Wednesday, December 31, 2008

First Boats, First Voyagers?

A good friend gave me a copy of Jared Diamond's Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies for Christmas. I'm about halfway through it -- good stuff, indeed. Early on, there's an interesting passage about the probable use of watercraft a long, long time ago. I'll quote at some length:

The Great Leap Forward (what Diamond calls the evolution from earlier versions of man to Cro-Magnons, the first fully modern humans) coincides with the first proven major extenion of human geographic range since our ancestors' colonization of Eurasia. That extension consisted of the occupation of Australia and New Guinea, joined at that time into a single continent. Many radiocarbon-dated sites attest to human presence in Autralia/New Guinea between 40,000 and 30,000 years ago (plus the inevitable somewhat older claims of contested validity). Within a short time of that initial peopling, humans had expanded over the whole continent and adapted to its diverse habitats, from the tropical rain forests and high mountains of New Guinea to the dry interior and wet southeastern corner of Australia.
During the Ice Ages, so much of the oceans' water was locked up in glaciers that worldwide sea levels dropped hundreds of feet below their present stand. As a result, what are now the shallow seas between Asia and the Indonesian islands of Sumatra, Borneo, Java, and Bali became dry land. (So did other shallow straits, such as the Bering Strait and the English Channel.) The edge of the Southeast Asian mainland then lay 700 miles east of its present location. Nevertheless, central Indonesian islands between Bali and Australia remained surrounded and separated by deep-water channels. To reach Australia/New Guinea from the Asian mainland at that time still required crossing a minimum of eight channels, the broadest of which was at least 50 miles wide. Most of those channels divided islands visible from each other, but Australia itself was always invisible from even the nearest Indonesian islands, Timor and Tanimbar. Thus, the occupation of Australia/New Guinea is momentous in that it demanded watercraft and provides by far the earliest evidence of their use in history. Not until about 30,000 years later (13,000 years ago) is there strong evidence of watercraft anywhere else in the world, from the Mediterranean.
Initially, archaeologists considered the possibility that the colonization of Australia/New Guinea was achieved accidentally by just a few people swept to sea while fishing on a raft near an Indonesian island. In an extreme scenario the first settlers are pictured as having consisted of a single pregnant young woman carrying a male fetus. But believers in the fluke-colonization theory have been surprised by recent discoveries that still other islands, lying to the east of New Guinea, were colonized soon after New Guinea itself, by around 35,000 years ago. Those islands were New Britain and New Ireland, in the Bismarck Archipelago, and Buka, in the Solomon Archipelago. Buka lies out of sight of the closest island to the west and could have been reached only by crossing a water gap of about 100 miles. Thus, early Australians and new Guineans were probably capable of intentionally traveling over water to visible islands, and were using watercraft sufficiently often that the colonization of even invisible distant island was repeatedly achieved unintentionally.

Wow. 40,000 years ago! You go, boat people.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Jangada Documentary

Photo: Paul Lima

Paul Lima, president of a nonprofit organization called The Endangered Coast, has posted a comment on my earlier post concerning the Brazilian fishing rafts known as jangadas. He also provides the URL to a short documentary that he produced about the effect of recent tourism development on the jangada fishermen. (I couldn't access the soundtrack to the Quicktime version, but the Flash version works fine.) Many good photos of jangadas in the documentary, plus disturbing discussion of how tourism development does not necessarily benefit the lowest economic classes, in spite of its promoters' promises. Also look in the site's Image Bank, where there are other fine photos, including the one I've reproduced above.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Estonian Dugouts

It's a surprise to find the persistence of the dugout canoe in Europe. In Estonia's boggy, swampy Soomaa National Park, dugout canoe building is offered as a workshop. And it looks like a real bargain: a mere 250 Euros will buy you a 5-day program of instruction, accommodations, and meals. (Too steep? Save 50 Euros by bringing your own tent and sleeping bag.) Instruction is offered in Estonian, English, Finnish, Swedish, German, and Russian.

The Estonian version is one of the sweetest looking dugouts I've seen. As shown in the photos, the log (oak?) is hollowed to a concavity significantly greater than 180 degrees, then softened with fire (not steam) and spread apart with numerous spreader sticks, after which some thwarts are installed. Stem protrusions are left in place, and I wonder if they extend beneath the hull to serve as a keel. While most tourists will no doubt paddle them from a sitting position in the bottom, poling or paddling from a standing position is an option.

The photos are from Aivar Ruukel, a travel professional and dugout aficionado in Estonia who promotes the building courses and related trips. See his blog.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Freestyle Stripper

Freestyle Ace Mark Molina paddling a Red River Èlan
(photo courtesy Red River Canoe & Paddle)

I've just ordered plans for my next boat: an Èlan solo freestyle canoe by Doug Ingram of Red River Canoe & Paddle. Doug builds gorgeous traditional cedar-and-canvas canoes, including this one, and also does some designs, and the Èlan, he says, also works well for strip-building. I'm by no means a freestyle paddler, but I have a hankering to learn, and since boats well suited to freestyle aren't all that readily available, building one seems to be a good approach.

Strip-building, also known as strip planking, is a boatbuilding method that edge-joins narrow strips of wood to form the hull. It differs from carvel planking primarily in that strips are much narrower. It was originally applied as an economical alternative to the cost of full-width planks when building "full size" boats (like lobster boats), and in such applications, the strips would often be as thick as carvel planks and could be edge-nailed together with glue in between. (Careful, I'm distinguishing between width and thickness here.) But as applied to modern canoe and kayak designs, the strips are very thin -- typically 3/16" or 1/4" -- that's too thin to edge-nail, so the strips are simply glued edge to edge. The hulls is shaped over temporary forms, then covered inside and outside with fiberglass, carbon fiber, or Kevlar fabric laid in epoxy. This makes the structure so stiff that no internal hull structure (keel, frames, bulkheads) is needed -- although canoes, of course, have thwarts, and kayaks decks, which add considerable stiffness. The result is both tough and lightweight, and the method lends itself to round hulls with fair curves -- unlike the stitch-and-glue method of boatbuilding, which can only produce chined hulls.

