I am sailing a canoe. This is not as inadvisable as it sounds. Granted, rigging even a lightweight mast, boom and sail to a long, narrow boat conjures visions of certain capsize. But with inflatable outriggers mounted on either side of the canoe, the reality is a good deal more pleasant.
It is a Monday morning in mid-June. The wind is blowing out of the southwest at 10 to 20 miles per hour, maybe gusting to 25. I am sitting in the stern of John Haugen-Wente's canoe, my right hand on the rudder and my left gripping the mainsheet that trims the sail. Haugen-Wente, proprietor of The Paddlin' Shop, is in the bow, enjoying the ride and the vast surrounding expanses of Lake Mendota as we make good time from Tenney Park to Picnic and Frautschi points.
An avid canoe sailor, Haugen-Wente is organizing the inaugural Small Boat Sailing Rendezvous. Starting at 10 a.m. Saturday, June 30, at Burrows Park on Lake Mendota, the event is an opportunity for him to share his passion with other canoe-sailing enthusiasts but also with people who are curious about this paddling-sailing hybrid.
Haugen-Wente sails his canoe almost every Monday morning in season, depending on the wind. Part of the appeal, he explains, is the additional option the sail affords. "If you don't have wind, you can paddle," he says.
Today, we have wind and can sail. It takes perhaps 15 or 20 minutes to get the hang of handling the rudder with subtle adjustments of the rope that controls it. In the same time, I recover much of what I learned about trimming sails a quarter-century ago, when I was a member of Hoofer Sailing Club. The outriggers afford obvious stability, and sitting low in the stern affords a sense of being close to the water - a perspective that puts you in the midst of periodic whitecaps, and makes you particularly aware of gusts as they riffle Lake Mendota's dark-blue surface and lift the occasional spray up into your face.
Haugen-Wente notes that some canoe sailors dismiss outriggers as the equivalent of training wheels on bicycles, but he uses them because doing so "gives me the ability to push my limits without thinking about it." Even with outriggers, a lee board and rudder, he adds, a canoe's draft allows you to navigate into shallow waters. "There's no better way to see a coastline," he contends.
Canoe sailing has found a toehold in Madison, where both The Paddlin' Shop and Rutabaga stock canoe-sailing rigs and the Vest Pocket Yacht Club has established itself. Haugen-Wente describes it as a "very informal" group. Some of its members build their sail rigs from scratch out of found objects. "There's a lot of plumbing fixtures involved," he says, citing one enthusiast who used water-softener containers as outriggers that allow him to rig his kayak with what Haugen-Wente describes as "an obscenely large sail." Others spend in the low three to low four figures to outfit their canoes and kayaks with commercial rigs.
"There's a lot of manufacturers out there with sophisticated rigs," Haugen-Wente says. His own canoe is outfitted with gear from Balogh Sail Designs. The Dacron sail and all the hardware fit in a canvas bag he can throw in his car. It takes him about 20 minutes to rig his canoe for sailing.
"It's so light and versatile and portable," he marvels. He doesn't need a trailer to get his boat to the launch. Instead, he can strap the canoe onto his roof rack. The sail rig is about as low-maintenance as you can get, he adds: "I love the simplicity of it."
And yet, he says, most people "haven't a clue" that canoe sailing exists. This was not always the case. At the turn of the 20th century, Haugen-Wente notes, canoe-sailing regattas were commonplace across the country.
Part of the intent of the Small Boat Sailing Rendezvous, he adds, is to reintroduce an activity that was once popular. He views the event as a low-key opportunity for the uninitiated to meet devotees and try canoe sailing for themselves. Among those expected to attend are members of the Water Tribe, a Florida group of canoe-sailing enthusiasts who mount the annual 300-mile Everglades Challenge race down the Florida coast from Tampa Bay to the Keys, and the 1,200-mile Ultimate Florida Challenge, held every other year.
"There will be enough canoe and kayak rigs there that people can hitch a ride," says Haugen-Wente. Those who do ride along will, he hopes, be able to appreciate his passion for canoe sailing.
"I still paddle much more than I sail," he allows, calculating that he averages about five paddling excursions for every two sailing forays. But his preference is clear. "I sit in this boat with this big sail on it and cruise across the lake, and there's no better feeling," he says. Some days, he'll see how far he can point into the wind. Other days, "I can sit there and sing Jimmy Buffett songs and think, this is as good as it gets."