My Walker taffrail log, designed centuries ago and still working

16 Jan


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.

This article was syndicated from Panbo


  1. Frank Keijzer

    Hi Walker Excelisior IV enthosiastics,
    Recently I bought a nice Walker Excelsior log dated around 1978. I’d like to use this equipment for ocean sailing besides the modern instruments
    Unfortunately I missed the shoe-plate and like to replace the 30ft log line as-well.
    Besides that I’m interested in the Original 1/2 pint oil-can.

    So I wonder if anyone can inform me about, or help me with, the right spare-parts. There should be somewhere a right adres or shop shelve…

    Many thanks on forehand,
    Frank Keijzer, The Netherlands.

  2. Richard

    Phew! You can see how arguments get started! I hope everyone now understands what they are seeing in the main photo?
    I’ve used Walker logs on all trips over the past 42 years, 5 Atlantic crossings, the Med, the Baltic, the English Channel etc etc and never once used electronic nav, other than a depth sounder, I guess you could say I’m ‘old school’ and never go to sea without a paper chart.
    Something else a Walker log is useful for is measuring speed by counting the number of RPM, I say RPM but in effect one counts the number of revolutions over a shorter period than one minute, if memory serves me Walker printed a speed table with some models and others had a window in the flywheel casing, a small section of which was painted white and so would flash white with each rotation making it easier to count. The Governor Wheel (windmill was an unfortunate term to use) makes counting much easier.
    I like the seamanship aspect of knowing how to stream and recover a Walker ‘fish’ or spinner correctly, it kinda sets you apart from modern day yotty’s……

  3. Ben Ellison

    PS If you look closely at the top photo, the line from the log instrument on the port taffrail goes right to the center of the “windmill”. What you can barely see is the long line attached to the back of what’s actually the Governor Wheel to the Rotator that’s way back in the ship’s wake. Here’s a slightly bigger version of the photo:

  4. Ben Ellison

    Richard, I guess you missed my comment. The “windmill” is definitely associated with the patent log, though of course it does not provide the power that is spinning the line, the “windmill” and the gears inside the instrument. Please check out the link below (which I used in the entry). It shows all the parts of that style ship log — a Walker’s “Cherub” (being sold on eBay) — including the same “windmill” which is properly called a “Govenor Wheel.”

  5. Richard desJardins

    Bob, as I explained, the windmill you see in the photo is not associated with the patent log. The windmill has nothing to do with the location of the vessel, it’s not any part of any navigation system. The “spinner” you refer to is the “rotator” that, in the photo, is indeed is in the water astern, so obviously the rotator would not be visible in the photo.

    The rotator is connected to the little dial that you can see clearly in the photo, on the rail just to the right of the windmill. That “connection” is via a cotton-twist line that is connected on one end to the rear side of the dial enclosure attached to the rail. The other end of the line is attached to the rotator, so the line trails the rotator into the water as the rotator is tossed astern and let out. As the rotator (which is heavy) is let out and begins to sink down in the water as it trails behind the boat, the rotator begins to spin, and it twists the line continuously until the twist tightens up so much that the pull from the rotator begins to balances out with the increasing torsion resistance from the twisting of the line, to the point at which the twisting stops entirely, and the rotator then begins to spin the dial through a manual RPM reduction transmission located in the dial enclosure.

    The physics is exactly like what happens in the manual transmission in a car or in an analog clock. (I apologize if my explanation doesn’t make sense, but I don’t think I have anything fundamentally wrong here, just maybe my description of how I understand the patent log works. I’ll certainly happy to be corrected by anyone else lurking out there.

  6. Ben Ellison

    Sorry, I could have explained better. The “windmill” seen in the top photo is just a flywheel type weight that’s put on the log line to help keep the rotator in the water and turning smoothly. My Excelsior came with a small line weight for similar purposes, though I never needed it given my boat’s low taffrail and relatively low speeds. But a high and fast boat like the State of Maine needed the “windmill”

  7. Richard desJardins

    Looks to me like it’s the windmill just to the right of Capt. Colcord in the photo that you’re noticing, not the patent log dial that is mounted on the taffrail. The rotator that drives the dial is deployed underwater astern; you can’t see it. I assume that the windmill is measuring the apparent wind speed, not the miles made good.

  8. Bob Ewalt

    How the ”Pantent Log” or the “Excelsior” work? The first photo seems to be turned by wind. If so, wouldn’t the actual wind disrupt the readings? My understanding of speed indicators (before GPS) had a spinner in the water. There again, tide or current disrupts the measurements of position.

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