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The Voyage of The Night Heron

The boat slipped into the cold, crystal clear water. The waves lapped against the sides as the paddler entered its small cockpit. His wooden sea kayak, meticulously crafted by its paddler, was a true work of functional art. He pushed off the grainy sand with his paddle being sure not to scratch or harm the hull of the boat. Once he had cleared the sand, he took his first stroke; the carbon wing paddle searched for it groove in the water quickly finding its rhythm. Each stroke pulled the boat across the water faster and faster as the upwards curving bow surged forth--slicing through the smooth water. The paddler heard the water rushing beneath him. He heard it brushing up against the smooth hull. Eventually he reached a small cove encompassed by water and large leafy green burr oak trees. It was as if the boat belonged here, surrounded by the very material it was crafted from, almost as if it had a natural right to be on the water. A boat isn't just an object, but a process; it requires preparation, dedication, and true craftsmanship.

The lights flipped on to reveal a dust covered workshop. The edges of the workshop had large power tools while the center of the shop boasted an eighteen foot workbench. All of these objects had one thing in common -- they were used for the art of woodworking. For the next eight months this would be the a second home for the paddler and his masterpiece. It all starts on paper plans, once this are obtained the forms can be cut out to prepare for the actual boat pieces. The forms are outlines of the outside of the boat that will serve as the backbone for the building process. Often made of scrap wood with around 1 inch of thickness the plywood and strips used to make the boat are built around the forms and are later removed. Next the planks can be made for the hull. These are made from sheets of okoume plywood wood. They are cut using large 1:1 scale paper templates that are acquired from an established naval architect. Being a hybrid boat -- strip built deck with a plywood hull, the only preparation needed for the deck is picking out wooden strips and creating a design. Deck designs can range from a simple racing strip to extravagant contrasting patterns created by using different varieties of wood. After these essential steps the construction of the boat can begin.

On a hybrid boat the hull is made with a stitch and glue technique; almost like a giant puzzle piece. The hull is stitched together around the forms using copper wire. After the stitching is applied the joints are reinforced with a glue consisting of a two part epoxy and wood flour making for an extremely strong, watertight joint. After this crucial step the copper stitches can be removed and the entire hull can be sanded to even out any imperfections. It is at this point the maker can apply a stain to color the wood; This particular boat was coated with a glowing red mahogany which would later match the decks singular dark walnut racing stripe that ran down the center. The final step in the construction process is to fiberglass both the inside, outside, and the joint between the deck and the hull. This step is comes with ease to an experienced boat maker but with extreme difficulty to a first time builder. This is due to several reasons, first a two part epoxy mixture must be put together and stir for an allotted amount of time depending on the amount being mixed. If the mixture is off the epoxy will never dry; this leaves a thick, sticky coating of epoxy over the fiberglass and boat. If this occurs there is no other choice but to completely start the process over and scrape the epoxy off the bare wood. Another potential problem is the fact that epoxy is an extremely heat and time sensitive mix. If the temperature of the room for application is too hot the mixture will begin to solidify and heat up in the cup rendering it useless. But after the fiberglassing is completely the boat is just as strong as any other fiberglass race boat and usually several pounds lighter; making it arguably superior to factory made race boats.

The final steps separate a wooden boat from a piece of art. Most knowledgeable woodworkers could make a wooden boat with enough time and instruction. But an experienced boat maker can make a true piece of artwork. Common reactions to these boats will be along the lines of, “How could you paddle that?” or “If I had that I would never put it in the water.” But a boatmaker knows that even though his craft looks like it should belong in a national art museum that it is just as strong and practical as any boat bought in a store. What make the perfect boats is true craftsmanship. The neatness of the deck fittings--no staple holes from stripping the deck, perfectly even sanding with no imperfections in the wood, and a varnish so deep and glossy that one could count every freckle on their face when they looked at their reflection. Sometimes it's not about getting from point A to point B; sometimes it's about how you got to point A in the first place.

A light splash of water met the paddlers face; quickly gaining its brisk chill when it was accompanied by a soft northerly breeze. With the crisp, golden outlined letters proudly displaying the boat's name on the bow; the Night Heron readily greeted the small, forming waves. This was the Night Herons maiden voyage, its glowing red okume hull danced along the water as the paddler pushed it farther and farther out onto the lake. This was what the Night Heron was made for -- to be out on a lake. While the workshop was the maker's second home, it was always the boats second home as well. Its home would always be the lake; its deep clear water, its sand covered shores, and the burr oaks that kept it sheltered from the rest of the world. A boat isn't just a method of transportation, it is also a time consuming yet rewarding process for the dedicated craftsman or paddler.

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