In 2010, a 12-year-old boy was walking home from school when he saw a strange-looking boat in a pile of garbage at the side of the street. The boat was long, double-ended, and surprisingly light for its size. It was covered with some kind of fabric, like the upholstery of an automobile seat. Underneath was a spindly wooden framework. The boy dragged it home, in desperate hopes that somehow an outboard motor could be mounted on it to make it go very fast. The boy’s dad is a cabinetmaker in Fort Pierce, Florida, and was known to perform minor miracles in the realm of things that were important to 12-year-old boys—but he could not invent a way to put an outboard motor on a fabric-covered sea kayak. So, they loaded it into the pickup truck and brought it to me, at Riverside Marina Boatyard.
I instantly knew what it was, as the Folbot name-plaque was still affixed to the cockpit coaming. But what it really was, was a basket case. The fabric covering was worn, torn, and poorly applied. The hull was covered with what looked like gray Naugahyde; the deck with green fabric of the same type. The sheer clamps were riddled with hundreds of tiny bronze ring-shank nails holding the fabric in place. The framework was made of spruce longitudinal stringers over plywood frames with a plywood keel plank. Many of the stringers were broken or missing, and the frames were damaged with rot pockets and what looked like very large rodent bites. The wood around the fastenings was suffering from metal sickness. The bronze nails and screws holding everything together were little more than yellow powder.
The kayak was old. And big. And clearly meant for the garbagemen. It was beyond rescue—and yet I couldn’t quite bring myself to break it up and toss it in the dumpster. Because it was also beautiful—a very far-gone piece of functional art. The model was Folbot’s largest two-person expedition kayak—an early model, from the late 1950s or early ’60s. The fabric covering was certainly not original. I eventually stripped the fabric off the frame, and broke the frame into its two halves, where the Folbot kit pieces were joined. All the stringers and the bottom plank were attached with screws and butt-blocks so that the boat could be reduced to two sections about 8′ long.
I left the halves intact, and they followed me around for 11 years—up to Maine, in and out of storage, and eventually into the pole barn I built in Appleton, out in the farm country where I now spend half of each year. This summer, as I was reorganizing the loft of my barn, I looked with dismay at this pile of garbage that had once been a beautiful kayak, and decided it was time to either burn it or restore it. I happened to have several sheets of Shellman okoume African mahogany plywood on hand, in 3mm and 4mm thicknesses, and that decided the Folbot’s fate. Despite the fact that Folbots are meant to have fabric covering, I always knew that if I ever restored this one, it would be as a plywood-planked boat. I dragged the sad remains out of the loft and under a tent on the slab of the house I should have been building instead of messing around with rotten old boats—and went to work.
I emailed Folbot for background information prior to starting the restoration, and the woman who replied to me explained that their factory and offices were destroyed in a severe hurricane many years ago—before she came to work for Folbot. Evidently nothing survived: no records, photographs, or drawings of any of the old models. By comparing the size and proportions of their new Greenland model to my own, I could see that the boats were quite similar in size, shape, and accommodations. The new boats now have aluminum frames and Hypalon covers, and can be assembled in 20 minutes. Mine took me four months! (albeit part time).
The new Greenland Folbot boasts a 500-lb carrying capacity. My restored antique Folbot can certainly carry that amount also. Both models are nearly 17-1/2′ long and over 3′ in beam. The huge open cockpit seats two adults and a small child, with additional capacity for at least 100 lbs of food and camping gear. The cockpit can be fitted with a spray deck with skirts for two adults. I haven’t purchased one, but I suspect the new ones available from Folbot will fit the old model, as they have nearly identical cockpits.
The Folbot restoration occupied much of my summer in Maine, even though I worked on her part time in between other projects. As with so many restorations, we do it because we love it, not because we have any delusions about getting rich! And, I have the satisfaction of knowing I saved one more special old boat from the dumpster, and that I turned it into something beautiful, useful, and durable. There are undoubtedly more old skin-on-frame kayaks deserving of the same treatment. In the winter that followed, I often sat in front of the woodstove dreaming about kayaking down the St. George River. The next summer, I did just that!
Reuel Parker is a yacht designer, boatbuilder, and author who regularly contributes to WoodenBoat and Professional Boatbuilder magazines. A lifelong cruising sailor, he currently lives in the Bahamas aboard PEREGRINE and sails seasonally between Maine and Florida. He ventures farther as time and tide permit.
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