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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Putting the Old Woman to Work

Part 1: A Short History of Canoe Sailing—
And an Invitation

By Farwell Forrest

May 7, 2002

T he voyageurs called her La Vieille, the Old Woman. And she wasn't anyone's favorite Grandmama. She was a vicious, capricious, mean-spirited old hag, given to sudden sulks and tantrums, and inclined to hold a grudge. To be sure, she smiled on the voyageurs from time to time, but it was always a thin smile. There was no love in it, and it never lasted. Before long, she'd be in a rage again.

She was, of course, the wind. When she met the voyageurs head on, they cursed her—silently, because no sane man wanted to get on the wrong side of the Old Woman—and then they paddled harder, sweating and singing as wind-driven waves dumped gallon after gallon of water into their Montréal canoes. And when the Old Lady turned round and buffeted their backs for a change, what then? The voyageurs raised their big square sails and murmured half-remembered prayers, while their overloaded canoes scudded along before the gusts, making six knots or more, with each sickening roll threatening to drive a gunwale under and toss every man into the water to drown or freeze.

Despite their prayers, this happened often. When fully loaded, the 36-foot canoes had only six inches of freeboard. It didn't take much of a roll to send water surging over the rail, and that was usually the end of the story: few voyageurs could swim a stroke. It's no wonder that they preferred paddle to sail. Better to drown in warm sweat, they thought, than to sink beneath the cold, cold water of the northern lakes.

But why, then, did the voyageurs ever raise their sails at all? Simply because they couldn't afford not to. They weren't paddling for pleasure. They were the engines of the fur-trade, and the hard-eyed accountants in Montréal and London didn't believe in turning down a free ride when one was offered. If a voyageur drowned as a result—if a hundred voyageurs drowned—it made no difference to the accountants. They knew they'd always find more recruits to fill the gaps.

The accountants did hate to lose money, though. And each time a Montréal canoe rolled a gunwale under, foundered, and broke up, it set three tons of trade goods or furs adrift. Here was a loss the accountants couldn't accept. Their solution was the York boat, a broad-beamed double-ender that could carry more sail, more safely, than any canoe. As an added bonus, the York boat was rowed rather than paddled, making it possible for the Company to augment their French-Canadian workforce with stolid boatmen recruited from Scotland's Orkney Isles. The voyageurs were relegated to a supporting role from then on. They'd always been a little too mercurial and independent for the Company's tastes, anyway. So the accountants smiled their bloodless smiles, drew their double lines at the bottom of each column in their ledgers, and closed the books on the first chapter in the history of the fur trade.

The scene shifts. The Hudson's Bay Company had been started by self-styled "gentlemen Adventurers," but by the late 1860s in Europe, canoes were carrying very different cargoes from the furs, brandy, and trinkets that made up the Company's lading. Nineteenth-century gentlemen sought adventures closer to home. Following in the wake of John ("Rob Roy") MacGregor, men of fashion were taking to the water by the hundreds, accompanied by a few daring women. Their decked canoes were mostly copies of the irrepressible Rob Roy's own Rob Roy. It, in turn, was loosely modeled on the Inuit kayak. Before long, these slim, swift craft could be seen on every river, lake, and canal in Europe, moving silently forward under the impulse of a double-bladed paddled—until, that is, a favorable slant of wind appeared. Then the gentleman adventurer would ship his paddle, raise a scrap of sail on a stubby mast, light his pipe (or open his Bible), and let the wind blow him along toward the comfortable inn that was his destination for the day.

Canoeing had left commerce behind. It was now a civilized (and civilizing) recreation. The wind was a welcome auxiliary, not a bane, and the Old Woman was now courted, not cursed.

Soon things had come full circle. Rob Roys invaded the North American continent in force. The Hudson's Bay Company's bark canoes, though still employed to carry express messages and move furs and freight along northern rivers too steep for the York boats, were tarred with the taint of commerce. They were good enough for the Company's horny-handed "servants," to be sure, but gentlemen in search of recreation preferred sporty little Rob Roys. These gentlemen were sailors as well as canoeists, too. The Rob Roy was even tagged the "poor man's yacht."

"Poor man," indeed! In 1880, a new Rob Roy cost almost as much as an American laborer could hope to earn in a year. Not surprisingly, there weren't many laborers sailing Rob Roys. When working men went canoeing —and most working men were poor men in late nineteenth-century America—they followed the lead of writers like Nessmuk, the ne'er-do-well cobbler who explored the Adirondacks in a succession of tiny open canoes. Nessmuk wasn't a sailor. Even if the idea had appealed to him (and I've found no evidence that it did), the fluky winds that buffeted the tiny mountain lakes would have discouraged the attempt. For Nessmuk, as for generations of Americans to come, canoeing and sailing were mutually exclusive activities. Sailing was for well-heeled gents and their ladies. Canoeing was for working men and women. And never the twain would meet.

That's too bad. While America paddled into the twentieth century, cursing each contrary wind, Europe continued to enjoy the Old Woman's occasional flirtations. A new type of canoe appeared. Developed in Germany, it was quickly taken up by the citizens of every European nation. Made of fabric stretched over wooden frames, and cheaper than the old hand-crafted Rob Roys, it could be taken apart and carried aboard a train. The result? Long before working men and women could dream of owning automobiles, European canoeists were taking canoes along with them on holiday. They ran whitewater rivers, just as John MacGregor had done before them. And just as MacGregor had done, they sailed.

Now we've come full circle once again. Rob Roy canoes (a.k.a. "recreational kayaks") are in every catalog, and some of them have sails. Will Americans rediscover the pleasures of canoe sailing? The jury's still out, but I'm betting that they will. Learning to sail is no harder than mastering the J-stroke or acquiring a bomb-proof roll. What's more, it's fun, and it can be done on almost any body of water. It can even be done on the icy surface of a frozen lake! Sailing's a four-season sport, in other words, with a free ride thrown in for good measure.

A lot of water has flowed downhill into the world's oceans since the voyageurs first crossed themselves and hoisted their big square sails on the lakes of North America. But I think we'll be seeing those sails again. Soon. How could any paddler resist the temptation to put the Old Woman to work, after all?

To be continued…

Copyright 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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