There are several books on strip-building, links to some of which I'm inserting below. Nick Schade, who wrote The Strip-Built Sea Kayak, has a new book on strip building coming out soon with McGraw-Hill: Building Strip Planked Boats. Where his previous book covered only kayaks, the new one addresses other types, including open canoes and rowing boats. Nick is the proprietor of Guillemot Kayaks, and he is a craftsman of extraordinary talent – meticulous in his designs, woodworking, and writing.

Canadian Canoe Museum News

According to an article in the Peterborough Examiner, Jeremy Ward, the new curator of the Canadian Canoe Museum, in Peterborough, ON, is taking steps to involve the museum more closely with the local community.

The article tells of a project that Ward managed for the museum, the "construction of a 36-inch birchbark canoe in 2004." On first reading this, I thought that the reporter or editor had misread the foot (') mark and interpreted it as inches (") -- shades of the funniest scene in the movie "This is Spinal Tap!" But on further reading, it turned out to be accurate -- there is a current exhibit of miniature canoes that Ward managed.

I've never had a chance to visit, but the CCM is at the top of my list of places to go -- up there with India and northern Scotland. They don't have a terribly impressive website, but the scope of their collection of canoes from around the world is renowned. Maybe in gratitude for this tremendously valuable exposure, Mr. Ward will sponsor an all-expenses-paid trip for me and my family. You suppose?

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Chinese "Life Boat"

Another boat from Ships of China by Valentin A. Sokoloff, cited in my previous post:
Life boats were stationed at dangerous rapids & it is recorded that in 1899 they were instrumental in saving 1473 lives from wrecked junks. Salvaging of cargo was expressly forbidden. The boat shown is about 20 feet long & 7 feet wide. In 1901 there were 44 of these boats. Later larger boats were introduced. Inscription on stern flag reads: "The Society for Rescuing Drowning People, Lower Section, Lungmenhao, South Bank, Chungking."

It's intriguing to picture this boat in use in was must have been (given the numbers of rescues performed) really dangerous whitewater, with men standing, facing forward, at the two rowing oars, and another at the enormous steering oar. I presume the steeing oar had a propulsive function as well.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Chinese River Police Boat

Ships of China is a wonderful picture book, illustrated by the author, Valentin A. Sokoloff. Measuring 10"x16", the self-published book has only 54 pages, but each contains a lovely watercolor painting of a Chinese boat type, accompanied by a paragraph or two of nicely hand-lettered text. Published in 1982, the book is out of print and probably very difficult to come by.

The author's time in China was well spent, capturing many types that were then on their way out and by now have probably left the building. Here's an example of one of the smaller boats included, with the text:

River Police Boats called "Fast Crabs" were recognizable by white & blue sails. It is recorded that 161 police boats were operating on the Yangtze river. They were up to 40 feet in length, carried up to 10 oars, several quanting poles & a crew of 46. The galley was located in the hold just ahead of the mast & the crew slept aft the mast. The boats as shown above disappeared after 1911. The duties of the police boats included recording of boat movements & enforcing payment of taxes & for this purpose they were located one above & one below custom stations. They also cooperated with life boats...(which I'll endeavor to include in my next post).

A few comments:
  • It may be difficult to see in the top image (click the picture to pull up a larger image), but there's a gun mounting in the bows. This was probably a very imposing deterrant to smugglers and other customs-evaders.
  • A crew of 46 on a 40-foot boat is, well, crowded. If the gun didn't do it, there was clearly no shortage of force for a boarding party.
  • Since the crew slept aft of the mast, the officers must have occupied the comparatively spacious deckhouse. Posh!
  • Note the rudder -- much like an American sharpy's rudder -- designed for shallow-draft work. The boat appears to be flat-bottomed, too.
I would be delighted to be contacted by the author to express thanks and acknowledge permission for reproducing this material (or, indeed, to remove this post if the author so requests).

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Chine bLog, Fine Blog

The fine blog Chine bLog is subtitled "Messing about in wooden, traditional, and tradition-inspired boats." Tim Shaw, the blog's owner, just alerted me to a very cool function on his blog, in which he's using GoogleEarth to identify the locations of various traditional boat types around the world, and we're pleased to know that he's using some of the information from this blog as content for his map. Take a look:

If the map appears blank, click it and it'll appear. Then click the various flags on the map for details and photos of the boat types indigenous to the area.

By the way, a chine log is a longitudinal timber on flat- and v-bottom boats, located at the intersection of the boat's sides and bottom, generally on the inside of the hull (although it's not unheard of to place it on the outside). Chine bLog is a clever pun.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Correction to Previous Post

Lance Lee emailed me concerning a comment my previous post about the Indonesian gole'an Lancing Madura. The boat is not, he says, dugout-based, but rather, it is "shell" construction, in which the planks are pegged to the keel and each other, before internal framing is added. While the keel seems to have some hollow carved into its upper surface, it's a far cry from a dugout hull. Sorry for the misinformation, and thanks to Lance for the correction.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Bigger Photo of Lancing Madura

My August 26 post about the Indonesian fishing boat Lancing Madura included only a small photo, and some readers rightly asked if a larger one was available. It took me a while to get hold of one, but here it is, along with a series of photos showing this Java Sea fishing gole'an under construction. The boat is on a mooring in the Rockland, Maine, harbor, and a very striking boat she is, with a lovely sweeping sheer.
Construction features to note:
  • construction starts on the basis of a dugout-like base
  • pegs are used to edge-fasten one strake to another
  • a chain-fall or come-along is used to force the strakes down against their neighbors
  • the use of fire, not steam, in bending the planks

Photos courtesy of Lance Lee/The Tremolino! Project

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Vietnamese Boats

A Ghe Nang

A lot of fascinating material about traditional Vietnamese boats can be found at the site of the Vietnam Wooden Boat Foundation. Based in Port Townsend, Washington, this not-for-profit's purpose in life is to preserve the traditional boating heritage of Vietnam before it becomes extinct as, almost everywhere else, the traditional types are being rapidly supplanted by modern ones, and the experienced builders are fast dieing off.

The Vietnamese developed several unique and/or unusual methods of construction. These include several types of sewn-plank boats and boats woven from narrow strips of bamboo. Some of the sewn-plank boats appear to be built with extraordinarily heavy planking. I believe that buffalo dung is used to waterproof the woven boats.

