Voyage of the Drontheim

From Greencastle Skiff to Mackinaw Boat


Gordon Ramsey

This paper was originally prepared for a course in Cultural Geography supervised by Prof, Paul Davies in the Queen’s University of Kingston, Ontario: 2003.

Revised April 2004


I was out for a stroll by Lake Ontario when I came across the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes. I am a mature student from Queen’s University, Belfast, Northern Ireland

(I live in County Sligo in the Republic) and am spending a year on an exchange programme at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario. Back in Ireland, I am a member of the Causeway Coast Maritime Heritage Group, based in Portrush, County Antrim, which is involved in preserving, restoring and sailing traditional boats, so I headed into the museum to see what was on display. Tucked away in a corner, I found a group of beautifully made models of traditional fishing-boats of the Great Lakes. I was astonished to see that these models were identical in almost every detail to a real boat owned by the Causeway Coast group back in Northern Ireland, a traditional fishing boat of the northern Irish coast known as a ‘Drontheim’. I set out to research what links might exist between the vernacular fishing boats of Ulster and those of the Great Lakes. This paper is the fruit of that research.


Model of Lake Ontario Fish Boat – Marine Museum of the Great Lakes, Kingston, Ontario.  (photo by author)

During the 19th century, a number of different types of wooden fishing craft appeared on the Great Lakes. Some of these had flat, transom sterns, while others were double-ended. It seems that the fishermen who worked these boats referred to them simply as ‘fish boats’, but one specific type of double-ender, deriving from Georgian Bay, became known as a ‘Collingwood Skiff’. Towards the end of the 19th century, as some of the double-ended boats became popular with yachtsmen, the term ‘Mackinaw Boat’ began to be applied to all double-ended boats, including ‘Collingwood Skiffs’. In the 20th century, the origins of the ‘Mackinaw Boat’ have become a matter of considerable debate. Kiefer sums up the current state of this debate:

The origins of the Mackinaw boat are not completely known, but it is generally recognised that the boats developed entirely within and for Great Lakes sailing conditions. There is speculation that the French bateau and the Norwegian faering influenced the Mackinaw boat design since both French and Norwegian immigrants settled first in the northern lakes. While similarities to other boat types exist, Mackinaw boats grew to be unique… (1992).

I will suggest that this statement is inaccurate in two related respects: firstly the boats that are currently referred to as Mackinaw Boats did not develop entirely within and for Great Lakes sailing conditions, but that their form is largely derived from the boats that fished the Atlantic waters around the north coast of Ireland, and secondly that these boats are not unique – in fact if one were to place an Ulster ‘Drontheim’ amongst a group of Mackinaw Boats, or vice-versa, it would probably not be identified as a stranger.

Having made this case, I will go on to question why this question has become sufficiently important to generate the debate that it has, and look at the importance of ‘naming’ in establishing local identities in a globalising world.


In order to trace the links between the wooden fishing boats of the Ulster coast and those of the Great Lakes, I shall first examine the origins, development, and distinguishing features of the ‘Drontheim’ on the northern Irish coast, and then look at the historical evidence for the transmission of this form to the Great Lakes. I shall then consider to what extent Great Lakes boats maintained the features of the ‘Drontheim’ and in what ways they differed, and why.


MacPolin describes the distinctive features of the Drontheim:

It was an open…boat, carrying from four to seven men. It could be quite large – between 26 and 28 feet long. It was ‘double-ended’ i.e. the bow and the stern were almost similar, and was ‘clinker built’ i.e. the planks of her sides overlapped, as opposed to being fitted edge to edge as in a smooth-sided or carvel built boat.

She carried either one or two ‘sprit’ sails and a jib. A sprit being a long, loose thin pole, which held the high peak of the sail…She had a shallow keel and carried bags of gravel or large stones for ballast…There were six thwarts or seats…referred to…as ‘beams’. The fifth was loose so it could be removed to accommodate nets and other cargo (1999 p1-2).


The 1999 Drontheim ‘James Kelly’  (after MacPolin)

Clinker’ building is generally referred to as ‘lapstrake’ in North America. MacPolin notes that sizes varied according to local conditions: they could be as small as 20 ft. or as large as 28 ft, but the most common sizes were 22 ft on the north-east coast, and 26 ft. on the more exposed north-west. The upper size limit was determined by the fact that the boats frequently had to be beached, and the 28 ft boats were difficult to drag ashore (ibid. p17).

Another important feature was that “the Drontheim had a sharp, narrow bow and stern. Stem and sternposts usually showed a slight curve and rake, and the ‘heel was usually rounded, although the fishermen of the Scottish island of Islay preferred a straight-heel sternpost (ibid. p103). Other distinctive features were the ‘sandstroke’, a unique method of joining the planking (strakes) to the keel using the minimum of timber, and the ‘wearing’ or ‘bearer’, a length of timber running the length of the boat beneath the beams to add strength.

MacPolin says that:

There is no doubt that the drontheim, together with all clinker-built boats derived essentially from Scandinavia where this method of construction had evolved from the earliest times. Clinker-built boats first came to England, Scotland and then Ireland with the Vikings in the eighth century. This method of building boats became established in Viking colonies in these countries, as the Viking communities passed on their skills to the natives. Evidence of early Irish clinker-built galleys dating from the 16th century can be seen, for instance, in an old stone carving of one in Dunluce Castle, Co. Antrim, carved there perhaps by a MacDonnell, cousin to the MacDonalds of the Western Isles(ibid p5).


