Monday, December 26, 2011

Different Coats for Different Boats

The skins with which skin-on-frame boats are covered differ considerably from place to place, and even from boat type to boat type within a geographic area.

The angyapik (umiaks) of St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, just south of the Bering Strait, are covered with the hides of female walruses. Removed from the carcasses after the spring hunt, the hides are stored until the hunting season ends in June or July. Any flesh or blubber that still adheres is then scraped off, then the hide is folded up into another old skin and left in a warm place for several days or weeks. This "sours" the skin so that the hair can be scraped off easily.
St. Lawrence Island woman splitting a framed walrus hide stretched on a vertical frame. In her right hand she holds a honing stone, with which she frequently touches up the blade of her ulu knife. (Click any image to enlarge)
The edges of the skin are split 1"-2" (2.5-5cm) deep, then holes are punched into the blubber side and the skin is hung and stretched  on a vertical frame. The skin is then split from the top down with an ulu-type knife, great care being given to maintaining equal thickness on both sides. The two halves are not separated completely: they are left attached all along the bottom edge, so that the hide can be "unfolded" to cover very nearly twice its original surface area. It is then stretched and laced onto a larger, horizontal frame and left to dry for two to four weeks, after which is is soaked for up to a week in fresh water just before it is laid over the upturned hull with the blubber and hair side facing inward. The blubber-side half of the split hide goes bow-first, it being considered better able to resist abrasion from floating ice than the hair-side half. Women, by the way, do all the hide preparation and sewing. 
The walrus hide has been split but the two halves remain attached. (See the raised line along the center, just to the right of the center timber.)  It will dry on this stretching frame for several weeks.
Some 200 miles north, on King Island, in the Bearing Strait, the walrus hide is split completely, but only the hair side is used to cover boats. This means that twice as many hides are required. (A typical St. Lawrence Island angyapik requires at least two full hides, and often part of a third for patches to raise the sides amidships.) On Diomede Island, close by King Island, the two halves of the hide are separated completely, but both parts are often used, with the blubber-side half placed toward the bow, as on St. Lawrence. (In contrast, kayaks of the region are skinned with seal or sea lion hides, not walrus.)
Fully-skinned angyapik of St. Lawrence Island, Alaska. Two full skins are sewn together amidships in a straight seam. Also visible are ridges halfway between the center and the ends, where each split hide remains attached. Note the large side panel, required to make up the full width of the hull. 
To sew the hides together, women use thread made from  whale or caribou sinew. For the main hull seams, they use a blind waterproof stitch in which the thread does not completely penetrate either of the pieces. With the two pieces overlapped by 1"-2", the needle is inserted into the side-edge of one piece then down into the underlying piece, where it takes a U-turn within the thickness of the hide before emerging just outboard of the top piece's outer edge. The same procedure is followed on the opposite side, for a double row of waterproof stitches with no holes through the hide.

Half a world and perhaps 1,000 years away is the leather-covered curragh used by early Irish Christian missionaries, as reproduced by Tim Severin in The Brendan Voyage . While it's impossible to know the real details of the boat used by St. Brendan (c.489 - c. 570 or 583), Severin conducted careful and persuasive research in attempting to recreate the type of boat that might have been used to cross the Atlantic long before the Vikings. What he concluded as the most likely covering was ox hides tanned in oak bark solution and dressed with raw sheep's-wool grease (i.e., lanolin). As these 6th-century boats were made in and for the use of monasteries, I feel we can safely assume they were built entirely by men.
Ox hides being installed on Tim Severin's curragh Brendan.
Severin bought his hides from one of only two or three traditional tanners remaining in the UK in the mid 1970s. He observed the process by which hides were first soaked in a lime  solution, then stripped of their hair with hand scrapers. They were then soaked for weeks in an oak-bark solution. After drying, they were dipped into a hot bath of wool grease, then laid out flat one atop another with more hot grease poured between each one. After soaking thus for weeks, the hides had taken up 30-37% grease which, I think, means that the weight of the hide increased by that amount.

