoe. Battens in sails were unknown. A canoe three years of age presented the appearance of a junk-shop, so varied was the assortment of odds and ends that went to make up the rig.” [19]  In the words of one British writer, “the fathers of the sport are remembered as having spent half the season on the lawn of the Royal Canoe Club, devising new combinations of strings, and the remaining half in chanting the virtues of arrangements which were marvellous until the moment came when they had to work.”[20]  [21]


Loch Lomond Canoe clubhouse around 1873. Pic from the Loch Lomond Sailing Club site.

By the late 1870s, the British had developed a sophisticated mini yacht, carrying up to 180lb/82kg in ballast to keep her upright under a rig that consisted of mainsail, mizzen and sometimes a spinnaker. A canoe of this style was much faster than a Rob Roy under sail, but her bulky hull and ballast meant that she was harder to paddle, and almost portage.  As Baden-Powell said, “though she was successful in racing, she was simply abominable for hauling about or housing.”[26]

Canoes like Nautilus of 1881 were an early example of a problem that sailing still struggles with; perhaps today more than ever before. The increase in performance had come at the cost of simplicity and versatility, and the sport was losing its appeal. “In England canoeing has suffered in popular favor by reason of a few men building special racing canoes with most perfect gear and quietly sweeping the field at every opportunity” warned Vaux. “Many have been discouraged from it by the idea of its being a most complicated and intricate science to master, as it is when looked at through a modern Pearl or Nautilus canoe.” [27]

“A most complicated and intricate science to master”.  E.B. Tredwen, Baden-Powell’s great rival in early British canoe racing, and the complicated rigging of one of his string of canoes that went by the name of Pearl. Note the hinged sidedeck flap at Tredwen’s elbow, which  allowed canoe sailors to move their weight further to windward while remaining seating.  The rigging of these early canoes was complicated by the fact that they were expected to be reefed and unreefed to sail quickly and safely through the changeable British weather, without the sailor leaving his seat. Pic from the International Canoe class site.
Both the plan above and the photograph below appear to be the 1886 version of Nautilus.  Some sketches show her using a large spinnaker in her races in New York.



The sailing canoe arrived in North America in 1870, with copies of the design known as Nautilus No. 3.  From the outset, the promoters of the new sport made sure that the decked sailing canoe was seen “not a (Canadian) canoe at all, but a cheap and portable yacht.”

New York’s first canoeists were inexperienced sailors, and at the first regatta at New York in 1872, three of the four sailing entries capsized into the cold October waters. “It was then considered a very dangerous thing to upset, and fatal results were expected as a consequence”.  “The unpremeditated upsets were so frequent as to evoke much mirth from the spectators, and bring the sport of canoeing into great ridicule” claimed a writer years later. It put the Canoe Club off organising any other regattas for years, but nothing could stop canoe sailors from traveling. In 1874 Nathaniel Bishop cruised his 14’ Nautilus canoe 2,500 miles from Quebec to the west coast of Florida.  The canoe Bishop used for this extraordinary voyage was made of sheets of paper, built up to 1/8”/3mm thick and varnished for waterproofing, and weighed just 58lb/26kg.  It was an example of the lightweight path that American canoes were to take. Like many canoe pioneers, Bishop spread the canoe gospel in the successful book “The Voyage of the Paper Canoe”.

voyageofpaperca00bish_0006 rotated
The early canoe sailors were nothing if not intrepid. Would we like to face off an alligator in a canoe made of varnished paper?

While they may not have been much good at sailing at first, the early American canoeists were fast learners and good publicists. When they finally organised another regatta seven years later to celebrate the opening of their new clubhouse, it attracted many spectators who “looked forward to the pleasure of seeing many capsizes.” [28]  They must have been disappointed – despite the strong winds only one canoe capsized.  Instead, the spectators saw C Bowyer Vaux himself doing something unique – sitting on the deck of his canoe Dot instead of sitting inside, and clearly sailing faster than the rest of the fleet.

Once New York’s canoe sailors had a clubhouse to gather around, they quickly improved their technique and their craft. “Sailing scrub races was indulged in every Saturday during the season; rigs were modified, keels reduced in depth, to avoid the drag noticed on regatta day in June, and a very good racing fleet was the result. The deck position for crew was adopted for racing, and the members all followed the Dot’s lead in getting deck tillers to steer with….These improvements very soon were noted by visiting canoeists, and a general movement towards good rigs was inaugurated.” [29]  [30]

Dot. It was on this canoe that Vaux abandoned the prone position inside the cockpit and moved out onto the windward rail.

By 1880 capsizing, once so feared, had become so routine that “upset races” were common.[31]  A few years later, two British canoeists amazed big-boat sailors  when they “calmly and solemnly” capsized their canoe on purpose “to turn her right over till her mast and sails were in the water, and then stood on her centre-board and equally calmly and solemnly righted her, and sailed away.” [32]   As American yacht design legend L. Francis Herreshoff was to write many years later, “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.”

Like their British contemporaries, the American canoes of the era were “as fully fitted and able cruisers as any could be under the knowledge of the time.”[33]  They still followed the ideal that “the general spirit of those interested in racing has always been to condemn any appliance that was a purely racing device. The building of sailing machines is tabooed”.[34] [35]

At a time when other small sailboats were designed for local sailing, the canoe was designed to travel, and travel they didBy the 1880s, the American and Canadian canoeists had formed the American Canoe Association and were arranging regular canoe meetings on remote islands, where up to 300 canoe sailors would camp, dress in drag for amateur theatricals under a circus big top, run firework displays from their craft, wear silly hats, play swiss horns and race under paddle and sail.[36]  The appeal of the cruiser-racer sailing canoe caused 100 clubs to grow in America, and the American Canoe Association itself grew to 700 members.  North America became the centre of canoeing, whether cruising or racing and under sail or paddle.

The 1881 meeting of the American Canoe Association. These camping events were a proving ground for sailing canoe development. The photograph below shows the original Shadow, one of the first American-designed canoes, with the same style of snug rig as the early American versions of Nautilus. Stoddart pic is from the New York State Museum site.


The big fleets that gathered at the national and regional camps allowed the American fleets to quickly develop the art of canoe design and sailing; as Vaux noted, “each year at the meets new ideas are tested practically, and every meet is characterized by some special racing device brought prominently forward.” [37]  One “new idea” came from Dr A.E. Heighway of Cincinatti Canoe Club, a tall athlete sailing a slender and tippy 26″/66cm wide Rob Roy canoe, who stuck his toes under the lee deck, his calves on the windward coaming and leaned back until his head touched the water.[38]  It seems to have been the first documented example of a modern hiking style, and it allowed him to carry two huge lateen sails that the Rob Roy was never designed for. It also lead to the development of the tiller extension.[39]  Generations of sailors have been straining bone and sinew copying the doctor ever since.

Dixon Kemp canoe hiking
Dixon Kemp’s diagram of hiking in a canoe. Ironically, the rising popularity of sailing kayaks may mean that today, the vast majority of canoe and kayak sailors have reverted to the early style of sitting down and steering with pedals.

By 1882, the “deck position” was almost universal among American sailing canoe racers.[40]  “Almost immediately the need for big-bodied heavy canoes, with heavy centerboards and inside ballast, almost disappeared…. The canoe could be built lighter, with finer lines, and it was easier to handle both afloat and ashore”.[41]  By 1884, the newspapers who had once mocked canoes were admitting that they were “manifesting a speed of which we had not thought them capable.”[42]

As racing canoes became more complicated their cost rose, until a typical canoe cost $150; half as much again as an early American Nautilus.[43]  Although the canoe was sometimes called the poor man’s yacht, most of the prominent canoe sailors seem to have been affluent members of the middle-class.  Unlike those who sailed big yachts, catboats, sandbaggers, catamarans and hikers, the canoe sailors did not give cash prizes or valuable trophies and restricted people from sailing other’s boats, for they specifically wanted to avoid professionalism.  The policy did have its victims. The Royal Canoe Club was happy to operate from the premises of the Turk family, boatbuilders along the Thames since 1195, but declined an application for membership from one of the family because he was “in trade.”  In America “the fact that a man depends on canoeing for his livelihood, that he builds or deals in canoes, does not bar him from membership so long as he is a gentleman and a canoeist”.[44]  Another man who became a canoeist only as a paid advertising stunt was declared a professional.[45] But perhaps because they had nothing to win or lose financially, the canoeists were the most innovative of sailors.[46]  “Experimentation ran wild” wrote Stephens, one of the leaders “and each gathering, local or national, saw new ideas, most of them impracticable.”[47] The ideas included every sort of rig; spritsail ketches, junk rigs, gunters, and lugsails.  The simple and light “leg of mutton’ or Bermuda rig had been effective and popular in its small sizes; the whole rig could simply be lifted and dropped to shorten sail or de-rig, which was faster and easier than reefing or unlacing a normal sail.[48]  But when sail size increased under the pressure of racing, the “leg of mutton” proved so hard to reef and had such a tall mast for the area (14’ to 15 high for a 65ft sail) that many Americans adopted the reefable British balance lug. [49]  Others favoured the “Mohican”, which could be reefed by pulling a single line.

Paul Butler’s Fly, designed by WP Stephens in 1888. Her sections (below) show the American trend towards slender, low-drag Vee shaped hulls with fine ends. Scans from the Int Canoe class site.

fly_body_planfly_sheer_half_breadthsThe passion for development and the easy transport of canoes lead to the world’s first international small-boat contests; the race for the American Canoe Association and New York Canoe Club International Challenges in 1886. From England came Warrington Baden-Powell with the sixth of his series Nautilus canoes– a classic heavily-ballasted British type, with a 56lb/ centreboard and 100lb/45kg of lead shot movable ballast.  She was normally sailed by a helmsman sitting inside the cockpit, British-style, but Baden-Powell was aware of the US developments and fitted a tiller so that he could steer from on deck.  Pearl, owned by Baden-Powell’s arch rival Tredwen but sailed by Walter Stewart was another classic British canoe, carrying the same amount of ballast but so lightly built that she fell apart at the ACA meet and a replacement had to be shipped out before the Challenge Cup event.  Like Nautilus, she was fearsomely complicated; the skilled but inexperienced Stewart had no less than 21 lines to adjust on the rig.[50]

When the heavyweight British canoes arrived at the ACA camp in the Thousand Islands before the International Challenge Cup they met the latest development in American thought; the Pecowsic and the Vesper. “The Pecowsic had fine lines, was a narrow and long canoe, and was fitted with modified mutton sails laced to the mast” wrote Vaux. “The canoe was first sailed with three masts and sails, but did not prove successful. Afterward two sails were used with wonderful result. The canoe had five sails of different sizes, all interchangable, only two being used at one time – which two depended on the power of the wind.” [51]  With her biggest rigs set, Pecowsic’s  100lb/45kg hull could be driven by no less than 122ft2/    of sail, although it seems that she normally carried much smaller sails.




The canoe Vesper, completely unballasted, won the International Challenge trophy at the 1886 ACA meet, showing that the day of the ballasted canoe was coming to an end. These scans from WP Stephens’ Progress of American Canoeing are from the Dragonfly canoe site.

The Vesper carried a much smaller rig and unlike Pescowic (which carried some ballast) she was completely unballasted.  The lightweight American canoes, lead by Vesper and Pecowsic, left the British boats ten minutes behind in the first International challenge, at the American Canoe Association meet. The later series for the New York Canoe Club’s International Challenge Cup in New York, a four-boat teams event was sailed in enough breeze for the canoes to be reefed much of the time, was much closer. To windward in strong winds it was apparent that Baden-Powell, lounging back inside Nautilus’ cockpit on the beats “had an advantage in thrashing to windward, owing to greater quickness in stays, (tacking) although it did not seem that it had any advantage in pointing.”  Baden-Powell got better starts and “illustrated his advantage in going against the wind, but the American team’s Vaux, demonstrated with much greater emphasis his superiority in reaching, by sitting out far to windward, and thus keeping the boat on a more even keel, and maintaining a press of canvas greater in proportion to continued the size of his boat”.  [52]  After each team’s leader had each won a heat, Vaux passed Baden-Powell on the last run to keep the Cup for the USA.

It was a much closer series than history remembers, but the lessons were clear. As the victorious Vaux wrote, “both Englishmen and Americans learned something. The Americans discovered that the set of the British sails, the rig, cordage and fitting of the foreign canoes far outdid anything the Americans could show. They learned also the advantages of a smooth skin canoe perfectly polished…..The Englishmen found out that their bulky canoes with heavy ballast and heavy centerboards carrying large sails and crew inside were no match in point of speed for the light and slim canoes of the Americans, carrying little or no ballast, having very light plate centerboards, comparatively small spread of muslin and crew on deck to windward.”[53] [54]

The British immediately started hiking and “at once discarded their 56 pound centerboard and 300 pounds of shotbags and cut down the displacement of their models to the American standard.”[55]  But the US fleet stayed one step ahead when around 1888 Paul Butler, a lightweight sailor who had been disabled by polio, fitted his canoe with a seat (76cm/30  in at first, later growing to 5ft/1.52m) that slid from side to side. Instead of just hiking from the gunwale, he could sit outside his craft, with his feet on the gunwale, exerting as much leverage as a modern trapeze hand.

Paul Butler introducing hiking aids, around 1893. Pic from “American canoes and Canoeists” Munsey’s Magazine, June 1894, courtesy of the International Canoe class site.

Butler was not have been the first sailor to use a device like a sliding seat. The Delaware “hiker” catboats seem to developed a similar idea around the same time. Down on the Chesapeake, the big racing sharpies and Log Canoes of the same era were throwing up to a dozen crewmen to windward on their huge “spring boards” late in the 1800s. But Pete Lesher, curator of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, notes that the Chesapeake was quite isolated from the sailboat racing heartland. The “spring board”, he feels, was a separate development to the canoe’s sliding seat. Ben Fuller agrees that the hiking plank was such an obvious development that it sprang up independently in several areas – but as a canoe sailor himself, he believes that the sliding seat, a much more complicated piece of engineering, was created by Butler. Contemporary histories all seem to give Butler the credit for introducing the sliding seat, which was a step ahead of the springboard in sophistication and ease of use. And it was the canoe’s sliding seat, rather than the “pries” or “spring boards” of other classes, that made an impact on yachtsmen and inspired further development almost a century later.

To steer from the seat, Butler created the “cross head tiller”; basically a wooden pole that slid from side to side in a steel frame which was connected by linkages to the rudder.  The links allowed the rudder to be operated by moving the cross-head tiller fore and aft, rather than side to side like a modern tiller extension.  Others tried modern-type tiller extensions, but the primitive materials of the day made them too hard to handle and too fragile.  The cross-head could be strong enough to actually be used as a handhold, whereas the extension tiller was all too likely to snap.[56]

Butler also invented the predecessor of the modern cam cleat, so that he could hike off the plank and dump sheet when necessary by hitting a lever on the cleat with a toe.  Along with others, he reduced the side of the cockpit until it was little more than an easily-drained footwell. [58] For a while, some top American canoe sailors would cleat both sheets and stay hiked out on the sliding seat, “with nothing to do but steer and balance till he comes to the turning mark of the course.  Here he quickly snatches a fresh trim of sheets for the new leg of the course, and off he goes again.  If she gets an extra heavy knockdown puff and capsizes, all the agile acrobat has to do is to jump out on to the centre plane, which is now lying horizontal on the top of the water, and to prise the canoe up, using the slide-seat plank as a lever.”[57]

Butler became known as ‘the father of modern canoe sailing.”  As Maurice D Wilt noted, “he developed by his inventive genius the fastest sailing craft for its displacement that the world has ever seen, a seaworthy, unsinkable boat capable of a speed of fifteen miles an hour… The long deck seat, the thwartship tiller, and the tight self-draining cockpit made it possible to increase sail area to an enormous extent and in complete safety” said Wilt. [59]  “every man who has sailed on a sliding seat and experienced the thrill of the speed owes a debt of gratitude for the invention and development of the finest of all water sports to the memory of Paul Butler.”[60]

While many of the Americans still cruised to races under rigs that could be reefed, Butler and W.P. Stephens, who built Butler’ canoes, and a hard core of racing fanatics turned the canoe into a lightweight, big-rigged racing machine. Hull dimensions settled down to a length of 16ft and a beam of 30in (4.88m x 76cm) and rigs grew until some canoes were carrying up to 190ft2/17.7m2 of sail on hollow spars.  The cat-ketch sailplan was maintained but the balance lug rig, with its heavy battens and reefing gear, was dumped in favour of an improved gunter rig, or “batswing” rigs with huge roaches held out by full battens. Some sailors preferred a return to the lightweight “leg of mutton” or Bermuda rig.  By 1881 W.P. Stephens and Charles J. Stevens had developed a 65ft2/6m2 “leg of mutton” with a hollow mast, batten-less sail and imported English cloth and cordage that weighed just 9lb/4.5kg – lighter than a Laser rig.  [61] Such developments were possible because reefing and lowering sails, so important for the cruising that canoes had traditionally done, was no longer considered.  Sails were lashed to the spars, and instead of reefing the top sailors kept up to five difference rigs, each tailored to a different wind strength.[62]   The affluent Butler, whose family owned the famous schooner America, had a servant to stand by with spare rigs.  Hulls were as light as 45 kg / 100 lb (stripped) or about 125kg/275 lb rigged and sailing.

“Canoe sailing has now reached a point where it can give long odds to any other kind of smallboat sailing” wrote the old champion Vaux. “The canoes have been made to attain a degree of speed and windward qualities not shared in by much larger boats, and now it is far from an unusual thing to see a sixteen foot canoe with a hundred feet of sail beat a good-sized catboat, and at times when the weather is favorable actually outfoot sloops and schooners of twice her length and twenty times her power.”[63]

Dixon Kemp sliding seat
Dixon Kemp’s diagram of the sliding seat. Other canoeists had used short fixed seats, no winder than the hull, but Butler’s device was to change the whole class.

By 1890 it was noted that “the contempt expressed by catboat sailors for canoe sailing was turned to unqualified admiration one day in July, on New York Bay, when four canoes covered the four-mile course in less time than the fastest catboat present, The fastest seventeen-foot catboat about New York, Bon Ton, was in the race. To add to the credit of the canoes it must be added that the water was rough and wind strong, so that the cats had to sail with reefed sails, and made bad weather of it at that.”[64]

But speed came at a price. The cockpits that had once been a comfortable bed became nothing but a footwell for lines.  Hulls that had been wide enough for cruising were now so unstable that racing canoes would capsize under bare poles.  The “racing machines” were so hard to sail that only those who spent all their time training could get them around the course.