(after MacPolin)

MacDonald is a name that has cropped up repeatedly whilst researching these craft in both Ulster and the Great Lakes. The Vikings maintained a considerable presence in Ulster; both at the River Bann, with a fleet on Lough Neagh, and in Donegal, which took its name from them (Dun na Gall – Fort of the Foreigners). There is evidence of the use of galleys into the 17th century, so there was probably continuity in clinker-building techniques. Evidence for the Scandinavian origins of these craft is the names given to them:

In Northern Ireland is to be found a craft known variously, according to her district as a Greencastle or Skerries yawl. Another name for her is ‘Drontheim’. No more suggestive evidence need be given for her descent than these names; for ‘yawl’ is derived from the Norse ‘YOL’ used of a similar double-ended boat, and ‘Drontheim’ may be traced to a time when, about a hundred years ago, these boats were imported from Norway (“Open Boats of the British Coast” 1937 p1701 cited MacPolin 1999 p3).


Straight-Heel Highland Galley(from 16th Century carving)StraightHeelDrontheim

Straight Heel Islay Drontheim

Whilst the clinker building techniques may go back to Viking times, this does not explain why a new and distinctive type of clinker-built craft appeared in the north of Ireland in the early 19th century. The name supplies a clue here too. Drontheim, Dronton, Drunton or Drumtin, as it has been variously pronounced and written, is a colloquial form of the Norwegian port ‘Trondheim’, from which timber ships put into the port of Londonderry:

As Ireland’s timber resources became depleted by the middle of the 18th century, Norway became the main supplier of timber from its ports of Trondheim and Kristiansund in the north, and Bergen and Kristiansand in the south. With this trade a second colonisation of Scandinavian boats occurred. Along with timber and ice, trading vessels from Norway brought small clinker-built boats. These Norway yawls were carried as supplementary deck cargo (MacPolin 1999 p6).

Evidence of what these ‘Norway Yawls’ looked like is scarce. There is a painting, dating to 1822 of a boat on Portstewart beach, near the mouth of the Bann, which shows a double-ended clinker built boat, which is much closer in appearance to the ‘Oselver’, from Os on Norway’s south-west coast near Bergen, than to later Drontheims in Ireland. It features very raked and curved bow and stern posts, giving a considerable overhang, and a small number of wide planks, a common feature of Norwegian boats that never featured in Irish built boats due to the limited timber resources (ibid. p6 & 12). A photograph from Warrenpoint, County Down, dating to 1880 shows boats, possibly direct imports from Norway, which resemble the ‘Alfjord Faering’, (faering means four-oared boat) from the Trondheim region, again featuring wide planking and curved stem and stern. MacPolin suggests that both types of boat may have played a part in the ancestry of the Ulster Drontheim, the Alfjord faering primarily in the area of hull form, and the Oselver, which used a spritsail and jib, in sailing rig.

Oselver  AlfjordFaering(after MacPolin) NorwayYawlPortstewart


Norway Yawl at Portstewart, Co. Derry 1822  from a painting by J.W. Campbell (Ulster Folk & Transport Museum L1689/8)  (after MacPolin)


MacPolin notes the similarities and differences in the hull construction of the Alfjord Faering and the Drontheim:

The drontheim is obviously a much less flexible and ‘stiffer’ boat due to it extra frames, wearing, and gunwale, but when one looks at an Alfjord faering one’s eye one’s eye finds a shape that remembers the lines and shape of a drontheim

(ibid. p12).


MacPolin also compares the Drontheim to the Shetland Fourern, also so called in view of its four oars, noting that the Shetlanders had to import their timber from Norway, and their boats thus remained closer to the Norwegians in construction, using wide strakes with few frames, and flared, overhanging bows. The Fourerns were sailed with a lugsail, like the Alfjord Faering, but unlike the Drontheim.

The Irish builders developed the type in a way different from that of the Shetlanders and built the boats up a couple of strakes on either side. The Skerries yawl has more and narrower planks and considerably less sheer than the Fourern. Her keel is longer in relation to overall length. (“Open Boats of the British Coast” 1937 cited MacPolin 1999 p9).

ShetlandFourernShetland Fourern (After MacPolin)

The narrower planking of the Drontheim may be put down to the availability of resources. The hull shape also helped in this regard:

The ‘finer’ bow or stern could be planked from narrow flitches of timber (a flitch is a plank cut from the full width available from the tree), an important advantage when timber was scarce or trees were of small circumference….A finer more efficient bow meant less wood as well (MacPolin 1999 p9).

In terms of efficiency, the advantage of the sharper and straighter bow was that:

A straight stem meant less reserve buoyancy in the bow and the boat sliced more smoothly into the waves…As Bertie McKay, a fisherman of Portbradden, Co. Antrim so eloquently put it: “They didn’t bang, bang into the waves but slid over them…like going into a basin of cream!” (quoted MacPolin 1999 pp9-10).

Likewise, the sharp stern was an advantage when beaching a boat with a following sea:

After a followin’ sea it went past it. If it was a transom stern a sea could hit it and push her on. You couldn’t steer and would have broached her. (Sammy Wilkinson quoted MacPolin 1999 p86).

The fine end splits the sea. You could still control them. The transom stern can be a problem unless you have some kind of decent shelter (Bertie McKay quoted MacPolin 1999 p86).