Woven construction of a canoe-like boat

The VWBF has an ambitious program of projects, including the building of a Ghe Nang, which it describes as "a graceful Vietnamese 3-masted sail-powered fishing boat typically built with a woven bamboo hull fitted to a wood top shelf. She was from the region around Danang in central Vietnam and was considered the fastest sailing craft in Vietnam." The organization plans to locate some of the elderly builders of the type, construct a 30' to 36' example, film and document the process, test sail it, and ship it to the U.S. for display. Estimated cost: $75,000.

Other projects include: the translation of J.B. Pietri’s Voiliers d’Indochine into English (completed and published as Sailboats of Indochina, link below) and Vietnamese; and the creation of a maritime heritage museum in Vietnam -- both worthy pursuits.

I don't know anything about the sampan below except that the photo was taken in Hue, and I find high, inboard-sloping bow transom a fascinating feature.

All photos used with the kind permission of the VWBF.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Emergency Navigation, 2nd Edition

International Marine has released a new edition of David Burch's significant book, Emergency Navigation with a new subtitle: Find Your Position and Shape Your Course at Sea Even If Your Instruments Fail. This valuable book has been out of print for a few years and it's good to see it back in print.

Burch, the author of Fundamentals of Kayak Navigation (now in its fourth edition), is founder and president of the Starpath School of Navigation, a chatty intellectual who knows more about the principles of navigation than most. In Emergency Navigation, he draws upon a wide range of sources for a wide range of navigational principles, including Polynesian and Viking methods. His description of Polynesian Star Paths is a good example of the clarity with which he writes:

"The concept of a star path comes from island navigators of the tropical Pacific. The 'path' is a sequence of stars with nearly the same declination, which means they rise at nearly the same place on the horizon throughout the tropics (the Tropics Rule). By learning the sequence for the bearing from one island to another, Polynesian navigators have, in essence, established sets of celestial sailing directions. They follow one star as it rises above the horizon until the next in the sequence appears, at which time they shift to the new star for orientation. In this way, they keep track of a particular bearing on the horizon throughout the night. The same technique can be used with setting stars. It is easy to see how indigenous star paths could evolve into finely tuned routes that account for both prevailing currents and the leeway of traditional craft. Poor choices would be removed from the lore by natural selection."

Burch doesn't confine his methods to traditional ones. The book is based on the presumption that one or more essential navigation tools are lost or malfunctioning -- your compass, your chronometer, your tables, whatever -- and he demonstrates how to use whatever is available to make up the deficiency. At one point, he shows how to use a pair of polarized sunglasses to find the sun when it's below the horizon or obscured by clouds. So while a lot of the material is based on indigenous methods, a lot of it isn't. Worthwhile for any navigator, bluewater or coastal, nonetheless.

By the way: in spite of its title, Fundamentals of Kayak Navigation is by no means a basic text -- it's quite comprehensive and as such can be somewhat intimidating and more than many kayakers need. For a simpler approach, check out Ray Killen's Simple Kayak Navigation, below.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

An American Builder of Traditional Japanese Boats

Douglas Brooks is an America boatbuilder and scholar of boatbuilding, specializing in traditional Japanese small craft. He has apprenticed himself several times to Japanese builders to learn techniques associated with various types, such as the shimaihagi in the foreground of the photo above, and the tub boat, or taraibune, below.

He does lovely work, and a visit to his website is most worthwhile, both for the lovely pictures of these fascinating boat types and for his descriptions of his building experiences. (He also maintains the site in Japanese, here.) He builds boats for museum exhibits, and is the author of The Tub Boats of Sado Island; A Japanese Craftsman's Methods, which is also available through his website. An article by Douglas on tub boats is available on the Amateur Boat Building site.

Both photos courtesy Douglas Brooks

Monday, August 25, 2008

Lance Lee and Lansing Madura

I had the opportunity to meet Lance Lee twice this month, and to see the Indonesian fishing boat Lansing Madura, the building of which came about as an offshoot of Lance's Tremolino! project. Lance had the boat on display at the Maine Boats Homes & Harbors show in Rockland, Maine, and at a lecture at the new Sail, Power & Steam Museum, which is busy a-birthing, also in Rockland.

Lance has been at the forefront of the movement to merge boats with experiential education for decades. The founder the The Apprenticeshop and Atlantic Challenge, he is now involved in something he calls "The Tremolino! Project." This is actually a related series of projects that Lance chooses not to turn into a formal organization. Drawing inspiration from educator Kurt Hahn and author Joseph Conrad, Lance uses boatbuilding and seamanship as vehicles to teach self-reliance and internationalism, and to crusade against youth's propensity to prefer virtual reality over the real stuff.

Lansing Madura is a Java Sea fishing gole'an. She was built in Indonesia over the course of about six weeks by one of the few remaining native builders of this type of craft and members of his community, assisted and inspired by one of Lance's proteges, Brian McClellan, also associated with
Atlantic Challenge. The boat was built entirely with hand tools, with the objective of helping to revive the use of traditional boats to rebuild the local fishing fleets.

She is built entirely of teak in a shell construction method -- i.e., from the outside in. Virtually no metal fastenings were used -- she is pegged together. The most modern technology involved in her construction was the use of a come-along to pull the plank edges tight against each other. She uses a crab-claw rig with a good sized mainmast and a very small foremast -- I suppose you might call her a crab claw schooner?

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Did a Sabani Show Up at the Olympics?

A year ago, a 32-year-old marine and sports promoter announced plans to sail a sabani from his home in Okinawa, Japan, to Beijing for the Olympics. Takuji Araki planned to have a crew of eight, including children (!) and to use no modern navigation equipment. (reference) I haven't heard anything about him or his project since -- did he do it?

The sabani is a traditional fishing boat native to the Japanese island of Okinawa. Dating back hundreds of years, the tradition of sabani building and use is still alive, thanks to two developments: newfound interest in racing them, and the adaptation of the form to accommodate an engine.

