A Search For Purpose [59]

Wooden kayaks

By The Yankee, Peter Sanders

There are many different reasons for kayaking. . . about as many as the number of people who kayak. Each of them have our own abilities, outlook on life, a raison d’etre. While some are content with paddling in the protected coastlines, marshes and lakes; others quest for long distance crossings, challenging the ocean, the unpredictable weather and pushing their own personal endurance; and still others enjoy the single and multiday trips, the surf, the sights and feeling the ocean.

Of course there are more categories. But here I was paddling January 1 in water just recently melted from ice and with a cold wind blowing. This was my chance to test drive the kayak that had taken about a year to complete. The temperatures had been so cold the epoxy had taken 2 days to dry and the varnish about 3 days. 3 coats on the hull and 4 on the deck and then outfitting the seat and hatches had taken the month of December in an unheated and ill-lit garage. But today we had a “heat wave” so it was either paddling now or waiting 3 to 4 months (about mid-April to the beginning of May).

So I got to thinking, why did I build this kayak? Is there a common denominator for this certain kayak sickness? Building not just a single wooden kayak (anyone can make a mistake) but a second and then a third kayak. Stitch and glue, strip and skin on frame. What kind of people build their own kayak and then take their life in their hands (as if kayaking isn’t dangerous enough) and go out into the ocean?

An Offered Aussie Opinion

“But I must say from my personal experience, the profile of what type of person builds their own kayak may reveal a score for normality outside the bell curve……at the start of the project………and I’m damned sure it would be off the radar at the finish”.

First off, I thought of design. What hope is there for the common person to build a truly good performing kayak? The companies that manufacture the fiberglass and gel-coated or even the rotomolded plastic kayaks have done years of research, use the latest tools and building methods, have the availability of special materials purchased in bulk and then test these materials. The craftsmen building these kayaks work on a daily basis, constantly refining their talents and construction methods.

These companies build prototypes and work year round. The competition is fierce and it’s an international market. Although I must admit that living near New York City does give me access to a huge market – it’s also a centre where kayak building is very, very strong.

From CLC, (Chesapeake Light Craft) to Nick and Eric Schade (who are pretty much accredited with starting strip building sea kayaks), to the New Found Woodworks (suppliers of kits and building supplies), and a host of smaller companies – even Chris Cunningham (of Sea Kayaker Magazine) instructs sea kayaking on the Canadian border with New York State and his book on Greenland skin-on-frame kayak construction is used in conjunction with others for kayak construction classes.

So perhaps it’s fit? Could a person with limited skills and armed with common tools and commercially available (and cost effective) materials actually assemble a kayak that fits better than any commercially made and distributed kayak? Really, it is much easier to visit a kayak store, paddle-fest or symposium and look at, sit in, and test paddle a myriad of kayaks.

Could it be money? Depending upon the method of building and wood available, most wooden kayaks can be built for less then a thousand dollars. A good plastic kayak does cost more and new fiberglass kayaks cost at least double the plastic.

No-way I’m going to spend 6 months to a year building a wooden kayak simply because it’s cheaper –all my fiberglass kayaks have been previously owned. Purchased by some neophyte with a lot of money, who after the end of a single season decided to abandon the sport for another or found that the kayak he had purchased was too tippy, heavy or have some other unforgivable quality.

Checking the web pages of Pygmy and CLC, there are many success stories stating how beautiful their kayaks look and that strangers are constantly asking them if they built the wooden kayak themselves. It is as if the art of wooden boat building is alive and that strangers see before them a one off work of art. Is it vanity and pride? That of having a “personally hand made” anything in an age of machines, computers and robots that makes it such a desirable attraction.

I must admit that most of my research shows that by far there are more male kayak builders. And that many of them seem to be artists or have had past woodworking experience of some kind. But there has to be another reason other than, ‘because I can’. Which brings me to my introduction – there are many different reasons for kayaking.

But with all my research I believe there is something more, a quality not mentioned or touched upon that’s within each kayaker attracts, allures and draws him/her to build. Strangely enough I found the answer in an article written and published by NSW Sea Kayaker.

Romancing the Ocean

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. . . Tupperware kayaks are fine, but for the most pleasure you can’t beat a wooden boat you’ve built yourself.
Norm Sanders