The sliding seat “racing machine” and its athletic skipper drove those who were short on training time or interested in cruising as well as racing out of the sport.   “The true canoe, fitted to be useful and comfortable, otherwise than for mere “pot-hunting”, has no chance in racing against this machine type of canoe and man” wrote Warrington Baden-Powell. The sliding-seat canoe, he growled, “has engrafted the athlete and the acrobat upon the sport of canoeing.  Neither of them was wanted….the infinite harm done to sailing and racing by these machines since about 1889 is now beginning to be universally admitted…”[65]  The same year that Vaux exulted about canoes beating catboats was the peak of canoe racing in the USA.[66]

“These extreme canoes in a few years developed themselves out of existence” wrote Wilt  “The huge batswing sails got to be so hard to hold up, in the extreme sizes, and the hulls of the boats had to be so strongly built, and consequently heavy to stand the various strains imposed upon them, that they became useless for anything but match sailing.  They were too heavy for easy transportation, and they were entirely too expensive to build and maintain.”  Even the American Canoe Association admitted that the sharp drop in the number of racing canoes was “probably due to the increasing development of the scientific racing canoe now in vogue.”[67]

Mab, one of the most extreme canoes of her time. Just 30 inches (76cm wide), she carried 126 sq ft/11.6m2 of sail. Scans from Outing magazine by Tim Gittins.


In response, the ACA introduced sail area limits; bringing the sail area first down to 130, then 110 and finally 90 sq ft (12, 10.2 and 8.4m2)[68]  The new rules created lightweight boats like the 1897 champion Mab, which was built of 1/8”/3mm thick white cedar and had hollow spars and varnished rawhide leather fittings instead heavier brass gear.[69] The masts were limited to 16’/4.88m height and carried two light, short-battened Bermudan mains in a cat-ketch rig.  The bow and stern were thin and fine-lined, with heavily Veed bottom sections.[70] This was a boat designed for low wetted surface and low wave-making drag, a boat that would “cut through the water in the manner of a modern catamaran hull….with the power provided by the sliding seat they did go a great deal faster than their theoretical hull speed”, as canoe and dinghy designer Gordon “Sandy” Douglass wrote in his autobiography, “Fifty Years Before the Mast”.  While at least one modern expert who has sailed a reproduction of a Stephens 16 x 30 of 1910 vintage is convinced that it did plane, the general consensus is that the deeply Veed sections and narrow stern made it a high-speed displacement hull.

The “16 x 30” class lasted for four decades, but it could not stop the death of canoe sailing as a popular sport.  “The perfection of the racing-machine and the extreme acrobatic skill required in attaining perfection in its handling, has driven busy men for the most part from the sailing courses” ran a report of the American Canoe Association annual meeting.[71]  “There is no prettier work afloat than canoe handling; but, as it is now, it requires the mental skill of the boat sailor with the physical skill of the gymnast, and unfortunately there are few possessing the ability who are willing to devote themselves to so absorbing a sport” reported Outing.[72]  The fans of the general purpose canoe had dropped out of racing.  There were so few keen racers that canoe racing almost died. [73]   The improvement in other types of small craft, like the oar-and-sail dinghy, canoe yawls and Raters, also played a part.[7]

Gordon “Sandy” Douglass, a canoe champion who went on to show his understanding of the American market by designing some extremely popular racing dinghies, later wrote that the arrival of the hard-core racing canoe was the end of the sailing canoe as a popular class; “when the canoe became a racing machine instead of a utility boat for camping, cruising and paddling, as well as for racing, it lost most of the very qualities which had been the reason for its existence.  By 1900, gone were most of the nearly two hundred canoe clubs, gone were the hundreds of campers and competitors who, in the 1880, had made canoe sailing a popular sport.  There still were enthusiasts….but now they numbered only  few dozen.”[75]  It was a story that was to echoed time and again in other classes, at other times and other places.

The canoe lasted longer as a cruising boat; in an echo of the 21st century, cruising was seen as “a revolt against the artificiality of the age. We have grown tired of pulling a lever when we want heat and pushing a button when we want food; we long to grapple fundamentals.” And so the canoeists turned further from racing and towards cruising the inland rivers and lakes, where other craft could not go – but they did it under paddle power.[76]


[1] The windsurfer may be the only other type that was created by individuals rather than wider social and technological forces. Like the canoe, it used some leading-edge materials, but neither windsurfer or canoe were created by the possibilities of those materials, and neither of them were developed by a wider group.

[2] “John Macgregor” p 277

[3] http://www.railwaysarchive.co.uk/documents/BoT_NineElms1865.pdf, retrieved 9/12/15.

[4] “John Macgregor” p 275

[5] “John Macgregor” p 278.

[6] The recent writers who have assumed that the Victorians would have looked down upon “native” canoes and kayaks are falling for a stereotype themselves.  In reality, many (although not all) Victorian era-canoeists were very impressed by the older craft; the Canadian canoe, for example, was seen as “incapable of improvement” for its use; “The County Gentleman: Sporting Gazette, Agricultural Journal, and The Man about Town of London”, July 30, 1892 pg. 1026.   As Folkard noted (The Sailing Boat page 534) “it would be difficult, if not impossible, for the most ingenious and scientific of European boat-builders, with twenty years or more experience in their art, to make a boat so admirably adapted to the purpose as the native kaiak.” Supporters of rowing boats did attack the canoe in the wake of Macgregor’s publicity, denouncing it as “the invention of savages….an imperfect, unscientific, uncomfortable imitation of the true boat”; see “John MacGregor” p 291.


[-Hand cruising and single-hand craft”, Outing vol 36 p 384

[19] History of American Canoeing Pt 1, C. Bowyer Vaux, Outing Volume X issue 3 June 1887 p266.

[20] “The Dry-Fly of sailing” by “Uncle”, The Yachting Monthly, August 1924, p 287

[21] Still, there were occasional tragedies and some had near misses.  The Rector of Cheadle, Commodore of the Mersey Canoe Club, “narrowly escaped losing his life while boating with no other companion than one of his monkeys, who stood on his head until finally washed away by the waves.”[21]

[22], p 216; “History of American Canoeing Pt 1, C. Bowyer Vaux, Outing Volume X issue 3 June 1887 p 260, and letter to the editor by Vaux, Outing Vol 6 p 237. Leeboards had been used in open Canadian canoes in 1860 and centerboards by 1865, but the open decks, high ends and hull shape of such types meant tha

8] “John Macgregor” p 350

[9] John Macgregor p 297

[10] “John Macgregor” p 356 and

[11] The County Gentleman: Sporting Gazette, Agricultural Journal, and “The Man about Town” (London, England), Saturday, July 30, 1892; pg. 1026

[12] New York Times, August 1 1880

[13] C Bower Vaux   , courtesy Dragonfly

[14] See for example “Modern Canoeing” Outing Vol 4 p 217

[15] “John MacGregor” notes at p 359 that a Reverend C.R. Fairey copied Macgregor by canoeing around Australia with religious tracts for watermen.

NZ -Australian Town and Country Journal 26 Feb 1887 p 39 turdaebruary 1887

[16]  CANOE MEET AT THE THOUSAND ISLANDS. BY C. BOWYER VAUX. “  Outing, Vol 14, P 354.  As late as 1897 the Encyclopedia of Sport still referred to sailing as “the leading feature of present day canoeing” (p 171) and in 1892 it was stated that ‘the most remarkable feature in modern canoeing is the extent to which the paddle has been superseded by the sail”;( The County Gentleman: Sporting Gazette, Agricultural Journal, and “The Man about Town” London, England), Saturday, July 30, 1892; pg. 1026

[17] Macgregor’s second major cruise, for example, was one third under sail; John Macgregor p 289.

[18] WP Stephens, “Single

t they could not perform as well under sail as the decked canoe.  Quite why the centerboard and leeboard apparently took so long to be adopted into decked canoes is a mystery.

[23] See for example the report of Clyde Canoe Club racing in Glasgow Herald of 15 Sept 1875.

[24] “History of American Canoeing Pt 1, C. Bowyer Vaux, Outing Volume X issue 3 June 1887 p269.

[25] Outing vol 10 p 364

[26] Forest and Stream Nov 27 1890 p 386

[27] “Canoe Handling”, second edition 1885, Forest and Stream Publishing Co, C Bower Vaux,

[27b] “The Canoe – How to build and manage it” by   Alden, Scribner’s Magazine, August 1872.

[28] “History of American Canoeing” Outing Vol X, Issue 3 June 1887 p268

[29] History of American Canoeing” Outing Vol X, Issue 3 June 1887 p269

[30] History of American Canoeing Pt II, C Bowyer Vaux, Outing

[31] Outing vol 10 p 361.  In “upset races” each canoe had to be capsized and recovered in the middle of a race.

[32] The County Gentleman: Sporting Gazette, Agricultural Journal, and “The Man about Town” (London, England), Saturday, August 22, 1891; pg. 1145;

[33] Encyclopedia of Sport, Canoeing, p172

[34] Outing Vol 14 p 354.

[35] Outing August 1887, History of American Canoeing Pt III by C Bowyer Vaux p 407. CHECK CHECK CHECK

[36] THE CANOEING OF TO-DAY. by c. bowyer vaux. Outing Vol 16 p 214 and THE AMERICAN CANOE ASSOCIATION, AND ITS BIRTHPLACE, by c. bowyer vaux. Outing Vol 12  p 419; Outing vol o4 p 108

[37] The Canoeing of Today, C Bowyer Vaux, Outing Volume XVI, 2 May 1890 p 135

[38] Trads and memos MBing oct 42 p 84.

[39] F & S Jan 8 1891 p 506   and ors – planks strained retrofitted and early  anoes  AND tiller extension?  Short fore and aft tiller and deck yoke applied by Vaux in Dot. “As men learned to sit further out some means of reaching the tiller was necessary, and a second handle, jointed to the first, was added. This same gear has been used on the majority of canoes.  The tiller extension can also be seen in some contemporary canoe plans.

[40] History of American Canoeing Part III, Outing August    p 403

[41] Canoeing Under Sail,      Sailing Craft, ed by SChoettle, p 118

[42] NY Spirit of the Times 1884 p 773

[43] “Modern Canoeing”, Outing Vol 3 p220

[44] “The only requisites for membership are that the applicant must be a canoeist and a gentleman.” THE AMERICAN CANOE ASSOCIATION, AND ITS BIRTHPLACE, by c. bowyer vaux. Outing Vol 12  p 418

[45] F & S Jan 15 1891 p 525   (also referred to pros as “the men who sail sloops an catboats off Coney Island with advertisements of soap and patent medicines pained on the sails”.

[46] History of American Canoeing Vol II, C Bowyer Vaux, Outing Vol 10 p 369

[47] Trad and Mem MotorBoating October 1941 p 84

[48] See for example EB Tredwen quote on p 86 of “Amateur Canoe Building”.

[49] Trad and Mem MotorBoating October 1941 p 84

[49b] These figures from “Rushton and His Times in American Canoeing”, by Atwood Manley


[51] C Bowyer Vaux, appendix.  Pescowic SELECTED FOR ICC   but as Vaux noted, ““Her performance at the ’86 A. C. A. meet were the talk of the canoeing world for over two years in England, Germany and America. This arrangement did not and cannot prove popular for obvious reasons. It is a racing expedient, and perfectly allowable as such.”[51]

[51b] Progress in canoeing


[52] “The International Canoe Race”, Outing vol 9 p 169

[53] Bower Vaux, appendix to          ,

[54] One of the British sailors was already aware of the American position and had fitted his boat with a tiller that could be used while sitting on deck, although he still sat in the boat downwind. Stevens says that it was Baden-Powell (Trad and Memoro,s MotorB Oct 41 p 84) but Vaux, who probably knew better as the winner, says (in  Note Outing vol 9 p 167) that it was the less experienced Stewart, who finished third in the regatta.  Only the first finisher in each nation’s two-man team counted.


[55] Stephens Tad and Me Oct 41 MotorBoating p 84

[56] In F & S Jan 8 1891 p 506, XXXX wrote that the modern type of tiller extension that had been used in some canoes was “defective in two points.  It is so weak in construction as to be very easily broken, and also from its weakness and the fact that it swings freely it is of no aid to the main in regaining his position after hiking out…the mishaps to the old tiller in the races at the meet probably settled its fate, and the new (thwartships) one will supplant it entirely wherever the sliding seat is used.”

[57] Encyclopedia of Sport, Canoeing, p 172

[58] Wilt says that the canoes developed by Butler could recover from a capsize easily, but Vaux noted in “THE AMERICAN CANOE ASSOCIATION, AND ITS BIRTHPLACE, by c. bowyer vaux. Outing Vol 12  p 420” that the big rigs of the later canoes made it harder to bring them upright than with earlier craft.

[59] Canoeing Under Sail,    Sailing Craft p 120.

[60] Canoeing Under Sail,     , Sailing Craft p 118-119.

[61] Information on rig from T and M, MBoting Nov 41 p 54.  See “The modern single-hand cruiser” by C Bowyer Vaux, outing Vol 22

[62] Outing vol 14 p 354 saoid that this ‘standing rig” was first used in the famous canoe Pescowid in 1886.

[63] CB Vaux, Editor’s open Window, Outing Vol 14 p 313

[64] “Editor’s Open Window, Canoeing”, Outing vol 16 p 495

[65] “Canoes and Canoeing” Warrington baden-Powell in “the Encyclopedia of Sport”, F.G. Aflolo et al (eds) London, 1897 p 172

[66] Forest and Steam, p 412 May 12 1894

[67] Fordst na Stream jan 26 1893 p 83

[68][68] For every inch the beam was increased over 30”, sail area could be increased by 3 ft2, while for every inch under 16’ the sail area had to be increased by ¼ ft2.  Beam had to be between 1/3 and 5/32 of overall length.  There were also minimum depth, waterline beam and weight limits. “Canoeing Under Sail”, Wilt in “Sailing Craft”, p 120 and 130.

[69] Champion canoes of To-day, R.B. Burchard, Outing vol 30 p 226

[70] Later it was reported that there was a swing back to ballast.  “Canoeing”, Bowyer Vaux, p 20 he says that Toltec, which won the International Challenge Cup for 1891 against a Canadian challenger, had 100lb of ballast.  Her skipper “belayed both sheets in a strong, puffy breeze, and slid in and out on his long sliding seat as required, sometimes having both feet against the outside of his canoe, and directing his course by occasionally touching the tiller with his aftermost foot.”


[71] Outing, Vol 29     p 143

[72] Outing vol 30, The champion Mab, reported in the same article, had a 5’3” sliding seat, 16 x 30, silk sails of 136 sq ft, storm sails of 90-, hollow masts, 1/8” wjite cedar planks, toe operated cam cleats but varnished rawhide fittings instead of brass, cockpit draining through CB case.

[73] See also “THE CANOEING OF TO-DAY By LEONIDAS HUBBARD, Jr.” Outring Vol 40 p 700;

BROOKLYN EAGLE 17 May 1896 p16    http://bklyn.newspapers.com/image/50432305/.

[74] Forest and Steam, p 412 May 12 1894.  By “rater types” one means boats like the Scarecrow, wich were nbot designed as Raters but followed the same style. The typical “canoe yawl” was a small double-ended yawl-rigged centreboard cruising yacht about 18-   long, which developed in north England from about     .

[75] Gordon K (Sandy) Douglass, “Sixty Years behind the mast – the fox on the water” p      .

[76] “THE CANOEING OF TO-DAY By LEONIDAS HUBBARD, Jr.” Outring Vol 40 p 705;


“A great rage for the type”; the first Australian centreboarders


Esmerlda cropped2
classic (22 Footer Esmerelda on Sydney Harbour. The “ringrail” that sits outside the mainsail leach by itself was almost as big as an entire 49er rig. Photo from the Australian Maritime Museum Hall Collection through Wikimedia Commons.

We will probably never know why Alfred Bower, that great Liverpudlian fan of Truant, decided to try to sell his centreboarders on the other side of the world. But when Bower’s Presto arrived in Australia, it brought the racing centreboarder to new and very fertile ground. When Presto was unloaded in Sydney in early 1854, the Australian colonies had a population of just 440,000 people, concentrated into a few cities scattered along a coastline longer than the USA’s. The water was warm, the summer winds normally breezy. Every large city was a coastal port where the water was a playground.  “If a child is missing in a waterside suburb, its mother’s instinct takes her to the nearest part of the harbour, and probably the little fellow will be found in a packing case or washtub paddling out in the bay” noted one writer decades later.  “The liberal application of the strap he will surely get will have no effect, mother’s arm may be worn out, the strap may be worn out, but as the sparks fly upwards, the urchin will be on the water again at the first opportunity.”[1]

Small boat sailing in the colonies had started out in the usual way, with regattas between working sailors such as fishermen, watermen and naval and merchant seamen, using open boats fitted with shallow “false” fixed keels.  [9]  In 1827 the first official regatta was held and the first private “yacht”, an open 3 ton sliding gunter open boat, was launched. [10]   Undecked craft were to be a mainstay of Sydney sailing from then on.[11]

Even before her first race in Sydney, a 50 pound a side match race against the cutter Eclipse, Presto was causing a sensation. “She was built on an entirely new model” gushed the Sydney Morning Herald, saying that in England she “has beaten everything of her class.” From her first race in Sydney Presto was a winner.”The Presto’s sailing qualities are very superior; it is doubtful whether any boat at present in the colony is able to compete with her” was the verdict.

The “far famed Presto” on her way to win her first race in Australia. Under zoom, this murky reproduction shows hints of a profile and proportions similar to that of the big Sydney 22 and 24 foot “open boats” of a few decades later. There appears to be only a small crew on board, (although it could just be the artist’s rendition or the poor reproduction) perhaps because Presto could rely on her shifting ballast, which moved from side to side on tracks. Illustrated Sydney News, 8 April 1854

The early reports were a bit over-enthusiastic. Presto was inconsistent in Sydney, just as she and other centreboarders had been in Liverpool. Sometimes she capsized, sometimes she struggled, and sometimes she beat much bigger keelboats like the 12 ton cutter Mischief across the line and on handicap. She excited the sailors of Sydney so much that Bower started to send more of his superseded centreboarders out to the colony. Challenge arrived in Sydney in March 1855 [2], followed by Spray in 1856 [3] and then Charm. They  “created a great rage for the type in the fifties” and showed the sailors of Sydney the potential of the “broad shallow craft of the skimming dish order”.

