The Adirondack Guideboat-Wind:The Enemy of the 90 mile Canoe Race

We’ve been talking about the 90 Mile Canoe (guideboat) race held in the Adirondacks every fall.  In three days, the racers follow the natural watercourses from Old Forge, NY to Saranac Lake, NY a distance of 90 miles.  At that time of year the weather is often lovely and great for paddling and rowing.  But every once in awhile, the weather turns nasty.  It is usually from a strong cold front moving through the kicks up some very strong southwest winds.  The third leg of this year’s 90 miler was cancelled because of high winds.

The orientation of the Ice Age-formed chains of lakes in the Adirondacks is conducive to funneling southwest winds down these lakes.  The winds are further intensified by the mountains that hug some of the shorelines.  Gale force winds can easily spring up and cause some large, angry swells as they pass down the wider stretches of water.

I witnessed the start of the second leg of the 90 Miler several years ago.  At eight in the morning the winds were already howling at around 30-40 miles and hour.  The racers were off in a flash propelled by the strong winds at their backs.  Everything was alright in the narrow, southern part of Long Lake.  About three miles above the bridge the Lake widens and the winds and waves take charge.  Many boats were swamped and their occupants had to be rescued.

John Homer remarks on his experience crossing Raquette Lake in his guideboat on a windy day while in the Race.  He says “Raquette Lake is a real bugger when it is windy.  But the guideboat is a very stable craft when in rough water.  If you are a team you must balance the boat as much as possible or you will be doing circles because of the wind gusts. (this is especially true in a guideboat because of the high stern and bow rise).  You will fight the wind and just about wear out your arms to keep the boat straight unless you get closer to shore and away from the wind.  I have seen many kayaks and canoes flip over out there  in bad weather but the volunteers are always ready to help in these situations.”

So what is it about a guideboat that makes it inherently stable in rough seas?  And what makes it misbehave in a cross wind and wear you out trying to keep it on track?

Let’s look at the why it is a stable craft in rough water.  Apparently the early guideboat builders raised teach end of the boat so that it could take on large swells.  This cleaver innovation goes back at  least to the Vikings.  The Vikings realized the need for a sharp rise in the bow and stern of their boats so that they could ride out the North Atlantic swells.  According to the Durant’s in their book, The Adirondack Guide-boat, the Norsemen called this rise “snye”.

I have always been fascinated with the Vikings and their extraordinary boat building skills. Some years ago I built a model of a Vikingskib, as it was called.  The original was discovered at the bottom of a fjord so the model is an accurate reproduction of one of their ships.  Here are a couple of photos of it.

Top view of Vikingskib model.
Top view of Vikingskib model.
Side view of Vikingskib model.
Side view of Vikingskib model.

These ships were so cleverly built that the boat, instead of plowing through a large swell, would flex to allow the wave to pass under it.  Amazing!

Note the snye, or upward rake of the planks at the bow and stern on the Vikingskib.  This snye is much more exaggerated than that on a guideboat for obvious reasons.  The Vikingskib has to survive a much harsher environment.

Here is a view of an Adirondack guideboat showing its snye.

View of guideboat showing snye,
View of guideboat showing snye,

One amazing thing about an Adirondack guideboat is that the depth of the hull at midships is only 12 inches.  Even with this minimal freeboard it is not prone to taking on water in rough seas, something I find truly amazing.

So John was able to traverse the rough waters of Raquette Lake while other craft, canoes and kayaks, flipped.  The guideboat has two things going for it in harsh seas, an upturned bow and stern (snye) and it is light.  I have often observed that it bobs like a cork in the large wakes generated by motorboats.

John notes that a guideboat “will wear your arms out” in windy weather.   Next time we will explore why a guideboat fights its oarsman in a cross wind and what one might do about it.


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