AskDefine | Define scow

Dictionary Definition



1 any of various flat-bottomed boats with sloping ends
2 a barge carrying bulk materials in an open hold

User Contributed Dictionary




  1. A large flat-bottomed boat, having broad, square ends.


to scow
  1. To transport in a scow.

Extensive Definition

A scow, in the original sense, is a flat bottomed boat with a blunt bow, often used to haul garbage or similar bulk freight; cf. barge. The etymology of the word is from Dutch schouwe, meaning such a boat.

Sailing Scows

Sailing scows have significant advantages over the traditional deep keel sailing vessels that were common at the time the sailing scow was popular. Keelboats, while very stable and capable in open water, were incapable of sailing into shallow bays and rivers, which meant that to ship cargo on a keelboat required a suitable harbor and docking facilities, else the cargo had to be loaded and unloaded with smaller boats. Flat bottomed scows, on the other hand, could navigate shallow waters, and could even be beached for loading and unloading; this made them very useful for moving cargo from inland regions unreachable by keelboat to deeper waters where keelboats could reach. The cost of this shallow water advantage was the loss of the seaworthiness of flat bottomed scow boats in open water and bad weather.
The squared off shape and simple lines of a scow make it a popular choice for simple home-built boats made from plywood. Phil Bolger and Jim Michalak, for example, have designed a number of small sailing scows, and the PD Racer is a growing class of home-built sailing scow. Generally these designs are created to minimize waste when using standard 4-foot by 8-foot sheets of plywood.
The scow hull is also the basis for the Shantyboat or, on the Chesapeake, the Ark, a cabin houseboat once common on American rivers. The ark was used as portable housing by Chesapeake watermen, who followed, for example, shad runs seasonally.
See also the Thames sailing barge and the Norfolk wherry, two British equivalents to the scow schooner. The Thames sailing barges, while used for similar tasks, used significantly different hull shapes and rigging.

Scow Schooners

Originally an American design, also used in New Zealand, the schooner rigged scow was widely used for coastal and inland transport, likely from Colonial days through the early 1900s. Scow schooners had a broad, shallow hull, and used centerboards, bilgeboards or leeboards rather than a deep keel. The broad hull gave them stability, and the retractable foils allowed them to move even heavy loads of cargo in waters far too shallow for keelboats to enter. The squared off bow and stern allowed the maximum amount of cargo to be carried in the hull. The smallest sailing scows were sloop rigged (making them technically a scow sloop), but otherwise similar in design. The scow sloop eventually evolved into the inland lake scow, a type of fast racing boat.
Sailing scows were popular in the American South for economic reasons, because the pine planks found there were difficult to bend, and because inlets along the Gulf Coast and Florida were often very shallow.
The scow design was copied and modified in New Zealand by early immigrant settlers to Auckland in the 1870s. The main differences from American scows were sharper bows and favoring the ketch rig instead of the schooner rig, although a great many schooner and topsail schooner rigged vessels were built. Some 130 scows were built in the north of New Zealand between 1873 and 1925, they ranged from 45 to 130 ft (14 - 40 m). New Zealand scows traveled all around New Zealand as well as to Australia and to the west coast of America although the majority were based in the Hauraki Gulf of New Zealand.

Famous sailing scows

The scow schooner Alma of San Francisco, built in 1891, restored in the 1960s, and designated a National Historic Landmark (NHL) in 1988, was one of the last scow schooners in operation. She is a small example, 59 feet in length, 22.6 feet in beam, with a draft of 4 feet and a loaded displacement of 41 tons.
Elsie was the last scow sloop operated on the Chesapeake Bay. Although sailing scows were once numerous around the Bay, they are very poorly documented.
The Ted Ashby is a ketch rigged scow built in 1993 and based at the New Zealand National Maritime Museum in Auckland, it regularly sails the Auckland harbour as a tourist attraction.
The Jane Gifford is a Ketch rigged deck scow built in 1908 by Davey Darroch, Big Omaha, New Zealand. She is currently undergoing an extensive rebuilding at Warkworth, and will soon be relaunched for use on the Mahurangi River and Hauraki Gulf. She is the only original New Zealand scow to carry sail.
The Echo was built in 1905 of Kauri in New Zealand. She is 104 feet (32 m) long, with two masts and topsail rigged. Twin diesel engines were installed in 1920. In 1942-44 she was used by US forces in the Pacific, see USS Echo (IX-95). Her story was the basis for the 1960 film with Jack Lemon, The Wackiest Ship in the Army and the 1965 TV series. She was nearly broken up in 1990, but is now preserved at Picton, New Zealand
Howard I. Chapelle documented a number of scows in his book American Small Sailing Craft.