The 36'-LOA Brendan required 47 hides to cover. They were sewed with hand-twisted flax cord made of 14 individual threads and rubbed through a mixture of black wax, wool grease and beeswax. Although the needles pierced straight through the seams, the thread's grease coating, and the high grease content of the hides themselves effectively sealed the needle holes against water. On the trip across the Atlantic, seepage through the hull was never a problem.
The finished Brendan.
The differences in materials between the umiaks of Alaska and the curraghs of Ireland imposed significant differences in usage. Because the umiak skins are neither tanned nor dressed, their waterproof performance is extremely limited. They must be removed from the sea every day and allowed to dry, or they will become quickly waterlogged. This will promote rot but, long before that happens, the skins would become too weak to maintain any integrity, and they would simply fall to pieces. This being the case, the umiak/angyapik is strictly a coasting vessel. Although trips lasting several weeks might be undertaken, the crew must land each evening to dry the boat's cover.

The curragh's leather cover, on the other hand, resisted both waterlogging and rot over a period of months at sea, at least in cold waters. (The Brendan voyage took the "stepping stone" route from the British Isles to the Faroes, and thence to Iceland and Newfoundland. Severin speculated that it might not have performed so well had a more southerly route been taken.) The leather-covered curragh, then, was a true ocean-going craft, capable of extended voyages and not requiring drying-out time.

Angyakpiks/umiaks: Information and photos from The Skin Boats of Saint Lawrence Island, Alaska , by Stephen R. Braund
Curraghs: Information and photos from The Brendan Voyage , by Tim Severin
This post was inspired by a communication from Carlos Pedro Vairo, director of the Museo Maritimo de Ushuaia, Argentina, and author of The Yamana Canoe: The Marine Tradition of the Aborigines of Tierra Del Fuego .

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

"New" Bronze Age Dugouts Uncovered

Bronze Age boats

According to this article on BBC News, an important Bronze Age archaeological site is being excavated at a  quarry in Whittlesey, England. The village, located along the old course of the River Nene, burned about 800 B.C., and was subsequently buried by 3 meters of peat and silt, which preserved a great many artifacts, including six (count 'em!) oak dugout canoes, along with other items such as ropes, buckets, swords, spoons, and a pot of nettle stew. (We don't wonder why that was left uneaten.) 

There's the usual nonsense about the artifacts being "perfectly preserved," when it's clear from the photos that the canoes, at least, did of course suffer deterioration: but that's not to imply that they were not sufficiently well preserved to be of potentially great archaeological value Unfortunately, the article includes no details about the canoes, but if you learn anything elsewhere, please leave a comment.

Thanks again to Marian for this tip.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Junks, Sampans by the Hundreds

Aberdeen Harbor, Hong Kong, 1973
Just learned of this site, featuring hundreds and hundreds of photos of junks and sampans in Hong Kong, Macau and elsewhere, almost all from the 1970s. There's no easy navigation: you just scroll to the bottom of the page and click the link for the next one: there are nine pages in all. The number and variety of vessels shown is spectacular.

Thanks to Marian (last name unknown) for this tip.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

A Bevy of Brazilian Boats

Brazilian Boats & Canoes is a great blog, featuring articles on (currently) more than 30 different boat types in use throughout Brazil. Among those that were clearly developed largely independent of European influence are:
Canoa Baiana (dugout)
Canoa Bordada (dugout)
Canoa Cai├žara (dugout)
Canoa de Casca (bark canoe)
Casco (dugout)
Jangada (sailing log raft)

Most of the others feature Euro-derived construction methods or designs, but even so, most of them are uniquely indigenous to Brazil. Well worth a visit. Kudos to author Jan W. Aten, and thanks to Silvio Antunha for the tip.

(Update 19/08/23: Brazilian Boats & Canoes has changed its URL. I have updated the primary link in the first paragraph but have not updated links to individual pages and I'm not sure they still exist.)

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Carving a Pirogue in Louisiana

Here's a lovely film, ca. 1949, showing the construction of a traditional Louisiana dugout pirogue.

The 14 minute film was shot in 35mm by filmmaker Robert Flaherty, who was working on "The Louisiana Story." To quote the "film facts," Flaherty "was searching for a small boat, or 'pirogue' for his young hero. Flaherty soon became aware that pirogue-making was a disappearing art. Finally, when he found Ebdon Allemon, a Cajun craftsman, he persuaded him to make the pirogue. It may well have been the last pirogue made in Louisiana. This is a record of that event."