The advertisements for Bower’s boats provide the most detailed information we have about the first British-built centreboard racers. Challenge seems to have been typical. Rated at 8 tons (although this varied according to the particular rule in use) she measured 27ft4in on the keel and had a beam of 9ft. Her specifications speak of a sophisticated and expensive build; copper fastenings, “air tubes” to make her unsinkable, ballast moulded to her bottom, and (in another illustration of the cosmopolitan nature of Victorian-era sailing) sails that were imported from New York.

Charm cost her new owners 150 pounds, but her owners knew that they could make their money back in trophies;  the Challenge Cup like the one Challenge won in 1857 cost 300 pounds. Such victories meant that by 1859 the centreboarders were so well known that the arrival of the Charm was news throughout the Colonies, taking up column space alongside the usual reports of political meetings that descended into riots, concerns about the Mayor of Melbourne’s habit of kissing young women, potentially fatal vandalism on Australia’s first railway, and other news that dispels the notion that our ancestors were all pompous and well behaved. [4]

Many owners of the conventional keel cruiser/racers were less happy with the arrival of the half-decked centreboarders. It was the old issue that had faced Truant – open centreboard “racing machines” could not really race against deep-keel offshore cruiser/racers of very different shape and performance. Even when the centreboarders were given a minute’s handicap penalty in 30 mile races, the two types were too different to allow the keelboat owners “the simple justice of a fair competition with their own class”. Eventually, the centreboarders were moved into their own class, and eventually faded away.

And what were Sydney’s small boat sailors doing about this new crop of high-performance centreboarders, while the big-boat sailors bought them, raced and argued about them? It seems that the small-boat sailors basically ignoring them – and not just for a few months, but for a decade or two.  Through the 1860s and early 1870s the small-boat racers of Sydney Harbour stuck to the type they called the “deep keel dinghies”, described as “a miniature yacht without a deck”.[10]  The smallest popular class was the 15 footers, which were limited to a maximum 5 foot beam and 3 foot draft. The other popular classes of the 1860s had the same flawed concept;  “deep-keeled 16 and 23 footers, without a deck or half deck, which carried lead ballast and big crews….they were undoubtably dangerous boats…” it was said.[11] 

Perhaps because the deep water and plentiful sheltered anchorages of Sydney Harbour mean that shoal draft wasn’t important, the small boat sailors of Sydney stuck to their “deep keel dinghies” for decades. One sailor who raced in a small fleet of “fixed fin” dinghies as late as 1878 recalled that “centreboards were only to be found in a very few boats” at the time.[12]   As early as 1857 and as late as 1865, races for the popular 22 footers specifically banned centreboards. [13]

The centreboarders of Victoria

While the ancestors of Sydney’s skiff sailors were sailing dinghies that weren’t centreboarders, many sailors in the rival colony of Victoria were sailing centreboarders that weren’t dinghies.  The centreboard had arrived in Victoria even before it had been settled by Europeans – much of the coast, including the site of the future capital city of Melbourne, had been carried out by the early experimental “sliding keel” brig HMS Lady Nelson. But in the mid 1850s, most people who thought about Victoria and sailing were concerned about just one thing – how to sail to the goldfields as fast as possible. The colony was in the middle of one of the world’s greatest gold rushes, with Melbourne doubling its population in a single year.

It was probably gold that brought Henry Murray – the same Henry Murray who had helped to form the Birkenhead Model Yacht Club and watched Truant win – to Victoria. Murray gave the colony the advantage of having one of the few trained designers who was familiar with centreboarders. It was an advantage that the antagonistic, apparently erratic and definitely tactless Murray may have helped to throw away.[17]

One writer later recalled that Murray was spurred into designing centreboarders when one of the colony’s yachting pioneers said that they could never beat a keelboat. Murray was a man who took offence easily, and he determined to prove the pioneer wrong. As early as 1856 he was building a string of fast but poorly-prepared small yachts, starting with Eclipse (30’ overall), followed by Spray (which he later described as “with the exception of her counter, a facsimile of the Cowes Una of 1879”) Ripple (22’6”), Southern Cross ( ) and a Una boat. Their performance was erratic, but they scored some spectacular wins against bigger keelboats.

Murray became Victoria’s main early advocate for the centreboarder and the “surface sailing” principle that “the hull should skim over the surface of the water, while the immersed blade increases the lateral resistance, and enables them then in ordinary weather to hold a wind with their deep-keeled rivals.” [18]  His promotion of the centreboarder may have been handicapped by the fact that he wasn’t just tactless, but defamatory. “One might as well try to comb snakes into drawing-room pets as to make yachtsmen out of the more wealthy classes of Victorians – at least the present generation” was one of his more colourful descriptions of the “old fogeys” and “Namby-pambys” of the big-boat scene.[19] A rival boat was publicly labelled a “chunk of ugliness.”[20]

Although she was a keel cutter instead of a centreboarder, Assegai was proof that when Robert Murray stopped picking fights he could design and build a fine boat. She was sold to Sydney, where she performed well in a competitive fleet.

But nature may have made up for Murray’s tactlessness. Victoria was an ideal breeding ground for big centreboarders. The capital city of Melbourne sits on the edges of the wide and choppy expanse of Port Phillip Bay. The Bay offers superb and challenging racing conditions – some highly experienced American sailors have compared it to San Francisco Bay’s famously windy “Berkeley Circle” racecourse – but there are only two significant natural harbours on its 264km/164mile shoreline. In the days before modern marinas, clubs could lose up to 75% of their fleet when storms hit the boats moored behind the dubious shelter of shoals and small piers or breakwaters. Even today, when gales blow through some of the Melbourne’s smaller breakwater harbours are overwhelmed and moored yachts are tossed onto beaches.

These harbourless shores and challenging seas encouraged both yachtsmen and fishermen to build half-decked centreboard yachts of 20 to 32 feet. These big centreboarders were seaworthy enough to handle the rough conditions of the bay, shallow enough to shelter behind sandbanks or in the shallows, and light enough to be pulled ashore out of harm’s way during the winter. [21]  “There is very little perceptible difference in the form and proportions of the (Melbourne) centreboarders, whether flying the burgee of the St. Kilda or Brighton clubs, or the weather beaten house flags of the fishermen of Port Melbourne, Queenscliff or Hastings” noted one writer. “The club boats are, of course, a little more tastefully fitted up, and have white sails, but the hulls all bear the same family likeness.”

Today, the half-decked fishing boats, the “Couta Boats” are one of the biggest classes in Victoria, with small but growing fleets in other states. When boatbuilder Tim Phillips spotted them, only two Couta Boats remained afloat. Today up to 60 turn up to regattas and there are growing fleets in most states. They have become an institution in Victoria,m attracting both Olympic sailors and many of the most successful businessmen in the country. The grace and power of these surprisingly fast boats give us a window back in time.

Kan and Ghost henry king pow ty
Kannanook, seen here in Sydney after her sail to “skiff” legend Mark Foy, was one of the top centreboarders in Victoria in the late 1800s. Zooming in on this pic shows the differences between a boat like Kannanook, designed for the rough open expanses of Port Phillip Bay, and a boat designed for Sydney Harbour like Foy’s Ghost, to the right. Kannanook seems to have a finer bow, probably to slice through the Port Phillip waves, as well as having extra freeboard. She carries a lug mainsail, which Sydney sailors believed to be better upwind but slower downwind, and a smaller jib. Foy bought Kannanook after she had won an Intercolonial race on Port Phillip against the famous Sydney 24 footer Eileen, which had been bought and modified by a Melbournian. Kannanook was rarely competitive on Sydney Harbour, causing controversy about whether Eileen had been slowed by her modifications or whether Kannanook was poorly sailed when in Sydney. Photo by Henry King, from the Tyrell Collection at the Powerhouse Museum.

Even the sailors who raced on tiny lakes like the 49ha/120 acre Albert Park Lake in Melbourne’s suburbs (inside today’s Formula One course) or Lake Wendouree in the inland goldrush city of Ballarat normally sailed the same sort of big half-decked centreboarders. For a few years, the miners who had struck it rich around Ballarat spent their money on centreboarders of 30 ft and more, sometimes fitted with shifting ballast weights like the Bower/Kelly boats. Murray also moved to Ballarat, where in typical style he not only built a catamaran years before Nat Herreshoff, but also became involved in newspaper flame wars against the “nautical dogberries” and “swamp talent” of the lake and their “cuttle fish tactics” when he wasn’t throwing them into the lake while arguing about boatbuilding and money.[22]

Colac regatta
Big centreboarders racing on Lake Colac in the colony of Victoria in the 1800s. The boat in the foreground is probably a Murray creation, perhaps his own boat Vanduara, because it features the “ram bow” stem that he claimed to have designed after his model yacht tests on Birkenhead’s Great Float just before Truant arrived in the UK. In the typical style of centreboarder racing in Victoria during the Victorian era, the published results for this regatta were confused and Murray’s claims about the “ram bow” led to a full-on flame war in newspaper columns.  Woodcut from Illustrated Australian News, 19 Jan 1880, via Trove

State library Victoria albert park lake yachts

A typical Victorian (both the era and the colony) scene of the 1800s, as a gaggle of big centreboarders drift along the tiny Albert Park Lake in Melbourne. The sailing conditions and the lack of harbours on the wide open waters of Port Phillip Bay, just a kilometre or two away, caused many sailors to prefer to sail on Albert Park Lake although the size and shallow water of the dredged swamp was always an issue for big boats. State Library of Victoria photo.

Prehistoric planers – the Connewarre Flatties

While most of the centreboarder sailing in Victoria was taking place in big boats, away from the spotlight a bunch of almost unknown sailors were creating what seems to have been the first planing boat. From the mid 1850s to the 1880s the shallow Lake Connewarre, located across the Bay from Melbourne near the booming goldrush city of Geelong, became a haven for commercial duck hunters. Like their British cousins, they used “duck punts”;  long, low, slender craft, designed to allow hunters to slide along and allow hunters to quietly sneak up on unsuspecting waterfowl. Several people have proposed that the British duck punts are a candidate for the title of the “world’s first planing boat” and their modern development, the Norfolk Punt, is one of the world’s fastest dinghies. But reports and descriptions of earlier British duck punts by such authorities as Folkard (a keen wildfowler as well as sailor) and Sir Peter Scott (a wildfowler turned conservationist and Olympic dinghy medallist) seem to make it clear that the earlier British punts were low-powered craft, designed to slide efficiently down narrow waterways at fast displacement speed, and used in the freezing winter months when the hunting season was open.

Duck punt
Folkard’s illustration of a British duck punt.  The duck punt and its huge “punt gun” mounted to the foredeck allowed sportsmen (to use the term loosely) to sneak up on ducks and blast a dozen or so unsuspecting Daffies to death with one shot.

Old prints show that the duck hunters of Lake Connewarre had small paddling punts that were similar to British ones; no doubt modelled off the craft from “home” as many colonists called Britain. As late as the 1900s, similar boats were sometimes raced under small rigs around nearby Queenscliff.

In middle of the 1800s, the punts of Lake Connewarre started to evolve into something bigger and much, much faster. It’s not clear quite why this isolated little lake was the centre for such a development. There were no big-time boatbuilders in the area, and no external influences seem to have sparked the search for performance. It seems that the “flatties” of Lake Connewarre were probably sparked by their environment – a broad expanse of water that was open to the strong and steady winds of nearby Bass Strait, shallow enough to make it hard to get into trouble and, perhaps most importantly sometimes as warm as 30 degrees in the summer months.

Duck punts
Duck punts of the Connewarre area. These look like the small, original punts similar to the ones used in Britain.

The only detailed account of the early flatties that developed from the duck punts around the mid to late 1850s describes them as double enders, 17ft long with a beam of about 2’6” and a hull about one foot deep, with a steering paddle, hard chines, flaring topsides, and sprit yawl rigs.  Although early flatties seem to have had issues upwind – the paddle was sometimes needed to get them through tacks – sailors later remembered that they would “reach like a modern ‘half rater’” and “slide down the wind like only a ‘flattie’ can.”

The Connewarre sailors had their own tiny “yacht club” – an old railway shed, perhaps the first dinghy club in the country – from about 1860. Over time they developed bigger and faster flatties, until by the 1800s they were normally around 20-22ft long, 5ft6in to 6ft6in wide, carried around 180ft in a lug sloop rig, and had a midsection allegedly identical to a later Seawanhaka Cup scow.[23]  They carried four or more hard-hiking crewman who drove them hard on the normally warm and shallow lake.

If you make a boat flat enough and give it enough power,  it’s almost certain to plane, and that’s what the flatties seem to have done.  A retrospective account by local sailor George Brewer of a hard race about 1880 speaks of a flattie with its “bow lifted, sliding on her V shaped section (that) seemed to blow over the water like a mass of spume.”[24]  If such descriptions came only from an ageing former flattie sailor they could be written off as exaggerations, but independent sources back them up. A writer for a Melbourne newspaper who had seen the flatties in action wrote in 1884 of their “aerial flights when the pace is forced to a certain degree” and spoke of them beating the big-rigged 32 footer centreboarders on other lakes. [25]  Another independent observer of 1884 noted the flatties’ “immense sail area, on a very small displacement” and that “the principal sailing feature of the Connewarra craft is the fact of their bottom amidships for 18 inches being almost a dead flat, and tapering up towards the bow in the form of an inclined plane. This peculiar build, when the boats are sailing beyond a five knot speed, and when the wind strikes their mainsail at a right angle with the keel, causes them to rise bodily from the water, and they are said to frequently attain a speed of from 12 to 14 knots.”[26]  This sounds exactly like a description of a boat rising onto the plane around the time it reaches its hull speed, and the reference to wind direction indicates that (as one of Brewer’s accounts says) they could even plane on a beam reach.

barwon regatta
This postcard of the regatta on the Barwon River, the exit from Lake Connewarre, was taken about 1900. The boat at the bottom of the photo looks to be about 6m/2oft long and has very low freeboard. Is this one of the Flatties, the first planing sailboats?

The flatties joined the bigger half-deckers in the spirited centreboarder  circuit that evolved on some of Victoria’s various small lakes. Rarely can such small regattas have caused so much rich abuse to be thrown in so many directions by so few sailors.  Representatives from every area and boat type leaped happily at the chance to abuse each other in the press.  To sailors from England and Melbourne, the clinker boats from the little lake of Ballarat with their “movable ballast box” were “clencher used-up passenger boats” and not “real yachts” at all.[30]  To Murray, the half-decked centreboarders of Port Phillip were “baskety so-called yachts”, little more than “the commonest type of fishing boats” and products of “spiritless clubs” full of “selfish conservatism”. [29]    The Ballarat sailors sneered at requests to put their unballasted “skiffs” in their own class to give the ballasted yachts a chance, because they favoured “more open competition rather than giving “the veriest tub and crew of incapables” a chance – but when the Ballarat boats were beaten by the flatties, the Ballarat sailors changed their tune and banned the Connewarre boats on the charge that they were not real boats. The Connewarre sailors, who had also been banned from the big Lake Colac regatta, pointed out that the “clench built long boxes” of Ballarat were not true yachts either, and that the latest “so called yachts” Flying Scud and Flaneur of Ballarat had the same midsection as the latest of the  banned flatties.[31][32]

The Connewarre flatties seem to have been the first sailboat to commonly plane – but they are utterly lost to history. They were, as even their fans said, “not built for rough water, but…an inland lake boat”; and in a land where there were few wide lakes where they could show their performance, no one seemed to copy them.[27] In the 1890s the flatties, like the conventional fishing boats of the lake, died out; victims of changes to the lake and, Brewer said, of the craze for horse racing.[28]    

Today, the flatties are completely gone; utterly forgotten. As far as their effect on the history of the sport goes, they may as well never have existed. They had nothing like the impact that the Oxford Canoe Yawls seem to have had, in terms of inspiring other sailors to create planing hulls.

Ballarat ram bow boat
This old postcase of Ballarat’s tiny Lake Wendouree seems to show another of Murray’s ram-bowed boats over to the left. Big centreboarders like this, from 20 to 30 feet long, were regularly dragged around country Victoria by horse or bullock cart  for regattas.

But before they died, the flatties joined in on the spirited centreboarder racing on Victoria’s various small lakes, with boats being dragged around the colony aboard railway trains and carts. Rarely can such small regattas have caused so much rich abuse to be thrown in so many directions by so few sailors.  Representatives from every area and boat type leapt happily at the chance to defame each other in the press.  To Murray, the half-decked centreboarders of Port Phillip were “baskety so-called yachts”, little more than “the commonest type of fishing boats” and products of “spiritless clubs” full of “selfish conservatism”. [29]  To sailors from England and the coastal cities, the clinker Ballarat boats and their “movable ballast box” were un-yachtie ”clencher used-up passenger boats”[30].  The Ballarat sailors sneered at requests to put the unballasted “skiffs” in their own class to give the ballasted yachts a chance, because they favoured “more open competition rather than giving “the veriest tub and crew of incapables” a chance. When the Ballarat boats were beaten by the flatties, the Ballarat sailors changed their tune and banned  they banned the Connewarre boats on the charge that they were not real boats. The Connewarre sailors, who were also banned from the big Lake Colac regatta, pointed out that the “clench built long boxes” of Ballarat were not true yachts either, and that the latest “so called yachts” Flying Scud and Flaneur of Ballarat had the same midsection as the latest of the  banned flatties.[31][32]  

The Victorian centreboard scene of the late 1800s was colourful, vibrant, controversial – and, perhaps due to the clash of personalities, much of it faded away. The goldrush was followed by an economic crash. Murray, who for all his faults sounds like a fascinating man, died poor after grubby arguments with business partners – one was convicted of writing graffiti insulting the yacht builder on Melbourne walls.  Weeds and shoaling killed the flatties and stymied the Ballarat and Albert Park lake racers. But the colourful days of Murray, the flatties, the “so-called yachts” and the “swamp talent” had ensured that the centreboarder had become an established part of sailboat racing in Victoria with a firm place in the major yacht clubs, and a new breed of sailing dinghies was about to hit the waters of Port Phillip.








