Trees Triumph Over Tupperware
There I was, next to the boat ramp at Womboyn Lake, alone in ‘Greens Cost Jobs’ country. I had unloaded my strip-planked East Greenland inspired kayak Tigara from the car and was awaiting my paddling companions.
A group of fish killers approached. As a bearded hippie, I braced myself for the verbal and/or physical abuse which has so often been my lot. Their leader spotted Tigara and steered his beer belly in her direction. He smiled tentatively at me. I guess it was meant to be friendly, but his missing front teeth detracted from the warmth of the greeting.
Norm in his new Western Red Cedar strip Panache
The F.K. opened conversation with, “Not a bad looking boat.”
I said “Thanks.”
He said, “Build it yourself?”
I said “Yes,” and then added the information that it had taken 360 hours.
“Geez,” said the now assembled school of FK’s.
They seemed genuinely interested, so I showed them how the strips were glued together edge to edge and then fiberglassed inside and out. I let them lift the hull to see how light and stiff it was.
After some more small talk they muttered a chorus of “Good on ya’s,” picked up their weapons and wandered off. I marvelled that a wooden boat could so easily offer a passage over such a wide cultural gulf. I guess it’s not so surprising, really.
The human race has been paddling around in wooden boats for a very long time. So long, in fact, that everyone has an ingrained appreciation of wooden craft. Humans also have an innate fondness for sheer – the beautiful sweeping curve of a deckline which starts from a high stern, swoops to a lower midship section, and then soars to an even higher bow.
What better combination of timber and sheer than in an East Greenland kayak? (Hold on, I hear the purists braying, Inuit kayaks were built of hide stretched over dritwood frames. True, but as George Dyson says about his aluminium and hypalon Baidarkas, they would have used these materials if they had them.)
The first boat I ever built (1958) was a Malibu Outrigger, a mulithull sailboat. She was 1/4″ plywood, with pronounced sheer. In those days, the Malibu Outriggers, which we actually sailed off the beach at Malibu, were the fastest boats around. One day a surfer we knew came by and took measurements of the boats. We asked him why. He said he was thinking of going into production of a surfing multihull. He was planning to use fiberglass rather than ply and wanted to build cats instead of outriggers. He wondered if any of us would be interested in buying into the project. We, with our massive hubris, said ‘Nah, your idea will never sell, Hobie…’
A little while later, a guy came to the beach with a contraption he had built. We lords of the beach tried it in the surf and pronounced it a dismal failure. He was undeterred. He refined the design and called it a ‘Windsurfer.’ And so slowly, we learned humility.
Over the years I built a timber, carvel planked yacht and three Grand Banks dories, with lots of nice sheer, again out of plywood. I still have one. And then I discovered kayaking. My first sea kayak was an Estuary, an unfortunate name for a craft which I regularly paddle on the Tuross Bar. People seemed to react adversely to the name. I consistently got ‘Pittaraked’ until I took off the Estuary lettering on the hull and replaced it with large letters spelling ORCA.
I decided that I wanted to build a wooden kayak. I wrote to Pygmy Kayaks and Chesapeake Light Craft in the US for information. They had plans and kits for plywood construction, which was a comfortable option for me. I liked the Pygmy design best, Until I got some information on Rob Mack’s Panache stripper design. I knew it would be a lot of work, but it was worth it.
There is only one trouble with paddling a work of art. Tigara is plenty strong enough, but I hate the thought of scratching her. So… back to plywood for a quick little zinger for bouncing off rocks. I took the basic hull shape of Christopher Cunningham’s Greenland inspired design which was published in the US magazine ‘Sea Kayaker’. I squeezed it down to 15’6″ so it would fit in the shed where I keep my kayaks (except for Tigara, who is allowed in the house). I am also redesigning the deck and hatch system. I like my aft hatch to be in the bulkhead behind the seat to leave the aft deck clear and to make long items easier to load.
I found some inexpensive 3.6mm exterior plywood and started work. The hull is now all glassed and Im ready for the deck. So far I have spent about 30 hours on the new boat. With Tigara, I was still building the construction jigs after this much time. 50 or 60 hours should see the new kayak, Taku (another Inuit name) in the water. I am designing it to be simple to build and CHEAP – about $400. I am making paper templates for all the panels so that others can quickly lay out the shapes if they have a yen to build their own kayaks.
After a lifetime around boats, I have settled on sea kayaks as the most satisfying and intimate way to experience the moods of the ocean. The simplicity of equipment – a kayak and paddle – is very appealing after having owned ocean racing yachts. Tupperware kayaks are fine, but for the most pleasure you can’t beat a wooden boat you’ve built yourself.