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SSTIKS 2006: Wolfgang Brinck


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!


SSTIKS 2006: Dubside


Evan, paddling my Greenland skin-on-frame, Misterie.


I arrive just a little late for the SSTIKS opening ceremonies at Twanoh. I'm not in a rush though -- just out to meet people and have fun. I bump into Evan, a paddler I met first at the Body Boat Blade five-day kayak camp last year, and at just about every local kayak symposium since. He helps me take Moonlight Dancer off the car and set her on display on the soft grass leading to the beach. She turns out to be the strip-built sensation of the year (but only because Ted Henry didn't show up with his Redfish Silver and King)!

For the morning instruction session I’m in the rolling course taught by Dubside with two other students. On my request we work on masikkut aalatsineq. Take wide, wide strokes, and tuck forward as far as possible.  My form improves when I remember to keep my chin on my chest. I really need to work on my forward flexibility. Yeah, I told myself that last October! I might have actually done some regular stretching if I hadn’t been building a boat all winter. The student next to me drove up all the way from the Bay Area with his yellow/white Outer Island. He makes significant improvement from no rolling movement of the kayak at all to sculling all the way up. We practice hand rolls and for some reason I've lost mine. I think it’s because I normally don’t practice with a PFD and here for insurance purposes they make me wear one. I have made progress on one thing though: I don’t use nose clips anymore (in salt water anyway). I feel like I've thrown away another crutch. By the way, Dubside has a new PFD: a Stormy Seas inflatable in black.

Dubside works out everyday: calisthenics, ropes, rolling in the pond at Corey Freedman’s place. Tom Sharp tells me, “You have to practice every day to maintain his level of athleticism.” There was a time late last year when Dubside injured himself taking his Feathercraft Wisper apart, by doing a karate chop to separate some stuck stringers. He broke a bone in his hand and was out of training, but fully recovered after a few weeks.


“Have you ever considered competing in the Greenland category at the National Championships?” I ask Dubside. He says he won’t this year because he hasn’t been racing. He also doesn’t have a harpoon to practice with. (Rolling and rope gymnastics are only 2 of 8 events at the competition, which includes a number of different races and harpoon throwing). Recently he asked a student at the Skin Boat School to make a harpoon for him. Dubside gave him the plans a couple weeks ago but it still isn’t finished. “Every day it’s not finished is one less day I have to practice, but he’s an artist and wants it to be perfect.” At the Skin Boat School he lives among boatbuilders who are always coming and going. Like him, some live at the school, camping out or staying in RVs.


After lunch we gather at the beach for the rolling demo. I think Dick Mahler convinced Dubside to use his PakBoat folding inflatable kayak. Dick wants me to take plenty of pictures to send to the PakBoats manufacturer. I’m not sure why – Dubside looks ridiculous in it! Afterwards Dubside tells me that he didn’t feel much of a vibe from the audience  when he padded  out in that thing and started rolling.  “Not like in Port Townsend,” he says referring to the rolling demo where he used a variety of klunky plastic rec kayaks and sit-on-tops.  I don’t know why they didn’t react either. Maybe they had all seen that trick before.  Dubside is an entertainer: always  critical of his own performance, thinking of ways to improve it.


During the afternoon session I skip rolling lessons and just paddle among the groups in Moonlight Dancer, taking pictures and practicing a few rolls. I try out Bob Kelim’s newest skin-on-frame kayak. He says it is an excellent roller. The secret is 28 degrees of flare on the gunwales and a flat bottom. It seems to do the trick because it's the only kayak I’ve been able to get aariammillugu on consistently. That roll really puts strain on your shoulders.

[to be continued]

Back from SSTIKS 2006

Had a great time at SSTIKS.  I got to meet Wolfgang Brinck, take more rolling lessons from Dubside, and show off my boats.  I'd tell you more but I'm too tired to write and I still gotta unload all my gear. 


Wolfgang Brinck in one of John Petersen's kayaks



 Dubside and Marcus discussing rolling


 Moonlight Dancer and Misterie on the beach