Why, then, was such a design not adopted by the fishermen of Shetland? Perhaps because they were operating in less sheltered waters: there could be dangers in a fine bow, as Rathlin fisherman John Hegarty pointed out when viewing a new Drontheim with a particularly fine bow:

If you were runnin’ before a brave breeze and stemmin’ (going against) the tide, I’m afraid you’d lose her. The too fine bow would put the head down… (MacPolin 1999 p33).

In recent years a County Sligo Drontheim was lost in similar circumstances.

Another interesting comparison that can be made is with the Sgoth Niseach (Ness Skiff) of the Hebrides, which has a similar heritage. The island of Lewis got its timber from the Scottish mainland (Le Floch 1998), and the boats were built of narrow planks as in Ulster. The design, however, retained the flared and raked bow and stern, and the lugsail, resembling the Fourern in appearance.


Sgoth Niseach (Ness Skiff) (after Le Floch)


The fact that all these craft belong to the same Scandinavian family is clear. The differences between them become significant when we consider whether the Scandinavian features seen on Great Lakes fish boats are of direct Norwegian origin, or whether they were mediated by the Ulster experience.



The Drontheim was the standard fishing boat of the northern Irish coast from County Antrim to Donegal, and as far south as Sligo in the west. South of Sligo, older Carvel designs such as the Hooker or Wherry remained dominant. In the east, Yawls similar to the Drontheim were found in County Down – these were generally smaller and used lugsails. They were part of an ‘Irish Sea’ cultural network that spanned influences from the Isle of Man and as far south as Cornwall (Evans 1967), but was somewhat separated from the ‘Atlantic zone’ of the north and north-west coast. South of County Down on the east coast, carvel built boats were again the norm. The Drontheim was also used on the Scottish islands of Islay and Colonsay (MacPolin 1999 p18), and the Mull of Kintyre in Argyll (Martin on-line), being imported from builders in Portrush, County Antrim.

Drontheims varied according to local conditions and preferences, not only in size but also in rig:

Most Drontheims were worked with a single unstayed mast, setting a loose-footed spritsail and a single jib, set flying from the stem-head without a bowsprit. This allowed a relatively large area of sail to be set without taking up space in the boat when the rig was taken down for fishing operations or when rowing. This simple rig could be stepped or un-stepped at sea.

The drontheim had three positions for masts and this allowed for different local rigs…Inishboffin Island Drontheims were usually sailed with two masts set in the first and third beams. Generally, however, the single mast was stepped in the second beam… (the main beam) (MacPolin 1998 p40).



Single Spritsail with Jib
Twin Spritsails with Jib on Bowsprit

Drontheim Rigs (after MacPolin)

Ballycastle, County Antrim, and Rathlin Island, which were the some of the closest north coast ports to the Irish Sea sometimes used lugsails like the County Down boats. Ballintoy, a little further west favoured Gaff sails. These were often used by boats from various areas for racing in regattas, which was taken very seriously. Bowsprits were also added for racing. It is worth remembering that all these rigs were used, often interchangeably according to the weather, in the Irish boats, when we consider the rigs used on the Great Lakes.


A Glengad Drontheim at Greencastle Regatta, Co. Donegal, 18th August 1951 

(after MacPolin)

There was also some variation in hull shape. In the Donegal Bay fishery:

Use of ring nets for salmon, mackerel and sprat required a yawl with…a high bow and stern with ‘a spring to the sheer’…Hauling the ring net at sea required the yawl to lay over on her side (MacPolin 1999 p55).

This type of Drontheim was described by Donegal Bay fisherman George Gallagher as “A boat with a gurnard head and a mackerel tail”. This is a phrase we shall encounter again on the other side of the Atlantic.

Let us look then, at the historical events which suggest how drontheim technology may have been transferred from the north coast of Ireland to the Great Lakes.


In 1842, William Watts and his brother Mathew, Scots-Irish boat builders from County Sligo, immigrated to Toronto Island, where they soon returned to their trade, their first recorded commission being a clinker-built sailboat for the light keeper. In 1850, they moved their business to a spot on Lake Ontario formerly known as ‘Hen and Chickens harbour’, but, with the arrival of the railroad, newly dignified with the name of Collingwood, after the British naval hero (Watts & Marsh 1997 pp1-7). The Watts brothers were part of a massive movement of people, from Ireland across the Atlantic in tthe 19th century (Bishop 1999). The brothers were fortunate, however, in that they left the country four years before the onset of the Potato blight which devastated Ireland in 1846.

Little is known about the Watts’ life before emigration, but the fact that William returned to Co. Sligo to marry a girl from the area of Dromore West, in the western part of the county, suggests that this may be where they originated. There are numerous small fishing harbours along this north-facing stretch of coastline. Nothing is known of the boats the Watts brothers built in Sligo. They lived at the south-western extreme of the zone in which the Drontheim was built. The McCann family of Moneygold, in north Sligo, a short sail across the bay, were Drontheim builders who continued to build boats into the 20th century. It is clear from the descriptions of the light-house keeper’s boat in Toronto that the Watts brothers were skilled in clinker-building techniques, Joyce describes it as “a pretty 17 foot clinker built sharp-sterned rowing skiff” (1987). William Watts was known to build boats by eye, without the use of a mould (Watts & Marsh 1997), exactly as practised by the family firms of Ulster, such as the Kelly’s of Portrush, County Antrim, or the Beattie’s and MacDonalds of Moville, County Donegal (MacPolin 1999).


The McCann’s of Moneygold in a yawl they built c.1900 (After MacPolin)


Let us examine the boats that the Watts brothers built, then, and see to what extent they resemble the Drontheim of northern Ireland.


