Published articles

Double-Enders vs. Transoms

No.82, a ketch, 29’ 6” LOA, draft 4’6”. Note the transom plan in the upper left. The transom does not begin until well above the waterline. This boat has a more pronounced forefoot. Otherwise Nos. 55 and 82 are quite similar below the waterline. From L. Francis Herreshoff’s book, The Common Sense of Yacht Design.

No. 55, a double-ended auxiliary ketch, 30’ 9” length overall (LOA), draft 4’6”. The stern is sharp and full, with modest overhang. Freeboard is high, suitable for a boat with greater emphasis on engine propulsion. From L. Francis Herreshoff’s The Common Sense of Yacht Design.

Published in Small Craft Advisor Magazine

Which is better on a sailboat, a sharp stern or a transom? A planing hull needs a wide, flat bottom aft to lift the boat when extreme power is supplied, but a displacement hull assumes lower speeds. Here the first criterion is simple hydrodynamic efficiency: the ease with which the water splits apart and rejoins as the boat passes. For a given displacement, that hull is slipperiest which minimizes 1) the amount of water that must move aside, 2) the distance it must move, and 3) the abruptness of that movement. These are best achieved in a slender hull with sharp, tapered ends, like a spear floating half out of the water. The bow and stern shapes are equally important. It’s intuitive that a sharp object penetrates more readily, so most bows are pointy. It’s less intuitive, but just as true, that a dragging transom saps the boat’s power, dissipating much of it in a turbulent wake.

This doesn’t necessarily mean double-enders are better, however. Hydrodynamic efficiency concerns only the wetted area of the hull. Many sailboats with transoms are double-enders at the waterline. Look just below the transom and you may see a pointy extremity disappearing into the water. Remember, however, that what matters is actual wetted hull area underway. If a boat is over-loaded, or the weight is too far astern (often the case with a cockpit full of people), a transom may drag that otherwise wouldn’t. Also, sterns often squat with increased speed. To be sure, the sweet sharpness should extend somewhat above the static waterline.

If a displacement hull’s stern can flare above the waterline without penalty, what should that shape be? A transom gives more room for an aft cockpit. The transom can be flat or curved, vertical or sloping in either direction. Some boats are technically double-enders, but their sterns are so full as to be almost bulbous. We see bow transoms as well. They are usually smaller and higher than stern transoms to avoid being pushed backward by an on-coming wave.

Waves at the stern present different issues. They often push us forward, which is good, but when they push us too fast we broach, which is very bad. Broaches are one of the commonest forms of capsize. That’s not to say that a sharp stern necessarily lessens the risk of broaching. Regardless of stern shape, a light boat will be carried forward by a following wave that is sufficiently steep. The boat accelerates to the speed of the wave before the stern can split the water. However, a sharp stern may assist a heavy boat in following seas. People talk of their canoe sterns having parted such waves, saving them from being pooped, wherein the cockpit fills with water. Perhaps in the right conditions a heavy double-ender will resist broaching because it accelerates slowly enough for the stern to part the wave, lessening its force and releasing its hold on the boat.

Let’s consider in greater detail how water flows past a hull. It can be displaced either horizontally, vertically, or both. First imagine a double-ender with a flat, rocker-less bottom and vertical sides that curve only in plan view. All the water is displaced horizontally, moving out then coming back in. Now picture a scow with parallel sides in plan view but a nice rocker (gentle bottom curvature in side view). The water doesn’t move to port or starboard at all, it only goes down then comes back up. Optimally a hull will displace water both downward and outward because fairing can be “sharper” in three dimensions than in two. A nail penetrates better than a chisel.

So far we have considered a hull’s ease of passage through the water. But hull shape plays another role in the monohull sailboat: resisting the leaning force caused by the sails. Transoms are popular in sailboats in part because the aft lee buttock provides reserve buoyancy. When properly designed the aft leeward waterline shifts leeward. The aft windward waterline may migrate leeward too. Tipped, the boat takes on a different shape, one less given to marginal heeling. The induced asymmetry may even add a bit of windward lift. Racing monohulls usually exploit heeling asymmetry. A multihull, on the other hand, gets its stability from a second and/or third hull. Catamarans and trimarans don’t need transoms for that reason, but they often have them anyway. The swim platform with steps leading up to the cockpit is a nice feature.

