Saturday, December 18, 2010

World's Oldest Birchbark Canoe Discovered

I don't often steal true news items from other blogs, figuring that they do a good job speaking for themselves -- Gavin Atkins' In the Boatshed blog in particular. But Gav has posted news so interesting that I feel compelled to make sure my readers see it, on the off chance that they don't subscribe to his blog (which they should). It's about the discovery in England of what is probably the world's oldest birchbark canoe -- an American Indian canoe from Canada, thought to be about 250 years old.

There's more about it in the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association Forum:

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Angyapik of St. Lawrence Island, Alaska

Just south of the Bering Strait, in the Bering Sea, 100-mile-long St. Lawrence Island is midway between the Alaska mainland and Siberia. The open skin boats used there -- called angyapiks locally, and more commonly known by the more general term umiaks -- present an interesting story of nonlineal evolution.

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The earliest known type of skinboats here had flat bottoms, straight, slanted sides, and a hard chine. Although good descriptions were not made until the early 20th century, evidence seems to point to the existence of this boat type as early as the first Euro-American explorers, in the late 18th century. Frames were made entirely of driftwood, as there are literally no trees on St. Lawrence Island. Frame members were tied together with baleen, and the frame was covered with walrus hide. Typically, two large walrus would cover the length of a boat, with pieces of a third used to bring the skin up to gunwales at the point of maximum beam.

Note the keel, chines, risers, and the headboards that sit atop the stem and sternposts. Click any image to enlarge.
Starting around 1860, whaleboats of New England design became available to the natives of St. Lawrence Island. At the end of a long whaling voyage, ships' captains would sell the islanders their worn-out whaleboats, or trade them for walrus that the islanders had captured. These, of course, were double-ended, round-bottomed, lapstrake boats firmly in Euro-American plank-on-frame tradition. Although considered not quite so handy for local needs, the whaleboat nevertheless replaced many skinboats for whale-and walrus-hunting because of its perceived durability.

But as the whaling industry petered out in the early 20th century, St. Lawrence Islanders had to find a replacement for the whaleboats as they wore out. Still without a local source of milled lumber, it was natural enough for the islanders to revert to the skinboat. But with their recent experience with the advantages of the round-hulled whaleboat fresh in their minds, the new angyapiks they began building were unlike the older flat-bottomed models.

The new skinboats featured very round bilges -- perfectly round, in fact, because the frames were shaped by boiling them and then bending them around oil drums. The keel remained, but the chines disappeared, replaced by several stringers and a heavy gunwale. The floors remained quite flat. Although some were rigged for sail, it was more common for an outboard engine to be placed in a well.

Gunwales are set up on diagonal braces against the keel and held at the proper width with temporary thwarts. The first ribs have been installed, pre-bent by boiling then shaping against an oil barrel.

Lacing the skin onto the frame. Note the mast partner and the headboards at the top of the stem and sternpost.

A completed round-bottom angyapik frame.

Profile and plan of a round-bottom angyapik.
In addition to some of the well-known advantages of seaworthiness of a round versus a flat hull, the new design was easier to handle on land and over ice -- important considerations, as the boats were beached daily, and often had to be manhandled long distances over ice to reach open water. On the earlier, flat hull, the walrus skin passed over the bottom of the keel. To drag the boat on its own bottom would very quickly wear through the skin, so instead, the boat was placed on a small sled with bone runners whenever it had to be hauled over land or ice.

Sled (top) for transporting a flat-bottomed angyapik over land or ice.
The new, round-bottomed version simplified this process by sandwiching the skin between the keel and a false keel, and then nailing a bone shoe to the bottom of the false keel. The boat thus gained a built-in sled.

Left: early, flat-bottom angyapik. Right: more recent, round-bottom version.
Further north in the Bering Sea, on King Island, the flat-bottom skinboat remained in use later. As the last photo shows, this was very similar to the St. Lawrence design, but significantly larger.

All photos and input from The Skin Boats of Saint Lawrence Island, Alaska, by Stephen R. Braund.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Trinidadian Pirogue

Let's discuss one final boat from Doulgas C. Pyle's Clean, Sweet Wind: Sailing with the Last Boatmakers of the Caribbean before it goes back to the small but stellar Rockport Public Library. It's the pirogue of Trinidad, the southernmost of the Antilles.

