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How To Sail A Canoe

How To Sail A Canoe

Why paddle when you can sail? Great Bear Lake can be a slog, but every once in a while the wind is just right.
By Daniel Campbell
Feb 16
From the February 2016 Issue

Great Bear Lake was like glass and the canoers’ pace steady as they worked their way across it. But after two weeks’ paddling, the wind turned and drove Toban Leckie, Shauna Kerns and the group of teens they were guiding, into the shore. But sometimes the obstacle is the way. Leckie explains how seven canoes sailed across part of the lake:

1) Wait for a tailwind: “The only way to sail in a canoe is to have tailwinds. Unlike a sailboat, when you’re cutting at an angle to the wind, you need the wind behind you.”

2) Raft up: Get all the canoes in your group rafted abreast.  

3) Keep downwind: “It’s a  challenge to keep downwind, because you present this big wind-block—it wants to turn you sideways. So the people on the outside of the flotilla are ruddering and paddling to keep your back to the wind.” 

4) Make a sail: Most paddlers don’t bring sails—they’re too big. Camp tarps will do fine. Attach ropes to the four corners of the tarp. 

5) Secure the sail: Send two of the lines to bow-people (front) in the far left and right canoes of the flotilla. Take the next two lines and hand them to stern-people (back), one or two canoes in from the outside. These lines will be the tops of the sail.

6) Raise the sail: Stern line holders then wrap the lines around the heads of their paddles, carefully stand up, and hold them straight up in the air—effectively becoming the mast. 

7) Go faster: As canoes pick up speed, the “masts” can start unspooling the rope on their paddles, allowing the sail to be at full billow. Get as much surface area of the tarp showing to the wind. The wind will keep it from buckling or billowing down. 

8) Beware of drag: Due to the drag on the flotilla’s bow, the bows of the canoes will want to come together and kiss, and the sterns will want to fan out. “Then,” says Leckie, “you’re screwed.” Everyone not holding a sail will need to grab the gunwale of the canoe next to them. The people in the sterns of the outside boats will need to pry and rudder alternatively to keep the sterns in. Call out directions to adjust as needed. 

9) Stay the course: Stern steerers and sail holders aside, most people in the flotilla can relax now. Play games, read, take a nap. Leckie’s boats sailed for an hour and a half, and he estimates his flotilla was making five to six knots—more than twice as fast as simply paddling. 

10) Don’t get carried away: Sailing is great for speed, but you still need to take care to stick close to shore—big winds can whip up terrible waves on Great Bear Lake that can easily capsize a canoe.