Sunday, December 27, 2009

Indigenous Boats and the Indigenous Soul

Bob Holtzman's Indigenous Boats blog deals with, you guessed it, indigenous boats. The purpose of this blog entry is to link the indigenous boat to the indigenous soul. The indigenous soul is a term that I had not encountered until yesterday in an article written by Martin Prechtel.
Here is a link to the article on the Indigenous Soul.
The article offers some insights on how indigenous cultures view and deal with technology. Though the article does not deal expressly with boats, the ideas expressed in it nevertheless apply. Boat building echnology is after all technology.
One idea that Prechtel presents is a mechanism that limits the amount of technology that the indigenous soul will allow. I have personally found something satisfying in building indigenous boats that I don't think I would get from building them in a more modern fashion. But I could never quite justify why I felt that building a skin on frame kayak might be better than laying up fiberglass and resin in a mold. Prechtel offers a justification from the perspective of indigenous culture. Essentially, in an indigenous culture, every extraction of a resource from the earth must be paid for in ritual. The ritual pays the debt we owe the earth for extracting that resource. The ritual is one of thanks. Prechtel proposes that the Mayans would never have built anything as complex as a car because the amount of ritual that would have to go into paying for the debt that its production creates would simply be prohibitive.
The building of a skin on frame kayak probably creates as much debt as a single individual can pay off in a reasonable amount of time. Aleuts, for instance took a whole year to collect the materials needed to build a kayak. That was probably enough time to pay for the debt that was incurred.
Prechtel also introduces the idea that the creation of something beautiful is another way that we can pay off debt. Hence, the importance of building boats that look good. Simply by making a good-looking boat, you have much less debt to repay than if you build an ugly one. I personally always thought that making an ugly boat was a crime against nature.
I may have more to say on this topic in the future.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

David Zimmerly

David Zimmerly was one of the early researchers in the field of kayaks and surveyed a whole bunch of them. His research is summarized in his book Qajaq. Zimmerly also has a website with a whole lot of information. The link will take you directly to the page that has a whole bunch of drawings of kayaks in pdf format. Zimmerly also wrote a how-to book on the topic of the Hooper Bay Kayak and a number of articles for kayaking magazines. All in all a prime resource for the traditional-kayak builder. It was off Zimmerly's drawings that I built my first baidarka.

Tim Anderson, Multihull Sailor

I first met Tim Anderson a few years ago when I was out front working on a boat and he just happened to be driving by and stopped. Turns out he was working only about a mile away on whatever. Whatever covers a lot of ground, but the part of whatever that I was interested in was boat building. Tim builds boats after a fashion. I say, after a fashion, because he doesn't build boats the way you see it done in books. Tim seldom starts from scratch. Someone somewhere is always discarding boat parts like for instance, sails, spars, hulls, aluminum tubing, shopping carts, you name it, and out of these things, Tim builds working boats, mostly outriggers.
You can follow Tim's adventures by going to his website. The first link on the page will take you over to the instructables site. What is instructables? Goofy name, sure, but it's mostly a how-to website with how-to stuff contributed for free by the community. Tim has over 200 how-to's published there on a variety of topics, lots of them on the subject of boats and sails. Tim is nothing if not innovative and never shy about repurposing. He is a true 21st century boat builder, kickstarting the salvage economy.

Old Town Canoe Restoration

The canoe with the old skin before restoration. Turns out that Old Town actually covered this model with polyester to keep the weight down.

I have been doing a restoration on a 15' Old Town Trapper and am more or less finished. What remains? An old-town tag on the stern needs to be mounted and the hull needs a coat of wax. Plus the boat needs to be set in the water for a leak test. Other than that, it's done. And I'm glad that it is. Restoring this particular boat took way longer than I thought it would.
Main problem was that somewhere after the start of the restoration, we had to move our shop and after that, it was hard to maintain any kind of momentum on the restoration. There was always something to fix on the new shop.
Plus, this time I put canvas on the canoe instead of polyester like I did previously. Way more work. First I had to put on 3 coats of filler. Then I had to sand that. Then it took three coats of sanding primer on the filler to make the hull smooth. Then it took three coats of paint to make the final coat look respectable. Painting the polyester was way easier. All it took was a coat or two to fill the weave, then two coats of paint. Done, minimum of sanding. For one thing, the polyester was a lot smoother than the cotton so filling the weave took almost no effort at all.
Anyway, it's done. Pictures follow.
And I should mention that I re-caned the seats and repaired some rot damage to the ribs. All that takes extra time, of course.

