Thursday, February 28, 2008

Earliest Pacific Seafaring...but no boats!

(Photo by Stephen Alvarez, from National Geographic, March 2008)

The current (March 2008) issue of National Geographic contains an intriguing article, Beyond the Blue Horizon, by Roff Smith, about the earliest colonizers of the Pacific. Many of us who have an interest in indigenous boats know something about the renowned navigational and seamanship skills of the Polynesians, and it's easy to picture boats not too much unlike the familiar Polynesian canoe doing the work of exploration and colonization a thousand or two years ago. According to the article, however, that wasn't necessarily the way it was.

As much as 30,000 years ago, the far western Pacific, covering New Guinea, Australia, and the Solomon Islands, had already been settled by peoples originating in Taiwan. There they stayed until 1300 BC or so, when a people now called the Lapita rather suddenly, and in very small but well-equipped groups, set out to intentionally colonize points east, island-hopping as far as Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa, where they quickly wiped out a huge number of species but apparently lived comfortably for all that. The islands in this area are close enough to one another so that insightful mariners would have had a number of good clues that something existed not too far over the horizon, and this would have given them the confidence to set out on voyages of discovery. The whole wave of colonists numbered only a few thousand and, when spread across the hundreds and hundreds of islands that they colonized, population density never appeared to have been a problem or the incentive to keep moving. They left some very nice-looking pottery but, alas, no boat artifacts.

There the migration stopped for 1200 years or so, until the people whom we now know as the Polynesians once again moved east into Polynesia, ultimately going as far as Hawaii, Easter Island, and even South America (there is, according to the article, good evidence for this last). The islands in this region are much further separated from one another than in the western half, and voyages of discovery would have been much iffier propositions, fraught with far more danger and uncertainty. The driving mechanism of the migration is disputed. It could have been intentional wanderlust enabled by the confidence born of good seamanship and boats capable of tacking into the wind, or random dispersal caused by bad luck and an inability to avoid being blown to windward. No one knows what the boats were like, or whether they had rigs capable of tacking into the wind. The latter theory, however, seems weak, when one considers that every inhabitable island throughout the eastern Pacific was in time inhabited. It's hard to credit the notion that every island population was the result of an unplanned "voyage" by some hapless couple (and there must have been both genders aboard, not just a single fisherman) who just managed to survive and make landfall after weeks or months of aimless drifting.

Unfortunately, virtually nothing is know of the boats used by either the Lapita or these early Polynesians -- not a single scrap of a boat artifact has been recovered from the former, and literally just a few scraps of one boat from the latter -- not enough to reveal anything about the sailing rigs used. But unless one accepts the "random bad luck" theory, it would appear that as much as 3300 years ago, the ancestors of the Polynesians were already competent mariners with competent boats -- if only we could learn what they were like!

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Another Kayak-Building Book

Let's continue the previous discussion of good how-to books on building kayaks. Wood and Canvas Kayak Buildingby George Putz, would seem to cover much the same ground as the previously-mentioned Building the Greenland Kayak : A Manual for Its Contruction and Useby Christopher Cunningham. Both involve the construction of a wooden frame, which is then covered with canvas and painted or otherwise sealed to make waterproof. There is a subtle but important difference between them, however.

Where Cunningham follows, as closely as possible, the authentic Greenland kayak-building tradition, Putz takes a more Western approach. By that I mean that his construction methods follows European and American, rather than Eskimo, boatbuilding methods. Until you put the canvas on, Putz's boat looks a lot like a Western boat, whereas Cunningham's kayak frame looks clearly different, more ... indigenous, if you will. This is by no means to say that Cunningham's is superior (or inferior) -- only different. Interestingly enough, the kayak that Putz presents in his book is a classic Greenland design, and the finished product has some clear similarities to Cunningham's. Nonetheless, Putz's boat has a more modern look and feel, higher freeboard and volume, and more initial stability, and will probably be more appealing to most modern paddlers who have no interest in replicating the arcane skillset of the Greenland Eskimo.

The main design and construction differences are as follows:

Putz's kayak
  • all frame members are lightweight

  • transverse members are floor timbers

  • strength members between chine stringer and sheer stringer consist of numerous short timbers on alternating angles, creating a truss-like structure which serves as the boat's main longitudinal strength members

  • frame is fastened with wood screws. All flush joints.

  • skin is tacked to the frame with brass tacks

Cunningham's kayak
  • Sheer stringer and stem are heavy timbers

  • transverse strength members are bent ribs, which extend up to the sheer stringer

  • the sheer stringers represent the main longitudinal strength members

  • frame members are lashed together. Many mortise-and-tenon joints.

  • skin is sewn in place around the frame

Friday, February 22, 2008

Kayak Building Books

For anyone who wants to build their own kayak, there are a good number of books in print to show you how in a variety of construction methods. Among the best are:

The New Kayak Shop: More Elegant Wooden Kayaks Anyone Can Buildand Stitch-and-Glue Boatbuildingby Chris Kulczycki. Chris is the founder of Chesapeake Light Craft, one of the biggest suppliers of kits and plans for kayaks built by the stitch-and-glue method, which relies on thin marine plywood for the hull structure, and epoxy and fiberglass tape to fasten the parts together. Chris's kayak designs are generally attractive, relatively easy to build, and available in a wide range of capabilities, from pond-paddlers to expedition boats for open waters.

