Sailing Rig for a Fiberglass Canoe




About: "Emancipate yourself from mental slavery."

After paddling my son's shiny new Ocean Kayak, my old, often-repaired Indian River canoe felt like paddling a waterlogged door.  So in the interest of chasing fish along the Florida Gulf Coast's oysters and islands, I decided to add a sail.  The rules of the project were that I spend a minimal amount of money and that I use what's already around the house as much as possible (it's summer and I'm a teacher).
Traditional sailing is all about performance, but performance is a relative term.  My goals were to maintain my normal paddling speed (about 2.5 mph, according to Garmin) without paddling, to keep things simple, and to not ever bail out a swamped canoe.
I did some sailing when I was young, so I sort of knew what to do, and I had some old sailing odds and ends in the attic, but everything I added could be made with materials from the hardware store.

Sailing is all about the balance between the sail's center of effort and the boat's lateral resistance (imagine holding a sign at a windy protest rally - if the stick is in the center of the sign, it's balanced, if it's off to one side, the sign wants to swing downwind like a weathervane).  More pressure in front of the leeboards=swing downwind, more pressure behind=swing upwind,  so all the rigging needs to be as adjustable as possible for the first few attempts.  I ordered the steps by how difficult they would be to change.
1. mast placement
2. sail rig
3. leeboards 
4. a way to steer (technically you can steer with the COE/LR balance but the COE changes as the wind speed changes - grrr)

Many thanks to Tim Anderson and thousands of other online canoe sailors and boat tinkerers!

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Step 1: Mast Placement

I was going to use an old windsurfer mast so I cut a matching hole in a scrap piece of 2x4 and fit it just behind the front seat (which is really the back seat - you paddle a canoe backwards when alone).  I attached it with long screws through the aluminum strip that covers the gunnel, but these were the only holes I made in the boat (holes in boats = bad).  I wasn't sure enough of the placement to glue down the mast foot, so I attached a piece of work-out mat to the bottom of a 1x4 scrap and wedged it into place with some 1x4, secured with screws.  I attached the old windsurfer mast foot, but a piece of 2x4 with a hole drilled most of the way through would work fine.  The decision about placement was made partly for convenience - near the seat is less in the way - and partly because it "looked about right."

Step 2: The Sail Rig

I decided to make the mast about 10 feet, with the tack of the sail about 2 feet up.  10 feet also " looked about right." I tried to go with an approximate golden ratio as much as possible (16ft. boat, 10 ft. mast).  My old windsurfer sail cut down to an eight-foot luff (front edge) goes out (foot) about 6 feet, which is on the small side of normal for a canoe sail.  Since I can't sew, I hemmed the cut with white duct tape. 
The original sail had a sleeve for the mast, which is simple and efficient, but I felt like I ought to be able to power-down in a hurry, so I replaced the luff edge with brass grommets and rope hoops and attached a halyard pulley to the top of the mast.  I also ran the other end of the halyard down from the sail head so I can pull the sail down rather than count on graviity.  I sealed the inside of the mast with spray foam, just in case. 
The boom is a section of wooden closet rod from the hardware store that used to be my push pole.  I attached a cut-away piece of PVC at the mast end so the boom snaps onto the mast but still slides up and down.

Step 3: Leeboards

This is my favorite part.  Leeboards provide that lateral resistance, but don't require a big hole in the bottom of the boat like more traditional sailboats.  They're also easy to remove and swing up when they encounter oysters, weeds and other boat-stopping hazards.
I made mine out of scrap 1/4 in. plywood, which is thinner than typical, but I'm hoping that because they are pressured against the hull when in use, they'll be stiff enough.  Length was also a guess.  I felt like there should be a little more than two feet under the water, but if I'm wrong, they're easy to replace.  There are many, many shapes of leeboards to choose from.  I took this shape from's pictures of Danish sailboats because I though they looked cool.  The top circle/bottom circle ratio, as well as the length/width ratio are also 1:1.6-ish

The thwart that holds them is scrap 1 in. sch 40 PVC.  I screwed a 1/2 in bolt through a couple of PVC plugs and cemented them with J.B. Weld, then measured the Thwart for the widest part of the boat and glued-in the plugs.  I'm securing this in place with straps until I'm comfortable with a permanent position.  From just looking and guessing about the COE, I have their position narrowed down to within a foot, but we'll see.
The leeboards can be raised and lowered with lines that lead past my seat.  They are attached to the opposite edges of the boards from the direction they pull, so they help hold the board higher when not in use. 

