Clayton Wright, who built the pedal-and-propeller powered skiff featured as our Reader Built Boat in this issue, put an extraordinary effort into inventing a drive system for the boat only to discover during sea trials that it fell far short of his expectations. “The boat is back in the basement,” he wrote, “I’m going to throw a sheet over her and try to put her out of my mind.”
Most of us who have built boats choose a design and a means of propulsion for it that have been well tested; the pride we take in the project isn’t dashed on launch day. It’s a rare occurrence to build a boat that is deeply disappointing, but it has happened to me too.
The third kayak I built was a replica of a type built on Alaska’s King Island. A couple of years earlier, in 1979, I had built a Hooper Bay kayak and had developed an appreciation for traditional construction, and the King Island seemed like a worthwhile project. I don’t recall now what plans I used, but there were drawings and scantlings in Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America and I could study the specimen that the Washington State Historical Society had in its museum in Tacoma.
King Island is situated 40 miles from the Alaskan mainland just south of the entrance to the Bering Strait. The waters there are notoriously rough, and the kayakers needed to travel long distances and carry heavy loads home after a successful hunt. Their kayaks have been described in glowing terms: “Of all the Bering Sea kayaks, this type was reportedly the best made and strongest…a great kayak for a person intent on distance paddling.” It seemed like the perfect choice to fulfill my dream of cruising among the San Juan Islands.
I wanted my King Island to be as close to the original as I could make it, so all the wood that went into it was driftwood that I gathered from the beaches near home. I split spruce for the gunwales and keel and Western red cedar for the stringers, cut the deck beams and carved the bow piece from Alaska yellow cedar crooks. I used power tools as little as possible and trimmed the pieces to shape with a drawknife, planes, and spokeshaves.
I made a few additions that I thought would be useful for cruising including accommodations for a foot-controlled rudder, a maststep and partner, and a mast and yards for a small squaresail. I couldn’t use seal skin to cover the kayak, so I used #10 duck and sealed the fabric with airplane dope. I’d already carved a single-bladed paddle for the Hooper Bay, so I was ready to launch.
Getting aboard at the beach was awkward, and when I shoved off I knew something was wrong. The King Island was very unstable. It would roll to one side, I’d brace, and it would roll to the other. The dreams I had for the kayak quickly evaporated.
Unlike the Hooper Bay kayak, which had ribs that were flat across the bottom, the King Island’s ribs were curved and the round bottom wouldn’t provide any stability until the hull had more than my weight aboard to settle deeper in the water and immerse the flare of its sides. With a cruising load the King Island might have offered the stability I needed, but I didn’t want to weigh it down every time I went paddling. I later read somewhere that the King Islanders put beach-stone ballast in their kayaks; I didn’t like the idea of filling a canvas-skinned kayak with rocks.
My King Island kayak went into storage for decades at home under the eaves or a tarp. The skin eventually rotted and two years ago I tore it off and put it in the trash. I hadn’t had a good look at the frame in decades and I was pleased by what I saw, especially the beautifully curved yellow cedar bow piece. In every facet left by the spokeshave on the ribs and deckbeams I could see my 30-year-old self at work. It reminded me of the aspirations I had then while building the boat, not of the disappointment I felt after launching it.
Whether or not Clay gets satisfying performance out of his pedal-powered skiff, he may, in time, come to see and enjoy the beauty and ingenuity of the boat he built. Things may not always turn out as we intend, but doing good work is always its own reward.