More About American Proas
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by Craig O'Donnell - Still Pond, Maryland - USA

It might be about time for someone to build something or sail something somewhere and tell us about it -- so Robb White can have a break from filling Messing About’s pages. If he keeps this up he might be stricken with carpal tunnel syndrome, which I can assure you, makes paddling a kayak or steadfastly grasping the tiller, no fun at all.

In any event I was glad to see a proa, and a mostly-traditional one at that, given space on the recent cover. The Marshallese proa picture (see below) from the prior issue is especially yummy. Hard to find ones that good. I’m in Robb’s camp when it comes to the armchair sailor’s impulse to “improve” the proa with Western Ingenuity. If they ever get built, they typically don’t work so great. A fellow named Rob Denney in Australia has equipped his proas with a rotating rig (costly, high tech) that apparently works well if you can stand the cost. And these, aside from his little test proa, are not trailer boats.

I don’t expect often to have a chance to offer Robb a course correction, but Atlantic White Cedar is no way a “juniper.” The “red cedar” of the Chesapeake (and further south) is a juniper, not a cedar. That juniper has been used for planking on the Chesapeake for a long time. It’s not white.

It’s a favorite of mine, and speaking of thimbles rather than blocks – as we will shortly – you can find trunks or limbs that carpenter bees have been busy with. They make a remarkably precise hole of just the right diameter for small boats. Just slice off pieces like fat bologna and lash them to spars.

Marshallese proa (courtesy MAIB)

Atlantic white cedar is sometimes called “false cypress” and is in the same tree family as bald cypress. The southern third of Delaware, and I imagine, adjacent parts of Maryland, was well-covered with cedar swamps, which were burned wholesale by farmers a couple hundred or so years back so they could grow stuff like potatoes. Oh well.

You don’t actually want an ultralight proa, because you don’t want to have to steer by where you sit. It can get uncomfortable staying in one spot for a long time. Been there, for only a couple hours, sailing on Tim Anderson’s “Hasty Proa” and didn’t like it.

It’s much better to have a heavier boat where you can wander around a bit. You can lash the tiller if need be. Ralph Munroe and Robert B. Roosevelt each built successful proas back in the 1890s, and while they were both sharpie-derived, they were certainly not “light” boats as we think of a light boat today.

Any “ultralight” proa should have water ballast tanks that can be filled to trim the boat. It’s hard to pack a 200-lb. cousin every time you want to sail, though given American dietary habits a large potential volunteer is not that difficult to see. Just look around.

A couple hundred pounds of water is four cubic feet, more or less, and a bucket or a Whale pump would make short work of filling – I guess a pump would be best to empty them.

Moreover, in sailing on John Harris’ proa, I became convinced that it’s far more comfortable to have a few planks across the akas forming seating surface or foot-bracing. The original Mbuli had only aluminum akas and a lashed-on tarp; it was very difficult to keep from sliding around. I rigged a rope to hold onto.

The second Mbuli had these, and John and everyone else admitted they were a great help to comfort.

The islanders would ship crews of five or six or seven in canoes in the 25-foot range. Aside from live ballast, they also are the most important part of the shunting maneuver. Guys to manhandle the yard “aft” to the “bow-to-be” and a couple other guys to yank on the fore-aft stays, guys to fling steering paddles about, and so on.

I enjoy the idea that Marshallese ladies, draped seductively around the rigging, are essential to steering a proper proa, but Robb is pulling our leg. Maybe it’s in hopes of seeing some of those Thong Ladies he writes about, leaping off the fiberglass gas guzzlers and onto Wes’ boat as it slips by.

Traditionally the women, if they have to come along, are relegated to the little lean-to on the platform, or they hang out in the main hull and bail. Women are most certainly not traditional proa operators, though who knows what goes nowadays.

Proa rigs always seem to get the boffins going on the internet Theoretical Proa Procrastination groups. You’d think they’d just be happy working on something else. The rig “problem” has been solved, not only by the islanders, but by others. Sometimes, it seems, by accident.

