Outrigger Canoe, Marshall Islands;
photo by Jordanbigel, CC 2.5
Mirage with Spring Creek Sail; photo copyright by
Alice Moon at Free Range Human
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Sailing the Last Great Recreational Frontier
Today, most canoeists and kayakers travel the rivers, and usually on trips that run
a few miles or a few days. We travel by current, and when we get to the end of the
vacation there's a car waiting to take us back to the pick-up point. We don't sail.
Canoeing wasn't always like that. Canoes used to be expendable one-way boats.
Explorers bought them from local villages and abandoned them at the last portage.
Trappers built them in the Spring when the sap was up and the bark was loose, so they
could haul their loads of furs downriver to the trading post. Then they walked home,
because canoes don't go upriver very well at all.
Other people live close to different types of water, where the limits aren't so precisely
set. Wind has more effect on the boat than the paddle does, and you need to be able
to go both ways -- out to the fishing and back home again. That's when people start
figuring out sails. It's an old thing, and sometimes very simple. If the wind is favorable,
you sit up high in the boat to get that extra push. If the wind's against you, you crouch
low and stay out of its way. Every lake canoeist sails, but not everybody knows they
do. To get across a windy lake in a small boat that's paddle-driven, you have to use
some good sense. You find the wind eddies, the wind shadows behind slopes and juts
of land. You do the paddler's version of tacking, cutting across the wind at an angle
because if you plow right into it you don't get anywhere. That's sailing, just without the
Up north on the portage routes canoeists know the old trick of taking advantage of the
favoring wind by wrapping a blanket around two paddles and jamming the result in the
bow of the boat. That works, but just in one direction, and usually not in the direction
you're going. When the wind gets bad, you head to shore and wait until it lays. Wind
rules. On lakes, canoeists travel around it. On windy days on the lakes, most
canoeists go home.
If you're like the first tribal sailors who had this bright idea, you don't sit on shore when
the wind picks up and the waves turn white. You go out and have some fun.
Sometimes it works out well, and sometimes you wish you'd stayed home with the hot
cocoa. It's never less than a fascinating experience.
In these modern times many of our wild rivers have been dammed up and
domesticated. Unless you're willing to spend countless hours paddling without the help
of eddies and currents (most of us aren't) the lakes and impoundments of the United
States are the realm of the powerboat. With a sail rig and the understanding of how it
works, those vast waterways open up again. I do mean vast. On only one impoundment
in the Ozarks where I used to sail, there are literally hundreds of miles of shoreline --
places powerboats cruise past, but full of intrigue for those who have more time.
Feel free to have a look at the pages here and put up sail yourself. If you do, you'll
probably feel really stupid for awhile. Sailing is a different way of living, a home to some
and a horror to others. This natural way of traveling comes naturally to no one -- it's
learned. Time to l'arn ye some sailin' in that old sense of the word.
Most canoes and kayaks have almost no keel
-- smooth hulls shaped for quick turns don't
grip. Without keel boards you'll be pushed
downwind even on a beat.
Tacking and Beating
Shifting sail from side to side quickly when
changing course on a beat (going upwind) is
what we call tacking. In a converted canoe we
also call it a clusterf---.
Jibing, Running and Reaching
The fast way to travel will also get you into
serious trouble without constant planning.
Setting a Course
Sailing is easy. Getting where you want to go
by sailing there isn't. Some tips for journeys
in small boats.
Sail Canoe Camping
Suggestions for safely enjoying the thousands
of miles of inland lakes and rivers in the U.S.