Above photo: The Roue 20, designed by James William Roué, has remained true to its 1922 design for over 100 years. Photos supplied by Rob Merchant
The Roue 20 is a keelboat designed by William James Roué in 1922 and after over 100 years, this iconic Canadian ship design still holds its own in the competitive field.
Roué was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia and lived in nearby Dartmouth. In his early life, he made a living working in the family soft drink business, Roué’s Carbonated Waters.
His passion for boats, however, pervaded every aspect of his life. From adolescence, Roué made and sailed model boats.
This passion for ships and shipbuilding continued during his time at the Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron (RNSYS), where he learned to crew. While still working at Roué’s Carbonated Waters, Roué became a self-taught naval architect, which led him to design yachts for other members of the RNSYS.
During his 50-year career, Roué designed over 200 ships, the most iconic of which was design number 17, the Bluenose, which has held the distinction of being emblazoned on the Canadian dime since 1937. His twentieth design, aptly named the Roue 20, holds a similarly special place in the hearts of many Canadian sailors.
One such sailor is Rob Merchant, who along with his sister Ann, sail aboard their Roue 20 Auster. The Merchants and Auster, similar to the creator of their ship’s design, sail out of RNSYS in Halifax. Their passion for the Roue 20 goes back to their father and uncle, who sailed aboard Roue 20s before the onset of World War II.
“Both my father and uncle owned Roues in the past; original Roues from when they were originally built,” said Merchant. “The one that we bought used to be called Shaman and we renamed it Auster. It was my nephew, Nick, who picked the name, primarily because that was the type of plane my father flew in World War II. So, it was kind of a homage to him.”
Auster holds true to the original design and spirit of the Roue 20, the main difference being that it is made of fibreglass instead of wood. Between Merchant and his sister, racing Auster has become a family affair. The Merchants also celebrated the hundredth anniversary of the Roue 20 in June of 2022, in which eight Roue 20s participated in a regatta on the Halifax harbour. Afterwards, an award was presented by the daughter of James William Roué at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax.
“Both my sister’s kids and my kids have participated in mainly Wednesday night races at the Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron,” said Merchant. Last year at Chester Race Week, we had our own Roue class. We only had five boats come out, but we were successful in winning that class.”
Merchant grew up sailing. From a young age, he remembers sailing schooners and sloops with his father and his father’s friend around the Bras d’Or Lake and Mahone Bay. Being in his 60s now, Merchant has sailed on many high-performance racing boats. Compared to his time aboard Tripp 40s, C&C 30s, Beneteaus and Ontario 32s, Merchant says the 29-and-a-half foot Roue 20 has a lot to offer competitive racers, despite the vintage of its design.
“It’s very well balanced and handles a stiff breeze quite well under certain conditions, as it does need a bit of a breeze; it’s not great in light air conditions,” said Merchant. “But, in anything medium air or above, it’s reasonably competitive. For a 100-year-old design, I think that’s an astonishing feat. Particularly when you consider the boat itself weighs about 4,600 pounds, there are boats about half its weight that in good conditions it can be competitive with.”
Merchant only has one gripe when it comes to Roue 20s — there is not enough of them.
“It’s kind of an ambassador for the province — mini ambassadors sailing all over the place,” said Merchant. “I wish there were more of them; that’s the bottom line. I wish somebody would build newer ones with newer materials.”