David Bixby, 48, is a mild-mannered school teacher by day, but give him a waterside phone booth and he’ll doff his teaching togs, don his wetsuit, and hop into a surprisingly sturdy wisp of a kayak, his skin-on-frame Cape Falcon F1. It’s a nimble boat fully appreciated under winter skies and in crashing surf. Bixby built his F1 under the tutelage under of its designer, Brian Schulz. Bixby’s wife, Linda, wanted her own F1, so she commissioned Schulz to make another. The Bixbys live in Missoula, Montana, and enjoy mountain lakes and rivers, big and small, but also paddle the surf at Hobuck Beach, Washington, and the cove-rich waters of Puget Sound. However, David’s appreciation of his F1 began long before the hull slipped into a cold mountain lake or rising and falling surf.
CanoeKayak.com: Tell me about the building process.
David Bixby: Building the F1 was an experience I would have paid good money for even if I didn’t get to keep the boat at the end, although that scenario is a little sad to think about. We had a diverse and friendly group of people in our class. The atmosphere was casual and fun. Brian is a great teacher as well as an extremely competent wood worker and boat builder. One of the students in our class was a classical musician. On a couple of mornings during the build class, he sat in the big wood barn surrounded by the sinuous organic skeletons of kayaks and the smell of fresh cut cedar, and played his viola da gamba. The rich, soulful music added so much to my sensory memory of the build experience and it still colors my attitude toward my boat. This craft, one that does so many magical things, had a magical beginning.
Was that your first boat building experience?
I had built a small wooden sailboat before, but building a skin-on-frame kayak is a whole other process with roots in a different boat building tradition. The frame is lashed together with cord, originally animal sinew, and built from small, light bits of wood. I can’t think of any other highly-capable vehicle that is built out of such a small handful of parts or consumes less resources and time to create. In what turned out to be only about five days of actual construction–we paddled some of Brian’s completed demo boats and played a lot in between steps–everyone, regardless of their wood working and sewing skills when they started the class, went home with a high quality, well-built boat.
So, love at first sight?
I fell in love with the beauty of the developing skeleton with its precise mortices, curved oak ribs, and lashed chines. When we took Brian’s demo F1’s to the Pacific coast and thrashed about in the surf. I was quickly dumped on the first wave I attempted to ride in the unfamiliar boat. That was followed by a blown roll (the F1 is little harder to roll than my other boats). What I found interesting is that I was able to scramble back into the boat in the surf zone, only taking on a small amount of water, and then paddle to shore to pump out. This is not your typical Greenland style sliver of a boat that sinks when you try to scramble back in. The F1 with float bags and its larger volume means that a bailout and self-rescue are still very real options despite the lack of bulkheaded floatation compartments. I have since learned to drive the F1 more competently in the surf. It likes to turn on an outside edge and is more controllable and directionally stable than most sea kayaks in surfing situations once you get to know how it reacts. And my rolling skills have become more refined to match the demands of the boat.
Tell me about a moment your F1 performed especially well.
Paddling with some friends a few weeks ago on a lake in Glacier National Park, I took the F1 out in 30-mph winds. The gusts were strong enough to grab your paddle out of our hands if you weren’t holding it securely. I was astonished that the F1 would turn into and off of the wind with ease. Sometimes, perched on top of a steep white capped wave, I was sure that the wind was going to catch my bow and just spin me away, but the light, lively hull just shuddered, stayed on track and sliced down into the next trough. It was just another of many magical moments I’ve experienced in the F1 that made me think, ‘This boat does stuff that other boats just don’t do.’ My friends in their Nigel Dennis Explorer and Tiderace Excite worked their skegs and fought weather cocking to make each turn. The F1 just cruised around on all points to the wind happily obeying my wishes. This is pretty stunning considering the boat has no rudder or adjustable skeg. I said before I loved exploring, and discovering how this boat behaves in raucous wind was thrilling.
How is paddling a skin boat different than a fiberglass or plastic boat?
There is a certain quiet organic feel to paddling a skin-on-frame boat that must be experienced to fully appreciate. The slap of chop against the hull is quieter than against a composite boat, but you feel it through your feet and knees as if you are simply sitting on the water. The lightness makes maneuvering feel quicker and more responsive. And every current and gust of wind is subtly transmitted right to your body more directly. Skin-on-frame boats are made of living things, but in a sense, they also feel like they are alive.
Tell us about one more sublime moment you had in your F1, please.
This past January, I had the F1 out on Flathead Lake doing a long-distance training paddle in the low, diffuse, bronze lighting of a cloudy Montana winter day. The bigger sets of wind waves were running up to three feet and to finish up my mile loop, I had to make a three-and-a-half mile crossing from Finley Point northeast to Yellow Bay. The wind was out of the south and the wave fronts were approaching from my starboard quarter. Being used to other kayaks, I expected that I would have to fight broaching all the way across. This little, magic boat though just took off on each wave, and with some edging into each approaching front, sliced right across the seas at a 45-degree angle surging along at sometimes thrilling speeds. Under those dramatic skies, against the backdrop of snow covered mountains, that little pile of sticks and cloth and I danced with the lake. It was another one of those so-focused experiences one can get from sea kayaking that keeps me coming back for more.