Sunday, May 31, 2009

Sitting Solo in the Stern

Paddling a tandem canoe solo is basic stuff, but there are those who do it wrong.

Take a look at the photo on the cover of The Wilderness Paddler's Handbook, by Alan S. Kesselheim, and notice how much of the boat's bow is out of the water. Now, in perfectly calm conditions, with no wind, and when you're not concerned about making time, this is okay. You'll note that it's sunset in the photo, and it's a common thing, at the end of a day of canoeing and after supper has been cleaned up, to hop in the stern by oneself and paddle idly in front of the campsite, enjoying the stillness at day's end.

But throw a bit of wind into the mix, and this scenario becomes untenable. Unless you're heading dead downwind, the bow's high profile, and its lack of underwater profile to provide resistance, cause problems. Any wind will take that high, exposed bow and swing it downwind. In light to moderate winds, you'll paddle like crazy just to stay on course. In heavier winds, it becomes impossible.

I recently watched an unsavvy paddler try this on a nearby pond on a stiff, gusty day. He was seated in the stern of a large, heavy, square-stern canoe, paddling like crazy to head more or less upwind. The wind would blow his bow away, and this big fellow would paddle like mad to bring it back. He looked to be a lot stronger than me, and he actually managed to swing the bow into the eye of the wind -- oops, just a couple of degrees too far, where the wind would catch the bow's other side and swing it downwind in the other direction. The paddler would switch paddling sides, paddle like mad, bring the bow back into the wind, lose it in the other direction ... over and over. It was exhausting just to watch, and he made absolutely no forward progress -- just spent all that effort trying to get the boat pointed in the right direction.

In light to moderate winds, the easy solution is the sit on the bow seat, facing the stern. Because the bow seat is much further from the bow than the stern seat is from the stern (to make room for the bow paddler's legs), this places it quite a bit closer to the boat's centerpoint. By orienting yourself this way, you'll have fairly good control, with your paddle not too far behind the boat's pivot point.

In stiffer wind, forgo the seat, move to the fore-and-aft center of the canoe, and kneel. Spread your legs and get one knee into the bilge (where the bottom curves up into the side of the hull), and lean the boat toward that side. This will position your paddle opposite the boat's natural pivot point, and allow you to hold the paddle nearly vertical with the blade as close as possible to the boat's longitudinal centerline, so that your forward stroke will produce mostly forward, and not turning, motion.

Now, about that book cover: Kesselheim's book is really quite good and useful. (I put it up there with Canoeing Wild Rivers by Cliff Jacobson [which, I believe, is now titled Expedition Canoeing], and The Complete Wilderness Paddler, by James West Davidson & John Rugge.) But when I worked as an editor for the book's publisher, Ragged Mountain Press (an imprint of McGraw-Hill), I received a proposal for a book to teach the rock-bottom basics of canoeing. It wasn't a strong proposal, and I rejected it. The prospective author responded by citing the cover of The Wilderness Paddler's Handbook as evidence that our existing canoeing books were no good. He evidently didn't understand that the folks who design book jackets aren't the same folks as the ones who write or edit the books.

And he also didn't realize that every rule has its exception. If there's any doubt that sitting in the stern with your bow up in the air is sometimes acceptable, ask Winslow Homer. It's hard to credit that the authentic-looking outdoorsman in his painting doesn't know what he's doing, even with his bow way up in the air.

(Homer painting available at

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Penobscot Bark Canoe

Several months ago I had the pleasure to paddle a birchbark canoe in Augusta, which I reported here. Aside from the fact that canoe had been built at the Penobscot Marine Museum, I didn't have much detail about it at the time. But now that I work at the museum and have had a chance to rummage around, and can provide a bit more info., plus photos.

The boat, about 18' long, was built in 2006 under the direction of Aaron T. York. According to a press release from the museum, "York is a full time artist in the realm of Wabanaki traditional arts and a member of the Western Abenaki Nation. His primary occupation is the building and research of Wabanaki birch bark canoes and associated items that go with the use and creation of these vessels." He was assisted in the building by other members of the Penobscot Nation of Indian Island (near Bangor, in the Penobscot River).

The canoe was assembled on the grounds of the Penobscot Marine Museum, in Searsport, Maine. It was described as an "exact replica" of a "c.1850 ocean canoe of the Penobscot Wabanaki Nation," designed for use "in the bays and drainage basins of the Penobscot River and other regional waters."