The new skin is on and the inside of the boat has two coats of satin varnish.

After I helped to varnish some rowboats at the Dolphin Club, I decided that gloss varnish shows off the wood much better.

The decals were puzzling to me. I assumed that they were the old kind that you soak in water and then slide off the substrate. It was only after I soaked the decals in the water and nothing happened that it dawned on me that these were self-adhesive. Way easier to install.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Indigenous Boats

Years ago, some friends and I started an organization called The Native Watercraft Society. Our intent was to research and document native water craft or as Bob Holtzman calls them, Indigenous Boats. The Native Watercraft Society eventually died due to the fact that it was too much work to put out a publication - those were the days before free blogging on the internet.
Well, it seems that probably without knowing it, Bob Holtzman has picked up the baton where we dropped it and is doing a heck of a job documenting indigenous boats from all over the world. See the link to his blog on the right. Not only is he putting out a whole bunch of good information, he has also provided an index which lets you access blogs by boat type. Very thoughtful and useful. I will have to try to follow his excellent example.
So if indigenous craft trip your trigger, make your way over to Bob's blog.


I first met Mark Sanders at TAKS a few years ago. Mark not only has the camera gear but also knows how to use it. For some spiffy kayak photography, go to his website - Link off to t he right of this blog. See above for a picture of me being eaten by a wave at San Simeon.
And in an effort at shameless self promotion, here is a link to a Flash sequence of myself in the surf at San Simeon shot by Mark.

Roll or Drown

Roll or Drown is Duane Strosaker's website. See links at the right hand side of this blog for how to get to his site. Duane, in case you don't know him is one of those people who paddles ten times as much as anyone else. I think he has paddled to more of the Channel Islands in recent times than anyone else. I think he said that he has paddled to all but one of the islands out there. Duane will no doubt correct me if I'm wrong.

The reason I say that Duane has paddled to more of the islands in recent times is that BWM, that is, Before White Man, the Chumash Indians used to paddle out to the Channel Islands from the coast using their plank canoes.
Besides being an avid paddler, Duane is also a builder of kayaks, paddles and practitioner of the Greenlandic arts of rolling and rope exercises.

Toxic Cleanup Part II

While doing some research on the Aleutian Islands, I ran across this little tidbit on the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association site. Looks like Alameda isn't the only place where the government is doing toxic cleanup. A ways back, the gov was doing nuclear testing on Amchitka. They have since stopped and are now cleaning up. Here is an excerpt of the text from the APIA site:
"The U. S. Atomic Energy Commission created a nuclear testing facility on Amchitka in the early 1960s. Three underground nuclear explosions occurred in the 1960s and 1970s. The first detonation was the "Long Shot," an 80 kiloton bomb. The second was "Milrow," a one megaton device exploded on 2 Oct 1969, 4,000 feet below the surface of the island. The third device, "Cannikan," weighing in at 5 megatons, was detonated on 6 Nov 1971. It was the largest underground nuclear explosion in U.S. history. This facility was closed down in 1994, with on-going U. S. Government cleanup of the radioactive, chemical, and other hazardous waste. While there is an airstrip on Amchitka, it is currently restricted to U. S. Government flights only."
Question: How do you clean up after detonating 6 megatons worth of nukes? Given that only government flights can land there, cleanup must be iffy. At least they stopped doing above ground testing.
Advice: When planning your next Aleutian kayak adventure, avoid Amchitka.

Unangam Tunuu - How to pronounce it

If you're curious about how to pronounce Aleut words such as the ones you might find in Bergsland's article on Aleut kayak terms, click here.
I have not yet found a site where you can actually hear Aleut words pronounced, but you can order some CDs from the APIA (Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association).

