Sailing Traditions


There are many aspects of sailing that appeal- the quiet, the beauty of nature and  one that draws me is the  tradition that goes with this hobby. What is a pastime today was once a means of making a living. Even fifty years ago a few places in North America still saw working sail on their waters, and the rich literature of sea faring by the likes of Conrad, Masefield, and London, men who sailed for a living, still makes compelling reading today.


Regular Log readers know from the link listed on the log index (recent schooner arrival) of my involvement with sailing tradition in the form of a 38 foot Tancook schooner. Ironically Fair Haven is home to another schooner of Tancook ancestry, that being an accurate replica of the 28 foot double ended lapstrake Tancook whaler. It’s owner, a historian, loaned us two books on the heritage of Tancook boats. Knowing more about the conditions and needs that shaped the hull and rig of Sara B has made me appreciate just how keenly the old time boat users and builders observed the  natural world and adapted to it.


The Tancook Islands lie on Mahone Bay a big dent on the east side of Nova Scotia. It’s a place where able seaworthy small vessels are crucial to ones survival. Here about 900 people fished and farmed in the early 1900s. A number of them also built boats. As fishing stocks dwindled and the need for small sailing freighters diminished with road construction, the island boat builders moved to the mainland and kept building now turning out yachts or motorized fishing craft. One who left was a Ray Stevens who around 1950, we’re told, passed on some of his boat building knowledge to a group of apprentices during construction of a 38 foot hull.


By then most inshore Nova Scotia fishing was done by powered vessels but the memory of the working Tancook schooner that had   gained a wide reputation among  the yachting set was still strong. Building from a half hull and recall of successful boats of the 1920s and 30’s boats such as Langille’s 35 footer the Cimba made famous in Murray’s book, Stevens and the apprentices laid out a traditional hull that would have been right at home carrying cabbages or mackerel in 1920.


When a buyer for the completed hull turned up, it was rigged with traditional  spliced served galvanized wire, dead eyes, lanyards and wooden blocks. One departure from local tradition was installation of a two cylinder diesel from England rather than one of the cranky gasoline “make and breaks” made locally.


As a yacht the little schooner had the usual long boxy square deck house that seems typical of her breed, in lieu of the two deck hatches of an open work boat. She also got a caulked seam deck and a selection of imported woods including yellow pine and white oak and a bit of mahogany and teak trim as befits a yacht. But the essential hull form was that of an authentic working sailboat, not a modification to go yachting such as Alden or Hand employed in their adaptations of working fishermen to pleasure boats as seen locally in “Malabar X” of Seneca Day Sails or “Lotus”, the Sea Scout boat on Sodus Bay.


The Tancook boat was adapted to carrying loads of fish or freight. They were required to heave to and lie quietly to a drift net or while their crews hand lined. And they needed to be easy steering easy handling boats with a reasonable turn of speed that were also steady under foot and sea kindly. These are attributes that some sailors who cruise still prize today.


We’re still learning about the ”character” of the traditional inshore work boat hull adapted to cruising for pleasure, but what we’ve seen so far we like. We hope to learn more about both the vessel and someday about the waters she was designed for so very far down the St. Lawrence from her present homeport. Who knows. Perhaps someday we’ll sail those cold northern waters where her type once hauled cabbages and sauerkraut and salted fish. Meantime, anyone out there know how to tack a fisherman staysail?

Here’s a link to the elementary school website on Tancook Island as it’s seen today through the eyes of its kids. There aren’t very many of them still going to school on island, but they’re right up to date in their one room school house, one of the last in Canada they say. Visit them at this link here