Building the Baidarka [43]

Or: What are Those Things on the Ends of your Kayak?

by Andrew Eddy

For several years I have admired the sleek but weird shape of the kayaks used by the hunters of the Aleutian Island chain in the sub Arctic region of the North Pacific. The Aleut designs were much more complicated than, possibly more efficient than, and at least as well able to handle rough seas as those of the Greenland Inuit. These designs may be very old, too. There was an article in Sea Kayaker Magazine (Seattle, USA) some time ago, which described carved wooden models, found in 700 year old burial sites, which show many of the design features of the more modern Aleutian kayaks.

The Aleut culture suffered a decline after Russia annexed the islands in the 1740s and until the United States bought Alaska from the Russians in 1867. As a result of the Russian occupation, there are several examples of Aleut kayaks from the 18th and 19th centuries in Russian museums. David Zimmerly, a Canadian anthropologist, has published the designs of several of these museum examples – the plans are available over the Internet! Many people have created reproductions of these museum pieces, but the obvious disadvantage of these kayaks as recreational sea kayaks is that they are not recreational sea kayaks; they are hunter’s kayaks, with all the performance criteria of a speed-and-stealth-at-any-cost design. My favourite is a design from Akun Island, collected in 1845, called MAE 593-76. What a romantic name!

Last year, Eric Schade, (Stamford, Connecticut) an American sea kayak designer and builder, took the fundamental features of these ancient designs and translated them into a design more suitable for recreational kayaking – changes to stability and the ability to take a load of camping gear – while retaining the unusual waterline shapes, underwater profiles, distributions of buoyancy and the very low profile in the wind.

He named his design the ‘Baidarka’, after the Ukrainian word for a small canoe, as used in the Aleutian island chain during the Russian occupation. The Ukrainian pronunciation is ‘bay-duck’, with the emphasis on the second syllable. The Aleut word for a single kayak is ‘ikyax’, plural is ‘ikyan’.

Schade’s design is intended for construction in plywood, using a technique called ‘stitch-and-glue’, rather than the traditional seal skin on carved driftwood. He offers full size computer plotted plans for a 5.3 metre and 5.8 metre version and a 6 metre double. His advertising describes it as a “unique looking kayak with the performance and light weight beauty of wood”, a “fast kayak which will handle well in rough water” with “prehistoric good looks”. He warns that there is some wood-carving involved, for the standard bow and stern pieces.

Sharon Betteridge and I agreed to share the importation of a set of plans (with a licence to build two boats). Sharon and her husband, Rob Mercer, had already built a ‘Coho’, a stitch and glue design from a kit supplied by Pygmy Boats (Washington state, USA). We thought we could harness this experience and Rob’s professional cabinet-making and building experience to build two very nice kayaks. We settled on one full-size version (5.3 metres LOA, 53 cm maximum beam), with the standard bow and stern carvings, for me and a 94% photo reduced version with custom bow, to better suit Sharon’s size and weight. We estimated that Sharon’s version, at 4.9 metres overall length and 50 cm maximum beam should have an optimum paddler weight between 38 kg and 60 kg. This was to be a serious experiment in building a sea kayak for the lighter paddler!

The next step was to source suitable materials. We could have taken the safe route and used marine grade mahogany plywood and either System 3 or WEST epoxy. There is a lot of experience out there in using these materials.

The mahogany is a relatively dark timber, and we wanted a colour that would show up on the water, so we chose to use marine grade Hoop Pine (Auraucaria cunninghamii) plywood (to Australian Standard 2272). When wetted out with epoxy resin, this timber goes a light straw yellow to honey colour. Mmm! We also chose to use a locally made boat building epoxy – BoteCote from BoatCraft Pacific (Loganholme, Queensland) – to waterproof the ply and laminate fibreglass over the inside and outside surfaces.

After several weeks of discussion and planning, shopping for materials and chemicals, arranging a few weeks of leave to start the project and arranging the loan of garage space, we finally started work at the end of April 2000. We had settled on several deviations from the plans and from the building method as set out in the instructions. Most of these changes were intended to make the building process a little easier. Some of these changes really did make the process easier.

Rob’s help (his knowledge, advice, woodworking tools and occasional reality checks) at this stage was so beneficial, that I think the project would have stalled badly without his input. Sharon’s father generously donated garage space for the month of May and we used this space and time to build two 16 foot by 2 foot leveled benches, cut the Hoop Pine plywood sheets, join them end-to-end with lap joints to make 5.5 metre lengths, mark the plans onto the sheets and cut out the curved 5+ metre by 5 to 15 centimetre panels that would make up the hull. Working with two, sometimes three people, we carved the bow and stern sections from solid Hoop Pine and assembled and stitched one kayak, Baidarka #4, before time ran out (I have called them Baidarka #4 and Baidarka #5, rather than B1 and B2, because these two names are already taken). At the end of May, the panels for Baidarka #5 were packed flat and transported to Sharon and Rob’s living room in Randwick and the stitched together Baidarka #4 was taped, covered in plastic and transported to my garage in North Ryde. From then on, we have worked mostly on our own, with communal efforts on some weekends.

Fitting the carved bow and stern pieces and the transom pieces (yes – a transom on a kayak!) was a job requiring patience, finesse and force. The stern requires you to bend and fit 12 pieces of plywood and the carving. Naturally, none of it wants to fit, let alone to fit straight. At one stage there was a 15 degree corkscrew down the length of my hull! Luckily the epoxy was not fully cured and I was able to distort it into the correct shape before the glue was finally hardened. The bow is not much easier, as the hull panels must be formed into a convex shape to fit the bow carving. When the deck was ready to fit … (oops!) … it didn’t fit at all! Well, now those nightmares are over and it looks like a kayak.

As of the middle of August, more than three months down the track, both Baidarkas are fully assembled, coated inside and outside with epoxy and one or more layers of fibreglass, have bow, stern and day hatches, cockpit coamings, bulkheads, deck fittings, mast steps, pump fittings and are about to have the finishing coats of epoxy and varnish. Baidarka #5 has had half an hour of preliminary sea trials but Baidarka #4 hasn’t sniffed the salt yet.

Pumps, deck lines, sail rigs and varnishing might be completed by September, or they might not. The Sanders® Hinged Sprit-Sail may be a good option, or the Eddy(R)® Folding Raked-Lateen Rig is another option. Anyone care to lay odds?