Working as Project Manager for TriCoastal Marine, Inc., I researched the history and design of a nineteenth century Lake Champlain sail-powered ferry. I built the ferry over a twelve-month period beginning in July of 2001 at Crown Point State Historic Site. The boat was launched in August of 2002 at the spot where sail ferries had operated through the 1800's.
Sail ferries were simple, flat-bottomed boats, probably built by their owners and used to carry horse-drawn vehicles and passengers across Lake Champlain. There were about a dozen historic ferry crossings on the Lake, most of them south of Crown Point where the lake narrows. The first record of a sail ferry is a charter granted in the 1790's by the Vermont Legislature. When horse and then steam replaced sail power, many sail ferries were converted to barges by cutting off their rigs. At least one sail ferry operated until 1922 (historic photographs courtesy of the the Benson Museum, Benson, VT).
The replica sail ferry was designed to meet Coast Guard requirements for passenger-carrying vessels and is certified for twenty-four passengers and two crew. TriCoastal's designers and I worked to balance these requirements with the need to create as accurate a vessel as possible. The hull and rig reflect traditional construction: plank-on-frame, cotton caulking and blacksmith-made hardware. The hull was built upside down to facilitate cross planking and caulking the bottom.
The sail ferry's unique rig, offset to one side, keeps the passenger deck clear. The boat does not turn around, rather, it reverses course by transferring the steering oar to the opposite end of the boat. This way the mast and boom always remain downwind. A pair of leeboards mounted to one side complete the sailing rig. During sea trials in August of 2002 this arrangement worked surprisingly well. The sail ferry was capable of heading slightly upwind and the steering oar worked perfectly.
The sail ferry was christened Weatherwax, named for the last man to operate a ferry at Port Henry, New York, and delivered to the State of New York in August, 2002. The Weatherwax is now owned and operated by the Champlain Valley Transportation Museum of Plattsburgh, New York.
For more information visit the website of the ferry's designers: