Circumstance is sometimes the mother of invention. Necessity seems a little strong. I didn’t really need another boat. The spring storms in North Texas brought Lake Lewisville up eight feet and back to normal levels. This was a welcome event, but then we got another eight feet of water. This closed all the parks, parking lots and boat ramps around the lake. No access and no boat launching.
Our neighborhood is on the north end of the lake. There is a bridge about one hundred yards from the house that usually spans a creek. Now that the lake was up to record levels, it looked like a proper part of the lake under the bridge. There is also a bit of access on one side of the bridge if you don’t mind a few ruts and some mud. Just enough to hatch a new plan.
It started by reading the articles on Duckworks about the quick, foam and fiberglass kayaks. They looked tough and also light enough to haul from the garage to the bridge. I’ve dabbled in foam and fiberglass for non-boating projects and had a high degree of confidence in the outcome. I was certain that mine would be a blight on the name of maritime homebuilding. It’s just not my best construction medium. I’m a function over form type of guy, but there are limits. However, I am pretty handy with plywood and have learned a bit about building plywood boats over the last couple years.
I set to drawing simple plywood versions of the foam boats. Construction needed to be simple and fast. The end result also needed to be as light as possible. With these two primary constraints in hand, the rest of the design fell together quickly. I worked in some accommodations for sailing and commenced construction.
Start of construction
The canoe is a simple box boat. The length is 13’ 9” and the beam is a little under 34” (I drew it up as 32”, but the sides bent a little differently than the drawing). I used cedar cleats throughout, which made it easy to dry fit everything first. The boat has vertical sides and a flat deck, so all the cleats are square. This saves some work by eliminating a few angles that change over the length of the boat. It has two bulkheads and a thwart that is built around the center case. Most of the boat is made out of ¼” ply while the deck and airbox sides are made from ⅛” ply. The finished and painted hull weighs 70 pounds.
The mast and centerboard placement was done in a way that would allow the use of two different sail plans. The first sail was a small lateen of about 37 square feet. The second sail is the 89 square foot balance lug from the Storer Oz Goose. The small rig is intended for easy cruising with a bit of paddling. The big lug is for testing fortitude and determination.
It took one month to finish the hull and drop it in the lake for some paddling. About two weeks later, I had the lateen rig sorted out and got to sail the canoe for the first time. It sailed very well. The small sail was easy to handle and moved the boat along at a decent, but comfortable pace. The lateen uses a short eight foot mast. It is 1 ½” square pine that only had to be cut to length. I built an adapter of sorts that is glued to the mast so that it fits the partner which is sized for the larger Goose mast. This mast could be stepped on the beach and fit under the bridge while paddling out. The lateen could be raised and lowered on the water without too much drama.
The next phase of the plan got me working on parts for the larger lug rig. The canoe needed to provide a lot more leverage for this sail. Taking a cue from the International Canoes, I chose to build a sliding seat. Those guys look like they are having a lot of fun and I wanted to get a taste of that action. I didn’t have any good ideas for a simple seat mount, so I reached out to Michael Storer for a little help and inspiration. A huge help, as always, he supplied me with pictures of how a couple different vintage racing boats mount their planks. The mounts were simple and elegant. I was able to knock out the plank and mounts in a few days.
The first time out with the big balance lug and sliding seat was a bit of an eye-opener. It was apparent that I would have to learn how to sail. Sure, I could sail ok with my butt parked on the side of the Goose and let it’s massive stability do most of the work. This was different. Actual sailing technique would be required to stay upright. The resulting display was also fairly entertaining for everyone on the beach.
The learning curve was steep and it started before getting into the boat. The canoe has a rudder box similar to the Goose. It is held in with a bit of shock cord that allows it to kick up. Raising and lowering the rudder is best done at the back of the boat. It’s not easily accessible once you’re on board. I had to walk the boat out to knee-deep water, keep it upright and pointed into the wind. A challenge in its own right. Then, before boarding, I had to get to the back of the boat, push the rudder down and get back forward before the boat moved off the wind or tipped over. It took a couple tries to work out the technique.
With the rudder down, it is time to board the canoe. First a leg is thrown over and a foot placed carefully in the center behind the seat. Then lean over the boat while sheeting in the sail just a bit. Push off with the other foot while keeping your weight centered over the foot in the boat. Sheet in a little more, swing the free leg over the front of the seat and sit down. Nothing to it.
The trick is to keep moving. If you stop, stall or get caught in irons, it takes some focus to keep the boat upright. Backing the boat out of a failed tack can make you reevaluate your life choices. Keep moving and the boat is much easier to handle.
