A Floating Experiment

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My friend, Michelle Forseth, and I teach a couple beginning sea kayaking classes each summer. A question that often arises is, What kind of kayak should I buy? Often enough this comes from a female, in her forties or fifties, who has not spent the past 20 years pumping iron. I’m guessing this kayak will mostly be used on calm lakes, with a very occasional outing on Lake Superior.

So, a 60-pound fiberglass expedition kayak? That seems to be the common solution, even though it’s like taking a cannon to a squirrel hunt. Among the downsides are all the problems inherent in wrestling a 17-foot piece of fiberglass to the roof of your car, hauling something that is half your body weight from the car to the beach, and then paddling a vessel that for its most common use weighs about twice as much as it needs to.

My big idea was to build a stitch-and-glue boat that would be about the right size for our smaller female students. I was shooting at something in the 14.5-foot range, that would come in at less than 35 pounds. I also wanted it to be able to haul a better-than-backpacking load. After looking around at the options, I settled on plans offered by Chesapeake Light Craft for a kayak it calls the Shearwater 14. My theory was that I might be able to make a couple of these a year, sell them for about $1750, and make a little money while addressing my boat-building problem. Which, in short, is a desire always to be building a boat.

I mostly finished the boat a few days ago. It’s a sweet little thing (though I say this not yet having put it in the water) with a varnished deck and a bright, white hull. The trouble is, it’s the kind of boat you should build for yourself, since there doesn’t seem to be a practical way to make a reasonable amount of money while building it for others. It’s solidly in that labor-of-love territory, which is already a vast part of my landscape.

Part of the trouble is that my estimate of expenses was low. Once I truly accounted for everything — the marine plywood, the fiberglass, the epoxy, the hatch assemblies, the footpegs, the bushels of sandpaper, hardware, paint, varnish, bungie, deck lines, paint brushes, rollers and other things I’m forgetting or repressing — the cost of materials was about $800.

I should have tracked hours but didn’t. Too many of them, however, were spent doing work that seemed industrial compared to the peaceful rhythms of building a skin-on-frame kayak. Mixing epoxy, hurrying to spread it, breathing fumes, sanding, sanding, sanding the inevitable runs and sags while wearing hearing and dust protection, vacuuming and mopping the dust, fussing over varnish — it added up to an experience that had me dreaming again about harvesting willow branches in the snow, whittling them down and bending them by hand into kayak ribs that then are lashed into sweet-smelling cedar gunwales.

I’m not trash-talking the Shearwater or stitch-and-glue kayaks in general here. If you want a kayak, have less than $1000 to spend, and start with a realistic notion of the hours and type of work involved, it makes a good choice. Unlike my skin-on-frame boats, this one will have the full range of safety features, such as deck lines, toggles, bulkheads and hatches.

But as a thing to make and sell to others, at a price people would pay, it doesn’t really add up.

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One Response to A Floating Experiment

  1. Mike Woida says:

    Tony the hard reality is the average person that wants to build boats to make a little money on the side isn’t going to do very well. I’m afflicted with the boat building disease as well, people always ask why I don’t build and sell them but the truth is an hour of your work wouldn’t bring in much cash. And then I would have to rise the quality of my workmanship, my boats look good standing back aways. A lot of people would be able to build these kit boats or a CNC boat for a reasonable price if they had time and space to do it. They would end up with a nice light weight boat that people would admire and they would be proud to say that they built.

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