It wasn’t a suped up DeLorean but my Toyota Tacoma that transported me for a week this month back in time. My destination wasn’t my small town America but the old Naval Air Station in Alameda.
For seven days (eight due to a material issue), I felt like I was immersed in a high school woodshop class. We were mostly using hand tools and techniques that the Inuits used to construct a skin on frame kayak. Many of our materials and tools were modern due to the fact that our goal was to finish these boats within a week. Our instructor’s philosophy is that one could spend all day completing a task with simple tools but that doesn’t leave much time for surfing.
Brian Schulz of Cape Falcon Kayak was our instructor. He is world renowned in the skin on frame boat design and construction. He usually teaches classes in his workshop in Manzanita, Oregon; however, he will take his tools and materials on the road to teach in other locations throughout the world. Recently Brian completed a class in Tasmania. Brian was recruited to teach a class in the San Francisco Bay area by several Bay Area Sea Kayakers (BASK) because of their interest in a specific design that he builds. The Mariner Coaster is a popular sea kayak in the Bay Area; and Brian has designed a skin on frame version called the F-1.
Why build a skin on frame kayak? Everyone has their own reasons. In our class, the main reasons were to have a lightweight kayak that handled rough waters well and could be built to fit a specific individual – sounds like I’m not the only Goldilocks kayaker. It was the Goldilocks in me that drew me to interest in Skin on Frame kayak construction. If the manufacturers didn’t build a boat that fit me and my paddling needs, then maybe I could. I had been researching skin on frame construction and was contemplating taking a stab at building one with a little help from my friend John who has built one with Wolfgang Brinck – Bay Area small boat builder and author of the Aleutian Kayak. Typical of one of my research projects, the kitchen table stacked up with books on skin on frame construction and the internet was scoured for information.
A class seemed like a great way to learn the ins and outs without lots of trials and tribulations. And then it happened . . . a post on the Bay Area Sea Kayaker’s online forum BUZZ appeared. Maryly posted that she wanted to take Brian’s class in the bay area to build a F-1 but was unable to. She queeried if some one be interested in taking the class and building an F-1 for her.” Ding-ding-ding . . . we have a winner (actually 2 – Maryly who gets an awesome custom skin on frame kayak and Cate who gets a hands on experience to learning how to build a skin on frame.)
It was awesome!!! Under Brian’s guidance and assistance, Gordon, LaRhee, and I shaped wood into a frame. Each of our kayaks were of the same design but being customized for the size of the paddler who would be paddling them.
For 3 days, we drilled holes, carved out mortices and tenons, steamed and bent wooden ribs, planed surfaces, and joined the pieces with wooden pegs and artificial sinew lashings. Many discussions ensued during the process including comparisons of the techniques and materials that we were using compared to the Inuits as well as discussions on paddling skills and techniques, philosophies of kayak instruction, sustainable organic farming, and whitewater kayaking.
At the end of day 4, our frames were completed and we had carved paddles. We put our woodworking tools away and got out needles and thread.
Day 5 was a fabric and sewing party. At the end of day 5, we had skinned our boats (balistic nylon not seal skins) and were wetting them to get the fabric to shrink into the shape of the frame. We wet the boats. Instead of water soaking into the fabric, it beaded up. !@#$% – the manufacturer sent us the wrong material. The need to reorder the fabric and reskin the boats became apparent so class was dismissed until the following weekend.
A little side trip 2 hangars down was in store – we ventured down to Hangar 1 for some vodka tasting to celebrate the early beginning of the weekend for us.
A week later, we returned to our little workshop among the hangars of the Alameda Naval Air Station. Reskinning the boats went quickly as we were now experienced boat skinners and this time the skins shrunk to fit the frame. The next morning, we treated the skins with “goop” a polyurethane mixture to seal them. On the 7th (actually 8th day), we outfitted the boats and paddled them.
And they paddled beautifully. Brian demonstrated some techniques with the Greenland Paddle and off we went. The kayak that I had built paddled smoothly in the water. The secondary stability was excellent. I practiced some edged turns with sweeps strokes and found the boat to be very responsive. The warm and sunny day inspired notions of getting my hair wet so I did some sculling and rolling and found the boat did exactly what I wanted it to do. I look forward to building my own and putting it through the measures of kayaking in the surf and rock gardens of the Mendocino Coast.
Maryly smiled from ear to ear as she paddled her new handmade kayak. When we were finished with our test paddle, it was really cool to see her effortlessly carry it from the water to her car Mission accomplished – a lightweight, custom fit kayak!!!
I can’t wait to build mine!!!