In defense – at least a little – of the traditonal working scow

We at Chine bLog have very much been enjoying reading Howard Chapelle’s American Small Sailing Craft, even if the writing is a bit trying. After musing about the types and origins of colonial watercraft, Chapelle turns, in chapter 2, to the simplest of boats, the scow.

“Scow.” The word seems to say it all (unless one is an aficionado of the racing scows of the Midwest) – it sounds like an epithet, even if it isn’t. In fact, flat-bottomed, blunt-ended sailing craft we popular working boats in 19th century America, and they were respected in that role. More than carrying a load of rock, bricks, hay, etc. well, though, Chapelle notes that the boat below, taken from the book:

… appeared a very fast sailer, considering her heavy load. She was heavily canvased, was well-handled by the crew of two, and seemed to be very quick in tacking… The master… claimed that he could weather deep sloops if he kept the scow sailing hard…

The boat in question is a Maine / New Brunswick type of scow sloop, just shy of 40′ LOA with a 12+’ beam. The rig appears to be a gaff sloop.

Maine / New Brunswick type of scow sloop

Chapelle praises these boats as working craft, but then feels the need, at a couple points, to denigrate their appearance. He writes “… the type has never become popular in the pleasure fleet, even in those areas where it was well known and most useful, for it was not a thing of beauty and only appealed to the most practical sailor.” While calling scows “fast” and “weatherly,” he also cites their “clumsy appearance.”

Look, we are not going to say the boat above is going to stack up against DORADE on a beam reach, but Chapelle seems a bit heavy-handed here. The scow above is utilitarian, but she has a gentle sheer and nice overhangs. Set with a nice big gaff main and moderate jib, she’d please the eye. Even the boxy pilot house does not, to our eye, look so off that “clumsy” is in order. This scow is pretty, in her own way, and certainly interesting, even in the pre-generic-mass-produced-sloop years in which Chapelle wrote.

Chapelle is surely accurate that such a boat would never be in fashion, but “in fashion” too often equates to “ordinary” and “ho-hum.” Traditional working boats like this scow are ripe for rediscovery and reinterpretation. Let’s remember more of the graces Chapelle cites and not knee-jerk to disparage these craft.

2 Comments for “In defense – at least a little – of the traditonal working scow”

Glenn Burch


Chapelle’s books have long been some of my favorites, however they could stand to be re-done. Take a look at historic photos of San Francisco Bay (on line). There are a surprising number of sloop rigged scows there. I was also surprised to find photos of scow schooners in New Orleans, Texas, and the Great Lakes.

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