Sunday, September 19, 2010

What's My Line?

Here's a request for reader input, from your faithful blogger.

I enjoy doing this blog -- enjoy the reading and the writing, and receiving comments from readers is so gratifying. I'd like to take my understanding of the subject matter to another level, and I suspect this means formal education. Whether I could actually fit grad school into my life is an open question, but one I'm willing to consider.

Problem is, I don't know what academic subject or program I should be looking into. Is this blog about anthropology? Marine history? Nautical archaeology? Some obscure branch of naval architecture? Is it possible I'm barking up the wrong tree -- that a serious study of this subject falls somewhere outside of academia?

Your suggestions will be appreciated.


Saturday, September 18, 2010

A South American Canoe-Based Culture

Light at the Edge of the World, by Wade Davis, is not primarily about boats. Its subtitle, A Journey Through the Realm of Vanishing Cultures, does a good job describing the subject matter. But it does treat with the culture of the Warao, the largest indigenous society in Venezuela, and so it is of interest to us.

The Warao live on the Orinoco River delta, and their homes are raised above the water or thoroughly wet land on stilts. Whole villages are connected by raised walkways between houses. Naturally, watercraft play an important role in their lives. And deaths. The dead are "buried" in a canoe raised on a platform and protected by a thatched roof.

The Warao rely upon their shamans to mediate the spirit world, and many common objects come into play for ritual use. From here, I'll quote:

The most sacred object of all...was also the most utilitarian, the very canoes that had carried us for days now into the forests. Warao means "Owners of canoes," and in a world of water, the people not only travel by canoe, they virtually live in them: sleeping, playing, cooking, trading. To be a builder of canoes is to become a man. Not to possess a canoe is to be relegated among the undistinguished souls of the dead, impoverished, unfed, the lowest of the low. An infant's first canoe is the flat root of a sangrito tree, a plank laid down on the floor of the hut, a surface to practice upon. Before a child can walk, he can paddle, and after a week in Winikina, I grew used to the sight of three-year-old boys and girls, alone, fearlessly maneuvering small dugouts across the wide expanse of the river.

Canoes, in addition to providing an essential means of transportation, moving goods and people throughout the delta, are, more profoundly, the vessels of Warao culture. The toy-like dugout of the child, the discarded hull slowly rotting beneath the landing, the massive seagoing craft that once journeyed to Trinidad and beyond -- all represent the mystical knowledge transmitted by the master builder and acquired by the apprentice during their construction, every step of which is dominated by shamanic insight and regulation.

No tree can be felled without the permission of the ancients, the ancestral carpenters who receive offerings of sago starch and tobacco. The spirit of the trees lives on in the canoes, which are carved from the embodiment of Dauarani, the Mother of the Forest, whose womb is both birth canal and coffin. The master builder, who must abstain from sex with his wife until the canoe is consecrated, is visited daily by the spirit of the tree; and as the canoe takes shape as the vulva of the goddess, the very act of carving becomes a mystical act of love, intercourse with the divine.

I quote at length because Davis is such a lyrical writer, so adept at capturing something of the essence of the cultures he has visited. In addition to its worthwhile text, Light at the Edge of the World is also a coffee-table-type book of Davis's photographs although, unfortunately, there are no photos of the Waraos' canoes. (There is a smattering of photos of canoes from other cultures, however.)

The book appears to have been produced as a companion project to a video of the same title, but I have not seen that. And just FYI, the title appears to have come from a Jules Verne book, Le Phare du bout du monde, the light (phare) in question meaning "lighthouse." The Verne book was made into a 1971 movie with Kirk Douglas.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Great Source of Info for Indochinese Boats

This morning's blog post about Vietnamese woven boats was largely based on an article by Ken Preston in the current issue of WoodenBoat magazine. I forgot to mention Preston's wonderful website, The Wooden Working Boats of Indochina, a.k.a. Here  you'll find not only more about woven boats, but also information about indigenous fishing and working vessels (both traditional and modern), motorized rafts (!), and lots more, organized both by boat type and by region. The site covers Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos and is full of great photos and clear explanations. Plan to spend a bit of time here.

Basket Boats Worlds and Ages Apart

Woven or "basket" boats are among the less common and lesser-known types of indigenous boats. (I believe I've mentioned them only once since I began blogging more than two and a half years ago.) But woven boats have certain advantages over dugouts, skin-covered frame-built boats, bark boats, rafts and floats, which makes their apparent scarcity surprising.

