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Building a Custom Stitch and Glue West Greenland Kayak

Cut out parts 3


Warren Williamson recently showed me the drawing of a kayak he plans to build. It’s one of many boats he has designed using a 3D modeling program called Rhino: a West Greenland style kayak, intended for “stitch−and−glue” construction. Using Rhino, Warren is able to develop a 3D model from a 2D lines drawing of a kayak, and then expand the panels to produce a “.dxf” file which can be plugged into a CNC router to produce panels in plywood. He has arranged all the parts of the kayak (bottom and side panels, deck, coaming and lip, hatches, bulkheads, and temporary station forms) so that they will fit onto three 4x8 plywood sheets.




In his workshop Warren showed me the resulting plywood parts, precisely cut out of 4mm BS 1088 Joubert/French marine plywood, just like in the drawings. This is the good stuff he said, not like the plywood that comes from China, which is also rated BS 1088 but has a more fragile face veneer. The owner and CEO of Chesepeake Light Craft, John Harris, agreed to cut and ship these panels for him for a small fee. The panels look remarkably thin and they all fit in a flat cardboard box. I am amazed how little lumber is needed for this kayak. I can tell it’s going to be sleek, low volume, and high performance. 
An experienced boatbuilder and graduate of the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding, Warren has planned this project out to the last detail. I hope to follow the construction of his kayak closely as it progresses.




Warren and I spent the afternoon playing in the ebb at Deception Pass. The kayak he used, an Arctic Hawk SS, was designed and meticulously hand-crafted by Mark Rogers of Superior Kayaks. Although it looks like a plywood stitch−and−glue kayak I can’t really call it that because Rogers uses “stitchless” construction. He omits the wires that are used to hold the plywood panels in place while they are joined together with fiberglass and epoxy. The result is that the Arctic Hawk SS has none of the visible holes that are the artifact of typical stitch−and glue−construction. There is not one blemish that distracts from the gorgeous bright−finished wood.
When the current reached it max (around 6.8 knots) Warren showed me a spot at the Whidbey Island side of the Pass where a submerged rock kicked the water up into a small wave. In my skin−on−frame East Greenland kayak, I struggled to get on and surf the wave. The current tended to catch my bow and wash me away. After a few attempts I learned to lean back to be able to more easily swing my bow right into the current, and then lean forward to stay on the wave. I worked on getting a feel for surfing, and for slicing my paddle into the water by my stern to act as a rudder. I suppressed the instinct to keep slapping the surface to brace. When perfectly tuned, you can stay in one spot as the water rushes underneath you, without even touching the water with the paddle.
As the current died down to half max in Deception Pass, we paddled to Canoe Pass and joined a group of paddlers from NWOC. Surprisingly, the waves were bigger there than they were earlier at max. Warren said that can be the case when the wind blows from the west. At its maximum, the current is so strong that it flattens out the waves. As it slows down, an opposing wind and swell kick them up again.
Conditions were perfect for riding waves. I would slide down them and shoot upstream, do a few rolls, let the current wash me backwards, and then work my way back upstream, weaving among the half−dozen or so kayakers riding the waves along the way.
I’ve recently subscribed to Warren’s minimalism when it comes to gear: no pfd, no helmet. Just a tuilik. I enjoy a much greater freedom of movement. It seems to help me summon the playfulness of a rolling session in conditions that really call for it.
VIDEO: Warren riding the wave at Deception Pass, then performing kingup apummaatigut “behind−the−back” roll

Warren Williamson: Behind the Back Roll from Baby Seal Films on Vimeo.

Snapshots from Peru: La Playa Mendieta

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David had hired a Peruvian guide named Juan Carlos to lead us on a trip around the Paracas peninsula. Juan Carlos had worked as a biologist and ranger in the National Park of Paracas for several years and had apparently also kayaked along the south coast before. Juan Carlos doesn’t speak English and I was the only one in our group who doesn't speak Spanish, so unfortunately I wasn’t able to talk to him at all about his previous kayak experiences.

We had anticipated having a total of 5 people in our group but our fifth man cancelled at the last minute. He happened to be one of the Peruvians who had been involved in the ill−fated trip to Islas Ballestas a few years earlier where one kayaker died (see my previous post about our attempt to paddle to Islas Ballestas).

We packed our kayaks and gear the night before in preparation to leave as early as possible the next day. We planned to drive south through the desert in the National Park and launch from a beach south of Paracas called Playa Mendieta, and from there paddle north to Lagunillas, a small fishing port on a protected bay within the National Park.  When we reached our put-in at Playa Mendieta I was happy to see that the surf was minimal so getting off the beach would be easy.

