Copyright 2002 by Jon Bondy, All Rights Reserved.
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Jon Bondy, firstname.lastname@example.org
I have one uncle who, even at an advanced age and with infirmities, still holds onto his passions firmly. His love of railroads, baseball, golf, Citroens, bicycles, and boats is such that a conversation about any one of them always lights up his face. It seems that his enthusiasm will die long after his body has, which is wonderful to see.
When my aunt and uncle visited one summer, we decided to go to a hand made wooden boat show at a local maritime museum. It was a sunny summer day, and the drive itself was beautiful.
The boats on display varied from wooden motorboats (the kind with a dozen coats of mirror-like clear finish) to Adirondack guide boats to sail boats to canoes. People demonstrated how to make your own paddle from a plank, scale models of boats and boating abounded, and historical vessels were also on display.
While wandering around the offerings, I noticed two fairly small wooden boats that contained car batteries. Since sail boats and canoes don’t often have batteries in them, and since motors were not in evidence, I asked about this. I was told that, without the batteries inside, the boats might blow away. Now that intrigued me. I started looking more carefully at the boats.
The construction was unusual, more like an old airplane than a boat. Thin wooden rods (with square cross section, perhaps 3/8” across) formed a lattice both from front to back and side-to-side. The whole was covered with fabric, and the fabric was coated with a waterproof coating. The 9-foot canoe weighed about 10 pounds; the 12-foot weighed about 12 pounds!
Fascinated, I asked if the boats were for sale. Nope: they were just there on display. But I could write to the guy who had designed them, since he sold kits. Now that intrigued me!
It turned out that for something like $150 and a week’s worth of time, I could build one myself. The plans were straightforward, and the materials were also simple, although a tad high tech. Glues were either a special epoxy, or a polyurethane; racking was prevented with Kevlar strings (the same material out of which they make bullet proof vests); heat sensitive double sided tape was used to hold the fabric in place; and the fabric was a Dacron, not canvas.
You start out by making a series of plywood plates that represent cross sections of the boat at about 2 foot intervals. You fasten these templates upside down along a beam and then set up the keel and stem and stern plates. You run stringers and the gunwales from stem to stern, gluing them to the stem and stern plates. You then run the ribs from side to side, steaming them to make them pliable, and gluing them to the gunwales and keel. Then the Kevlar string is applied, diagonally, to keep the canoe from deforming. You then glue the fabric to the keel and gunwales, using the double-sided thermal tape and an iron. Then, by gently applying an iron to the fabric, you can eliminate any wrinkles as the fabric shrinks. When the fabric is tight as a drum, you use spar varnish on it to seal it, and you’re done.
The process took weeks, since you often do something and then have to go away and let the glue set. The boat took up all of my shed, making it impossible to do anything else in the interim. The step where the fabric is tightened with the iron is magical: you start out with an empty frame, and a few hours later, the fabric is tight as a drum, smooth over the entire structure. What an exciting time!
With my new canoe finished, I just had to take it somewhere to give it a try, but how to do that? I owned a sedan, an Audi S4. I needed a roof rack.
A trip to the local Audi dealership revealed that they had no roof racks. They suggested going to a local store that specialized in outdoor equipment. There, I was set up with a Yakima roof rack system. Since modern cars lack the rain gutters that older roof rack systems held onto, my roof rack system held onto the tops of the door frames with four L shaped metal brackets. Since Audis do not actually have bumpers (they just have pretty plastic things), it was impossible to fasten the canoe to either bumper, but I was able to tie it down to the rack tightly.
I started out slowly, driving down to visit friends an hour away, and giving the canoe a test drive (on the roof) and then voyage (in the water). It did fine on top of the car, but when I put it in the water, a variety of small defects became apparent. After tweaking them, I put the canoe on top of the car and drove two hours to show it to my parents and some friends of the family.
The canoe was wonderfully light, but not terribly comfortable to sit in. Being so light, you cannot afford to sit very high up, since it becomes unstable. Sitting on the bottom of the canoe, even with a cushion, grew less and less comfortable as time went on. One time, after about an hour of “fun”, I was numb from the waist down.
When a friend came up from Philadelphia, we decided to drive down to see my parents again, since they have a summer house on a lake, and fun was there to be had. At this point, I had something like six hours of driving time with the canoe on top of the car, so mounting it to the roof was more routine than anything else.
We drove down about 30 minutes on back roads and then got on the interstate. Within 30 seconds, there was a loud BANG! and the car lurched. My first thought was that we had hit something, or a bird had hit the windshield, or that a tire had blown out. About 2 seconds later, I watched as the canoe appeared in the rear view mirror, descending onto the highway. The roof rack had separated from the car. The canoe had flown.
It was fortunate that no one was tailgating me that day, since a serious accident would almost certainly have resulted. I pulled over, ran back, and dragged the canoe and roof rack off of the road. The canoe was totally unscathed. Since the rack system was so much heavier than the canoe, the whole thing had landed with the canoe on top, and while the roof rack system had a severe case of road rash, and the car had a gash on the roof, nothing else was damaged. A stranger drove by in a truck and stopped to help out (that seems to happen in Vermont!) and we spent the rest of the day dealing with how to get the canoe back home (since I no longer had a roof rack!).
A few days later, I confronted the store that had sold me the Yakima rack. They said that this had never happened before (of course!) and were very nice to me. The Yakima folks were polite but not especially helpful. Getting them to admit that they had liability was like pulling teeth, but my store went to bat for me. At first, Yakima wanted me to ship the rack back to them, to be “inspected”, but I declined, figuring that if I had to go to court, I wanted the roof rack in my hands. After the store inspected the rack, and agreed that it had been installed properly, eventually Yakima paid me for the roof rack and the damage to the car. They offered me another roof rack, but I declined: I couldn’t imagine trusting one of their roof racks on that car again.
At that point, I felt as if I had to get a roof rack that bolted to the top of the car. It turns out that no one makes such a rack for an Audi S4, but Audi does sell station wagons (called an “Avant”, of course, because no Audi owner would be caught dead in a station wagon!), and the Avant has a roof rack bolted to the top of the car. Feeling as if I had no alternative, I traded in the S4 (a car I really liked) and bought a used Avant. The canoe went on the car easily, and that problem was solved.
A few months later, Audi sent me one of their thick-paged glossy brochures hawking key chains, golf balls, and humidors with the Audi logo on them. In the back, I noticed that Audi sold roof rack systems. Annoyed and puzzled, I wrote to them and asked whether those roof racks had been available at the time that I had been looking for one. The answer? Yes! When I enquired as to why the local dealership did not have them for sale, Audi had no answer. When I complained that I had sold a car because of this, I was told that 1) I was a valued customer, and 2) would I please go away and leave them alone.
So. A wonderful experience, building the canoe, and a frustrating experience dealing with Audi. I love Audi cars. It’s just the company that I despise.