All images from Pyle. Click to enlarge.
 Looking, as she does, quite like a big modern outboard skiff, it's still fair to say that the pirogue has clear indigenous roots, for she is indeed yet another extended dugout -- extended in the sense that she has dugout base, to which strakes are added. She is not, however, also expanded, as in the gommier, canot, or Granadian sailing canoe discussed recently -- that is, the pirogue's dugout base is not forced apart in the middle to widen it.

Pyle discusses the construction method at length, which I'll telescope here. The dugout base, which really forms only the boat's keel, is sharp and deep on the outside (see lines drawings below), and hollowed inside. To it are added a long, straight stem and a broad, nearly vertical transom -- wider since the introduction of outboard engines, to provide greater buoyancy aft. The lowest, or garboard, strake is first nailed to the stem, then to the top of the keel, and finally to the transom. But it's not a typical edge-to-edge or lapped joint between the plank and the keel. Rather, the outboard surface of the garboard rests  horizontally atop the keel and is through-nailed to it with galvanized nails. Subsequent strakes are lapped without bevels, and fastened with clenched nails. 

When Pyle observed the process in 1975, there was only one builder on Trinidad, named Taitt, and his methods (which is not to say his workmanship) were so refined that joggled half-frames were cut to patterns before being trimmed for installation. What is impressive is that no patterns or plans were used for any of the steps prior to cutting the frames, so the work that was all done by eye had admirable accuracy and consistency. The boat is finished with the installation of stringers, thwarts, wales, and a small foredeck.

To quote Pyle:

The lines of a Taitt pirogue seem to confirm its hybrid ancestry. The waterlines forward showed much greater hollow than I found in any small craft [in the Caribbean] other than the dugout gommiers and their derivatives, the yoles. Use of the shell as a keel points to a dugout origin here. The odd thing was that raising strakes should be lapped instead of fastened on edge as was done elsewhere with dugouts.
One of Pyle's informants suggested that the pirogue "was of Amerindian origin, that raising strakes had been a development connected to the diminishing availability of large tree trunks for dugout canoes. He surmised that the notion of lapping had been learned from the Royal Navy, whose launches and tenders were always clinker-built."

Although Pyle took the lines himself, and they are presumably accurate, these were from an outboard-powered boat, while the strangely low and long sailplan was based on a sketch from a native informant and seems less reliable. No sailing pirogues were in existence in 1975, engines having completely taken over.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Sailing Canoes of Granada

Still further south from the gommiers of Dominica and Martinique and the canot of St. Lucia is another expanded and extended dugout, the sailing canoe of Granada. When Douglas C. Pyle visited the island in 1975, "a handful" were still in use. It would be a surprise, though a pleasant one, if any still exist 35 years later.

The Granada sailing canoe had something in the looks of a whaleboat.
(This and all other images from Pyle, Clean Sweet Wind. Click any image to enlarge.)

The dugout origins are just discernible in the small hollowed keel, to which three wide strakes have been added, followed by rough, widely-spaced frames and partial frames.

The waterlines and buttocks are very nice, but the sections look scary. The sailplan looks fairly powerful for such an unstable hull, but it's wisely kept low.
Pyle writes in Clean Sweet Wind:

The lines show very clearly that no effort was made to give the hull any shape other than that assumed by a hollowed log wedged slightly open at midsection. They were propelled by sailing and rowing simultaneously, a practical mix in the flat water and fluky breezes that prevail in the lee of all high islands such as Granada.
In spite of Pyle's criticism of their unsophisticated lines, he says the canoes were "versatile...capable also of operating in the open sea," and he describes a regatta in nearby Carriacou where the boats seemed to perform adequately, though hampered by their blue denim sails.

In any case, I find the buttocks, waterlines, and sheer profile pleasing. The sections, however, are another matter. Where the bottom of the canot was just slightly flattened, and the gommier almost perfectly round amidships, the Granada canoe's bottom is nearly a rounded V. Lightly laden, this boat would have little initial stability, though I think she would firm up when heeled down onto her wide flared sides.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Canot of St. Lucia

An interesting contrast to the gommiers of Dominica and Martinique is the closely-related canot of St. Lucia -- the next large island south in the chain of the Windward Islands. In Clean, Sweet Wind: Sailing with the Last Boatmakers of the Caribbean, Douglas C. Pyle writes of his first encounter with this boat while aboard a modern Western-style sailboat:
We were nearing midchannel when something in the animated monotony of the waves caught my attention -- a flash that was not a whitecap, a motion not part of the heaving sea. A few minutes later, there was another visual disturbance, this time from a different quarter altogether. As the disturbances became more frequent, they also drew closer, slowly revealing themselves as human figures clad in yellow oilskins and topped by straw hats with fantastic high peaks. The figures seems (sic) to skim the surface of the water at high speed, darting this way and that like disembodied spirits.

