On the Boards

It’s high summer- which means it’s sailing season. White canvas crests, buoyantly swelled with wind, cut switchbacks through the greenish water of the Bay’s body, arms, and mouth as sailors harness the breeze. It’s all very picturesque and seemingly sedate. But as any enthusiast will tell you, there are kicks to be had. And on the Chesapeake, if you want rough and ready sailing, with hazards, high speeds, hijinks, and heritage, you want log canoe racing.


With sails so large the collected wind unbalances the vessel, log canoes are the furiously swift descendents of the dugouts burned and scraped into seaworthy craft by the Chesapeake Indians. Early colonists added a sail, and for the next 300 years, log canoes were utilized as the Bay’s ubiquitous workhorses for travel, work, and light freight. It took the 19th century, and the late trend towards sailing as a recreational endeavor, for the log canoes to be transformed into the gloriously disproportionate canvas kites of today.


The video above gives you a little taste of what these races encompass- elegantly arrows of hull and sail, bristling with hiking boards providing human ballast, headed towards an equally likely victory or an unexpected swim. The modern log canoe fleet plies the Chesapeake’s Eastern Shore rivers with spry maneuvers so that you’d hardly know they’re all antiques; swift daggers of living 19th century history. Names like “Silver Heel,” “Island Blossom,” and “Spirit of Wye Town” hint at the surroundings of their log bones in the tall Chesapeake stands of poplar or pine, a hundred years ago. 


It’s a tradition seamlessly folded into our modern tidewater life. You’d never know how strongly these canoes recall their shorter-sailed, tenacious grandfathers, guided by Indians, colonists and watermen of the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Log canoes are living progeny awakened by the kiss of a fine Chesapeake wind.