The boats that were built by the Watts brothers are generally referred to as ‘Collingwood Skiffs’, after the town where they located their boatyard. They had been building such craft in Toronto for five years prior to the move to Collingwood, however. The earliest Watts boats are described as “about twenty feet long, sharp-sterned, and equipped with one or two spritsails” (Barry, 1978), “customarily clench (lapstrake) built” (Swanson 1982), “more or less symmetrical fore and aft (Cecil 2001), “rather straight sheered…and…quite light in construction…fast and powerful” with “shoal hulls, with…little drag to the keels” (Chapelle 1951), “a keel almost parallel to the waterline” (Joyce 1987). This could easily be a description of a Drontheim. A comparison of drawings confirms striking similarities. There seems little doubt, then, that the craft the Watts brothers built in Canada were little different from those with which they were familiar on the north-west coast of Ireland.


Hutcheson Boat under restoration, Kingston Ontario, 2003. (photo by author)


Drontheim’s under construction, Moville, Co. Donegal, 1990. (after MacPolin)


The Marine Museum of the Great Lakes at Kingston, on Lake Ontario, has in its possession the hull of a Collingwood type fishing skiff, which was built in 1910 by Scott Hutcheson, a fisherman of Prince Edward County. Although it had been converted, first to a motorised fishing boat, and then to a sailing yacht, the hull is largely original, the lines are indistinguishable from those of a Drontheim. It uses a great many more, and lighter frames than would be common in a Drontheim, and also has a single ‘wearing’. Two were common in the Drontheim. When we consider other possible derivations for lapstrake built fishing boats in Scandinavia or the northern isles of Scotland, however, we find that they used even fewer frames than the Drontheim, used no wearings, and had a radically different hull-shape. It seems likely then, that this craft is a closely related descendant of the Drontheim type design. The fact that ‘Hutcheson’ is a name of Lowland or Ulster-Scots derivation, and the Christian name Scott suggests the Ulster-Scots habit of preserving the female lineage by giving maiden names as Christian names, would be consistent with this. The only other builder of Collingwood Skiffs we know by name was Dalt MacDonald of Bronte on Georgian Bay (Joyce 1987), another name with obvious connections to Ulster or the Western Isles.


Interior of Hutcheson boat showing frames and wearing (photo by author)

The Hutcheson boat, like the vast majority of Great Lakes fish boats, is fitted with a centre-board. This is a modification that was introduced in North America. At least one Irish Drontheim was fitted with a centre-board, although it was never a common modification in Ulster. It would appear that this was a case of parallel development to deal with similar problems. Photographs suggest that the adoption of a centre-board had an affect on mast placement, with the mainmast of the Great Lakes boats being placed slightly further back, to clear the centre-board housing, and the foremast being moved slightly further toward the bow to balance this.

There is no evidence the ‘sandstroke’ method of attaching the keel was ever used in North America. There would have been no need for this highly skilled technique where timber was abundant.

The Watts boats were quickly influential. According to Barry:

Watts’ original model was soon enlarged and fitted with a long bowsprit and jib as well as the spritsails. Other builders, located both in Collingwood and the other (Georgian) Bay towns, began to copy the Watts design. Watts’ boats were also sold for use in other towns. By the mid 60s fishing skiffs of the Collingwood type were common everywhere on the Bay (1978).


Collingwood Skiff, Midland Ontario, c1904  (after Barry 1940)


Drontheim, Bowmore, Islay, c1930  (after MacPolin)

It is possible that builders with Scots-Irish origins such as Dalt MacDonald may have been familiar with the ‘Watts design’ before they ever crossed the Atlantic.

The larger boats often carried gaff sails, again commonly used in Ulster, and appear to have carried large sail areas when fishing, that in Ulster would have been reserved for racing. This is not surprising when we bear in mind that the Great Lakes boats did much of their fishing in light summer breezes (Kiefer 1992) – breezes in North Atlantic summers can rarely be described as light.


In discussing the origins of the Mackinaw Boat, we are stepping into turbulent waters, in part because the name has been used to describe many different types of craft (Cecil 2001). The name comes from the Straits of Mackinac (pronounced Mackinaw), where the boats are said to have originated, and earliest references are to two quite different craft: “a large birch bark Mackinac boat, also referred to as a ‘canoe’ (Cecil 2001a) and a “flat-bottomed keelboat” also referred to as a ‘barge’ (Cecil 2001a). Later, the term was applied to round-bottomed plank-built fishing boats of various types, including sharp and transom-sterned, and of both carvel and lapstrake build (Cecil 2001a, Armitage on-line). Certainly there were fishing boats on the Great Lakes before the arrival of the Watts brothers, and some of them were called Mackinaw Boats.

Capt. Joseph Collins of the US Fish Commission wrote the following description in the 1880s:

A type of sharp-sterned, and commonly schooner-rigged (2 masts of equal height), boat is employed in the fisheries of the Great Lakes…and this has received the distinctive name of ‘Mackinaw Boat’…

It is an open boat, generally provided with a centreboard, has sharp ends, the bow being much fuller than the stern, which is remarkably fine, while the midships section is round and sometimes ‘bulging’. Some of the boats are carvel built, while others are lap-streaked, and they have a strong sheer (Swanson 1982).

This description differs from the Collingwood Skiff, both in that carvel building was sometimes used, and also in the asymmetric shape of the hull. The full bow with ‘strong sheer’ and fine stern, however, is not outside the Drontheim tradition, being reminiscent of the “gurnard head and mackerel tail” boats of Donegal Bay. It is striking that on the Great Lakes; boats of this shape are usually described as having a “cod’s head and mackerel tail’ suggesting there may be an Ulster influence in terminology.