Most hulls use a combination of horizontal and vertical water displacement, and treat the bow and stern quite separately. A common pattern is a V-shaped bow that displaces water both downward and sideways, coupled with a wide transom that emphasizes vertical displacement. The keel has a smooth “run” in side view, rising gently from point of maximum depth to the stern waterline. The traditional Baltimore clipper comes to mind. Tug boats are like this too. Right or wrong, the entry angle of the bow is much finer than the exit angle of the stern. Personally I find this disparity jarring. Are the jobs of the bow and stern so different as to justify such divergence? Fish and airplanes, I notice, have slender tails. In fact, their “bows” are typically wider than their “sterns.” The “cod’s head and mackerel tail” used to be the accepted boat shape. The boat designers have done an about-face, but some of this could be fad-ism.

In short, there are plenty of arguments either way, and room for personal preference. Allow me to elucidate using my own boats as examples.

First, I have owned two kayaks and a canoe. These were all double-enders. When a human being must power the boat the designer takes no chances! He bows to pure hydro-dynamic efficiency and gives her a sharp stern. (Of course, kayaks and canoes don’t have aft cockpits.)

My first sailboat was quite the opposite: a San Francisco Pelican. These are twelve feet long and six feet wide with transoms at both ends. These boats are too short and wide to be fast. Also, the Pelican’s bottom is flat transversely. There is no V. She combines maximum stability with minimum length.

My second sailboat was of my own design, Squeak (see Three Years in a 12-Foot Boat). Not only is Squeak a double-ender with fine entry and exit, she is symmetrical fore and aft! I built the starboard and port halves from the same mold. She was successful except for one quibble: my crew weight in the cockpit caused her to sit lower at the stern than at the bow. I countered this by stowing heavy gear forward. One reason boats are fuller in the stern is to carry people in the cockpit! On the other hand, one of the nice things about a central cockpit is that no matter how many people are aboard the boat won’t lose its trim.

Ginny’s and my recent boat, Thurston, is based on L. Francis Herreshoff’s Carpenter, a double-ender. Marine Concepts, who produced it as the Sea Pearl, removed the final foot, above the waterline, to facilitate attaching the rudder. I didn’t mind. She was easily-driven and nice-looking.

I want my next boat to be a slender double-ender mainly because I like the look. That aft-most foot of boat may be superfluous, but what’s the harm? In his book, The Common Sense of Yacht Design, L. Francis (son of Nathaniel, who was more famous) devotes his entire final chapter to beauty in boats. “The principal function of a yacht is to give pleasure,” he observes. The beautiful boat is used more, enjoyed more, and better cared for, so beauty should be the first goal. But people derive pleasure differently, so their boats are different.

I’m not a boat designer by trade. I may be missing arguments one way or the other. But I don’t lack passion! I have often gone to sleep imagining a hull slicing through the water, seen from below. It’s a mantra for me, a way to relax. A boat in motion is like a river, always changing yet remaining the same. In the river, as in the boat, there is a tension between its static nature and its dynamic nature. When a craft is out of the water we squat down to look at its bottom, imagining the dynamics hidden in that inert form. We sense the yawing and the pitching, the heel and the wake-less glide. It makes us want to be there, doing it.

Adding Human Power

Published in Small Craft Advisor Magazine

A new race suggests new propulsion systems

Human power came first, of course: forgotten peoples paddling and poling through the mists of time. Then someone raised a reed mat to catch the wind, adding sail power. More recently motors have become ubiquitous. This article is about restoring human power (HP) as a primary or secondary means of propulsion. It’s a survey exploiting the experimentation that has gone into the annual Race to Alaska (R2AK), inaugurated in 2015, which requires at a least a modicum of HP and prohibits motors. This article is not about how to win that race, but about how the rest of us can benefit. We all know HP’s advantages: it’s simple, reliable, healthful, and good for the environment. None of those priorities will be going away soon. So let’s draw inspiration from the R2AK and polish a new skill set.