Racing Boats: the Inland Lake Scows

In the early 20th century, smaller sloop and cat rigged scows became popular sailboats on inland lakes throughout the midwestern United States. First popularized by Johnson Boat Works in Minnesota, these boats were distinguished by their larger sail plans, retractable bilgeboards, and (in some classes) twin rudders. There are many active racing classes throughout the Midwest, Western New York, the New Jersey Shore and parts of the South. These boats are traditionally identified by their class letters:
  • A: The largest inland lake scow at 38 feet long, the A normally requires a crew of six or seven. The sail plan includes a mainsail, a jib, and a large asymmetrical spinnaker. It has twin rudders. A new A scow (with sails and a trailer) cost $125,000 in 2005. Once the fastest monohull sailboat in the world, has been clocked in at 33 knots (38 mph)[Volvo Open 60's have been clocked at 40+Kts]. It is possible to waterski behind these sailboats, as demonstrated by Buddy Melges.
  • E: This is essentially a smaller version of the A scow. Only 28 feet long, it requires a crew of three or four. In 2007, the class association (NCESA) voted to make the asymmetrical spinnaker the class legal standard.
  • M-16: This 16-foot scow crews two, and has a mainsail and jib but no spinnaker. It has tiny dual rudders like the A and the E.
  • M-20: A 20-foot version of the M-16, with the addition of a backstay, a tunnel hull and a spinnaker. Modern boats are built with both the symmetrical spinnaker, or the I-20 version with an asymmetrical spinnaker.
  • C: This is a 20-foot catboat with one large sail set far forward on the hull. It requires a crew of two or three. Unlike the A and E, the C-scow has a large,efficient single rudder. It has no permanent backstay, so jibing the boat requires the quick use of running backstays.
  • MC: The MC is a "mini-C" of sorts, a 16-foot cat-rigged boat with a relatively higher and narrower sailplan. It also has a large efficient single rudder. It can be sailed competitively by 1 person. This is a growing class, especially popular in the midwest and southern USA.
  • 17: Introduced in 2005 by Melges Performance Sailboats, the 17 is a departure from traditional scow design. It has an asymmetrical spinnaker and retractable bowsprit, a high-roach full-battened mainsail, and unusually long and thin rudder and bilgeboards.
  • Butterfly: This small scow is meant to be sailed by one person. It features a cat rig, and unlike the other boats above, it has a daggerboard.
Contrary to the connotations of the old definition of "scow" (large and slow), the inland lake scows are extremely fast--the wide, flat bottom hull allows them to plane easily. As a consequence of this, the A scow is the highest rated centerboard boat according to the US Portsmouth yardstick numbers.

Slang Terms

In slang, the word "scow" has recently acquired two new senses, which refer to motor vehicles:
  • The first colloquial sense calls a dump truck a "scow."
  • Extending the first colloquial sense, "scow" is sometimes used to refer to a pickup truck, sport utility vehicle, or minivan as a class; or any similar large, tall, or long vehicle.
  • Scow is also a diss used to express animosity, usually having connotations to cues. Example: "You ain't got no sense, boy. Scow!"
  • Also refered as a greedy pig, cow or other barnyard animal.


External links home of the scow replica Ted Ashby History of New Zealand Scows: 'Neath Swaying Spars' by P.A. Eaddy. Pub. Whitcombe & Tombs. New Zealand 1939.
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