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A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe
on Rivers and Lakes of Europe

By J. MacGregor (1825-1892), 1866, 1892


For Canoeists

THOSE who intend to make a river voyage on the Continent--and already several canoes are on the stocks for this purpose--will probably feel interested in some of the following information, while other readers of the foregoing pages may be indulgent enough to excuse the relation of a few particulars and technical details.

It is proposed, then, to give, first a description of the canoe considered to be most suitable for a voyage of this sort after experience has aided in modifying the dimensions of the boat already used; second, an inventory of the cargo or luggage of the Rob Roy, with remarks on the subject, for the guidance of future passengers.

Next there will he found some notes upon currents in broken water; and lastly, some miscellaneous observations upon various points.

Although the Rob Roy and its luggage were not prepared until after much cogitation, it is well that intending canoists should have the benefit of what experience has since proved as to the faults and virtues of the arrangements devised for a first trip, after these have been thoroughly tasted in so pleasant a tour.

The best dimensions for the canoe appear to be--length, 13 feet; beam, 2 feet 2 inches; depth outside, from keel to deck, 9 inches; camber, 2 inches; keel, 1 inch, with a strip of iron, half an inch broad, carefully secured all the way below, and a copper strip up the stern and stern posts, and round the top of each of them. The opening in the deck should be 4 feet long (at most) and 20 inches wide, with a strong combing all round, but not more than 1 inch high. This opening should be semicircular at the ends, both for appearance sake and strength and convenience, so as to avoid corners. The macintosh sheet to cover this must be strong, to resist constant wear, light coloured, for the sun's heat, and so attached as to be readily loosened and made fast again, say 20 times a day. A water-tight compartment in the hull is a mistake. its partition prevents access to breakages within, and arrests the circulation of air, and it cannot be kept long perfectly staunch. There should be extra timbers near the seat. The canoe must be so constructed as to endure without injury, (1) to be lifted by any part whatever; (2) to be rested on any part; (3) to be sat upon while aground, on any part of the deck, the combing, and the interior.

Wheels for transport have been often suggested, but they would be useless. On plain ground or grass you can readily do without them. On rocks and rough ground, or over ditches and through hedges, wheels could not be employed, or would be in the way. Bilge pieces are not required. Strength must be had without them, and their projection seriously complicates the difficulties of pushing the boat over a pointed rock, both when afloat and when ashore.

The paddle should be 7 feet long (not more), strong, with both ends rounded, thick, and banded with copper. There should be conical cups to catch the dribbling water, and, if possible, some plan (not yet devised) for preventing or arresting the drops from the paddle ends, which fall on the deck when you paddle slowly, and when there is not enough centrifugal force to throw this water away from the boat. Painter of best flexible rope, not tarred, well able to bear 200lb. weight; more than 20 feet is a constant encumbrance. Ends secured through a hole in stem post and another in stern post (so that either or both can be readily cast off), the slack coiled on deck behind you.

There should be a back support of two wooden slips, each 15 inches by 3 inches, placed like the side strokes of the letter H, and an inch apart, but laced together with cord. Rest them against the edge of the combing, and so as to be free to yield to the motion of the back at each stroke, without hurting the spine. If made fast so as always to project, they are much in the way of the painter in critical times. They may be hinged below so as to fold down as you get out.

The mast should be 5 feet long, strong enough to stand gales without stays, stepped just forward of the stretcher, and so as to be struck without your rising when in a squall, or when nearing trees, or a bridge, barrier, ferry-rope, bank, or waterfall, or going aground.

The sail, if a lug, should have a fore leach of 4 feet, a head of 3 feet 6 inches, and a foot of 4 feet 6 inches; yard and boom of bamboo.

The boat can well stand more sail than this at sea, or in lakes and broad channels, but the foregoing size for a lug is quite large enough to manage in stiff breezes and in narrow rocky tortuous rivers.

A spritsail, on the whole, would be better as enabling more canvas to be carried, while it can be reduced at once to a leg of mutton sail by dropping the sprit in a gale.