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Knut Bergsland and Aleut Kayak Terminology

Knut Bergsland, Norwegian linguist contributed an article entitled "Aleut Kayak Terminology" (AKT) to a book called Contributions to Kayak Studies. I have finally gotten around to working my way through it.
AKT is not an easy ready, mostly due to Bergsland's forbidding syntax. Still, it's worthwhile reading the article even if you need to sit down to it with a notepad to diagram the sentences before you can be sure what Bergsland is trying to convey.
The information in the article is twofold. One type of information derives from the literal translation of Aleut terms for kayak parts. For instance, we learn that the third deck beam of a single-hatch baidarka is also the place where the paddler braces his feet. The fifth deck beam is referred to as the back rest. But interestingly, the fourth deck beam is just referred to as the deck beam next to the opening, that is, the cockpit. The implication is that this deck beam had no relation to the paddler's anatomy, that it was not used by the paddler to brace his knees or thighs.
The other type of information in this article is from what I can tell, the most complete enumeration of Aleut kayak accessories to be found anywhere. For instance, we are told not only that the Aleut paddler carried with him a repair kit but also what its contents were. We are also given a detailed list of hunting implements, everything from sea otter darts to whaling lances.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

How's the toxic cleanup coming?

Glad you asked. As everyone probably knows by now, former military bases are the equivalent of toxic waste disposal sites. The military, at least on US bases has cleaned up its act and complies with various environmental laws. Overseas is another matter. But for now, let's focus on the US, more specifically on the former Alameda Naval Air Station (Alameda, NAS) where my shop is.

In the past, the military dumped anything and everything liquid on the ground or down the sewers and after that, it was out of sight and out of mind. Back then, dilution was the solution.

Nowadays, things have changed. The stuff the military dumped in the ground or down the sewers is still there, clinging, slowly dispersing, looking for a place to go.

Meanwhile, the cold war ended, Clinton closed military bases and the department of defense looked for buyers for their decommissioned bases. Developers vied to tilt up condos and strip malls on the abandoned bases. But wait .. enter, stage left, the lawyers. The military has them and so do the developers. Somebody discovered that there was BAD STUFF in the ground and lawyers got wind of that. The long and the short of it is that the military's lawyers determined that stuff in the ground meant lawsuits down the road. Build a house on top of the toxin infused dirt and somebody's kid gets cancer. Kid's parents file a lawsuit, find a sympathetic jury and the military owes way more money than they sold the base for.

Enter the cleanup crew. The lawyers said, no lawsuits. Hence clean it up before the military sells it. Expensive, but what the heck, cheaper than a lawsuit. So here we go.

Coming back to the Alameda NAS, not only did the Navy dump fluids in the ground, they also flushed various radioactive materials down the sewer. Again, this was small scale stuff, like the radioactive material that went into military instruments to make the phosphors in the various gages light up. But there it sat in the sewer line, waiting for a lawsuit.

But, the lawyers found out and the cleanup started. It will be over soon. The fences will come down. I will have access to the water once again. Pictures to follow.

That little sliver of water to the left has a little beach abutting it at low tide. The Navy put up a chain link fence to keep people off the beach. Reason? Apparently, the sand and mud of the beach is saturated with toxic chemicals. If people play on the sand, the toxins get into the water when the tide comes in.

There's signs in at least four languages telling us not to go near the water or eat fish or shellfish that live in it. This sign is in Chinese. Other signs are in English, Spanish and Vietnamese.

The yellow building to the left is our old shop building. We have been kicked out of it. The white building to the right is the source of solvent contamination. The solvents are in the ground, working their way in the direction of SF Bay. The white trucks are there to transport contractors who put probes down in monitoring wells to find out how far the solvents have gotten.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the seaplane lagoon, the radioactive cleanup is going on. The fence at the left which is converging toward the horizon runs parallel to the sewer line that drained the radioactive materials into the bay.

Here's another view, this one of the guard shack at the far left and blue water containers to the right of the shack. The water containers fill up spray trucks which run back and forth and keep everything wet so radioactive dust does not get blown about by the wind.

Here is a pile of toxic dirt. It has been sprayed with something that binds the surface and prevents the wind from disturbing it.

And here is the last of the work to be done. Beyond the fence is a trench in which the new sewer line has been laid so that it can now drain clean, unradioactive water into the bay.

Actual radioactive material that got into the sewer is probably minimal. Nobody on the site is wearing lead suits. The whole thing is probably a boondoggle with the prime beneficiary being the toxic remediation contractor. Nevertheless, we, the taxpayers benefit from all this activity because it is still cheaper than a lawsuit.