“She was built on an entirely new model” SMH 1 April 1854

“For some reason, in 1854 Alfred Bower of Liverpool”. The exact way Preso arrived is unclear. Some sources (eg Sydney Mail, 30 Jan 1897) say that she was brought out by Sydney yachtsman and auctioneer Sydney Burt, but the later ads for the Bower boats say that he sent Presto out.

“The Presto’s sailing qualities are very superior; it is doubtful whether any boat at present in the colony is able to compete with her” 8 April 1854 Illustrated Sydney News

“created a great rage for the type in the fifties” Sydney Mail 30 jan 1897

[2] (ad in Empre, 27 Marc 55 p 7). Charm carried “considerably more canvas’ than presto, challenge, spray; bells life in sydn=sporting reviwrewe 1 jan 1859 p 5.

MAR 1855  CHALLEGE came from Li erpool

“a broad shallow craft of hte skimming dish order”. Sydney Mail 30 jan 1897. This is an outstanding interesting article, based on interviews with many of Australia’s original yachtsmen. The same source says that Preso was biult in America, which is clearly incorrect but does reflect the American style and influence in her design.

[3] Sydney Morning Herald, 20 Sep 1856 p 1

[4] Moreton Bayt Courier, 12 Jan 1859 p 4

“the simple justice of a fair competition with their own class” SMH 36 Jan 1858


Bell’s Life in Sydney and Sporting Reviewer (NSW : 1845 – 1860)


Previous issueSaturday 7 February 1857

“there were certainly some powerful yachtsmen who believed that centreboards should be discouraged” Empire, 25 Oct 1856

[6] Sydneyt Mornng herald 1 Feb 1858 p 4

[7] Sydney Main and New South Wales Advertister, 30 Jan 1897 p 233

[8] Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertister, 30 jan 1897 p 228. This article written with fifst hand information from several of Sydney’s pioneer yachtsmen.

[9] Illustrated Sydney News, 15 April 1886 p 10;

[10] “Evolution of the Broad tucjked boat”, The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 5 Jan 1910 p 36

[11] “Port Jackson’s Pleasure Fleets” No 1” Evening News, 12 Oct 1907 p3

[12] Australian Motor Boat and Yachting Monthly, June 1927 p 9.

[13] See for example Sydney Mail, 2 December, 1865 p 9 re Balmain regatta

[14] The Australasian, 18 April 1896 p 17

[15] “Jolly Dogs are We: The History of Yachting in Victoria 1838-1894”, Mont Albert, 1984

[16] 15 died in the typical 28’ centreboard fishing boat Process under rcing sails; Ballarat Star, 24 May 1892 p 2.  The owner/skippers brother and 3 were lost in her sistershis capsize in a regatta in 1897; The Australasian 24 April 1897 p 19

[17] A 6 ton centreboard yacht was for sale in Melbourne as earlyt as 1854; The Argus, 25 Feb 1854 p 2

[18] The Australasian (Melb) 11 Jan 1868 p 12

[19][19] Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 4 Dec 1886 p 1185.  Although the owners of his boats seemed loyal to him, one of his partners ended up walking about city streets, chalking up accusations that Murray was “a jail bird and a swindler”; The Age, 1 Feb 1883 p 6.


[20] The Australasian, 11 Jan 1868 p 12

[21] Ballarat Star, 7 Aug 1865 p 2

[22] Ballarat Courier, 15 Sept 1877 p 4; Leader, 13 August 1864 p 17

“There is very little perceptible difference”; Leader (Melbourne, Vic. : 1862 – 1918), Saturday 11 February 1888, page 21

Folkard, in The Sailing Boat p 344-5, advised that a Punt’s mast should be the thickness of a mop handle, and only about as tall, and light enough to snap instead of capsizing the mast. Although Folkard noted  that “The rapidity with which a little boat of this kind”skims along on a reach in smooth water is astonishing”, he also noted that it would nosedive if pressed hard in waves, and that “no reasonable man would venture to sail in so frail a bark in rought water” .

The sailors of Lake Connewarre had similar duck punts ; see Hammers Back The official Newsletter of the Vintagers (Australian Chapter) Issue No. 32 – June 2009, p 4.


[23] Geelong Advertiser of 1904’s series “Memories of old Geelong; the Connewarre Flatties” by Geo. Brewer, 3 Sept 1904 p 4.  It’s interesting to note that this breakthrought was achieved despite the flatties having class rules regarding their hull shape;

[24] Geelong Advertister, 12 Nov 1904 p 4

[25] Leader (Melbourne) 31 May 1884 p 17. This is the source that mentions they had “centreplates”; Australian Town and Country Journal 3 Feb 1883 p 35

[26] Leader (Melbourne) 31 May 1884 p 22

[27] Leader (Melb) 14 April 1888 p 21

[28] Brewer and Geelong Advertiser, 5 Aug 1911 p 10

[29] Portland Guardian, 10 April 1891 p 3.

[30] The Ballarat Star, 4 Nov 1879 p 4

[31] Leader (Melb) 24 Nov 1883 p 21

[32] The Ballarat Star, 21 June

The early details of small boat racing in Melbourne are lost; we know there were races as early as 1858 but even Ralph Neal’s excellent history gives no details. [15] [16]



SailCraft Pt 1.22: “We just wanted a nice little boat!” The story of the Laser

In the late 1960s, the world’s dinghy sailors were watching the long process of selecting a new International singlehander. For years, the world’s best designers drew plans, made prototypes and sailed them in three trials in front of the IYRU and the sailing press.

But while the world was watching the triallists in Europe, the singlehander that was to be the biggest of them all was brewing in North America. The Laser didn’t come from any serious attempt to create a major new class, or from the tense singlehander trials in Europe. It came from a very different regatta – a light-air weekend of fun racing on the private lake of “Playboy” magazine publisher Hugh Hefner, towards the end of the great dinghy boom.

The year was 1969, and successful Canadian industrial designer Ian Bruce had a sideline building Contenders and International 14s. Ian Bruce was an Olympic Finn sailor and a winner of the Prince of Wales Cup, the greatest title in I-14s. The I-14s he produced to designs by compatriot Bruce Kirby were not only fast, they were famously simple – the mast on his PoW winner was made from a drainpipe. “All my earlier boats were rigged very simply and people used to look at them and ask me where I’d hidden the strings to pull!” he remembers today.

But Ian Bruce realized that he could not build a full-time boatbuilding career from specialized racing machines like 14s and Contenders. He phoned Bruce Kirby and asked him to design a “fun boat” to suit recreational sailors. It had to be simple and cheap, easy to car-top, and fast enough to attract people moving up from the Sunfish-type “boardboats”.  “I just wanted a little boat that I could build enough that I could actually make a living building boats” he recalled at an interview in the Bethwaite factory in Sydney, when he was redesigning the rig for his Byte singlehander. “I figured, 400 a year and I could retire. It was going to be a cottage boat – that’s why we called it the Weekender.”

Like Ian Bruce, Kirby was a Canadian Olympian, in Finns and Stars. When he took the call he was working south of the border, editing One Design and Offshore Yachting, the magazine that is now Sailing World. “I’m sure you’ve heard the story of how it was designed on a napkin. Or the back of an envelope” Kirby told me by email. “The original sketch, which hangs above me as I type, was done while I was on the phone talking to Ian Bruce in 1969. And it was done on a lined, yellow legal pad – the type of pad I use for nearly all my conceptual drawings.”

“Ian asked for a ‘cartop sailboat’ and that was pretty well the total commission. That little freehand sketch looks surprisingly like the final boat. I took the sketch home that evening and began expanding it to the one inch to a foot scale at which the final drawings were produced.”

The million-dollar doodle.

“When we did the Laser, the idea was to be very, very simple” recalls Bruce Kirby. “In the original drawings I did, the Laser was a bit too simple. We didn’t even have a proper boom vang. There was a bracket at the gooseneck that was supposed to be the vang, and the mainsheet was attached to the top of the rudder so there was no means of using a traveler. If you look at that boat, that tells you what it was designed for. It was not designed to be what it became.”

Ian Bruce was responsible for the spars, deck layout, and construction, while the sail was produced by a third Olympian, Hans Fogh. An expatriate Dane, he was one of the early movers in the OK class, a Flying Dutchman silver medalist and Paul Elvstrom’s former training partner and helmsman. Like Ian Bruce and Bruce Kirby, his heritage was the comparatively light International classes, not the traditional hard-chine North American one designs that Kirby had once described as “overweight and clumsy” when compared to the “lighter, faster and more enjoyable craft popular in Europe.”

The sailplan was minimalist in size as well as in fittings. The standard Laser carries just 7.1sq m (76 sq ft) of sail, about 10% less than most comparable boats, because Kirby felt that the narrow, light hull would not need any more, and possibly couldn’t carry any more.

The project stagnated for a while as Ian Bruce tried get the backing of the huge leisure-goods manufacturer Coleman so they could compete with the major companies that had been lured into the booming dinghy market and were throwing vast resources at promoting their own brands of singlehanded beach boat. AMF, a conglomerate that built nuclear reactors, intercontinental ballistic missiles, Head skis and Harley Davidson motorcycles, had taken over Alcort and was promoting the Sunfish. The retail giant Sears had its own Sunfish competitor, the Jetwind, which was built in ABS plastic like many windsurfers of the ‘80s. MFG, manufacturer of car parts and a huge range of powerboats, was selling the Copperhead designed by famous British catamaran designer Rod Macalpine Downie and US boatbuilder Dick Gibbs. The prolific duo created about 75 sailboat designs for major manufacturers, who churned out over 225,000 of them[1].  Chrysler itself, then the third largest car maker in the USA, was selling the Man O’ War, another Macalpine Downie/Gibbs production that Gibbs later described as “not as effective as the Laser as a performance boat, a bit weak in the bow”.[2]  Chrysler’s marine division was promoting its dinghies with all the might of corporate America – a team of 75 salesmen on the road, five warehouses, four sailing simulators on boat trailers, and an advertising budget to match.[3]

After Coleman turned the concept down, the trio decided to present their creation to the world at the ‘America’s Teacup’, a regatta organized by Ian Bruce’s magazine at the Playboy mansion on inland Lake Geneva  to promote the emerging breed of fun boats costing less than $1200. Among the 51 entries were three craft that changed the sport – the Laser, Hobie 14 and Windsurfer. It included events like a slalom and a rigging race and was plagued by light winds, but rarely has any event such a window to the future. The first race was only 40m long and started with the boats unrigged and on the trailer.  The Man O’ War won because the Chrysler Corporate team gave it a mighty shove off the beach.[4] They were to find that corporate might was less useful when it came to sailing and selling.

Launched on the first day of the regatta, the Laser (still racing under the “Weekender” label) raced very closely with the Banshee (“a very good little boat, a Flying Junior with the sheer cut down and the deck and rig changed” recalls Kirby; “very light and slightly inelegant” was the verdict of Macalpine Downie) before an overnight recut to the sail gave Fogh the winning edge. Competing designer Macalpine Downie described it as “a simple and attractive little singlehander, rather reminiscent of the Contender” which was “going beautifully” after the sail was recut. The two ended up tied for first in the “high performance” mono division. [5]

The prototype Laser/Weekender, complete with “TGIF” (Thank God Its Friday) sail logo. From the very start, it was a  boat that not only was simple, but looked simple. Perhaps the fact that the Laser is so obviously simple is a significant factor in its success.
The Banshee, the Laser’s early rival, was a good boat with a useful cockpit, but a more complicated appearance. It still has some small club fleets. Photo from the class association site.

The Banshee and the Laser were almost dead even on the water, and in fact the Banshee was to beat the Laser in their next high-profile duel at a “one of a kind” regatta. But the simple, modern-looking Laser caught the eye of world-class sailors who had gathered for the regatta. The reaction of sailing legends like Peter Barrett showed Kirby, Bruce and Fogh that they had a potential market they could reach without corporate backing. “What I noticed was that the really good sailors looked at this and said ‘what a neat little boat, does that look good and fast” remembers Ian Bruce. “At that point I said ‘jeezers, I don’t know how we would ever advertise a recreational boat to replace the Sunfish without spending zillions of dollars. But we could talk to this little peer group of ours. In one paragraph, we could say all they needed to know. We all saw it as a fun second boat.”

The Chrysler Man O’ War (above) was supported by the might of the Chrysler corporation and had some interesting features, but it never reached the Laser’s popularity and was soon dropped by the manufacturer. Pic from Chryslersailing.lizards.net


Once they had realized the potential of the design, Kirby, Fogh and Bruce settled into a period of intensive development to turn the beachboat into a simple performance machine. “The fact that Kirby and Fogh and I were all Olympic sailors meant that once we started to work on it, we instinctively got things better and better” remembers Ian Bruce. Because Fogh felt that the first prototype had too much weather helm, Ian Bruce fitted the second prototype with a mast step that could be moved fore and aft to develop the balance across the wind range. The final version ended up with the mast 3” further forward, with 3” more luff length, a 2” shorter foot, and less rake. The Weekender’s flexy bottom section was replaced with a longer and stiffer extrusion that moved the maximum bend further up. A foam sandwich deck, one of the first to be seen in a production boat, reduced weight while the solid ‘glass hull and rolled gunwales reduced cost and increased durability.  After two hard-sailed prototypes (one at 50kg/110lb and one of 54kg/118lb) proved too light, they settled on a production weight of 58kg (128lb) – slightly heavier than the original target but much lighter than comparable boats.

The industrial design expertise of Ian Bruce – a man Julian Bethwaite calls a genius – can be seen in the deck design and fittings. They are almost too Spartan (as the many who have capsized because of the mainsheet arrangement will agree) but they worked better and lasted longer than the systems on comparable boats. The stark lines of the low hull and small cockpit didn’t just make the boat look modern; they also made it look sublimely simple.

The final work on the rig was completed in late November 1970. Kirby, Bruce and Fogh sailed the two prototypes in a cold and windy weekend, then stood in the showers for an hour, thawing out and toasting the new boat with hot buttered rums. At a party later that night, a young student asked “why don’t you call it something scientific the young people will identify with?” Ian Bruce replied ‘do you mean something like Laser?’ and the final piece came together.

The “second generation beach boat” turned racer was an immediate success.  One hundred and forty one boats were sold at the launch at the 1971 New York Boat Show, setting a new record for the show.  “With Ian Bruce as the builder (he did a great job in the detailing and in running the prototype program) and Hans Fogh as the sail developer, we were able to use all three names in our promotion. All of us had been Olympic sailors, and were reasonably well known in the international racing community. It was all good friends and good vibes” remembers Ian Bruce.

The hot-shots of North American dinghy sailing helped to kick-start the new class by buying Lasers as their second boat – the one they sailed when they weren’t racing in the “serious” classes. “Once that group developed, a bunch of younger people looked in at the elite of sailing in NA at the time, and saw that we all had Lasers as a second boat” remembers Ian Bruce. The younger sailors moved into the class to take on the established stars and the Laser became the hot new class in North America. From there, it snowballed into today’s phenomenon. Within a few months of the public launch, there were 4500 Lasers afloat at $650 each, and the plant in Montreal was running double shifts to build 16 boats per day.

A lot of the credit for the Laser’s success has to go to Ian Bruce’s efforts to lift the production standards well above most of the competition, and also maintain the strict one-design ethos. He developed laser sail-cutting machines to ensure that sails were uniform, and developed foam-core foils to replace the wooden rudder and centreboard which were inherently variable. To meet the demand for new boats, he started up factories in Europe, Australasia and the US West Coast.

Today, some say that the Laser’s success relied on intensive promotion and support, but looking back it’s striking to see how little publicity the Laser had in its early years; so little that its initial growth is hard to track. “My position at Yacht Racing at the time did not do us any harm, although we never discounted an ad” says Bruce Kirby. “A Banshee sailor wrote a letter complaining that I was giving the Laser more ink that the Banshee.  My assistant editor did a careful count and found that the Banshee had in fact had more editorial space in the previous year than the Laser.” The builders’ support went mainly into other avenues – the class association and their own networking.

Although the Laser had beaten its earliest competitors, like the Banshee and Man O’ War, it still faced stiff competition from the big corporations. AMF produced the hard chine Force Five to complement the Sunfish and attack the Laser market.  Chrysler and the Macalpine Downie/Gibbs duo brought out the Dagger. Japanese giant Yamaha copied the Laser hull, added a larger cockpit with rounded edges, and created the Seahopper.  Christian Maury, designer of the 420, created the X4 which was basically a Laser-clone modified with a bigger cockpit and built by a wide variety of builders, from professionals to clubs.  Despite being supported by the French national sailing authority, the class collapsed; it’s been said that the larger cockpit collected too much water and the variation in builders destroyed both the structural integrity and the one design characteristics. Even Communist Russia had a Laser clone, the Luch (beam or ray in Russian).  Although the Seahopper remains strong in Japan and fleets of Luchs and Force Fives survive, none of the classes backed by big organisations threatened the boat built by the three Olympians.

Like many boats “inspired” by the Laser, the French X4er (above) had a larger cockpit. Some say that the bigger cockpit’s tendency to fill with water and restrict the skipper’s movement was one of the reasons why the class failed despite the support of the national sailing federation. Pic from the regat vaires sur marne site.
The Luch, a Soviet-era Laser clone.
The Force 5, created by Sunfish manufacturer AMF Alcort as a Laser competitor and one of the few hard chine examples of the genre. Like many Laser competitors, it had about a metre of extra sail area and a few kilogrammes extra weight. Perhaps the success of the Laser and the Radial indicate that the Laser’s small rig was one reason for its success. Pic from the Force 5 class site.

So could the Laser’s success be cloned to rejuvenate the rest of dinghy sailing? “Something happened with the Laser in those early days which is impossible to account for” says Bruce Kirby. “I like to think it was a good little boat, and the builder did a great job of quality control and distribution (compared to other boats of the time) but there was some sort of cult that built up for which I certainly cannot claim credit.  The little thing just seemed to grab people, and before long it was the boat you had to sail. Sailmakers and ex-Olympic sailors were buying it.  It was a magic that would be virtually impossible to capture again – a good boat, the right time, the right people.”

