My brother once said that watching a sailboat race was about as interesting as watching snails mate. I was never quite sure if this implied something dark about my sibling’s character or the apparent lackluster action likened to the proverbial painted ships on a painted sea. One thing is sure that once you step off the dock and onto the deck of a Chesapeake Bay Log Canoe any reference to a snail’s pace falls by the board.
This past weekend began the Log Canoe racing season with the first races in the Fourth of July series at St. Michaels, MD. I was fortunate to be able to sail with the Log Canoe ‘Mystery’ skippered by Mitchell Grieb and the owner Francis Schauber this past weekend. The ‘Mystery’ was built in 1932 in Oxford, MD by John Sinclair, and is one of the largest of the Log Canoes, a breed of work boats unique to the Chesapeake Bay, surviving as racing craft and referred to as the ‘Sport of Kings on the Eastern Shore.’
In Log Canoe sailing you don’t simply step off the dock and putt off to the starting line with coffee and doughnuts. The first major task is to step the masts, two of them. The foremast on the Mystery is 61 feet, the tallest in the fleet, and weighs 300 lbs, which is light by canoe standards. Francis, or Franny as he is called, built the mast in a week with the help of his cousin, from cypress scraps that were then veneered with pine. It takes the entire eleven man crew to raise it with the help of a cantilever in the Main Mast step and the labor of the wives and sweethearts on land pulling on the jib halyard. The main mast at about 40 feet goes up quickly and then the miles of halyards, sheets, backstays etc., must be untangled and the sails hanked on.
Once away from the dock, the order of raising the sails begins in the stern with the mainsail. The main is basically a steering sail and keeps the boat into the wind. It also gets all the attendant gear, the sprite, club, and yards and yards of sailcloth out of the skipper’s hair so that he can see what he is doing. The foresail is the largest sail, and after it is up gives the boat weight or forward momentum which is necessary to hoist the third sail, the jib so that this forward sail doesn’t catch wind and bring the boat around and lose control of the whole process.
Properly trimmed, the sails form a balancing act with the main pushing the bow into the wind, the jib away while the fore works as a fulcrum, balancing the whole on the centerboard. In heavy air some canoes opt to lower the foresail to decease sail area, but because every boat is different, some will sail better under fore and jib.
Saturday’s race started at 2:00 pm, a bow to the canoer’s need for extra time to get rigged and get the bugs out after 8 months of hibernation. Usually there are two races Saturday at 10:00 &2:00 and one Sunday. Even so there were two capsizes before the start. The first to go was the ‘Silver Heel’ who happened to be sailing on a parallel but opposite course with ‘Mystery’. We were reaching in about 8 knots of wind, and as we watched the ‘Heel,’ she slowly but ominously raised her hiking boards loaded with human ballast higher and higher and whose eyes seemed to widen with every degree of heel above the water until finally she began to ship water and the board men either slid down to the side of the boat or catapulted into the sail that was now coming swiftly down on us! The first impulse was to run forward and catch the tip of her mast before it hit our deck but before we could react, about a foot of her mast nailed us in front of our chain plates, bent backwards as it made its way around our shroud, rumbled beneath the hiking boards and finally slid off the deck by the main partners. We sailed on and left the ‘Heel’ to her tender, tacked and found John Macielag standing thigh deep in water, hands on hips as his canoe the ‘Patricia’ wallowed on her side. Two down.
At the start the wind was from the West and Mitch found he could lay the weather mark on port tack and was able to force several boats that were barging off the line and began the race as the windward boat, an auspicious beginning.
Starting with clear air we were competing with the Jay Dee, the Island Blossom, and Billie P. Hall, and upon reaching the day marker at the mouth of Long Haul Creek rounded in that order. The next leg to the marker at Oak Creek was also close hauled and we reached it keeping the same positions. On the final beat to the finish we picked up the Bill P. and finished third behind the ‘Blossom’ with Jay Dee getting the gun, although the ‘Blossom corrected to first.
Saturday’s race was a very conservative windward leeward semi beat both ways with very little room for tactics, so the order of start fairly dictated where you finished. Sunday the wind was a little more northwesterly and allowed the race committee to set up a more competitive start with the windward mark properly set at a right angle to the starting line which allows the boats more jockeying room for a favorable start.
Mystery started on a Starboard tack leaving us about mid fleet in similar wind conditions as Saturday. After rounding the weather mark we put up our staysail and after much hot debate hoisted the kite up the foremast but despite taking long reaching tacks lost two boats at the lee mark. The last leg of the race was exciting when the fleet divided, Edmee, Heel and Mystery to the east side of the river and the rest to the St. Michaels side. We were able to trade tacks with the ‘Heel’ in the westerly breeze but in the end was unable to catch either boat and finished sixth.
The second race Sunday was a blur of shouted orders, racing sheets and a header that would not let us go without a dunking before we reached the first mark. Capsizing is a given in racing Log Canoes. The Mystery has gone for two years at a time without going over but she has also had seasons where she capsized every race in the weekend. What you see from the water are floating buckets, coolers hiking boards, hats, heads and a boat that looks like a beached whale in shallow water. Mystery is one of the few, if not the only racing canoe not to have a protective fiber glass coating or epoxied wooden strips on the outside or some sort of water barrier inside. The asset to leaving the hull unprotected is that the wood has a chance to dry out after getting dunked thus preserving the logs that after 78 years are remarkably intact. The downside is after the first capsize the boat absorbs about 700 pounds of water, or about four more crew lying inert in the bilge. All canoes eventually capsize and no matter what precautions you take water always gets into the hull, making the boat progressively heavier and eventually will rot the wood. Franny takes great pride in the amount of original logs left in the boat where in some others only the shape is preserved by a fiberglass shell that has had lumber coped glued into the form.
In two weeks, July 9-10, the racing season will continue on the Chester River hosted by the Chester River Yacht and Country Club.