The The Strip-Built Sea Kayak: Three Rugged, Beautiful Boats You Can Buildby Nick Schade. Strip building utilizes dozens of thin strips of wood edge-glued around forms, then covered with fiberglass (or carbon fiber, or Kevlar) fabric and epoxy. It permits greater design flexibility than stitch-and-glue -- i.e., the designer can achieve any hull form desired. (In stitch-and-glue, the designs are highly driven by plywood's very limited capacity to bend in two planes at once.) The boats are arguably more attractive as well, and though not necessarily more difficult to build, almost certainly more time-consuming. Schade's workmanship is truly extraordinary. He has another book in the works for International Marine, Building Strip Planked Boats, scheduled for publication this fall. It contains plans for one sea kayak, one tiny double-paddle canoe (a la Wee Lassie), and a dinghy. (The photo of the Petrel kayak design at the top of this post is courtesy of Nick Schade. Plans available from Guillemot Kayaks.)

Building the Greenland Kayak : A Manual for Its Construction and Useby Christopher Cunningham. Chris, the longtime editor of Sea Kayaker magazine, shows how to build a kayak using the Eskimos' skin-on-frame method. The woodworking required is perhaps the most sophisticated of the three, and the wood frame is lashed together, not nailed, screwed, or epoxied. In a logical concession to practicality, the environment, and the law, Chris shows how to "skin" the boat with canvas, rather than sealskin.

All three boatbuilding methods are capable of producing very cool, entirely seaworthy boats that will almost inevitably draw questions and favorable comments on the beach. There are dozens of tradeoffs between them, on matters of weight, ease of construction, durability, appearance, etc. etc., and ultimately the choice comes down to matters of personal preference. But here's a terribly oversimplified nutshell comparison:

  • Stitch-and-glue: Easiest to build

  • Strip-building: Slickest looking

  • Skin-on-frame: Most traditional

As Nick Schade says, home-building isn't the most practical way to own a kayak: you can buy one (especially used) cheaper and a lot quicker than you can build one. But the building process can be fun and fulfilling quite apart from what you do with the boat after the fact. So build a boat if you want to. Given sufficient determination, some ready cash, and an appropriate place to work, almost anyone with even modest woodworking skills and basic hand tools can build a perfectly seaworthy and respectable-looking kayak, and getting something of the "wow" factor doesn't take a whole lot more.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Book Review: Water and Sky

Water and Sky: Reflections of a Northern Year
(review by Bob Holtzman)

Why review a book nearly 20 years old? Aside from the obvious answer (that I just read it), because it's a fine one that, if not quite invisible, has certainly been overlooked or forgotten by those who care about canoe literature.

Kesselheim is a fairly well-known canoeing author (various magazines, The Wilderness Paddler's Handbook, Camp Cook's Companion, etc.). At the time of the adventure he writes about in Water and Sky, he and his now-wife Marypat Zitser were unmarried but a secure couple of many years. Both had significant wilderness tripping experience, but like most of us, their trips had all been somewhat limited in duration. This one would be different. Without analyzing their motives too closely, they decided upon a really extended trip that would take them some 2,000 miles through Canada, much of it wilderness, and would last over 400 days.

Launching at Jasper, Alberta, on the Athabasca River, Kesselheim and Zitser paddled a couple of months to Lake Athabasca, where they wintered over, serving as caretakers of a fishing camp empty for the season. After a 7-month winter spent almost entirely alone, they were met at ice-out by Kesselheim's brother and sister-in-law and, now with two canoes, traveled north out of Lake Athabasca, up the Dubawni River into the Northwest Territory, then through a series of portages to the Kazan River and downstream to Baker Lake, an arm on the western side of Hudson Bay.

Kesselheim strikes just the right balance (to my taste) of straight description of events with meaningful reflection. His use of detail is enough to give a surprisingly vivid sense of what life is like under the circumstances he describes, without overloading the reader with a day-by-day, mile-by-mile account of what happened on the river. He doesn't go into detail on gear or provisioning -- this isn't a how-to book by any means -- but neither does he get all philosophical or, god forbid (snicker), spiritual, on the reader. Even entirely nonspiritual wilderness travelers, though, have their deep reasons for going, and the author examines his forthrightly. If a thinking person spends 7 months holed up in a cabin with just one other person, there had better be some interesting thoughts going on if they are to retain their sanity.

The last part of their journey, above the treeline in the Northwest Territory, is particularly eloquently told. There are musk oxen, migrating herds of tens of thousands of caribou, evidence of occupation by the inland Inuit of years past, and now and then a good rousing drop over a ledge in the river. The tundra Kesselheim describes is tremendously appealing to read about -- appealing enough to make one want to, if not follow in his footsteps, then seek an equally remote and unexplored river and do something similar -- but Kesselheim also makes the hardships sufficiently clear so that few readers will actually follow that romantic impulse.