Woven boats go back a long time. The Mesopotamians certainly had reed rafts and floats but, according to Paul Johnstone, "The availability of bitumen enabled the boat-builders of the Tigris and Euphrates to overcome one of the chief defects of the reed craft, the short-lived nature of its buoyancy." It seems likely that reed rafts were initially coated with bitumen as a preservative, but eventually it probably became clear that "a reed framework covered with bitumen produced a combination of a flexible shape and a smooth featureless exterior without lashings, sewing, planks, or cross-beam ends."

Silver boat model from Ur depicting a bitumen-covered woven boat. (Source: The Sea-Craft of Prehistory, Paul Johnstone)
Boats of this sort were still in use in Iraq as late of 1835. For the coating, the bitumen was heated over a fire, mixed with sand and earth, and applied with a roller.

Thousands of miles away and thousands of years later, similar construction methods are still in use. "Woven Boats of Vietnam," an article by Ken Preston in the current issue of WoodenBoat, describes woven boats of two general types: one small and canoe-like; the other larger and shaped somewhat like the surfboats of India's west coast that I've described previously.

The WoodenBoat article describes the building procedure of the smaller type:
1. The woven fabric is made of bamboo. Long lengths of bamboo are split into narrow strips with a machete, cut to length with a bow saw, then woven by hand on the bias in a simple basket-weave to create a flat piece of matting as wide and long as needed.
2. Stakes are pounded into the ground to define the boat's outline in plan view.
3. Bamboo is split in half lengthwise for gunwales. Half-round lengths are lashed to the inside of the stakes at the height desired, with the flat edge facing inward. This defines the sheer. (Very few boats start at, and are shaped by, the gunwales. The North American birchbark canoe is one example.)
4. The matting is rolled out over the gunwales. Then builder then steps atop the matting and forces it down between the gunwales until it attains a U-shape in cross-section.
5. The remaining half-round sections of long bamboo are lashed inside the hull to form inwales, sandwiching the upper edge of the matting between the two half-round wales.
6. The upper edge of the matting is trimmed flush with the wales, then thwarts and breasthooks are added.
7. The matting is covered with road tar to make it waterproof.

A canoe-style Vietnamese woven boat under construction. The woven matting has been shaped between the gunwales and clamped in place with inwales. The builder is using a bow-drill to bore fastening holes for thwarts. Note the stakes outboard of the gunwales, used to set the outline and height of the gunwales. (Source for this and next photo: "Woven Boats of Vietnam", Ken Preston, in WoodenBoat)
While the canoe-like boat described above has no backbone members and very little stiff wooden structure, the larger, surf-boat types have stem- and stern-posts that are lashed in place. (There appear to be no keels or keelsons to which the stem and sternposts attach.) Boats of this type may be from 17' to 20', and some of the largest ones have diesel engines, although all rely on oars to an extent. Even larger engined versions, from 24' to 30', have wooden upper strakes on top of their woven hulls, and these surely add a great deal of additional stiffness. Although not described in the article, one must assume that some rigid structure serves as an engine bed and keeps the engine aligned with the sternpost through which the shaft presumably passes.

Larger Vietnamese woven boat with wooden upper strakes and endposts. The crew (forward) and their womenfolk (aft) are spinning the boat to "walk" it up the beach.
The sternpost on these boats is hollowed to accept a post for a rudder that can be raised for surf landings. Both stem and sternpost have stout hooks carved on their outboard surfaces that are used to bring the boat up the beach in an interesting manner.

Once the boat lands through the surf, the crew takes a long pole and places it horizontally beneath the hook at the stern. With one or more men at each end of the pole, they lift that end of the boat and pivot it around a point somewhat forward of the boat's midpoint, until the stern is facing up the beach. This moves the boat about 4 feet up the beach. They then move the lifting pole to the bow and repeat the process, switching ends as many times as needed to move the boat beyond the reach of the waves. The process is reversed to launch the boat.

And the advantages  of woven boats? Aside from those cited in the Johnstone quotes above, they would appear to include: i) lighter weight compared to reed floats and dugouts; ii) ease of construction compared to dugouts; and iii) more readily available material in some locations (far less material needed than for floats). Depending upon the application, their flexibility may be either an advantage or a disadvantage compared to dugouts.

