I am a grandmother paddling alone over 2,500 miles from Maine to Guatemala. Along the way I will be:
- telling the story of the children who live in the Guatemala City garbage dump community
- honoring their entrepreneurial mothers
- talking about the success of the Safe Passage model school and
- raising funds for additional grades for the school.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Which Kayak Should I Use? Part 2

Deb's kayak ready to launch!
Here's my wish list for the perfect kayak for the expedition.

  • relatively fast 
  • relatively light
  • stable
  • tracks well
  • maneuverable
  • high storage volume
  • very visible
  • comfortable cockpit
  • rugged
  • easy to repair in the field
  • large rudder
  • allow a racing stroke
  • very watertight hatches
  • day hatch
  • relatively low volume cockpit
  • be a thing of beauty
Sounds like the perfect kayak, right?  However, we all know the perfect kayak doesn't exist.  It's always a tradeoff.   So I looked for kayaks that would meet most of the criteria.  I poured over kayak reviews in Sea Kayaker and compared the stats of different boats.  I visited kayak dealers.  In the end I narrowed it down to two great boats.

Catalogue photo of the Delta 18.5
The first was made by a company I wasn't familiar with, and made by a process I'd never heard of.  It's the Delta 18.8, a thermoformed boat by Delta Kayaks.  It sounded really great and I wanted to try one out.  The closest one I could find was a long way from Maine - at Rutabaga in Wisconsin.  But when I was attending a meeting in Chicago, I headed over to Madison for a day.  The Rutabaga outfitter retail store has even more selection than their impressive website.  The staff where incredibly helpful and knowledgeable.  Not only did they allow me to play in the kayak on the water, they brought down huge dry bags to the dock, filled them with water to simulate an expedition load, and placed them in the kayak for me.  The Delta 18.5 performed well with and without the load.  The first nine points on my wish list were all more than satisfied.  The thermoform is lighter than a rotomolded boat, and more rugged than a fiberglass, kevlar or carbon laminate boat.  That's a nice tradeoff.  But I wasn't sure how to repair a thermoformed boat in the field.  Also, the rudder is normal size and doesn't have fixed foot pegs, which are necessary for a racing stroke.  The hatches I had heard were not very watertight, and there is no day hatch.  It's made for a large person to paddle, so the cockpit volume is huge.  But it is lovely to look at!  Knowing I couldn't expect to get everything on my wish list in one boat, and that it really is a great kayak, I wasn't ready to rule out the Delta 18.5.  

Catalogue photo of the Chesapeake 18
The second boat that seemed like a possible fit was the Chesapeake 18 which is a wooden stitch and glue kit available from Chesapeake Light Craft.  Here's where the story gets a little odd.  Sixteen years ago I purchased a kit to build this kayak.  Despite my minimal woodworking skills, I was able to reduce the overall width, modify the cockpit coaming, and get the kayak almost completely built.   I got hung up on three problems.  First, my son helped me by epoxying the inside of the boat, and I forgot to mention that less is more with epoxy.  The weight of the kayak suddenly became unattractive.  Second, that great idea I had to modify the cockpit coaming turned out to be a bad idea.  I had problems finding materials to complete it and couldn't find a sprayskirt that would fit it.  Third, the directions back then said to saw off the stern of the kayak to install a rudder.  Yikes!  I couldn't bring myself to saw off the stern and ruin the lovely lines of the kayak.  So for sixteen years the almost completed boat occupied a dark corner of the barn.  Its only visitor was the occasional porcupine who munched away on the cockpit coaming and an edge of the deck.

