Good Canoe for Sailing

I am getting the “sailing bug” for one of my canoes. I have a Wenonah Vagabond, Mohawk Odyssey 14, an Old Town Northern Light 18.5 and a Old Town Columbia 18. I am pretty convinced that the big Northern Light will make a great sailboat. It has a plumb stern, perfect for a rudder. Good freeboard (compared to the Columbia) with shallow arch bottom and a sturdy fiberglass layup i.e kinda heavy! I think it will be a good fall/winter project so I have time to determine the best sail type, rudder setup and leeboard. Any sailors out there? I have been all over youtube and the internet so there is a lot of info out there but just curious if anybody here is into canoe sailing?

Try the Open Canoe Sailing Group!
The UK based Open Canoe Sailing Group is the obvious first port of call for questions about canoe sailing… and that’s for both conversion of traditional boats and for specialist decked boats.

Here’s the homepage:

…and the very active Facebook group:

A couple of years ago we were able to get a dedicated sub-forum established for canoe sailing. Leading lights of the group contribute quite regularly.

You’ll get a great response (including from US and Canada based canoe sailors) if you ask in the sailing section of

Also check out the Solway Dory website:

Beyond those folk, you’ve got assorted networks. Anything you can dig up by Howard Rice or Todd Bradshaw will be worth reading, and the Bufflehead and Aquamuse projects are both notable

Really appreciate the info. Sure looks like the Brits are really into this as can be determined from my youtube views. Funny I have only sailed a small sunfish for a couple times one summer about 20 years ago but now really getting the itch. I am Certainly a neophite and must do alot of learning in advance because I want this to be an enjoyable and positive experience from the start.

Best OC conversion of all time?

– Last Updated: Apr-30-14 5:06 AM EST –

Keith Morris' conversion of his 18'6" Old Town Penobscott (perhaps not so very different from your Old Town Northern Light 18.5) is truly outstanding... and is well documented here:

That boat is good to go for extended expeditions and in F6+ winds... and belongs to the most experienced and accomplished of our modern-era canoe sailors.

Most of what Keith's done to set that boat up could be replicated by anyone, anywhere: just needs a little time and effort and maybe a few well directed questions that he and others are only to happy to answer :)

shorter may be better
I don’t know all the boats you mentioned, but an 18 1/2 foot boat would be harder to tack I’t think, relative to a shorter hull - likewise, a boat with some rocker would be easier to tack as well

you would probably want at least a 75sf sail for the big boats

I have sailed 15’ Grumman canoe with thier sail kit - except we used the larger 75sf sail which was recommended for thier 17 footers - I think the recommended sail for 15’ boat was 60 or 65sf

the “kit” came with two leeboards, and I’d think you would want two, even though I’ve seen other kits advertised with one leeboard only

rudder was hinged, so it could be lifted out of the water without taking it off the boat

with the 75sf sail, with two of us in the boat, we pretty much kept up with a sunfish (or whatever it was) that had two people on it - but the canoe certainly didn’t spin on a dime

lots of fun when we tipped over and filled the boat - would usually just sail it towards shore full of water, or mostly full after we tried to slosh out some - then finish the job in the shallows

its been 2 or 3 years since I’ve sailed that boat - its back in NY and I don’t get back there often in the summer

good advice
I will check out the Penobscot. The canoe is very similar to my Northern Light. I have considered the long straight keel line and I will use two Lee boards and a large rudder. Quick turns and tacks will be out of the question so I will only be sailing it in open unconfined waters. It does have a very arched bottom,…almost rounded, so I believe it will slice through the water and not be much effected by wave action that a more flat bottomed boat might. It will be a very fun learning experience as well as a hopefully long term pleasure activity.

Don’t use an OT Penobscot 16.
I got an awesome buy, (half price) on a two year old one in perfect condition a few years back from a guy in Atlanta that bought it new to out fit for sailing.

-It didn’t work out for him!

