York Boats Sailing

A York Boat under sail
This powerful image of a York Boat under sail is used with the permission of the Glenbow Archives. Its number is na-1847-5. The HBC men sailed these boats anytime the wind was blowing in right direction, both going downriver, and coming upriver.

Yes, you have seen this image above a number of times, but I have other images from various other archives. Interestingly, by looking closely at the images, we can learn more about how these boats are sailed.

Firstly, I have a fascinating little story about these boats on the lower Hayes River, already told in another post but which I can repeat here. I think I have an explanation for the differences between the York Boats sailing on the lower Hayes, and those running between Oxford House and Norway House — and beyond.

When we set off the wind was fair for going up the river, so we fixed our mast, and set our sail. Any one who has been accustomed to boating at home, would share the dismay with which one of the Orkney lads, who had been a sailor, exclaimed — “And is that what you call a mast?” In truth, it required some degree of courtesy to give it this name. A small pine tree had been cut down, probably that morning, and the branches lopped off, but the bark remained; the thick end was thrust into a hole in the bottom of the boat, and the thin end was the top of the mast. But though the entire tree, it was too short for our boat, so that the whole of the sail could not be hoisted. It is not the custom to use a sail much, and no provision is made for the fastening the sail-ropes or “sheets.” To supply this deficiency, the oars were laid across the boat, and when the ropes were fastened, the men were desired to sit upon them, and keep them in their places.

We soon came to a turn in the river which deprived us of any further assistance from the wind, when Mr. Lawrence lowered the sail, took it from the mast and oars, and, with the most perfect coolness, hove the former overboard. In this he showed more judgement than I, at first, imagined; the mast would have been heavy and inconvenient in the boat; we were travelling the whole time through the woods; consequently, if we should ever again want one, we could pull to the bank, but down a tree, strip off its branches, and in ten minutes have as good a one, at any rate, as that which we had lost.

Dr. John Birkbeck Nevins, A Narrative of Two Voyages to Hudson’s Bay, p41-42 [London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1847] at www.Canadiana.org

There are lots of little bits of information in that paragraph, which made me look at the photograph above, and the one I will post below, more carefully. You should look, too, and see what you can discover!

York Boat sailing
York Boat Sailing, image HBCA-N14645 used with the permission of the Hudson’s Bay Archives

The above image is from the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, and I have used it with their permission. But let’s take a look at the two images of the York Boats under sail, and see what differences we can see between them.

There are lots of differences. In the image at the top of the page, the York Boat is sailing in a wind that comes in from the starboard [right] side, or beam. In the second image, the boat is sailing before the wind — that is, the wind is coming in from the stern of the boat and pushing it forward. Sailing with the wind coming from the beam, the boat leans, or heels. With the wind coming from the rear, the boat stays upright.

In the first image, the sail is held direct to the wind, and the ropes are tied at the bow of the boat, and the stern. It is hard to see, but I think that the stern line is tied to the oars that lie across the boat, and the men shown sitting on the oars are keeping them in place and the sail working. Until I read the above quote from Dr. Nevins, I would never have realized that this was happening.

Now, look at the steersmen. It’s harder to see in the first image, but in the second you can clearly see the steersman is using the tiller, and not the sweep that is normally used when the boat is being rowed — as in the photo of the Athabasca boat below. When these boats were being sailed, they did not use the sweep, but the tiller.

A sturgeon-nosed boat on the Athabasca River.
This is one of the sturgeon nosed boats used on the Athabasca River after 1835. This image, na-1338-20 is used with the permission of Glenbow Archives.

In fact, in the second image the sweep seems to be stored on top of the loads, and in the first image I think that the long sweep is projecting from the bow of the York Boat. These sweeps were enormous, and it is possible that they were longer than the boats themselves and projected front and rear.

In both images, the men are sitting on the oars that lie across the boat. In the second image you can see that there are lines from the top of the mast to various places in the boat. One line leads forward, to be tied to the ring, or rope, at the bow of the boat. I can’t see more lines leading forward, but the force of the wind is coming from the stern, and four lines lead from the head of the mast to various places in the boat. For the most part, these appear to be tied to the thwarts, which are the strengthening braces installed between the gunwales of a boat or canoe. However, the bottom corners of the sail are tied to oars that lie across the boat, and the men seated on the oars are holding them in their place with their own weight!

In both images, but most definitely in the second, all eyes face forward. The man at the tiller cannot see through the sail, and so everyone here must use their eyes to guide him safely up or down the river.

In my collection I have a photograph of a York Boat being rowed upriver or down: the steersman stands in the boat and holds the long sweep oar — the tiller is still attached to the boat but it is not in use. The mast hangs from the gunwales [sides of the boat, for non-sailors], by ropes front and back, and it is not as long as the boat itself is. The image shows both ends of the mast. One end has its natural point and will be the top of the mast to which the boom and the sail is attached. The base of the mast has been cut into a sharp wedge, and this is the part that will fit into “the hole at the bottom of the boat” that Dr. Nevins described above. I can’t see where the boom and sail are stored: presumably the sail is wrapped around the mast and stored on top of the load inside the boat, but it might be suspended by rope from the far side of the York Boat. I will keep an eye open for the answer to that puzzle!

Now, what can I say about the masts they used on the lower part of the Hayes River — those trees cut down the day before they left York Factory, and which they threw away when they were finished with them? There was very few places where they could sail on this part of the river, and upriver they had many portages and carrying places to pass through. I am taking a guess that coming downriver they left their masts at Oxford House or somewhere else, picking them up on their return journey when the difficult part of the uphill river voyage was completed.

I find it really worth while reading journals or documents written by English visitors to York Factory or Rupertsland — they often describe what the HBC men don’t, because it is new and interesting to them, and “normal” to those who work in the fur trade. Dr. Nevins journal is a good read, but there are plenty of unpublished journals in archives that are also packed with information. Keep looking. You will find a treasure somewhere — perhaps many of them!

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2019. All rights reserved.

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