We built a kayak!

Guest perspective/Wendy Hinman

After my husband and I sold our 31-foot, cold-molded wooden sailboat, I was eager to get out on the water as often as I could without having to beg for rides. With Eagle Harbor at the bottom of our street in Bainbridge, Wash., it seemed a crime not to take advantage of that proximity. A kayak seemed like the perfect answer. I wanted a boat I could manage by myself and plop into the water easily. The brightly colored, bulletproof plastic beasts that are so pervasive these days offended my wood-bias. Plus, they were heavy. I didn’t want to have to buy wheels to get the kayak 200 yards down the street and then be forced to hide the wheels in the bushes next to a busy walking path. I needed something light enough to carry.

My husband and I had seen an intriguing kayak at the Wooden Boat Festival in Port Townsend, Wash., and again at the Wooden Boat Show in Mystic, Conn. We admired its sleek lines. At 15 feet in length and 23-inches wide, with low freeboard and a weight of only 26 lbs., the Mobjack Bay kayak by Gentry Custom Boats seemed ideal. We could buy the whole kit or just the plans and build it ourselves. We chose the plans, which cost half the price of the full kit.

When the plans finally arrived in August, our window to first build, and then use, the kayak was closing. We forged ahead anyway. In a flurry of activity we bought the cedar for the frames and the Dacron for the skin and then laid out the pattern and cut the wood. I was so excited. The smell of cedar was heavenly as we sanded the pieces smooth so we wouldn’t get splinters or snag the Dacron skin as we worked.

Trying to hold all the wood pieces together in the right shape turned out to be our first challenge. It seemed that four hands weren’t nearly enough. Holding the stringers into the slots carved in the frame at the widest part of the boat, while forcing them into a point at the bow and stern, was tricky. I felt as uncoordinated as a toddler trying to stack blocks that kept falling over. With the help of hinged clamps, we finally got the frame to stay together long enough for epoxy to set. It took nearly a day of fiddling to get it right. Then we steam-bent wood into a hoop to form the cockpit opening. That took a couple more days.

Now that we had a frame, we stretched the Dacron skin over it as tightly as we could and sewed it together into a center seam on the deck with sennit, a braided cordage made of natural materials, that I found at a craft store. The holes that our sail-repair needle made in the Dacron fabric seemed distressingly large. Next, using a hot iron, we pressed the cloth smooth and relied on the heat of the iron to shrink the cloth taut over the frame.

The final step was to use a tough, flexible, two-part clear polyurethane to seal and protect the Dacron skin. Unfortunately, we rushed off to a summer picnic soon after we applied it. That proved to be a mistake. Upon our return we discovered that unsightly dribbles had solidified while we were gone. Once we turned the kayak over, ugly blobs marred the deck of what had once been an attractive craft. This development sent us into depression.

Soon thereafter the weather turned cool, and life seemed to accelerate. The extra time we had to build the kayak vanished. So had our motivation. The unfinished kayak collected dust for the next nine months. For a long while it was simply too cold to finish applying the polyurethane to the Dacron skin. Mostly, though, we were disheartened to face the blight that we’d created, and perplexed at how to rectify the problem.

Winter turned to spring, and then spring to summer. Gorgeous weather lured me to gaze longingly at the water. My unfinished kayak was taking precious space in the workshop where we were building a 38-foot wooden keelboat. So, we carefully chiseled away the hardened dribbles and finished the last coat on the Dacron skin. The ghost of our dribbles was still visible, but, from 10 feet, few would notice. With the hull complete, we added a bungee for stowing shoes or other items on the deck.

We carved a light paddle out of cedar and varnished it. My home-built kayak was finally ready for the water!

Sea Trials

Day 1: On a hot, sunny day in August I suited up, picked up my new kayak, and balanced it on my shoulders. Getting the balance point right involved carrying the boat stern-first and grasping the cockpit bulkheads over my head as I marched down the street. Once I placed the kayak in the water I had to figure out how to get in it, which was harder than you might think. With minor coaxing from my husband, however, I solved the logistical problems and had my first, wonderful paddle. After about a half hour, water began to drip through the sewed seams onto my toes, but otherwise the boat seemed pretty watertight.

Day 2: The next day I was eager to go again, though I had no buddy. First, I had to remove the boat from loops of line we’d hung in the carport. Theoretically, I could step under the boat, flip off the loop that supported the stern and walk out past the car with the kayak above my head. It sounded so easy. Halfway past the car the paddle slipped loose. I attempted to catch it before it hit the car, but in a maneuver I could probably never reproduce, I got caught with the boat and paddle on either side of the car antenna. What followed was a spectacular one-person rendition of a Three Stooges skit, in which I scratched both the car and the paddle and dropped the kayak onto the gravel drive. Fortunately it was nothing serious, and my time on the water was great. When I was done, I was understandably wary of returning the kayak to its previous booby-trapped location. Instead, I placed it on the masts resting alongside our driveway.

Day 3: On my next foray I had no trouble getting the kayak over my head, down the street, and into the water. I slipped into the boat and had another lovely paddle in gleaming sunshine. Afterwards, as I hopped out of the boat, I stepped into a sudden drop-off, and before I realized it I was submerged up to my waist. Fortunately, I wore a bathing suit and nylon swim trunks and had decided not to carry anything but a single key.

Day 4: On my fourth day out, I picked up the kayak, headed down the street and plopped it into the water like I’d done it hundreds of times. I was getting good at this. I pulled the paddle out and pulled off my flip-flops. But then all the grace I’d managed getting into the kayak vanished. It was as though an uncoordinated goon had overtaken my body. I fell over into shallow water and swamped the boat. Now I had to figure out how to get the water out. Flipping it over on land I was able to drain most of it, and eventually went for a paddle. Carrying the craft up the street afterwards, it became clear that there was still water onboard. Now with the kayak much heavier, the weight dug into my neck, shoulders and back. By the time I set the kayak down in my driveway I knew I’d given myself a doozy of a bruise. There was still much to learn.

Yet, I couldn’t wait to go again the following day.

Wendy Hinman is the award-winning author of two books, “Tightwads on the Loose,” the amusing story of her 34,000-mile, seven-year voyage aboard a 31-foot boat with her husband Garth Wilcox, who also happens to be the teenage hero of her second book, “Sea Trials: Around the World with Duct Tape and Bailing Wire.” Both books are available at www.wendyhinman.com.

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