To make a boat go forward you push something backward. Poling is worth a mention in shallow water, and a stout length of bamboo is often a worthwhile accessory for various reasons. But mostly we push against the water. The single-bladed paddle is the simplest device, and still capable of strong showings. In 2015 Team Soggy Beavers, six strapping young men from Oregon, paddled an outrigger canoe the 750 miles to Ketchikan in 11 days. Kayakers have completed the race with the tool appropriate to that craft, a double-bladed paddle. In 2017 even a standup paddler made it!

Rowing and sculling

Rowing was invented when a paddle was pressed against a chock lodged on a boat’s gunwale. The arm that had served as fulcrum was now free to contribute power, along with the shoulders and back. Later the sliding seat was invented, allowing the rower to use his legs. That system is most efficient which most fully taps your body’s muscles, and in this respect sliding-seat rowing remains unsurpassed. The more muscle mass you employ, the more work you can perform per heartbeat. One man call pull two oars, or two men can pull one oar each. Both configurations have been employed in the R2AK.

Unfortunately, efficiency often runs counter to simplicity. With each step along the path from paddle to oar to sliding seat the boater has more equipment to contend with. You have to decide how much oomph your boat will need, whether your HP system will be primary or secondary, and whether you have a place to store the gear when not in use. If you just want a better way to maneuver around the dock don’t bother with the latest pedal drive.

Paddles and oars have no parallel in the animal kingdom, but the yuloh does. Fish swim by undulating their tails back and forth, which is the principle of the single-oar scull. The aft end of the oar must be flexible or you’re just pushing water sideways. Properly set up it can propel a heavy boat slowly but nobody’s claiming it can make a small boat go fast. Marine mammals undulate their tails up and down. Researchers at the University of Oxford have been testing a hypothesis that pedal power driving a large fin flapping vertically would be 20% more efficient than the same driving a propeller. It remains unproven.

Pedaling a small boat

Pedaling uses plenty of muscle mass, and rotary power has no wasted return stroke. The world speed record for an HP boat over a 100-meter course was set in 1991 by Mark Drela of M.I.T. He achieved 18.5 knots on a hydrofoil catamaran air-boat. (The prop spun in the air, not in the water.) And pedal power has an advantage over rowing in close quarters because is doesn’t add to boat width. In contrast to a rowboat, in which the effective width can be twenty feet from oar-tip to oar-tip, a pedal-drive system can easily come alongside a dock because there are no oars in the way.

Lots of product development is currently underway. Pedals and props require sophisticated engineering, such as solving for optimum RPM, gear ratio, prop size, and prop pitch. Fabrication is also complex compared to paddles and oars. Most of the off-the-shelf systems being marketed are complete watercraft, but you can also purchase pedal drives separately for installation in your own boat. Providers include Sea-Cycle (a twin-hulled “Water Bike”), Wilderness Systems (a kayak-like craft), Blue Sky Boatworks (a small catamaran), and the Pedal Wa’a (a cool-looking trimaran). These are all vertical drives, which in the case of a monohull means piercing the hull. In contrast, the “Pedal Prop” is strictly for retrofitting. The drive exits your cockpit to one side, whereupon a bevel gear sends the power down a long sloping shaft to the prop. The outdrive can be lifted as necessary, and kicks up upon impact. It has a rudder just behind the prop. For various suppliers see

Distinct from other pedal systems is the Hobie Mirage Drive, which uses reciprocating pedals to drive a pair of fishtail-like flippers back and forth. The device is ingenious. Roger Mann used it to good effect in the 2015 race. Much of the time he sailed and pedaled simultaneously, allowing him to finesse on-coming waves and maintain momentum at critical moments. To my knowledge the system has only been applied to the proprietary boat it comes with, and the fins don’t kick up. Mirage drives have suffered a lot of damage in the Everglades Challenge race, where the water is often shallow and murky so you can’t tell when the fins will hit.