Details to note:
  • The cypress they felled was huge in comparison to the boat they built from it. It looks like they had to split and hew off much wood to get the boat down to the proper width.
  • The hull was first hewed to its plan-view shape with the sides perfectly plumb. Then the waterline shape of the flat bottom was scribed, and the angled sides hewed from those lines to the gunwales.
  • The hull was carved to its final shape: it was not "expanded" or widened, as is common practice in some other dugout building cultures, such as in this Siberian example.
  • It appears that a single hole was bored in the hull amidships to monitor the thickness of the bottom. A stick is periodically inserted in the hole to monitor the thickness. This is unlike the process used in Siberia, where plugs of a fixed length are inserted into multiple holes from the outside, and the interior is hollowed until the plugs are revealed.
  • Much care is given to producing thin hull with consistent thickness and a smooth and fair surface. Profiles are lined out carefully. Razor-sharp adzes and axes are used with great care, and are followed by careful use of planes, with one man putting his eye right against the surface of the hull to sight for high spots and directing the other man's use of the plane.
  • Canoes this small are often propelled with a double-bladed paddle, but the single-bladed paddle is used here. Perhaps this is because pirogues are often used in dense vegetation and very narrow channels, where a double-bladed paddle would get hung up?
Note also:
  • at 2:40 a pirogue being paddled rapidly by a man sitting well back in the stern, causing the boat to "porpoise."
  • at 2:48, an interesting oared scow.
  • at 3:00, the ease with which the (single-paddled) pirogue makes its way through dense vegetation
Thanks to the blog FrancoAmerican Gravy for passing this link to us.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Carving a Siberian Dugout

Here's a nice video showing two men carving a dugout canoe from a trunk of Siberian aspen. It's not in English, but among the points of interest are:
  • the use of an axe with curved lips, like that of an adze, for hewing the sides of the log
  • the care and precision with which the sides are hewed. A long straightedge is used to detect high spots that are then hewed down.
  • the use of dozens of small pegs to achieve a consistent wall thickness. Dozens of holes are drilled into the outer surface of the log, then small pegs of a consistent length are pounded into the holes. As the inside is hollowed out and the inner ends of the pegs revealed, the builders know they have hollowed enough in that place. Note how the canoe is carefully lined off first, so that the pegs are installed at consistent intervals.
  • the use of fire, not boiling water, to soften the sides in order to "expand" them (keep watching past the hunting sequence for this)
  • the fact that the top of the log is not hewed off flat before being hollowed. The builders leave a fairly narrow opening and hollow out the log wider beneath it. When the hull is expanded, this leaves the sides higher and produces a nice sheerline that's higher amidships.
  • the canoe is paddled kayak-style: the paddler sits in the bottom and uses a double-bladed paddle.

Monday, November 21, 2011

An Abandoned Planking Method

It may seem out of place to examine the shipbuilding methods of the ancient Greeks and Romans in a blog whose subtitle is "small craft outside the Western tradition," given the fact that so much of Western culture is directly descended from those early civilizations. But the boatbuilding methods they employed ultimately went nowhere -- they died out and ended up contributing little to the boatbuilding traditions that we currently recognize as Western.

"Traditional" Western boatbuilding is characterized by one of two planking methods: carvel and clinker (or lapstrake). Carvel is the smooth-skinned method of planking, with the planks set edge-to-edge and attached to a pre-assembled framework. In clinker boatbuilding, each plank overlaps the one below it. Clinker construction proceeded shell-first. That is, after the keel, stem, and sternpost were assembled, the planks were fastened to one another, after which the ribs and other internal stiffening structures were installed. (Some modern artisan builders of lapstrake boats set up a complete temorary framework before planking.)

