Part 1 – Francis MacLachlan: Student and Shipyard Days

I first met Francis MacLachlan in 1958 when he invited me to join the brigantine St. Lawrence 11 for a run from Toronto to Port Hope Ontario. I was a witness, so to speak, of an approach to leadership training that made use of the daily occurrences of life aboard a sailing vessel. The theory is deceptively simple. The ships environment provided the inescapable real life situations for a crew faced with storms, calms, cooking, navigation but mostly learning to live and handle the ship helping each other. The Captain and senior crew were there to help build self- confidence in the crew and to provide leadership opportunities. And yes, everyone gets wet, turns in exhausted, washes decks, goes aloft and cleans dishes.

Brig 2

The steel hull, was built in 1953 at the Kingston Shipyards, Kingston, Ontario following Lloyds construction rules. The St. Lawrence 11 has had regular refits and is still in service (2014). MMGLK: MacLachlan Collection

Francis MacLachlan with the principal collaborator, Mike Eames designed the St. Lawrence 11 and then, at roughly ten year intervals, Francis modified the design for two successor ‘brigs’, Pathfinder and Playfair. The two charities that operate the vessels; Brigantine Incorporated (Kingston) and Toronto Brigantine Inc. are now celebrating a combined 150 years of sailing on the Great Lakes, and, on occasion, at sea. Thousands of young men and women have sailed before the mast as crew while others in senior positions have earned leadership responsibilities.

As a recent engineering graduate of Queen’s University at Kingston in 1949 Francis made a choice that required high level mathematical skills and an ability to find practical solutions to problems. That fall he went to Kings College, Newcastle-on-Tyne in England to study naval architecture. There he met a student one year ahead of him, Mike Eames, the first of many who contributed to the brigantine idea – but that was a few years away.

His boarding house was at 58 South Parade in Whitley. Across the road was the Rex Hotel, still there and at the bottom of the street, the Promenade and a magnificent view of the beach and the River Tyne on the east coast of England. (you can have a look at the boarding house by googling the street address) The landlady provided breakfast and dinner and in the summer she moved the students around the corner to cheaper “digs” but at the same price so she could rent her rooms to summer holidaymakers, usually working class families with only two weeks a year vacation. The war ended in 1945 but food rationing stayed in place until the mid 1950s. The city was a strategic target for German bombers including the shipyards. Francis, in his daily travels was witness to many bombed out areas yet to be rebuilt. Visiting the continent, France, Holland was relatively easy and for a student in his early 20s, the stuff of adventure and romance. King’s College was in the heart of Newcastle, a city that lived heavy industrial manufacturing and shipbuilding. Each day was a bus ride, later, driving his 98 cc James Comet motorcycle. Flat out – 37 miles per hour, rounded up to 60 kilometers.

Mosquito 1

The Mosquito featuring the cellular structure. MMGLK: MacLachlan Collection. 

Together M&E (MacLachlan and Eames) designed high performance racing dinghies utilizing some of the lessons learned in building aircraft in World War Two. Ultra-thin plywood, carefully cut and jointed together to create a light hull. Mike and Francis were a natural fit with the same ambition, to establish a yacht design company. The first M&E design was Mosquito. “Mike was fascinated by some of the methods used in plywood aircraft construction and proposed a 14 ft. dinghy using very light materials deriving stiffness from an “eggbox” construction.

In many ways this idea is what is employed in steel ship construction: the steel plate material is very thin compared to the ship size and the hull gets its strength from transverse bulkheads”, walls of steel that went from one side of the ship to the other side.

Mosquito 2

Mosquito being launched from the beach near the mouth of the river Tyne. MMGLK: MacLachlan Collection

“Mosquito was built almost entirely of 1/8 inch plywood by fellow students. She was single chine, completely decked and light. She was fast. In an early sail off the North Sea entrance to the Tyne River she flipped and broke her mast. It was back to the drawing board and Mosquito No. 2”.

Francis – “In the fall of 1951, the International Yacht Racing Union announced a series of trials to pick a new two man dinghy for competition to be held in Holland the following spring. The new Flying Dutchman was the front runner. Mike was hooked so we produced our design No. 8, Typhoon, twenty feet long, completely decked with a long self-bailing cockpit with a curved down inboard deck built almost entirely of 3/16 in. mahogany plywood” Mike and Francis were working in big ship shipyards on the River Tyne, “but as members of the College Sailing club they had use of a building shed on campus so with the help of other club members Typhoon took shape during the winter of 1952. The use of thin plywood enabled much more than usual curving of the bottom and topside surfaces to be achieved the result that the chine completely disappeared over the forward part of the hull length.