With all these advantages, why was the woven boat not more widely distributed? Perhaps it was because suitable waterproofing material was not available in many places. Certainly, natural bitumen is not be be found as readily as reeds, logs, or bark.

On the other hand, not all woven or basket boats rely on bitumen as a sealer. Other Vietnamese woven boats apparently use a dung-based mixture to cover the basketwork, and the Irish coracle was originally a kind of loosely-woven basket covered with skins (as was the Sioux bull boat). It seems possible that other skinboats might have begun their evolution as baskets before attaining the more substantial frameworks that we recognize as the distinguishing feature that separates "skinboats" from woven ones.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Irish Man Finds Ancient Dugout Canoe -- Again

This "news" may be a half-year old, but it's amusing nonetheless.

According to an article in the Irish Times, Peter Dempsey, mayor of Arklow, County Wiklow, Ireland, was feeding ducks by a local bridge and noticed what appeared to be a dugout canoe protruding from the mud of the riverbank. Sure enough, it was. But what's odd is that in 1966, the same thing happened to the same guy. The first canoe, although documented in situ, wasn't recovered, and when he made his find in April 2010, he thought that he might be looking at the same canoe, newly uncovered by recent rains. Turns out, it's a different canoe, and this one stands a better chance of being recovered for long-term study. 

Friday, September 10, 2010

An American Source for Peruvian Dugouts

John Waymire is an American who has figured out how to make a living from dugout canoes. Waymire runs, a site offering "Ethnographic crafts and tools from the Amazon Rainforest for zoos, museums, and collectors." Prominent among those crafts and tools are dugout canoes and paddles (along with blowguns, baskets, masks, clothing, and decorative items).

As John describes it: "Over the years I've done a lot of traveling. During one journey I found myself in Iquitos, Peru, on the Amazon River. Near Iquitos I purchased two dugout canoe paddles and took them back to the States. My friend, who has an antique store, was taken with these paddles and wished he could have more.

"The next year I returned to Iquitos, and had a crate made and filled it with paddles for my friend and others. I had some space left over so I packed a small canoe -- right for a small kid. My friend purchased all these pieces and that motivated me to try to sell more canoes and to return to Iquitos."

John now travels to Peru regularly, buying canoes and other items on the rivers and in the villages near Iquitos. His clients – mainly museums and zoos -- prefer authentic, contemporary artifacts to those made for the export or tourist trades. He therefore looks for canoes "that have been well-used and often repaired with whatever the fisherman could find -- sometimes even modern materials like nails and tin."

John also avoids buying antiques and items that are built in traditional ways but no longer in use in the culture, concentrating instead on items that accurately reflect the present-day culture from which they come. In an attempt to deal fairly within the local economy without changing its nature, he limits his buying to a very few items in any one place, so as to avoid giving local people an incentive to abandon their existing economic activity (farming or fishing, for example) in favor of manufacturing "authentic" goods for sale. His admirable statement of buying ethics appears here.

"Most of these canoes are not associated with a tribe," he says. "They're made by riberenos, people who make their livelihood along the river, but have moved from tribal villages generations ago. Around Iquitos there are, however, a few villages of Yaguas and Bora people who are trying to maintain their cultural identity. I have purchased canoes from these indigenous people and hope to continue in the future."

In addition to museums and zoos, John also sells to a few private individuals. Most of these are serious collectors, but he says that a couple of private buyers use their dugout canoes on the water, including "one lady [who] paddles hers to work."

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Tub Boat in Algae

Lovely photo of a Chinese tub boat rowing amidst a pollution-related algae bloom on Chaohu Lake in Hefei, Anhui province. This image is from Reuters New Agency. (OK, I admit I actually got it off the Cracked website, which got it off of, which cited, but did not link to, Reuters.) 

Friday, September 3, 2010

Two Models at the Wilson Museum

The Wilson Museum in Castine, Maine, is a nice but very small institution with a relatively broad collections mandate covering, among other subjects: world ethnography, geology, tools, Castine history, firearms, and paleontology. Among the displays are a modest number of objects relating to indigenous boats of various cultures, including: a diorama of bronze-age Italian lake-dwellers with a dugout canoe; a leaf-shaped canoe paddle from South America (no other apparent information given); a fine large model of a large cedar-and-canvas sponson canoe (again, unfortunately, no details given); and some Eskimo kayak-related tools and fittings.