The earliest known boats of this type were built by Hyacinth Chenier, a French Canadian from Oka, near Montreal, who settled in St. Ignace, Michigan, on the north shore of the Straits of Mackinac around 1830 (Cecil 2001). The local St. Ignace newspaper claimed in 1943 that Chenier “designed and built the widely known Mackinac Boat” (Republican News & St. Ignace Enterprise 11/3/43 cited Cecil 2001). Cecil points out that “pre-1840 illustrations from the waterfronts of Detroit, Buffalo, Montreal and other ports show ships boats of the cod’s head and mackerel’s tail form”. He suggests that these are “a likely forerunner to Chenier’s asymmetrical, full-bowed design. Since this design serves a particular purpose, suitable for boarding heavy nets over the quarter, and does not have particularly good sailing or rowing qualities, it is more likely that the ships boats are derived from fishing boats. Whether such a shape is used in the fishing boats of northern France, where most Quebecois originated, would be an interesting line of future research. One of Chenier’s boats, the 1845 Wabesi (Swan), which was owned by an Aboriginal fisherman named Joe Osogwin, survived long enough for her lines to be documented in 1933-4 – a photograph of her on the water prior to 1914 also exists. She is carvel built and corresponds to Collins description in shape. Wherever the shape originated, the carvel building technique and early date suggest origins other than Watt’s skiffs. Cecil notes that “No Georgian Bay fisherman ever called his Collingwood Skiff a Mackinaw” (2001a), and Joyce points out that William Watts jnr. (son of the emigrant) wrote to Barry in 1938 that “Fish boats built in Collingwood in the 1870s-80s were not called Mackinaws but just Collingwood fish boats (Joyce 1987). In later years, however, WilliamWatts jnr. Used the term Mackinaw when corresponding with yachtsmen.


The 1845 Chenier built Wabesi, pleasure sailing in the Les Cheneaux area of northern Lake Huron, prior to 1914, about 15 miles north of her construction site at St. Ignace, Michigan.  (after Cecil 2001a)


Cecil writes:

The old-timers whom I have spoken to say that these boats originated in the Straits of Mackinac and that many were built around the north channel of Manatoulin Island. Built for the most part by the Indians, they were usually smooth-skinned (carvel) boats, and the frames were often natural crooks. They were said to be fuller forward, leaner aft, and to have slacker bilges than the Collingwood Skiffs (2001)…(With regard to ‘slacker bilges’ it should be noted that both Collingwood Skiffs and Mackinaws were built in different cross-sectional geometries) (2001a).

As, indeed, were Drontheims.


(after Swanson)


(after Cecil 2001a)

Two examples of Cod’s Head, Mackerel Tail shaped boats, referred to by Cecil and Swanson as ‘true Mackinaw’s’.


25-26 ft.’True Mackinaw’ at St. James Harbour, Beaver Island, Lake Michigan, date unknown. The vessel has strongly upswept sheer, sharp forefoot, her widest beam well forward of amidships, and a sharp stern. Note substantial bow-wake and sandbags on the weather rail for ballast, even in relatively light air. (after Cecil 2001a)

It seems clear, however, that there were originally two distinct traditions of double-ended boats on the Lakes, one lapstrake built, symmetrical in shape, with little sheer, native to Georgian Bay with origins in the north of Ireland, the other, carvel built, asymmetrical in shape, with upswept sheer, native to the Straits of Mackinac and of probable French-Canadian origin. How then, did the two types become conflated?



It seems that the appearance of the Collingwood Skiffs on the Canadian shores of the Lakes influenced the construction of ‘Mackinaw Boats’ on the American side. It also seems likely that the medium by which such cultural exchange took place was through the Aboriginal peoples who both built and used these boats in large numbers, whose social networks spanned a broad swathe of the northern Great Lakes from Georgian Bay to Lake Michigan (Cecil 2002), who paid little attention to lines drawn on maps, and who adopted those technologies that worked best for them, and were compatible with their own traditions.


The Aboriginal fishing communities of the northern Great Lakes were part of the Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomi tribes, known as the Peoples of the Three Fires (Cecil 2002 p19). These peoples had long established traditions of building birch bark canoes, which could use birch bark or cloth sails as well as paddles, and they acquired carpentry skills from Catholic missionaries, which they soon turned to the production of boats (ibid.). They used carvel building techniques, a natural development from the use of birch bark over frames.

Variations were both abundant and widespread. Some favoured transom-sterned boats, but most preferred double-ended craft. An observation by the late William Trudeau of Wilkwemikong, often repeated by other Indian elders, may explain the preference: “they were pointed at both ends, just like a canoe”.

(Cecil 2002 pp23-4).


Birchbark canoe and carvel sailboat, showing classic Drontheim shape, Magnetan River, Ontario, 1909. According to Cecil, the sailboat must have travelled at least 60 miles across northern Georgian Bay to this location. Trading, harvesting berries and visiting relatives were the more common purposes of these boats’ journeys, which continued into the 1940s. (after Cecil 2002).

Whilst the ‘old-timers’ Cecil spoke to prior to writing his 2001 article characterised the Indians’ boats as “fuller forward, leaner aft” with similar lines to the ‘Wabesi’, several late 19th century photographs show that many of the Indians’ boats were perfect renderings of the ‘Collingwood Skiff’ or ‘Drontheim’ hull shape, constructed with carvel building techniques. Gaff sails were the common rig.

