SSTIKS 2006: Wolfgang Brinck
June 06, 2006
Wolfgang Brinck and Jim Mitchell in double baidarka
When I took that picture of Wolfgang Brinck in John Petersen’s kayak (my previous post) I didn’t know it was him – I was just admiring the kayak! After I realized who it was I introduced myself. He drove up from the Bay Area with John in an SUV with 6 skin-on-frame kayaks piled on top, including Wolf’s double baidarka.
Wolf has been working to complete another edition his book, The Aleutian Kayak. That’s good news for anyone who has ever tried to get a copy of the old edition, which is out of print. He is planning to publish the new one digitally on CD so there are fewer limitations on number of images and image quality. In the old editon he recommended collecting the first willow shoots in spring, when the sap is flowing, to use for ribs, which I suspect may have discouraged more than a few potential baidarka makers (including me) who were left wondering where they were going to find willow shoots. He also gave instructions for a canvas skin. The state-of-the-art now is to steam bend oak ribs and use a ballistic nylon coated with two-part polyurethane. “Traditional” skin-on-frame construction continues to evolve!
Double baidarka, single baidarka with horizontally split bow, John Petersen's Greenland kayak
“Have you noticed a difference in performance between kayaks made with a one-part keelson and the traditional three-part keelson?” I asked him. He explains that to understand baidarka construction you have to consider the environment in which these kayaks were paddled. South of the Aleutian Islands the seabed drops off steeply, so the Aleut were paddling in water with long period, high energy waves. The three-part keelson allows the frame to flex, both vertically and laterally. Pieces of bone were sometimes placed in the joints, to reduce friction. One baidarka could contain as many as 60 small bones in all the joints, so that every part of the baidarka was in motion. It was thought that this increased speed in rough water. If one grabs the bow of the kayak and pulls it down, as if the kayak were coming over the top of a wave, the middle section past the joint moves down, but the end of the third section moves up. This allowed the kayak to conform to and slither over the waves. Wolf said he has built baidarkas with one-part and three-part keelsons. I don’t remember if he said he noticed a difference in performance though.
"Fish-head" bow of Jim Mitchell's baidarka, "Raven"
“Can you tell me if there is any difference between the older horizontally split bow and the more recent ‘fish head' configuration?” I asked. I should explain that the horizontal bow configuration dates to before European contact, was described by Captain Cook and other early explorers, and disappeared around 1850. The upturned "fish head" bow in the Aleut kayak is more recent. The best explanation of the split bow is that it allows the bottom portion to be long and narrow and act like a cutwater while the large and triangular upper part provides more buoyancy. This makes the bow concave in cross section, a configuration that would be otherwise impossible to achieve with skin and wood. Wolf told me that no one really knows why the bow evolved the way it did. “It may just be a matter of fashion”, he said. “If you’ve ever paddled in a kelp bed, though, you can imagine how kelp would get caught in the horizontal split, and not in the upturned bow.”
Wolf launched into a discussion of “mean time to failure”. If you have years of experience making and using skin-on-frame boats, you'll have an idea of the average life span of the parts, and how frequently parts need to be replaced. He believes that traditional kayak makers followed the engineering principle of making it “just good enough”. The seal skin cover on traditional boats was removed every winter, so repairs could be made to the frame before the skin was replaced for the next hunting season. (I wonder if they also took this opportunity to make incremental improvements in the design.) As the durability of the skin increased in recent times to a life span of several years (with the current use of nylon and two-part urethane) the durability of the frame needs to increase, because no one really wants to cut off a perfectly good skin to repair minor damage to a frame.
It seems to me that the lifespan of most kayaks including the indestructible British boats is really only about a couple years. This is because many kayakers get tired of their boats after a year -- they outgrow them or get tired of the color or something. By the end of the second year they’ve already purchased a new one -- something they hope is going to really outperform the old one. Maybe it would be better if the old one just broke after a couple years. If it were made out of biodegradable wood and canvas you could just leave it in the backyard to disintegrate.
John Petersen in Greenland kayak
This all gives me an idea: build a kayak frame and skin it with inexpensive canvas and waterproof it with floor varnish. Reskin it every year or two and take the opportunity to make changes to the design until it evolves into the perfect boat. It’ll help satisfy the craving to build boats every year, but you don’t end up with a garage full of kayaks!