Meanwhile, I am waiting for it to be all done so the fences can come down and I will once again have a nearby place to launch my kayaks.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Feeding Frenzy

I don't have any photos of the feeding frenzy because as is usually the case, I don't have my camera with me when interesting stuff happens.
Anyway, I drove down to the seaplane lagoon yesterday to see how the radioactive cleanup was coming and noticed an unusual number of pelicans crashing into the water. (more on the radioactive cleanup some other time.) I thought maybe the pelicans were bulking up in preparation for their migration to where ever they go in winter, Mexico probably. But then I noticed that there were a whole bunch of other critters cruising the surface of the water in a purposive manner that they adopt when they're fishing.
Seems like some sort of small fish was in the bay in large numbers, probably to spawn and the fish eaters were following the school. In addition to the pelicans there were about a hundred cormorants, all low in the water, a bunch of unidentified ducks, a few terns, gulls and two seals. Would be cool to see this scene from below, fisheye view.
Side note - when pelicans hit the water, it splashes up in a way that always reminds me of this one particular David Hockney painting. See below for painting. I guess that is one of the marks of a good painting is that it makes you see something that you otherwise wouldn't have noticed.

Monday, November 30, 2009


I know that two, possibly three people follow this blog. Now you have a chance to announce the fact that you follow this blog. Announcing yourself gives me some idea of who's reading the blog and gives me a chance to target its content at a given audience. See followers gadget in the right margin for details. Click somewhere and see what happens. Haven't tried it myself so I'm not sure how it will work.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Dolphin Club

The Dolphin Club in San Francisco is a repository of wooden row boats besides also being a place where members do their swimming in SF Bay. Their row boats are used by members to escort other members who want to swim outside the protection of the cove in front of the club house. The escort system was started after a member was run over by a motor boat back in the sixties. How the club got hold of so many wooden row boats, I don't know, but now that they have them, they need to maintain them. All boats get sanded and re-varnished every five years. Given the number of boats that the club has, they have to do about 5 boats a year.
So every Tuesday night is boat maintenance night. Here are some photos taken this past Tuesday.

This week's boat all sanded down and ready for varnish.

The same boat with a new coat of varnish. Four coats to go.

And some more boats, these seating four. Sometimes club members just row. Obviously, these boats are too big to take out just to accompany a single swimmer.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Spenger's Fresh Fish Grotto

Berkeley has this restaurant called Spenger's Fresh Fish Grotto. I don't know how good their food is, but if you're ever in the area, probably to rub elbows with the area's well-to-do or to spend 15 minutes in line to get coffee at Peet's on fourth street, stop by Spengers to check out their small collection of nautical stuff scattered around the outside of the building.
The most notable item in their collection is a small dugout canoe. I thought for some time that it was local, but am beginning to doubt it. More likely Polynesian. Anyway, here's some pictures of it.

Kinda looks like the fat parts of the hulls are where the amas of the outriggers would have crossed, or is that just where the thwarts went? Don't know much about dugouts.

And yes, believe it or not, the SF bay had a whale processing plant until sometime in the 60's over in Richmond.

And there's a harpoon on one of the last whale boats.

Hokusai's boats

Hokusai has long been my favorite Japanese artist. But for a long time I hadn't looked at his work. Recently, some new Hokusai books were published and I realized that quite a few of Hokusai's wood cuts had boats in them. By western standards, the boats all look curious, square sterned and high bowed. But they do resemble Portuguese surf boats to some extent.

Portuguese had a lot of places where harbors were missing and fishermen had to launch through the surf. As a result, the boats had high bows that would keep the surf from swamping the boats.
Japanese boats apparently had similar conditions to contend with. Makes me want to build some skin on frame small scale surf boats.

The other curious thing about the Japanese boats is the dotted lines along the edges of the planks. Were these boats sewn together like some Polynesian boats?

Friday, November 6, 2009

Oil Spill !!!

NRC dweebes are getting ready to tow a boom out to the oil spill to contain it.

We're having our annual oil spill here in SF bay. Routine stuff by now. "They", whoever they are closed all the beaches and boat ramps facing the bay here in Alameda to allow workers in hazmat suits dab gobs of oil off rocks and the beach with wads of kleenex. Other fine folks are washing oily ducks. Duck death toll so far is 22, not from being washed I presume, but probably from getting oiled.
Meanwhile, boat testing is suspended since I can't get on the water except by launching off the rocks you see in the background of that picture. There is a little beach that I could launch off, except that is closed right now while another set of contractors is cleaning up the radioactive sewer which the navy used to use to run radioactive waste into the bay. Oh well, it's a toxic world we live in.