Sabani have a straight-sided, somewhat Bank-dory-like cross section, although with less flare. The stem is broad, and the stemhead is extraordinarily prominent, but it is the stern that is really distinctive. The hull narrows in aft of amidships in the normal fashion, but then flares again a few feet forward of the transom, making the boat appear fish-like in plan view. The transom is triangular, but not as narrow as a Bank dory's tombstone transom, and the load waterline is double-ended, or nearly so. They are quite narrow: I see a reference (here) to one with a length of 6.8 meters, beam of 1.3 meters, and depth of 47 cm. I'm not sure where the depth is measured, however. This appears to refer to a racing version, though, which might be narrower than the traditional working type. Modern, motorized versions apparently have the same length/beam ratio, but deeper draft. Like the Bank dory, the traditional sabani type has limited initial stability, but substantial secondary stability. (reference)

A motorized sabani

The bottom consists of a single, heavy plank, somewhat hollowed, dugout-fashion, and if a plank of sufficient length is unavailable, two or three sections may be joined end to end. The sides may consist of a single wide plank or two or three narrower ones. These are built up without metal fastenings, using a kind of keyed or dovetailed edge fastening similar to the method employed by the ancient Egyptians. Some appear to be lightly built, and others quite robust. They have the reputation of being fine sea boats.

Sabani are traditionally paddled or sailed with a fully battened lugsail. They are raced under paddle in a popular annual festival at Itoman, Okinawa, and in Hilo, Hawaii, which picked up the practice when it became a "sister city" to the city of Nago in Okinawa. A racing sabani carries single paddlers on the first and sixth thwarts, and two paddlers each on the second, third, fourth, and fifth. There is also a helmsman, presumably in the rear, although I see a reference to the helmsman in the bow (!) and a "standard bearer" in the stern on a seventh thwart. Perhaps the "helmsman" is really a coxswain only calling stroke? Racing sabani are sometimes referred to as "dragon boats," although they are quite different from Chinese dragon boats.

A racing sabani

In their traditional fishing role, they carried swimmers who would free dive to either spear fish or drag nets in shallow waters, and this is still practiced on a limited basis according to the video clip here:

The postage stamp shows a traditional sabani, with Iejima or Ie island, off the northwest coast of Okinawa, in the background. Image from here.
The motorized sabani image from here.
The plan view from here.
Woodcut of sabani fishermen from here.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Too Late to Document Dhows?

The term "dhow" is a generic one, used mainly by Westerners to refer to just about any type of Arab or Indian Ocean vessel. In the past, it was assumed the boat was fitted with a lateen sail, but now, even power-driven Arab boats are termed dhows. But according to Alan Villiers in his 1940 book Sons of Sinbad: The Great Tradition of Arab Seamanship in the Indian Ocean, the Arabs used the term very rarely, referring instead to a number of more specific types. In the appendix, Villiers describes a couple of types thus:

Baggala. The baggala is the traditional deep-sea dhow of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. Its distinguishing features are the five-windowed stern, which is often elaborately carved in the manner of an ancient Portuguese caravel. Baggalas have quarter-galleries, and their curved stems are surmounted by a horned figurehead. Baggalas are built now only at the pot of Sur, in Oman, and are practically extinct in Kuwait. There are probably less than fifty in existence.
Bedeni. The common craft of the smaller ports of the Oman and Mahra coasts. Their distinguishing features are their straight lines, their flat, sheerless hulls, their upright masts, and the curious ancient method of steering by means of an intricate system of ropes and beams. The sternpost is carried up very high, and when anchored, or in port, the rudder is usually partly unshipped and secured to either quarter. Bedeni are usually small craft and often have one mast only, though two-masters are common in the trade to East Africa.

And so on, through eight more descriptions of the following types:

This is only partially enlightening, and one wishes for more systematic descriptions, to say nothing of lines drawings, sail plan profiles and other graphic representations. But Villiers' objective in Sons of Sinbad was to describe the life aboard the trading dhows (and more briefly, on boats engaged in the pearl fishery), and at that goal he succeeded admirably, providing a sensitive, culturally astute, and thought-provoking view of the Arab seafaring subculture just before the sailing trade died with the Second World War. (Particularly interesting is how many of the Arab criticisms of the West haven't changed in all these years.)

So while one cannot criticize Villiers for the lack of detail about the vessels he observed or sailed upon, one can still regret there isn't more. It's unfortunate that no one documented these fascinating vessels before so many of them disappeared, in the manner of an Edwin Tappan Adney or a Haddon & Hornell (for American bark canoes, and canoes of Oceania, respectively). Villiers himself regretted that that wasn't his goal, and also that the Arabs were themselves not sufficiently interested in their boats as cultural objects to bother recording them, much less preserving examples for posterity.

By the way, Villier's book appears in other editions with a (much) longer subtitle: An Account of Sailing with the Arabs in their Dhows, in the Red Sea, Around the Coasts of Arabia, and to Zanzibar and Tanganyika: Pearling in the Persian Gulf: And the Life of the Shipmasters, The Mariners and Merchants of Kuwait.

The photo of a large sambuk is from Villiers' book Sons of Sinbad. This was a much smaller vessel than the boom on which he sailed from Kuwait to Zanzibar and back again, but was typical of the pearling boats he observed in the Persian Gulf.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Update on Dover Bronze Age Boat

A few months ago I described the Dover Bronze Age Boat here. Discovered in 1992, it is the most elaborate boat of its age (1500 BC) yet to be discovered in Europe. Sitting at the cusp between dugout technology and planked construction, the vessel was constructed of four lengthwise sections of oak logs, elaborately hollowed to fit together in the shape of a boat and then lashed together with small split branches (withies) of yew. Terrible technology, since there was little structure to prevent the log sections from working against one another, but really impressive woodworking and clearly on the right road toward the right technology.

Now some of the same archaeologists who have been involved with the boat since its discovery have a new project to build a full-size (10 meter) replica and test it on a voyage from Folkestone, England, to Wissant, France in 2010. Read the full article in on the Stone Pages website, here.

It is assumed that the original boat was paddled, not rowed or sailed. (The boat probably had one more set of strakes above those recovered in the excavation, and it is possible that evidence for some provisions for rowing might have been lost, but lacking those upper strakes, and lacking any evidence for the use of oars in England at the time, the use of paddles must be assumed.) The replica, therefore, will be crewed by volunteers from the British Dragon Boat Association, who have some experience paddling large open craft -- although to the best of my knowledge, dragon boat racing is always done in protected waters and not on anything as boisterous as the English Channel. Should be interesting.