When the full reality was finally disclosed, the figures were seated by threes, one behind another in a canoe so narrow and so low in the water as to be invisible at a very short distance. The figure in the stern was steering with the outboard motor; the one in the middle was bailing. In the bow, lifted completely clear of the water by the thrust of the motor, the third figure peered forward and gestured from time to time, sending the whole rig swerving this way and that.

(Drawing by Pyle)

Like the gommier, the canot is primarily a fishing boat that, at the time of the Pyle's observation, was well in the process of conversion from sail to outboard power. The basics of the two types are certainly similar: an expanded and extended dugout with a single strake added to increase freeboard. But as Pyle notes, the canot is "easily distinguishable from the gommier by the striking extension of the dugout forward into a sort of cutwater." Some of the examples of gommiers in the previous post showed a small extension, but nothing like the imposing "ram bow" of the canot.

As Pyle also notes, the canot's midsection is quite a bit flatter, with a slack, but perceptible bilge, as opposed to the almost perfectly round sections of the gommier. In addition, he notes the length-to-beam ratio is much longer in the canot; and "there is less freeboard in the bow, and the waterlines show less hollow and are less streamlined."

In the late 1990s, the Gli Gli Project built a big (35') Carib canoe with the intention of sailing it from its home in Dominica to South America. The project's rather sketchy website doesn't tell the complete story, though, and it may be that the voyage was not completed. It's not clear from the photos on the site if the canoe was more like the gommiers of Dominica or the canots of St. Lucia.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Gommiers of the Windward Islands

The Windward Islands -- i.e., the southeastern string of islands in the Lesser Antilles -- were populated by the Carib Indians when discovered by Europeans. Although subject to oppression and attempts at extermination by Europeans, pure Caribs communities and culture lasted longer than many other native New World cultures, due, it is said, to their ferocious resistance to European incursion, which resistance lasted several decades into the 18th century. Communities of Caribs, mixed with other races (predominantly Blacks) but still recognizably distinct, are still in existence on several islands, and a reservation of relatively pure Caribs still exists on Dominica.

The dugout canoe was the indigenous boat of the Caribs, and like the people themselves, it remained in existence well into the modern era, modified, but still recognizable. While the pre-Contact versions were "pure" dugouts -- i.e., possibly expanded, but not extended -- their more modern derivatives are all extended with the addition of strakes above the dugout base.

Most of what follows is from Clean, Sweet Wind, by Douglas C. Pyle (International Marine, 1998).

Gommiers were still in use in Dominica, the northernmost of the Windward Islands, in 1975. Their construction was fairly typical of dugouts around the world. The hull was hewn from a tree called gommier in several of the French-speaking islands. After the tree was felled, it was flattened on one side, and that side turned topmost. Coals were placed on the flat surface, then the charred area was scraped away -- originally with stone and shell tools, more recently with iron and steel. The process was repeated until a sizable amount of wood was removed, then inspection holes were bored in the bottom, along the centerline, and wood removal continued until the bottom was 3" thick and the sides 1". The bow was cut sharply vertical, and in the modern version, at least, the stern was cut square . After the holes were plugged, the hull was filled with water, into which were placed fire-heated stones. When the wood had softened, the sides were forced outward in stages with temporary thwarts of steadily increasing length. Wash-strakes were edge-nailed to the top of the dugout hull and a few frames added.

Gommiers in Dominica. Note how the top of the sharp, tumblehome prow of the dugout hull extends a bit beyond the base of the added strakes.

The gommier tree was still common on Dominica in 1998, but it was scarce on Martinique, and some Dominican builders would tow unfinished log hulls to Martinique for sale. As of 1972, there were more than 2,000 of them registered in Martinique, mainly used for fishing, but the movement was already well under way to replace them with yoles -- very similar in form, but plank-built and hence easier to obtain and more economical.

