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Sailing scows have significant advantages over the traditional deep keel sailing vessels that were common at the time the sailing scow was popular. Keelboats, while very stable and capable in open water, were incapable of sailing into shallow bays and rivers, which meant that to ship cargo on a keelboat required a suitable harbour and docking facilities, else the cargo had to be loaded and unloaded with smaller boats. Flat bottomed scows, on the other hand, could navigate shallow waters, and could even be beached for loading and unloading; this made them very useful for moving cargo from inland regions unreachable by keelboat to deeper waters where keelboats could reach. The cost of this shallow water advantage was the loss of the seaworthiness of flat bottomed scow boats in open water and bad weather.
The squared off shape and simple lines of a scow make it a popular choice for simple home-built boats made from plywood. Phil Bolger and Jim Michalak, for example, have designed a number of small sailing scows, and the PD Racer is a growing class of home-built sailing scow. Generally these designs are created to minimize waste when using standard 4-foot by 8-foot sheets of plywood.
The scow hull is also the basis for the Shantyboat or, on the Chesapeake, the Ark, a cabin houseboat once common on American rivers. The ark was used as portable housing by Chesapeake watermen, who followed, for example, shad runs seasonally.
See also the Thames sailing barge and the Norfolk wherry, two British equivalents to the scow schooner. The Thames sailing barges, while used for similar tasks, used significantly different hull shapes and rigging.
The term scow is used in and around the west Solent for a traditional class of sailing dinghy. Various towns and villages claim their own variants (Lymington, Keyhaven, Yarmouth, West Wight, Chichester), they are all around 11 feet (3.35 m) in length and share a lug sail, pivoting centre board, small foredeck and a square transom with a transom hung rudder.
Originally an American design, also used widely in New Zealand, the schooner rigged scow was used for coastal and inland transport, colonial days to the early 1900s. Scow schooners had a broad, shallow hull, and used centreboards, bilgeboards or leeboards rather than a deep keel. The broad hull gave them stability, and the retractable foils allowed them to move even heavy loads of cargo in waters far too shallow for keelboats to enter. The squared off bow and stern allowed the maximum amount of cargo to be carried in the hull. The smallest sailing scows were sloop rigged (making them technically a scow sloop), but otherwise similar in design. The scow sloop eventually evolved into the inland lake scow, a type of fast racing boat.
Sailing scows were popular in the American South for economic reasons, because the pine planks found there were difficult to bend, and because inlets along the Gulf Coast and Florida were often very shallow.
The American scow design was copied and modified in New Zealand by early immigrant settlers to Auckland in the 1870s. In 1873, a sea captain by the name of George Spencer who had once lived and worked on the American Great Lakes and had gained a first-hand knowledge of the practical working capabilities of the sailing barges that plied their trade on the lakes recognised the potential use of similar craft in the protected waters of the Hauraki Gulf, Auckland. He commissioned a local shipbuilder, one Septimus Meiklejohn to construct a small flat-bottomed sailing barge named the Lake Erie which was built at Omaha, not far from Mahurangi. An account of the launching of this vessel appeared in the Auckland newspaper, "The Daily Southern Cross" on the 26 April 1873 which gave its readers a good idea of the distinctive construction and advantages over other vessels.
The Lake Erie was 60 feet 6 inches in length, seventeen feet 3 inches in breadth and had a draught of three feet 4 inches. It was fitted with lee boards (a type of keel which slotted onto the sides of the vessel), but these were found to be highly impracticable in rough weather on the New Zealand coast, so that later scows were designed and constructed with the much safer slab sided centre board which was raised and lowered as and when required. This one small craft spawned a fleet of sailing scows that were to become forever associated with the gum trade and the flax and kauri industries of northern New Zealand.
Scows came in all manner of shape and sizes and all manner of sailing rigs, but the "true" sailing scow displayed no fine lines or fancy rigging. They were designed for hard work and heavy haulage and they did their job remarkably well. They took cattle north from the stockyards of Auckland and returned with a cargo of kauri logs, sacks of kauri gum, shingle, firewood, flax or sand. With their flat bottoms they could be sailed or poled much further up the many tributaries and rivers where the bushmen and bullock teams had the freshly sawn kauri logs amassed, thereby saving a great deal of time and energy on the part of the bushmen. The flat-bottomed scows were also capable of coming right up on to the beach and grounding, then over the side went duckboards, wheelbarrows and banjo shovels. The crew would then fill the vessel with a cargo of sand, racing against the turn of the tide, and when the tide did turn, back onboard would go the equipment and the ship would float off and put to sea. Of course, occasionally an inexperienced skipper would overload the scow; then as the water level against the outside of the hull rose (diminishing the amount of safe "free board"), rapid shovelling by the crew could be observed to reduce the contents in the hold to a safe level.