The ancient Greek and later Roman method differed from both of these. Planking was laid edge to edge, for a smooth skin like a carvel hull's. But construction proceeded shell-first, as in clinker construction. Most interesting was the method used to fasten the planks to one another.
A section of plank recovered from an ancient Greek shipwreck, showing tenons on both edges. Note how they overlap in places. From Lionel Casson: Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World

Left: schematic showing the method of mortise-and-tenon joinery, with pegs to fix the planks to the tenons.
Right: a plank recovered from an ancient shipwreck, split down the middle, shows how a large percentage of the plank was taken up by the mortises and tenons.
Both images from Lionel Casson: Ships and Seafaring in Ancient Times
As can be seen in the images above, both edges of the planks were deeply mortised, and held in alignment by free tenons. The planks were then drilled through the tenons at both of their ends, and tight-fitting dowels were driven through the holes to hold the tenons in place.

In this amazingly labor-intensive fastening method, the mortises took up a large percentage -- often more than 50% -- of the length of each plank's edge. Sometimes, the mortises were staggered alternately toward the inner and outer faces of the plank, so that they actually overlapped, thus totalling more than 100% of the length of a plank's edge.

Having been used for thousands of years in trade, war, and explortation, it could hardly be said that this method of shipbuilding was a failure. But it was ultimately superseded by methods far less time-consuming to employ. The clinker method was developed in Scandinavia. The source of the carvel method is subject to dispute, but it appears to have originated in the Mediterranean independent of the Greek and Roman tradition. Both ultimately overlapped in northern Europe and made their way to the Americas.
Proposed construction cross-section of a Greek two-level fighting ship. This ship would have used the mortise-and-tenon planking method described here. From Lionel Casson: Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World   

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Indonesian Phinisi

There's a nice post in the latest edition of Old Salt Blog about the phinisi, a traditional sailing craft of the Bugis people of Indonesia. Scroll down the post for some links to more articles on this interesting craft, which appears to me to be related to the dhow.

Note in the photo the twin steering rudders that extend through quarter galleries, much like the steering arrangement on ancient Greek galleys.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Canoe Racing in Brazilian Indigenous Games

Some 600 Brazilian Indians from 29 ethnic groups competed in sporting events in the tenth edition of the Indigenous Nations' Games in Pagagominas, north Brazil. Along with conventional and blow-gun archery, a log-carrying race, tugs of war and many other events was a canoeing race. REUTERS/Paulo Santos

Captain Voss and Tilikum

Capt. J.C. Voss
Capt. J.C. Voss, one of history's greatest small-boat sailors, was also one of its least pleasant.

A lifelong mariner, Voss was a Canadian, living in Victoria, BC, in 1901. He was intrigued by Joshua Slocum's first-ever solo circumnavigation of the globe in a small boat between 1895 and 1889, and by the success of his book Sailing Alone Around the World in 1900. When Norman Luxton, a journalist, proposed teaming up for a similar trip in a smaller boat than Slocum's Spray, Voss agreed. As Luxton had no sailing experience, Voss would handle things nautical, while Luxton would document the voyage.

Voss purchased a large red cedar dugout canoe from a Nootka Indian on Vancouver Island, describing in The Venturesome Voyages Of Captain Voss how he got the seller drunk in order to obtain better terms and, in doing so, knowingly broke Canadian law. To prepare it for sea duty, he substantially modified the boat, raising the topsides, adding a cabin and cockpit, installing frames, floors, keelson, keel, water tanks, fixed and movable ballast, rudder and tiller, and a rig consisting of three small stayed masts, a jib, gaff sails on the foremast and mainmast and a leg-o'-mutton sail on the mizzen. Named Tilikum ("friend"), the boat was 38' LOA and 5'6" in beam.
Tilikum in New Zealand.
Leaving Victoria, the two made their first stop on Vancouver Island, where they looted an Indian burial cave for "curios" (including human bones) to sell later on their journey. This was no abandoned burial site: it was actively venerated by the local people, but Voss seems to have thought nothing of the ethics of his action, evidently assuming that Indian sensibilities were irrelevant and that being white gave him a prerogative in this area.

At Penrhyn Island, their first landfall in the Pacific, Voss assumed that the natives would be dangerous cannibals. Before entering the small harbor, he and Luxton fortified their cockpit with sandbags and prepared their guns (there were at least four aboard) to repel boarders. It turned out that the natives were perfectly friendly, having been satisfactorily "civilized" by a European missionary. As the voyage continued and further contacts were made with numerous non-European cultures, this inherent distrust seemed to diminish, though not Voss's disdain.
Tilikum under all plain sail. (Image from Wikipedia.)
Luxton proved to be a bad sailor, and he left Tilikum in Sydney, Australia. He was replaced by a succession of substitute mates, none of them lasting very long. Apparently, Voss was an unpleasant shipmate. On one passage, his mate disappeared -- swept overboard in a storm, according to Voss's account, although some have speculated that Voss murdered him.