Photo of reconstruction model from the BBC. Painting from

A Couple of Proa Blogs

A couple of good sources for information on proas -- i.e., single-outrigger multihulls:

Outrigger Sailing Canoes -- a blog by Gary Dierking, New Zealand-based American multihull builder, designer, and author of Building Outrigger Sailing Canoes.
ProaFile - a blog by proa designer Michael Schacht, a Seattle-based proa designer.

Both have lots of info. on both modern and traditional proas and occasionally on other types of multihulls. I know Gary Dierking and edited his book, and think it's very good.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Canoeing the Croix with Kids

Max and I on Little Falls on the St. Croix

A couple weeks ago I spent six days on Spednick Lake and the St. Croix River, which run betweeen Maine's eastern border and New Brunswick. It was a wonderful trip, the third year in a row that I've done a multi-day trip with kids and another adult, Tim Woodworth. My son, Max, and his friend Paul (Tim's son) were 11 years old this year, so they began at age 9. This year we brought along Paul's sister Fran, age 8, for the first time.

It is an absolute joy watching these kids gain paddling skills and the sense of accomplishment that comes with them. The boys have become quite competent paddlers -- far better than most adults I see on the water -- and Max and I make a good team. Maneuvering in Class II, we're in good sync (generally), and there are few criticisms or recriminations when mistakes occur.

It is a time for us to play together, to talk about anything with no interruptions other than the occasional stretch of whitewater that requires our attention, or to remain silent and simply enjoy the notion that we are working together, doing something that we both love.

When we camp, the kids set up their own tent and keep themselves fully occupied with what they find at hand -- skipping stones, making up games -- they seem to miss their Nintendos not at all. Sleeping in tents is becoming natural to them, and they're getting into a good habit of making and breaking camp without too much prodding (some exceptions apply). More competence, more self-reliance. Tim and I do essentially all the cooking still, but the kids do most of the meal cleanup, again with less prodding as time goes by.

By the way, Max took his first canoe trip at the age of three weeks. His Mom wasn't too pleased, but I thought it would be good to start him early. Looks like I got it right for a change!

Two years ago, toward the end of the first year's trip, also on the St. Croix (year two was on the Allagash), Max asked me if we could do it again every year. What a thing to fill a father's heart!

The photo at the top of the post was taken by a woman whose name I don't know. She kindly offered to shoot us going down Little Falls on our official trip camera.

The photo below shows Fran and me on an extraordinarily windy day on Spednick Lake. It was taken by her father, Tim Woodworth. With my control hand so high, I'm using very bad form. Later on, I got the hang of using torso rotation to put more power into paddling

Bark Canoe Observation

I had the good fortune to paddle a birchbark canoe a few weeks ago at a rather odd event called the Spring Running in Augusta, Maine. The event,which celebrates the annual return of herring to the Kennebec River (i.e., they "run" up river), is a rather sorry affair overall - uninteresting displays and events, dusty and inconvenient layout - but it did have one nice feature this year.

In the small waterfront park just below Old Fort Western, the Maine chapter of the
Wooden Canoe Heritage Association had a display with many beautiful boats, mostly canvas-on-cedar. Burt Libby, of Burt's Canoes in Litchfield, Maine, had a lovely display of large-scale canoe models (3-4 feet long?), showing the stages of the construction of a cedar/canvas canoe. The association had also borrowed a bark canoe belonging to the Penobscot Marine Museum, and allowed people to paddle it.

Penobscot Marine Museum had the canoe built for it within the past few years as part of a demonstration that occurred on its grounds in Searsport, Maine. I'm sorry that I don't know the builder's name, or have any info. on its "type" -- i.e., the cultural/historical style upon which it's based. It looked to be very nicely built and it was in apparently fine shape. The sheathing appeared to be very regular beneath the frames, which had surprisingly high cross-sections, which I imagine would have been rather difficult to bend. The seams between bark sections were very neatly done; I believe they were sealed with some kind of plastic sealant rather than a more traditional material like pine rosin.

I paddled the boat for only a few minutes, kneeling in the stern, with another paddler in the bow. The river at that point is flatwater, with a bit of current; I had very little opportunity to get a feel for the boat's performance or capabilities, but the impression I got was that it felt and behaved very much like any other wooden canoe of its size and design. It felt quite stiff in a structural (as opposed to a hydrostatic) sense. The high profiles of the frames made them rather painful to kneel on, but that's certainly no fault of design or construction -- it's indicative of the paddler not having a proper pad. Having been in storage for a couple years, the canoe leaked a bit, but not excessively, and I expect that the leak would swell itself shut with more frequent use. If not, then it's no great matter to seal it. Lifting it from the water onto the floating dock, it felt not particularly light -- comparable to what a heavily-built fiberglass boat of the same size would weigh.

Although the opportunity was very limited, it was still a thrill to paddle a fairly authentic bark canoe. Thanks to the Penobscot Marine Museum and the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association for making it possible.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Nice Boat Blog

I came across a nice new boating blog that often addresses primitive boats of both western and nonwestern traditions. It's called "70.8%," which, says the blogger Thomas Armstrong, is the percentage of the earth covered by water. Take a look.

Bark Canoe Resources

I've been compiling a list of people and organizations who either build bark canoes for sale, teach bark canoe building, or sell supplies for same. The list comes from various sources and I can't vouch for the accuracy or currency of the listings. I hope someone finds it useful. Please get in touch if you know of any other sources to add to the list or have any changes. Thanks.

Ancient Pathways Cultural Resource Group
3494 28th St.
Hopkins MI 49328
Tel: 269-793-8730
We build custom reproductions of native watercraft for museums and interpretive facilities as well as building canoes as educational demonstrations and as part of artist-in-residencies. We also have multiple canoes available for use in programming and for lease as props for the film and television production industry. We have build both bark canoes (elm- Southern Great Lakes and birch- Northern Great Lakes) in addition to historic and prehistoric copies of original dugout canoes.

