During the summer of 1912, Ralph Britton of Gananoque, Canada’s foremost canoe expert, had won every sailing race of the American Canoe Association at Sugar Island on the St. Lawrence River.
Britton captured the National Sailing Trophy, emblematic of the championship of the United States and Canada.
Encouraged by this, the Gananoque Canoe Club, of which Britton was an active member, issued a challenge for the International Challenge Cup, offered by the New York City Canoe Club. It had never been won by any foreign contestant, and when a challenge was received by the un-defeated Britton, everyone interested in canoe sport, realized that the coveted prize was in jeopardy.
The International Challenge Cup is to canoeing what the America’s Cup is to yachting, and is symbolic of the championship of the world.
Winter of 1912/1913, Leo Friede of New Jersey, convinces W.F. Stevens to build a boat. Stevens is recognized as the foremost canoe builder, born in Nova Scotia, had retired in 1908 to a farm in Boothbay Harbor, Maine.
Coming out of retirement, Stevens designs and builds a boat that Friede calls Mermaid and they are selected to be the defender of the International Challenge Cup.
Friede and Mermaid defeat the challenger Britton and his boat Jonah in 1913.
Having returned to the St. Lawrence area, Mermaid sat at the Custom’s dock at the Gananoque waterfront awaiting shipment to Freide’s winter home in New Jersey. William (Bill) Reese, a draftsman and designer of the band shell in Gananoque’s town park, goes down to the waterfront and measures the racing canoe and draws up a set of blueprints.
Locals Tommy Fields and Harry Hawke go around town raising the necessary funds to build a boat to challenge Mermaid. A local master craftsman, W.J. (Jack) Malette, is chosen to build the deck sailor, called Tomahawk, named for the gentlemen who raised the money to build her.
Ralph Britton once again issues a challenge for the International Challenge Cup in 1914. Once again, he is defeated by Mermaid.
What became of the Mermaid and Tomahawk?
Tomahawk remained in the possession of Ralph Britton.
Mermaid was taken to the Fred Gilbert Boat works in Brockville, along with her design blueprints over the winter of 1922/23. A syndicate had formed with the American Canoe Association who ordered six deck sailors to be built which replicated Mermaid.
Tragedy struck on April 2, 1923 when an explosion at the Gilbert Boat Works destroyed not only Mermaid, but also the blueprints and the newly constructed racing canoes.
Gilbert eventually builds eleven more boats, Friede purchasing one for himself.
Ralph Britton also purchases a Gilbert deck sailor named Mermaid II in 1935. This Mermaid II and Tomahawk remain in Britton’s possession into the ‘50’s when he sells them to Robert Fox from Boston. At some point Fox strips the deck of Tomahawk and paints the hull red.
The next step brings the boats into the present day when Douglas Fowler purchases both the Mermaid and the Tomahawk on October 11, 1996. Douglas is a sail maker from Ithaca, New York, and extremely interested in these special craft. In a recent interview we learn that the Tomahawk was not an exact copy of the Mermaid. The Mermaid was built with three planks per side, and suffered chronic splitting. Malette added one more plank, making it four per side, and it has never split.
Another difference was a bang iron on the bow of the Tomahawk which was formed with such time consuming care, and finished with a “fleur de lis”, in honour of Malette’s French Canadian heritage. Other changes were made as well. The Mermaid sides were high, while the Tomahawk’s were low, more in keeping with the 1890’s style of construction.
Douglas Fowler was instrumental in engaging Reg Britton’s (Ralph’s son) assistance in finding a home for Tomahawk and Mermaid. Reg Britton, son of Ralph, who summers on Mudlunta Island in the Admiralty Islands, purchased the boats and donated them to the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton where they have resided since October 2007.
I first learned of this story more than two decades ago when long time Gananoque residents and River enthusiasts Arthur Pullaw and Don Harding first told me about the Mermaid and the Tomahawk. Bob Bird reinforced the information and Ithaca's Doug Fowler provided additional details.
The original blue prints hung on the wall of the Gananoque Canoe Club, but the whereabouts of those are long forgotten. Perhaps they are tucked away in an attic?
Do you have more photographs, material or more details? We would love to hear more.
An excellent article about W.F. Stevens, the builder of the Mermaid, shows the excitement Ralph Britton caused when he issued the challenge for the International Challenge Cup: A Builder of Canoes, by F.H. Froling.
By Karen Wand, (contact through firstname.lastname@example.org )
Karen Wand and her late husband, Rick, lived on the West Coast for many years before returning to the Thousand Islands to be near her family. The theme of family played a significant role in Karen's wish to honor her husband by researching with painstaking detail the story of Rick's great uncle, the talented local boat builder, Jack Malette. Her appreciation of unsung heroes comes through in her writing.
This is the first article written about Jack Malette, and we hope it is just the beginning because his artistic water craft are well recognized.