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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.

Gap filled – Chapelle’s “American Small Sailing Craft” now resides at Chine bLog HQ

American Small Sailing Craft
It was shameful. Howard Chapelle’s classic treatise on American traditional boats, “American Small Sailing Craft: Their Design, Development and Construction,” did not exist in our bookshelf here at Chine bLog headquarters. Until a week ago, that is, when Mr. & Mrs. Chine bLog Senior filled this gaping hole. Merry Christmas to Chine bLog!

We have started reading it already. It already seems like it is going to provide so much information that we’ll be even more embarrassed by its absence a month from now. Oh well, at least it is here now.

“The Sea & Civilization” impresses as a comprehensive maritime history

The Sea and Civilization
One of the responsibilities we face here at Chine bLog is reviewing books related to traditional boats. We get no less than one request every… how long have we been doing this?… seven years. Even with this taxing set of demands, though, we agreed to accept the publisher Knopf‘s offer of a complimentary copy of a new book called “The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World” by Lincoln Paine. The Knopf representative was willing to work with our strict editorial policy of not writing about any subject until we got around to it, and sure enough, Mr. Paine’s work arrived within a few days.

We will confess, from the outset, being a bit unnerved by anything with “History of the World” in the title (and Mel Brooks not in the credits). Two connotations come to mind:

  1. A gigantic tome of numbing dense-ness that is two parts endurance for every one part education, or
  2. A coverage of the world where “the world” means the Mediterranean, Western Europe, and post-Columbus North America.

Happily “The Sea & Civilization” is neither. Mr. Paine packs a broad, well-organized overview into 600 readable, engaging pages (with some illustrations and a set of maps at the beginning.

Mr. Paine allayed our fears regarding the scope of the book right off the bat: chapter 1, “Taking to the Water” begins with its first section, “Oceana,” describing population of the Pacific and the technology that supported it in a fair manner that is consistent with scholarly work on the subject. Boom – you have our attention. He then moves, in his first chapter, to discuss early waterborne trade in South America and the Caribbean before giving due coverage to the traditional boats of North America, both the Arctic skin boats and the birch bark ones of the Northeast. Credit justly given. Next comes ancient Egypt, getting more play for its maritime exploits than we have seen before. From there, Mr. Paine is thankfully careful to balance Western advances with the developments in South, Southeast, and East Asia. The result is a fully credible world history.

Mr. Paine maintains a few interesting themes across all the eras and regions. Trade is of greatest importance to him, and he shows the many cases in which trade relationships led to cultural bridges. Military affairs in the maritime realm gets good attention, though the discussion is more about limitations of naval warfare than about huge changes in tides of battle, at least until he gets to the 20th century. We were pleased to see Mr. Paine try to weave boatbuilding styles and technologies into the work as another theme. It seems, though, that there is not much known about a great deal of the craft he covers, at least not to the level Mr. Paine was inclined to cite. We wished he’d engaged in a little more speculation of possibilities in some cases.

The only weakness of Mr. Paine’s book, in our view, is that he names so many place names around the world in such quick succession that it can be dizzyingly hard to follow. More detailed maps for each chapter might have helped; in general this is a reasonable cost of covering such a large swath of history in one book. We recommend the book highly, but know this is a drawback. Many thanks to Knopf for including Chine bLog in its outreach strategy.

Fun chance meeting with photographer Ellen Tynan

Last weekend we were out for a hikelet along the Potomac river and happened upon a woman enjoying the view of the marsh. We got talking and she mentioned, in particular, my Wooden Boat hat. She then revealed that she was a photographer who specialized in classic and traditional boats, and she noted she had been published in the magazine. Her name is Ellen Tynan and, on review, I am sure I have seen her work (also on Flickr).

She is hoping to publish a book in the not-too-distant future: “Boat Lines.” It will compile her photos of traditional boats from six regions of the world: Maori New Zealand, Ireland, Alaska and British Columbia, Peru, Indonesia, and Egypt. Good sampling, there, eh?

I’d suggest browsing through her work and getting a sneak peak at what might be in the book. A quick selection of works that jumped out at us, here at Chine bLog, includes (will open in new tabs/windows):

There are many more great ones. It would be well worth your time to browse them all on your own. Keep an eye out for this great sounding book.