A 20'6" LOA gommier in Martinique, used for fishing by a crew of three. Note the very sharp bow and hollow waterlines fore and aft. Although the forefoot defines the forward perpendicular, the strakes fair into the dugout hull at the bow, unlike the setback of the strakes in the Dominica example shown above.

Sailplan and sections of the Martinique gommier shown above. In spite of their very round sections and nonexistent bilges, these boats are used in rough waters well offshore for fishing and for carrying cargo. (Douglas Pyle said this particular boat had been used to carry as much as a ton of cargo over 25 miles of open sea.) The small sailing rig is supplemental to the outboard engine which is its normal means of propulsion. The mast is unstayed, the sail a perfect rectangle, and the sprit bamboo; as Pyle says, "all very simple to set, stow, and sew."

These gommiers appeared in the February, 1959, issue of National Geographic -- before the outboard engine was adopted widely by the fishermen of Martinique. They were launched through surf off the beach, powered by oars set in tholepins; the sailing rig was raised once through the surf.

In this detail of the photo immediately above, note the extended bow of the dugout base, similar to the Dominican example. As beach boats, these are unusually fine and narrow compared to these examples from Portugal and Kerala, India, and Vietnam. Note how the stern man is as far aft as he can possibly be, and the rest of the crew is also fairly far aft -- evidently to help the bow rise over the waves.

More gommiers in Martinique in 1959, with the extended-prow dugout base. Note the widely-spaced frames.
(Black & white photos and drawings from Pyle; color photos by Charles Allmon, National Geographic, Feb. 1959)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Sampans in Hong Kong Harbor

Friend John Meader spent a couple days in Hong Kong recently and kindly allowed me to use these photos of the sampans he observed in the harbor.  All photos may be clicked for an enlarged view.
The modern powered sampan looks like similar to the traditional man-powered variety.

The very high topsides obviously improve capacity and weather protection over more traditional models. Typically heavy used-tire fendering indicates these boats are used roughly.

Any notion what the odd pipe structure at the bow is?

Sampan as billboard.

Billboard boat crossing in front of a tour-boat sampan.

Look at the amount of water this flat-fronted boat is pushing!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Curvy Dugout

Just had to share this photo I stumbled upon of an extraordinary double-curved dugout from the village of Omorate, in the Omo River Valley in Ethiopia. Not much detail about it, but read what you will in this blog where I found it. (Thanks to the source bloggers, Ray and Gary.)

I can't imagine that one would prefer to build a boat shaped like this, and it's almost equally hard to believe that it warped like this after it was put into use. The only remaining explanation is that no straight trees were available to the builder, who had to settle for this curvy one. It must be awfully hard to maneuver, but its owner gets bragging rights to "Most Distinctive" in the Indigenous Boats Beauty Contest.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Chilean Dalca

Some months ago we looked at the three-piece bark canoes of the Yahgan and Alacaluf people of southern Chile. Prior to European contact, these boats were prevalent all across the Strait of Magellan and several hundred miles up the west coast of Chile, to about the Taitao Peninsula. For another 200 miles or so north of that point, the common pre-conquest boat was the dalca.

In terms of design and even construction, the dalca was quite similar to its southern bark-built cousin, consisting of three planks. A "keel" plank, wide amidships and tapered equally toward the ends to points, was bent to impart a great deal of rocker, particularly toward the ends, so that the bottom curved up to form stem- and sternposts, after a fashion. Side planks were sewn on, with their ends curving inward sharply so that their ends met the outboard edges of the endposts. The sides leaned slightly outward at the top.

I believe the indigenous people of the Chilean coast had no metals pre-conquest, and hence no saws. The boards, therefore, must have been gotten out by splitting with wedges.

Reports differ on the caulking material used to seal the seams, with mentions of various materials including crushed herbs and clay or mud, a tree- or other plant-based resin, and moss. Likewise, the material for the stitches was variously reported as being of bark fibers, baleen, split cane or some unnamed cordage.  There are mentions of floor timbers and thwarts. Other than the fact that the thwarts were narrow and structural, apparently not intended as comfortable seats, I've come across no other descriptions of these members, nor their numbers in the boats that existed at the time of European contact.