Voss made many stops in Australia, displaying the boat and giving lectures to fund the ongoing voyage. Next, he went to New Zealand, where he again entered upon the lecture circuit. An incident there is worth quoting at length:

A splendid critique in the next morning's newspapers  (in Wellington) served as an instigation to us to speak on several succeeding occasions to full houses, and at the request of a white Maori chief from Palmerston North, a fair inland city, we put the boat on a train and, in company of the chief, journeyed overland to that place. In the country surrounding Palmerston live many Maori farmers who came to town by the hundred (sic) to give us a call. They were more than pleased to see a canoe which had crossed the ocean to their country, and the fact apparently strengthened their belief that in days of yore their ancestors had emigrated in large canoes to New Zealand from some distant region of the Pacific. One Maori, who spoke English fluently, told me that he had never credited the legend, as he thought it impossible to cross the ocean in such frail craft. "And now, as I see with my own eyes that you have covered thousands of miles in this Indian canoe and have arrived safely on our shores, I do not longer question that my forefathers can have accomplished the same!"
The maps show the rest of his voyage, which he completed in England in 1904, three years and three months after it began. While he did not return to the west coast of North America, he used the term "circumnavigation" to describe his voyage, on the rationale that he had crossed the three major oceans.

Voss and Tilikum weathered some horrendous storms, often relying on a sea anchor -- a device in which Voss was a firm believer and great champion. He was undoubtedly a seaman of great skill, and his choice of boat and the way in which he outfitted it demonstrate superb insight into small craft design for ocean voyaging.

Tilikum is now on display in the Maritime Museum of British Columbia.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Ainu Itaomachip

The Ainu people of Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost large island, are culturally distinct from the Japanese. (See earlier post.) Frequently depicted as a primitive, hunting/gathering culture, the Ainu actually maintained a sophisticated trading economy prior to the 19th century.

The Ainu conducted trade with mainland Asia, especially with ports on the lower Amur River (now the border between northeastern China and Russia), as well as with Korea and with other parts of Japan. They used sewn-plank boats called itaomachip, built on an expanded dugout base and powered by both oars and sails as shown below. Some of the boats, at least, were about 50 feet long.
(Click to enlarge)
In this ca. 1798 illustration of an itaomachip, the rowers are Ainu and the passengers are Japanese merchants. Note the woven mat sail on an interesting double-mast rig. The masts can apparently be moved freely, tilting them forward or aft, relocating their bases forward or aft, and possibly even port to starboard. This might create a great deal of flexibility in the set of a very simple rig, ranging from squaresail to something approximating a fore-and-aft sail in a number of configurations.
Taking advantage of a law that banned almost all Japanese nationals from engaging in foreign trade, the Ainu exported their own products (furs, marine products), and acted as middlemen for Japanese merchants, exporting Japanese manufactured goods like pottery and ironware, and importing silk, glass and metal products, which the merchants sold for huge markups. But in 1809, this semi-black-market trade ended when the shogun decided to take over Japanese import/export activities for itself. It was then that the Ainu were forced into a life of subsistence foraging.

In 1989, after a gap of almost 200 years, three Ainu men built a 45-foot long itaomachip. Team leader Tokuhei Akibe initiated the project in 1988 as a means of reviving Ainu cultural heritage, enlisting the assistance of the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka. The design was derived from old illustrations like the two shown here.
The plank stitches are clearer in this illustration. Note the elaborate decorations at both ends.
One of the first difficulties encountered was the acquisition of a katsura tree large enough to form the boat's dugout base, requiring intense negotiations with the management of an experimental forest -- the only place in Hokkaido with a tree of the necessary 3' diameter. Hollowing the dugout, by alternately burning and chopping, took a full month. "Expanding" it by filling it with water, and then heating the water with hot rocks, was described as the most difficult part of the project. The sides were then raised with 16"-wide pine boards and sewn with 325 feet of hemp rope. (The two processes of expanding and extending the hull are common to many other dugout boats worldwide.) Sea trials confirmed the good handling and seaworthiness of the type.