Commodore Munroe undoubtedly saw the incorrect drawing of the “Flying Proa” from Anson’s 1740s expedition across the Pacific. It had been republished in Harper’s magazine and possibly elsewhere in the late 1800s. It has the virtue of plausibility, because the draught was done by a skilled lieutenant among Anson’s officers. His name might have been Samaurez. I can’t remember.

Unfortunately the drawing was done as an exercise in eighteenth century CAD-CAM imagineering. Samaurez saw a disassembled proa and tried to draw it as “it must have been.” He did good on the hull. He messed up the rig and the akas and amas. The mast was not set up immovably in the center of the boat. Like Wes’, it tilted back and forth … a foreign concept to an English man-o-warsman in 1740. So it got drawn with a vertical mast centered in the boat.

Being something of a genius, Commodore Munroe took that sail shape with the stuck-in-the-middle mast and went ahead and made a proa or three that functioned, and from his description in The Rudder, planed too. All this from a 30-foot hull made from two side planks “instant boat” style and some crossplanking on the bottom. We know it sailed, because we have pictures.

Judging from some anecdotal evidence, Munroe may have argued with Cap Nat Herreshoff about how to go about this, because at the Herreshoff Museum seems to be a small model of this very same “Ansonian proa,” incorrect in its details, it would seem. I have not seen this model up close and in person.

Robb need not cavil about the masthead block, though. Pacific Islanders didn’t have wheels, but the Spanish introduced pulleys and blocks as soon as they got there, a couple centuries before Anson did, and the Ansonian Proa did indeed have a halyard block.

Munroe tried to solve the problem of getting the sail’s “nose” aft in two ways.

In one, the tack was attached to sail track along the gunwale. The halyard seems to have had some drift to it – some slack between the masthead and yard – to allow the geometry to work out when sliding the tack “aft” to the “new bow”.

In the other, he didn’t attach the boom and yard together in what resembles a canoe lateen sail or a Sunfish sail. He left some space, forming a little luff, which as far as I can figure was to allow the same sort of tack-aft sail shunting to work, keeping the yard short enough that slack in the halyard wasn’t necessary.

If you’re confused about this, make a little paper model with a more or less equilateral sail, and see.

One of Gary Dierking's Proas

His second version dispensed with the “keel” on the bottom and had dual centerboards to allow adjusting the center of effort to keep it from getting too far aft. Made the boat easier to beach too. He had at least two proas down there in Florida, maybe more, and they raced them.

Other rigs that have been shown to work, and might be easier to handle than Munroe’s, include the sloop rig (two jibs) Russell Brown likes, and the cat-schooner rig John Harris likes. Both let you get the center of effort forward to the “new bow” as you shunt.

No one has ever been able to get the “Bolger style” battened, cambered, isosceles triangular rig to work, as far as I know. One fella named Joe Norwood in Florida built the 20-foot Bolger proa to spec and rigged up that sail: he claims he gets it to work, but aside from a letter and a few photos he sent Phil a few years back, little more has been heard. People who have sincerely tried say they just don’t believe it’s a workable rig. More info from Joe to MAIB would be welcome. I keep wondering if this is the Joe Norwood who has written theoretical-proa books and articles.

Wes would probably be too modest to say he invented the rig on his boat. It’s awfully close to a rig that Gary Dierking down New Zealand way worked out for singlehanding. A normally-rigged proa just isn’t a singlehander. Gary came up with a tilting rig with lines to pull to move the mast and handle the tack as it afterates itself. I recommend his website. He’s built several nice proas. He’ll sell you plans for several nice proas. Why not?

