The crew of the log canoe Jay Dee steps the mast in the early morning of the Oxford Heritage Regatta in Oxford, Maryland in August of 2009. The 58-foot mast takes about a dozen strong sailors to step properly, and it's not always easy. On the sunny morning, one of our crew took a spreader to the chest and ended up in the drink.
Nearby, Island Bird steps her mast, too. She is one of three log canoes that live at “Canoe Harbor” where Judge John C. North III presides as the Granddaddy of log canoe sailing.
Mike Spicer perches precariously yet precisely on the bow sprit of Jay Dee, prepping her lines for the day.
Imagine a canoe that is 35 feet 6 inches long on her deck and 65 feet from bowsprit to boomkin. Jay Dee’s narrow spitka-spruce hull is just 8 feet wide and her carbon-fiber-skinned daggerboard reaches down 9 feet from her otherwise flat underside.
There are only 15 log canoes in the world and only 10 that race competitively. Several of these boats are of 100 years old, and are soaked in history.
Because of the narrow hull and massive sail area, log canoes use human ballast on wooden planks to stay flat. Several feet long and just a foot wide, these hollow boards are jammed under the leeward rail and extend over the windward gunwale, where the crew bear-crawl to the ends, sit on their thumbs, lock their ankles beneath them and attempt to keep the canoe upright. The more the breeze picks up, the further out they sit. No one and nothing is tied down.
The first five racing log canoes were built in the late 1800s by a man named William Sydney Covington. He passed his passion down through the generations all the way to his great-great-grandson Dan North (skipper of Jay Dee) and his great-grandson, the Honorable John C. North II, known locally (and formally) as “Judge.”
With three working sails (a jib, a foresail and mainsail), a kite (a gaff-rigged topsail), a staysail and an asymmetrical spinnaker, log canoes require precise attention to trim.
Judge North helms his log canoe around the course. He’s been racing log canoes for over 60 years.
As seen from the leeward hull of Jay Dee, the crew scopes the course and is prepared to scale the boards, which jut out behind us.
This is a fiercely competitive fleet with rivalries that span generations. Mark roundings are often boisterous, but always gentlemanly.
That kite sail at the top of the mainmast is about the size of a Laser sail. To trim it, a crewmember lies on their backs on a board or near the helm and stretches their neck toward the sky to see the telltales. A properly trimmed kite can make several knots’ difference in speed.
Because of the boards, tacking and gybing a log canoe can be an arduous process. That doesn’t stop these skippers from performing quick maneuvers in tight spaces, constantly pushing the fleet to sail better, faster and more competitively.
Special thanks to Marc Castelli for these gorgeous images.