No matter the day of the week, somewhere along the Chesapeake Bay a sailing regatta is taking place. During the doldrums of August and the biting cold of January, if there is a regatta, there are boats on the starting line. But unlike the America’s Cup, no support boats lie in wait, nor does a spectator fleet follow every move. Well, unless the race happens to be one of the many Chesapeake Log Canoe regattas held on the Eastern Shore. Being fascinated with these majestic vessels, my husband and I took a weekend cruise to the Chester River to catch a glimpse of the historic watercraft in action. Much to our surprise, we were not alone.
The origin of the log canoe dates back to the native Powhatan tribesmen who slowly burned out the inside of large pine or poplar trees to create the hull of the canoe. Depending on the size of the tree, canoes could range up to thirty feet in length and as much as five feet wide. As larger trees became scarce, three to nine logs were fused together. The English settlers took the simple design one step further and added a sail, thereby increasing the canoe’s speed. This sturdy craft efficiently handled the choppy waters of the Bay along with carrying a heavy load. Once known as the waterman’s workhorse, the Chesapeake Bay Log Canoes were used to harvest seafood until the early 1900s.
Crews would race their catch back to shore for the best price at the market and bragging rights at the bar. It wasn’t long before watermen began turning workhorses into racing canoes to compete during the summer months. Larger sails were added which increased not only their speed but also their instability. To counter that instability, racers added foot-wide hiking planks for crew to shimmy out on, using their body weight as ballast. But having these planks didn’t necessarily ensure that the boat remained upright. One gust of wind could dump boat and crew into the brown water of Chesapeake.
At the height of the era there were 7,000 log canoes working the Bay. Today there are only 22 remaining with just over a dozen still racing on Miles, Tred Avon and the Chester River. Many are helmed and crewed by sailors who were born into the sport while others are there at the invitation of someone already in the fraternity. Carpenters, teachers, engineers, real estates agents, blend themselves into a cohesive unit to keep these boats upright.
We made our way to Langford Creek, arriving an hour before the start. Other spectators had done the same, either anchoring close to shore or tacking back and forth awaiting the arrival of the log canoes. A migration of trawlers and powerboats flying team flags and sporting matching team gear, began arriving. Shortly behind, the beautiful log canoes fully canvassed, with crew leisurely lying on the planks, gingerly made their way to the start zone.
We couldn’t help but be in awe of the beauty of these vessels. Their beefy dual masts were rigged with three working sails (jib, foresail and mainsail) with many teams also carrying a gaff-rigged topsail, staysail and an asymmetrical spinnaker. Once fully unfurled, sail area could exceed 1,500 square feet, thus creating exceptional power for the 8-12 member crew to counterbalance. It has been said that a log canoe is on the verge of capsizing 90% of the time. For those who helm, trim, bail and “throw and ride” the hiking planks, it’s that adrenaline rush that keeps them coming back for more.
As the five-minute warning gun sounded, the eight boats racing that day jockeyed for the favored side of the line. Crew efficiently moved the plank from side to side hurrying out to ballast the boat as the helmsman negotiated the line. From our vantage point it appeared that the outmost crew member on the plank could reach out and touch the sail of the boat beside him. When the starting gun echoed off the water, the support boats gave chase making sure they stayed clear of competitors while maintaining a close enough distance to assist when needed. We carefully followed to absorb every tack and gybe.
As the crew of Silver Heel approached the last mark, a gust of wind hit their tightly trimmed sail, capsizing the canoe, sending all ten red-shirted crew members into the water. Within minutes their support boat was plucking several crew out of the water while others systematically de-rigged the boat to for ease of towing back to shore. Though their race day was over, vessel and crew were back to racing the next day.
Some say watching a sailboat regatta could be likened to watching paint dry. No matter how light or strong the wind, log canoe regattas will hold your fascination from gun to gun.
The final races of the season will be held at the Miles River Yacht Club in St. Michaels.
Log Canoe Regattas:
Miles River Yacht Club, St. Michaels
Log Canoe Labor Day Series
Log Canoe Higgins and Commodore Races
Log Canoe Bartlett Cup