The material of the sail should be strong cotton, in one piece, without any eyelet or hole whatever, but with a broad hem, enclosing well-stretched cord all round. A jib is of little use as a sail. It is apt to get aback in sudden turns. Besides, you must land to set it or to take in its outhaul, so as to be quite snug. But the job does well to tie on the shoulders when they are turned to a fierce sun. The sails (with the booms or yards) should he rolled up round the mast compactly, to be stowed away forward, so that the end of the mast resting on the stretcher will keep the roll of sails out of the wet. The flag and its staff when not fast at the mast-head should fit into the mast-step, and should be light, so as not to sink if it falls overboard, as one of mine did.

The floor-boards should be strong, and easily detachable, so that one of them can be at once used as a paddle if that falls overboard.

The stretcher should have only one length, and let this be carefully determined after trial before starting. The two sides of its foot-board should be high and broad, while the middle may be cut down to let the hand get to the mast. The stretcher should, of course, be moveable, in order that you may lie down with the legs at full length for repose.

One brass cleat for belaying the halyard should be on deck, about the middle, and on the right-hand side. A stud on the other side, and this cleat will do to make one turn of the sheet round on either tack.

List of Stores on board the Rob Roy

1. Useful Stores.-- Paddle, painter (31 feet at first, but cut down to 20 feet), sponge, waterproof cover, 5 feet by 2 feet 3 inches, silk blue union jack, 10 inches by 8 inches, on a staff 2 feet long. Mast, boom, and yard. Lug sail, jib, and spare jib (used as a sun shawl). Stretcher, two back boards, floor boards, basket to sit on (12 inches by 6 inches, by 1 inch deep), and holding a macintosh coat. For repairs--iron and brass screws, sheet copper and copper nails, putty and whitelead, a gimlet, cord, string, and thread, a spare button, needle, and pins, canvas wading shoes (wooden clogs would be better); all the above should be left with the boat. Black bag for luggage, closed by three buttons, and with shoulder-strap, size, 12 inches by 12 inches, by 5 inches deep (just right). Flannel Norfolk jacket (flaps not too long, else they dip in the water, or the pockets are inverted in getting out and in); wide flannel trousers, with broad back buckle, second trousers with belt (braces are better on shore). Flannel shirt on, and another for shore. Thin alpaca black Sunday coat, thick waistcoat, black leather light-soled spring-sided shoes (should be stronger for rocks and village pavements), straw hat, cloth cap (only used as a bag), 2 collars, 3 pocket handkerchiefs, ribbon tie, 2 pair of cotton socks (easily get off for sudden wading, and drying quickly when put on deck in the sun). Brush, comb, and tooth-brush. Testament, passport (scarcely needed after this winter), leather purse, circular notes, small change in silver and copper for frequent use, blue spectacles in strong case, book for journal and sketches, black, blue, end red chalk, and steel pen. Maps, cutting off a six inch square at a time for rocket reference. Pipe, tobacco-case, and light-box (metal, to resist moisture from without and within), guide books and pleasant evening reading book, you should cut off covers and all useless pages of these, and every page as read. No needless weight should be carried hundreds of miles; even a fly settling on the boat must be refused a free passage. Illustrated papers, tracts, and anecdotes in French and German for Sunday reading and daily distribution (far too few had been taken, they were always well received). Box of "Gregory's Mixture," sticking plaster, small knife, and pencil.

2. Useless Articles.-- Boathook, undervest, water-proof helmet ventilated cap, foreign conversation books, glass seltzer bottle and patent cork (for a drinking flask), tweezers for thorns.

3. Lost or Stolen Articles.-- Bag for back cushion, waterproof bag for sitting cushion, long knife, necktie, woven waistcoat, box of quinine, steel-hafted knife. These, except the last of them, were not missed. I bought another thick waistcoat from a Jew.

Rocks and Currents

A few remarks may now be made upon the principal cases in which rocks and currents have to be dealt with by the canoist.

Even if rules could be laid down for the management of a boat in the difficult parts of a river, it would not be made easier until practice has given the boatman that quick judgment as to their application which has to be acquired in this and other athletic exercises, such as riding, skating, and even in walking.

It is only, therefore, as a subject of interest, and not by way of directions or instruction, that the following observations are here given; but the canoist who passes many hours every day for months together in the earnest consideration of the river problems always set before him for solution will probably feel some interest in this attempt to classify those that occur most frequently.