Apart from its initial appeal as a second boat for the elite, Ian Bruce is also at a loss to understand the extent of the Laser’s success. “I wish I had the answer to that, because it would be the secret to an enormous marketing success. I used to be called upon to go and talk to places like schools of business and universities. They were all looking for a magic bullet – how did you find the niche, how did you market it. And I’d always say, you don’t understand – we just wanted a nice little boat!”

Enter the Radial

In the Laser’s early days, sailors of medium height and weight were competitive to top level. That changed as specifications to spar temper and sailcloth were made, and as sailors started throwing their weight around to force the boat over and around waves.

The M rig of the mid ‘70s was the first attempt to create a smaller Laser rig that would appeal to lighter sailors, especially women. It used the stiff lower section from the big rig, with a shorter top section. Initial trials in light winds were so successful that the rig was launched without extensive testing. As soon as the wind picked up, the M rig turned out to be a failure. “The minute we started taking roach out of the sail, we got lee helm” remembers Ian Bruce. “So it had a closed leach, to get the balance right, but in a breeze the closed leach made it actually harder to sail upwind than the full rig.”

The failure of the Laser M scared the Laser corporation from further development. Fogh, whose son Morton had tried the M rig without success, and Ian Bruce decided to develop a better small rig by themselves. They decided a more flexy bottom section would give the boat an open leach without upsetting the balance. They investigated making a mast that was thinner from side to side, like Bruder’s Finn masts, but it turned out to be too expensive, so they turned to another Finn idea. “I sailed Finns a lot in my days with Paul Elvstrom” says Fogh. “We had wooden spars and I knew how we used to adjust them by planing them down. We found that a soft spar at the bottom allows the sail to twist off very early.”

“Hans and I were talking one day and I was looking at my old (Bruder) Finn spar. Right about the gooseneck we planed them in, to get them to hinge back,” recalls Ian Bruce. “That’s when I started talking to Hans, I said what we really need to do is to peel off the back end of the sail. I went back to the original section on the original Weekender which sailed in the original Teacup regatta, which happened to be the original section of 4 metre 2 3/8” outside diameter irrigation tube.”

Fogh, who had earned an FD silver medal with one of his radial-cut mains, used the same panel layout for the new rig. From its first outing, when Morton Fogh sailed competitively at the CORK regatta in 20-25 knots, the Radial was a success. It is now a candidate for the title of the world’s biggest and fastest-growing class. “I made the prediction that one day it would be sailed more widely than the Laser, because it fits more people” recalls Bruce. “It’s just about there now…..”


[1] Dick Gibbs interview 02, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zidgdZKO5fU, retrieved 11 August 2015.

[2] Dick Gibbs interview 03, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g0xL7vOMroo , retrieved 8 August 2015.

[3] Dick Gibbs interview 03, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g0xL7vOMroo , retrieved 8 August 2015.

[4] “American’s Teacup”, Rod Macalpine Downie, Yachting World,   p 202

[5] “American’s Teacup”, Rod Macalpine Downie, Yachting World,   p 202.  Other winners included the Hobie 14, Sunfish and three classes never heard of again.

SailCraft Pt 1.4: The Sandbaggers



While Truant and Una were awakening the British to the potential of the beamy “skimming dish” centreboarder, the Americans were taking the concept to the extremes. [1]  By 1885 there were 1000 catboats and jib and mainsail boats in the USA. [2]  Although some followed the deeper and narrower style of pilot boats and the schooner America, most were beamy centreboarders, especially around the New York area.  “The whole tendency of the time, in small and large classes alike, was toward the extreme development of the smooth-water skimming-dish, of great breadth and limited draft” wrote Stephens. [3]    “Local conditions, as exemplified in the shoal waters of the anchorage ground and of parts of New York Harbor where short cuts were possible to yachts of light draft, with the reaching course down the river and back, all tended toward the one dominant type that prevailed from 1860 to 1880.” [4]

Although designs were becoming more sophisticated, there was still often little distinction between workboats and pleasure craft. Even yachts as fast and famous as Maria ended their careers as working craft, while the New York Yacht Club allowed Hudson River working sloops into its early races, and at least two big oyster sloops, Cap’n Joe Ellsworth’s 60’ Admiral and 45’ Commodore, raced as part of the Brooklyn YC fleet when they were not earning a living. [5] [6]

Of all the many breeds of working boat turned racer, the breed that became the fastest and most famous was the “sandbagger”, which seems to have evolved from the oyster fishing catboats that harvested seven million oysters a year from the shoals of New York harbour.  In time-honoured fashion, the inevitable informal races between working craft probably developed into match races and regattas.  Boatbuilders found that a working boat worth $250 (about 15 weeks’ wages for a carpenter or blacksmith) could be sold for $400 to $600 if it was was a winner, and inevitably, the boats became faster and more extreme.

Susie S cropped

The Susie S, one of the fastest and most famous sandbaggers. She was built quite early, in 1869, but raced successfully into the 1880s.  Stephens noted that she “lacked the power of later boats, but she was very fast in light winds”. Although Susie S was slightly narrower than some later boats (3.35m/11′ beam on 8.23m/27′ length) her lack of power may have been due to the hollow in her forward waterlines and in the floors, each side of her keel. The top illustration is a painting from Frederick S. Cozzens, who did many illustrations of New York boats and yachts of the era. Illustrations from Stephens’ Traditions and Memories of American Yachting.

Like so many boat types, the sandbagger was the creation of local winds (in this case, the light airs of the New York summer), geography and economy.  “The superior speed of the light displacement, lightly built centre-board yacht over the keel boats of the pilot-boat type in the races which were each year becoming more popular, and the convenience of very light draft in mooring off the flats of Hoboken, Communipaw, and Gowanus, appealed strongly to both owners and builders” wrote W.P. Stephens [7] ;[8]  “The farmers who dwelt along these shores in the fifties were amphibious by nature, many of them fishermen and oystermen.  This entire community was devoted in one way or another to yachting.”.[9]

“Racing was the regular amusement of the community” noted Stephens in his encylopaedic book “Traditions and Memories of American Yachting”.….. “here, as well as along the Staten Island shore and in sheltered nooks on the East and North rivers, were boat shops, waterside saloons frequented by boat sailors, and fleets of cat-boats, jib-and-mainsail boats, and small cabin yachts, all of the centre-board type. It was not until well along in the sixties that yacht clubs became general, but from the first a strong community of interest and friendly rivalry united all these localities”.

Communipaw New Jersey in the 1800s. The unspoilt shallows of areas like this bred the watermen and the boats they sailed. The marine life gave them their work, their work gave them the experience to handle the tough sandbaggers, the shallows gave them free moorings, and the waterfront pubs gave them unofficial clubhouses and sponsors.

“All that was now needed was a foothold on shore for a dinghy and a landing float, and these were provided by a waterside pub.  This popular institution provided, in default of a yacht club, shore shelter, landing facilities and social discourse, while mine host was at least an enthusiastic sailor if not a builder as well.”[10]

The races organisation was simple.  Boats were normally divided into four classes based on their length,[11] although boats that were outclassed could be moved to a different class.  Many regattas had four classes; First Class, 26 to 30 feet in length; Second Class, 23 to 26 feet; Third class, 20 to 23 feet; Fourth class, under 20 feet.  Within each class there was normally an allowance for length, typically two minutes per foot over a 20 mile course.[12]

Sail area was not measured.  This was standard at the time, from the biggest boats to the smallest.  Apart from the fact that no one had worked out a good measurement system for sails, it was often felt that “a tax on sail is a tax on skill”.  The simple rules almost inevitably meant that, as sandbagger and America’s Cup designer A Cary Smith noted, “the intention was to get as large a boat for the length as possible.”  Designers and crews created boats of vast beam, kept them upright with movable ballast, and crammed on sail area until, as one sandbagger sailor recalled, they became “a thing of small body and great wings.” [13]


The last of the sandbaggers. The remarkable 29’/8.8m Annie was built around 1880 in Mystic, Conn. Her racing rig measured 68’/20.7m from the tip of the bowsprit to the clew of the main. Annie was preserved by the Maine Historical Association in the early 1900s and is now at Mystic Seaport Museum. Pic from the Museum site.

The claims that the sandbaggers broke convention by using movable ballast seem to be one of those myths born of a desire to paint “mainstream” sailors as archaic throwbacks trying to hold back the tide of development. [14]  Shifting ballast had been common in racing yachts when sandbaggers were still evolving. Ironically, the practise had become common in English yachting because of rules intended to make boats less extreme. When clubs and regatta organisers banned boats from setting larger sails in light winds, racing sailors started to keep their their largest sails up all the time, and stacked ballast to windward to make the boats stable enough to handle the extra power.

The British soon found that shifting ballast with 19th century technology was an expensive, unpleasant hassle. Before each race, interiors had to be stripped out so that bags of lead shot could be thrown from side to side during tacks. Ledges were fitted to hold the ballast bags, hidden behind ornate Victorian cabinets. Amateur crews quickly rebelled when they were asked to spend a day cramped down below heaving weights and being covered in muck oozing from the shotbags, so owners had to pay professionals to smash up their expensive furniture with dirty bags.  By the time the sandbaggers were evolving the British were already starting to ban shifting ballast, to their general relief.

But while the sandbaggers didn’t invent shifting ballast, they did take it to a new level. The flat, beamy shape of the sandbaggers meant that shifting ballast was more effective than it had on the narrow English cutters.  The typical sandbagger of around 26’/8m overall carried from 25 to 34 bags, each weighing around 55lb/25kg, and a crew of about nine men (in addition to the sheet handlers and bailer boy) to throw them up to the windward gunwale each tack. “When quick work was not done some sandbags went over board, not infrequently a man or two, and sometimes also, all hands and the skipper” remembered sandbagger sailors William E Simmons years later. Despite the “sandbagger” label, gravel was the preferred filling because it dried out faster. [17]  Some boats, especially in New Orleans, piled the sandbags onto a board mounted on 3ft/1m long swinging “arms” that pivoted out to windward like a modern skiff’s wings, but it was too cumbersome for general use. [18]

In spite of the lack of class rules, the sandbagger hulls became “standardised to an extent seen today only in the one-design classes; plumb stem and stern-post, a breadth of about 36 percent of the length, a draft of about 7 percent, the midship section about 66% of the total length from the bow.”[15]  This stereotyped shape had “the stern well cut away, so that when the boat was afloat the tuck was well out of the water in order to leave the water cleanly (so that)… the boat steered better when well down by the stern.”[16]

The sandbagger followed the trends of the time in adopting a fine bow and wide stern, in place of the old-bluff-bowed “cod’s head and mackerel tail” shape. The sections showed the same “all deadrise and no bilge” soft-bilged shape as Una, but where the older catboat flattened out along the keel line the sandbaggers had a deeper vee, normally with about 19 degrees deadrise. Some of them, like the famous Susie S, had hollow sections in the floors, just outboard of the keel.

Two famous sandbaggers. Top, the small 1868 sandbagger “Cruiser”, which was successful both racing around New York with movable ballast, and with her ballast fixed in place when she raced under Boston rules. Although only 6.35m/20’10” long, her beam measured 2.9m/9’9″.  The contrast with Truant’s beam of around 2.1m/7′ shows how far the sandbaggers moved to increase their beam and power. Cruiser’s deadrise was measured by Stephens at 15 degrees, which was flat for a sandbagger. It may have been her flatter, wider shape that allowed her to win even when she was racing in Boston, where shifting ballast had been banned decades before.Below is La Parole, created by the famous Jake Schmidt. Both Cruiser and La Parole show the stereotypical sandbagger shape – vast beam, a shallow hull, slack sections and buttock lines that rose steeply at the stern to form a “wineglass” transom.  Cruiser  Illustration from George Belitz’s Seglers Handbuch.

Although most illustrations show boats carrying just a jib and mainsail, other accounts say that sprit topsails and jib topsails were sometimes being set in light winds (especially among the New Orleans fleet) but that “the extra gear involved kept it from general use”. [19]  [20]  The stability provided by the movable ballast allowed the sandbaggers to carry longer gaffs and more area up high in the mainsail than earlier American boats.[21]   The vast fore-and-aft spread of the sail meant that the sail trimmers, especially the jib trimmer, had a vital role in steering; if the jib was not eased in a gust the helmsman could not luff and the boat was likely to fill or capsize. [22] Spinnakers, which were still new, were rarely carried. [23]  Many of the smaller and earlier boats had two mast steps so that they could sail under cat rig.  They carried vast low-aspect centreboards and enormous “barn door” rudders, in line with Bob Fish’s mantra “the more sail a boat has, the more board she wants”.[24]


La Parole. Although she was only 27′ overall, she measured 70′ from the tip of her bowsprit to the end of her 39′ boom.  Her jib and mainsail measured 1574 sq ft – almost half as big again as the jib and main on a Farr 40.

By the 1870s a typical sandbagger like the 27’ Parole, by the renowned builder/skipper/saloon owner Jake Schmidt, was 11’3” wide at the gunwales, 10’ wide on the waterline, and drew 7’3” draft with board down. The outrigger that supported the mainsheet extended 10′ from the transom, while the bowsprit stretched  22’6″  from the stem. A mainsail of more than a thousand square feet and a jib of nearly 500ft2 were hung from a mast that was a full 10″ in diameter. With a full load of 77 sandbags, an extra 600-700lb of lead or iron ballast (to keep her upright at anchor) and 17 crew, she had a displacement of 4.1 tons.  In contrast, a heavy displacement long-keel Itchen Ferry from England of the same length could weigh 6.5 tons and spread 1041ft2 of sail when racing, and other displacement British cutters of similar length could weigh 3.5 to 5.2 tons with masts of half the diameter. Such figures confirm that the sandbaggers were not ultralight boats, even by the standards of their day.[25]

Although A Cary Smith wrote in 1860 that “lightness of construction was then considered as vital to speed as it is now”[25] and some boats were made in clinker to save weight, the sheer power of the sandbagger demanded a strong hull.  Hull planks could be as thick as ¾”.  Even then, the sandbaggers were famously flexible, and old photographs show them clearly twisting under the battle between the power of the rig and the weight of the sandbags .  Despite the strain, the boats lasted well by the standards of their age, and some returned to fishing when their racing days were over.[26]

McGiehan ad
An ad for the sandbagger builder and skipper Pat McGeighan, described by WP Stephens as “a good judge of bad whisky”. The artist made McGieghan’s boatyard look a bit more mpressive than it was in the 1894 pic below, from the Bayonne Public Library.


McGiehan 3

As Ben Fuller, former curator of Mystic Seaport Museum and one of the few people who are experts in both traditional and modern  small craft says, the sandbagger’s design was all about speed in the light breezes typical of the New York harbour area, rather than a high top speed. The sandbagger shape was nothing like a planing hull.  When Fuller tried towing a replica of A Cary Smith’s 18’ sandbagger Comet, it merely sank into the water further without changing the attitude of the fore and aft trim. But the sandbagger’s combination of beamy light displacement hull and movable ballast made them the fastest boats of their length, and Americans were not surprised if a sandbagger ran a cabin yacht “hull down” in smooth water. [28]

Sandbagger races attracted fleets of up to forty boats, but as W.P. Stephens wrote “the gambling element, however, predominated: and exercised a controlling influence over both building and racing.”[29]  Many of the most famous races were privately arranged match races where the winner would take home $1000 to $1500, three times the annual average wage, and the public on the spectator steamers would bet up to $50,000. Races and boats were adopted by waterfront bars, whose patrons would fight hard for the honour of “their” boat.


Sandbagger racing, as the newspapers saw it.

While some of the owners were working “watermen”, the cost of the big rigs and powerful hulls and the demands of professional crews meant that owning a sandbagger was not a hobby for poor men; “the average cost was about $1,000 and the cost of maintenance, on account of the large crews required was considerable” noted Rudder magazine.[30] Some of the rich owners merely watched from a steamboat, but the sandbaggers were not sailed only by the working watermen. Every club apart from the New York Yacht Club openly encouraged the sandbaggers, and even prominent NYYC members owned them and raced them with other clubs.[31] “No better evidence of the popularity of the sandbagger in its day can be offered than the fact that some of the smallest of them were owned and raced by wealthy men who either then or afterwards were prominent members of the New York Yacht Club” wrote a former sandbagger sailor years later.[32] “The recognition of the sandbagger was not therefore confined to yachtsmen of moderate means and obscure associations.”   While the list of sandbagger owners included men like immigrant hatmaker, saloon keeper and boatbuilder “Jake” Schmidt, boatbuilder Pat McGeihan, and the sea captain turned oysterman “Cap’n Phil” Elsworth, they raced alongside establishment figures like Judge Charles F Brown and former NYYC commodore William Edgar.  Even the forbidding and aristocratic C Oliver Iselin, who later led the syndicate that owned Reliance (the largest America’s Cup yacht in history) “not only learned the alphabet of sailing from them, but also first came into yachting notice as a sandbag racer”….. [33]

The close and serious racing in tricky boats bred outstanding sailors. “With the single exception of Charlie Barr, all of the famous yacht skippers learned the trick in the sandbagger” it was said. [34] “Them’s the boat that makes sailors” wrote a correspondent in Outing magazine. “When a man’s fit to be trusted with a racing sandbagger in a blow, he’s forgot more about sailing, ballast and trim, than half these (other) skippers ever dreamed of.”

Sandbagger racing was hard work for hard men. As one report put it, a sandbagger crew was “a mass of human ballast warranted to stick three feet overboard to windward in spite of anything in the shape of sea or motion (with) the minimum of pleasure, the ballast working for so much a day and agreeing to get wet – drowned even if necessary – at that figure.”  Accounts of one of the last sandbag ballasted classes, the 20 ft Sneakboxes of Barnegat Bay, noted that the bags put “a tremendous strain…. on the hull and rigging, to say nothing of that on the crew and skipper…one of the disadvantages of this class was the difficulty of obtaining crews and when procured, sufficient in number, the physical effort was too much, except for the well seasoned.”  [35]

Crewing a sandbagger was such hard work that few people would do it without pay. The modern commentators who claim that there was a backlash about paid crews simply don’t know their history. Paid crew were accepted universally in those days in all types of boat, from the biggest cutter or schooner of the NYYC or RYS, all the way down to the part-timers in dinghy clubs or aboard small cruisers. Even basic of books about sailing would include advice about pay rates and allowances.


A late sandbagger (A.H Sloet?) in its element; flat water, light winds, and a vast spread of sail.