Pedaling larger boats

None of these systems are likely to suffice for a larger boat. Individual creativity has been filling this gap. For his 2016 R2AK bid, Brandon Davis of Team Turn Point Design designed a forward-facing pedal-prop drive that fits into the bridge deck of his 22-foot catamaran and that kicks up upon impact. He has a computer program for designing prop systems, but he doesn’t market his drive, and few are capable of creating their own. Consider the mechanics. On a bicycle the crank turns in the same plane as the rear wheel, so the drive is direct, that is, the gears are parallel. In contrast, on pedal drives in which the cyclist faces forward the power train has to make at least one 90-degree turn. Brandon’s choice was one helical gear to torque the vertical shaft and another to bring the power into the plane of the propeller. Direction-changing gears (helical, bevel, hypoid, worm, etc.) are difficult to design and build. They also induce significant friction.

If you want a forward-facing system without direction-changing gears, consider the twisted chain, another vertical system. The chain twists ninety degrees on is way from the crank to a short propeller shaft. It’s thought that a twisted chain causes less friction than a direction-changing gear. Human-powered boat enthusiasts have been using the twisted chain for years. Google “Compact Twisted Chain HPB Drive System.”

When Russell Brown of PT Watercraft decided to enter the R2AK, also in a catamaran, he had Brandon Davis design him a system without direction-changing gears or a twisted chain. How? By sitting sideways. When your crank and propeller shaft are parallel a straight chain can connect them. Russell’s crank gear has 73 teeth, his propeller shaft gear has 13 teeth. The chain doesn’t exactly immerse; it’s housed in a fairing which minimizes drag and which excludes water in most situations. The device is a mixture of bicycle parts and custom-built components. It weighs nine pounds. It doesn’t kick up but with more moving parts could be made to do so. If pedaling while facing sideways sounds strange, consider that in boats with tillers you face sideways while steering. If you can bend your neck to see forward while steering, why not while pedaling? Boat layout will limit the practicality, however. Russell’s catamaran lent itself to facing sideways; he just sits on his cockpit bench as usual and drops his pedal drive into a well through the between-hulls deck, no hull-piercing required.

In 2016 Team Jungle Kitty pretty much just bolted some bicycles onto their vessel and connected the trains to a propeller. They didn’t go to Ketchikan, but their effort raises the question, is the ability to select between multiple gear ratios worth the added complexity? After all, there’s a lot more resistance going upwind than downwind.

Team Bad Kitty addressed that question. In 2017 they came in third place with a unique system: two sideways-sitting (direct-drive) pedal stations driving separate shafts, each running back to a two-blade prop at the stern. The axes of the props are above the waterline so only one blade or portion thereof is immersed at a time! “Surface-piercing” blades have less drag. The strut that holds up the prop is variable as to height. Deeper immersion is for when they need to sprint, shallower immersion is for a long slog. This adjustability isn’t gearing in the literal sense, but it still allows you to adapt your power to your load. Another way is with a variable pitch propeller.

In conclusion, pedal drives show much promise, and there are plenty of choices for ultra-small boats, but larger boats aren’t being served. No one is talking about marketing their systems because there’s so much diversity of applications.

Ability to kick up, and use while sailing

Blades and props must immerse deeply enough to avoid cavitation in wave troughs, yet must retract while sailing or in preparation for a beach landing. They should also kick up when they hit an unexpected obstruction. Paddles and oars have an obvious advantage in this regard whereas the Hobie Mirage and many propeller systems lack this feature. A related disadvantage in pedal systems that fit into wells is that when the unit is retracted for sailing there’s a hole that must be blocked to avoid turbulence.

The ability to apply human power while sailing confers a big advantage in light airs, especially into the wind because the extra apparent wind speed allows you to point higher. Most full-fledged HP systems are capable of this. Multihulls are better in this respect because they stay level into the wind, and it’s easier to row or pedal seated on a level surface. With a crew of two one can steer and adjust lines while the other rows or pedals. A solo rower is particularly challenged because he or she faces aft while all this is going on. Nonetheless, I simultaneously rowed and sailed a lot in my three-year solo voyage aboard Squeak.

