The Canoe (Fay Jordaens)

Fay Schmahl Jordaens, 2005
The Canoe

One day on the big barge, when I was ten, I noticed some small sailboats engaged in a race. Since they used the buoy around Big Tom’s rock as one of their racing markers, they sailed quite close to the big barge. In fact, they sailed so close to our anchor chain that as they passed by , they were in danger of scraping their centerboards on it. It seemed like the same group of sailors raced each other every weekend. One time, they came close enough to the barge, so that I could hear what they were saying. “You don’t have to be crazy but it helps!”one of the sailors shouted out to no one in particular. They seemed to be having such fun! These were extraordinary slim, little racing boats and I vowed to sail one some day.

Years passed before I got up the nerve to walk into Ratliff’s Boat House and ask to speak to Aunt Liz, the owner. I found her on the upper story of the boat house and told her that I wanted to sail one of those decked sailing canoes that came out of her yard. She introduced me to a young sailor, saying “Fay, this is Frank Jordaens, perhaps he will give you a ride on his canoe.”

Ratliff’s was a huge boat house built on pilings. When you opened the door to the boat house, from sunny City Island Avenue, you were plunged into the dark, first level of the building. It contained about 40 racked canoes, kayaks and other small craft. Wooden masts, booms and lee boards were stored on top of the boat. Sails were stored in the lockers. The 2nd story of the boat house had a large clubroom where sails were measured and where members often partied [someone always played the piano]. Also on the second floor, were public bathrooms, and a complete private apartment for Mr. and Mrs. Reginald Ratliff. “Reggie’s” real job was at Abercrombie and Fitch. His wife, Aunt Liz, operated the boat house. When one walked through the shed-like lower level of the boat house and came out on the other side, you stood on the wood planks of a beautiful hand ball court that Reggie erected and maintained for all members. Gangplanks from the wooden court, led down to floats. It was necessary to put your boat on a ‘dolly’, walk it down the gangplank and launch it from one of the floats. The steep angle of the gangplank on a low tide, caused a lot of justified groans. If you rigged a canoe, you could step the mast before you launched the boat. The floats were low lying in the water.

“Have you ever sailed?” I told Frank that I had never been on a sailboat before, but that I could handle motorboats. He nodded, and told me that his boat was rigged and sitting at the float. Then he invited me to take it out for a sail. He said he would sit astern, just in case. He mentioned that he had a new boat, having traded his 16 x 30 for a new 17 foot decked canoe..

An International Decked Sailing Canoe was a 17 foot, sloop rigged, completely decked over hull, that was between 38 and 42 inches wide, and carried a total of 107 square foot of sail in its jib and main sail. One sat on a hiking board amidships. The long tiller stick and hiking board were parallel. The tiller was connected to the rudder by a long “Norwegian “ rod that ran down the center of the boat to the rudder. The sheets were held in place by jam cleats. When ‘coming about’, one released the sheets, slid the tiller stick and the hiking board over to the opposite side, adjusted the sheets and sailed off. It sounded ‘tricky’, but it wasn’t. Boats were varnished and known for their great speed. The class dated back to the mid 1800's.In any event, Frank’s offer to let me sail his boat thrilled me to no end. We immediately hauled up the sails and took off.

I sat on the hiking board, held the long tiller stick in my right hand, and true to his word, Frank sat astern. There was a soft southerly blowing, a perfect wind to tack straight out. It was love at first touch of the tiller. The boat was so sensitive to the wind and, the slightest touch to the tiller, caused an immediate response. The boat cut smoothly through the slightly choppy seas. I felt like I was gliding through the water. I sailed right past my own boat [the Nashira], where I lived, and called out and waved to my mother and sister. When the wind died down near Rodman’s Neck, the boat slowed. We came about; then a small puff of wind caused the hull to immediately lurch forward. That sudden response, surprised me! By that time, I realized that to sail the canoe, some lessons had to be quickly learned. I needed to be mindful of wind strength and direction. Further, my weight on the board, and where I placed it, provided the balance the canoe needed to keep the boat upright. All finer points came later.

I did make one glaring mistake. I totally forgot that I had a long hiking board to worry about.... and while I sailed through the harbor, I got too close to the stern of a moored boat. “Watch out!”..... your boards going to hit the boat!” Then when Frank threw his weight to the starboard side, it caused the boat to heel way over and lifted the hiking board high in the air, so that we cleared the stern of the moored boat. We passed by and avoided a collision that most probably would have destabilized the canoe. I learned a quick lesson about the importance of balance that day, because these boats were easily capsized. Since they were completely decked over, they would not fill up with water and sink. Once capsized, one released the sheets, stood on the centerboard, pulled down on the hiking board and righted the boat. In heavy winds, while bringing a boat up, there was a lot of sail luffing and snapping of the sails which made ‘righting’ the boat, and keeping it upright, a bit tougher. Later, I capsized many times and always found that once upright.... I first set the jib, got under way, then adjusted the main. Once caught in ‘irons’ [stuck in neutral] one drifted backward].The object, while racing, was to sail the boat as flat as possible and avoid “flipping over.” Because of my light weight, compared to the guys I sailed against, I was not a good heavy weather sailor. In light airs, I held my own.

In time, I bought my own boat [The Puffin from Irwin Tyson of the City Island Yacht Club]. I raced it against a small fleet of devoted sailors. The Puffin had a Froehling design entrance and an Uffa Fox wide stern. A good boat in heavier winds. At times, when I got lucky, I could beat some of the guys. There was a lot to learn about the ‘rules of sailing.’ In my first year of racing, I had a bad habit of ‘barging the line’ at the start of a race. “Fay, #21, barging the line,” ...... came the call from the megaphoned committeeman. “Start over!” Damn, just when I thought I had a great start! It meant that I would have to drop out of position and start the race all over again, behind everybody else. I hated that penalty. The committee boat gave us a 1 minute whistle, where everyone jockeyed for a good position...... then came the starting gun. Everyone wanted the same position.... high in the wind, leading the pack, getting no one’s “dirty” wind. Collisions often occurred at the start. Eventually, I got the hang of making a good, well timed start. Others were expert at starts and sailing tactics. They gambled on wind shifts during a race, or calculated the currents, etc. Tactics were not my strong suit..... they were Frank’s. He was a gifted sailor.