Step 4: Rudder/steering Oar

As I mentioned earlier, a balanced sail rig doesn't actually need a rudder.  I felt like I could trail a paddle behind me on the lee side of the boat and pry away enough to keep the boat from rounding up into the wind, but I didn't like the idea of reaching back behind me all the time, so I lengthened a breakdown paddle I already had with a section of aluminum shower rod and a PVC fitting for a T-grip.  One of my kayak paddle leashes keeps the paddle attached down near the blade and I move it to the other side when I tack.  The "tiller extension" PVC allows me to hold the paddle from the center of the boat, as well as temporarily bungee it down when I need two hands for some other sailing task (like getting a sandwich out of the cooler).

Have fun and be safe!

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    30 Discussions


    11 months ago

    Like the idea of a smaller sail. Do you find the canoe less likely to heel when you have a slight wind with a smaller sail than say a sunfish size sail, thus eliminating the need for outriggers?


    1 year ago

    Helpful. Thank you.


    3 years ago

    hello mr.c,

    Nice work! I am a little late to the party, but if you are still looking at this, i have a question regarding the mast foot. You say that you screwed it through the gunwales on each side. It seems that this makes it a kind of permanent attachment. Do i understand you correctly? If so, have you considered any easy ways to take this mast step out when you just want a canoe?

    Thanks joe


    5 years ago on Introduction

    A balanced sail rig doesn't need a rudder? I can tell you from experience that this is bad advice and makes little sense. I have been sailing my entire life and you most definitely need a rudder. Weather and wave conditions are variable and unpredictable. Only under ideal conditions in protected waters would sailing without a rudder be acceptable.

    1 reply

    Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

    maybe he means you don't need to MOUNT a rudder. I've been sailing a while and even in a canoe rig you can use a paddle pretty effectively.


    8 years ago on Step 4

    i have a 7'6" plywood boat and i am intereted in making a sail for it , so should the sail be 5 ish feet tall

    6 replies

    Reply 5 years ago on Step 4

    My apologies for giving angels instead of angles previously. My thoughts regarding mast height would be to have a taller light mast with a shorter boom which is termed a high aspect sail, and would give you better sailing qualities. If you have a narrow beam on you boat, any sailing is going to be an acrobatic venture, but fun....


    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    Depends on width, and the convenience of the boom passing over your head, but seems on the short side of reasonable...
    My hero Tim Anderson posted this awesome picture of simple clamp-on leebboards, and this article by E.F. Knight, from the early 20th century really was my inspiration, and just a great adventure story.



    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    My sails were already mostly cut, so I went with their original shape, but starting from scratch I think I would try Tim Anderson's sprit sail. So maybe more like 7 ft?


    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    ...on the other hand, in Tim's comments, allen says "Like pretty much all traditional rigs the sprit sail isn't as good hard on the wind as a marconi but it's a whole lot cheaper then the marconi, you can build it yourself, it's a good sail for something like a canoe without a lot of stability..."
    So maybe the traditional marconi (like mine) is best, because - like jelly toast always landing jelly down, sailors ALWAYS need to be going upwind.

    Assuming the goal is not simply "sailing" but "sailing somewhere."


    5 years ago on Step 4

    You can find the center of lateral resistance by sitting in the canoe where you would normally sit and have someone push on the side to find where it stays at right angels to the pusher. The sails center of effort is approximately at the intersection of a line drawn at right angels from the center of each side of the sail. The center of effort should be slightly behind the center of lateral resistance so it will turn into the wind. I think it would easiest to adjust the lea boards after putting the mast in place to balance it as you wish. Of course the resistance point changes as you raise or lower the lea boards...

    MrCCleveland Motley

    Reply 6 years ago on Introduction

    Sorry, I don't get to this page much during the school year.
    When I look at that Hobie tri with the roller furling, drool actually falls out of my mouth. I made this rig to sail where I need to be - which is the slimy, but beautiful Big Bend (armpit, for the geographically metaphorica) of FL. So I need to switch from sail to canoe effortlessly and often. Still waiting for that instructable about the $7 pvc roller furling rig. Is that your next?

    here the mast should be of much more height. then it gives good results. and also caution to be taken that it should be of moderate so that the kayak won't bend to any side


    7 years ago on Introduction

    would this work on the ("building the one sheet boat" Altertate building) ?


    8 years ago on Introduction

    Thank you all for commenting, voting etc. My first experiencewith the interactive aspects of instructables has been wonderful!
    Just in case anyone's trying to replicate my first steps, there have been/needs to be a few modifications:
    Even well designed sailboats often need three hands. This thing needs a genuine rudder with a push/pull tiller that can be quickly and blindly locked down temporarily (wow, that's a lot of adverbs). The paddle blade has too many dynamics for my taste: twist, rake backwards, the combination of the two, switching sides to adjust for weather / lee helm (which seem to change by its own volition), it make my English teacher head ache - and it takes two hands just to steer!

    The term "blindly" is important. Keeping point and adjusting whatever is critical and needs to be by feel - In preparation for a nice beaching, I can't lock up the leeboards in their little cut-wedge-in-alluminum jam cleats if I have to look at them.
    More to come.