Speaking of crew coordination, allow me to tell a favorite story of mine. We were rowing on a vast reservoir in South America. It was hot, and it was her turn. As usual she took a landmark straight behind us to steer by, but she kept getting off course. “More to starboard,” I would say, or “More to port.” Finally I asked her what gives. It turned out she was using cows as landmarks, and they kept moving! Interestingly enough, this was on the Rio dos Bois, the River of Cows!

Suitability by boat type

A low, narrow monohull lends itself to most systems but for rowing you may need struts to hold the oarlocks the correct distance apart. The standard oarlock spacing in single rowing shells is about 5’3”.

Larger monohulls can be rowed, with limitations. A rowing station in the cockpit is quite disruptive, so make it demountable and give it a good storage place. If due to wide beam the oarlocks must be more than 5’3” apart, then the oars must be longer than the standard 9’9”. Likewise if your oarlocks are much higher above the waterline than is standard, which is approximately one foot, you will need longer oars. The commonest problem in rowing is oars that are too short, but longer oars may be hard to stow. If your monohull is too tall or wide to row from the cockpit you might consider installing a rowing station on the transom. In 2017 Team West Coast Wild Ones did so on a 27-foot O’Day. They clamped a sliding-seat station where the outboard normally goes. It stows vertically when not in use and hinges down and back for deployment. A largish monohull can be pedal-driven but there are no ready-made systems available. If you create your own you’ll have to decide whether to run the power train down through the hull (either vertically, or horizontally with a downward slant to a prop at the stern) or over the side.

You can paddle a small multihull quite well, but not a large one. Rowing a multihull is problematic because the tramps, crossbeams, and outriggers generally conflict with the oars. On models in which the outriggers (also called pontoons or amas) pivot inward to reduce beam when trailering it may be possible to mount the oarlocks on the outriggers, because full deployment of outriggers is necessary only when sailing. Colin Angus’ approach seems better: his outriggers don’t come very far aft, so they don’t interfere with his oars. Angus Rowboats sells plans and kits for a Sailing Rowcruiser which is a thing of beauty. For a one-man cruiser that rows and sails really well you can’t do better. And he should know rowing, having made the first human-powered circumnavigation.

As for larger multihulls, some R2AK contestants have posted one oarsman to port and another to starboard, each on a single oar. This is not likely to get used in recreational boating. Others have installed a rowing station at the stern of their main hull, far enough aft that the oars do not conflict with the outriggers. A better solution for larger multihulls may be pedal power. A pedal station can be installed in the between-hull spaces without piercing a hull. Or you may be able to attach a pedaling station to the stern of the main hull with the pedalist facing aft. That’s what 2017 R2AK winner Team Pure & Wild did.

Ergonomics and expectations

The measure of success in an HP system is how much it gets used. It has to be ergonomic, well laid-out, and suitable for long periods of time without getting irritated by things like squeaky oarlocks or fittings that keep coming loose. The spatial relationships between the various components that come into contact with your body have to be spot-on. Maybe a pedal drive will be more comfortable with a recumbent seat. The difference between a good outing in your sea kayak and a bad one may be figuring out how to keep water from dribbling down your paddle and onto your lap! Little design flaws seem to get magnified when you are your own power source. For example, your boat’s skeg may be big enough for sailing but not for HP. You may need to enlarge it to maintain a straight course.

Unfortunately, rowers sit facing backward, an annoyance that becomes downright unsafe in close quarters, darkness, or fog. You can partly overcome this by using a rear-view mirror clipped onto your glasses or bolted onto an oarlock. Search the internet for good products. Fixed-seat rowing stations can be set up allowing you to turn around and row by pushing when necessary to see ahead. Spend a little more and get oars with spoon-shaped blades; they grip the water better. Your best human power solution will also depend on your physical strengths and weaknesses. If you have a bad neck get a facing-forward system. If you have bad knees a pedal system may not work for you. Biminis are more likely to be needed on HP boats because you’re already hot from the exercise.

