Amazonian dugout canoes are very beautiful; elegant and functional, like most of the things Amazonians make. The production is fascinating to watch. The idea of a craft made from a single piece of wood adds romance. Whilst on fieldwork I practised whittling spoons, rings, net needles and such when I got the chance. My efforts were crude, but gave
me great pleasure. So upon returning home, I dreamed of continuing to make wooden objects, specifically a mask and one day, a dugout canoe. That day is a long way off. I have neither the skill, time, tools, nor raw material to accomplish that task. So I dreamed of other ways of soothing that desire.
It turns out canoes can even be made from (thickly varnished) paper mache . An existing craft could even be used as a template. I wanted a method that would be relatively cheap and simple. In the end I settled on using the coracle method . The idea was to create a lashed frame of flexible willow sticks, then sew on calico canvas, then paint that with bitumen to waterproof and protect it. I intended to use that method to create something canoe-shaped rather than round like a traditional coracle.
I played a limited role in actually making the canoes. The majority of the work was done by many of my colleagues. I enticed them with limitless home-brewed wine and snacks. The process was therefore far less efficient and more fun. We made two canoes. The first was more solidly built and wider, but not very symmetrical. The second was lighter, narrower and more torpedo shaped.
I am a PhD student at the University of East Anglia. Part of the management of the grounds includes coppicing riverside willows. I found abundant coppiced willow sticks left for months and apparently unused. I chose the straightest of these, in different thicknesses, bundled them up and carried them home. I neither peeled nor soaked these willow sticks and they were not freshly cut. This made them far less flexible and manageable than they otherwise would have been.
Making and Varnishing the Frame
We marked out an oval template on the ground to the length and width we thought appropriate (4.5 by 1.5m). This was to represent the gunwales of the canoe, which we were effectively making upside down. We staked willow poles symmetrically at even intervals (about 30cm if I remember correctly) around the oval.
The width-wise poles were parallel to one another, like lines of latitude, whereas the lengthwise poles converged at the ends like lines of longitude. Starting with the longest and thickest longitude pieces, we slowly bent these poles and lashed them to their opposite. Shorter latitude poles were planted in the ground by their opposite and lashed together. We bent them at an angle to make the deepest part of the canoes about 1m deep. Several snapped (especially near the ends where the angle was steepest) and had to be replaced. We then wove thin sticks at the gunwales. We lashed and cable-tied the structure together. The ends, where the many lengthwise poles came together, were securely lashed with bike inner tubes and trimmed.The wooden frame was varnished to help protect against water and insects
Seats and Paddles
We experimented with forcing wooden beams between the woven gunwales, but eventually opted for a lighter option. We attached cheap metal carabiners to the frame and tied discarded bike inner tubes (provided by Dr bike) between them. These served to pull the canoe sides in, as they had a tendency to otherwise bow out. To the thinner canoe, we attached a wooden brace in the middle. This was attached by drilling four holes through the wood and cable tying it into the frame. We had no time to carve wooden paddles, so we created stick frames and gaffer taped on varnished cardboard.
Skin and Waterproofing
We used heavyweight calico material. This was draped over the canoes. Then cut to length. Then sewed tight at the longest axis, then at the widest.The material was pulled taught and sewed in place, with excess fabric trimmed off. The skin was sewn back onto itself, so that it covered the gunwales. We used bitumen tar to waterproof the skin. Two layers were painted on both theinside and outside of the calico. We worried that this would not prove very durable or waterproof, but the bitumen impregnated calico exceeded our expectations in both respects. Each canoe could easily hold 2 adults. The entire process took perhaps 3 full days of labour for about 6 people, stretched out over several months whenever we had a free afternoon. We made many mistakes and corrections. We didn’t really know what we were doing. We just made it up as we went along. We ate and drank copiously throughout.
Davi, Rodrigo and myself carried the canoes down to the bridge over a small river by the UEA campus. They are light enough that both can be carried quite a distance by two
people. On putting the canoes in water, we discovered them to be extremely buoyant, too deep, not wide enough and therefore unbalanced. One also had to be careful not to lean too far back or the back end would tip in and sink the canoe. For a single person to sit in one canoe, we had to pour a load of water into the bottom to make it sit lower and more stable in the water. We also decided to sit right into the bottom of the canoes, ignoring the seats entirely. We nicknamed them the soggy bottom boats. The wider canoe was more stable, but also harder to paddle. Speaking of which, the paddles themselves wetted out extremely quickly and became useless, so we ordered some cheap plastic paddles. We decided to connect the canoes into a catamaran by tying sticks across them. The made them far more stable, to the point that we no longer needed to add water.
The Big Day
Finally, after months of waiting, a big group of us assembled and carried the canoe-catamaran to the river Wensum. There was much trepidation at first, but it soon became clear that the canoe-catamaran could comfortably hold four adults. Jo brought his own beautiful wooden canoe.
We took turns paddling and cycling from place to place. For the first leg I chucked on a wetsuit and fins and paddled/steered along behind, which was great fun, but really hot and tiring. It was a beautiful day. We greeted families of swans, ate watercress and generally made the most of it. We paddled all the way through the centre of Norwich, carrying the crafty over the weir. We made very slow progress as the canoes were neither very symmetrical, ergonomic, nor easy to steer straight.
At Norwich Canoe Hire Company, we hired an additional canoe. The owner commented that in our design, the bottom of the canoes curved up away from the water too quickly, leaving too little of the craft in contact with the water and increasing instability. We paddled on to the Ribs of Beef pub where we had lunch. Half the group had to leave by this point, so Jo, Rodrigo and myself continued on towards Postwick.
We were an odd sight. Jo in his sleek wooden canoe. Rodrigo and I in a lashed bunch of tarred sticks that looked as if it had been built by orcs. Many people started at us, greeted us, questioned us and wished us well as we passed. Generally older men chatted excitedly with us. Rodrigo and I cheated by hitching a lift at one point. A nice chap threw us a rope and towed us along behind for a while. We stopped off at the River Garden pub for a pint and a chat before completing the last leg of the journey in the glorious fading evening sun. Unbelievably we made it! The frame and skin of the canoes made it totally undamaged and with no leaks. I was suitably impressed.
Of course, the whole group buzzed with ideas for improved designs and more outings and perhaps predictably none of these happened. For me, the pleasure was in the conception and execution of the idea and the wonderful time working and playing with friends. The process reassured me that water-worthy crafts can be made cheaply by amateurs, and if so, what else? One of the lasting impressions that Amazonian fieldwork made on me was that humans are capable of using cheap materials and limited tools to make for themselves the necessities of life. It seems inconceivable in our intensely specialised, mechanised, technocratic society, so it’s nice to be reminded.