My friend Jim Rutzick is a dedicated builder of replica baidarkas and kayaks. His idea is to make duplicates of historical native boats collected in museums, then take them out and paddle them.
It’s always interesting, and regularly baffling. We don’t know the exact use of the boat, though often it seems clear that the original must have been loaded with hundreds of pounds of gear and game. That would have pushed the boat further down in the water and made it handle considerably differently. Jim and I are two Sunday paddlers, poking across Lake Calhoun in an unloaded boat, drifting hither and thither. Luckily for our families, nobody’s going hungry if we don’t fill the boat with 200 pounds of sunfish.
Jim is a craftsman who makes beautiful boats. But his constant observation is that these were vessels made by guys standing on the beach, swatting away thousands of black flies. In short, not an environment in which fine cabinetry was accomplished. He says he doesn’t sweat the details, though in my observation that’s not 100 percent true.
Generally speaking, I do what Jim says if not exactly what he does. Obviously I don’t want my boats to fall apart while I’m paddling. But I don’t obsess. If I use a shim to fair a chine, or glue to patch some splintered wood, I can live with that. It all gets covered over by the skin anyway. And the cunning of the construction of these boats is that they’re more like a basket than a bridge. The parts reinforce each other. If one piece fails it’s not a catastrophe. For what it’s worth, I’ve had more parts break and fail on my factory-made fiberglass kayaks than on my skin-on-frames.
At the moment I’m building a kayak for a customer who wants a very low volume and light boat that she can use to practice the Greenland repertoire of rolling techniques. I’ve been interested to observe the difference between building for someone else and building for myself. This morning I realized I couldn’t live with a bit of shoddiness in the keel strip, and so cut in out and replaced it. I redid the bow piece three times before it struck me as right. Had I been making these boats for myself I would have found a work-around that involved a screw or two, some glue and a couple of shims. In the finished boat, none of it would have been visible, nor would the boat’s performance have been compromised.
It’s an odd psychological point. I’m doing this fine tuning, I suppose, because I fear that my bits of construction hackery would lower the buyer’s opinion of the work were they ever to be exposed. Given that she would have to cut the skin off the boat to find out, this strikes me as extremely unlikely. The boat would paddle the same regardless. By a dollars and cents analysis, my approach here doesn’t make much sense.
I’m blaming it on early Catholic indoctrination. It’s a version of the bromide regularly unleashed by tthose nuns in the school where I did time: God knows. I still have it in mind that there is an invisible accounting going on somewhere, and that actions seen and unseen are constantly being weighed. It’s embarrassing to recognize the grip of the old hocus-pocus. But it does make for a sweeter boat, at least until the skin goes on.