Logs when hauled were always carried above deck,secured by heavy chain, the space between decks being left empty to give added buoyancy. The logs were taken to Auckland and unloaded into floating "booms" to await breaking down in the sawmills of the Kauri Timber Company and other such mills that operated right on the edge of Auckland Harbour. The golden age of scows and schooners lasted from the 1890s to the end of the First World War when schooners were superseded by steamers and scows were gradually replaced with tugs.
The Subritzky family of Northland operated the scows Jane Gifford and Owhiti as the last fleet of working scows, operating between the Port of Auckland and the Island communities of the Hauraki Gulf. The Jane Gifford was gifted to the Waiuku Historical Society by Captain Bert Subritzky and his wife Moana in 1985, where it was re-masted and re-rigged to its original splendour, while the Owhiti, which had starred in the 1983 movie Savage Islands (starring Tommy Lee Jones and amongst others Kiwi icon and singer Prince Tui Teka as King Ponapa), was sold to Captain Dave Skyme in the late 1980s and fully restored to its 1924 sea worthiness. Unfortunately the Owhiti was not maintained for a period of time, during which teredo destroyed much of her structure. She remains in a deteriorating condition at Opua. her rig may see use in another scow when restored.
The main differences from American scows were sharper bows and favouring the ketch rig instead of the schooner rig, although a great many schooner and topsail schooner rigged vessels were built. Some 130 scows were built in the north of New Zealand between 1873 and 1925, they ranged from 45 to 130 ft (14 – 40 m). New Zealand trading scows travelled all around New Zealand as well as to Australia and to the west coast of America although the majority were based in the Hauraki Gulf of New Zealand.
The scow schooner Alma of San Francisco, built in 1891, restored in the 1960s, and designated a National Historic Landmark (NHL) in 1988, was one of the last scow schooners in operation. She is a small example, 59 feet in length, 22.6 feet in beam, with a draft of 4 feet and a loaded displacement of 41 tons.
Elsie was the last scow sloop operated on the Chesapeake Bay. Although sailing scows were once numerous around the Bay, they are very poorly documented.
The Ted Ashby is a ketch rigged scow built in 1993 and based at the New Zealand National Maritime Museum in Auckland, it regularly sails the Auckland harbour as a tourist attraction. It was named after an old-time New Zealand seafarer and scowman, Ted Ashby, who had the foresight to document much of the history of these coastal work horses in his book Phantom Fleet - The Scows and Scowmen of Auckland, which was published by A. H. & A. W. Reed, Wellington, in 1976.
The Jane Gifford is a ketch-rigged deck scow built in 1908 by Davey Darroch, Big Omaha, New Zealand. The vessel was re-launched at Waiuku on the 28 November 1992, with Captain Basil Subritzky, the son of the late Captain Bert Subritzky and his family as guests of honour. The Jane Gifford then commenced sailings and tours on the Manukau Harbour between Waiuku and the Onehunga Wharf. In 1999 she was pulled out of the water for a rebuild, which commenced at Okahu Bay on the Waitemata Harbour. She then sat rotting until 2005, when she was moved to Warkworth for rebuilding. A full rebuild, using modern materials has been done at Warkworth, and the vessel was relaunched on 16 May 2009. She returned to sail later, and has been occasionally under sail in the Hauraki Gulf. She is the only original New Zealand scow still afloat to carry sail.
The Echo was built in 1905 of Kauri in New Zealand. She is 104 feet (32 m) long, with two masts and topsail rigged. Twin diesel engines were installed in 1920. In 1942-44 she was used by US forces in the Pacific, see USS Echo (IX-95). Her story was the basis for the 1960 film with Jack Lemon, The Wackiest Ship in the Army and the 1965 TV series. She was nearly broken up in 1990, but is now preserved at Picton, New Zealand
Howard I. Chapelle documented a number of scows in his book American Small Sailing Craft.
In the early 20th century, smaller sloop and cat rigged scows became popular sailboats on inland lakes throughout the midwestern United States. First popularized by Johnson Boat Works in Minnesota, these boats were distinguished by their larger sail plans, retractable bilgeboards, and (in some classes) twin rudders. There are many active racing classes throughout the Midwest, Western New York, the New Jersey Shore and parts of the South. These boats are traditionally identified by their class letters:
Contrary to the connotations of the old definition of "scow" (large and slow), the inland lake scows are extremely fast—the wide, flat bottom hull allows them to plane easily. As a consequence of this, the A scow is the highest rated centerboard boat according to the US Portsmouth yardstick numbers.
Historic 19th century canals used work scows. These flat bottom boats were used for construction and maintenance of the canal, as well as ice breaker scows, filled with iron or heavy objects, used clear the navigation from ice.