This is one of the earliest popular accounts of the proa which I've been able to locate. Alden reproduces Anson's proa drawing of ca. 1745 and then proceeds to invent the Hobie Cat.

William Alden


1877 [I think].


STRICTLY speaking, a sailboat is a craft propelled by any sort or number of sails. Usually, however, the term sailboat is restricted to an open pleasure boat, carrying a single sail, and rigged after the fashion called, for some inscrutable reason, the cat rig. When a pleasure boat is large enough to have a cabin, or carries a jib and mainsail, she is usually honored with the name of yacht, and is thus promoted above the rank of sailboat.

The catboat is the typical sailboat of American waters, for the cat rig is scarcely known in Europe. In length it ranges all the way from twelve to forty feet, but the great majority of catboats are over fifteen and under twenty-five feet long. The catboat swarms all over our harbors, rivers, and small lakes, and annually drowns a frightful aggregate of men, women, and boys. Fortunately we have neither tigers nor deadly snakes along the banks of the Hudson, the Sound, or the New Jersey and Long Island bays; but the ravages of the New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut cat boats make quite a respectable appearance even in comparison with the terrible statistics of snake bites and tiger dinners in India. The best variety of catboat is a shallow, saucer-like boat, drawing not more than a foot or eighteen inches of water when the centerboard is up, and decked over for about a third or a half of the distance from bow to stern. The single mast is stepped close to the stem, and the sail is stretched by means of a long boom and a shorter gaff. It can be easily handled by one person, and its management can be readily learned. In the estimation of persons familiar with boating, who do not desire to die early, the catboat has three serious faults -- a liability to capsize, to be swamped, and to sink when a sufficiently large hole is made in her. The last fault she possesses in common with all other civilized vessels, but to the first two she is peculiarly prone. 



When a catboat is sailing with the wind abeam, or forward of the beam, and is managed by a competent and careful man, she is as safe as any other small sailing vessel. Such a man will see the approach of a fresh gust of wind before it reaches him, and will be prepared to meet it. He will have his peak halyards led aft to a cleat within his reach as he stands at the helm, and he will thus be able to instantly slack away the peak if the gust is a violent one. If this is not necessary, he will luff the boat just before the gust strikes the sail, and thus, by causing the sail to present a smaller angle to the direction of the wind, will diminish the effect of the latter upon the boat. In no circumstances will he commit the error of letting go the sheet. This is the favorite maneuver of the man who sails a catboat by the light of nature. He thereby incurs the risk that the end of the boom will be driven under the water, and will act as a lever to force the boat's head off from the wind, and so enable a capsize to be easily and surely achieved. The cardinal principle of catboat sailing is to "luff her up when it breezes" but it is constantly ignored by hundreds of men who regard themselves as fully competent to manage a boat.

It follows that safety from capsizing in a catboat sailing on the wind may be assured by care and intelligence. The difficulty is that not one in a hundred of those who undertake to manage catboats possesses both these qualities. Often the man who knows precisely what he ought to do neglects to do it.

He lets a squall creep down upon him unseen while he is talking with a fair passenger, and jams his helm down when it is too late. He neglects to have his peak halyards within his reach, or coiled down so that the rope will run smoothly through the blocks. Thus, when the moment comes to let go the peak, either he can not reach the halyards without letting go the helm, or the tangled rope refuses to do its duty. Carelessness probably leads to as many capsizes as incompetency, and even the thoroughly accomplished and experienced sailor is often too self-confident to be careful.

When running before the wind, the utmost care will sometimes be unavailing to prevent an open catboat from swamping as she wallows in a heavy sea. The chief danger, however, to which a sailboat with a free wind is exposed is that of unexpected jibing. Either the wind suddenly veers a little, or the helmsman steers wildly, and the wind takes the sail aback. Instantly the boom flies to the other side of the boat, and is brought up by the sheet with a shock that either parts the rope, breaks the boom, or capsizes the boat. Ordinarily jibing can be prevented by careful management, but occasionally a sudden shifting of the wind will lead to an equally sudden jibing, in spite of the most careful helmsman.


