Social Distancing

Here in the state of Washington, our governor declared a state of emergency in response to the spread of the COVID-19 disease and imposed a Stay Home—Stay Healthy order. There are four “essential activities” for which we should leave the safety and isolation of home, and the last of them is: “Engaging in outdoor exercise activities, such as walking, hiking, running or biking, but only if appropriate social distancing practices are used.” Rowing has long been one of my normal forms of exercise and it’s certainly a very effective method of achieving the social distancing we’re all now called upon to practice.


On January 23, I bought a box of 30 N-95 disposable dust masks at Home Depot for $21.47. They’ve been standard fare in my shop for decades, but a little more than a month later, with the spread of the coronavirus, a box of 20 was selling for $132.99 on Amazon, and wouldn’t be available for two weeks. I’ve been watching the coronavirus spread like an incoming tide and it is already lapping at my doorstep. On February 29th, a man in a care facility 8 miles from my home in Seattle died, the first person in the U.S. to succumb to COVID-19, the illness linked to the virus. The governor of Washington has declared a state of emergency.

An Aleut Baidarka

built my first kayak in 1978. It was my own design, a mongrel of elements I’d seen in the classic documentary book,  Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America, by Edwin Tappan Adney and Howard Chapelle. It had a stern profile from Alaska’s King Island, a midsection from Canada’s Southampton Island, and a bow . . .

Slip Thwarts and Side Benches

In 2005, when I built a Caledonia yawl for camp-cruising with my two kids, I kept the hull and sailing rig as designed but started from scratch for the interior arrangements. Applying the sneakbox’s lessons of asymmetry and adaptability, I moved the centerboard trunk 14″ to starboard. (Keeping its top at seat level and raising it bottom up the slope of the garboard diminished the depth of the trunk, so I made it longer to give the board the same area.) The trunk led to wide side benches with parallel inboard edges, and those invited a modular system where slip thwarts and floorboards could rest anywhere on ledges to fill the gap between the benches.

Breaking the Ice

When winter comes, is it time to haul out or head out? When cold weather doesn’t entirely freeze the water, boating offers daunting challenges and memorable rewards.


I have a fair number of boats in my fleet and some are getting on in years. The oldest of the ones I’ve built is a Chamberlain gunning dory I built for my father in 1980. The oldest of all of them is an English river wherry bearing an oval brass plate that reads: T. Cooper & Sons of Shrewsbury, Boatbuilders, Shrewsbury. Dad acquired it perhaps 40 years ago and believed it was built around 1890. Dad may have told me where he found the wherry, but at the time it was just another boat in a garage crowded with racing shells and I didn’t pay much attention to any of them.

Getting Beneath the Surface

An easier way to see underwater is through a different kind of plywood box with a window, used at the surface. When I was kayaking the south coast of Menorca in the Mediterranean, there were some fishermen wading in the shallows, bent over with their faces up things that looked like oversized megaphones, with an opening at the top to fit around their eyes and a window on the bottom. I never found out what they were looking for, but I was intrigued by the method. The devices they used are called bathyscopes or aquascopes, and they’ve been around for quite a while, perhaps almost as long as window glass has been.

Hooper Bay

Over the following decades, I continued to build reproductions of Arctic kayaks. I was drawn to the sleeker and faster Greenland types, learned how to roll them a dozen different ways, and enjoyed paddling them in storms with water washing thick across the decks the deafening roar of the wind in my ears. The Hooper Bay sat under the eaves of my parents’ house for year, dusted green with the pollen of the cedar trees. When I had a house of my own, I kept the Hooper Bay alongside the garage. The canvas covering grew speckled with mildew, and the paint cracked. Eventually I removed the skin, leaving the lashed latticework frame bare.

Anchored in Jeopardy

I’ve had only four anchorages go wrong (so far). In the middle of a night aboard my dory skiff, I had to sit up in my sleeping bag and row across a cove to get into the lee of a shifted wind; that morning I woke up stranded by a low tide. During an overnight outing in our Escargot canal boat, anchored in the upper reaches of a tidal river, the four of us aboard spent a noisy sleepless night when the river current accelerated with the falling tide. On my solo in that same boat on the Everett sloughs, I slept well enough but lost my best anchor to a submerged snag. Those anchorages were merely inconvenient and uncomfortable. My worst anchorage could have been deadly.

Suitable for Framing

here’s an interesting exhibition of art at the Georgetown Historical Society in Georgetown, Maine. Some of the pieces on display are an unusual pairing of abstract painting and wooden boat models. The disciplines of art and boatbuilding have very different goals, one purely aesthetic and the other quite practical, but both require thoughtful attention to . . .

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