John Lindman
We feature handmade birchbark canoes, fiberglass birch bark replica canoes and museum quality miniature birch bark canoes. We also offer instruction in birchbark canoe construction; sell birch bark for canoes and for rustic furnishings; sell spruce root, crooked knives, paddles, rustic furniture and much more.

The Birchbark Canoe Shop
Tom Byers
1518 Grassy Lake Road
Whitefish, Ontario, Canada, P0M 3E0
Phone: 705-929-4299
Birch bark canoes made to order in Algonquin, tete deboulr, long nose Ojibway and fur trade styles. For more information Check Wooden Canoe issues 75, 87, 90, 92, 98 and the 1999 Canoe Journal. Teaches birchbark canoe building courses + 2 day carving horse and paddle making courses near Manitoulin Island. Camp sites included. Brochure available.

Ojibway Canoe Co
Eric Mase
PO Box 746
Ely, MN 55731
Phone: 218-235-2936
Eric Mase moved to the canoe capitol of the world, Ely , Minnesota in 1996, to build birch bark canoes. Over sixty canoes and 12 years later, he has fine tuned his building techniques and is now considered as one of the finest birch bark builders in the country. Each of his canoes are built using traditional tools and building methods of the Voyageurs and Native Americans, and are not only museum quality but also collector's pieces.

Beaver Bark Canoes
Ferdy Goode
1583 Marsha Ln
Arbor Vitae, WI 54568
Phone: 715-356-3824 or 715-892-4740
Builds 3-4 birchbark canoes per season using traditional tools, materials and techniques. Canoes range in length from 4' model canoes up to 20' long. Also restore and repair birchbark canoes. Have been building canoes since 1979.

Barry Dana
46 Parkman Hill Rd.
Solon, ME 04979
Offers programs, lectures, and workshops in a variety of Wabanaki arts/crafts and other aspects of the culture, including bark canoes.

The photo at the top of the page is from the website

Sunday, July 20, 2008


Alan Villiers is well known to readers of tales of the sea. The author of several books, he was an accomplished and wide-ranging sailing ship captain who spent much of his earlier life on sailing ships during their last years of commercial viability, and much of the later portion on sailing ships of various noncommercial colors, including school ships, ships used in making sea movies, historical replica ships, and the like. Seems he had a serious sailing ship jones and would do just about anything he could to continue sailing them.

In Give Me a Ship to Sail, he describes many of these adventures, most of which are concerned with more or less traditional "western"-type ships. But in one chapter, he describes an Indian Ocean vessel called a buggalow, on which he took passage from Colombo, Sri Lanka (Ceylon, then), to Male, in the Maldive Islands. The buggalow was one of several owned by the Maldives government that served as a combined cargo and ferry service between Ceylon and the one-mile-by-half-a-mile island-city of Male, then a town of some 8,000 people and capital of the Maldives – a group of some 12,000 islands, islets and atolls (of which, only some 215 were inhabited in the mid-1950s).

Although carrying a lateen rig, he distinguishes the buggalow from other dhows then sailing the Indian Ocean, explaining that the latter were only seaworthy enough to be used during the monsoon's off-season, while the buggalow was capable of providing year-round service. Although Villiers doesn't describe the vessel itself in great detail, he description of life aboard it is worthy transcribing at length:

The buggalow was a well-built vessel, built – the master told me – somewhere near Calicut about eleven years previously, at a cost of 90,000 rupees. She was a very much stronger, better-built, and better-rigged vessel than any dhow I had previously seen. She had properly caulked teak decks, real hatches and proper waterways, an efficient ship's pump (used very little: she was tight), a good compass binnacle, an efficient capstan of wood and brass, and her fresh water was carried in good steel tanks, on deck. Her "galley" was an adequate firebox with an open hearth, on the foredeck, and her cooks were industrious, well equipped, and competent. Her mainmast was either stepped in, or at any rate well supported by, a strong steel sleeve which extended about four feet above the main deck, and her rigging was exceptionally good and well cared for. Her large assortment of equipment included an old speaking trumpet, a full set of new International Code flags (and the books), a telescope, binoculars, a roll of well-kept and corrected charts kept in an ancient copper cylinder attached to the deckhead in the great cabin, and a number of umbrellas used, I suppose for going ashore in the S.W. monsoon. All of these umbrellas were decorated with little photographs of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, set in silver on the handles.

The master had a sextant, deck watch, and the necessary nautical tables, almanac, etc. He had an advanced textbook on arithmetic (in English) and two different Oxford dictionaries. He spoke English well. He was a very quiet little man and I did not discover that he could speak English at all until we sailed, though I had known him in the agent's office ashore for some weeks. He also spoke Hindustani, Arabic, his own Maldivian, and some Singhalese. His ambition was to see his native islands acquire a motor ship and to serve aboard her some day as master. He as a good navigator, working up star sights night and morning and noon sights, position lines by Marq St. Hilaire from the sun, ex-meridians, and anything else he considered necessary. He has to be a good navigator as the passage was of some 415 miles across open sea, with a difficult landfall at the end which had, if necessary, to be made by night.

He did not seem to bother much about the International Rule of the Road, nor did the ship show colored side lights, though these were aboard and kept ready trimmed at night. He said it was the custom to show these only when sailing into Colombo. He always had too good hurricane lamps lit and ready for use, and he had a large torch [i.e., flashlight, edtr.] which, he said, he flashed on the sails if he saw a steamer approaching too close. He said that if steamers can close, it made no difference whether he burned side lights, for he was sure that no watchkeeping officers kept any lookout for such antiquated sea lights as the red and green lamps of a sailing vessel. The torch was much better. They sheered off when they saw the sails. As for possible risk of collision with other such vessels as his own, he knew where they all were, and he had confidence in their masters….

On the passage, she [the ship] rolled a lot, running deep-laden before the wind, She set a lateen topsail on the main, which was a sail I had not been with before. She had a main topmast not much stouter than a flagstaff, and the tops'l yard was hoisted on this. It was very light. So was the sail. I slept in the open in preference to the great cabin, which was hot. She steered like a witch and ran like a clipper, and very little rudder movement was necessary to give her a good course.