Aaaaannnnd while we’re at it, Tim Severin’s “The Jason Voyage”

I also read, in recent times, Tim Severin‘s “The Jason Voyage”, his attempt at following the mythical story of Jason and the Argonauts. He had a Bronze Age Aegean galley built using archeological evidence and historical texts. The ARGOThis was the real deal – it would have banks of rowers toiling away and the characteristic “ram” bow. He set off from Greece and headed for the Dardanelles, following the legend’s trail and, once again, finding evidence that the myth may have been based on reality. Among the most fascinating aspects of the voyage was that it debunked the longstanding reason for it being myth: a vessel of that era could not have transited to notorious currents of the Dardanelles and Bosporus. Severin, though, figured out how to use back-eddies and other local nuances of the waterway to successful complete the trip from the Aegean to the Black Sea. Once there, the voyage continued to current-day Georgia, wherein Severin and crew “seal the deal” by identifying the likely source for the golden fleece as well as numerous other facts that match the stories.

I was almost tempted to make this book second to The Brendan Voyage, if only because the myth-to-facts aspect of the book are so compelling. In the end, I gave The Sinbad Voyage the honor, but this is a close third. The year after he completed this voyage, Severin took the same boat on another voyage to trace Ulysses’s voyage in “The Odyssey”. That book is in the on-deck-circle on my bed-side table and I look forward to sharing a review with you all soon.

Catching up on readings past – Tim Severin’s “The Sinbad Voyage”

I have had some time to sift through the back catalog here at Chine bLog headquarters and noted that I never covered a few key books I read in the last couple years. In particular, after knocking off Tim Severin‘s The China Voyage and then his The Brendan Voyage, I moved on to his some of his other like books. Severin’s trip in BRENDAN, the authentic 9th century curragh, got his wheels spinning, it seems, and he hit on another mythical journey to test: the adventures of Sinbad.

The dhow SOHARIt was commonly accepted at the time (~1980), that these writings were pure myth. Severin arranged to build a replica 9th century dhow in Oman, scouring the Arabian Sea shores for period materials, especially the coconut husk fiber builders of the day used to lash the boat together. Yes, these were plank–on-frame boats that were fully lashed. He and a crew then sailed the boat from Oman to China, identifying sources for the supposedly mythical elements and, thereby, suggesting the Sinbad stories may have been based on an amalgamation of true events.

The first quarter or so of the book is all about the boat and its materials, and that alone makes it worth reading. The actual voyage is not as gripping as that of the BRENDAN, but it is still an engaging story. If you haven’t read any Severin, I’d start with The Brendan Voyage and then grab this one immediately afterwards. Here is a summary piece if you need more convincing.

RIP wooden boat builder Harold “Dynamite” Payson

We here at Chine bLog were sad to hear the news earlier this week of the passing of Harold “Dynamite” Payson. If the late, great Phil Bolger deserved eternal bliss for designing the Gloucester Light Dory, Dynamite Payson deserves the same for making the great design so accessible. Dynamite Payson literally wrote the book on building the Gloucester Light Dory, the one I used when I built one at age 16. How to Build the Gloucester Light Dory: A Classic in Plywood was a well-produced, easy-to-follow guide to building the boat, and it made the project possible. I even contacted Mr. Payson a year later to inquire about the feasibility of adding a sliding seat to the boat. He responded graciously to a 17 year-old kid without much forethought on hydrodynamics. I wish I could have met him.

Carl Cramer, of Wooden Boat Publications, did know him, and wrote a nice obituary on Monday. Carl is also quoted in one in the Bangor Daily News that gives more background on the man. Read these and learn about this obviously great man and important contributor to the resurgence of wooden boats.

Fantastic read: Tim Severin’s “The Brendan Voyage”

Last Winter we finally read one of Tim Severin’s books, The China Voyage: Across The Pacific By Bamboo Raft and posted some reactions, all positive. One of our friends said, at the time, that if we liked that book, Severin’s The Brendan Voyage: Across the Atlantic in a Leather Boat was better still. Well, we finally read it. And we concur. It is an absolutely fantastic read.

The Brendan Voyage is also half sailing yarn and half archeological text. There is, apparently, a medieval Irish text, Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis, that tells of a voyage St. Brendan took in the North Atlantic in a leather boat, what we now call a curragh. It is, in fact, conceivable to interpret the text to say that St. Brendan and a crew of Irish monks reached Newfoundland around the sixth century, long before Leif Erikson’s boys and WAAAYYY before that poser Columbus. Scholars, of course, disagree about the extent to which it is factual or fantasy. One of the grounds for skepticism was that a leather boat could never make such a voyage. Severin set out to build a replica, using sixth-century technology, and sail it from Ireland to North America, specifically Newfoundland, Canada. Given the subtitle, I don’t think I am a spoiler to say that the crew proves the hypothesis and completes the voyage, adding evidence to support the Irish being the first Europeans to hit these shores.

