Just south of the treeline in northwest Manitoba, the Cochrane River runs fast and tempestuous along the Saskatchewan border. Rigging two canoes into a catamaran, we set sail to travel up the river for half its 200-kilometre length. The jury-rigged boat turned out to be so proficient that we ascended some of the smaller class I rapids without difficulty or having to paddle.
Every year I see a proliferation of makeshift boats, sails aloft, heading down big lakes and rivers. Canoe sailing is a great adventure and a wonderful way to make headway and combine a rest day in one shot. But it can be a dangerous undertaking if not done right—never underestimate the vagaries of wind, weather, distance or tide.
There are as many ways to rig canoes for sailing as there are sailing terms. But it doesn’t have to be that scientific or complicated. Many canoeists simply tie off a jacket or small tarp to paddles and hand-hold a quick sail that works well, until their arms give out.
The seafaring Paravas warriors of Tamil Nadu, India, used the square-sail catamaran. It can’t be beat for speed and stability. The typical, quick, field-assembled catamaran that can easily and swiftly cruise down a lake can be completely rigged and ready to shove off in less than an hour.
1) You will need enough wood for cross supports, masts and the gaff pole. I often carry trimmed spruce poles for the mast and gaff pole because it isn’t recommended that paddlers start cutting down trees to build sailboats. In some areas, there’s typically a lot of available deadwood that can be used for cross-supports.
2) Catamaran two or more canoes together with cross-supports, keeping a distance of two feet between canoes.
3) Rig a single mast or an inverted “V.” Make sure the mast is tied off securely.
4) Tie a tent fly or a kitchen tarp to the gaff pole and lash it to the top of the mast. The loose bottom corners of the sail can be tied off to the running lines and adjusted to trim the sail and prevent luffing (flapping).
5) A wide-blade paddle or traditional steering-board can be used as a rudder, usually dipped and held from the starboard side of the two boats. Spray decks can be fastened down to keep the wash out, or just have bailers handy.