Kayak as appetizer for a porcupine
Thinking about this expedition from Maine to Guatemala,  I became interested in my Chesapeake 18 again.  It has a large volume and I wondered how it compared to the Delta 18.5.  The folks at Chesapeake Light Craft (CLC) said they didn't have that spec, so I got out the garden hose and a five gallon bucket and measured the volume by filling and filling the kayak with water.  The volume was quite high!  So I approached CLC to see if they would sponsor the expedition by donating a kayak.  They were enthusiastic and generously offered to give me a new kit.  I was excited, as the Chesapeake 18 would handily satisfy the first twelve points on my wish list!  Also, the new kits have many improvements.  You no longer have to saw off the stern to install a rudder.  The large pieces fit together like a puzzle so no tricky scarfs are required.  The holes for stitching the boat together are even predrilled now.  But I thought I should at least try a Chesapeake 18 on the water before making my final decision.  When I was at a meeting in DC, I headed over to the CLC shop in Annapolis to paddle one.  Unfortunately, our schedules didn't mesh, so I couldn't get onto the water, but that turned out to be a real benefit.  Instead, I got to talk with Joey Schott, Sales Manager (and much, much more).  Joey talked about ways he could take my existing Chesapeake 18, and turn it into my dream kayak.  He could grind out that extra epoxy, he could replace the hatches with top of the line water tight ones and even add a day hatch.  He could move the forward bulkhead to both give me both more cargo space and less cockpit volume.  He could add a double rudder and put on a different coaming.   He could recess the deck fittings.  He could make it stronger, without making it heavier.  He could paint the hull an outrageous yellow for visibility, and leave the deck bright for that lovely wooden look.   I was in love with Joey's vision of my kayak!  

The only remaining question was a seat and backrest strap.  I know I have to paddle a kayak a fair amount to figure out the best seat option.  So I completed my kayak enough to paddle it.  That was a comedy of errors.  My old epoxy was clearly no longer useable, so I picked up another brand of two part epoxy at the local marine store.  Ever so carefully I weighed each part and mixed exactly as directed.  I applied epoxy over the entire hull to seal it.  Hours later I came back to admire my work, but my first light touch let me know the epoxy had not cured!  I was distraught!  How do I get this sticky mess off the kayak and begin again?  Internet to the rescue!  I learned that acetone would remove uncured epoxy.  Fortunately I had a half a can.  Unfortunately, that only cleaned off 2/3s of the hull.  It was now late at night and the hardware store was closed.  I contemplated calling up my neighbor, Greg Rossel, who is an expert boat builder.  In fact he wrote the book on boatbuilding...literally! Building Small Boats.  But it was late, and he's one of those up before sunrise guys.  So in complete desperation,and as a last resort, I read the specifications on the new epoxy.  Oooooh!  Turned out I had purchased the slow cure hardener, and the Maine summer temperatures were not quite up to snuff for a 24 hour cure.  Not being willing to spend the bucks for more hardener, I reapplied more epoxy the next day, and placed the kayak on the blacktop, with a cover of black weed barrier to soak up all the energy the sun had to offer.  Several days later... it had cured.

Kayak under a cloth weed barrier to cure the epoxy
After putting on the minimal hardware to hold the hatch covers in place, I took the Chesapeake 18 out for her sea trials.
Sea trials!
She handled great on the water!  I practiced self rescues.  I was surprised by the boat's stability.  I could reenter from the water even without any deck lines or cargo bungees or cockpit coaming.  After several days of paddling in various conditions, I finally got lucky.  There were high winds and waves during a small craft advisory- great for testing.  Even without a rudder, and using odd blocks of foam for a seat and foot brace, she handled the conditions with grace.  I had found the perfect kayak hull for the expedition!  A few weeks later I sent the kayak down to Joey to do his magic on it.

Recyclers working in the Guatemala City Garbage Dump
I like the idea of using the boat I had started building.  There is something gratifying about being out on the water in a hull you have built.  But what excites me even more is that it will recycle a useless shell of a boat into a functional craft.  When I think of people in the Guatemala City garbage dump spending their days recycling garbage, I think not only of the difficult and dangerous work they are doing, but also of what a useful service they are performing.  They are reducing the need for new raw materials by recycling the glass, the plastic, the metal, the paper and so much more.  When garbage dumps in India switched from the manual recycling that occurs in Guatemala to a mechanized system, the amount of useful materials recovered from the dumps fell dramatically.  I respect the service the people in the Guatemala City dump perform by recycling, while at the same time working hard with Safe Passage so the children of the community will have other options for their future.  While it is only a weak gesture on my part, I am glad to be doing a tiny bit of recycling with the kayak for the expedition.  Hopefully it will help me to tell the story of the dump as I paddle from town to town.

Thank you, Joey, for coming up with the ideas to make this recycling possible!  Thank you, Joey, for using your expertise to transform my sixteen year old almost completed boat into the perfect expedition kayak.

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