Jack L

Ok but
I owned one and it was a very nice PADDLING canoe so maybe narrow sleek hulls are not so well suited to sailing unless you are experienced. Hmmmm.My 18.5 Northern light is about 36 inches at the gunnels which is fairly narrow for that length boat

If I were doing it, I would add…
amas. Either one or two.

Take a look at the Water Tribe events, and there are very few kayaks or canoes with out them. Then you could use the skinniest canoe going and fly.

but then again’ I’m not doing it

Jack L

Interesting notions but…
Whilst it’s technically possible to sail a canoe with a huge sail, for adventure sailing or cruising this makes little sense.

For most open boats, 35 square feet is sufficient for “expedition” purposes, and if you’re out in any decent wind (F4-F6), you’ll want to be able to reef down to 30 square foot and you’ll find that drives the hull very nicely indeed.

Serious, top end sailors in the UK mostly use 44-50 square foot bermudan rigs. A couple have tried 55 square foot rigs on dedicated, decked sailing canoes, but unless you’ve got really light (F2) winds, the advantages are pretty negligible.

IN 2012, Gavin Millar used a rig of these proportions for his 1,000 mile coastal sail from Southampton to Oban (entire East coast of England and more). Gavin’s one of the boldest and most accomplished sailors we’ve seen in modern times, but wasn’t craving any bigger sail area!


Re. Stability. With the wind coming over the side of the boat and filling the sail, this really isn’t a big issue. You can hike out until there’s only your knees-downwards in the boat, and just adjust the heel by pointing higher or lower or playing the mainsheet.

Within reason, directional stability (rather than primary or secondary stability) is more significant in terms of staying upright, as swinging wildly to windward (or the other way) changes the loading on the sail quite dramatically. THIS is what makes sailing my 13’ Flashfire a massive challenge.

A 36" beam tandem is typical for canoe sailing. Most boats converted here are ~16’ long, and if they’ve got rocker they tack well. Our Jensen 18 has the same beam and is a bit of pig through the tack due to the deadwood… but if I use a rudder, I do OK.

Re. Leeboards. Feel free to search the many discussions of these that you’ll find online. Twin leeboards are now virtually unheard of among serious canoe sailors. They’re a thing for purists: virtually all serious adventure sailors just go with one board.

These aren’t just UK conclusions. Howard Rice says the same…

*** Quote ***

I use only one leeboard because one is all that is needed. Like most small boats canoes should be sailed flat. Given her narrow (I wish she was 31") beam of 34" keeping the blade in water is quite easy. One blade is simpler.

*** Endquote ***

See that and more in what is perhaps the most wonderful discussion of canoe sailing anywhere on the web. See:

Oh… and Re. rudders… just take a look at the size of the Solway Dory offerings, or at Keith’s. There’s no real need to go any bigger!

The best Canoe for sailing
Is the one(s) you got.

I can’t argue with anything Snowgoose Skipper said.

But I’ll add that I’m horribly envious of the resources he enjoys over there in merry old England.

If I had a 16’ Penobscott I’d likely try to sail it.

I don’t care for outriggers as I feel they eliminate the advantages of a canoe. But if you want to go that way they do let you fly some sail…

I’ve been playing with my solos. It seems I end up motor sailing often as not. Lucky for me my motor runs on beer.

My most recent experiment is sailing my Magic with 20 square feet of lugsail and no leeboard or rudder. It worked pretty well in light air.

Pictures are here

Thanks a bunch. What type sail?
Snowgoose I really am grateful for your experienced advice and I may use the “training wheels” to start out until I feel confident enough to remove them. The single leeboard is something I might do right away. Right now I am having a HECK of a time deciding on what type of mainsail. There are so many variations,…it is so confusing. I know each has its own advantages and drawbacks but I saw in the newest edition of Small Boat published by Wooden Boat Magazine, a fella has a boomless sprit-rig mainsail that looks very simple and user friendly. Any thoughts in that regard? I am really wanting to include a small jib on a 3ft bowsprit and a mizzen mast sail to create a little “ketch”. In fact I am toying with having those be my main sailing sheets and only use the mainsail when breezes are light enough.