Reality vs. Fantasy

to the right, Daniel Everett, the author of Don't Sleep .. or at least his head and its reflection. We cannot be sure if there is more to him than that.

I am in the process of reading a book called Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes. It's an account of how a Christian missionary goes to the Amazon to bring Jesus to an Indian tribe called the Piraha. The Piraha, it turns out, have the unusual trait of only taking their own experience and the first-hand experience of other living humans as evidence of what is real. This amazing trait has made them immune to 300 years of missionary attempts at conversion. In the end, it is the Piraha who convert Everett, the missionary to their view of seeing and not the other way around.
It isn't that the Piraha have a problem with Jesus, it's just that in their world view, they don't care about Jesus because they can't find anyone who has actually seen him or personally heard what he had to say. And it's not that the Piraha pick on Jesus in particular. They wouldn't care any more for the Buddha or Archimedes or Plato or Socrates or any other person long dead.
The Piraha are pragmatists in the extreme or if you will, Missourians of the Amazon. A brief side bar here about the "Show Me State:"

"There are a number of stories and legends behind Missouri's sobriquet "Show-Me" state. The slogan is not official, but is common throughout the state and is used on Missouri license plates.

The most widely known legend attributes the phrase to Missouri's U.S. Congressman Willard Duncan Vandiver, who served in the United States House of Representatives from 1897 to 1903. While a member of the U.S. House Committee on Naval Affairs, Vandiver attended an 1899 naval banquet in Philadelphia. In a speech there, he declared, "I come from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me."

So what does this have to do with boat building?
In the construction of b0ats, people like to make all sorts of claims based on what they've heard or read or believe.
My response, "Show Me."
In the end, there is no substitute for actually building a boat and trying it out to see what it will do. And what better way is there to quickly build a boat to see what it will do than skin on frame.

Let's hear it for the Piraha and Missouri and skin on frame.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Wooden hunting hats at Unangax^ Culture Camp

Patty Gregory Of Unalaska taught wooden hat making at Unangax^ (Aleut) Culture Camp. People were making two kinds of hats, the open crowned visor type and the full crowned type. The full crowned hat was reserved for the more senior hunters. Some kayak models show two holed kayaks where the paddler in front, the more junior of the two wears the visor and the paddler in back, the more senior wears the full crowned hat.

Here's Patty with an arm full of hat blanks and completed visors.

Mike Livingston and I went down to Poppert's milling in Wasilla to get the wood for the hats. The picture above shows a big piece of cottonwood on the saw bed ready to be sliced into 3/8 inch thick slices. Cottonwood bends well, especially when still wet and green and is therefore a good material for hat blanks.

Andrew Abyo was at the camp all week working on some full crowned hats. Here he is showing off some of his work, a visor and a mask. For more of his work, go to the Alutiiq museum site.

Here, Andrew is carving away on the blank for a full crowned hat.

Patty had a picture of Andrew Gronholt set up. Andrew was her hat making teacher.

Andrew's daughter, right in brown shirt is holding up one of her dad's hats and Patty is showing up a display board of miniature visors.

Here's the hat again.

Inside of the hat, showing construction details.

And a side view, showing the decorations.

Hat blanks heating up in a tub of boiling water.

And a visor in the bending jig, drying till the shape sets.

Andrew is explaining various functional features of the Aleut hunting hat.

The hat funnels sound. Kids cup their hands to simulate sound amplification of the hat.

Big pile of shavings left over from a week of hat carving.

Becky Bendixson with here completed full-crown hat.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Culture camp how to butcher a seal demo

One of the features of Culture Camp was the preparation of traditional Unangan foods, in this case, a harbor seal. Sally Swetsoff demonstrated how to butcher the seal.

The head is already off. Sally is starting to slice the seal down the middle, belly up.

Here you can see the wind pipe and the layer of white blubber on top of very dark colored flesh.

The seal is completely opened up revealing the intestines.

The judgment of some is that this is a smelly process.

The seal carcass with the intestines removed.

Sally is cutting the connective tissue between coils of intestine. Intestines are later cleaned, braided with strips of blubber, boiled and eaten.

Sally has removed all the organs and is beginning to cut up the meat.

Each pied of meat is cut so it has a chunk of blubber with it. The meat by itself is completely fat free and has no marbeling. Hence, fat which is an important nutrient in a cold climate has to be added in.