Little boats lead to larger boats – and higher stakes. His boy wanted to add a sail to the mix and little Samwise with its six-foot length wasn’t a likely candidate.
It was a visit to the nature centre and gift shop in Algonquin Park that led to their design choice. He had picked up Tom Hill’s book on ultralight rowing craft but later, having chatted with the Finger Lakes boat builder in New York State, settled on his 16-foot, sailing/rowing Wizard Skiff design which, after the course of five or six years, would be christened for yet another of J.R.R. Tolkien’s characters, this one a minor player, wizard Radagast the Brown.
The Wizard Skiff is flat-bottomed, a term, like so many others in the nautical world, that isn’t entirely reflective of the reality.
The bottom, made from two pieces of marine plywood “scarfed” together, is sharply curved from stem through stern. If set on its bottom on a level piece of ground the vessel could rock, if not for the skeg at its stern that helps it hold its course whether under sail or oar.
The effect of the “rocker” is to reduce the wetted area. The bow rides just free of the water in calm conditions while the stern barely touches its surface. The effect makes rowing easy, but when sailing, even with the drop-down keel in place, contributes to leeway, the boat slipping to the side as it makes forward progress into the wind.
They had already experienced a few adventures, in Algonquin sailing Lake Opeongo, on Lake Erie sheltered by Long Point and down the Sydenham River to Lake St. Clair before they tested the open waters of Georgian Bay, sailing from the shelter of Parry Sound into a fresh, northwest breeze.
The wind picked up after two or three hours; time to turn about and shorten the wee handkerchief of their sprit-rigged sail to an even smaller configuration.
As they skipped along on a broad reach, the wind strengthened to a strong breeze and then stronger yet, the spume of waves easily breaching their mere 15 inches of freeboard as they headed for the relatively safety of the sound.
The boy bailed and father held as steady a course as possibly, both seated tight the windward side of Radagast. Approaching was a two-masted vessel slicing tight into the wind, its master acknowledging their approach with a smile and salute.
The larger vessel tacked soon after the two vessels passed, turning toward the cliffs of the Killbear Peninsula, drawing closer, closer yet and then, at what seemed the last possible moment, the cliffs topping her masts, tacking once again from the dangers of a leeward shore.
The father and her son had little time to watch further. White caps were everywhere, the foam of breaking waves flying. They swung Radagast before the wind, a dead run, surfing down waves and, at one point nearly burying the boat’s bow into a trough.
Then, Radgagast gybed, stern passing through the wind and the sail lurching violently from port to starboard.
Running under sail is a delicate matter under any circumstance. In a near gale, it can be catastrophic. Yet nothing broke and the boat remained upright, finding its way to calm waters. ◊