Also unfortunately, the museum has an almost-no-photographs policy. They permit you to take a single photo, without flash. I pushed the limit and got the following four images, but I'm sorry not to be able to provide more.

A model of a reed boat (called a "balsa") of the type used on Lake Titicaca. Where ancient Egyptian reed boats commonly used cords to pull the ends upward, these South American boats were were given rocker and sheer by binding the reeds in that shape from the start. 

Obviously, there are some problems with the way the model is rigged.

Otherwise, it looks pretty convincing. This detail shows the lashing of the (four?) bundles of which the boat is made.

A very nice model of a Pacific outrigger paddling (i.e., non-sailing) canoe; culture not identified by museum signage. It''s hard to make out the details with all the other items in the frame, and it's worth clicking the photo for an enlarged image. You'll see that the outrigger base has a lot of tumblehome, and that the washstrakes are fastened to the upper edges of the dugout base with an elaborate pattern of lashings. There are tombstone-shape "transoms" closing in the spaces at the ends of the washstrakes. The outrigger appears to be mounted too far aft (I believe the bow is facing left), but I may be wrong about this, not knowing what culture's boats to check it against. Just behind and to the right of the aft outrigger boom is a fancy ceremonial boat adze with a stone blade, and a plainer, more functional stone adze just barely visible to its right.  

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Dragon Boat Drum

One photo that I forgot to add to yesterday's post: a drum from one of the dragon boats in Pawtucket, Rhode Island:

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Indigenous Boats as Propaganda (Dragon Boats in Rhode Island)

Funny how just about anything can be put to use to make a political point. Offshore drilling causes an environmental disaster, and one of America's most popular idiots, a proponent of offshore drilling, claims that it proves she was right all along. Another idiot consistently argues against civil rights in detail, then stands in front of the Great Emancipator's statue to make the point before an audience of bigots that they're all for civil rights in theory. Sigh.

(Click any image to enlarge it.)
And so it goes, alas, with indigenous boats. Last weekend I attended the 11th annual Rhode Island Chinese Dragon Boat Race and Taiwan Day Festival on the Seekonk River in Pawtucket. There were six identical dragon boats, donated to the event organizers by the government of Taiwan, a few major Taiwanese corporations, and a couple of Rhode Island companies.

A large booth sponsored by the Taiwan government introduced attendees to some elements of the country's culture and handed out literature, some of it explicitly political. Although I did not ask, it appeared that representatives of the People's Republic of China were neither invited nor welcome to participate. Indeed, there was a Falun Gong booth, which pretty much assured the PRC's non-participation should they have been otherwise inclined. It all seemed like the event was designed by Chinese expats in Rhode Island to promote the Taiwan government to the non-Chinese in attendance. Not that there's anything wrong with their motivations -- it's just demoralizing to see something so apparently noncontroversial as an ancient boat type being used for political purposes.
Underneath their colorful decorations, the dragon boats in Pawtucket looked somewhat industrial.

Okay, enough politics. The six identical boats are 50 feet tip to tip, 58" in beam, and weigh 1,500 pounds. They appeared to be made of fiberglass and, in spite of their lovely, colorful decoration, looked somewhat clunky and barge-like. They seat 20 paddlers plus a steerer, a drummer, and a "flag catcher." This latter individual is the foremost person in the boat, and his job is to grab a suspended flag at the finish line. Not only does this keep the steerers focused on going straight and not interfering with their competitors, but it also provides officials with a second visual cue in case of close finishes.

I was told by one racer that most race hosts in the U.S. provide identical boats and paddles for all teams. (He also said that some hosts have narrower, faster boats than I saw in Pawtucket). This is nice, as it makes it purely a skill competition among paddlers and takes technology and money out of the equation.

The race was a 300 meter sprint, straight, one-way. (One of the event organizers insisted that it was a mile, but with winning times of about 1 minute 45 seconds, I had to force myself into polite mode in order not to contradict him publicly.) Other dragon boat races in the U.S. may be as short as 250 meters or as long as 2 km.

Bow decoration...
...and stern.
Steering oars. Note also how close the seats are. The paddlers are packed in pretty tight, making good coordination and a good drummer essential.
Bracket ("fixed oarlock"?) for the steering oar on the starboard quarter. It appeared to be made of stainless steel.
Steering oars in place on the starboard quarter.
I enjoyed the variety of logos on the team "jerseys." These guys looked pretty serious...
...but these guys didn't.