History of sailing canoes in the UK and OCSG

A Thousand Miles in a Rob Roy Canoe – John MacGregor

The modern sport of canoe sailing began, along with many other sports and pastimes, in mid-Victorian Britain. In 1865, the same year that Edward Whymper climbed the Matterhorn, John MacGregor wrote “A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe.” With this and his subsequent books, MacGregor started a craze for canoe cruising which lasted for thirty years and nearly all those early canoes had sails. At a time when there were no motor vehicles, the main modern mode of transport was the railways and early sailing canoes were designed so that the train companies would allow them to be transported with luggage in the guards van. This limited the size of early sailing canoes to 15 feet by 30 inches. With railways and also steamers the early canoe sailors could take their small craft much further afield in order to embark on long adventurous journeys. This portability was at the heart of canoe sailing, even at a time when transport was very limited by today’s standards.

As canoe clubs became established on some of the major estuaries around Britain, the sport of canoe sailing flourished, with cruising being the main pastime. As time went by competition became equally important and adventure was slowly replaced by the thrill of racing. Racing became the main pastime, with cruising only happening on extended holidays. Once sailing was from a regular base and racing became the driving factor, rig sizes increased for the better sailors with larger sail sizes winning all the races.

Hulls, Rigs… and Portability?

With narrow hulls and increasing rig size it became difficult for new members to take part, as the canoes had become too difficult to manage, with only experienced members being able to sail the canoes. With this the membership declined. To remedy this, wider hulls and ballasted keels started to be developed to make it easier for new members to join in. This started to impact on the portability of sailing canoes and they were more likely to just sail from the clubhouse. Until the invention of the planing dinghy in 1927, canoes were the fastest sailing boats. Unfortunately, the quest for speed led to craft which were increasingly expensive and difficult to sail and unsuitable for anything except racing. Interest in canoe sailing declined in Britain, though it continued in Scandinavia and Germany and, in a different form, in America. Sailing canoe development continued along racing boat lines culminating in the IC10, which still race today at some dinghy sailing clubs such as Ullswater, Hayling Island and Rutland Water.


When John Bull reawakened interest in canoe sailing in the UK in 1990, with the formation of the Open Canoe Sailing Group, there were no commercially available sailing canoes suitable for cruising. John tried to reintroduce the cruising side of canoe sailing and the group adopted the same 44sq ft sail area of the ACA rig used by the American Canoe Association.

Members used a variety of open (undecked) canoes to create their own version of a sailing canoe. John Bull (trading under the name ‘Solway Dory’), sold a few off-the-shelf sailing rigs, whilst many people made their own or used cut-down windsurfer rigs. John sold plans for a small lightweight decked sailing canoe called a ‘Little Pete’ and a few turned up at our meets. Some members made home-built plywood canoes using plans from suppliers such as Selway Fisher, and over the years these have resulted in Selway Fisher providing other plans for complete dedicated sailing canoes.

Modern Developments

When John Bull retired in 1998 he passed on ‘Solway Dory’ to club members Dave Poskitt and Dave Stubbs. They continued to develop sailing rigs for open canoes. Additionally, there was a range of purpose built sailing canoes, including with decked hulls, which are more seaworthy and more suitable for coastal sea cruising. Professionally made sails worked better and were more efficient than cut down windsurfer rigs, so the homemade rigs eventually declined. A few members have commissioned a sailmaker to make a one-off sail and made their own rig but you need a lot of experience to make this work well. Nowadays at a meet there are mostly SD rigs, but with a few others including rigs from small dinghies such as Topper, Optimist or Laser Pico.

When the two Daves retired in 2018 they passed on the business to another OCSG member, Mark Aplin, who continues to sell both sailing rigs for fitting onto a canoe and complete sailing canoes.