The 1989 reproduction boat, looking mighty fine under sail. (It seems to be much smaller than the 45' LOA reported in the article cited here.) As of 1999, it was on display at the National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka.
Illustrations, photo, and information are from "Itaomachip: Reviving a Boat-Building and Trading Tradition," by Kazuyoshi Ohtsuka, in

Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People. Many thanks to Yoram Meroz for this article and his insights.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Stolen Dugout Returned 205 Years Later

In 1806, the U.S. Corps of Discovery -- also known as the Lewis & Clark expedition -- took a dugout canoe that didn't belong to it from the Clatsop people in Washington state, at the mouth of the Columbia River. Now, better late than never, descendants of William Clark have presented the Chinook Indian Nation (to which the Clatsop tribe belongs) with a so-called "replica" in order to make amends. While it's doubtful that the stolen canoe was documented closely enough to call its replacement a replica, the gesture is certainly a good one, and the Chinook people accepted it in an elaborate ceremony. Here is a straight news story with further details, and here is a bit of cultural commentary. Aside from the photo above, I haven't found any details about the boat itself or its builder.

Indigenous Boats will go dark -- or at least quite dim -- for the next month, as I have a large project -- unfortunately not boat-related -- to complete on tight deadline. We'll be back with more posts about small craft outside the Western tradition as soon as the decks are cleared. Thanks for your patience.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Nivkh Dugout

My previous posting, concerning the sturgeon-nose canoes of the (North American) Pacific Northwest, generated a comment by "Anonymous" who mentioned that the Nivkh  people of Siberia also built sturgeon-nose bark canoes. I did a quick Google search which didn't reveal any specifics about these, but it did turn up the information that the Nivkh people were a maritime culture of the Siberian northeast with certain cultural similarities to the Ainu of northern Japan. In addition to their use of bark canoes, the Nivkh also built dugouts of poplar.
Nivkh dugout canoe. (Click to enlarge.)
The photo above, from the Russian pages of Wikipedia, shows a Nivkh dugout under oars. Three oarsmen sit in the bow, each pulling two oars, while a helmsman sits high on the rounded stern, steering with a paddle. There is much empty space between them for cargo or passengers. The bow has substantial overhang, and some kind of decorative stem post rising about to the level of the rowers' heads. There is one thwart visible aft of the aft-most rower, and from the first and third rowers' elevated positions, it appears that they are not sitting in the canoe's bottom; i.e., they must be sitting on seat thwarts or some loose objects. The middle rower appears to be somewhat lower and might be sitting in the bottom.

I can not make out the object that appears between the head of the first rower and the stem post. It looks like a paddle or oar blade, but its location there makes no sense to me.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sturgeon-Nose Canoes

Sturgeon-nose canoe on Kootenay Lake. Image courtesy of Touchstone Nelson Archives, from the Virtual Museum of Canada website. Click any image to enlarge
Sturgeon-nose or ram-ended canoes of were used in the interior of British Columbia and Washington by the Kutenai, Kalispel, Salish, and Sinixt people. While instantly recognizable by the unusual reverse slope of the bow and stern, they possessed several additional features that distinguish them from other North American bark canoes.

According to Adney (in Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America, from which most of the following content derives), sturgeon-nose canoes were built from whatever bark was convenient: birch, spruce, fir, or white pine, the latter apparently being a common choice. (As with birchbark canoes, the rough outer surface was turned inward to face the boat's interior.) Whenever possible, upper panels of birchbark were sewn in for the entire length of the boat, with the grain running fore-and-aft.

15'4" LOA Kutenai canoe, from Adney & Chapelle. Click for larger view.
These canoes had no sheathing in the normal sense. Typically 12 cedar battens, measuring about 3/8" by 1.5" in section, ran fore-and-aft, leaving about half of the bark unsheathed on the inside. (In most North American bark canoes, thin planks sheath the entire interior surface of the bark, with the exception of a few inches toward the very ends.)  There was also a light keelson, about 1/2" x 3" in section. The battens and keelson were held in place by the pressure of light (1/4" x 3/4" section) ribs, spaced on very wide (8" - 12") centers. Some of the ribs were tied to some of the battens, but not all intersections were thus lashed. In the ends, the ribs were hoop-shaped, i.e., closed at the top. All woodwork was cedar.