Ain't she a beauty?

Construction photos are by Peter Lindquist. Photos of the finished canoe by Wayne Hamilton. All rights reserved -- not to be reproduced...please.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

One Good Turn

Came across this fine blog recently: Maritime Compass is blogged by Heather Hernandez, who's a technical services librarian at the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park's J. Porter Shaw Library. Here's what it's about, in the blog's own words:
A review of current happenings in Maritime Studies, Maritime Compass includes information on Library and Museum events, Scholarly conferences or meetings, book reviews, news items, or just plain old interesting maritime facts.

Heather was kind enough to give Indigenous Boats a very nice plug, and I'm only too pleased to return the favor.

It's interesting stuff, and well worth subscribing to a feed, because she posts frequently and will likely announce something of interest to anyone who reads this blog. Her most recent is a fascinating discourse on
how pulp fiction influences people's perception of maritime activities. Good point, too. Who has more influence on people's perception of sharks, for example: Cousteau, or Benchley?

Faux Junk

Bizarre little item here taken second-hand from the book Spycraft: The Secret History of the CIA's Spytechs, from Communism to Al-Qaeda by Robert Wallace and H. Keith Melton, by way of During the Vietnam War, the CIA used boats that looked somewhat like native coasting craft to deliver "assets," presumably to Communist-controlled areas. But should a purposeful-looking patrol boat appear, the spy-boat's crew would ditch the rig and superstructure, revealing the large speedboat beneath the disguise to make a quick getaway.
What won't those spooks think up next, huh? Well, as Gizmodo notes, the concept has roots in the Q-Ships of the Second World War, and pirates have been disguising their vessels to masquerade as innocent traders probably for millennia. But I'll bet that few such preceding Trojan sailing boats were so dead-giveaway-undercanvassed as the CIA boat appears to have been.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Brazilian Dugout "Ubá"

Here's a real beauty of a Brazilian monoxylon (hah! an expert's Latin-based jargon for a dugout, translating as "one tree") pointed out to me by correspondent Silvio Antunha. The original content from which I've borrowed the photo, with text in Portuguese, is here, and below is Silvio's commentary and partial translation (which I've edited):

The name of the beautiful canoe posted by Celso Lück is "Ubá", and it is used for fishing. Ubá (pronounced You-Bah) is a tupi-guarani word that means "a canoe made in one piece carved from a single trunk of a tree". It is from the coast of the state of Paraná, south of the state of São Paulo. Between the two states there is a marvelous, huge preserved area of Mata Atlântica (Atlantic Forest) that forms the incredible Lagamar (The Swampy Land), on the estuary of the Rio Ribeira de Iguape. The source of this river is near the astonishing Caverna do Diabo (Devil's Cave), in the heights of the Serra do Mar.

The design of this canoe is original from Paraná. The canoemaker needs the skills and the know-how of a true sculptor. Faithful to the ancient indigenous traditions, the fishermen make their canoes by carving trunks of large trees, mainly of thick guapiruvus (Schizolodium parahybum), using only axes and hoes [blogger: adzes?], both curved and straight. The oars [paddles?], the fishing poles and fixtures are made of jacatirão (Tibouchina pulchra), yellow massaranduba (Mimusops brasiliensis) and caixeta (Tabebuia cassinoides), members of the rich regional Atlantic coast flora.(The information above is a mix from myself, from Celso Lück's post, and from entries of Wikipedia in Portuguese, for example

There is also a poem (which is sung) devoted to the canoe:

It is a canoe
Made of a single trunk
Guapivuru is the good tree
That gives the canoe
Of a single trunk

Now see master Tião [i.e., Sebastian]
A small chopper in his hand
Making the canoe
Carved from a single trunk

The last guardian
Keeps the tradition
The last maker
Of the canoe of a single trunk
...with his Caiçara hands
with his natural gift...
...The trunk carved
Now it is a canoe of wood...

This is probably the most elaborate dugout I've seen from a Western (i.e., not Pacific) culture. Note the rudder with steering lines, the elaborate fitting out with gunwales, thwarts, false stem, etc., and of course the striking paint scheme.

Many thanks again , Silvio, for wonderful input!