Issue: January 2001
Birds on the Wing

The Miles River is a great place for bird watching-especially if it’s log canoes like Island Bird or Island Lark you’re after.

 

     When I was a little kid, my family once cruised to the Miles River to watch the log canoes race. I’d never seen this kind of log canoe, so my assumption was that they’d be vessels crafted from a single log, burned and scraped hollow. Scantily clad natives would paddle them through the waves toward the finish line, and then there’d be a party.

     Well, I got the party part right. The rest of my imagination was literally blown away by the magnificence of the sailing craft that danced by me down the river that day. Ever since then, I’ve tried to get out to watch the canoes at least once during the season. This summer Clint and I spiffed up the good ship Escort and welcomed aboard my mom and a group of her friends for a jaunt down the Miles to watch the log canoe fleet in action off St. Michaels.

     We couldn’t have picked better weather. Golden sunlight spilled from the sky and capped the rippling waves. Enough wind slid up the river to keep the canoe sails full and the boats moving. Even from a distance we could watch these graceful dames go through their paces, warming up for the regatta to come.

     Log canoes vary in length from Jay Dee’s 35 feet to Marianne’s 22 feet (on deck). They all share the same general design: a rakish bow with a colossal sprit, an open cockpit and flat bottom, and a small bumpkin off the stern. Their masts, two of them, easily exceed their overall length. Like bugeyes, these sleek craft evolved from fishing schooners, so their rig still carries traditional schooner terminology, even though an outsider would identify them as ketches: For example, the mainmast is the aft mast, even though it’s smaller than the foremast. The foresail is clubbed to accommodate the mainmast and maximize sail area. (And sail area is the ticket on these boats: They need it for speed.) The boats carry a single club-footed jib, and sometimes you’ll see them rig a staysail between the masts and a kite (most often a windsurfer sail nowadays) from the top of the foremast. And fast? These ladies move quicker than a rubber sole on chicken fat. Which is why they are so much fun to watch.

     We slowly circled the committee boat and tried to get a feel for the course. One of our guests, Helen Barber, had been involved in the rejuvenation of the log canoe fleet back in the early 1950s. Her husband, James Thompson, had refurbished and raced Flying Cloud. At that time a small group of enthusiasts eagerly pulled old boats out of barns, wrestled them from the mud, spiffed them up and got them sailing again. Miles River Yacht Club became the perforce home base for the Chesapeake Bay Log Canoe Association, whose fleet now includes more than a dozen vessels, three of them built new within the last 25 years. Nearly a dozen log canoes were now careening down the river in front of us, maneuvering for position on the starting line.

     If you’re not familiar with the protocol of sailboat racing, here’s what to look for: The committee boat, sporting the host club’s burgee and the three colored shapes that will be raised every time the warning gun goes off, will be anchored on one end of the starting line; the other end of the line will be marked with a colorful mooring. The committee boat will sound a horn (or fire a gun) and raise a colored shape to give the racing boats a ten-minute warning (yellow), a five-minute warning (blue) and finally, the start (red).

     We positioned Escort to watch from well away, and, once the boats had crossed the starting line, we proceeded down the course, keeping to leeward of the fleet. We didn’t want to block their wind, kick up a wake or cross in front of them. But we did want to watch them round their first mark. Log canoes are notoriously tippy. They’ll as soon capsize as spring a leak. And they’re most likely to capsize when they tack. Those big sails can slam over ferociously, and suddenly everyone’s in the water hooting and hollering and trying to dodge the sea nettles. It may seem hardhearted, but the capsizing part is none of your business, and you need to stand off. The log canoes all have tenders whose job it is to set things right if they go over. Be ready to lend a hand if they ask for it, otherwise enjoy the show. Unfortunately for us, no one flipped on this go-round.

     We were watching the Governor’s Cup, almost always the first Sunday in August. For two years running, this prestigious award has gone to Oliver’s Gift, and that crew was trying for a third. By the way, Oliver’s Gift is sailed by Duke Adams, grandson of the boat’s builder, Oliver Duke, who himself raced the boat to victory many a time. And sure enough, Oliver’s Gift takes it again, right before our very eyes. That means things will be tense next year: Lots of boats have brought the governor’s trophy home three times in a row, among them Jimmy Wilson’s Magic, Tad and Ebby duPont’s Island Lark and the North family’s Island Blossom (skippered by Chuck Wiley)-but no one has ever done it a fourth time.

     It’s hard to describe these sui generis craft: Their huge white sails are brilliant against the summer sky, truly like the wings of a giant bird. Chesapeake river water creams off their bows. Their crews work in a well practiced rhythm to keep them balanced and moving. And they’re silent except for the occasional bleating of a tense captain. This is their world, and happily, we’re welcome to it.