There were no stem-pieces per se, but three stem battens reinforced the upward-facing bark end seam, one on each side, and one at the end, forming a "cap." The three battens and the bark were pitched and sewn together. The end battens extended a few inches above the gunwales: this must have been purely aesthetic.

Two gunwale arrangements were common. The first was the common three-piece combination of inwale, outwale, and cap, with the rib ends sandwiched between the inwale and the bark. The other arrangement, which I have not seen in other North American bark canoes, involved upper and lower inwales and an outwale, but no cap. The ribs pierced through holes in the bark envelope where the upper, birchbark panel was sewn to the lower main envelope, so that their uppermost few inches were on the outside of the hull. Their upper ends were sandwiched between the outwale and the bark.

Often, only one thwart was used, amidships, but there were not infrequently three. While thwarts keep the gunwales apart and thus spread the boat's opening, sometimes hide straps, spaced between the center and end thwarts, were used to pull the gunwales inward.

Bottom sections tended to be very round, but some canoes had a slightly flattened bottom and flaring sides, The enclosed ends were nearly elliptical, except for their pointed upper end. The bottom tended to be hogged, but because of the boat's light structure, the ends came up when it was loaded so that in use, the boat had a slightly rockered bottom. 

Most were 14' to 20' LOA and quite narrow -- 24" to 28" in beam, although examples as long as 24' and as broad as 48" are known.

The overall form is somewhat of a mystery. Although they have the reputation of being particularly well-suited to the particular mix of condition in their users' environment (large open lakes, swamps, swift rivers), it's hard to see what aspects of their form makes it so, or in any way superior to other First People designs. The ram bow might provide benefits when crossing large areas of open water, by extending the waterline and by providing what amounts to a "bulbous bow" similar to that seen on most large modern cargo ships. But the narrow beam is a liability here, and the bow, with its lack of flare and its rapidly-diminishing buoyancy, is far less suitable than that of a conventional flared bow when encountering wind-driven waves. Furthermore, the pointed bow at or below the waterline would be tend to catch vegetation in swamps, and would impair both maneuverability and durability in rocky rapids.
J.R. Bluff paddles a Kalispel sturgeon-nose canoe he built of western white pine bark on cedar. (Photo by Robert C. Betts/Vanguard Research.) (Source. Scroll halfway down page.)
While a rarity today, there have been a few modern replicas and interpretations of the sturgeon-nosed canoe. The white pine-bark example shown above was by built by J.R. Bluff sometime after 1991.
Harvey Golden's canvas-skinned Kutenai canoe.
A fine canvas-covered example was built in 2010 by Harvey Golden (above).

Paul Montgomery's modern, nylon-skinned interpretation of a Sinixt sturgeon-nosed canoe.
Among the nicest is a nylon-on-frame example recently completed by Paul Montgomery (above). Montgomery's project is detailed on his website, which also contains a valuable list of links on the subject.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Raft Wackos and Quackos

In 1998, adventurer Phil Buck mounted an expedition to demonstrate the feasibility of Thor Heyerdahls' theory that Easter Island was settled by people from the west coast of South America. Heyerdahl, of course, had already shown that a raft built of balsa logs could make its way across vast stretches of the Pacific, but it had yet to be demonstrated that Easter Island in particular could be reached via pre-Columbian seagoing technology.

At Lake Titicaca, Buck hired a boatbuilder who had experience building reed boats, and the result was the hull of Viracocha, measuring 64 feet LOA,16 feet in beam and weighing 16 tons.This was trucked to the coast of Chile where it was completed with the addition of decking and deck house, a steering platform with twin steering oars, and a rig consisting of two bipod masts hoisting lateen sails. Buck and a crew of seven then sailed it without mishap, and with few serious difficulties, from Arica, Chile, to Easter Island. (Two ducks were also shipped as crew, but one abandoned ship mid-ocean.)