Steering a boat in a current among rocks is not unlike walking on a crowded pavement, where the other passengers are going in various directions, and at various speeds; and this operation of "threading your way" requires a great deal of practice, and not a few lessons learned in collisions, to make a pedestrian thoroughly au fait as a good man in a crowd. After years of walking through crowds, there is produced by an education of the mind and training of the body a certain power--not possessed by a novice--which insensibly directs a man in his course and his speed, but still his judgment has had to take cognizance of many varying data in the movements of other people which must have their effect upon each step he takes.

After this capacity becomes, as it were, instinctive, or, at any rate, acts almost involuntarily, a man can walk briskly along Fleet-street, and, without any distinct thought about other people, or about his own progress, he will safely get to his journey's end. Indeed, if he does begin to think of rules or how to apply them systematically, he is then almost sure to knock up against somebody else. Nay, if two men meet as they walk through a crowd, and each of them "catches the eye" of the other, they will probably cease to move instinctively, and, with uncertain data to reason from, a collision is often the result.

As the descent of a current among rocks resembles the walk along the pavement through a crowd, so the passage across a rapid is even more strictly in resemblance with the course of a man who has to cross a street where vehicles are passing at uncertain intervals and at various speeds, though all in the same direction. For it is plain that the thing to be done is nearly the same, whether the obstacles (as breakers) are fixed and the current carries you towards them, or the obstacles (as cabs and carts) are moving, while you have to walk through them on terra firma.

To cross Park-lane at four o'clock p.m. requires the very same sort of calculation as the passage across a rapid on the Rhine.

The importance of this subject will be considered sufficient to justify these remarks when the canoist has by much practice at last attained to that desirable proficiency which enables him to steer without thinking about it, and therefore to enjoy the conversation of others or the scenery on the bank, while he is rapidly speeding through rocks, eddies, and currents.

We may divide the rocks thus encountered into two classes-- (1) Those that are sunk so that the boat can perhaps float over them, and the direction of the current is not altered. (2) Those that are breakers, and so deflect the direction of the current and do not allow the boat to float over them.

The currents may be divided into-- (1) Those that are equable in force, and in the same direction through the course to be steered. (2) Those that alter their direction in a part of that course.

In the problems before the canoist will be found the combinations of every degree and variety of these rocks and currents, but the actual circumstances he has to deal with at any specified moment may--it is believed--be generally ranged under one or other of the six classes depicted in the accompanying woodcut.

navigating rocks and breakers

In each of the figures in the diagram the current is supposed to run towards the top of the page, and the general course of the canoe is supposed to be with the current. The particular direction of the current is indicated by the dotted lines. The rocks when shaded are supposed to be sunk, and when not shaded they are breakers.

Thus the current is uniform in figs. 1, 2, 3; and it is otherwise in figs. 4, 5, 6. The rocks are all sunk in figs. 1, 2, 3, and 5; whereas in figs. 4 and 6 there are breakers. The simplest case that can occur is when the canoe is merely floating without "way" through a current and the current bears it near a rock. If this be a breaker, the current, being deflected, will generally carry the boat to one side. The steering in such cases is so easy, and its frequent occurrence gives so much practice, that no more need be said about it.

But if the rock be a sunk rock, and if it is not quite plain from the appearance of the water that there is depth enough over the rock to float the boat, then it is necessary to pass either above the rock, as in fig. 1, or below it, as in fig. 2. The black line in these figures, and in all the others, shows the proper course of the centre of the boat, and it is well to habituate oneself to make the course such as that this line shall never be nearer to the rock than one-half of the boat's length.

A few days' practice is not thrown away if the canoist seizes every opportunity of performing feats under easy circumstances which may at other times have to be done under necessity, and which would not then be so well done if attempted then for the first time.

Let him, therefore, become adept in crossing above or below a single sunk rock with his boat's bow pointed to any angle of the semicircle before him.

Next we have to consider the cases in which more than one rock will have to be avoided. However great the number of the rocks may be, they can be divided into sets of three, and in each of the figures 3, 4, 5, 6 it is supposed that (for reasons which may be different in each case, but always sufficient) the canoe has to pass between rocks A and B, and then between B and C, but must not pass otherwise between A and C.

In fig. 3 the course is below B, and above C, being a combination of the instance in fig. 2 with that in fig. 1.