Around the time Gary came up with his – which developed out of what we proa hunters seem to call the “Gibbons Rig” – I drew up a very similar sail inspired by the sprit-boomed sails of the Chesapeake which I named the “Manta.” It looks much like Gary’s sail. Being easily distracted, I never made a working manta, but I do have a small Gibbons sail knocked together by Jay Hockenberry, late of CLC and now of Marble Falls, Texas.

the "Gibbons Rig"

Euell Gibbons – the same feller who said, “Did you know that magnetic audio tape can make a nutritious bedtime snack?” – wrote books about living cheap and eating wild foods. Nothing wrong with that.

His proa came about from salvaged odds and ends when he was living in Hawaii and needed a way to go fishing. His sail was a simple equilateral triangle, yard only, that pivoted at the masthead depending on which direction the shunt went.

His description and drawing is simple, and apparently it worked, and no one has an answer to the center-of-effort problem he seemingly would have encountered -- if he had one. Maybe it was such a small proa that sitting well aft took care of it.

In his book “The Beachcomber Afloat” he said:

“My sail was made of parachute cloth, all re-cut and re-sewn. It was triangular in shape, with a long, light bamboo spar permanently fastened along one edge of the sail. On a lateen rig this spar is called a yard, as it is on a squaresail. A stout bamboo mast was stepped in the very center of the main hull, right on the sidewise axis of symmetry , and stayed in place with clothesline wire and turnbuckles.”

“The sail was hoisted up the mast by a halyard attached to the exact middle of the yard. The end of the yard that would be the forward end on the first tack was pulled down and fastened to what would be the forward deck on that tack, making the yard rise diagonally up and aft, the after end projecting behind and above the top of the comparatively short mast. The sheet, the line with which the sail is handled, was fastened to the corner of the triangle opposite the yard, and led through a block on the after-deck. All fittings at one end of the boat were duplicated at the other end.”

“On a beat to windward I planned to let the temporary bow of the boat fall off the wind in the direction opposite the outrigger until the sail filled. Then I planned to trim the sail with the sheet until it was pulling its best and the boat began moving through the water at that dazzling outrigger speed that always surprises sailors of conventional craft. It was a safe rig, for whenever the outrigger left the water and the boat threatened to capsize, all I had to do was to let the sheet run and spill some wind from the sail, let the outrigger drop back into the water, and re-trim the sail to make her go her best, which was exceedingly good.”

In general, a proa is symmetrical fore to aft, but if you put a symmetrical keel or leeboard on the boat, you’re asking for trouble.
Gibbons said: “It is hard for one who has been accustomed to traditional naval architecture to think straight about the outrigger canoe. We in the West have always thought of a boat as bilaterally symmetric along a fore-and-aft centerline, that is, one side is supposed to be the mirror image of the other.”

“The outrigger canoe, with its strange appendage jutting out to one side, supported on its outer end with a smaller hull or a float, plainly violates this principle. I have heard people who should know better speak of the outrigger as an asymmetrical craft, but it really is not. The sailing outrigger canoe is just as symmetrical as our boats, but the axis of symmetry has been rotated ninety degrees.”

“Stand on the outrigger side of one of these canoes that has been correctly built and you will see what I mean. It is the two ends, rather than the two sides, which are exactly alike. These identical ends serve alternately as bow and stem, and the outrigger is always on the windward side when the boat is under sail.”

Not only are these boats symmetrical, but that symmetry has a certain relation to the direction of the wind, and what could be more logical in a sailing craft?”

Give yourself a way to vary the center of resistance by putting some boards out near the ends – daggerboards, leeboards or centerboards. If you’re likely to hit sandbars or want to beach your proa, use leeboards or centerboards.

John Harris and I learned that lesson when we smacked the trunk rudders (daggerboards with rudders on the after edge, sliding up and down in cases) into some sandbars during the WaterTribe Challenge. Bent up the rudderposts. Jammed them in their cases.

Maybe the little rudder Gibbons shows, which he moved from one side of the platform to the other as he needed to, was enough to help balance his boat.