While I was still a novice sailor, the guys thought it was great fun for them to be on a port tack and yell “starboard” as they approached me, thinking I couldn’t tell port from starboard. [Starboard tack had the right of way]. On their part, it was worth a shot, and all in good fun. Instinctively, I knew a lot more about sailing than even I suspected. Once I learned the rules........I like to think I was a worthy opponent.

One memorable race for me turned disastrous and funny at the same time. I had the lead in a ‘brush’ race and was sailing a windward tack. I passed Big Tom’s marker, when I noticed a heavy puff of wind off in the northerly distance. I saw that the wind had lifted up a dust cloud over Rodman’s Neck. I fell off the wind slightly, thinking I had time to come in from the end of my board and adjust my sheets. Big mistake. Just then the wind hit me with such power, that it snapped the hiking board out of the boat’s saddle and, I landed in the water, still sitting on the broken hiking board, with a broken tiller stick in my hand! Every guy sailing by had a great opportunity to raze me and they all took a little shot at me, as I sat briefly in the water. “Starboard!, “Get the lead out of your pants!” and similar ‘helpful’ comments were rendered with great amusement. Frank sailed over to me and asked if I was alright, while the other guys chased after my boat, which had taken a little sail for itself, and had to be reigned in. The guys rebuilt my saddle and tiller stick, leaving me the simple chores of sanding and varnishing.

The most thrilling sail I ever had on my boat occurred one weekend during a northeaster. Small craft warnings were up. Johnny Hain and I were the only sailors from our crowd at the boat house. It was a sunless day. Since sailing a canoe was all about balanced weight on the hiking board, Johnny and I thought that it would be great fun to see if two people could hold down the canoe in a gale. The person at the end of the hiking board would man the tiller and the person nearest the cleats, would take care of the sheets. [Actually, we both handled the tiller]. As we changed tacks, we changed positions on the board and swapped responsibilities. We started off being able to hold the boat upright, but as we got out into open waters, we had more difficulty. We tacked once and Johnny was washed overboard...... I sailed off and never knew that he was off the board, in back of me! I missed his weight [200 lbs.] before I realized he was gone. The boat suddenly heeled way over. I realized he was overboard and saw his head as it bobbed in the water, so I circled around to pick him up. He flung his upper torso over the hiking board as laughter rendered him helpless to get in the boat. The wind was howling, and whistling through the stays! Seas were high! “Let’s go!”... I shouted, tightening the sheets, and off we went .... like a bullet...with Johnny hugging the board, and both of us laughing at how silly he looked. The boat was heeled over and his legs were dangling off the board, still partially in the water! “Luff up, so I can climb aboard”, he yelled. I did that. It stopped the canoe; the mainsail fluttered and snapped in the wind while he scrambled aboard. High cresting waves slapped us around in the boat. Johnny and I were laughing at our own ineptitude against heavy seas and winds. We tightened the sheets and again got under way.

Later, I was the one washed over the side.........and that time, Johnny never knew it! “Johnny!”...... I yelled. Again, it was the loss of my weight on the board that tipped him off to the fact that I was not in back of him. At that point, we decided to jibe about for the rest of our sail. Jibing was equally treacherous. Between the wind strength, the waves cresting, and Johnny and I slipping and sliding all over, even off the boat, we were more in danger of drowning from laughter than anything else! Amazingly, we never capsized. [More shocking was the fact that neither one of us wore a life jacket!] Twice the hiking board got sucked into high waves on the leeward side of the boat on the ‘come about’ and we almost went over. Instinctively, we lunged to the windward side of the boat, luffed up, loosened the sails and pulled the hiking board out of the water.

Finally, we broooaaaaad reached, and spilled lots of wind.... We were practically flying! Johnny and I sensed that we were having the sail of our lives and that it was a sail never to be equaled! In time, we dropped the mainsail and sailed home on the jib alone. The boat was designed to carry an ideal 160 pounds on the board. Our combined weight was over 335 lbs. I don’t know how the canoe handled all the stress we put on it that day. Amazingly, nothing snapped. Johnny and I never ceased to talk about that sail.

Through the years, I had an opportunity to sail many different class sailboats. None could compare to the canoe. It was the most well tuned boat I ever sailed. It’s sensitivity to even the slightest breeze, made the canoe exceptional. It’s beautiful ability to ‘plane’ on the reaches, and ‘point’ so high into the wind on the windward tacks, made it unique. Before the wind, she actually ‘hummed!’ Who could ask for anything more?

I was 16 the day I walked into Ratliff’s, met Frank and learned to sail a ‘canoe. ’ I was the first woman in America to compete and sail in the International Decked Sailing Canoe National Races. I married Frank Jordaens when I was 21. ------0-------

*Frank raced in two “One of a Kind” races, [Shrewsbury River, 1956-1957] against many different class boats, sponsored by Yachting Magazine, and won both years, sailing a Whitman hull.

He felt that his greatest race was the one he sailed for the United States Team against the English team for the International Decked Sailing Canoe Championship. Sponsored by North Shore Yacht Club, the race was sailed out of Seacliff, Long Island Sound in 1955. It was a 4 man team. All Americans competed sailing the Whitman hull. The English competed with one Whitman hull and 3 Proctors, all using full batton rigging.