The People of the Three Fires required their boats to be versatile: in addition to fishing, they were used for transporting crops to market, gathering wild blueberries and cranberries and visiting distant relatives: they were also raced in regattas that were taken as seriously as those in Ulster. It seems then, that numbers of the Aboriginal sailors found the ‘Collingwood’ or Drontheim shape suited their needs, and adapted it to their own building techniques. A photograph of a boat built by Joseph Fournier on the Sagamok reserve, near Spanish, Ontario, in 1934-6 shows a beautiful example of the Drontheim shape, which would only stand out amongst northern Irish boats due to its carvel construction. The Watts family themselves adopted carvel techniques when William Watts jnr. after a period building lapstrake skiffs at Port Arthur on Lake Superior, moved to British Columbia. Here he produced similar lapstrake boats for the salmon fishery, known as Columbia River Skiffs, until an order for 100 boats caused him to switch to carvel building for ease of mass production. These ultimately influenced the shape of motor-boats built by the Japanese fishermen who later came to dominate the fishery (Watts & Marsh 1997).


Boat built in 1934-6 by Joseph Fournier on the Sagamok Indian Reserve near Spanish, Ontario. Probably the last working Mackinaw-type sailing boat built on the Great Lakes. Fournier was a master-craftsman in both wood and metal. (after Cecil 2002)

The Aboriginal fishermen probably played a part in introducing the Collingwood hull shape to non-Aboriginal boat-builders in Michigan. Paul la Plante, a French-Canadian married to Mary Mashkigwatig, an Ojibwe woman, was a boat-builder who produced Mackinaw Boats in Grand Portage, Michigan, from the 1870s on. One of his boats survives in the Commercial Fishing Museum in Tofte, Minnesota, and a replica has recently been constructed at the Grand Portage National Monument. It is of lapstrake construction, and features a fine bow with little sheer, and a deep section, appearing much closer to the Drontheims of Islay than to the boats built by Chenier.


Drontheim under reconstruction, Ballybrack 1997. (after MacPolin)



Replica LaPlante Mackinaw Boat under construction, (Grand Portage National Monument, Minnesota)

Cecil claims that:

The Collingwood Skiff…is a far more modern and efficient hull design than the decidedly atavistic Collins-Mackinaw. Even in the 1850-60 period, state-of-the-art boat builders, most notably those working in naval small craft, were moving away from the full bow shape (2001).

Whilst it must be born in mind that the requirements of fishermen were somewhat different from those of navies, it is also true that the boats of the Lakes were used “as the 19th century version of a family car or pick-up truck by many people…They carried produce to market, brought provisions from town and did similar errands” (Barry 1978 p109). This may have favoured the better-sailing and easier rowed shape of the Drontheim, which was used for similar purposes, including gathering kelp and transporting cattle, over the more specialised ‘cod’s head, mackerel tail’ form.


Jesse Wells Church built fishing boats throughout the second half of the 19th century, (and kept journals of his work) initially on Sugar Island in the St. Mary’s River, and from 1869 onward, on Harbor Island, at the mouth of the St. Mary’s where it enters Lake Huron (Swanson 1982 pp103-4). Church used lapstrake construction (ibid pp104-5), and produced a different style of boat in each location, tailored to the local conditions. On Sugar Island he produced:

Double-enders with curved, slightly raking stem posts, straight, raking stern-posts; moderate sheer; beams carried about equally fore and aft, little drag to the keel, slack bilges; cat rigged (one sail per mast) as ketches (two masts, foremast higher) or schooners (two masts of equal height) (ibid. p104).


Church’s St. Mary’s River Mackinaw Boat. (after Swanson)

He called these craft, tailored for the fast and changing currents, shallows and small islands of the riverine environment, ‘Mackinaws’.

On Harbor Island, in the lake environment, Church built boats with:

Plumb stem posts…a straight raking stern post, rigged with jib and bowsprit. In body plan, straight rising floors carried into a very hard turn at the bilge. Beam was carried about as far fore and aft as practicable, making them quite commodious for double-enders (ibid pp104-5).


Church’s Lake Huron Fish Boat (after Swanson)

Church referred to these craft as ‘fish boats’. Despite the differences between the two types of boat Church produced, all the features described for both types fall within the ‘Drontheim’ tradition, or are easily derived from it. Notably, the early type is symmetrical in plan and the later boats almost so, appearing to come closer to the ‘Collingwood’ shape than to the ‘cod’s head, mackerel tail’ Mackinaws built by Chenier and described by Collins.

The same is true of another example, a 16 ft. Mackinaw built in 1900 by Charles Dagwell in Mackinac City, Michigan. Dagwell was a marine reporter and weatherman who built the boat for use in his duties (ibid. p101). The craft is preserved at the Fort Michilimakinac State Historic Park. She was of lapstrake build, intended primarily for rowing but also fitted for sail. “The location of the mast step indicates the rig was probably a sprit sail or sliding gunter” (ibid). It is likely Dagwell’s boat is very similar to the skiff built by Watts for the Toronto lighthouse keeper fifty years earlier.