The precise angle to the line of the course which the boat's longer axis ought to have will depend upon what is to be done next after passing between B and C, and hence the importance of being able to effect the passages in fig. 1 and fig. 2 with the boat at any required angle.

We may next suppose that one of the three rocks, say B, is a breaker which will deflect the current (as indicated by the dotted stream lines) so as to modify the angle of the boat's axis, though the boat's centre, as in fig. 4, has to be kept in the same course as before.

It will be seen at once that if A were a breaker the angle would be influenced in another manner, and that if C were a breaker the angle at which the boat should emerge from the group of rocks would be influenced by the stream from C also; but it is only necessary to remind the reader that all the combinations and permutations of breakers and sunk rocks need not be separately discussed,--they may be met by the experience obtained in one case of each class of circumstances.

Figure 5 represents a circular current in the group of three rocks. This is a very deceptive case, for it looks so easy that at first it is likely to be treated carelessly. If the boat were supposed to be a substance floating, but without weight, it would have its direction of motion instantly altered by that of the current. But the boat has weight, and as it has velocity (that of the current even if it is not urged also by the paddle so as to have "way" through the water), therefore it will have momentum and the tendency will be to continue in a straight line, instead of a curve guided solely by the current. In all these cases, therefore, it will be found (sometimes inexplicably unless with these considerations) that the boat insists upon passing between A and C; where it must not be allowed to go, on the hypothesis we have started with; and where it effects a compromise by running upon C; this is by no means satisfactory.

This class of cases includes all those where the river makes a quick turn round a rock or a tongue B, where the boundary formed by the rock A and the outer bend of the stream is a solid bank, or a fringe of growing trees, or of faggots artificially built as a protection against the erosion of the water. This case occurs, therefore, very frequently in some fast rivers, say, at least, a hundred times in a day's work, and perhaps no test of a man's experience and capacity as a canoist is more decisive than his manner of steering round a fast, sharp bend.

The tendency in such cases is always to bring the boat round by paddling forward with the outer hand, thereby adding to the "way," and making the force of the current in its circular turn less powerful relatively. Whereas, the proper plan is to back with the inner hand, and so to stop all way in the direction of the boat's length, and to give the current its full force on the boat.

The case we have now remarked upon is made easier if either A or C is a breaker, but it is very much increased in difficulty if the rock B is a breaker or is a strong tongue of bank, and so deflects the current outward at this critical point.

The difficulty is often increased by the fact that the water inside of the curve of the stream may be shoal, and so the paddle on that side strikes the bottom or grinds along it in backing.

When the curve is all in deep water, and there is a pool after B, the boat ought not to be turned too quickly in endeavouring to avoid the rock C, else it will sometimes then enter the eddy below B, which runs up stream sometimes for fifty yards. Again, the absurd position you are thereby thrown into naturally causes you to struggle to resist or stem this current; but I have found, after repeated trials of every plan I could think of, that it is best to let the boat swing with the eddy so as to make an entire circuit, until the bow can come back towards B (and below it), when the nose of the boat may be thrust into the main stream, which then will now turn the boat round again to its proper course. Much time and labour may be spent uselessly in a wrong contest with an eddy.

In fig. 6, where the three rocks are in a straight line, and the middle one is a breaker, an instance is given when the proper course must be kept by backing during the first part of it.

We must suppose, then, that the canoist has attained the power of backing with perfect ease, and this is quite necessary if he intends to take his boat safely through several hundred combinations of sunk rocks and breakers. Presuming this, the case in fig. 6 will be easy enough, though a little reflection will show that it might be very difficult, or almost impossible, if it is in the power of the canoist to give only a forward motion to the boat.

To pass most artistically, then, through the group of rocks in fig. 6 the stern should be turned towards A, as shown in the diagram, and the passage across the current, between A and B, is to be effected solely by backing water (and chiefly in this case with the left hand) until the farthest point of the right of the curve is reached, with the boat's length still as before in the position represented in the figure. Then the forward action of both hands will take the canoe speedily through the passage between B and C.

Cases of this sort are rendered more difficult by the distance of C from the point above A, where you are situated when the decision has to be made (and in three instants of time) as to what must be done; also, it would usually be imprudent to rise in the boat in such a place to survey the rock C from a nearer position.