The photo of the buggalow is from the book Give Me a Ship to Sail, which is a darn good read.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

I'm Back

Sorry for the long black-out. I was locked out of Blogger, for administrative reasons that only Google could explain. I got back in through a purely fortuitous event: a reader posted a comment on an earlier post about Hawaiian canoe ladders; Blogger sent me an email alerting me to the post and giving me the opportunity to approve, deny, or moderate it through a link to the admin part of my blog. I clicked the link and, lo! I was finally back in, and able to reset my password.

Thanks to A. Orr of Hawaii for the interesting comment on canoe ladders, and for inadvertently creating the way back in to the blog. Here's the original post with the comment.

It's good to be back. I'll have some more substantive posts soon.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Great Heart -- Great Book

Great Heart: The History of a Labrador Adventure
is one of the best Canadian canoeing adventures I've read. Also one of the most unusual. Written by James West Davidson and John Rugge (coauthors of the justly well-known Complete Wilderness Paddler), Great Heart tells the stories of three related expeditions and, especially, the principals involved. The expeditions -- the first, disastrous one organized by Leonidas Hubbard Jr., and the second and third organized, respectively, by Hubbard's widow and by a survivor of the first -- are not unknown to students of canoeing history, having been covered in various books by the principals and by other later historians. What makes the book unique is the authors' approach to their subjects, and their sensitive depiction of the principals' personalities, based on good documentary research leavened with persuasive but frankly speculative extrapolation. 

Hubbard was a writer for Outing, one of the most popular outdoors magazines in the early 20th century (and having nothing to do with the exposure of homosexuality). Having only a moderate level of experience in the outdoors and feeling the need to prove himself to his demanding and more experienced editor through the completion of an impressive expedition, Hubbard organized an expedition in northern Labrador -- "one of the last blank spaces on the map" -- that proved too ambitious and not sufficiently carefully planned or outfitted. Launching from the Northwest River Post on Groswater Bay off the North Atlantic, the trip would would visit the seldom-seen Naskapi Indians in the interior of Labrador on its way to George River Post on Ungava Bay, a distance of about 550 miles. The first half of the trip was upstream all the way on rivers that were only slightly known by a small number of local trappers. Hubbard chose as his companions his friend Dillon Wallace and a "halfbreed" Cree guide, George Elson, who was not familiar with the area, but who had substantial wilderness experience. 

The expedition was beset by bad planning, poor provisioning, and bad luck from the very start. The wood/canvas canoe was too small to carry sufficient provisions, and Hubbard decided against carrying shotguns, which might have helped in supplementing their food stocks later. The expedition got too late a start, and was overtaken by snow, then blizzard. Food ran out. Most gravely, it took off up the wrong river and never discovered the fact until the very end of its retreat. 

Working from diaries, previous publications by the survivors, and news reports, the authors describe a truly harrowing ordeal from which Hubbard did not return. His coexpeditioners did, but just barely. After his return to New York, Wallace, with great reluctance but at the widow Mina Hubbard's request, wrote a book-length account of the expedition, published as The Lure of the Labrador Wild. In it, he portrayed Leonidas Hubbard in nearly heroic terms while still acknowledging his faults by way of explaining the expedition's failure. 

Mina was incensed, however, at any implication that her husband was in any way to blame for that failure or for his own death. She decided to launch her own expedition to prove that his plan was a good one, and that it was only his companions -- specifically, Wilson -- who had failed him and the expedition. At the same time, Wallace mounted his own expedition, essentially to prove the opposite proposition -- that a properly-mounted expedition would have succeeded. Mina enlisted George Elson, and the two expeditions set out at the same time in 1905, manifestly racing one another while refusing to acknowledge the others' existence. 

The authors, writing in a highly novelized style, tell the somewhat speculative but highly touching tale of how Mina romantically manipulated George as part of her plan for the expedition's success. George, terrified of even the slightest implication that he, as a half-breed, would dare to look at a refined white woman, was vulnerable to the sophisticated Mina and, ultimately, heartbroken. Both expeditions succeeded in reaching the George River Post -- Mina's much sooner and more comfortably; Wilson's only after much travail. But Mina's expedition had not, in fact, replicated her husband's plan -- hers was better provisioned, better manned, and understood the wrong turn that Mr. Hubbard's trial had taken at the start. So while she won the race, she failed to prove her point. Wilson came closer to proving his point of view, but just barely -- his expedition nearly failed for some of the same reasons that Leonidis Hubbard's did. 

What sets the book apart is its novelistic treatment of fact, and the storytellers' willingness to extrapolate from sometimes ambiguous journal entries in the interests of telling a tale full of adventure, hardship, intrigue, romance and, of course, canoeing. The 1988 Viking edition that I read included fine historic photos of all three expeditions, plus maps that are important to understanding the race -- marred, unfortunately, by having Mina's and Wilson's separate courses mislabeled, which caused some confusion until I realized the simple nature of the problem. I would hope that the 1996 Kodansha Globe edition, the link to which I've included below, has retained the photos and fixed the map problem. Davidson's and Rugge's earlier, excellent (but now somewhat dated) canoeing technique book was so excellent that it shouldn't be entirely surprising that they might succeed as coauthors to a second book, but this one is so entirely different from the first that it surprises nonetheless. They succeed not only as historians, but more, as storytellers. The events themselves are probably of no real historic significance -- one man died out of three expeditions that didn't really prove anything or reveal any new geographic knowledge to the world -- but the the personalities and the motivations of the principal actors make it a valuable story in purely human terms.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Balsa Rafts in Precolumbian Trade Routes

An article in Science Daily a couple months back reported on the results of a fascinating study conducted at MIT's Department of Materials Science and Engineering into the feasibility of coastwise navigation between the two great civilizations of the precolumbian Americas.

Archaeologists have theorized about trade between societies in mesoamerica and the Andes based on similarities of metalworking technology between the two regions, as well as the presence of beads made from shells indigenous to only one of the areas that showed up in the other. Furthermore, they had descriptions and illustrations by early Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch travelers to the area describing oceangoing sailing rafts. But those two items are a long way from establishing that these rafts were capable of making the multi-thousand mile voyages that would have made such trade possible by means other than overland.