 Feejee Double Canoe

There is one source of danger to which a catboat when running dead before a fresh breeze must necessarily be exposed. It is that of rolling the end of the boom under. A sloop, if the necessity occurs, can scud under her jib alone; but the catboat, having but one sail, must keep that set in all circumstances in which a sail is needed. Now when the boom is at right angles to the line of the keel, as it is when the win(I is directly astern, the rolling of the boat is very apt to dip the boom into the water. When it is dipped to a certain depth, a capsize becomes inevitable. No seamanship can do away with this danger. It springs from the inherent viciousness of the cat rig, and no care or foresight can provide against it. Occasionally the boom, instead of rolling under, "kicks up," as the phrase runs, and is wrapped close to the mast by the sail. The boatman, if he is a sailor, can usually extricate himself from a difficulty of this kind by one or another expedient; but if he is merely an awkward amateur, as is usually the case, he abandons himself to despair, and gloomily wonders where his body will be found, and whether it will be swollen to an unrecognizable extent.

In addition to these methods of drowning its passengers, the catboat, like all other vessels provided with low-swinging booms, contrives to annually knock a large quantity of people overboard. Not very long ago the Rev. Mr. S , residing near a bay on the Connecticut coast eligible for sailing purposes, rashly took his own and a few assorted children belonging to his parishioners out sailing in his newly purchased catboat. A pleasant breeze, scarcely strong enough to be called "fresh," was blowing, and the good clergyman, confident that there was no possible danger, went on explaining the probable rig of the Ark, until the boat suddenly jibed. The boom and the sheet were both new, and the wind was not strong enough to carry any thing away or to capsize the boat. The children's heads happened, however, to be in the path of the swinging boom, and it reaped the astonished small boys at a breath, and the girls who sat between, like a blunt but determined sickle. Most of them were successfully picked up; but two small boys were missing when the boat reached the land, and their parents, who seemed to attach a good deal of value to them, never quite overlooked the clergyman's conduct, and at the next donation party expressed their feelings in dried beans in a painfully unmistakable way. Usually persons who are knocked overboard by a boom, and know how to swim, are picked up again in a damp but living condition. When, however, the boom hits a skull hard enough to fracture it' the victim rarely takes sufficient interest in worldly affairs to try to keep himself afloat.

The catboat is, then, always dangerous when in careless or incompetent hands, and sometimes unavoidably dangerous when managed by the best of sailors. It is, however, the best and safest sailboat which civilized boatbuilders have produced, and we can not expect any thing safer from them. If a boatbuilder is asked to construct a boat which shall be not only fast, but absolutely safe in all contingencies, which can neither capsize, swamp, nor sink, no matter if she strikes on the sharpest rocks in Hell Gate, he will frankly confess that he can not do it. Nevertheless, such a boat can be built, and with it two cool-headed girls can outsail the Sappho or the Columbia without risking any danger more serious than that of an occasional sprinkling of spray.

The hollow log and the solid log are the germs from which two widely distinct types of vessels have been developed -- those in which, and those on which, the crew is carried. We have developed the hollow log through all the various stages that separate the canoe and the Cunarder, but have abandoned the solid log after having converted it into the cumbrous lumber raft. The Southsea Islanders, on the other hand, have developed the solid-log idea until the result is seen in their double war canoes -- vessels that, although wonderfully swift and safe, are virtually nothing more than two parallel logs joined together with a platform, on which a mast is planted. The Feejee double canoe is not, however, the consummate flower of barbarian boatbuilding genius. It has been surpassed by the flying proa of the Ladrone Islands -- a craft that combines to some extent both the hollow and the solid log ideas, and which merits a brief description here.

The hull of the flying proa exhibits on one side the graceful lines of a well-modeled boat, but on the other side it is perfectly flat. Were an ordinary sailboat to be cut in two along the keel, and each half to be boarded up perpendicularly, either would present a rude idea of the model of the proa. Each end of the proa is precisely alike, and as the mast is placed exactly in the middle, the craft will sail equally well with either end first. Across the deck run stout bamboo poles, which project beyond the rounded side of the proa, and are fastened at their extremities to a log of wood placed parallel with the boat, and fashioned so as to offer the slightest practicable resistance to the water. The weight of this log or outrigger acts as a counterpoise to the force of the wind, since, by the peculiar manner in which the proa is sailed, the log is always on the windward side. Thus, although the proa is excessively long and narrow, it can never capsize, the outrigger answering the same purpose in this respect which the Feejeean accomplishes by using a double canoe.

The mast, although placed exactly halfway between the ends of the boat, stands in the bilge close to the gunwale, where it is fastened to the middle beam of the outrigger. The sail is a lateen, triangular in shape, but much wider at the foot and less lofty in proportion than are most lateen sails. It does not seem large in comparison with the length of the proa, but in view of the extreme narrowness of the hull, and its want of stability apart from the outrigger, it is really an enormous sail. The fore end of the yard fits into a socket at the end of the boat, and the foot of the sail is laced to a boom. It is thus capable of being trimmed as flat as a board, and as it is reefed by simply rolling the boom until the desired amount of sail is wrapped around it, the shape of the sail always remains the same.


