This is the fourth part in the series on “How to Build Your Own Kayak”
This day seemed so far away. Nearly a year has gone by since I tore through boxes of plywood, fiberglass, and resins that would one day be my very own double sea kayak. Building a boat seemed so daunting, but I kept at it. I made mistakes, big ones, and plenty of nights I wanted to haul the thing out into a field and burn it. But that’s all behind me now. I am about to ease my baby into the sweet black water for the very first time. Despite all my screw-ups, she came out inexplicably marvelous.
I’m as proud as a new father can be. My Chesapeake Light Craft is unlike any other boat on the river today; those poor cretins. My cockpits are fully customized to fit my 6-foot-7-inch frame. I positioned the deck hatches just right so my long arms can reach anything within while still allowing long items like a spare paddle to easily slip inside. I’ve ordered customized seats from Redfish that will actually fit my odd measurements. Heidi, once my wife-to-be, is now my wife-for-real, and she hasn’t seen my boat until today. The rich wood tones glow in the warm spring sun. “Wow,” she says. That’s right, I’m a provider.
It’s been a tough journey. Last summer I wasn’t even sure what a coping saw looked like. I eventually found a mentor in an expert boat builder named Greg Bridges, but even then I spent countless hours getting the hull ready to be decked. I inserted deck beams and sanded edges to make nicely rounded surfaces. I lavished every piece with two extra coats of epoxy to keep rot away. I planed long strips of wood along the length of the boat to help give the deck the proper curve to shed waves easily. I fiberglassed and I sanded. I glued and sanded more. Then one day the hull was done.
“Ready to put a lid on this?” Greg asks. I can’t wait.
The instructions say to nail on the deck. That horrifies Greg, who builds his own boats with nothing but wood and glue. “No way are you doing that,” he says, as if I were humiliating the craft. “We’ll just glue it and strap it down.”
And so we do, slathering the deck with epoxy thickened with saw dust. This peanut butter-like mash is called “fillet,” and it has caused me much grief in the past. Once it hardens it’s nearly impossible to sand smooth, so I work slowly. “What are you painting, a Czanne?” Greg jokes. “Get it on there.” I pick up the pace—cleanly, thank you very much—and we wrap dozens of boat straps around the hull and deck to hold everything in place. It works. After some trimming, more sanding, and a couple coats of epoxy, my boat looks so much like a boat that I can’t help but think I’m almost done. “It’ll go fast from here,” Greg says.
But it doesn’t. Not really. Fiberglassing goes smoothly enough, but fitting the coaming rings around the cockpit for a spray skirt just about drives me crazy. The tight curves need to be trimmed and sanded, and I get so frustrated with my pull saw jamming up that I yank on it wildly and spew venom all over my boat. Afterward I gasp when I see I’ve left huge gashes in the deck beam. I am so ashamed. “Yeah, projects can make you bitter,” says my pal Jake Ruhl, who’s rebuilding an airplane. “At least you’re not so bitter that you don’t care if you saw all the way through a deck beam.”
From then on I am gentle. I lovingly cut out the deck hatches, reinforce them with more wood, and gingerly sand the entire boat over and over to make it shine with more fill coats. Greg tells me that since the boat is 21 feet long, any errors invisible from that distance aren’t really errors at all. I really like Greg.
If I have learned anything, it’s that building a boat is kind of like making a family. The work is rewarding, painful, and never done. I need bungee cords and a rudder. I could varnish it, but decide instead to take it to an auto body shop for a layer of clear coat. Most of all I need to take it out to let boats do what boats do, but I know I’ll cringe the first time it gets dinged.
For now, though, I’m happy to see it float. Before I can hop in and let the current peel me away, two kayakers come walking up for a closer look. Greg told me this would happen.
“Nice boat,” one says.
“It’s gorgeous,” corrects the other, running a wet finger along the deck. “I mean, just stunning.”
Wait till they see the next one.
That concludes the Building the Boat series. Stay tuned for Tim’s next columns, “Repairing the Boat” and “Splinter Removal For Dummies.”