Saturday, February 6, 2016

Belizean Dugouts #3: Construction Details

The dugout canoes of Belize are just as diverse in their construction details as they are in hull form -- a subject we addressed in the previous post in this series. 

Leo Lewis, dugout canoe builder of Hopkins, Belize
Leo Lewis, dugout canoe builder of Hopkins, Belize (click any image to enlarge)
Although we did not observe the construction process, we did learn from Leo Lewis, one of the last remaining builders, and his brother and assistant, Francis, that in recent years chainsaws were used for rough shaping, followed by an adze for finish shaping. When they were younger (they appear to be in their late seventies or perhaps eighties), and before they had access to a chainsaw, Leo and Francis used an adze for all shaping.

Although Belize was "settled" by Europeans as a logging station for mahogany, Leo did all his building in yemeri, another common Central American hardwood. (Two similar species are present: Vochysia guatemalensis and V. hondurensis.) According to a leaflet from the US Dept. of Agriculture Forest Service, "Heights up to 160 feet and diameters of 3 to 4 feet are frequently attained. The boles are straight and clear." The wood is typically straight-grained but occasionally has an interlocked grain. Although it works easily, it is very subject to rot when in contact with the ground, and it is readily attacked by marine borers. (More on yemeri here.)

Many years ago, Leo would harvest trees 2.5 to 3 feet in diameter within a mile or so of Hopkins, right on the coastal plain, but more recently, he had to travel to the nearby mountains for trunks of suitable size. He used yemeri for the hull, the added strakes, and for frames and floors on the canoes that had them. (Most of the dugouts we observed had no internal strength members other than thwarts.) He says using the same wood ensures that everything will swell and shrink at the same rate, although this reasoning seems questionable, since the grain in frames and floors is at right angles to the grain in the hull and strakes, and one would not expect it to move to move equally in both directions.

After the hull was hollowed, it was filled with sea water to soften, then sticks were inserted to spread or expand it to the desired width. Frames and floors were then inserted and the spreader sticks removed. Although I neglected to clarify the matter, it seems probable that strakes were added after the hull was spread but before frames were installed. The fastenings that I observed were nails, driven from the inside, through the frames and into the hull or strakes. When required by their length, the nails were clenched over so that their points re-entered the wood.

Let's look at some construction details.

Belizean dugout canoe with internal framing
A Leo Lewis dugout canoe with five pairs of partial frames and two floors -- an uncommon amount of framing for a Belizean dugout.
We found great variety in the attachment of thwarts, and this single boat exhibits three different methods. The one in the foreground is held solidly in place, sitting on risers nailed to pairs of vertical cleats on each side and held down from above by wooden brackets, also nailed to the cleats. The midships thwart is loose, held in place only by friction. The one in the background is only partially secured by brackets on top, which are nailed directly into the hull or the strakes. It does not rest on cleats or risers.
Belize dugout canoe with internal frames
Where there framing in the prior image provided transverse strength, the short partial frames in this dugout serve only to support the strakes. There are no floor timbers.
Dugout canoe, Belize
The majority of dugouts in Hopkins have no internal framing, and the thwarts -- if they are nailed in place -- provide the only transverse support.
Belize dugout stem and deck details
The false stem curves all the way to the bottom, its end butting against the end of the false keel. Note also the deck, which is plywood.
Belizean canoe sternpost and deck details
In contrast, the false sternpost on another canoe runs straight from top to bottom, while the false keel butts against its forward surface. The canoe's deck is solid lumber.
Belize dugout canoe with removable foredeck
A few canoes had large, removable plywood decks that seemed to fit directly behind the small, permanently installed bow deck. This might have provided a bit of protection against boarding waves, or might have served as a fish-processing platform. This canoe has an unusual number of thwarts in closely-spaced pairs, the reason for which is unknown. The next-to-last thwart shows yet another method of support: it sits on a horizontal cleat nailed into the hull or strakes, with no capturing bracket above.
Belizean dugout canoe with wide strake
Few of the dugout canoes in Hopkins have wide strakes like this derelict one.
Belize dugout canoe strakes detail
More common were two or, as shown here, three narrow strakes, topped by a gunwale cap, all of them edge-nailed.
Belize dugout canoe construction details
This was the only canoe we saw sheathed with fiberglass, which covered it inside and out. We found this boat in Monkey River Town, in the Toledo District. All other canoes shown here were in Hopkins, Stann Creek District.

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