 The Flying Proa
 (click on the three thumbnails for very large GIF images of each view)

In the accompanying cuts, Fig. 1 represents the proa with her sail set, as she appears when viewed from the leeward.

Fig. 2 is a view of the proa as she would appear to a person directly in her path.

Fig. 3 is a plan of the whole craft, AB being the lee side of the proa; CD, the windward side; EFGH, the frame of bamboo poles connecting the hull with the outrigger; KL the boat-shaped outrigger; MN, braces to steady the frame; RS, a thin plank placed to windward to prevent the proa from shipping water, and for a seat for the man who bales out the water; T, the position of the mast. The mast itself is supported (Fig. 2) by the shore P, and the shroud Q, and by two stays running from the masthead to the stem and stern respectively.

As has been said, the proa is sailed with either end first, but the outrigger is always kept on the windward side. The flat side of the bull being thus always the lee side, acts as a keel or centerboard, but with more effect than either. In fact,the proa is said to make scarcely any perceptible leeway. When beating against a headwind the proa never tacks. She is merely kept away until her stern approaches the wind, when the yard is swung around, and what was the stern suddenly becomes the bow. It is credibly asserted that this product of barbarian genius often attains a speed of twenty miles, and it is certain that not only is the proa the fastest sailing boat in existence, but it will sail nearer the wind than any vessel known to European or American sailors.

Here we have a craft which has two of the qualities of the ideal perfect sailboat -- great speed, and absolute safety against capsizing. Still, a flying proa may be swamped, and is capable of sinking. It is needs only to have these faults removed to meet the most exacting demand. This is not a difficult problem; and, indeed, safety against swamping and sinking, as well as capsizing, has been secured by the invention of the Nonpareil life raft, though at the sacrifice of speed and of the comfort of the crew. The latter awkward-looking craft, which crossed the Atlantic in forty-three days, with a crew of three men, consisted of three parallel tubes filled with air and strongly connected by a platform. Of course it could neither capsize nor sink, but it was a raft rather than a boat, and certainly could not be classed as a pleasure craft.

Suppose we take two tubes of galvanized iron, flat on one side like the hull of the flying proa, and nicely modeled on the other. If these tubes are placed with their flat sides toward each other and connected with a platform, we should secure all the advantages which the Ladrone Islander obtains by his device of a flat-sided hull and an outrigger, while we should also avoid the faults of the flying proa. The tubes, if divided by watertight bulkheads into four sections each, would retain their buoyancy even if half of each were crushed in by sunken rocks. The flat side of the windward boat would always act as a centerboard and the craft could tack like a civilized boat, instead of having to adopt the savage expedient of sailing with either end first. The platform would be sufficiently high out of the water to be always dry, especially if protected by a low bulwark; and should a sea be shipped, the water would immediately run off without doing any harm. As to capsizing such a craft, there is no variety of wind known to the Weather Bureau or dreamed of by Professor Tice which could do it. Long before one tube could be sunk and the other lifted out of water, the sail would be blown to atoms and the mast carried away. If care were taken in the modeling of the tubes and in the proper rigging of the boat, there is no reason why she should not equal in speed the flying proa.

Double boats, or catamarans, as our boatbuilders call them, have often been built in this country, but they have proved intolerably slow. The reason would be plain enough to a Ladrone Islander. In all cases two complete boat hulls have been used, instead of two half sections of a boat. It is apparent that in such a craft the distance between the hulls at the stempost of each is much greater than it is at the beam. hence when the craft is in motion, the water between the two bows is compressed into a continually narrowing space until it reaches the beam, after which it passes astern without any further obstacle. Of course speed is out of the question in such a craft, since the faster it moves, the greater becomes the resistance offered by the wedge-shaped mass of water heaped up between the two bows. It is no wonder that catamarans built after this fashion have been unpopular; but what is utterly unaccountable is the fact that a distinguished English shipbuilder, who designed the twin steamer Castalia, committed the error of making the parallel hulls precisely like the hulls of ordinary steamers, and thus rendered it inevitable that the Castalia should be a slew beat in spite of her enormous engine-power.