One of the earliest reports cited a length of 30-40 feet and a beam of 3 feet, which seems far too narrow. Even if three feet is taken as the width of the bottom and one assumes a width at the gunwale as 5 feet amidships, this would have been rather narrow boat at 30 feet LOA, and an outrageously narrow one at 40 feet LOA. I think it probable that at least one, if not both, of the dimensions in that early report were in error.

Propulsion was originally by paddle. One early observer saw the use of a rudimentary sailing rig, consisting of a single mast and yard to which a leather square sail was lashed. The clews (bottom corners) of the sail were held in the mariners' hands. According to Clinton R. Edwards in Aboriginal Watercraft on the Pacific Coast of South America, this was probably an adoption made soon after first contact; Edwards believes no sails were used pre-contact.

Early Europeans in the area often used dalcas for local travel, even commissioning their construction in large numbers, but making provisions for the use of oars instead of paddles. In some cases, they were disassembled for long portages and reassembled at the end of the carry. This was easily done, given their simple stitched or sewn construction.

Soon after European contact began, the dalca began to displace the bark canoe to its south, probably because access to metal tools made the more durable wooden boat that much more attractive and accessible to the Yahgan and Alacaluf people. Dalcas remained in use into the early 20th century, when they were displaced by small craft of European design.

The photo, of a dalca reconstruction at the the Museum of the Dalca in Chiloe, Chile, differs somewhat from the descriptions in Edwards, and may reflect post-contact modifications of an unknown (to me) date. The bottom board does not narrow to points at the ends, and the strakes or side boards butt against the inboard surface of the bottom board – not against its outboard edges. There is a batten on the outside, and possibly on the inside, of the main construction seam, held in place by the bottom-to-sides lashings. There are no floor timbers or frames, but there are seven thwarts, round and still not used as seats, lashed to the upper surface of the strakes.

(Photo is Creative Commons via Wikipedia. Most information is from Edwards, cited above.)

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Preserving a Bronze Age Logboat Proves Difficult

See here for an article on Old Salt Blog about continuing efforts to preserve the Hasholme Boat, a big Bronze Age logboat (i.e., dugout) found decades ago on the Humber River in England.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

China's Forgotten Fleet: Voyages of Zheng He

In 2008, the National Geographic Museum presented an exhibit titled "China's Forgotten Fleet: The Voyages of Zheng He." To quote from National Geo's Flickr site:
Nearly a century before Columbus arrived in the Americas, a massive Chinese armada commanded by Admiral Zheng He set sail on the first of seven epic voyages spanning three decades. Objects from the National Museum in China, such as a bronze bell commissioned by Zheng He and copies of maps created on his voyages, as well as ship models from the Quanzhou Maritime Museum, help tell the story of these little known journeys and cultural exchanges. Travel in the fleet’s path to five ports – Malacca, Sri Lanka, the Malabar Coast of India, the Arabian Peninsula, and Malindi in East Africa.
Here's the link to the Flickr site, which includes photos of some of the exhibit's impressive ship models. Thanks to Heather Hernandez at Maritime Compass blog for this one.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Yet More Boats from Cambodia's Tonle Sap

Here's the final batch of photos from the floating villages of the Tonle Sap, Cambodia, taken by my friend John Meader on a recent trip. (See the previous three or four posts for more on the same subject.) Since I've already done small boats and large boats, I guess this post (for lack of any other coherent idea) will concentrate on "medium" boats. Click any image to enlarge.

A small commercial carrier. Gas and other fuels are often sold by the bottle-full in Cambodia, so these plastic jerry-cans might represent "storage tanks" for a small gas station, on their way to be filled. The square bow allows goods to be loaded and unloaded right over the bow onto crowded docks where it's not feasible to tie up alongside.

Interesting planking and sternpost details.

I believe this is someone's home. It appears to have a small outrigger on a short strut. Could this be a huge dugout?

A small variety store. Note the bamboo sponsons at the waterline.

If you don't like your neighbors in Chon Khneas, just tie your home to the family boat and drag it somewhere else. I don't know if these larger houseboats typically have engines, but the hull looks like it was originally intended for actual transportation, not just domicile.

Home. I can't tell how the hulls are built or even what material they are.

Happy and proud. Woof!
Once again, thanks to John Meader of Northern Stars Planetarium, providing educational astronomy programming to schools in Maine.