Racing for cash brought out the bad sportsman as well as the honest fan.  The sandbagger owners included men like Nick Duryea, who ran one the illegal gambling operations known as “policy dealing” or “the numbers racket”.  He pulled a gun on a race judge before being expelled from one club for punching a fellow owner, from another club for breaching club rules against racing for cash, and being stabbed to death in the street by a fellow and being shot dead by a fellow gambler.[36] From the safe distance of years such tales sound colourful, but those who were there were unhappy about sharing the racecourse with men like Duryea – “as bad an egg as I ever came across” and ruthless enough to kill a drunk who knocked him into the water, according to one of his own pro skippers. “You had to fight all the way around the course, and if you should win you had to fight again to get the prize” recalled Iselin.[37]  “There is no one cause which has brought the matches of this class of boat into so much disrepute as the fact that in almost every instance where the stakes have been above a $10 bill, there has been a dispute over the money after the race” noted a sports newspaper. “Clearly the men that have, for the most part, owned the sand-bagger in the past, are not the men to sustain the yachting of this neighborhood in the future……[38]

Despite the thuggery that went on, the sandbagger’s speed in flat water and light winds made the type famous across the world. [39]  New York builders were soon exporting sandbaggers to Germany and France, while French merchant seamen who saw sandbaggers took the style home, modified it with a deep keel to handle the Mistral, and called them “houaris Marseillais.”



While the sandbaggers were the most extreme and influential examples of the move to beamy centreboarders, they were far from the only example of the beamy centreboarder. Out at Boston there was keen racing in “splashers”, which were similar to sandbaggers but with fixed ballast and smaller rigs.  Less extreme cat-rigged open catboats from about 18 to 30 feet overall were to be found racing all across the north-eastern USA. But none of them were as influential in the wider world as the sandbaggers and the earlier catboats, which can justly be acclaimed as the boats that introduced the world to the  beamy “surface sailing” centreboarder.

Smaller boats seem to have been almost ignored around by the sandbagger sailors. Although there are mentions of people sailing the famous Whitehall rowboats, searches reveal no races for them. There are reports of some racing catboats as short as 12’/3.66m, which were said to be so tippy that their skippers had to part their hair down the middle, and laugh only out of the centre of their mouth.[40]  But to the sandbagger sailors, boats under 16 feet didn’t count.

There’s a reason they called these Delaware 15 footers “Hikers”. In this Thomas Eakin painting, three crew up forward hike outboard hanging onto ropes leading up from the bilge. Note the “whiskers” projecting from the gunwales. They increased the width of the stay base, making it easier to support the huge cat rig.

However, a few miles further south, another group of Americans were sailing “real” dinghies.  Four types of clinker 15 footer were to be found hunting waterfowl or picnicking along the still-unspoiled Delaware River near Philadelphia. In typical fashion, as time went by they started racing their rigs grew bigger, but they did not follow the catboats down the route of great beam and great power.

Because the narrows of the river required short tacks, the Delaware classes relied on crew weight for ballast instead of sandbags.  Some of them even carried wooden centreboards instead of the iron ones customary in other areas. The double-ended canoe-like Duckers were restricted to 48” beam, about 115 sq ft of sail in a sprit cat rig, and two or three crew.[41]  The transom-sterned Tuckups carried four crew and about 144 sq ft of sail. Like the Ducker crew, the Tuckup sailors hung onto lines secured in the bottom of the cockpit, so they could extend their weight further outboard.


The Delaware Hiker catboats relied on human ballast instead of bags of rocks. Lighter and slimmer than the sandbaggers, they seem to be the most modern boats of their era in some ways. A “tuckup” like Priscilla, above, earned its name because the planks at the stern were “tucked up” at the stern. As maritime historian Ben Fuller notes, the Tuckups resembled the famous Whitehall rowboats of New York, but were slightly flatter and fuller to improve their performance under sail.

The transom-sterned Hikers had unlimited sail area that stretched up to 450 sq ft, wider beam for stability, and masts over 20 feet tall that were supported by stays that ran to “whiskers” or outriggers that extended out each side of the bows in the style of a modern “Open 60” shorthanded racer.  They supported their vast sail by squeezing up to eight hard-hiking crewmen into their 15 foot long hull.  If the wind dropped off, some of them would be thrown overboard and (hopefully) picked up by the spectator steamers following astern.  If the wind picked up, two or three of them would creep out onto a huge hiking board that projected several feet from the windward gunwale.

The Tuckups, Duckers, Hikers and sailing canoes were stored in boathouses along the Phladelphia riverfront. “Here there are several long wharves, lined on each side with rows of two-story boat houses, twenty to thirty in a row” wrote W.P. Stephens. “In these houses are stored hundred of duckers and tuckups, while the upper story of each is fitted up more or less comfortably for the use of the crews; gunning, fishing and camping outfits, with sails and gear, being kept there. On Sundays in particular the wharves and houses are crowded, the boats are off for short cruises up or down the river, or races are sailed between the recognized cracks, handled by old and skillful captains and trained crews.”

It was an egalitarian mix, where doctors sailed alongside labourers.[42]   From 1880 to 1890, the open boat races of the Delaware could attract fleets of up to 100 boats, with spectator crowds to match. In some ways they seem to be the most technologically advanced small boat of their day, but unlike the sandbaggers and the beamier catboats further north, they had little impact outside their home waters.




[1] In The History of American yachting,      ed, Captain RF Coffin noted that The Southern yacht club,

with its head-quarters at New Orleans and

its racing course on Lake Ponchartrain,

was the second club organized, but it was

purely a local organization ; its yachts

were small open boats,

[2] SMh 28 feb 1885 p 10 quotin Satuday Review

[3] American Yachting, WP Stephens p 100

[4] American yachting, WP Stephens p 81

[5] American Yachting p 32-33

[6] The Gaff Rig Handbook, John Leather, p 83-4.

[7] History 73

[8] History 77

[9] History 77

[10] Memories and traditions of American yachting, MotorBoating June 39 p 118

[11] L Francis Herreshoff notes that after some boats developed “ram bows”, the mean of the length waterline and length on deck was adopted.  Golden Age of Yachting, p 75.

[12] Spirit of the Times, 1884 p 773

[13] Traditions and Memories., MotorBoating Sept 39 p 35

[14] For example, it has been claimed that “sandbaggers and skiffs were the first racing yachts to employ movable ballast” (Higher Performance Sailing p 8) but this is clearly incorrect since the use of movable ballast was common in English keel yachts before sandbagger racing formed.

[15] Traditions and Memories, MotorBoating Sept 1939 p34.

[16] Small yacht Racing in 1861 by A Cary Smith, The Rudder (Vol 17) 1906

[17] Normally used instead of sand because it dried out faster. BAG

[18] Traditions and Memories, MotorBoating Sept 1939 p34.

[19] BAG Fuller.  The North River sloops had carried square topsails, ringtails, water sails and studding sails in light winds (Rudder 1890 Nov p 6) so the sandbagger sailors would have been obviously aware of them.

[20] Traditions and Memories of American Yachting, MotorBoating September 1939 p 34.

[21] How Sails are Made and Handled, Charles G David, Rudder publishing, p 24

[22] See for example A Cary Smith “Small yacht racing in 1861” The Rudder vol 17 1906 and How Sails are Made and Handled, Charles G David, Rudder publishing Company 1917, p 33.

[23] A New York Times report of the Newburgh regatta 1877, published June 19, refers to sandbaggers like W.R. Brown, Fidget and Freak using “spinigers”.  However,  “The History of Small yacht design part II” by Russell Clark, Wooden Boat July/August 1981 p 30 says that spinnakers were only used from 1879 in the USA.

[25] Small yacht Racing in 1861 by A Cary Smith, The Rudder (Vol 17) 1906.  A very heavy centreboard was fitted in the well-known Dare Devil in 1882  but it did not perform well; see Stephens in Forest and Stream p 433. Another sandbagger was fitted with a bulb keel, before Nat Herreshoff introduced the idea successfully with Dilemma.

[26]  The Rudder of     p 105 mentions that the 35 year old sandbagger Walter F Davids was still working as a fishing boat. The Jan 1906 number of that magazine included a photo of the Pat McGeighan sandbagger Sadie, perhaps the most successful sandbagger of them all, still sailing actively.

[27] Belitz, Kemp and Stephens give slightly different measurements for Parole. The “lighter English cutters” are the Dan Hatcher design shown on p    of Uffa Fox’s and Primrose, whose dimensions are in the 1884 edition of Dixon Kemp.

[28] Kunhardt,  Forest and Stream  Sep 21 1882 p 156

[29] Trad and Mem MotorBoating Sep 1939 p 88

[30] See for example Bethwaite Higher Performance Sailing p 10).

[31] The Sandbaggers by William E Simmons, The Rudder, Vol 17 No 3 (1906)

[32] The Sandbaggers by William E Simmons, The Rudder, Vol 17 No 3 (1906).  Other “establishment” sandbagger sailors include charter members of the Larchmont YC and Frank Bowne Jones, who WP Stephens credits as the main organiser of US Sailing  (latter May 44 MotorBoating p 109)


[34] Spirit of the Times April 29 1876

“Match sailing has latterly become such a business with a certain class of vessels and owners, and the tonnage of the yachts themselves is so great, that an owner who used to steer and handle his own craft now shrinks from the responsibility…owners have got more and more into the habit of trusting every thing to their skippers, and even often to the builders, who are thus made much more the real proprietors of the vessels than the men who pay for them….like passengers on board.”[34]

[35] “Barnegat Bay Sneak Boxes” by Edwin B Schoettle, “Sailing Craft” p 607.

[36] Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 18 Dec 1872 p 4 and 25 Nov 1888 p 6.

[37] Golden years of yachting p 75. From the description, it was probably Iselin who ended an argument about who had won a sandbagger race by grabbing the winnings and swimming away with them, as described by WP Stephens. Sandbagger sailor A Cary Smith and Thomas Day of The Rudder also confirmed that cheating, such as using pie tins to paddle in calms, was common in the sandbagger fleets; see for instance Smith’s first hand account of building and racing his sandbagger Comet in “Small yachting racing in 1861”, The Rudder Oct 1906 p 592.

[38] Spirit of the Times 1884 p 773


[40] Forest and Stream,   1878 p 49

[41] The sail area was controlled by limiting the circumference to 48’. “The Delaware Ducker” by BAG Fuller, Wooden Boat Sept/Oct 1982 p 83

[42] Information from Ben Fuller and Traditionalsmallcraft.com.

SailCraft Pt 1.3: “A little too marvelous to be real” – the story of the Una Boat

Even before the initial flush of British enthusiasm for the “Yankee centreboarder” died away, it was renewed by a smaller Bob Fish design.  In 1852 the expatriate Scotsman William Butler Duncan, a leading member of the New York YC, bought a little catboat to England as a present for his friend Lord Mountcharles. [1]   Una, as she was known, became a toy of the rich and famous, and gave her name to the entire catboat breed and the cat rig in England.


Una’s sailplan, as it appears in Dixon Kemp’s famous “Manual of Yacht and Boat Sailing”. In typical cat-rig fashion, the mast was stepped right forward to avoid creating too much weather helm.  Because the foredeck is to narrow to allow an adequate staying base, the standard cat rig has no shrouds, which in turn dictate a strong and heavy mast and mast step. The traditional catboat was therefore heavy in the bows and had a reputation for pitching badly in a seaway.  The arrangement of the blocks above the gaff allowed the sail to be hoisted on a single halyard, instead of the conventional system that used a throat halyard fore end of the gaff and a separate peak halyard for the outboard end. Una’s  rig, said Kemp, was “simple in the extreme, and even the famed balance lug cannot beat it in this respect.”

Una was measured for a lines plan and offsets some time after she arrived in England. It was a symbol of the times, for ‘scientific’ designers using lines plans were starting to take over from the old-timers who designed their boats with carved models. It also means that Una is the earliest small catboat that we have accurate information about.

At a bit over 680kg/1500lb (assuming that her design waterline allowed for two crew) Una is no lightweight by today’s standards.  With her 6’6″/1.98m  foot beam, the little Fish boat was narrow compared to the typical modern Cape Cod style cat, but to eyes used to the narrow English boats her “chief peculiarity” was her “great beam in proportion to length.”  She had the typical slack bilges of a catboat of the era;”all deadrise and no bilge” was how some put it. She had hollow waterlines forward and an extremely deeply veed bow that broadened and flared out quickly into semi-circular sections.



Truant’s lines, as they appear in Dixon Kemp.  The reverse stem was probably a rating dodge; as Francis Herreshoff wrote in “The Golden Age of Yachting”, the early New York catboats “were initially measured or rated by length on deck, but later, because some had adopted a ram bow, the mean of the length on deck and the length of waterline was adopted.”

To men who were had grown up with the deep and narrow English cutter and were still reeling from the shock of the schooner America, this little “skimming dish” was a sensation. The little catboat attracted widespread interest during a summer of sailing on the Serpentine, the small ornamental lake in London’s Hyde Park.[2]  One of Mountcharles’ fellow offices in the Life Guards commissioned a sloop to beat her.  In front of a crowd including the Prince of Wales, heir to the throne, Butler Duncan took Una’s helm and beat the sloop by over two laps.

The next summer Mountcharles’ little boat was taken to Cowes, which was taking over from the increasingly crowded and polluted Thames as the centre of English yachting. There she caused such a sensation that her name became a British term for the catboat and for the mainsail-only rig. “The Una, like the Truant, outsailed all the British boats that competed with her, and thus a sort of second revolution in racing boats was brought about” raved contemporary writer Henry Folkard.[3] “The Cowes people regarded the Una as a little too marvellous to be real” wrote the journalist, author and designer Dixon Kemp.  “To see the Una dodging about on a wind and off a wind, round the stern of this craft, across the bows of that one, and generally weaving about between boats where there did not look to be room enough for an eel to wriggle, astonished the Cowes people, who had never seen anything more handy under canvas than a waterman’s skiff with three sails, or an Itchen boat with two, or more unhandy than a boat with one sail – the dipping lug; but the Una with her one sail showed such speed, and was so handy, that in less than a year there was a whole fleet of Unas at Cowes, and about the Solent.”[4]

It’s been said that Cowes was a conservative place where social status was ruled by the size of one’s yacht. If it was ever true (and Una’s tale indicates it probably was not) the little American boat broke the rules.   “Una boats” became the plaything of both the rich and powerful, such as the Prince of Wales, and the middle class. [5]  By 1853, the Royal Yacht Squadron, undisputed social leader of the English yachting scene, scheduled a special race in its annual regatta for boats under 17 feet “in order to afford the spectators the opportunity of witnessing a display between the little Una’s, American clippers, or sliding keel boats with the English sail boats of Southampton and neighbouring ports.” [6] In 1855, Una won first prize in a race for “American boats” in the Royal Yacht Squadron Regatta.[7] She won a similar event, in different hands, in the Cowes Town Regatta the following year ahead of a boat owned by yachting royalty, Barry Ratsey of the famous boat building and sailmaking family.  The race “created great excitement, as the American style of boat seems to be a favourite among young Cowsers”. [8]

True royalty gave the catboat the ultimate stamp of approval in 1881 when the Prince of Wales ordered his own “Una” from Cowes boatbuilder Caleb Corks, “well known for his skill in building these boats, which are great favourites with many yachtsmen”. [9]


Lord and Lady Beresford take the Princess of Wales for a spin in a Una Boat around the royal yacht at Cowes.

The fashion for Una boats may have been fading by then, as even the Prince apparently found it organise a class race. [11] But by August that year, the Prince was racing in a special catboat class in front of Queen Victoria herself, against boats owned by the Earl of Gosport, his occasional friend Lord Beresford (second in charge of the Royal Navy), and the tiny 12’ Pixie. [12]  Even the fashion pages gushed about the Princess of Wales appearance in a Una boat at Cowes, describing her outfit in detail. The original Una herself was last heard of on the estate of Lord de Ros; from start to finish she had been a darling of the rich and famous.  Meanwhile, men with smaller wallets raced catboats across much of Britain.

The Una fever faded in the late 1800s.  The diagnosis was similar to that of centreboard sloop; catboats were not well suited to British conditions.  To quote a later catboat fan from the USA, “the one-sail plan is the best for weatherly qualities, and for handiness – if there be no sea, and if it is all turning to windward.  In a sea, however, the heavy mast, stepped so far forward, makes the boats plunge dangerously, and the boats themselves are so shallow that they are not very well adapted for smashing through a head sea.  Then, off a wind they are extremely wild, and show a very great tendency to broach to.”[15]  also played a part, but the classic British dinghy was already starting to evolve in places like the central reaches of the Thames.  As Folkard noted, the “Una style of boat, with its one sail, once so popular among the boating fraternity at Cowes and elsewhere, is now a type of the past. It is, in fact, almost entirely supplanted by a less shallow form of boat and a handier kind of rig”.[16] 

But the Una Boat story may shed an interesting light on the culture of sailing in England, one of the core areas for dinghy design and development.  Some commentators have claimed that the Una was an upstart and a social outcast.  They could not be more wrong.  The fact that Marquis, Sea Lords, the Royal yacht Squadron and the man who would be king were happy to be seen involved in small, unusual boats proved that social status in England was not strictly linked to the size of your boat.  Perhaps Britain’s class structure was so secure that a person’s social status could not be damaged even by something as apparently eccentric as sailing a tiny boat.  It may, perhaps, a forerunner of the fact that British sailors of later eras were happy to sail boats that were significantly smaller than those of the other major sailing nations, and which pointed the way to the modern sailing dinghy.

[1] The information about Una’s provenance comes from an interview with Duncan; “Men who have made yachting, William Butler Duncan”  The Rudder, Jan 1906,   p 6.  Some other sources say that Mountcharles saw Una at Fish’s yard while visiting New York; the two accounts are not mutually inconconsistent.

Like so many others associated with the story of the Unas, W Butler Duncan was a pillar of the establishment. He was later a Life Member and Rear Commodore of the New York YC and played a leading role in America’s Cup defence syndicates.

[2] Hunts Yachting Magazine Vol 2 1853 p 152 notes that it was regretted that Una was not seen sailing during a London Model Yacht Club race on the Serpentine. Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle, March 6 1853 noted that Mountcharles presented the Prince of Wales YC with a model of Una that “elicited universal admiration”.