Manage your expectations. It’s generally easy to paddle, row, or pedal a boat at a steady two knots and sprint at three knots, but that may not be your situation. Be realistic about how hard you can work as you get older, and consider the boat’s limitations. Windage matters more than length or displacement. If it has high freeboard, a tall mast, or lots of rigging you won’t get very far to windward. The best way to improve a sailboat for HP is to make the mast lowerable. Either make it light enough to lower by hand in all sea conditions or put it on a tabernacle.

In my dream boat the sails and the human power are of equal importance. Neither dominates over the other. If it’s a prop drive it will have a recumbent seat for my bad lower back and a kick-up propeller for the rocks I know I’ll hit. If it’s a rowboat it will have a sliding seat and a beautiful woman at the tiller where I can gaze at her while listening to Jeff Beck on my Walkman. (Ginny immodestly points out that I’ve already lived that dream, and she’s right.)


Published in Small Craft Advisor Magazine

“Adventure” derives from the Latin “to come.” Thus an adventure originally meant an unexpected arrival, a surprise which comes to you. The modern connotation is more active; one goes out and seeks an adventure. Either way it has a large measure of uncertainty. We can’t fully control or predict the outcome.

This uncertainty has two sources. The first is the strangeness we encounter along the way. It is an adventure if the lands, waters, or peoples on our route are new and unfamiliar. Curiosity motivates us. These new worlds interest and challenge us. They require us to think outside our usual frames of reference, to adapt and survive.

The second uncertainty pertains to what we find inside ourselves. The adventure helps us discover who we are. This especially true for youths. A native American youngster might call it a spirit quest. He travels alone through strange lands. Everything is in flux. The only constants are those he contains within. Through the trial he realizes his strengths, and develops to his full potential. Older people can also benefit to the extent we are still capable of curiosity and personal reflection. If an intense experience can still rocks us to our foundations it’s not too late for us. We may yet find an unexpected twist in our destiny if we have faith in ourselves and allow ourselves to be carried away.

As boaters we don’t just wait for it to happen. We study charts. We pack. We pass a critical eye over our small tools, and the one big tool that holds them all: our boat. We love this process because Nature makes us love to do that which is necessary for our survival. A house cat still loves to hunt even though its food bowl gets topped up every day. Hunting satisfies its primal instinct. Boating satisfies ours. We are no longer hunter-gatherers who need new ecosystems to exploit. We aren’t fishermen in search of our daily catch. Our relative prosperity allows us go out on the water as a hobby. Like the hunter-gatherer, however, we love our tools. Our progenitor must have loved his spear: so straight, stout, and sharp! Likewise we love our boat, also straight, stout, and sharp! We love our spear-ship because creating and using it satisfies our instinct to explore new lands.

My first boat was a San Francisco Pelican, and my first voyage was a solo circuit through Washington’s San Juan Islands. While going through a narrow channel the shear pin broke on my five-horse Johnson outboard motor. A wind blowing sideways to the channel promptly washed me ashore. First I had to figure out how to fix the motor, and I hadn’t yet developed mechanical skills, so that wasn’t easy. Then I had to devise a way to hold the boat far enough off the beach to keep my propeller free of the bottom while starting the motor. As I recall it didn’t have a neutral or the neutral wasn’t working. The answer, obvious now but not then, was to throw my anchor out, tie it to the bow, and retrieve it as I motored past. Once I had succeeded in this I found myself crying! An eighteen-year-old isn’t grown up yet. I had just grown up a little more, and I was crying the way a child cries upon being forced by a trauma to call up an unknown strength.

Eighteen years later I began my three years in a twelve-foot boat, as documented in my book of that title. (A new edition of Three Years in a Twelve-Foot Boat is now available.) By this time my skills were greater, so I chose a greater challenge.

Then after another eighteen years, that seemingly being the interval it takes for an irresistible wanderlust to build back up inside me, I began my five-year voyage with Ginny. On that one we cruised to Argentina and back, largely on the rivers of South America. Readers of this magazine will remember our “Adventures of Steve and Ginny” articles.

Each of my three big voyages was longer than the previous. It had to be to get the same emotional impact. As I got older my personal development was more complete. I was less impressionable so it took longer it to satisfy the same wanderlust.