Typhoon 2

The Typhoon, taken to Holland for the Flying Dutchman trials.MMGLK: MacLachlan Collection


Typhoon cut through the water like a round-bilged hull with little of the pounding associated with chine hulls”. At the trials in Holland British, American and European boats competed with rotating crew and Typhoon did very well, “particularly in strong winds”. The Flying Dutchman was the winner and the Typhoon a close 2nd.

The following year, 1952 both men had Canadian job offers they could not refuse. They left large shipyards on the river Tyne where the survival of industry was uncertain. In fact thousands of Brits saw no future in staying in the UK; they were immigrating to Canada, a first point of entry for many, Pier 21 in Halifax. For Francis working in the shipyard was valuable experience. He attributes some of the structural design of the brigantine St. Lawrence 11 to the oil tankers he saw under construction at the Vickers Yard. Mike Eames joined the Canadian Naval Research Establishment in Halifax, Nova Scotia where he achieved fame as a lead in the design of high speed navy hydrofoil craft. Francis started as a lowly demonstrator in the engineering department at Queen’s University. Typhoon was shipped to Kingston and was succeeded by Tempest and then Design No. 10, Hurricane.

But then, as Francis says, “the axe fell”. The design of a hydrofoil was a consuming passion for Mike. Francis succumbed in a different way. His friend, Gordon Workman enticed him back into the Sea Cadet corps where they both soon realized that marching on the parade square had to be supplanted with realistic training opportunities on the water. They both headed ‘down east’ to look at an abandoned schooner hauled up on a beach in the Bay of Chaleur. The narrow schooner hull was not stable enough to carry the added weight of a square rig, necessary to get the trainees aloft and into the rigging. Workman and MacLachlan wanted a ship stronger than a planked wood hull. It was a valuable lesson that confirmed what Francis had been thinking about all along. His hero was Captain Irving Johnston, a first class seaman who eventually circumnavigated the world seven times in two vessels named Yankee and with a crew a little older then that planned for the Great Lakes. And the Yankee sailing rig – a brigantine with two masts, the foremast carrying square sails. Slowly the specifications of the Kingston training ship evolved; a hull with enough beam to give high initial stability in the event of a knockdown gust of wind; enough space inside to carry twelve to sixteen trainees plus officers and a steel hull with watertight compartments. This was to be for M&E, design no. 11.

The sailing vessel approach to leadership training has been very successful internationally and continues to be so. On the Lakes the success of the first brigantine, St. Lawrence in 1954 led to the construction of two others in Toronto, the Pathfinder, 1964 and Playfair in 1973. All were designed by Francis MacLachlan, essentially to the same design but with variations reflecting the needs of the non-profit owner. His advice as a naval architect has also been felt in the United Kingdom and the United States, especially with the UK Sea Cadet Brig, Royalist. The three brigantines have been to sea and have sailed all of the Great Lakes. He continues to be consulted and the philosophy of leadership he exemplified has been taken up by a wide range of successors spread across Canada and internationally.

The organizational structure aboard each ship has evolved over time but the philosophical approach established by MacLachlan in the 1960s remains. Put trust and confidence in the youthful participants, boys and girls; lead and teach through example, and assume the best of each individual. At the core of what each captain does, is that philosophical approach established in Canada by Francis MacLachlan almost sixty years ago. So in addition to his technical mastery of making a vessel safe at sea it is his positive example that continues to work to this day; all three vessels are still in commission.
In Part 2: Francis MacLachlan and his three brigantines.

The Marine Museum of the Great Lakes has extensive artefact, bibliographic and archival collections. Go to and follow the Research Links

About curiouslakescurator

Sailed professionally for thirteen years then went ashore to become a marine museum curator.
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2 Responses to Part 1 – Francis MacLachlan: Student and Shipyard Days

  1. Keith MacLachlan says:

    Great site Maurice! So glad to see that this fantastic history is being documented.

    • Keith,
      More to come. He just delivered a talk to a Queen’s group on Sunday. Held their attention for the full allocated 50 minutes with many questions following. A remarkable performance – about brigantines of course.

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