A bizarre concept came from Robert B. Roosevelt, uncle of Teddy Roosevelt, who designed and built “Mary & Lamb” in the 1890s.
This could hardly be called a “canoe,” since it was about 50 feet long and carried hundreds of square feet of sail – my guess is about 600 sq. ft. As far as I’ve been able to determine from available photos, it was completely symmetrical, just like Commodore Munroe’s boat, but it was like a long, skinny scow. To wit, we quote from the original article:

Mary and Her Little Lamb

Mary and Her Little Lamb by H.G. - The Rudder, October 1898

PROAS, or flying proas as they are called, are justly famous for speed, and as Mr. Munroe remarks in his article on them in our June issue, it is a wonder more yachtsmen thirsting for speed and new sensations have not tried this style of craft.

For speed, if that is all that is wanted, there is no known type of sailing craft that can compare with the proa. … we quote what Mr. Roosevelt says about her:

“I have owned and sailed about every kind of a boat from a canoe up to a schooner yacht, but give me a proa for both comfort and sport. It is iceboat sailing on the water. Proas have their idiosyncrasies, however, and no sailorman can sail one until he has forgotten most of what he has learned regarding the ordinary type of boat. Although the Mary and Lamb, as I call my proa, has not a single speed line in her design, this being sacrificed to attain light draught and utility, under certain conditions she goes like a whirlwind. When the ordinary boat is staggering under two reefs my proa wakes up and shows such a desire to get there that it is truly exhilarating.”

“When I made up my mind to build a boat of this type I knew she would be fast and seaworthy but I was afraid she would be difficult to handle - so my principal efforts were in the direction of a sail plan and rig which one, certainly two men could easily work. I got out a working model, and after trying a revolving split mast and several other gears finally hit upon the arrangement shown and this works, as in moderate weather I can handle the boat alone.”

“Of course the boat is large and her sail and spars are heavy, so it is better to have two men, and if it blows you must have two.”
“The masts of the main boat are stepped on the windward side, so as to get a shroud to leeward, and are loose in the upper step. The pressure on the sail is taken by the shrouds or guys leading to end of outrigger boom and little boat. I put two guys merely for safety, because a break there would mean total collapse.”

“In tacking the sail swings around the forward end, passing under the outrigger guys or shrouds, and is manipulated by a double endless sheet, so as to trim back towards either end, which for the time being constitutes the stern.”

“There is a rudder at both ends; the forward rudder trails loosely under the boat until you want to use it on the other tack. The photos enclosed will give a good idea of the boat, both at anchor and under sail.”

“Her dimensions are as follows:

Mary, the larger hull:
over all, 50 feet, water line, 32 feet;
beam extreme, 4 feet, beam at water line, 3 feet 6 inches;
depth, 3 feet 3 inches, draught, 6 inches.

“Lamb, the smaller hull:
over all, 18 feet
beam at deck, 3 feet, beam at bottom, 2 feet;
depth, 2 feet 6 inches.

“Two leeboards are fitted to the larger hull, one at each end, 15 feet from the ends.”

“The larger hull is left open, and the outrigger built up high enough for a man to walk under it, and so pass safely from one end to the other. The smaller hull is decked over and fitted with a small hatch-way. The space between the two hulls is twenty-two feet, and a cradle and gearing [rigging, not literally gears as far as I can tell] is so arranged over and around the smaller hull or lamb, as to give it plenty of room for play and still keep her parallel with the larger boat.”

“The sail has a yard forty-five feet long, boom, forty-two feet, and the hoist to the halyard blocks is twenty-two feet.”

In conclusion, Mr. Roosevelt said his experience has been similar to Mr. Munroe, who wrote an article on proas in our June issue, and remarked that it was a mystery to him why more proas had not been built in the United States.

So there you have it. Gary and Wes have one good rig, and it would seem Roosevelt’s bipod rig is another that you can say was tested in use. A small-scale version would surely be simple in use, since it shares some characteristics with the balanced lug.

For more on proas and a bunch of other interesting stuff, visit Craig's website:

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