(after Swanson)

Another craft, also lapstrake built, mentioned by Chapelle and investigated in more detail by Swanson is one designed by Christian Skaugh of Stonington, Michigan in 1887. This vessel, whose lines are preserved in the Smithsonian’s Historic Merchant Marine Survey Collection, is reported to have had “very raking bows and…very hollow garboards” showing “much fuller ends” (Chapelle 1951 p182) and to have “resembled nothing so much as a Norwegian Faering” (Swanson 1987 p103). This suggests a direct Scandinavian influence, which is not unlikely since there was considerable Scandinavian settlement in these western areas, and ‘Christian Skaugh’ is a Scandinavian name. Swanson claims to have received evidence from the Canal Park Museum of “an obvious Scandinavian influence in the work of several Mackinaw boat builders on Lake Michigan’s north-western shore, which includes Stonington. It would seem, however, that this direct Scandinavian influence appeared fairly late, after the basic form of the Mackinaw Boat had already been established, and was limited both in space and time. It seems to have been confined to the north-west of Lake Michigan and no boats of this type, or even photographs, seem to have survived.

Whilst the Collingwood Skiff was not the first double-ended fishing boat on the Lakes, being preceded by boats of probable French-Canadian origins, and whilst it was subject to other cultural influences from Native Americans and Scandinavian immigrants, it seems fair to conclude that the Collingwood design, and through it, the Ulster Drontheim, became, by the late 19th century, a defining influence in determining the form of the Great Lakes Mackinaw Boat.


If it has proved difficult to untangle the history of the fishing boats on the Great Lakes, this is in part due to the confusion caused by ‘naming’. If William Watts had called the boats he built in Canada ‘Drontheims’, there would have been no doubt of their origins, but he didn’t, he called them ‘fish boats’ or ‘skiffs’, both terms that had been used to describe such boats in Ireland, but which had little specificity. Watts, of course, was not considering the needs of history, but the need to sell boats to people of varied ethnic origin who had no idea what the word ‘Drontheim’ meant, but knew they needed a fish boat.

In Ireland, the name ‘Drontheim’, and ‘Norway Yawl’, which preceded it, emphasised the long-distance connections that had brought these boats to Ulster. Once local builders started to produce their own variations on the Norwegian imports, however, they soon acquired local identities. In Donegal, they were known as ‘Greencastle Yawls’, after the initial location of the MacDonald boatyard, where they were built. Even after MacDonalds moved to Moville, the name kept the attachment to Greencastle. The larger craft of North Donegal were called Westerd Drontheims, to distinguish them from their smaller cousins, but on bilingual Tory Island, the large boat was An Bád Mór (The Big Boat) or in English, the ‘Big Salmon Boat’, whilst the smaller variants were called ‘Skiffs’. In the County Antrim fishing harbours, the Drontheim became the ‘Skerries Yawl’ after a small group of rocky islands just outside Portrush. On Rathlin Island they were called Shallops, a name of French origin, usually applied to ship’s boats, but on the nearby Scottish isle of Islay they were ‘Irish Skiffs’ or Sgoth Eireannach and in the Mull of Kintyre, re-establishing the connection with Donegal, they were known as ‘Greencastle Skiffs’ or ‘Greenies’, despite the fact that the Scots got most of their boats from the Hopkins and Kelly boatyards in Portrush.

In this small area of the north-west of Ireland and south-west of Scotland, we thus have a great variety of nomenclature, referring to origin, function and local associations. The urge to bestow local names did not erase appreciation of wider connections, however. The owners of Greencastle Yawls and Skerries Yawls fished each others waters, and raced against each other in regattas at Moville or Portstewart, where all competed in the ‘Drontheim’ class (MacPolin 1999).

It is surprising that in Canada the Watts boats were named ‘skiffs’ rather than ‘yawls’, since yawl would appear to have been the dominant term in south Donegal and Sligo, but then there is no evidence that it was the Watts brothers who bestowed this name upon them. In any event, we may suggest that ‘Collingwood Skiff’ was the Georgian Bay term for a Drontheim, in exactly the same way that ‘Greencastle Skiff’ was the Argyle term for the same kind of vessel.

The Drontheim was a boat with many names. In the case of the Mackinaw, we have the reverse situation: a name with many boats. The name, of Ojibwe origin, has not only been applied to a city, a township, a county and an island all in the vicinity of the famous straits, but also to everything from Mackinaw trout to Mackinaw blankets to Mackinaw guns (Cecil 2001a p61). It has also been applied to a vast number of different kinds of watercraft (ibid), sometimes by the people who used them, sometimes retrospectively by others, and sometimes, it’s hard to tell. Cecil suggests that many of these craft may have been “erroneously named” (ibid. p63), although who is qualified to make such judgements he does not investigate.

The power of the magic M word” (ibid p66) with which Cecil struggled, may be due to its aural familiarity to people of Scots-Irish descent, who formed a significant part of the immigrant population of the area, bestowing names of their own in the fishing communities where the vessels were used, such as ‘Antrim Street’ in Charlevoix, Michigan. The three syllable word ‘Mackinaw’ is similar in sound to many place names in Northern Ireland, such as Maghera, or Lisbellaw, in fact if it were to appear on a signpost in Ireland it would probably spark a debate in local history circles about the correct Gaelic translation: (Magh an….- The Plain of ?). In fact there have been similar debates concerning the Ojibwe meaning, variously translated as: ‘Great Turtle’, ‘Place of the Great Dancing Spirit’ or ‘a…mythical group of Indians who row through the forest and shoot but are never seen’ (ibid. p63).

The Indians themselves, however, did not use the ‘magic M word’ to describe their boats, although others did, also calling them Indian Macks. To the Aboriginal inhabitants of Manatoulin island they were Bemassing Giman (boat that is moved by the wind) whilst in Michigan, the Odawa word Naalikwaan was used (Cecil 2002).