Once up, you need to figure out the best place to sit on the plank. You want a spot that allows you to lean in for lulls and out for the puffs. It’s faster to lean in or out than to move on the plank. I use my position on the plank as a rough adjustment and lean for fine tuning. When a gust or lull hits, you have to move across the boat quickly. I’ve found the puffs easier to deal with than the lulls and headers. The first capsize was to windward when a strong gust disappeared quickly. I was out a little too far on the plank and couldn’t scramble back to the center fast enough.
Weight shift is just one of three balancing tools. There is also the sail and the rudder. I was familiar with steering to stay flat, but in the canoe, the response needs to be almost reflex. If you have to think about it much, you’re already behind the curve. Fast sheeting is also useful for moderating wind changes. Originally I set up a 4:1 purchase on the mid-boom sheeting. That has since been changed to 2:1 to increase the speed I can move the boom. It’s a little bigger pull on the sheet, but the response is much faster. After some time in the boat all three adjustments happen constantly and things begin to smooth out a bit.
So while you’re focused on keeping the boat going, the rocks on the other side of the lake are getting closer. Eventually you have to tack. My best tacks start with purpose and determination. This is not the time for hesitation. The boat handles great, but things get busy real fast. There are two extra jobs tacking the canoe. In addition to throwing the tiller over and minding the sail, the sliding seat also needs some attention. First, you have to decide when to move the seat and how that will work into the sequence. Second, you have to get turned around, which involves stepping over the seat at least twice.
I start by throwing the tiller over. Then a bring my aft foot over the seat, while sliding the seat across. After the boom comes across, I move to windward and sit down while sheeting and bringing the tiller back to center. After the boat is moving on the new tack, I’ll switch the sheet and tiller between hands and then bring my other foot aft over the seat. When possible, I try not to take a headshot from the boom or bash shins on the sides of the seat.
I don’t have a good sequence for gybes figured out yet. It mostly involves pulling on the tiller and trying guess the best time to hurl myself onto the other side of the plank. It’s a work in progress.
This is a boat built for speed. It’s light and the sail is ridiculously large. The plank is the means for keeping things upright. On the first sail with the balance lug, it went over 7 knots in the first 500 yards from the beach. It wasn’t a graceful demonstration, but it gets moving quick. Later that day the canoe cleared 8 knots and I still was mostly out of control. The current top speed is 9.4 knots and I’m starting to feel like I can sail the boat more than it sails me. Top speeds are fun to track, but acceleration is where the fun lives. The canoe has awesome acceleration and is noticeable with the smallest puffs.
A lot of things about the boat are working very well. There are also a couple design flaws that have revealed themselves. The low freeboard and narrow side decks allow water to flow into the boat at speed when heeling too much. It’s impressive how fast twenty or thirty gallons can get pumped into the boat. I’m currently making some changes that should reduce this somewhat. I know that I should try to sail flat, but my reactions aren’t what they were twenty years ago. I could use a little more room for mistakes.
A potentially dangerous flaw is revealed right after filling the boat with water. The bow flotation tank has an open bulkhead to the cockpit. This allows water to go all the way to the front of the boat. Combined with the low freeboard and minimal buoyancy up front, the bow sits very low and sometimes even with the water. This makes it difficult or even impossible to recover in rough water. After a capsize, the boat is ⅓ to ½ full of water. This allows a better chance of bailing and recovering, but only if the chop isn’t coming over the bow. Current changes that are in progress will bring the deck back to the aft side of the center case, while also sealing the forward flotation completely. This should allow the canoe to balance better with a cockpit full of water. It will also reduce the maximum volume of water that can get captured by the boat. These changes should allow the boat to be recovered in any of the conditions it will be sailed. This increases the overall safety considerably. It also reduces the cost of a mistake or upset and should allow a faster recovery to get sailing again. Less work, more fun.
The Blue Canoe has been an interesting experiment so far. There is still a lot of room for development on the current hull. If things continue to move forward, it may even spawn a redesign and another build to incorporate all the lessons learned. At 3-4% of the cost of a used International Canoe, there is a lot of bang for the buck. While it will never compete directly with an IC, I’ll take the dollars per knot handicap any day. In broader terms, it’s hard to qualify the value of a project that is affordable in time and cash for a family guy who gets to play amateur boat designer. Something not possible without feedback from the boat building community and the real designers who generously help the rest of us go play with boats.
So go build something and see how it floats.
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