Una’s dimensions, as given by Kemp in his Manual, were 16’ LOA, 6’6” beam, weight (with crew) 13 cwt, sail area    .

[3] Sailing Boats p 94.

[4] Dixon Kemp, p 322.  Kemp states that the normal Cowes Una Boats were similar to the original, but had slightly flatter sections and more freeboard.

[5] The Standard, June 15 1875 p 3

[6] Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle, August 20, 1854.  The event did not occur as “they were all afraid to show against the Teazer, of Southampton, which had been expressly entered for the purpose of contending with them.”

[7] Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle, August 18, 1855

[8] Hampshire Telegraph and Salisbury Guardian, August 16, 1856.  A few months before, however, it was said that the very deep 20 foot Itchen Ferries beat the Cowes centreboarders; Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle , November 25, 1855, p.5

[9] Isle of Wight Observer, July 23 1881, p 6.  The Prince’s boat, like most of those she raced against, was about 25’ long.

[10] The County Gentleman: Sporting Gazette and Agricultural Journal, August 6 1881

[11] The County Gentleman: Sporting Gazette and Agricultural Journal, August 6 1881

[12] Morning Post, August 15, 1881 p 6.  The Evening News of the same day noted that the exported Herreshoff catboat Gleam, which had movable ballast and a large crew for live ballast, was “sailing in company, and beating the racers easily.”

[14] The Times (London, England), Monday, Aug 14, 1882; pg. 8

[15] Edwin B. Schoettle, American Catboats p 94, in Sailing Craft.

[16] Sailing Boats p 19

SailCraft Pt 1.2: Catboats and skimming dishes


While Peggy slept in her boatshed and Margaret rotted by the lake, the next ancestor of the modern racing dinghy started to evolve across the Atlantic.  Some time before 1850, when the waters of north-eastern USA developed the beamy, shallow type that was to become the catboat and the sandbagger.

The ancestry of the catboat is a mystery.  The Dutch, the developers of the fore-and-aft rig and the first European settlers around the New York area, had used similar short and beamy boats with a mast stepped well forward for many years, and some of that tradition may have remained in the small boats using for fishing, oystering and other work around the north-eastern USA.  But even to authorities like Howard Chappelle and William Picard Stephens, the greatest of all racing sailboat historians, exactly when and where the breed developed remained unknown.[1]

One of the earliest descriptions of the type that for some unknown reason became labelled the catboat can be found in the recollections of the legendary yacht designer Nat Herreshoff, who sailed the “Point Boats” that had evolved around the point of Newport Rhode Island by the mid 1800s.  “Most boats in those days were roughly the type of the old Julia” he wrote to his son Francis, referring to a long-keeled boat approximately 23’ long that was built by Nat’s father Charles around 1833.[2]   “They were nearly all cat rigged with high narrow sails.  In their regattas there were no restrictions as to req. ballast, so it was the custom to take out part of the standing ballast and replace it with sand bags and men.”[3]

Point Boat 2
A Newport Rhode Island “Point Boat” from the 1830s. This sketch, reproduced in Traditions and Memories of American Yachting, shows a boat 23’6″ overall, 7’9″ in beam, and with a draft of 4’9″.  The Herreshoff’s Julia was generally similar.


Craft like the “Point Boats” remained popular in the deep waters around Boston and Newport, but in the mid 1800s a different style started to develop around Cape Cod and in the shallower waters around Long Island, New York, New Jersey and Barnegat Bay.  As Nat Herreshoff recalled, about 1853 or 1854, “the cat boats were changing to centreboard and greater beam, and their rig not so high & narrow.” [5]

The style that is now the archetypal catboat didn’t evolve until about 1850, when the Crosby family of Cape Cod launched the first of the 3500 “Cape Cod cats” they have built.  The Crosby cats were heavy centreboarders, with the mast stepped right in the eyes of the boat, a hull almost half as wide as it was long, and a huge transom. [6]  Although the Cape Cod Cat is seen as the classic catboat today, in the 1800s many localities developed local breeds. They all used the catboat trademarks of wide, shoal-draft hull and low aspect rig, but tailored the style for their own conditions and use.


Catboats ranged from the elegance of a Gil Smith South Bay racer to the power of a sloop-rigged Crosby Cape Cod cat. Pics from Wooden Boat Magazine (top) and catboatforsaleblogspot.com.au


No matter what local breed they were, the 19th century catboats often carried a bowsprit and jib, especially for racing or the light winds of summer. A sloop-rigged catboat seems a contradiction in terms today, but they used words differently in the 1800s.  Words like “catboat” or “cutter”, which we used to describe a type of rig, were then used as the label for a general type of hull. As Nat Herreshoff’s brother Lewis wrote, “the cat-boat in the usual acceptation means something more than its simple rig; it stands for a shallow, wide boat, with one mast crowded into the extreme bow, and a boom reaching far over the stern.” In typical sailing fashion, just to confuse the uninitiated the sailors of the time also used the term “cat rigged” to refer to boats that only hoisted a mainsail.

This evolution towards a broad, shallow centreboarder was common around many parts of the USA. At the start of the 19th century, the waters around New York had been populated with wide and beamy centreboarders like the big North River sloops, 75 to 100 feet long, that worked freight and passengers up and down the Hudson.   Fastest of them all was the giant racing sloop Maria, which had a full 26’6” beam on a waterline length of 92’ and a draft of just over 5 feet with her seven ton centreboard up. She was built in 1846 for John C Stevens, founder of the New York Yacht Club, and easily defeated the yacht America in trials before the famous schooner went to England and won what would become the America’s Cup.  About half the  big yachts of New York followed the same beamy centreboard theme as Magic.

To British yachtsmen, the shallow, beamy American centreboarders were to become known as “skimming dishes” or “surface sailing” boats, because they were thought to skim over the surface of the water, rather than knife through it like the deep British craft or pilot schooner types like America herself.  By the time of the first America’s Cup challenge in 1870, the beamy centreboard “skimming dish” hull was established as the American national type, from the smallest catboat to the largest schooner.

Like many of the big yachts, the small catboats were normally designed and built by self-taught men, not by trained shipwrights or designers. “Phil” Elsworth was an oysterman, Jake Schmidt a hatter and saloonkeeper.  They designed by carving models in pine, and then cutting them apart to use as the pattern for the full-size boat. Their experience and innate ability allowed them to create boats that for many years equalled those of the trained designers.[7]  [8]

One of the greatest of these “modellers” was Bob Fish. Born into a distinguished family, he had been forced to support his family and siblings when his father died early.  “He was a man of no technical education, but a born boat sailor, an original thinker, and a very clever mechanic” wrote WP Stephens.  Lewis Herreshoff, brother of the famous Nat, rated Fish as second only to Steers (designer of the schooner America) in his time. Another who ranked Fish highly was A Cary Smith, who served an apprenticeship in his Pamrope boatshed before becoming famous for designing America’s Cup winners. [9]

Bob Fish_zpswuklrxcf

Robert Fish – creator of two of the world’s most influential centreboarders.

It was two of Bob Fish’s creations that made the catboat and the sandbagger famous around the sailing world, even before they were fully developed in their own home waters. Although the tale of these two little boats seems to be a diversion from the development of the catboat type in its American home, it is a tale worth telling because the sensation they made in England makes them the first well-documented examples of their type, and also provides an illustration of their strengths and weaknesses.

In 1852, Robert Minturn Grinnell ordered a jib-and-main boat from Fish.  The two men were linked by their families, which had been partners in the prosperous shipping firm that had just launched Flying Cloud, one of the greatest of the clipper ships.  Although he was a member of the New York Yacht Club, Grinnell was about to leave his home town to take up business in Liverpool. In 1852, little Truant, about 20’/6m overall and 7’/2.1m in beam was delivered to Liverpool, then the world’s busiest port.


Robert Minturn Grinnell; the first and most successful skipper of Truant.

While the Americans had been developing the beamy centreboarder, British yachting had developed the narrow deep keel cutter.  Just as the word “catboat” then referred more to a hull shape than a rig, in 1850 the term “cutter” did not simply mean a single-masted boat with more than one headsail, as it does today.  To sailors of the 19th century, it meant a boat with a deep slender hull (a product of harbour taxation laws, rating rules and the belief that a narrow boat performed better in choppy English seas) and a complex rig with a large topsail and several headsails set from a reefing (retractable) bowsprit.  Even small fishing craft, skiffs and dinghies under 20 feet tended to have complicated rigs with lugsails or spritsails, jibs and even mizzens. Such rigs may seem clumsy to our eyes, but the sails were easy to reef or douse in the changeable and often blustery British winds.

The men who sailed the English cutters were far from the modern cliché of the conservative Victorian-era British yachtsman. Sailboat racing as an organised sport was little older than the 505 class is today, and it was proud to call itself the most progressive and scientific pastime of the era. Even an “establishment” club like the Royal Yacht Squadron was led by a man (C.R.M. Talbot) who earned his fortune in the new industries of steel and steam and counted among its members like Robert Stephenson, creator of the famous ‘Rocket’ steam engine and one of the new breed of engineers who was transforming the entire world with railways. Other members included the great Radical journalist Albany Fonblanque and Joseph Weld, who had created an entire lake on his estate as a giant test tank. [10]   Even those who had the most conservative political and social views were fascinated by new yacht designs; the Marquis of Coyningham, pilloried by The Times as one of the worst of the landlords who lorded over the oppressed Irish in the leadup to the Famine, was one of those who tried to buy the schooner America. Men like this and their professional skippers and crews sailed hard, gambled hard on their races, and were not above fighting with marlinspikes or using cutlasses and axes to cut a rival’s rigging after collisions.[11]   At least that was a fair contest; [1]  other “sportsmen” of the era got their kicks by watching their greyhounds tear live hares apart, or shooting hundreds of captive pigeons in a single match.

The big boat sailors of the time believed that they had a duty to use some of their wealth improve the breed of sailing craft.  Sailing was not just a sport; it was the usual method of transportation for amateur and professional fishermen, daytripping tourists, and merchant and naval seaman.[12] Until the more economical compound steam engine was developed in the 1870s, even the most modern ironclad warships relied on sail power for long passages. As one newspaper noted “the celebrated tea clippers, which used to make such wonderful passages to England from the China ports, were the fruits of theory and practice combined and developed in yacht building.”[13]  Oyster fishermen of the Chesapeake later improved their boats after reading magazine updates on yacht design, and at least one yachtsman used to sell his old boats to the local fishermen each year to improve their fleet. [14]

Truant crossed the Atlantic while British yachting was still in shock from the victory of the schooner America the year before.  [15] “The first effect of the visit of the America was visible in 1851 in the remodelling of the entire British yacht fleet” wrote WP Stephens. [16] The big cutters and giant schooners were being cut down and re-shaped; their bows extended and made finer.  Their full sails were being replaced by flat ones, laced to the boom. “The ‘America’ was truly the harbinger of a mania for clipper-yachts” said one writer.  “Every yacht and boat-builder immediately had their hands full….Such was the complete revolution in yacht-building created by the performance of that vessel, that more than half the whole fleet of yachts were altered at the bows….so great was the rage to excel and to possess a clipper yacht, that experiment upon experiment was made.”[17]

Grinnell couldn’t have arrived at a better place and time. The sailors of the River Mersey cities of Liverpool and Birkenhead were just as keen on development as those who sailed the giant schooners and cutters of the Thames estuary and the Solent. Shortly before America and Truant crossed the Atlantic,they established the Birkenhead Model Yacht Club with the aim of “scientific experiment and practical deduction” to improve boat design.  To the BMYC members, the word “model” had three meanings. As well as the obvious meaning of scale model, it was also a common term for the physical shape of a yacht’s hull at the time. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there was the connotation of “an example to follow or imitate”, as in the term “model of perfection.”

The men who formed the BMYC, once called “the mother of small yacht clubs”, ranged from titled big-boat owners to immigrant students, but they were united by a desire for a “progressive and scientific yacht club” that would improve boat design. [18]  Many years later, a witness recalled the BMYC members racing their models in the “Great Float” dock. “5000 persons assembled to witness the match. I will never forget the sight as long as I live” he wrote. “Up to nearly their waists in the water stood some 15 gentlemen, including…a well known medico….and one of the young Lairds, who then owned a yacht of some 35 tons.”[19]

Some BMYC members quickly found out that the choppy water of the dock and the effects of scale meant that their tests were misleading, and decided to continue their experiments with full size boats. “Owing to the dissatisfaction of several of the more progressive spirits at the results of our model experiments, craft of from 4,5,6,7 and 8 tons were at once built” foundation member H.R. Murray recalled years later. “And no sooner did they spread their white wings over the Mersey than (a ship) brought over a queer-looking centreboard craft” wrote Murray. [19b]


The “Great Float” dock, situated across the Mersey from Liverpool, at its official opening. The members of the “mother of all small yacht clubs” used this industrial setting for their early model yacht races.

The “queer craft” was Truant. The little American boat caused a sensation. She was “another America; dissimilar in some respects, but greater as developing a great novelty” raved one paper. “Her peculiarity consists not only in her rig, but in her hull” which was “about as flat as a butchers tray, sharp in front but full behind. She has a shifting keel by which she can either draw about eight inches of water only when running, or about 4’6” when beating, at which time only her keel is put down like an ordinary boat’s. Of her rig next.  She has her mainsail flat as a board and laced; and carried forward what is known to yachtsmen by the appellation of a “bumpkin” foresail, also laced to the boom.  These, with a small topsail, constitute her suit: and a smarter suit it would be difficult to find….[1]

The “strange-looking little foreigner…has her mast stepped in her very eyes- has a long easy entrance – full withal, and not a hollow line about her – carries her body all aft – does not draw much more water than about a foot in ballast trim – sails with a small centre board” noted another fascinated reporter. “She is about twenty feet over all, and seven feet beam.”

Unlike the British cutters, Truant could sail well under mainsail alone, although she did sometimes set a topsail.  When racing she appears to have normally carried a jib set on a boom which (like the rig of a modern model yacht) pivoted on a point aft of the tack.

Truant large and grey
Truant – a detail from a lithograph by Dutton. Hunts, the world’s first yachting magazine, advised its readers to go out and buy a copy of this accurate illustration of the famous little centreboarder.

Even before her first race, Truant’s performance on the narrow Mersey River amazed the locals. “Truly she is as fast as the wind – staying, wearing, running and reaching under the single sail with amazing velocity” one journalist reported.  [19]  In her first race the little boat, rated at 3 ½ tons, “shot away”[20] to finish 16 minutes ahead of the fleet. “Although the Yankee has, on this occasion, again ‘whipped all creation’ the best feeling was manifested; and Grinnell was highly complimented by the commodore in awarding to him the cup.” [21]


Liverpool docks in 1850, when sail still ruled the world’s busiest port, and improving hull designs saved lives and money.

By July, Grinnell had shipped Truant across the Irish Sea, and “the Yankee cockleshell” was amazing the Irish regatta circuit. [22] She could “go about in the most extraordinary manner, in fact exactly like a top” exclaimed the Cork Examiner, and “gaining ground on every tack”, she “shot off rapidly” to win.[23]  The “extraordinary little yacht” was “now as famous in Dublin Bay as she had previously become at Liverpool.”[24] 

Truant gained her most noted success after she was shipped down to the Thames, site of the world’s first organised yacht racing club.  The unbeatable American was already so famous that before the race, Bells Sporting Life was warning spectators to book early for the spectator ferry.[26]  In the race she showed herself to be “infinitely superior” upwind, winning by a quarter of an hour from larger boats before being “greeted with loud cheers, which were taken up by several of the yachtsmen afloat in their own craft.” [27] Truant’s triumphs were not just local news; they were reported as far afield as New York and Australia.

“The performances of this little vessel in beating to windward and scudding before the wind were astonishing” wrote contemporary sailor Henry Folkard in his enormously popular book Sailing Boats. “No English boat her size could sail so close to the wind, nor run so swiftly before the wind; and the result was, that the Truant completely vanquished on the river (as her larger sister the America had done on the sea) every boat that competed with her. [28]

The New Sporting Magazine compared Truant’s impact to the that of the schooner America. “No English boat of her size could compete with her; and thus a second revolution was brought about; and boat-builders puzzled their brains over this new discovery which now dawned upon them, as the astonishing performance of this little clipper were from time to time witnessed in every match she sailed.”[25]

One of the boatbuilders who puzzled over Truant was  H.R. Murray of the BMYC. Years later, he was to use the term “surface sailing” to contrast the American centreboarders with the deep British boats. “The hull should skim over the surface of the water, while the immersed blade increases the lateral resistance, and enables them then in ordinary weather to hold a wind with their deep-keeled rivals.” It was a description that echoed Schank’s words of the 1700s, and that Murray would take across the world. [11

Truant model
Late in 2015, the auction house Christies was advertising the builder’s presentation model for Truant, apparently the genuine item. This low-quality image from the catalogue shows her deep skeg aft, her extensive decks, and her narrow beam compared to the sandbaggers of two decades later.  

Although there were some who jeered and even some who cursed, the available evidence indicates that the overall reaction of the Victorian yachtsmen to Truant was positive.  As early as November 1852, Grinnell noted that builders from all parts of the UK were copying her model, and as soon after Truant returned from the Thames to her home waters at Liverpool, she started facing competition from other boats built along the lines of the American centreboard sloop. [29]   The Mersey fleet soon included the centreboarder Breeze built along American lines, the 10 ton Stranger, a keelboat built to the centreboard sloop concept by Bob Fish himself and carrying up to 12 crew as live ballast, and another Fish export, the little 2 ½ ton Buffalo Gal that was later sailed by Grinnell. [30],[31]

Probably the keenest of all the Mersey centreboarder fans was the cotton  merchant Alfred Bower.[32]  Bower was one of the BMYC members who had moved into full-size boats by buying one of the local open boats used by working watermen. He seems to have quickly become converted to the centreboard concept, and after his death it was noted that “to his last was a firm believer that, for speed, the centre-board would beat the deep keel craft hands down.”[33]  From 1853 to 1855 he had a new 8 ton centreboard sloop type built every year; first Presto, then Challenge and Spray, each with 670lb/300kg) of movable ballast mounted on “tramlines” that ran across the cockpit – an idea that the legendary Herreshoffs only adopted about a decade later.[34]

Presto, Challenge and Spray were each built by local boatbuilder Philip Kelly.  And here we come to an intriguing note – for the only boatbuilder of that name I can identify in the area at the time was in his late 60s, but still healthy enough to woo and marry his third wife a few years later.  The marriage records show that the ageing Philip Kelly had been born in Douglas to a shipwright named Thomas Kelly in Douglas on the isle of Man in 1786.  Was this the same Thomas Kelly who was listed in George Quayle’s accounts for the construction of Peggy?  Was the young Philip Kelly the first ever boy to be fascinated by a champion centreboarder, and to decide to devote his life to building boats?  Did he chuckle when the ‘new fangled’ centreboard, similar to the ones he may have worked on 50 years before, arrived at his Liverpool home when he was an old man?  It’s hard not to think that the Philip Kelly who built Bower’s boats must have grown up on the Isle of Man, watching his father modify Peggy under George Quayle’s direction, and perhaps lending a hand on her modifications in those days when children started their apprenticeships early.

