Aquatic Art

By dchulst on September 6th 2017

One of the highlights of our weekend in Tomales Bay, CA was having the distinct pleasure of taking boatbuilder Jeremy Fisher-Smith’s restored ninety-year-old Old Town ‘Otca’ canoe out for a paddle. Jeremy discovered the boat under some redwoods in a friend’s front yard in the Santa Cruz mountains. Exposed to the elements and basically left for dead, it took Jeremy a month and a half to strip it back to bare wood, disassemble and then rebuild.

Jeremy explained to us that the shape and construction of American-made canoes like this one descend from the indigenous birchbark boats of the first North Americans. The biggest difference being the exterior surface of the hull, which rather than bark and tree-pitch used on indigenous canoes, these later 18th and 19th century boats were finished with woven cotton canvas and paint. The other significant difference being in the way the boats are held together, which in the former case was by binding and stitching with handmade cordage (rope), and in the latter, with metal fastenings.

Learning more about how these canoes were built was fascinating, and having a world class boatbuilder explain it to you doesn’t hurt. The process begins upside-down on a wooden “plug” jig, shaped exactly like the inner volume of the hull; where ribs of flat-sawn steamed white cedar are bent around the jig on top of heavy sheet-metal bands screwed to the body of the jig. Then the whole shape is planked with a very light layer of vertical-grained western red cedar, held to the ribs with a special type of brass tacks (canoe-tacks), which are hammered through the planking into the rib. When the sharp end of the tack hits the sheet metal band, it rolls over into the inner surface of the rib, essentially becoming a through-fastening, which resists working loose with the flexing of the boat. The heads of the tacks are rounded, so the sharp edge is not exposed to the canvas skin.

This skinning step is the “exciting part” says Jeremy: the canvas is stretched between two beams or walls like a big envelope, and then the finished wooden hull is worked down into it to fasten the skin around the upper edge of the hull. Lastly comes the sealing of the canvas, which, back in the day, was done with a poisonous lead based product “white lead and whiting” paste filler. Jeremy uses a product called Arabol, a non-toxic latex pipe-lagging adhesive, which stays flexible so the canvas won’t crack as the boat moves over time. The canvas skin is finished by building up a beautiful paint finish with coats of standard yacht enamel.

These boats are truly works of art and a testament of how well things were once painstakingly designed and constructed. The experience of taking a boat like this out on the water truly transcends the simple act of paddling a canoe and elevates it to something truly memorable and reflective.

“It’s one of the cool things about the old ways–they are almost infinitely rebuildable, coming from a time when things were repaired and re-used rather than recycled or junked.” – Jeremy Fisher-Smith

For his voyage aboard the Old Town ‘Otca,’ Richard is wearing the Airvoyant Puff Vest layered over the Wainwright Shirt with our Cache Cargo Pants. Alex is prepared for whatever the day may throw at him in our Singlejack Shirt and Rover Pants.