For most of the people who have historically used these boats, on both sides of the Atlantic, they were first and foremost a tool of their trade, and many names were simply descriptive: Bád Mór, or Bemassing Giman. People gave increased meaning to such artefacts, which were vital for life, by giving them names describing their origins: Norway Yawl, Drontheim, Sgoth Eireannach, personal associations to builders: Watts boats or MacDonald boats were used in Georgian Bay, Beattie, Kelly or MacDonald boats in Ulster, or local associations which tied them to their own place and identity: Skerries Yawl, Collingwood Skiff, Mackinaw Boat.

In recent years, the boats have lost their practical uses, as the fisheries were destroyed, in Ireland by industrial fishing methods, in the Great Lakes by the invasion of the lamprey, a parasite which wiped out fish stocks. At the same time, the craft have acquired an increased significance as a marker of a local identity in a globalising world. This in itself has influenced ‘naming’. Joyce notes that “when fish boats become yachts they tend to be given a more attractive name”: thus “Maine sloop boats…became Friendship sloops, named after one of the villages that built them” (1987). Likewise, William Watts jnr. denied that Collingwood fish boats had been called Mackinaw Boats, but adopted the name himself when it became apparent that it increased his boats’ marketability to yachtsmen (ibid).

Kiefer relates how, when he expressed interest in building a boat, a friend said to him “If I was from Michigan I’d build a Mackinaw Boat” (1992). Kiefer did so, and the vessel had increased meaning for him due to its local associations. The Nelson Zimmer design he built from included lapstrake construction, like Watts, a high sheer to the bow, a la Chenier, and a plan differing from any previous model, being fuller towards the stern, in contrast to both the ‘cod’s head, mackerel tail’ and the symmetrical plans used by traditional fishing boats (Cecil 2001b). The boat was well suited for pleasure sailing, however, which is what she, like all contemporary Mackinaw boats and Drontheims, is used for. The pleasure of sailing her is added to by the local identity imbued in her by the name. Zimmer had sold over 100 sets of plans for the Mackinaw Boat he designed by 1982 (Swanson 1982 p106). Similar motivations have led to the reconstruction of Drontheims in Ireland and Scotland and the reconstruction of Collingwood Skiffs in Canada. In the 21st century, the boats are no longer valuable for practical purposes: their value is almost entirely in their meaning, which is largely imparted in the name. The interest this research project has inspired amongst those who build, restore or sail such boats today, shows that attachment to local identity is balanced by the fascination of global connections.


Michael Kiefer’s Nelson Zimmer designed Mackinaw Boat, South Haven, Michigan. 

(after Cecil 2001a)

Similar motivations have led to the reconstruction of Drontheims in Ireland and Scotland and the reconstruction of Collingwood Skiffs in Canada.


Bernard Barr’s restored 1952 24ft. Drontheim, Moville, 1996. (after MacPolin)

In the 21st century, the boats are no longer valuable for practical purposes: their value is almost entirely in their meaning, which is largely imparted in the name. The interest this research project has inspired amongst those who build, restore or sail such boats today, shows that attachment to local identity is balanced by the fascination of global connections.


CCMHG member Sandrine Pell (from Lyon, France) with American family members and the reconstructed LaPlante Mackinaw Boat, Grand Portage, Minnesota. (photo by Dan Pell)



Barry, James. 1978. Georgian Bay: The Sixth Great Lake. Clarke, Irwin & Co. Toronto & Vancouver.

Bishop, Patrick. 1999. The Irish Empire. Boxtree, London.

Cecil, Owen S. 2001(a). “The Mackinaw Boat: It’s a barge, bateau, birch bark canoe, fishing sailboat – and what else?” in Wooden Boat 158, Jan/Feb ’01.

– – – 2001(b) “At Sea in the Nelson Zimmer Mackinaw Boat” in Wooden Boat 158, Jan/Feb ’01.

  • - – 2002. “Sailing Indians of the Northern Great Lakes” in Maritime Life and Traditions 16, Fall 2002.

Chapelle, Howard I. 1951. American Small Sailing Craft: Their Design, Development and Construction. Norton, N.Y. & London.

Joyce, Lorne. 1987. “Fish Boats Under Sail” in Inland Seas Vol. 53, No. 1, Spring.

Kiefer, Michael. 1992. “Mackinaw Boats: Heritage of the Great Lakes” in The Ash Breeze, Spring ’92.

McCaughan, M. 1989. “Dandys, Luggers, Herring and Mackerel” in McCaughan M. & I. Appleby (eds) The Irish Sea.

MacPolin, Donal. 1999. The Drontheim: Forgotten Sailing Boat of the North Irish Coast. Playprint, Dublin.

“Open Boats of the British Coasts” in Shipping Wonders of the World. Vol 1. London c1937.

Swanson, Rodger C. 1982. “Edith Jane: a search for the real Mackinaw boat.” In Wooden Boat 45, Mar/Apr ’82.

Watts, Peter and Tracy Marsh. 1997. W. Watts & Sons Boat Builders: Canadian Designs for Work and Pleasure 1842-1946.

WEB SOURCES: all accessed 20/10/02. (The Story of Marion: reconstructing the past). (Causeway Coast Maritime Heritage Group). (A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words). (‘The Mull of Kintyre Fishery’ by Angus Martin). (The Galley Aileach). (Town of Collingwood Museum) (Mackinaw Boat returns to Lake Superior). (Bronte Harbour, Panel 4: ‘Bronte – A Fishing Village’ by Andrew Armitage).