Everything about the book is amazing. Continue reading Fantastic read: Tim Severin’s “The Brendan Voyage” »

Phil Bolger, 1927-2009 – A sad, sad loss for boat design

This is certainly the best design I ever made… When I come up for judgment and they stop me at the gate and ask, ‘What’s your excuse?’ I’ll tell them I designed the Gloucester Light Dory and they’ll have to let me in.

- Phil Bolger (taken from his obituary in the Boston Globe)

For the record, I don’t think this is at all how it went down on Sunday, when Phil Bolger’s brilliant life came to a close. You don’t design the Gloucester Light Dory, and countless other great boats, and then have to answer for yourself. You get waved on through and directed to the VIP lounge. And, if you are Phil Bolger, you then walk out of the VIP lounge and begin rethinking the design of the whole place, because you know you can probably help God Himself “think outside the box.”

Our corner of the world, lovers of small boats, especially wooden and classic ones, is feeling the great loss of Phil Bolger two days ago. We here at Chine bLog are in especially deep mourning. As I have noted, the aforementioned “Gloucester Gull” was the first boat we built and was truly a thing of beauty. The sweep of the sheer is divine, the rake of the ends spot-on, the project of building her accessible to most, and the performance magical. The design has no equal, and those of us who design boats on any level accept a second rung of greatness as the best possible outcome, much the way any rock band knows it will never quite touch St. Pepper’s.

As great as the Gloucester Light Dory and a handful of other Bolger designs are (see my tribute to him from several months back), what has to set Phil apart in the historical record is his willingness to stand above convention and fashion. If you have never grabbed his 103 Sailing Rigs, you are missing out on a great text on small boat rigs. Sure, there are the many boatloads of practical advice, but the true value are the genius pieces of common sense. Bolger rants over and over, for example, about how arbitrary racing rules have dictated rig preferences for boats that are rarely – or never – beholden to those rules. He writes of the dipping lug rig:

… the dipping lug remains ideal for the use for which it has always been ideal: to produce maximum power in a straight line with minimum clutter on deck and wind resistance aloft. The cartoon shows it as an auxiliary sail on a motorboat, a purpose for which it is so much better than any other rig ever devised that its a monument to the rarity of common sense that its so little used.

Bolger never forgot that each boat had a purpose, and to create a design that fulfills traits unaligned to that purpose was beyond counterproductive. In some sense it is so easy – figure out the problem you are trying to solve and solve it. Period. But few ever do that, and Bolger did it almost every time out. Are some of his designs ugly as all get out? Absolutely, but read the design spec first. If you want something that allows one to bird-watch in shoal-draft water in all weather, guess what: you don’t get Rosinante. You just don’t. Bolger used to do design commentaries in the dearly-departed Small Boat Journal (readers would send in requirements and he’d knock out a sketch to solve the problem). I used to go nuts looking at the lines, but then you read the boat’s purpose and it all makes sense. No one else could so focus himself on the needs of the owner and so divorce himself from “the way things are supposed to be.”

I hope we’ll see another Phil Bolger, but I am not betting on it. Such brilliance only comes around once. Fair winds and following seas, Phil – you will be much missed and always admired.

And now, if you don’t mind, I am going to keep trying to create a design that is 1/4 of the Gloucester Light Dory.

Thinking about a ocean voyage on a bamboo raft? Read “The China Voyage”


I actually had the crazed idea to read a book recently. Doesn’t happen much – I am lucky if I can clear my magazine rack in a given month. Long on my to do list, though, had been reading some of Tim Severin’s works. Severin is an Irishman (at least he lives there) with an fascinating joint interest in history, archeology, and epic voyages, mostly maritime ones. Sound intriguing? It gets better. Severin’s shtick has been to identify an unproven or poorly understood historical journey, build a traditional boat, if a maritime one, that represents the type of that era, and then recreate the journey to see if it could have happened as theorized. Oh yeah, I am IN! I have known about him for a while and only just got around to checking him out.

I began with The China Voyage: Across The Pacific By Bamboo Raft. Apparently there are a group of archeologists who believe (or believed, as of the early 1990s) that there was contact between East Asian cultures and Central American cultures within the last couple millennia. Continue reading Thinking about a ocean voyage on a bamboo raft? Read “The China Voyage” »