But despite the enthusiasm for the American centreboard sloop, within a few years the type seems to have died out.  Race reports become once again a contest of deep, narrow cutter against deep, narrow cutter. So why did the American centreboard sloop fade out in Britain?  In part, it was due to the fact that the rating systems of the day favoured the traditional deep and narrow cutter.  Truant, 20’ long overall, only had a handicap of a minute per race over Julia, the runner-up in the race on the Thames, which was more than 30’ overall.[35]  But the rating system itself could not have killed the centreboard sloop; they could still win races, and other types that rated poorly (like the Itchen Ferry Punts) did not die out.

The centreboard itself attracted some criticism.  Some said that it was “a dodge” that allowed her to sail into shallow waters and escape unfavourable tides. [36]  Years later one “establishment” owner was to comment that “for many years there was a curious dislike and distrust of (centreboards) among British boat-sailers and builders. They were excluded altogether from most regattas; and not one in twenty of the boats that would have been vastly improved by them were ever fitted with them. They were regarded, for some mysterious reason, as unseaworthy, unsportsmanlike, and unfair.”[37];  Others said that the movable centreboards should be banned because they were a return to the curse of shifting ballast that had blighted British yachting for years. [38] Still others spoke of leaking centreboard cases, while Francis Herreshoff noted years later that stones from the British shingle beaches often jammed ‘boards.

Although it is often said that centreboards were banned from British yachting, in Truant’s day there was no national body to enforce such a ban, and the two major small-yacht clubs, Birkenhead and the Prince of Wales, either permitted them or, following the standard practice of grouping boats of similar type into specific classes, ran separate classes for centreboarders.  Some years later, other regatta organisers and clubs did ban centreboards, and they were specifically banned from the bigger yachts, but at this distance it is hard to find any evidence that prejudice or blind conservatism was the reason.

Julia from Hunts yachting magaine
Julia, the boat that finished second to Truant in the famous race on the Thames, was what we’d call a cruiser/racer today. She was said to be of unconventional design, which indicates that the opposition to boats like Truant was not just based on a preference for conservative yachts. This illustration came from Hunts Yachting Magazine.

There were those who criticised Truant and similar centreboarders as nothing more than “sailing machines”. “We may just as well call her a yacht as term a match-cart (i.e. a horse-racing sulky) a comfortable family carriage” said one writer after Truant’s victory in the Thames. [39]  “A shallow skimming dish should hardly be allowed to sail in matches, in which vessels possessing the usual accommodation were competitors, and almost certain to be distanced.”[40]

It was, in truth, a fair point. The boat that ran second to Truant on the Thames was Julia, described as “a very peculiar model” of boat, built in iron to a design by her owner. [42]  Rated at 7 tons, she had a waterline of 26’6” LWL, a beam of 7’11” beam, and was about 30 feet long.  She was a much larger boat than Truant, but she also had a 10’ long  saloon with standing headroom that would seat half a dozen in comfort. [41] The Ida, which placed third that day, was only 22’6” long but had completed a 20 day cruise to France.[43]  Truant, in contrast, was an open day-sailing racer that was carried from race to race aboard ships.[44] Even in larger sizes, the centreboarders had their accommodation cut up by the centreboard case and the deck obstructed by the large deckhouse required for headroom.[45]  Putting a boat like Truant up against these seaworthy cruiser/racers was like putting a skiff in a sportsboat race.

But in the end, the fact that the early English centreboard fad faded away may be an early example of the fact that weather, society and geography dictate design.  The beamy centreboard sloop often performed brilliantly on the Mersey, Thames and Dublin Bay, but it may not have suited other British conditions.  As the celebrated yachting writer William Cooper (writing as Vanderdecken) noted, in flat water, downwind or in steady conditions the American sloop type was “admirably adapted, and of wonderful speed” but they were inferior in typical English conditions of blustery  winds and choppy seas, cut up by tides and overfalls. “They are not calculated for our seas” was his conclusion[46].

Cooper‘s criticism could perhaps be dismissed as bias or conservatism, if it was not borne out by so many race results and reports that spoke of the centreboard sloops retiring or lagging behind deep-keel cutters in strong and gusty winds and choppy seas.  [47] [48]  The example of Sir William Forwood, who had sailed the centreboarders owned by his uncle Alfred Bower, demonstrates that not all “establishment figures” were scared of the new style of centreboarder or ignorant of its problems.  In 1866 he bought Truant “which had greatly distinguished herself for speed, and taking her up to Windermere” he wrote. “She was not, however, of much use on that expansive but treacherous sheet of water. The heavy squalls were too much for her huge sail plan.” [49]


The cutter Coralie (left) takes the winner’s gun in a Royal Mersey Yacht Club race in 1847, five years before Truant arrived in Liverpool. The big cutter’s owner was one of the BMYC members who used model yachts to test new designs. Coralie was to become one of the rivals of the bigger Bob Fish and Philip Kelly designs such as Challenge and Stranger in a series of interesting battles between the deep British cutter and the shallow American-style sloop. This copy of the Henry Melling painting comes from the RMYC site.

Many years another writer who had learned to sail on the Liverpool sloops wrote of their “alluring excitement” but claimed that sailors were turned off by their dangerous and uncomfortable performance in the choppy, windy and cold British conditions.  An Australian yachting writer claimed years later that the Liverpool sailors laughed “when they recall to memory their folly, and the risk they used to run in the useless and unseaworthy boats, which they looked upon at the time as not to be beaten by anything afloat” [50]  Even Truant herself, sailed by the experienced Grinnell, capsized twice on the Mersey.[51]  Anyone who looks at the Mersey could wonder how they would right and empty a big 19th century centreboarder among those chilly tide-ripped waters and steep riverbanks.

Truant’s career shows a trend that extends to the present day.  The fact that some people disliked the type is seen by some modern commentators as unfair bias by a blind establishment.  In fact, judging from the press accounts, those who cursed Truant were greatly outnumbered by those who cheered her.[52]  Some reports of her performance exaggerated her record, rather than diminished it. [53]   In the end, it seems that the American centreboard sloop died out in Britain not because of establishment bias (although the rating rule was harsh on them) but because they were unsuitable for cruising and inconsistent and uncomfortable for racing in English conditions.[54]  It might be significant that when the Mersey developed another local centreboard class in the 1880s, the class rules created a slender (5’8” to 6’ beam) 18 footer with a moderate sized 280ft2 rig rather than a beamy American sloop type.[55]

And what of Grinnell? After selling Truant, he also occasionally raced his big schooner on the Mersey.  When the American Civil War began, this member of the New York establishment took up arms against his own side by joining the southern Confederate forces.  Remarkably, after the south lost the war he appears to have returned to New York, but unlike the rest of his family he dropped out of sailing.

But even as the craze for the American centreboard sloop started to fade, the model started to spread further afield.  Men and boats inspired by Truant ended up taking the “surface sailing” model across to the far side of the world. Bob Fish himself started to export sloops to Germany, especially to the tiny lake Alster in Hamburg. Was Fish’s export drive spurred by the fact that one skippers entered against Truant in the famous race on the Thames was a Herr Westphal from Hamburg?  But that is another story, and first we must look at the next Bob Fish boat to cause a sensation overseas….

[1] See “Fore & Aft Craft and their story”, E Keble Chatterton, p 261 and 305.

[2] Capt. Nat Herreshoff, the Wizard of Bristol by L Francis Herreshoff, p39

[3] This information comes from Nat Herreshoff’s recollections of his grandfather’s tales of early sailing, as described to his son L Francis Herreshoff in a letter of 10 Feb 1926.  Reference: Mystic Seaport Museum.

[4] The pivoting centreboard, as distinct from the daggerboard-type “sliding keel” of Peggy and Schank, was designed by another Royal Navy officer, Captain Molyneux Shuldam, in    when he was a prisoner during the Napoleonic Wars.  A parallel but slightly later development was awarded a patent in the US.  Shuldham , described by an Admiral as “a very clever officer”, designed a “revolving rig” similar to that of the current superyacht Maltese Falcon, as well as a “harpoon rudder” that seems to have been the first spade rudder; Transactions of the Royal Institution of Naval Architects, Vol 9 1868 p 273.

A correspondent in the New York Clipper paper New York Clipper of November 11, 1854 claimed that “as far back as 1810,” he had “a beautiful little schooner-rigged centreboard sail boat, with which….he used to go forth and outsail everything of her size that floated: and about the same time, Fountain and Hatfield, of Whitehall, rigged centreboards to their piraguss, which so improved their working and sailing qualities that nothing could sail with them.”[4]

[5] Letter of Nat Herreshoff, Feb 10 1926

[6] Francis Herreshoff believes that the Crosby Cape Cod type was merely one example of the catboat’s spread up and down the coast, but that “they came into vogue around on Cape Cod where the centreboard cats were so popular that many people speak of them as Cape Code cats.” The Compleat Cruiser, p 299

[7] See for instance “Traditions and Memories of American yachting” MotorBoating August 1944 p 49.

[8] “The history of small yacht design Part II” by Russell Clark p 29, Wooden Boat July/August 1981 has information on some of the odd thoughts of the “Rule of thumb” school.

[9] Fish also built boats for the Duke of Wellington and worked for Stevens, founder of the NYYC and the syndicate that built the schooner America, and as the modeller for the NYYC (Brooklyn Daily Eagle 27 June 1889 p 6). As expert skipper as well as a builder, like other catboat sailors he seems to have turned to a career as a professional racing skipper in big boats later in life.

[10] Talbot was vice commodore; the commodore was the Prince of Wales?

[11] The Times of 23 July 1795 reported a collision between Mercury and Vixen, in which the captain of Vixen dismantled his rival’s rigging with a cutlass.  See also The New Sporting Magazine, Volume 11 p 181.  In the Town Cup at Cowes in 1826 a Sir James Jordan allegedly floored a crewmember of Weld’s Arrow who had tried to bash him over the head with a marlinspike after a collision. Rudder v 21 1909 p 11

[12] There was some justification for this belief; in both England and the UK , and the brig-rigged yacht Waterwitch beat naval ships so often that the Royal navy bought her for a trial horse.

[13] The Australasian, 9 July 1881 p3

[14] Chappelle

[15] America’s victory was not won against the best yachts in England.  As WP Stephens, the leading authority in yachting history of the time wrote in his                      .  One of the best British yachts lost her    and another of the top boats went to her aid.  The      cutter                  , was only     behind the     ton American schooner at the finish and would have won under any reasonable rating or handicap system.  America’s only other win was against Robert Stephenson’s Titania, a schooner of half America’s rated size.

[16] American yachting p 71

[17] “Yachting and yacht racing”, New Sporting Magazine, July 1866 p 21.

[18] The Australian Town and Country Journal, 5 May 1888 p 39; Ballarat Courier 7 Sep 1877

[19a] Ballarat Courier, 30 Aug 1877

19B Ballarat Courier, 7 Sep 1877

[1] The Era, May 22 1853

[19] Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle, June 20, 1852.  The report says that she was normally cat rigged, but it appears that when racing she normally carried a jib.

[20] Manchester Times, June 30 1852.  Truant often raced with Birkenhead Model Yacht Club on the Mersey River at Liverpool.  Birkenhead, like its London counterpart, used the term “model” to mean an ideal full-sized boat, not just a “toy” or miniature one.  As noted in Bell’s Life of December 19 1852, the club “was formed expressly and entirely with a view to the improvement of model”, and so raced full-sized craft of up to 8 tons.  The early fleet was made up of “old boats” converted into yachts, such as Alfred Bowyer’s Mosquito, but custom-built yachts soon arrived.

[21] The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 14 Aug 1852, p 1

[22] Freeman’s Journal and Daily Commercial Advertiser, July 21 1852

[23] The Cork Examiner, July 28 1852 p 3

[24] Hunts Yachting Magazine, September 1852, p 105

[25] Yachts and yacht-racing”, New Sporting Magazine, July 1866,  p 22

[26] Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronmicle, 1 May 1853, p 6

[27] The Era, May 22, 1853

[28] Folkard p 94

[29] Irish Examiner, 22 November p 2.  It is interesting to see that this comment came in an advertisement for the boat, although Grinnell himself continued to race his larger schooner around Liverpool.

[30] Hunts Yachting Magazine, December 1852, p 291.  Grinnell raced one of the imported Fish products, the little Buffalo Gal, to second in a race at Windemere in spite of being by far the smallest boat and facing a “hurricane” of a headwind; Hunts 1859 v 8 p 516.

[31] Bells June 12 1853 p 5

[32] Bowyer’s earlier boat, possibly one of the converted open boats that the BMYC started with, had capsized and instantly sunk in the Mersey in 1852; Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser (Manchester, England), Saturday, September 11, 1852; pg. 7

[33] Australian Town and Country Journal 5 May 1888 p 39

[34]  The information about the movable ballast in the Bower boats comes from classified ads when the boats were put up for sale in the early to mid 1850s.  L Francis Herreshoff says that the second Julia was fitted with a similar device in 1864.  She had 550 lb of iron ballast mounted on a slide that ran on railway tracks across the cockpit Traditions etc, MBing Sept 1942 p 52 clled the movable ballast “unwieldy and dangerous” but Francis quotes Nat (p 41) as saying that there were no problems with it and it made Julia (2), not a new boat, the fastest of her type in the district.

[35] Even traditional British types suffered the same way; the Little Mosquito, apparently built to the Itchen Ferry’s length restriction, was “beating everything in turning to windward” but was noted to be “built to sail by length, not by tonnage’ so rated one ton higher (a minute per race) than a boat like Julia which was several foot longer, and carrying, at least, a fifth more sail.”  – Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle (London, England), Sunday, July 29, 1855; pg. 8.

[36] One writer, referring to larger boats, referred to the centreboarder’s ability to ‘cheat’ tides and said that if all courses were in deep water, like Kingstown in Ireland, centreboards would be allowed – but as most racing was done in tidal rivers, they had too much of an advantage; Hunts Vol 19, 1870 p 554  . A BMYC owner who had refused to race his keelboat against the centreboarders on the Mersey because he felt they had an unfair advantage in tidal waters later bought Truant and raced her with success in Kingstown.

[37] Yacht’s Sailing Boats, Earl of Pembroke and Montgomery, Yachting vol 1, Badminton library p

[38] Until a few years before, even the larger British boats had carried tons of lead shot in bags, which was dragged or tossed to windward each tack.  It was a dirty, exhausting and unpleasant operation that cost owners dear, both to have their yacht’s accommodation modified and cleared out before each race, and for extra paid crew to replace the amateurs who rebelled against spending their leisure hours throwing metal around a tossing hole.  At least one sailor died when the ballast they were moving fell to leeward and the boat sank with him trapped in the cabin; The Sporting Review, Review of the yachting Season of 1857 p 248. Around the time of Truant, individual clubs and regatta organisers restricted shifting ballast, which was eventually banned by the RYA (then the yacht Racing Association) in 1875. There were apparently rumours that Truant carried movable ballast, and Bower’s boats certainly did.

[39] Hunts Yachting Magazine, Vol 2, 1853, p 151

[40] Hunts Yachting Magazine (?) p 105

[41] Hunts Yachting Magazine, Vol 3, 1854, Vol p 506

[42] Hunts Yachting Magazine,   1857,  p 422

[43] Hunts Yachting Magazine and WP Stevens provide information on the cruise, while Stevens provided information on Ida’s dimensions.

[44] See for example, Irish Examiner August 2 1852

[45] After an early win in Ireland in July 1852 some objected to the fact that Truant had boomed out her headsail (as America had been allowed to do) and “a sailor, who had been in the second boat, came up and formally cursed her for the loss of the victory – a duty which he performed with entire simplicity and sincerity of feeling.”[45]

[46] In the Gaff Rig Handbook, John Leather refers to Truant as “a poor seaboat” that probably won because of her rig, but he gives no source or evidence for these remarks.  Cooper believed that Grinnell was the only man who could really sail the sloop properly, but in fact she won her race on the Thames under a guest skipper, and after some bad luck early on she also won in Ireland with another hand at the helm.  She also returned to Grinnell’s control by 1856 for at least one race.

[47] Among them, Hunts 1858 p 260-1; 1858 v 7 p 224; note in this race 3 of the 4 entries were centreboarders; the event was won by a 33’ cutter.

[48] For example, Hunts 1870 p 552

[49] “Recollections of a busy life”, Sir William B Forwood, 1910, Chapter xix.  Forwood went on to commercial and political success and was one of the founders of the Royal Yachting Association, which appears to demonstrate that the centreboarders had support from the “establishment”, who were not always against innovative types. Grinnell was also a powerful man; he was not just rich but also had strong support from the press, who reminded readers that his father had paid for Polar expeditions in search of the lost Royal Navy ships Erebus and Terror.

[50] Australian Town and Country Journal, 1 April 1882 p 32.  It should be noted that the un-named writer did not provide any evidence for his claims.

[51] Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle , November 25, 1855, p.5.

[52] See for instance Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle , July 25, 1852, p.5    , which spoke of the “wonderful little craft…beautifully handled by her open hearted and spirited owner.”


[54] The fact that Truant’s owner Forwood was one of the founders of the RYA indicates that “the establishment” had much more experience of the American centreboard sloop than later critics.

[55]   A century later, the gaff rig expert John Leather noted that one of these 18 Footers, Zinnia, was similar to a sandbagger or catboat and mused whether her designer had seen such plans in Dixon Kemp’s earlier editions.  It is more likely that he was aware of the Mersey centreboarders.  Kemp edition p 354