Back to the future : Wartime canoes may point the way forward for new “coastal raiding” boats

Post date: Apr 18, 2020 5:47:54 PM

Written by 2nd Lt. “Jumbo” Diehard -Weatherbeaten (retired ) Coordinating officer of South Pacific SBS C(R)OPP(ER) (Combined (reserve) Operations Pilotage Patrol Evasion Raiders

There’s a new boating activity gaining momentum all over the world involving small boats and “weekend warriors”, as ageing adventurers take to coastal waters, lakes and rivers in their local environs for day trips or over-niters, designed to test their levels of endurance and ingenuity in the smallest possible boats .

In the UK they call it dinghy cruising, Scotland has a growing coastal rowing fraternity based around the iconic rebirth of the traditional St Ayles skiff, (photo 1) while others enjoy the challenge of racing kindred spirits under strict small boat racing guidelines which don’t involve motor propulsion of any kind. Roger Barnes – the leading figure in the United Kingdom Dinghy Cruising Association, describes the French small boat voyaging phenomenon as the “Naviguer Autrement” - the small boat revolution- recognising a less formal, more spontaneous propensity for small boat sailors in France to celebrate coastal voyaging in locally arranged events and nautical celebrations as only the French know how to do. Events such as the R2AK, or race to Alaska, along the magnificent coastline of British Columbia, Canada, provide a unique challenge to those inclined to challenge themselves and their- self designed and engineered small boats in magnificent and testing wilderness environments -the mission being not just to complete the exercise but to do it as comfortably and safely as possible. Ironically the term “coastal raids” tends to be a term used to describe these challenges and trips, immediately eliciting images of less fortunate times when small boats were used for often covert operations or raids during war time.

Everyone has their theories about how these small boats should look and operate, which naturally leads to the spawning of some very ingenious, and sometimes particularly peculiar solutions as to the ideal boat and supporting gear. But for participants and enthusiasts, that’s most of the fun, coming up with their home grown solution and giving it a crack in a real life outdoor scenario. It’s a delicately balanced potpourri of different decisions and compromises - row ? sail ? or both ?(real heroes don’t rely on motors !) comfort verses weight , modern materials and technology over tried and proven traditional designs and materials . A leader in the field presently is the uniquely designed Angus row/sail cruiser (photo 2 – as much canoe as it is dinghy with as many concept similarities as differences to the legendary Mk8 (photo 3 )– outriggers /sail and row/ply construction/ hatches vs. sleep-aboard accommodation/ built in buoyancy / sliding seat row platform /low profile modern ketch sail rig/ epoxy and fibre reinforced hull. And that’s where wartime R &D technologies often come through and permeate peace time design briefs. It’s been fascinating to research and track the rapid development of the WW2 Allied forces War Canoes colloquially referred to as the” cockle canoes”. Over a very short time scale of maybe three years during the early and middle stages of the war, a rapid and convoluted metamorphosis took place in the concept of what a war canoe looked like and what it needed to be able to complete covert coastal raids and reconnaissance missions necessary to progress the Allied war effort in enemy territory.

Early versions of the cockle canoes emphasised the concept of a folding boat or folbot, which met certain vital requirements such as ease of transport and weight, but it soon became apparent these sorts of boats were quite vulnerable to damage with their pliable outer skins and folding structures and construction methods moved steadily to more endurable materials such as aluminium (Mk 7) and ply hulls (Mk 8 ) later in the war.

Our interest was peaked after discovering that the Mk 8 cockle was actually constructed of light weight ply, able to broken down into three separate sections that bolted together for easy transport and offered a number of other very desirable attributes of what our group considers a sound and efficient vessel for coastal cruising. These include good secondary hull stability, ability to paddle/row and sail efficiently (with an additional option of motor power). The boat should have plenty of room for cargo/ supplies, be a proven performer in adverse weather conditions with built-in flotation ,easily repaired if damaged, transport 1-2 crew and fit into the small boat category of roughly 3.5 -6 metres.

It was a short research journey and linkup then to our new friends and boffins in HMS – Historical Maritime Society – Chris and Neil, who we contacted as first ever builders of a replica Mk 8 ever attempted,(photo 4) and what a magnificent effort it turned out to be. As good a reconstruction as could be imagined with some real attention to original detail and authentic replication, using original parts where available and providing plans, which has provided impetus and encouragement for us to pursue a further iteration or version of this outstanding war time legend. They have rendered every assistance with vital information and elements of their build, including historical background, detailed photos ,construction drawings and anecdotal stories, which gives a fighting chance we can actually do a fair job of producing another “near replica “ of this fascinating boat.

Our brief will be to produce a modern “Peacemaker” model of the Mk 8 canoe, acknowledging and emphasising the great sea going qualities that its original design offers, while maximising the use of the latest boat building technologies such as’ stitch and glue’’, fibre sheet reinforcing and other substitute materials and concepts to make this vessel a truly reliable and functional modern day coastal cruising canoe. Our brief will guarantee strong visual and other key essentials of the original design –including boat a camouflaged military finish, authentic replica paddles and 3x sectioned modulated hull shape) - thereby acknowledging the important historical role and contribution this model played in the theatre of war. However there will be some obvious differences – berths for only a maximum of three crew / built in buoyancy compartments / redesigned and more efficient sailing rig (possibly a modified junk style)/more reliable hatch covers and an alternative means of motive power – possibly a sunken well short shaft outboard.

So, watch this space ….but note carefully, at this point we are going “covert”!. Suffice to say, in a remote town, somewhere in the South Pacific, there is a small group of dedicated men – full of resolve – ready and able – on a mission to build a splendid modern cruising version of the “Mighty Fighting Mk 8***** ? . We’ve called the project ..oops… Can’t say ! …. all very Hush Hush ! Loose Lips Sink Ships !

We’ll keep you posted !

Submitted by Denis Moriarty - O.A.R.S. NELSON

Accompanying Photos- see above

1. St. Ayles skiff

2. Angus row/sail cruiser

3. Original WW2 Mk 8

4. HMS replica Mk 8