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Sailing a piece of history

2018 May 1

When racing a Chesapeake Bay log canoe, sometimes you just have to keep it upright and in one piece to win

At the other end of the spectrum is Magic’s 23-year-old skipper Jon Clarke, a member of one of the first families in Chesapeake Bay log canoe racing. Magic, the boat he co-owns with his mother and his uncle, was built in 1894. Ever since Jon’s great grandfather George H. Wilson Sr. purchased the boat for $100 in 1923, there’s been a member of the family at the helm. That earns Magic the distinction of being the log canoe with the oldest ties to one family in the fleet. Jon sailed his first race as Magic’s skipper when he was 16. 

The racing is tight between Mystery and Persistence.
Craig Ligibel photo


Magic was built by Charles Tarr in St. Michaels, Maryland. She measures a little over 34 feet in length with a beam of just under 7 feet. She has a lapped sheer strake topped with a rubrail. The rig consists of two moveable masts. With 1,200 square feet of sail area, the main mast is 47 feet 6 inches tall and is unstayed. The foremast is 34 feet long and is set up with two shrouds and spreaders set down in the mast. Both foresail and mainmast are clubfooted. The mainsheet trimmer sits on an outrigger aft of the stern. The trimmer gets soaked in heavy air as the outrigger drags through the boat’s wake.

“We take things slowly on Magic,” Clarke said. “The race doesn’t necessarily belong to the swift, but to the boat that manages to make it around the course in one piece.”

Things get a little wilder as the boats approach the “capsize mark” where the boats attempt to execute a controlled jibe as they round the downwind mark. The boardsmen execute their moves while the skipper is generally blocked from seeing much of anything that is happening in front of him in a study in nautical coordination.

“I am in charge of what goes on in the boat,” Clarke says. “But I really am flying blind most of the time. My trimmers and my lead boardsman tell me what is happening with the rig and with the race. All I do is try to process the information as best I can and relay instructions to everybody up and down the line.”

Corbin Penwell steers Island Blossom into a leeward mark, known in log canoe sailing as the capsize mark.
Craig Ligibel photo


As a nautical engineer, Clarke said he is amazed every time he thinks about how well these log canoes sail. 

“With all that sail, the center of effort is split between two masts, five sails and an 8-foot-long centerboard. It would be really hard to calculate how to best trim these boats for maximum speed. It’s all about the feel of the boat. It’s not something you can plug into a computer.”

It’s no easy task getting a boat like Magic around the course.

“By all rights, these boats have no business sailing like they do,” Clarke said. “They’re skittish to drive, hard to turn and are completely at the mercy of the elements. The whole thing defies logic. Maybe that’s why they called this boat Magic. I call it 

Black Magic.”

Clarke’s great grandfather started the Log Canoe Governor’s Cup in 1927. Magic won the initial race and at least 12 more times. On this particular race day, the fates conspired against the venerable canoe. Magic broke her rudder during race preliminaries and was forced to retire before the race started.

“It was a bummer not to be able to race today,” Clarke said. “But the season isn’t over yet. There will be plenty of time for us to show the rest of the fleet what we’re made of.”

There was plenty of time for the young crew to drink a celebratory beer or two after a successful stint on the water.

Mystery’s movable ballast hangs on tight.
Craig Ligibel photo


“We’re out here to have fun,” Jon said. “Winning is nice, but to get together with a bunch of guys I’ve known for a bunch of years and to have a chance to sail a piece of living history, that’s a special moment.”

Magic’s beverage of choice? Budweiser Natural Light is packed in a cooler and snugged up in the sole of the boat.

“In case we tip over, we have one guy whose responsibility is to save the beer.”

It’s nice to know these guys have their priorities straight. 

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