There is no man more conservative than the average boatbuilder, audit would doubtless outrage all the holier feelings of his nature to ask him to build a civilized modification of a flying proa. His aid, however, is not necessary at the outset, provided iron instead of weed is used as the material for the twin hulls. Of course there is a less of buoyancy in using iron, but it has so many advantages over wood that this one defect maybe disregarded. Any moderately intelligent worker in iron, if provided with a small wooden model of the proposed hulls, could easily copy them in galvanized sheet iron.


 The Modified Proa

The upper side of each hull should be flat, and at right angles to the flat or inner side, and a midship section of each hull should be very nearly a segment of a circle. If galvanized iron one thirty-second of an inch in thickness is used, and each hull is sixteen feet long, eighteen inches wide on the upper side, and eighteen deep on the flat side at its midship section, the two together, when in the water, will sustain, in addition to their own weight, more than 3000 pounds.

Placing these hulls five feet apart, and connecting them by four transverse beams, four inches square, we are ready to lay the deck planks, which should be as light as is consistent with strength. The deck should be semicircular in shape at the bow and stern, and though it should reach nearly to the stern of each hull, it should leave about two feet of the forward end of each hull uncovered. This would make the deck eight feet wide at its widest part, and about thirteen feet six inches in extreme length, and would furnish fully three times the available space for passengers which is furnished by a catboat sixteen feet long.

High bulwarks would not only be unnecessary, but they would present too great a surface to the wind. At the bow, bulwarks about a foot in height, and flaring outward at an angle of; say, seventy degrees with the deck, would be useful as a protection against spray when beating to windward, but they should gradually decrease in height, as they run aft, to not over four inches, and should then increase again at the stern to nearly the same height as at the bow. A light rope, supported by stanchions, and running around the deck at the height of two feet, would be entirely sufficient to prevent unwary passengers from stepping overboard. The steadiness of the craft would permit the use of camp-chairs as seats, and these would have the further advantage of being movable whenever the weight of the passengers should be needed on the windward side in order to trim the boat.

Of course the simplest way in which to rig the craft would be to copy the rig of the catboat. But the graceful lateen sail, which would be dangerous if used on an ordinary sailboat, would be perfectly safe when used on a boat which no amount of carelessness can capsize. In order to insure plenty of headroom on deck, the sail would have to be narrower in proportion to its length than is the lateen of the Mediterranean, and would thus approach somewhat to the pattern of the sail of a Feejee double canoe. If the lateen rig is adopted, the mast would be stepped further aft than is necessary where the cat rig is used. It must be conceded that the chief recommendation of the lateen sail is its picturesque appearance, and that for all practical purposes the boom-and-gaff sail used by all our fore-and-aft vessels is decidedly superior. Two rudders would be needed, but the two could easily be connected with a single tiller. Undoubtedly the boat could be more easily steered with a long oar than with rudders, but in that case the helmsman would lose half the pleasure of steering.

The builder of such a craft must be prepared to meet the gibes of conservative mariners and small boys, who will at first denounce it as a ludicrously ugly affair. There is no reason, however, why it should be ugly, provided the builder does not commit the mistake of trying to make it resemble the conventional sailboat. Let him conceive of the deck as a floating seashell, and shape the curve of his bulwarks in accordance with this idea. The lateen-rigged proa is far prettier than the catboat.

The advantages of the modified proa are not limited to its speed and safety. It needs no ballast. Its deck is so spacious that its passengers need never suffer from the misery which is entailed by sitting for hours under a hot sun in the confined space of a catboat's cockpit. At night the proa can be anchored and a tent pitched on the deck, under which the coolness and comfort that are sought in vain in the stateroom of a yacht can always be had. The deck and the connecting beams can be put together with bolts, so that the craft can easily be taken apart and sent overland by railroad. As the proa is proof against any effort to capsize her, the sail can always be hoisted up so far above the deck as to enable the boom to clear the heads of the passengers. To counterbalance these advantages there is but a single fault. The craft would probably be slow in tacking, and might occasionally need the aid of an oar to put her about. The rigger should bear this in mind when deciding upon the dimensions and pattern of the sail.

Of course the proa is an outlandish craft, but she is safe, and she is incomparably fast. She does not look like the conventional boat, but it costs only about half as much to build her. Can you cook, eat, and sleep comfort ably on board a sixteen-foot catboat ? or can you send her a hundred miles overland without paying her worth in freight! Yet with a sixteen-foot proa you can do all these things, and can, moreover, intrust her to a consumptive theological student with the utmost confidence that she will resist all his attempts at drowning himself.


© 2000 Craig O'Donnell, editor & general factotum.
May not be reproduced without my permission. Go scan your own damn article.

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