Heyerdahl's theories concerning the settlement of the Pacific by people from South America are controversial and are generally dismissed by scientists. Nevertheless,
8 Men and a Duck : An Improbable Voyage by Reed Boat to Easter Island, by Nick Thorpe, is one of the better first-person accounts of modern raft voyaging.

Thorpe met Buck by happenstance while Viracocha was still under construction in Bolivia. A reporter for a Scottish newspaper, Thorpe was really on the lookout for a personal adventure, and he joined Buck's project as crew first, and only secondarily to document it as a journalist. Thorpe's narrative is unassuming and mildly comic in tone, and his concern is far more with the personalities and interactions of the crew during the six-week voyage under crowded and uncomfortable conditions than with the technical aspects of seafaring.

All illustrations from
Eight Men and a Duck.
(Click any image to enlarge)
One of the expedition's greatest difficulties was its opposition by another rafting adventurer, Kitin Munoz, who considered himself to be Heyerdahl's "spiritual son," and whose two previous attempts to sail reed boats across the Pacific met with failure. Munoz sniped at the Buck expedition constantly in the press, declaring it invalid due to a small amount of synthetic rope that had been used to bind some of the innermost bundles of reeds. According to Thorpe, Munoz exaggerated or lied outright about several aspects of the project, and he even managed to get Heyerdahl himself to make some fairly negative comments about the Viracocha expedition in the press. Buck, who as a youth had been deeply influenced by Heyerdahl's book Kon Tiki, was deeply wounded by this criticism from his hero.

In the end of Thorpe's narrative, however, he describes a meeting between himself, Buck, and Heyerdahl, some time after Viracocha's voyage. In it, Buck was able to persuade Heyerdahl of the validity of his project, gaining his approval and thus helping Buck to justify his otherwise almost entirely successful project in his own eyes.

The first third of the book describes the expedition's planning and the boat's construction and launching as a narrative, while an appendix gives a good amount of detail about the boat's design and construction. As shown below, Viracocha consisted of two main hulls of tortora reeds bound closely around a central pontoon known as the corazon ("heart").  The main bundles were somewhat blunt-ended, but to these were added extensions of more bundled reeds that tapered to points. In the front, the two end-bundles merged into a single, upturned pointed bow, while in the rear, the two end bundles remained separate, curving up into a bifurcated stern. Both centerboards and leeboards ("guaras") controlled leeway, and steering was by way of a pair of steering oars with their huge blades placed entirely abaft the shafts. These, according to Thorpe, was physically challenging to manage. They obviously would have been handier had they been "balanced," -- i.e., had part of their blades ahead of the shaft.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Model Hawaiian Canoes

Hawaiian sailing canoe model by Jeremy Reyes.
I was contacted recently by Jeremy Delos "Romes" Reyes, a Hawaiian wood carver and high school carpentry teacher whose interest in Hawaiian outrigger canoes has taken him in at least two -- possibly three -- interesting directions.

Taking part in Maui's annual Festival of Canoes, he and his shop class build a full-size single-outrigger dugout canoe, as described here.

At the other end of the size spectrum, Romes builds model canoes. Working at a scale of 1:12 (i.e., 1 inch = 1 foot), he builds both full models and "wall" models -- essentially a half-hull model of the main hull with an outrigger attached (maybe we should call this a 2/3-hull model?). Although the photos on his website are rather small, it appears that he does very nice work.

Along with sailing canoes, Reyes seems to devote special attention to modeling racing (paddling) canoes. Looking at the arms on this fellow, it wouldn't surprise me if actual canoe racing represents a third expression of his interest in Hawaiian outrigger canoes.
"Romes" Reyes

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Northwest Dugout Gathering

A couple weeks ago there was an amazing gathering of 70 or more Northwest-Indian-style canoes in LaConner, Washington. Most were true dugouts, but a few were replicas produced by other means -- fiberglass, strip-plank, etc. Some great photos in this post on the WoodenBoat Forum. (Scroll down and you'll also see a few great shots of a Maori dugout and a few other dugout oddities.) I had no idea that the native people of the US and Canadian northwest were so active in reproducing and using these beautiful boats.