My Walker taffrail log, designed centuries ago and still working

I certainly agree with DownEast magazine’s choice for a top 10 iconic Maine image. Heck, I still remember relishing this photo of Captain Lincoln Colcord grinning his way around the Cape of Good Hope at the turn of the 19th century when I first visited the Penobscot Marine Museum about 72 years later. And the underlying story is bigger than any state.

Beyond the obvious thrill of fast reaching toward an Asian cargo port helped by big winds and seas, Capt. Colcord was racing against the steam engines that were fast ending his way of life — this ship State of Maine was reduced to a barge three years later — yet at a point in his career when it was his teenage daughter Joanna who captured this remarkable image with a box camera on the heaving deck. It’s stirring stuff, and so maybe is that navigation gadget spinning off the miles on her massive taffrail.

The taffrail or patent log keeping count of the miles made good by the State of Maine in 1900 was likely a Walker’s “Cherub” III, and thus a close relative to the brand new Excelsior IV model I soon bought from Robert E. White Instruments on the Boston waterfront. But while a glimpse of Capt. Colcord was inspirational regarding the possible joy of ocean sailing, purchasing a taffrail log in 1972 was simply practical, even though Thomas Walker had patented the original Cherub in 1878. (And it was really just a smart improvement on the Massey mechanical log that dates even further back.)

So it was pleasure in 2019 to pull the old Excelsior off a high shop shelf and find that it still seems to be working fine. I’d have to replace the original 100 feet of hard braided cotton line (trashed by shed mice long ago), but I’m confident that I could hang the Sling pattern Register off the stern, deploy the Rotator, wait a bit until the line was wound tight, and mark the time so I could come back later for accurate counts of the miles sailed (or steamed) through the water.

I also enjoyed reading the original manual pasted onto the Excelsior box lid, and you can too by clicking the image to a larger size. Note one of the design’s drawbacks under the subtitle HAULING IN. To unrig it, you first have to unhook the line from the taffrail mechanism and pay it out so it unwinds as you haul the spinner in; only then can you coil it up without a knuckled mess.

While the Walker style log is a rugged instrument — hence the dozens on eBay today — there are other drawbacks. I think it was during this 1978 passage on the good sloop Alice, for instance, that we managed to create a massive snarl by continuing to stream the Excelsior as seen above on the starboard taffrail while also deploying the homemade plywood Dolphin catcher to port (though the fish was still a delicious treat on a long sail without refrigeration). And a rotator once simply vanished at sea — possibly snatched by a large hungry billfish, and why it’s smart to maintain its flat black finish — though perhaps surprisingly we never did tangle the line with Alice’s three bladed prop.

But pictured above is a grinning day, the boat taking taking care of herself while I posed Dixie at the helm for a glamor shot from the ratlines. And I recall that our later landfall in Buzzards Bay came along pretty much when expected although we’d mostly dead reckoned from the Abacos using the log readings and compass courses steered, occasionally modified for celestial lines of position and/or current information gleaned from pilot charts. The Walker taffrail log is a good navigation tool and, in fact, is being used right now as the Golden Globe Racers complete their 200th day at sea.

However, the GGR is about “sailing like it’s 1968” and today you can get better track information from a watch or a phone, not to mention the constantly updated GPS chartplotting that’s available on most every vessel, and that makes landfalls so much safer. Capt. Colcord apparently did go ashore for a few possibly grumbly years before driving steam ships, but I’ll still venture that he too would embrace electronics if they were available to help him with the enormous dangers of trading around the globe in the waning days of commercial sail.

Ben Ellison

Ben Ellison

Panbo editor, publisher & chief bottlewasher from 4/2005 until 8/2018, and now pleased to have Ben Stein as a very able publisher, webmaster, and editing colleague.

2 Responses

  1. DougP says:

    Hi Ben!!
    SO Glad you really did this!
    Next up: Wind Vane Steering!

  1. July 8, 2019

    […] and they’re all better than most paddlewheel speedos then or now — let alone a taffrail log — with SOG already corrected for the set and drift we once had to […]

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