The Georgian Bay Mackinaw

The Georgian Bay Mackinaw, designed by William Watts of Collingwood is an example of a Georgian Bay innovator creating a vessel to service the needs local mariners.

The large stocks of fish in Georgian Bay and Lake Huron was one of the attractions which drew early settlers and commercial enterprises to this area. When Ontario and the surrounding American states became more established, Georgian Bay and Lake Huron became more popular as a tourism and recreation area. Sport fishing grew in popularity as the summer visitors to the area discovered the still plentiful and tasty fish that inhabited the waters of the area. 

The boats used for commercial and recreational fishing in this area are commonly used throughout North America. However, this was not always the circumstance. Fishermen using hooks or seine nets could use canoes or any kind of rowing vessel to harvest the white fish, sturgeon and trout that inhabited these waters. 

The use of gill nets required a sturdier craft, and this led to the development of a vessel which was considered unique to the Georgian Bay region, although many found their way into usage in the Lake Superior fishery. 

The Georgian Bay Mackinaw is Born

In the 1850s, an Irish-born fisherman, William Watts of Collingwood, created the Collingwood skiff or, as it came to be more popularly known, the Georgian Bay Mackinaw. Watts created the vessel by adapting various designs of rowing crafts already in use.

The Georgian Bay Mackinaw was a double-ended, open-decked wooden vessel. It had a centreboard which made it safer use in bad weather in the open water of Georgian Bay, although it had shallow enough draft for inshore fishing. These vessels averaged 28-35 feet in length, seven to eight feet in beam and drew about 22 inches of water with the centreboard up. The two masts were about 28 feet long and bowsprit six feet long could carry a jib, a loose-footed gaff foresail and a boom-and-gaff mainsail.

During the hey-day of commercial fishing on Georgian Bay, these boats dominated the industry and could quite likely have been a regional symbol, given the fact that they remained, with the exception of usage by some Lake Superior fishermen, unique to Georgian Bay. 

Fishermen on Lake Huron also used a unique vessel to ply their trade. The Huron Mackinaw was much larger than its Georgian Bay cousin. It was two-masted, with a square stern and a heart-shaped transom. The Huron Mackinaw averaged 30-40 feet in length, eight-nine feet in beam. It had a larger capacity with more draught. It was more at home in deeper water. 

While Watt's boat building enterprise in Collingwood seems to have been the only major producer of the Georgian Bay Mackinaw, the Huron boat had several builders. However, the McGaw Brothers of Kincardine and Henry Marlton of Goderich were perhaps the most widely recognized builders. 

In the 1870s, these unique vessels started to be displaced in the local fishing industry with the introduction of steam tugs. A Georgian Bay Mackinaw with three men would employ 6,000 - 10,000 yards of net, while a steam tug with six men could easily handle 60,000 yards of gill net. With an increasing demand for fish in the larger markets to the south of Georgian Bay, it became more efficient, economical, and therefore profitable for fishermen to switch to the steam tug.

The Georgian Bay Mackinaw, an important chapter in the fishing history of Georgian Bay.

A version of this article first appeared in my Owen Sound Sun Times Local History column.

Georgian Bay Shipping

List of Lighthouses on the Great Lakes: If you have names and/or pictures of Great Lakes Lighthouses please submit them along with details of their location.

Hindman Transportation Company was a well-known Great Lakes shipping company for many years. Here you will find pictures of many of the Hindman ships

Owen Sound Harbour – A Photographic History, by Robert A. Cotton is a book that interests my historiographical curiosity.

Commercial Great Lakes Fishing  It is probably safe to suggest that the commercial fishing industry was an important part of the early growth of this region.

A Georgian Bay fishing vacation has long been a popular attraction in the Bruce Peninsula region. During fishing derbies, the regional waterways are dotted with fishing boats of all shapes and sizes. 

The Georgian Bay Mackinaw, designed by William Watts of Collingwood is an example of a Georgian Bay innovator creating a vessel to service the needs local mariners.

Great Lakes fishing is an asset that is protected and developed, not only for its economic potential but also for those who just enjoy spending a day by the side of a river or in small fishing boats trying to catch “the big one”!  

Great Lakes Fishing History is not without its controversy. The impact of the fishing industry was such that it played an important role in the development of communities along the Georgian Bay and Lake Huron shoreline.

Georgian Bay Travel Before the Winter Freeze-Up could be a dangerous time for mariners in the early years in this region.

A Harbinger of Spring on the Great Lakes in pioneer times, was the eagerly awaited news that a lighthouse had been lit and shipping traffic could begin sailing from port to port.

Lumber Hookers  Lumber hookers and tugs were an important innovation to improve the transportation of lumber on Georgian Bay. 

Mapmakers on Georgian Bay were also explorers. They mapped the Georgina Bay shoreline noting safe harbours, dangerous reefs and other guides for sailors and pioneer settlers looking for a place to call home.

Paddling Georgian Bay & Pondering: traversing parts of this great waterway in a canoe leads one to wonder about the ships of a bygone era battling the rough seas they encountered.

Parry Sound Shipping History: The Parry Sound area has always been connected to the southern regions of the Province of Ontario by a system of good roads. Or has it?

Parry Sound’s shipping history 2 is more than the tragic sinking of the Waubuno or the later catastrophe surrounding the sinking of the Asia. 

Sailing Season Closing: A Frantic Time on Peninsula as ships raced from port to port delivering and picking up passengers and produce before the waterways froze.

Ship Captain Andrew Port was not only a dynamic and brave Georgian Bay mariner, he was a personal favourite historical character of mine.

Ships Stuck in Ice: The Oak Glen was icebound in 1996 but this sailing hazard has been impacting vessels on Georgian Bay since the beginning of time.

Lake Huron shipwrecks, the Hibou often occurred in the Georgian Bay region of that Great Lake due to the often violent waters that could strike unsuspecting vessels like the Hibou.

Shipwrecks: The "Asia" wrecked off the eastern coast of Georgian Bay taking all but two of the more than 100 passengers to a watery grave.

Masters, Mates, and Pilots Association created its first Canadian chapter on Georgian Bay, providing maritime safety education, and other seafaring issues to better inform its membership.

Pioneer Travel Aboard the Fly  Tells the story of a sailing vessel as the tenuous link between survival and death in a pioneer settlement in the 1840's in Upper Canada.

Sailing Stories: the Captain Who Smelled his way into Port The Captain Who Smelled his Way into Port details how pioneer seamen on Georgian Bay safely sailed the rough waters without the aid of the modern technological tools so readily used by today's mariners.

Sailing Story: The Voyage of the Prince Alfred the incredible voyage of the Prince Alfred, fraught with danger for both vessel and the crew in the winter of 1880.

Sailing stories: Owen Sound Shipbuilding Sailing stories date from the earliest time of settlement in the Bruce Peninsula region. Busy shipyards dotted the Owen Sound bay where shipbuilding took place, sometimes at a feverish pace. They are interesting adventures often providing enlightening views of the nature of the human race.

Shipbuilding As the southern Georgian Bay region became more populated shipping traffic increased to meet the needs of an expanding market place.

The Summer of 1844 was No Picnic for the early settlers in the pioneer area near what would become Owen Sound on Georgian Bay.

The CPR Grain Elevator Fire of 1911 spelled the end of Owen Sound's role as the eastern terminus of the CPR Great Lakes Fleet.

Georgian Bay shipping occurred long before the first Europeans paddled these waters. But the fur and timber trades opened Georgian Bay to shipping in a big way! 

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