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Dan launched first. He was wearing shorts and insisted on putting his neoprene booties on after he had gotten in his cockpit so that his feet would stay dry. I learned on our previous trip that he had this obsession with keeping his feet dry. I helped stabilize him while he got inside his boat and tried slipping his booties on. While he was an awkward position with one knee out of the cockpit a wave surged up and pushed us sideways, nearly knocking us over and flooding the cockpit with water and sand. So much for keeping his feet dry! After Dan scrambled out we emptied the cockpit and started over.

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After Dan made it out through the small break, we started to help Juan Carlos. David introduced him to his kayak and adjusted his seat and foot peddles. Unfortunately, Juan Carlos arrived just before dinner the night before so he didn’t have a chance to try out any of the gear beforehand. He essentially got a a 5 minute crash course on the Epic 16X and coastal sea kayaking.

David pushed him out as the water surged in. Juan Carlos made it over a small wave but immediately capsized. David ran out and grabbed his kayak. I had my video camera on, but put it away to help empty the flooded kayak and another attempt at launch. Juan Carlos looked a little shaken. In a minute though he was ready to try it again -- a real trouper! He made it through the second time.

“My God,” David said. “Look at him! It’s like he has never been in a kayak before. There is no way he can do this. It’s too dangerous."

I reserved judgment for the moment but got a sinking feeling as I watched Juan Carlos paddle off. He was “arm paddling”, with short, choppy and sometimes hesitant strokes. The kayak veered off in random directions. He was obviously having trouble maintaining direction, even on totally flat water, and probably overcorrecting with the rudder. But all this time he was paddling with a big smile on his face, like he was having the time of his life!

David followed him out. Juan Carlos had just been fired! David was going to send him home with our support crew.

Snapshots from Peru- La Playa Mendieta from Baby Seal Films on Vimeo.

I waited onshore, thinking that if Juan Carlos is coming back I better stay to help bring him in. Some discussion occurred among the three of them on the water. After a few minutes I decided I should go out and find out what our plan was going to be. 

In the end we let Juan Carlos come along. Although I agreed that having an inexperienced paddler along put everyone at additional risk, because of the sea conditions that day it turned out not to be a non-issue. The weather was perfect −− calm and overcast. We paddled passed rocks and sea stacks, keeping far from the big breaking waves close to shore and point breaks. 

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Juan Carlos lagged behind. David stayed close to him.  Dan and I moved closer to shore to get a better look at La Catedral, the remains of a huge sea arch. Two years ago an earthquake sent it crashing into the sea along with other large sections of cliffs along the coastline. A tsunami followed. The 3 meter surge destroyed many of the fishing boats and houses in Paracas as well as the historic Paracas Hotel. Incredibly, no one in Paracas died. For a year afterward the ocean was muddy brown. 

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We ended the day midafternoon after paddling 11 nm in Lagunillas, riding the surge through a narrow slot in the rocks and onto the beach next to the Restaurant La Tia Fela. Our friends had gotten a table outside and were waiting with cold beers. La Tia Fela had no running water or electricity. Somehow they managed to serve busloads of tourists every day.  They presented you with a tray of fish fresh off the boats for you to select to have fried or prepared as ceviche (served raw and marinated in lime juice and sliced onion).

Snapshots from Peru: Paddle to Islas Ballestas (almost)

Islas ballestas

[Our GPS track from June 1, 2009: We started at the southeast corner of the Bay of Paracas, headed northwest to the tip of the peninsula, then crossed to the Islas Ballestas, and drifted slightly south on the return path.  22.9 nm]

My friend David has a boathouse full of cool toys: six brand new Epic kayaks, sailboards and kite boarding gear. His house is located on the Bay of Paracas which is sheltered from the ocean swell but is known for having a lot of wind, which typically comes from the south and picks up late in the day. It's not uncommon for the wind to blow up to 25-30 knots, so we planned to be off the water before late afternoon.

We launched at 0730 under an overcast sky, toward the guano islands, the Islas Ballestas. The sea was calm. We didn't have a weather report, a chart, or a even street map. There was no way to get information on swell size and no one had been following the trend in the barometric pressure. There's not much of a tidal range at 13 degrees south so we didn't worry about that either.

What we lacked in the usual essential data we tried to make up for in "local knowledge". After crossing the Bay of Paracas to the northeastern tip of the peninsula, David stopped to talk to some fisherman. We needed to ask for directions because it was so foggy offshore that you couldn't actually see the islands from where we were. 

"I told them that we wanted to go to the Islas Ballestas," he said.


"They said we were crazy."