If it is evident that the plan described above will not be applicable, because other and future circumstances require the boat's bow to emerge in the opposite direction (pointing to the right), then you must enter forwards, and must back between B and C, so as to be ready, after passing C, to drive forward, and to the right. It is plain that this is very much more difficult than the former plan, for your backing now has to be done against the full stream from the breaker B.

In all these cases the action of the wind has been entirely omitted from consideration, but it must not be forgotten that a strong breeze materially complicates the problem before the canoist. This is especially so when the wind is aft; when it is ahead you are not likely to forget its presence. A strong fair wind that has scarcely been felt with your back to it, and the swift stream and the boat's speed from paddling all in one direction, will suddenly become a new element in the case when you try to cross above a rock as in fig. 1, and find the wind carries you broadside on against all your calculations.

Nor have I any observations to make as to sailing among rocks in a current. The canoe would of course be directed solely by the paddle in a long rapid, and in the other places the course to be steered by a boat sailing would be the same as if it were being merely paddled, though the action of the wind has to be carefully taken into consideration when the manner of keeping to the course has to be devised. In all these things boldness and skill come only after a few lessons of experience, and the canoist will find himself ready and able, at the end of his voyage, to sail down a rapid which he would have approached timidly, with the paddle, at the beginning.

But perhaps enough has been said for the experienced oarsman, while surely more than enough has been said to show the tyro aspirant the varied work he has to do, and the boundless field of interesting circumstances which will occupy his attention on a delightful river tour.

The following notes are on miscellaneous points:

(a) We are sometimes asked about such a voyage as this, "Is it not very dangerous?" There seems to me to be no necessary danger in the descent of a river in a canoe. If it is desired to make it as safe as possible you must get out at each difficult place and examine the course, and if the course is too difficult you may take the boat past the danger by land.

But if the excitment and novelty of finding out a course in the spur of the moment is to be enjoyed, then, no doubt, there is more danger to the boat.

As for danger to the canoist, it is supposed, imprimis, that he is well able to swim, not only in a bath when stripped, but when unexpectedly thrown into the water with his clothes on, and that he knows he can rely on this capacity.

If this be so, the chief danger to him occurs when he meets a steamer on water (rare enough on such a tour); for if he is upset by it, and his head is broken by the paddle floats, the swimming powers are futile for safety.

The danger incurred by the boat is certainly both considerable and frequent, but nothing short of the persuasion that the boat would be smashed if a great exertion is not made would incite the canoist to those very exertions which are the charm of travelling, when spirit, strength, and skill are to be proved. Men have their various lines of exercise as they have of duty. The huntsman may not understand the pleasures of a rapid, nor the boatman care for the delights of a "bullfinch." Certainly, however, the waterman can say that a good horse may carry a bad rider well, but that the best boat will not take a bad boatman through a mile of broken water. In each case there is, perhaps, a little of populus me sibilat, and it may be made up for by a good deal of at mihi plaudo.

(b) It has been said that the constant use of a canoe paddle must contract the chest, but this is certainly a mistake. If, indeed, you merely dabble each blade of the paddle in the water without taking the full length of the stroke the shoulders are not thrown back, and the effect will be injurious; but exactly the same is true if you scull or row with a short jerky stroke.

In a proper use of the paddle the arms ought to be in turn fully extended, and then brought well back, so that the hand touches the side, and the chest is then well plied in both directions.

In using the single-bladed paddle, of which I have had experience in Canada and New Brunswick with the Indians in bark canoes and log canoes, there seems to be a less beneficial action on the pectoral muscles, but after three months' use of the double paddle I found the arms much strengthened, while clothes that fitted before were all too narrow round the breast when put on after this exercise.

(c) In shallow water the paddle should be clasped lightly, so that if it strikes the bottom or a rock the hand will yield and not the blade be broken.

Great caution should be used in placing the blade in advance when it is meant to meet a rock, or even a gravel bank, otherwise it gets jammed in the rock or gravel, or the boat overrides it.

It is better in such a case to retard the speed by dragging the paddle (tenderly), and always with its flat side downwards, so that the edge does not get nipped.

(d) M. Farcôt, a French engineer, has lately exhibited on the Thames a boat which is rowed by the oarsman sitting with his face to the bow, and thus securing one of the advantages of the canoe--that of seeing where you are going.

