It was way back in 1905 when the Chestnut Canoe Company first introduced what would become one of the most popular and enduring canoe designs of all time—the 50-Pound-Special. A dozen canoe companies now produce their own versions of the 110-year-old timeless classic, yet I had never had the honor of paddling one. That was until this spring, when a Nova Craft Bob Special was delivered to the Paddling Magazine office.

Nova Craft Bob Special Specs
Length: 15’ max
Width: 35”
Capacity: 800 lbs
Weight: 40 lbs
MSRP: $2,599 (as tested)

Origin of the iconic Bobs Special canoe

First made by New Brunswick’s Chestnut Canoe Company, the Bobs Special was first marketed as the 50-Pound Special. Its selling feature, aside from remarkable stability due to its wide beam, was its 50-pound weight—10 pounds lighter than boats of a similar size at the time.

When transmitting orders, the Chestnut Canoe Company’s telegraph code for the boat was BOBS. It here the mystery unfolds.

“The code BOBS was a salute to a beloved, senior British commander in the Boer Wars, Lord Frederick Roberts,” says Roger MacGregor, author of When the Chestnut was in Flower, a history of the Chestnut Canoe Company.

Roberts’ nickname? Bobs.

Bobs your uncle

Five-foot-three and sporting a truly excellent mustache throughout much of his life, Lord Roberts was one of the most successful commanders of the 19th century. He served in the British Army from 1851 until he retired in 1904, at the age of 72.

The Chestnut Canoe Company got many of their canoe model names from high-spirited characters on both sides of the South African Boer Wars. “These people became iconic and legendary in their own way,” says Jeremy Ward, curator at the Canadian Canoe Museum. Paul Kruger and Piet Cronje are two other wartime leaders whose tactics inspired model names.

More than a hundred years after it was first manufactured, the Bobs Special maintains its popularity. “They’re tubby little things and people adore them, whether 50 or 55 pounds,” says Ward. “It’s a boat for idyllic times.”

Man and woman paddle in a Nova Craft Bob Special canoe
Feature Photo: Kaydi Pyette

Bringing the Bobs Special back

In 1979, the Chestnut Canoe Company closed up shop. Nine years later, Tim Miller, owner of Nova Craft Canoe, took a stab at creating his version of the popular design.

According to Miller, the only major change to the original design was to create a fuller bow to allow for a drier ride in rough water. Miller also tweaked the name from Bobs to Bob. And of course, Nova Craft isn’t building their Bob Special out of cedar and canvas. Our test model is an Aramid Lite material. Not as authentic perhaps, but 10 pounds lighter than the original is okay with me.

Once the ice on the river finally broke up, I unwrapped and launched my Nova Craft Bob Special.

A stable and stalwart canoe

Miller attributes the design’s popularity to its versatility. “Today the Bob Special is a really good all-arounder; it’s a good day tripper for a couple to putz around the lake for the afternoon, it’s a nice solo for going out fishing and a good weekender for couples who travel light.” Even the late Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau soloed his very own Bobs Special.

Adding to its charm, the Bob Special is remarkably stable thanks to its 35-inch width and shallow-arch hull. This stability has made it a favorite amongst photographers, anglers and parents with young, active children.

At only 15 feet long, for me the Bob is a solo or very light weekend tripper. Nova Craft claims a capacity of 800 pounds, so it will easily float my Dutch ovens—the problem is finding the room to put them. Serious tandem trippers unwilling to strip down should consider a lengthier Nova Craft model, such as the Prospector or something from their Cruiser series.

The Bob comes standard with Nova Craft’s black aluminum gunwales, comfortable ash seats with nylon lacing, as well as ash carry handles and yoke. Nova Craft will custom build you one in a variety of other materials, including fiberglass, Royalex, Aramid, Spectra and Nova Craft’s own Blue Steel, ranging in weight from 60 pounds down to only 40 pounds.

Choose your own Nova Craft Bob Special

The Nova Craft Bob Special is a classic design in modern materials. As a tip of the hat to the old war commander and Mr. Trudeau in his buckskins, I’d recommend trimming your Bob Special in the more authentic ash gunwales.

This article was first published in the Early Summer 2014 issue of Canoeroots Magazine. Subscribe to Paddling Magazine’s print and digital editions, or browse the archives.

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