Earlier David had told us a story about a group of three Peruvians who had paddled out the the Islas Ballestas in two kayaks. Two paddlers were in a double sit-on-top and another was in a single decked sea kayak. The person in the single was apparently an experienced kayaker and decided to break away and paddle toward Islas Chincha to the northeast by himself. Conditions deteriorated in the afternoon as they typically do and the two kayakers in the double abandoned their attempt at the Islas Ballestas and returned home safely. But the kayaker in the single was found dead by fishermen the next day, still tethered to his kayak but missing his paddle.  

The fishermen pointed us in the approximate direction and said it takes them about 45 minutes to get there in their boat, going about 5 knots. That didn't sound too far.

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A number of tourist boats joined us at the northern shore of the peninsula by the Candelabro de Paracas, a famous geoglyph of mysterious origins. It was probably made a few hundred years ago as a landmark for sailors, unlike the Nazca lines which are far older. The symbolism may be Masonic. As the boats sped off to the Islas Ballestas I took a bearing on them with my handheld compass and we followed them into the fog. I also set a waypoint on my GPS.


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This close to the equator I expected to be paddling in much warmer conditions. It was the beginning of autumn in Peru and in the upper sixties -- cool enough to wear a drysuit with a thin base layer, much like the Pacific Northwest in the middle of summer and perfect sea kayaking weather.
Our heading was 280-300 (it depended a lot on whether my compass was lying level on my sprayskirt). My compadres questioned the heading because they thought the islands were somewhere southwest, not northwest. I honestly had no clue if it was correct: I was just following the tourist boats. Fortunately we were able to use other islands to the east and west as landmarks even though we lost sight of the mainland. After about 3 nm we were finally able to make out the faint outlines of the Islas Ballestas.
As we paddled closer the swell grew bigger but the sea remained otherwise calm. A group of penguins swam by. It was hard for me to judge the remaining distance to the islands because I had no sense of scale. In any case it sure seemed like we had paddled a lot farther than we expected. 
We stopped at 11 nm and rafted together for lunch.  We were about 6 nm from where we left the fishermen, and I estimated within a mile of the islands. I could make out the steep cliffs, arches, and surrounding spires of rock, and see and hear the waves breaking on the shore. I wanted to see if I could find a small beach protected from the south swell. David advised against it. Again it was difficult to judge scale so I had no idea of how big the surf was. No one was allowed to land on the islands anyway, except those workers with permission to mine the guano. In fact, David recommended that we turn around and head back after paddling this far. He hadn't expected the trip to take as long as it did and it starting to get late. He thought the wind might pick up. It was difficult to for me to break away from the island. I wanted to get just close enough for some good pictures, and possibly land and stretch my legs, but in the end decided against it. David knew this sea better than I.
We followed our reciprocal heading back to the north shore of the peninsula.  We paddled along the cliffs among caves and sea arches. I was impressed by how totally lifeless the land is, in contrast to the richness of the ocean. Nothing grows here -- not one blade of grass or tuft of moss or lichen.  


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On my last day in Peru I had the chance to return to the Islas Ballestas, this time on one of the tour boats. There were thousands of birds, of course, lots of sea lions lounging on the rocks, and everywhere the strong smell of guano. The islands are riddled with huge arches and sea caves, the inside of which resembles interior of a cathedral. With a gentle swell and calm wind, this could be a sea kayaker's paradise! If I had known that it was this beautiful earlier, I would have spent the rest of the week trying to get out there again.

Snapshots from Peru: Islas Ballestas from Baby Seal Films on Vimeo.

Surfing the Epic GPX Kayak on the Peruvian South Coast

Snapshots from Peru: Kayak Surfing in the Reserva Nacional de Paracas, Peru from Baby Seal Films on Vimeo.

The desolate coast at Paracas.
The desolate coast at Paracas.

I just got back on Sunday night after spending a week in Peru with a friend who has a house on the ocean by the Reserva Nacional de Paracas. The park is a desert peninsula where nothing ever grows and where it hasn’t rained for over a hundred years. This place resembles the surface of Mars -- totally lifeless. The shore just south of the peninsula and around the peninsula itself is made up of dramatic cliffs and small pocket beaches. There are numerous sea caves and arches, and islands just offshore. We spent the week touring along the open coast (more on that later).

Preparing to break out through the dumpy surf on a stingray-infested beach.
Preparing to break out through the dumpy surf on a stingray-infested beach.
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This video is from the day we spent practicing in the surf zone with a couple 12 foot long Epic GPX kayaks (not the kayaks we took touring). We drove the kayaks across the desert looking for a beach with friendly surf. It came down to a choice between a beach with rocks and one infested with stingrays.

