Home-built sailing canoes and rigs

Many canoe sailors accept their own limitations for DIY and are content to buy a rig and have it fitted to their canoe professionally, or buy an entire sailing canoe “off the shelf.”

However some of our members enjoy the challenge of making things work for themselves. Over the years we have seen some noble and well intentioned attempts to make a sailing canoe that have been absolutely dire in their execution – either due to poor design or construction or sometimes both! Make no mistake – the creation of what appears to be a simple concept, but is actually a very complex range of interconnected factors, is really tricky. A compromise for the DIY enthusiast is to use either plans that are available from a couple of sources, or a full kit of parts to be built up yourself.

Nevertheless there are a few who have preferred to design and build their own canoes and rigs from scratch. But for this to be successful you will need knowledge, experience and do extensive research to ensure all the different important factors are properly considered.

Having said all that when it comes to the actual sail itself, designing and making a really effective sail is challenging and while not impossible, it is strongly recommended that people should use the services of a professional sailmaker – there are many around the country. Typical canoe sails are not large compared to even many dinghies and should be simple to make from soft sailcloth and are therefore not too costly.

Sources of inspiration

There are a few source materials that aspiring canoe sailors have used over the years to prompt their thinking and inspire them into action, either to rig an existing canoe with a sailing rig, or to build a canoe hull for sailing.

Sail your Canoe by John Bull
How to add Sails to Your Canoe ISBN‎ 090440594X
A small but very useful book providing the basics – a little dated but much is still valid
front cover of a sailing canoe text book

Canoe Rig: The Essence and the Art by Todd Bradshaw
Sailpower for Antique and Traditional Canoes ISBN 0937822574
A “coffee table” book with nice graphics and lots of ideas, some of which are more practical than others!
Front cover of canoe sailing text book

Canoecraft by Ted Moores, Merilyn Mohr
A Harrowsmith Illustrated Guide to Fine Woodstrip Construction
ISBN 0920656242
Shows a variety of wood-strip canoe designs and how to build them
front cover of wooden canoe building text book

An example of a home-rigged sailing canoe

This is an “off the shelf” plastic canoe that has been adapted into a very capable sailing craft. Most of the sailing fittings were designed and made by the owner, but with the custom mast thwart/support and leeboard being supplied by Solway Dory. The custom-designed sail was made by a sailmaker local to the canoe’s owner and is set on spars made from stock anodised aluminium tubing. The Bermudan (aka Marconi) rig is similar to that used on small dinghies such as a Topper or Laser Pico. Solway Dory Bermudan rigs also use this arrangement as it is so easy to reef and furl on the water, by detaching the kicking strap and rotating the mast.
black sailing canoe on stony beach with a loch and mountain backgroundblack sailing canoe on stony beach by loch with calm water and blue sky

An example of a wood-strip canoe with traditional battened lug rig

This owner wanted the challenge of building a canoe that sails as well as looking beautiful.

Wooden canoe with white sail

wooden sailing canoe

An example of a high performance decked sailing canoe

This is a sailing canoe that is very much at the “performance” end of the spectrum. Some might say it bears little relationship to a paddling canoe, but it is still a very portable sailing craft that can be paddled when the wind drops. The sails were professionally made to the owners specification, but everything else has been carefully crafted to a very high and accomplished standard. Here follows the owners description:

Sea Harrier was designed and built by Peter Robinson and completed in 2019. It is 5m (16′ 5”) in length and the hull was constructed using carbon/Kevlar with epoxy resin on a foam core. The deck is strip-built using a combination of Western Red Cedar and Yellow Cedar. It is sturdily built to make it suitable as a cruising sea boat, and weighs 40kg without the rig.

It has an off-centre ‘centreboard’ and ‘winglets’ to allow hiking out when sailing. It uses a stiff carbon windsurfer mast and there are two mast positions to allow it to be sailed with or without a jib.

Full details of the design and construction can be found in a blog here:

Decked sailing canoe with red, white and blue sails