Saving heritage: The gundalows sail again

The gundalow in action today - preserving history
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It is all too easy to forget that before the oil, steam and gas revolution of the 20th Century, sailing skills were used for much more than merely leisure activities. Last weekend, a replica of a historic barge-style boat that sailed the tidal waters of New England in the USA since the late 1600s set sail for demonstration cruises.

The 64-foot Piscataqua, a flat-bottomed gundalow, sailed from Prescott Park in Portsmouth, N.H., three times Saturday. The boat’s decks were open to the public for the first time since its 2011 construction for the cruises in the Piscataqua River, which separates Maine and New Hampshire.

The sailing cargo vessels were carefully designed. The boats’ flat bottom was designed for low tide, mud flats around the New England area. Their high-masted, lateen sails were designed to collapse to the deck so they could go under bridges. They could sometimes measure over 70-feet long and 19-feet wide.

The Piscataqua gundalow began as a simple undecked barge, first appearing in the mid 1600s, poled or rowed with long sweeps (oars). From the 1700s into the 1900s gundalows evolved into fully decked flat-bottomed cargo carriers with a cabin and lateen sail that could be lowered to 'shoot' under bridges. The sail acted as an ‘auxiliary engine’ since gundalows depended on the tides to take them upriver on the rising tide and downriver on the falling tide.

Gundalows were the equivalent of today’s tractor-trailer rigs, sometimes measuring over 70 feet long and 19 feet wide. They could navigate shallow rivers, carrying freight of up to 50 tons between ocean-going schooners and the growing towns of the Piscataqua region. Raw cotton, spices and other goods from around the world were transported from the schooners to area businesses and factories. Farm produce, oysters and fish, lumber, manufactured goods, locally made bricks, native-hewn granite, cordwood and coal were all carried on gundalows.

Built from wood lot timber, most salt-water farmers, fishermen or traders simply built their own. No two gundalows were alike. The Fanny M., launched from Adam’s Point in Durham, NH in 1886 by Captain Edward H. Adams, was the last gundalow to operate commercially in the area.

Drawings of the Fanny M. in the collection of the Smithsonian Institute inspired the design of the new gundalow Piscataqua.