Bonna Nelson - August 2010


Tidewater Day Tripping
Chasing the Log Canoe
Bonna Nelson

About a year ago local friends invited us to watch log canoe races on the Miles River from their cruiser, the Liberty. The invitation was enticing because we had never been to a log canoe race and are always up for new experiences. And, sharing the day with special friends while cruising from the upper Miles River to St. Michaels for the race, well, that sealed the deal.
Our friends are sailors, though we are not. I mean, we have sailed, but are not “sailors.” We recognize the skill and patience required by good sailors, but we lean toward power and speed to get to where we want to go. Our destination could be fishing grounds, a restaurant, or a quiet beach, but we like getting there quickly and knowing that we can get back regardless of fickle winds.
We do kayak and canoe. Occasionally, we will launch our bright orange and blue kayaks with matching life vests and paddles, John with his fishing rod and me with my camera. We paddle down the Tred Avon River, John looking to hook a perch and me looking for the perfect shot of a Great Blue Heron or egret stalking a meal along the shore.
Kayaks and canoes are similar in nature in that they are both manually propelled, simple watercraft, like the dugout canoes our ancestors used to fish, for warfare, to explore and to transport people and goods. Many early people around the globe built canoe-like structures from trees to travel the world’s waterways. Canoeing was the primary means of water transportation for thousands of years throughout the Americas, Africa and Polynesia and we still love the canoe!
The original Chesapeake Bay log canoes were built by the Powhatan Indian tribes who lived along the Virginia Chesapeake Bay years before the English arrived. In the late 1500s, European explorers described the Native American process of making log canoes:
First they choose a tall, thick tree of the size required for the boat’s frame. Then they light a fire close to its roots, feeding it bit by bit with dry moss and small chips of wood, keeping the flames from mounting too high. When the tree is almost burnt through, they make a good fire to cause it to fall. Then they burn off the top boughs, taking care that the trunk should not be shortened. The tree is raised upon a platform built on forked posts at a height convenient for working. The bark is stripped off with sharp shells; the inner length of the trunk is kept for the bottom of the boat. A fire is made all along the length of the trunk, and when it has burned sufficiently it is quenched and the charred wood scraped away with shells. Then they build a new fire, burn out another piece, and so on, sometimes burning, sometimes scraping, until the boat has a good bottom. (Theodor DeBry, Grandes Voyages, 1590)
In the early 1600s John Smith observed Native Americans around the Chesapeake using a similar log canoe building process:
…these they make of one tree, by burning and scratching away coles (sic) with stones and shells til they have made it in the form of a trough.
The Powhatan Indians’ main source of transportation was the dugout or log canoe. Travelers sat in the burned-out trough of the boat; there were no seats. Because the trees were so heavy, the Native Americans most probably felled the trees used for canoe making near a river or the Bay for easier launching. Some of the canoes were as large as 50 feet long and 4 feet deep and they could carry 40 people. But usually the canoes were smaller and carried 10 to 30 people and goods. The canoes, usually made of poplar or pine, were heavy and hard to maneuver and needed at least two people for paddling.
And, here we were over 400 years later going to watch log canoe races near the great Chesapeake Bay. I wondered if Native Americans raced canoes too or if canoes were just workhorses. I can envision canoe races on feast and festival days between Natives from villages surrounding the Bay perhaps taking place near the very spot where we were cruising to watch the races in 2009. I am sure that they enjoyed special foods and brews, just as we were doing.
Once the English settled in the Bay area, the Native canoe was adopted by them and modified for their purposes as a work boat. As the supply of trees diminished, they made the boat with three logs, added a sail for speed, a centerboard, and a washboard for use in oyster tonging. The craft was inexpensive to make and did not require a shipbuilder; it could be made without plans in the owner’s backyard. The sailing log canoe became a Chesapeake Bay tradition. Eventually racing competitions evolved, as did the vessel, sleeker with larger sails and spring boards to assist the crew in keeping the boat from tipping over in the wind.
Now log canoe races are a regular tradition on the Bay, and we were anxious to watch one. As we cruised closer to St. Michaels we could see that the races had started. Approximately fifteen graceful sailboats with white billowing sails were racing around the course markers followed by chase or crash boats, spectators in power boats, like us, and the race judges on committee boats. Our captain expertly swerved in, out and around the swaying sailboats, being careful not to distract the crews who won’t know if they have won until they are done. A hot pink chase boat passed in front of us, decorated with a pink breast cancer symbol with a fake palm tree and a lounge chair mounted on the pilot house roof of the boat.
St. Michaels and Oxford are two of several current centers for the racing sport that was organized over a century and a half ago and probably began when watermen raced to the docks to unload their catch and evolved to racing for pleasure. After 1885, various clubs and associations began sponsoring formal races and yachtsmen became involved.
I am told that the modern sailing sport is like no other sailing. A small fleet of historic, wooden Chesapeake Bay Log Canoes compete every summer in regattas such as the one we were attending. The crafts range in age from 80 to over 100 years old and are expensive to maintain.
Participants say that the boats are difficult to handle, quirky and easily capsized, but loved by their owners, captains and crew for the unique sailing challenges the historic sailing vessels present. Without engines the vessels need to be towed to the races by power boats. The crew assists with readying the vessels, carrying the heavy masts to the boats, getting the lines ready, and once under sail they are constantly on the move, changing sails, bailing water, and jumping to the windward side on the 15-foot wooden springboards to keep the unstable, top heavy boat from dumping them into the sea. The springboards and crew are supposed to counterbalance the pressure of the wind against the sails. In length the sailing vessel must be less than 35 feet, most are made of at least five logs, and five sails can be up at once.
Crew size is determined by log canoe size. Every 15- to 16-foot springboard or hiking plank requires two or three crew members. Each sail has a tender, one or two bailers are needed and, of course, the captain. A young lightweight, usually a woman, sits at the stern, sometimes wearing a bikini to distract competitors. In case of a capsize, the chase boat picks up the pieces of the capsized crew, and they head in for a beer. Crew members claim that the excitement of the speed, wind and waves and success on a good race day is like no other experience. It takes skill, luck and help from Mother Nature to win a race.
I can attest to the uniqueness of this great spectator sport and recommend that readers pack a picnic and get thee to a log canoe race this season, which runs from June to September. Many experienced crewmen return year after year to continue this great sailing tradition, and enjoy the camaraderie and the celebrations after each race. Look for the Chesapeake Bay Log Sailing Canoe 2010 Racing Schedule in this publication. The first race was held in St. Michaels, June 26 to 27, and is called the July 4th Series. It is sponsored by the Miles River Yacht Club (MRYC) on the Miles River. It is suggested that sailors and spectators call the MRYC to verify dates and times at 410-745-9511.
To see the center of an old log canoe from the mid-19th century (its oldest artifact) and other maritime artifacts, visit the Richardson Maritime Museum, 410 High Street, Cambridge, MD; call 410-221-1871 for hours. To learn more about log canoes and to see the actively sailing log canoe, Edmee S., visit the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, MD. Call 410-745-2916 for hours or visit

Bonna L. Nelson is a Bay area writer, columnist and photographer. With a master’s degree in liberal studies and English, she has taught both memoir and creative writing. The former Social Security Administration Director resides with her husband, John, two dogs, two kayaks and a power boat in Easton, Maryland.