One of the restaurants in the National Reserve at Paracas.
One of the restaurants in the National Reserve at Paracas.

I got a couple good rides in and rolled around a few times. In my last ride I wiped out after I fell from the crest of the wave. While underwater I felt my kayak paddle break in half! I don't know if it hit the sand when I capsized, but it felt like it just fell apart as I was bracing into the wave. I had to roll up using one half of the paddle. Then as soon as I recovered another wave slammed into me. In the end I paddled to shore canoe−style. Check it out- −− it’s all there on the blurry video!

The paddle was a carbon−fiber Epic paddle that belonged to my friend David. Lesson learned: do not use an expensive carbon touring paddle for playing in the surf, unless it belongs to your friend, ;-)

Paddling the Sterling Kayaks "Illusion" at the 2009 Puget Sound Sea Kayak Symposium

Kayaks on Owen Beach for the 2009 Puget Sound Sea Kayak Symposium
Kayaks on Owen Beach for the 2009 Puget Sound Sea Kayak Symposium

It's only a four and a half mile paddle from the beach by my house to Owen Beach at Point Defiance, where the Puget Sound Sea Kayak Symposium was being held. I landed on the demo beach around noon on Saturday, this time paddling my Shooting Star cedar-strip baidarka (because I like all the attention it gets). Richard Lovering paddled his Greenland skin-on-frame from the Thea Foss and we sat them next to each other on the beach and talked about wooden kayaks with curious passers-by. One big reason I personally like to show up at kayak symposiums is to help represent wooden kayaks and Greenland Style.

My cedar strip Shooting Star baidarka and Ricardo's Greenland Style skin-on-frame.
My cedar strip Shooting Star baidarka and Richard's Greenland Style skin-on-frame.
Trying out a beautiful Greenland qajaq replica.
Trying out a beautiful Greenland qajaq replica.
Stand-Up Paddleboards are the fastest growing paddlesport today.
Stand-Up Paddleboards are the fastest growing paddlesport today.

Stand-up paddle surfboards had a big presence this year. Lately I've seen more people trying this in the Sound. I couldn't resist trying it. Compared to sitting in a kayak, it presents a bigger challenge to your sense of balance and gives your legs a workout. It must take a lot of practice to be able to use it in rough windy conditions though, not to mention actual surf.

I met Chris Cunningham at the Sea Kayaker Magazine booth. I picked up a free copy of the 25th Anniversary Issue, the one with a picture of a traditional Greenland kayak frame on the cover. Chris said that it was actually a picture of a kayak frame that he had built. I felt a little awkward picking up a copy of the magazine there in front of him, because it obviously means that I don't have a subscription to it! He knows I take sea kayaking seriously too. I wanted a copy of this issue though because Chris had written another article about Freya Hoffmeister for it. I really only have room and the attention span for one magazine subscription in my life, and this year it was to Wooden Boat. Honestly, I hardly even read that anymore. Who reads anything in print these days, seriously?

Sterling Kayaks adjustable cockpit, made for sizing custom kayaks.
Sterling Kayaks adjustable cockpit, made for sizing custom kayaks.

Sterling Donalson offered a number of his kayaks for demos, both the IceKap and Illusion design. He brought along an interesting device which looked like an adjustable kayak cockpit. I suspect it is for fitting people for custom deck heights for his kayaks. 

Although the IceKap has gotten a lot of attention because of Dubside, the Illusion is gaining a reputation for being a fantastic rough water boat. One thing that Sterling discovered recently was that the Illusion handles well with a cockpit full of water. Because the upswept ends and rocker give it a low center of gravity, it remains remarkably stable and easy to maneuver when completely flooded. I recommend you try that with the kayak you own right now. I think paddling with a flooded cockpit really should be an essential test when trying out a new kayak. It simulates a real rescue situation such as following a wet exit or re-enter and roll.

In the video: Richard tries out the Hobie Mirage Drive and a stand-up paddle surfboard, and gives a glowing review of the Sterling Kayaks Illusion.

Puget Sound Sea Kayak Symposium 2009 from Baby Seal Films on Vimeo.

A Day Trip: Sea Kayaking from Anacortes to Friday Harbor

My GPS track: start at Anacortes, end at Friday Harbor, distance 23 nm
[My GPS track: start at Anacortes, end at Friday Harbor, distance 23 nm]

I'm a little late posting this report. This is the trip I took on Monday, May 25th. I had wanted to try paddling from Anacortes to Friday Harbor for a while. My friends have called this the "ultimate day trip". It can involve challenging conditions in Rosario Strait and south of Lopez Island, and paddling through a large tidal race in Cattle Pass between San Juan and Lopez Islands. Experienced kayakers will spend time playing in Cattle Pass as the current hits its max before continuing on to Friday Harbor to catch the ferry back to Anacortes.

