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June 2010

Aleut Style With Jim Mitchell


I met Jim Mitchell a few years ago at SSTIKS and caught up with him this weekend. I was interested in hearing how he makes Aleut paddles because I want one for my Shooting Star cedar strip baidarka.

We took down a couple of his kayaks and paddled them on Tulalip Bay. I paddled in the one named Coho, which started out life as a King Island kayak but was later fitted with a baidarka type stern to improve tracking. Coho came equipped with a single blade King Island paddle, similar to one I made myself when I was trying to teach myself the elusive King Island roll, but with superior craftsmanship. The Aleut baidarka is the one I remember from SSTIKS called Raven.  Both kayaks behave very well on the water -- smooth and fast. In a moderate breeze I noticed no tendency to weathercock, a common problem with homemade skin-on-frame Greenland kayaks.  I asked Jim how he achieved this but it was a secret he wasn't telling. Boatbuilders can be like that. Just try to find out where they get their wood, for instance. Actually, Jim shared some of that information with me. The yellow cedar ribs for Coho were harvested as driftwood from a beach in Canada -- illegally.

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Paddling technique with a Aleut blade is a little different than with a modern paddle. One plants the blade as far forward and as close to the kayak as possible like a modern paddle, but only part of the Aleut blade will be submerged because the blade is so long. The red marking on the blade indicates how deep it should be planted in the water. With a modern paddle one applies most of the power at the beginning of the stroke. With the Aleut paddle the force is applied midstroke, after the entire blade is submerged. Then one allows the buoyancy of the paddle to lift it out of the water at the end of the stroke. 

Application of most of the force midstroke is also necessarily part of the Greenland technique because of the similarly long, narrow blade. But in contrast to the Greenland style, where I keep my elbows down and close to my body and hold the blade canted forward, I paddle with an Aleut blade with a my elbows up and keep the blade close to the kayak and as vertical in the water as possible. The Aleut paddles feel like they have more purchase on the water, faster acceleration and are generally faster than Greenland paddles.  

Just to give you a sense of what conditions these paddles were made for and are capable of, I should mention that Jim based his paddle replicas on paddles found with a three-man Aleut baidarka found in Hokkaido, Japan. 


Jim also showed me another sweet little gem: a prototype lightweight 4−piece carbon fiber Werner paddle with a distinctly traditional look. The blade is actually based on the Werner "Little Dipper" but much narrower.



"Unleash the Beast" Race


Here are my pics from the Unleash the Beast Race, AKA Paddle the Dragon, at the NW Adventure Sports Expo, AKA NW Outdoor Adventure Sports and Film Festival. Actually, I think the official name is the NW Adventure Sports Expo: Unleash the Beast. Jeez, couldn’t someone have just thought up ONE name for this event?! Maybe something simple and memorable like, "The Port Gamble Kayak Symposium". Unfortunately, that wouldn’t work because mountain biking was a big part of it, as well as stand-up paddleboards and outrigger canoes.

I joined 21 other competitors in the race and was awarded men’s second place in the "sea kayak" category -- unfairly I should add because I was placed in the "sea kayak" category and should have been in the "high performance kayak" category. Ooops! Well, I didn’t realize it was divided up into HPK/FSK/SK, although I should have because that is how all races are done around here. There was only one other HPK out there, so I would have gotten 2nd place anyway, but someone got cheated out of 2nd and 3rd because of me. Sorry! Well, only the first place winners got prizes anyway, so it wasn't as if I went home with a undeserved box of Caveman Bars.  I finished the course (a little over 7nm) in 101 min, 52 seconds. I feel really out of shape from not having trained since December.

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Sterling Donalson of Sterling Kayaks and Fiberglass was at the demo beach with Dubside’s new improved black IceKap. Apparently the old IceKap suffered a lot of cosmetic damage from being dragged around to demos and pool sessions over the last couple years, including a big stellate crack in the middle of the gelcoat over the painting of Dub’s face. So the face is gone.  Sterling also modified the cockpit opening and back deck to improve the ease of layback rolls. It feels very comfortable on its side and layback hand rolls are ridiculously easy in it.

I got a private lesson from Ken Campbell on stand up paddleboarding, “The Sport of Hawaiian Kings”. After kayaking for 25 years, Ken has become a big fan of the SUP. It’s true that you can't go as fast and cover the miles that you can in a kayak, but it’s very convenient and gives you a great workout. He says if he has only 30 minutes of free time he can go out paddleboarding. You wouldn’t do that with a kayak. Ken has done some impressive trips on his SUP, like tearing down Colvos Passage from Blake Island to Point Defiance in the span of a couple hours. He had a strong tailwind and basically surfed all the way.

Ken says it's important to dress reasonably for the SUP but it’s not as critical to dress for prolonged immersion. If you fall off a board, you can just jump back on in a matter of seconds. In contrast, with a kayak, you may be stuck in the water a while if you have wet exited, attempt a paddle float rescue, and then have to sit in a flooded cockpit as you pump it out. I think the appropriate things to wear on a SUP are board shorts and a loud Aloha shirt. Ken also wears an inflatable Type 3 PFD that fits in a little package you wear like a belt. I could definitely get into paddleboarding. The simplicity and convenience appeal to me, as well as the possibility of finding some plans to make my own board, but right now I’m still focused on developing more advanced sea kayaking skills.


