Duckworks - Projects
The Online Magazine For Amateur Boat Builders

Paper Pirogue
design by Doug Christian

The Christian` Paper Pirogue Project is the result of my fascination with experimental aviation and losing a celebrity pirogue race. I got my first plane ride in a Piper floatplane. I remember the dock was close to the famous statues of Paul Bunyon and Babe the Blue Ox on the shore of Lake Bemidji in Minnesota’s iron ore country. From that day to this my head has been in the clouds and my mind into experimental aviation. My upbringing in the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes made my acquaintance with boats a given. My first boat was actually a raft made from wood I collected from the alleys around our house and inner tubes. It worked and was used as a platform for snorkeling. My dad built a small boat (seven or eight feet) with paddle wheels instead of oars. It was a fun little boat we used for about two seasons and then was sold and the money put into a travel trailer for a series of memorable vacation through Canada and New England. I was sort of a help to my father but mainly watched him use tools to successfully pull this boat out of his head and onto the water (no plans).

You see, the plan was to build an aircraft because I couldn’t afford to by one. I figured it was easier to pay for it a piece at a time than to pay for the whole thing all at once and at the same time gain an education from result of manufacturing and assembling those bits and pieces into a functioning aircraft. I found the design I wanted to use as the basis of the build. I looked at the material that was called for in the plans, priced it out and was totally blown away by the cost of the materials alone. The plans called for aircraft grade plywood. The price of this stuff is more than the cost of gold per ounce. Another dream shattered. It was then I happened to remember an obscure reference in an old book I bought in the eighties by Jack Lamby on aircraft composites that had a chapter about some stuff that was proposed by Molt Taylor called TPG or Taylor Paper Glass. I pulled the book out, dusted it off and read that chapter over about ten times. I thought about what I had read and mulled it over in my mind for about four months. Something just didn’t seem right. I ordered the original paper that was the basis for the chapter in the book. It’s still available from Mr. Taylor’s collaborator in this experiment in composite material, the prominent west coast radio controlled model aircraft builder and designer, Jerry Holcomb. The chapter in Jack Lamby’s book and the original paper from Mr. Holcomb had the same information. What bothered me was the weight of the resultant composite. It would be just too heavy. Could a person use a lighter weight fiberglass cloth and lighter Kraft paper and achieve a composite that was both light and strong? Well, The Christian` Paper Pirogue Project proved that the answer was yes.

Now the question is why did I put together building a boat with testing my take on TPG. The answer is easy. I can swim but I can’t fly. I could put the composite through more and tougher tests and not kill myself than I could by going ahead, building an aircraft and taking a chance at killing myself proving or disproving my take on the material and its properties. It was a no-brainer. I, like thousands of others, had at one time downloaded a free copy of Jacques Mertens’ Cheap Canoe. The Cheap Canoe design is known as a pirogue in the part of the country were I live and has been in use in one form or another for as long as Cajuns have been in Louisiana. Its origin is French. That’s where the pirogue race comes in.

I’m a competitive guy beneath my ‘Don’t-give-a-s*#%’ attitude. It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon on Bayou Liberty by St. Genevieve Catholic Church in Slidell, LA. It was race day with the crowds, the excitement and the beer. There were a group of serious folks making ready their serious racing pirogues. A racing pirogue is a very long (seventeen feet), very smooth (most are strip built and have a finish like you’d see on million dollar classic car) and highly unstable. I was involved in the Celebrity Race. The participants in this race where all local New Orleans radio and TV people who were there to smilingly show how inept they were at this particular water sport and hopefully provide entertainment by falling into a none too clean waterway while providing a lesson in how not to move a pirogue from point A to point B and back again. Not this celebrity. Oh No! I managed to borrow one of those long, sleek, temperamental beauties (much like the women I was dating at the time) that was a proven winner. Having had some experience in canoes and putting my body as low in the craft as it would go, I practiced for a bit and declared myself ready for combat. The gun went off and we all took off, in a flurry of furious splashes and yells. The boat performed flawlessly and I was way in the lead as I came to the buoy that marked the place where we supposed to make a 180-degree turn and head back to the start/finish line. It took me a while to turn this long, smooth, temperamental beauty back toward that start/finish line. By the time I accomplished the turn, all of the competitors had passed me and were well on their way to the finish line. To make a long story short I did manage to come in second to my total shame. I really didn’t feel like taking the possession of the second place trophy. As you probably can see, the pirogue and I have a history.

After I built my boat, I took it to the place of my defeat and placed it in the water for its first wetting. As I had built the seats/floatation chambers a bit high, it was a bit skittish. I put it through its paces for about an hour and headed to shore. As I was getting out of the boat I lost my balance and managed to baptize myself thoroughly to the tune of a new cell phone. I’ve lowered the seats two inches and most of the skittishness was cured. I’ve had the boat in the water for a good while now and have intentionally treated the poor thing as a red headed stepchild. It’s even fallen off my truck. I did have to touch up the paint a little but nothing more than that. So far it’s been kicked, run over rocks, trees, concrete and it still doesn’t leak. It can handle a light chop quite well and goes like hell when you put the paddle to it. I think I made every mistake building the prototype, so the boat turned out heavier then it should have because of stuff I added that didn’t need to be there. The lighter fiberglass and Kraft paper worked better than I’d hoped it would. There are things that could have been done better and I found that it doesn’t take very long to get past the learning curve. I had a great learning experience and now I have a boat I use to explore the bayous and swamps of southeast Louisiana as much as time and the weather gods will allow.

This was my first boat building experience and I figured if I could build it, anyone could. I decided to offer this experience to others by packaging the plans printed full size on the correct paper for my version of TPG along with instructions detailing the process involved in making TPG and some important tips from lessons I’d learned along the way. It’s all on my simple website. I will be going on to build that airplane I mentioned using what I’ve learned from The Christian’ Paper Pirogue Project. That’s my story and I’m sticking by it.