Since fares are only charged going west on the ferries, the return trip is free! That's a great deal considering the fare for a car and driver is over $50! You will need to bring wheels to cart your kayak if you plan to walk on to take the ferry back to Anacortes.

Memorial Day weekend happened to have perfect currents for this trip: an ebb in Rosario Strait in the morning predicted for 3.4 knots, and a flood in San Juan Channel in the afternoon at 4.9 knots. But the southerlies, predicted for Sunday and Monday at 15-20 knots, had me worried. The "wind against current" phenomenon would steepen the waves in Rosario Strait and stir up reflecting waves off the cliffs on the south end of Lopez Island. If you haven't read it already, this is a good time to read Rob Gibbert's excellent incident report in the August 2008 issue of Sea Kayaker Magazine about this very same trip that turned into a total disaster.

As it turned out, Warren Williamson planned to do the same trip the day before I wanted to, on Sunday. Sunday evening I asked him how conditions were and he wrote:

... there was a little wind out in Rosario, not bad. The waves were just starting when I got to Davis Point [Cattle Pass]. They got big. I surfed and worked out in the waves for over four hours. Mat and Djuna [from Body Boat Blade] were there.  We had a blast... I think you'll have the same conditions tomorrow.

Actually, the forecast called for the wind to lighten up to between 10-15 knots in the morning so I expected to have an easy time of it on Monday.

Washington State Ferry arrives at the Anacortes terminal.
Washington State Ferry arrives at the Anacortes terminal.

I arrived at the Anacortes ferry terminal a little before 9AM. I was the only kayaker there. "Where is everybody?" I thought. "Don't they know that this is the perfect day to do this trip?" I got a parking spot in the upper parking lot of the terminal right next to the trail that goes down to the beach. It costs $10 to park for 24 hours. If you plan to do this, be prepared to carry or slide your kayak down the steep bank to the water.

It was a lot windier than I expected. I could see whitecaps all over the confluence of Rosario Strait and Bellingham channel. I had second thoughts about continuing but I decided to go ahead and see what conditions were like in the Strait. Just off of Green Point the waves were at least 4 ft. As I continued west across the Strait they got a little smaller but then got bigger again. I was paddling with a strong wind blowing at my beam toward James Island and somewhere in the middle of Rosario Strait I decided that I wasn't having fun anymore, and wondered what was I doing out here alone while everyone else was at home planning their holiday barbeque. Actually, I wasn't completely alone: a sailboat passed by fairly close, double-reefed. I am sure the wind was blowing at least 20 knots!

I almost turned back on this trip. I felt like I wasn't making any progress in the wind and waves. I figured that it could be a very long and tiring journey if conditions were going to be this challenging all across the Strait and especially south of Lopez Island so I decided to head back to Anacortes. The current had carried me far south off of Burrows Island. Since there was no way I could make significant progress against a current that strong I just paddled with the current, hoping to duck in between Burrows and Allan Island for protection.  But further south the waves became smaller, so I changed plans again and decided to cross the Strait after all.

I was traveling at 6 knots down the Strait. When I reached Point Colville at the southeastern tip of Lopez Island I slowed to a crawl. I suspect there is a large back eddy all along the south end of Lopez Island between Point Colville and Iceberg Point because I didn't go much faster than 3 knots. I parked in the middle of a kelp forest to eat lunch.

Beyond Iceberg Point my speed picked up as I approached Cattle Pass. Even from over a mile away I could feel it sucking me in. I struggled to bring my kayak close to shore when I realized I was headed straight into the raging whitewater.  I found a relatively protected path between Lopez and Deadman Islands and hauled up on Deadman Island to take a closer look at the chaos in the Pass. The flood wouldn't reach its max for another hour and a half. Well, I really didn't care to stick around to see that, and decided I would get out as soon as possible. With help from the current, I was doing 7 knots just north of Cattle Pass toward Friday Harbor.

My Epic 18X Ultra, in line at Friday Harbor for the return ferry to Anacortes.
My Epic 18X Ultra, in line at Friday Harbor for the return ferry to Anacortes.

I paddled into Friday Harbor with just enough time to put my kayak on my NRS C-Tug wheels, take a shower at the marina, and walk right onto the ferry along with a large crowd of tourists returning home for the holiday weekend. Unfortunately I had a bunch of really great on the water pictures from this trip, but can't find them now and I think I erased them all!