Port Gamble is a cute and picturesque little town. It turned out to be the perfect venue for an event like this. The beach is a small and post-industrial, dominated by a old dock and rotting pilings, but it faced a little sheltered area that worked well for paddleboarding and eskimo rolls.


If you are ever presented with the opportunity to sit in on one of Jennifer Hahn’s seminars on "Pacific Coast Wild Edibles" be sure to take it. She has an excellent slideshow and makes a delicious seaweed salad from wakame, sea lettuce, cucumbers, and an olive/sesame oil/rice vinegar vinaigrette. She goes over which shellfish are generally free from paralytic shellfish poisoning and are safe to eat, basically, sea urchins, chitons, and limpets (the ones without the hole on top). To eat a sea urchin, turn it over, stick a knife in the middle and thrust it back and forth quickly (“don’t make it suffer”), cut it in half and eat it raw out of the shell by scooping out the insides with crackers. Be on the lookout for her book on foraging pacific coast wild edibles which is also a cookbook, coming out very soon. 

“Don’t make them suffer” is a common theme in Jennifer’s talk regarding foraging shellfish. Yes, we don't need to harvest shellfish to survive. Yes, we do this just for fun, for a few minutes of gastronomic adventure really. And yes, these animals suffer for it, but I guess that's OK because after all we are all speciesist here, right? I think it’s good that she at least acknowledges that lowly shellfish suffer, something that even philosopher Peter Singer didn’t commit to in his animal rights classic, Animal Liberation, because, well… we just really don’t know if they do.  Even with significant advances in neuroscience we will probably never know. Therefore, give them the benefit of the doubt.



Building a new composite coaming

I'm back in the boat shop. After nearly 4 years since her launch, my cedar strip baidarka is languishing on the kayak rack with a leaky front hatch. With repeated exposure to moisture, the hatch, which used to fit with an airtight seal, warped just enough at the edges to allow some water through the rubber gasket. 

In addition to the leaky hatch problem, she has a tendency to leecock which can be dangerous in a strong wind. I don't think this is a problem with the original Shooting Star design, but is probably specific to this particular build.  I think it demonstrates how sensitive to trim the Shooting Star design is. While touring I could fix the trim by packing more gear in the front. Moving the seat forward would fix it permanently. Unfortunately, I built the cockpit "ocean size" so there was very little room to move the seat forward. In addition, the front bulkhead served as my footrest, so moving the seat forward requires moving the front bulkhead forward as well. This meant that I had a lot of modifications to get this kayak seaworthy again: rebuilding the hatch, the cockpit, and the forward bulkhead.


I'll start by describing how I expanded the cockpit opening from a small “ocean” cockpit to a “keyhole” opening. The old coaming was incredibly tough. I used a combination of hand saws, a saber saw, a Dremel tool, and a router to cut it out. In retrospect, the best tool for the job would have been the Dremel tool with the diamond wheel, which I used to cut the new coaming lip to size.


After cutting out the old coaming I drew the shape of the new, larger cockpit opening on the deck, cut it out with a saber saw, then cleaned up the edges with a rasp and sandpaper.


Next I fashioned a mould for the new coaming lip with a 3/4 in layer of minicell foam. I've also seen insulating foam used which is easier to shape. I chose minicell only because I already had plenty of it lying around. I shaped the foam with coarse sandpaper and fixed it temporarily to the deck around the opening with hot glue. Then I covered the foam with duct tape to keep the epoxy from sticking to it, being careful to keep the inside edge of the deck exposed though so that the coaming rim would stick to the deck. I stretched the duct tape over the foam to keep it as smooth as possible. Every wrinkle in the tape is one that will need to be sanded out later, and any unfairness in the mold can only be fixed by adding more layers of glass and carbon fiber.


After protecting the deck surrounding the coaming with masking tape and plastic, I placed several layers of carbon fiber over the mold. I wet it out by laying it flat on a plastic sheet and spreading epoxy over it with a spreader. Then I shaped it around the mould and around the inside of the opening and underneath the deck. The fiber is cut on the bias (i.e, cut so that the fibers run diagonally at a 45 degree angle to the edges). This makes it easier to shape the cloth around curves. Sometimes the cloth fibers would sag and drop off the underside of the deck. As it cured it left a lot of sharp edges that needed to be ground down later. I don’t remember how many layers I put on-- probably 4 to 5.

After the epoxy cured I removed the mold. This part was difficut. I had to dig underneath the foam with a knife to separate it from the hot glue that held it to the deck. I recommend using hot glue sparingly. I dug into the side of the mold and grabbed hold of the duct tape with a pair of pliers. Once I got a good hold of the duct tape, I was able to pull the foam out in large segments. A lot of hot glue residue was left on the deck. Paint thinner seemed to work to remove it.


Now I had a coaming lip with rough, sharp edges. I ran a white crayon about 1 1/4 inch from the inside edge and cut the lip to size along the line with a Dremel tool diamond wheel. It cut like "a hot knife through butter"! To clean up the rough and irregular outside edge of the coaming rim I ran a fillet of epoxy thickened with sanding dust along the outside and covered it up with a layer of fiberglass.


After the epoxy cured all I needed to do was sand the whole thing down. Now it is ready for varnish. The underside of the deck is still a little rough despite all the grinding and sanding. I'm planning to pad the underside with minicell foam. I don’t really recommend this method of replacing a coaming because it's difficult to get a good cosmetic result around the outside of the rim and underside of the coaming lip. I did it as a shortcut.