To effect this, a short prop or mast about three feet high is fixed in the boat, and the two sculls are joined to this by their handles, while their weight is partly sustained by a strong spiral spring acting near the joint, and in such a manner as to keep the blade of the scull a few inches from the surface of the water when it is not pressed down purposely.

The sculler then sits with his face towards the mast and the bow, and he holds in each hand a rod jointed to the loom of the corresponding scull. By this means each scull is moved on the mast as a fulcrum with the power applied between it and the water. The operation of feathering is partially performed, and to facilitate this there is an ingeniously contrived guide.

This invention appears to be new, but it is evident that the plan retains many of the disadvantages of common sculls, and it leaves the double paddle quite alone as a simple means for propelling a canoe in narrow or tortuous channels, or where it has to meet waves, weeds, rocks, or trees.

However, the muscular power of the arms can be applied with good effect in this manner, and I found it not very difficult to learn the use of this new rowing apparatus, which is undoubtedly very ingenious, and deserves a full trial before a verdict is pronounced.

(e) In a difficult place where the boat is evidently going too near a rock, the disposition of the canoist is to change the direction by a forward stroke on one side, but this adds to the force with which a collision may be invested. It is often better to back a stroke on the other side, and thus to lessen this force; and this is nearly always possible to be done even when the boat appears to be simply drifting on the stream. In fact, as a maxim, there is always steerage way sufficient to enable the paddle to be used exactly as a rudder.

(f) When there is a brilliant glare of the sun, and it is low, and directly in front, and it is impossible to bear its reflection on the water, a good plan is to direct the bow to some point you are to steer for, and then observe the reflection of the sun on the cedar deck of the boat. Having done this you may lower the peak of your hat so as to cut off the direct rays of the sun, and its reflected rays on the water, while you steer simply by the light on the deck.

(g) When a great current moves across a river to a point where it seems very unlikely to have an exit, you may be certain that some unusual conformation of the banks or of the river bed will be found there, and caution should be used in approaching the place.

This, however, is less necessary when the river is deep. Cross currents of this sort are frequent on the Rhine, but they result merely from unevenness in the bottom far below.

(h) The ripple and bubbles among weeds are so totally different from those on free water that their appearance at a distance as a criterion of the depth, current, and direction of the channel must be learned separately. In general, where weeds are under water, and can sway or wave about, there will be water enough to pass. Backing up stream against long weeds is so troublesome, and so sure to sway the stern round athwart stream, that it is best to force the boat forward instead, even if you have to get out and pull her through.

(i) Paddling through rushes, or flags, or other plants above the water, so as to cut of a corner, is a mistake. Much more "way" is lost by the friction than might be supposed.

(j) The hard exercise of canoe paddling, the open-air motion, constant working of the muscles about the stomach, and free perspiration result in good appetite and pleasant sleepiness at night. But at the end of the voyage the change of diet and cessation of exercise will be apt to cause derangement in the whole system, and especially in the digestion, if the high condition or "training" be not cautiously lowered into the hum-drum "constitutionals" of more ordinary life. Still I have found it very agreeable to take a paddle in the Rob Roy up to Hammersmith and back even in December.

(k) Other pleasant voyages may be suggested for the holiday of the canoist. One of these might begin with the Thames, and then down the Severn, along the north coast of Devon, and so by the river Dart to Plymouth. Another on the Solent, and round the Isle of Wight. The Dee might be descended by the canoe, and then to the left through the Menai Straits. Or a longer trip may be made from Edinburgh by the Forth, and into the Clyde, and through the Kyles of Bute to Oban; then along the Caledonian Canal, until the voyager can get into the Tay for a swift run eastward.

But why not begin at Gothenburg and pass through the pretty lakes of Sweden to Stockholm, and then skirt the archipelago of green isles in the Gulf of Bothnia, until you get to Petersburg?

For one or other of such tours a fishing-rod and an air rifle, and for all of them a little dog, would be a great addition to the outfit.

In some breezy lake of these perhaps, or some rushing river, the little Rob Roy may hope to meet the reader's canoe; and when the sun is setting, and the waters sparkle sleepily, the pleasures of the paddle will be known far better than they have been told by the pen.

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