King Boat Works is a name that is synonymous with some of the highest-quality wooden rowing shells available in the world today. Behind the company name is Graeme King, who has been designing, building, and rigging rowing shells for more than 45 years. For the past 23 years, he has been working out of his own shop in Putney, Vermont. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Kingfisher, a single shell designed by King. A few years later, her sistership, the double Kookaburra, came on the scene. Named for feathered friends from the designer’s native Australia, these birds can fly.
The Kingfisher shell, like her namesake, is sharp-nosed, sleek, and fast. While the kookaburra is not a cousin to the kingfisher in the wild, the double shell of that name mimics the Kingfisher design. Because the Kookaburra is essentially an elongated version of the Kingfisher and most of its elements are identical, I will omit the Kookaburra from much of the following discussion.
King shells are among the most sought-after shells in the world. The wait for one of Graeme King’s round-bottomed, stressed-skin shells can be years. Not every- one needs—or wants—such a high-end shell, especially for leisure-time rowing. So King designed his V-bottomed Kingfisher with the intermediate-level home builder in mind.
Boat design is a study in compromise. It is in choosing well during the initial stages of the design process and then balancing those decisions with well-thought-out compromises that sets a great designer apart from an average one. Here, King’s gifted eye and long experience with rowing shells come into play. He has been very successful, I think, in finding that sweet spot between making the Kingfisher just wide enough to keep her from being too tippy yet skinny enough (and sharp enough) to slice through flat water like a hot knife through cold butter.
In an apples-to-apples comparison of round-bottomed shells, a beamier hull will usually be slower but will have better initial stability than a skinnier one. Realizing the futility in trying to reinvent the conventional shell’s round-bottomed hull shape for the home builder, King opted instead to employ a V-bottom and hard chine in the Kingfisher design. This makes all the difference to a person with limited boatbuilding skill. It also renders a boat that is easier to use than a conventional shell while giving up only a small percentage of the speed.
Getting into a narrow, round-bottomed shell is no easy task. Some background in tightrope walking and logrolling would be of help—and I am not proficient in either one. The Kingfisher’s V-bottom, hard chine, and generous waterline beam of 1’4″ combine to provide a solid feel underfoot while boarding. She’s still a shell—so it remains important to pay attention—but, by comparison she’s easy to board and to balance in the water, even if you have little or no experience with a sliding-seat rowing shell.
The Kingfisher can be used in less than flat-water conditions, within reason. She’ll do fine on a rippled surface in a breeze. I have read that she has successfully negotiated up to 2′ open-bay swells, but in my opinion, putting her in these conditions is begging to take a dip. Unless you have had a lot of experience with this type of craft, you should avoid using the Kingfisher on anything but glass-smooth water until you get used to the boat.
While some would argue that any sport could be taken up at any age, few are as practical to take on later in life than sculling. It offers full-body strengthening and an outstanding aerobic workout without overtaxing any of the joints. The Kingfisher is a forgiving and fast shell to row. I can’t think of a better fit for someone who is new to this type of rowing. For a pair of rowers, the same holds true for the Kookaburra.
Years ago, I spent some time working for Graeme. One of the perks of the job was taking the early-morning row in a Kingfisher on the Connecticut River, not far from the workshop. Recently I had the privilege of reliving the experience—now paired with Graeme in the Kookaburra. For me, it was like riding a bicycle built for two behind a skilled racer. We shot downriver at an exhilarating pace. The Kingfisher (or Kookaburra) is, of course, not as fast as her U-sectioned counterparts, but she can attain up to 93 percent of the speed of the best competition shells of similar length. Considering all that she has to offer in terms of ease of construction and seaworthiness, that loss of speed is a small price to pay, particularly for the recreational rower.
Both plans and kits are available for these boats. Skin and bulkhead pieces are made from 3⁄32″- and 1⁄8″-thick plywood. King also makes seats, slides, and stretcher fittings as well as welding up his own riggers out of stainless-steel tubing. These riggers yield light and strong suspension platforms that place the oarlocks and their associated point loads far from the hull, then spread the loads into the hull as the oarsman’s powerful stroke levers him along the water’s surface.
Decks are of heat-shrink Dacron. All it takes is a few staples and a household iron to achieve a drum-like quality in these taut-skinned decks. Applying it is simple and satisfying. Later on, varnish will seal the weave and give the deck a smooth, hard finish.
Using a kit will make the building process easier. It will alleviate some hair-pulling and help ensure that the boat will come in at her proper weight, perform well, and look nice. Even if you’re usually not a kit person, you may wish to reconsider when contemplating building either of these shells. If building from scratch is your preference, I still suggest purchasing riggers and hardware (seat, slides, and stretcher fittings) from King.
A few words about portaging and hauling: Both the Kingfisher (42 lbs) and Kookaburra (65–70 lbs) can handily be carried by two people. Either design lends itself well to portaging. Cartopping is also possible— even for the 27′ Kookaburra—which makes a statement around town, to be sure. For cartopping, either craft should have its own cradle, so that it can be upside down. It must be well anchored to the cradle and the cradle lashed securely to the car. Complete the job by tying lines from each end of the boat directly to the car. Follow this advice, and you shouldn’t have any difficulty in hauling. Just be sure to watch those turns!
Either the Kingfisher or the Kookaburra will offer a challenging and enjoyable building experience as well as a lifetime of fun on the water. Graeme King’s exceptional abilities and his enduring dedication to his craft continue to enrich all of us who are interested in these fine-lined rowing boats. He is a rare bird, indeed.