Researchers built a small-scale raft approximating what is known of the local technology and tested it successfully on the Charles River, then used performance data from that test and plugged it into engineering analysis (aero- and hydrodynamics, etc.) to establish whether full-size rafts were capable of making the trip. The study showed that they could. The rafts were steered with two rows of daggerboards, selectively deployed and retracted to alter the rafts' center of lateral resistance fore or aft. (The SD article calls them centerboards, but I think that must be wrong, due probably to the reporter's unfamiliarity with the terminology. Daggerboards, of course, are deployed and retracted vertically; centerboards are hinged at the top.) Unfortunately, the article doesn't describe the sailing rig, but does state that it used a flexible mast to alter the shape of the sail and, presumably, the fore-and-aft position of the center of effort.

The research also looked into the longevity of the Ecuadoran balsa logs. Teredos (shipworms) eat balsa far faster than they eat most other shipbuilding woods, but it was found that, by traveling in the ocean proper and keeping the raft out of shallow water where the worms are most active, rafts could have survived two round trips of six to eight weeks each. Because they relied on seasonal weather patterns (presumably sailing only downwind on seasonal trade winds), only one or two voyages could be made per year by a single raft and its crew. It's not explained how the rafts were kept safe from teredos during the time between voyages.

The paper was published in the Spring 2008 issue of the Journal of Anthropological Research. The photo shows the MIT test raft. Photo Credit: Donna Coveney/MIT.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

My Swim

I took a canoe day trip last spring that ended in a swim -- not an epic one, but the biggest that I've experienced, and the first for my son.

I manned the stern of my Adirondack St. Regis, a 17-foot Kevlar cruiser; my son Max, then 10, manned the bow. Friend Tim was in the stern of his canoe, an Old Town Penobscot 16, with his son, Paul, also 10, in bow. The previous year, this same team had done a 6-day trip on the St. Croix River, between Maine and New Brunswick. This time, we were on the St. George River in midcoast Maine. It was our first trip of the year -- kind of a warmup for a weeklong trip on the Allagash planned for later in the year.

We put in at Seventrees Pond in Union, and the first nine tenths of the trip was flatwater: first the pond, then the river. Several hundred yards above the planned takeout at Payson Park in Warren, the river goes over a steep shelf, which we portaged. Thereafter, it was a very bony Class II. Lots of pushing against the bottom, half getting out of the boat and scooting along with one leg still in the boat, banging rocks. Although my St. Regis is a nice Kevlar boat, it isn't really made for this kind of work, but I long ago got over the pain of scratches and dings.

At a point where there was more than enough water to float the boat and plenty of current, we got sideways to a rock and in an instant we capsized upstream. I think I could blame Max for leaning the wrong way, but in fact it happened too quickly for me to really know. The boat then swung with the current and freed itself from the rock. Max was gasping and upset; somehow he was downstream of the boat, and I told him to get upstream of it, then reminded him of the "noses and toes" approach to swimming in current (keep the nose and the toes facing up, with feet pointing downstream) and he took the position. (Max and Paul had practiced this on the St. Croix and had much fun doing it.) I grabbed the boat and tried to maneuver it, but soon the current became too strong, too fast, and I had to let go of it and my paddle and just watch out for myself.

This was Max's first capsize; he was scared and shouting frequently but following the drill. Somehow, he quickly ended up on the opposite side of the river and there was no way that I could assist him in any way -- the strong current was dragging me, too, over shallow rocks and through holes down my side of the river. I was terribly scared for Max, but all I could do was keep my eye on him and confirm that he continued to head downriver with the current, apparently OK. If he had somehow gotten into real trouble, I could have done nothing. I did look back and note that Tim and Paul continued to follow us in their boat, which was some comfort.

There were a few painful bumps on the tailbone and several dunkings, but the noses-and-toes approach worked as advertised, and I used my feet to fend myself off the worst of the rocks. Even attempting to move to the bank was out of the question -- the current was just too strong to do anything but flow with it.

Eventually the current slackened, just in front of the planned takeout at Payson Park. Max came to rest on a little sandy island, and TIm and Paul quickly picked him up and deposited him on the bank. I found my footing and managed to walk to the bank. A woman who was with her children at the park took Max in hand, put him in her van and cranked up the heat and got him into dry clothing.

Tim and I grabbed my boat and carried it up the bank -- it was terribly bashed up; gunwales separated from the hull, dents, cracks all the way through the layup, one flotation chamber partially torn out. We found two of the three paddles -- the missing one was a lovely Shaw & Tenney model that I'd used only a couple times.

I was somewhat shaken up, and Max more than somewhat -- not enough, I'm glad to report, to interfere with the Allagash trip later that year. We were both wearing good PFDs (of course), and it's hard to imagine the stupidity of anyone who would put himself into that kind of situation without them -- it would have been immensely more difficult and scarier without flotation. It had been a drizzly day, so we were wearing raingear, which might have provided just a hint of thermal protection -- certainly not much. The water was a bit chilly, and we felt it, but wetsuits probably would have been overkill. Maybe I'm kidding himself here. Had this swim occurred away from civilization and been just a few hundred yards longer, hypothermia might have been a possibility.

It was a revelation how much damage a few hundred yards of shallow Class II could do to a Kevlar boat. I took it to a fiberglass pro whose repair estimate was about the same as the cost of a new boat. I kept looking, however, and found a fiberglass worker who does some work on the side. He did a nice job on the structural matters and added a minimum of additional weight -- I haven't weighed it, but my guess is less than 5 pounds.

The gelcoat is another story. Normally, gelcoat is sprayed into a polished female mold before the layup begins on the inside of the gelcoat, so a nice smooth surface results. In this case, the gelcoat was sprayed with a gun onto the boat's exterior laminate surface, leaving a very slightly pebbled finish. A racer couldn't tolerate it this surface texture, but it's fairly fine-grained and I doubt it will seriously affect the boat's efficiency. I did take the opportunity to change the boat's color, from green to white and it looks very nice if you don't get too close and notice the pebbles. For a total bill of $500, it was a reasonable way to rescue a pretty nice boat. I now realize it's not at all suited to whitewater, however, so I've got my eyes open for a plastic tub.