As we proceed through our boating careers our dream boat changes in reaction to the shortcomings of our most recent boat. The Pelican was too chubby, heavy, and open. I designed Squeak, on which I spent the three years, to overcome these flaws. She was slimmer, light enough to drag up onto a beach by myself, and capable of self-rescue in the event of capsize. And she had an enclosed cabin large enough to sleep in once I had moved my gear to the cockpit in rain-proof boxes.

Squeak’s shortcoming was that she only accommodated one. By 2007 I had met Ginny. So we bought a Sea Pearl and modified it with a rigid cabin, water tanks and storage bins secured transversely across the floor to double as ballast, and a sliding-seat rowing station. The result was like a stretched-out Squeak: still rowable, shallow-draft, and self-rightable, but with a cabin minimally big enough for two.

Both Squeak and Thurston fulfilled their missions superbly, but one has a lot of time to think on a voyage, and much of that thinking inevitably concerns our “one tool to hold them all,” our boat. We ponder how it could be improved, how a different vessel could take us further, faster, more comfortably, more economically. Ginny’s and my five years aboard Thurston ultimately pointed, for me at least, toward the need for a longer, narrower hull. I offer how this happened as an example. Other people’s experiences, and the resulting designs, would vary.

For the first eighteen months we rowed and sailed from Florida to Panama. Our next destination was Venezuela, 1200 miles straight into the trade winds, so we needed a motor. We got a Honda two-horse outboard, and realized that in addition to windward work it could take us up rivers! So from the Venezuelan coast we motored up the Orinoco to its headwaters, then down an inter-connecting distributary called the Brazo Casiquiare into the Amazon basin. Thus began a series of river ascents and descents, with portages by car or truck between, that took us through Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina, and Uruguay. The major rivers were the Orinoco (ascent), Negro/Amazon (descent), Madeira/Guapore (ascent), Paraguay/ Paraná (descent), Uruguay and Paraná (ascent), and Araguaia/Tocantins (descent). In the descents we rowed, sailed, and motored. They were the Life of Riley! We lacked for nothing. The world and boat seem perfect as is. But the upstream stretches, each lasting several months, made me stew. We motored continuously, first with the Honda then, when its rod broke, with a five-horse long-tail contraption we bolted onto the stern.

For hundreds of hours I sat there motoring upstream. Looking back at my wake I felt like I had an albatross around my neck. Thurston had a good shape, but a displacement hull can only be so good. Her wake revealed how she dragged her body through the water. The size of the bow and stern waves showed how much energy we were burning. To minimize fuel consumption we kept her well under hull speed. Say at a given moment our speed through the water was four knots while the contrary current was two knots. That left us inching along at a tedious two knots. We also resented the noise of a motor that’s constantly working hard. Finally, the hull speed limitation limited where we could go. The rivers we ascended were slow enough at the time of year in question, but a faster boat would allow us to ascend tributaries with rapids. With a higher top speed we could go more places. But we ruled out a planing hall because of the fuel it would consume and the noise it would make.

That’s when I started dreaming o a multihull. Let’s define a “skinny hull” as having a length-to-beam ratio of at least ten, measuring at the waterline. A skinny hull creates very little wake. There is no bow wave to lift the bow, no stern trough for the stern to fall into. With increasing power she just keeps going faster. The power-to-speed curve is a straight line. Fuel consumption increases proportionately, not exponentially. I decided my next boat would be a multi-hull!

When the voyage was over I started sketching catamarans and trimarans. Besides the hull form I wanted:

  • masts that are quick and easy to lower when I’m not sailing,

  • a cabin that can be set up and taken down like a tent, likewise for increased flexibility, and

  • supplementary pedal power, for exercise and as backup propulsion.

I’ve been back from Ginny’s and my voyage for six years now. How time flies! We have the boy that was born in Brazil plus another one since then. I have new projects and responsibilities. Everything’s great, including on the boat front. I found a one-of-a-kind proa in a prototype state that suited my parameters. Her length to beam ratio is a rather extreme fifteen-to-one! I’m about half way through re-purposing her. I’m keeping about half of the original boat and changing the rest.

Progress has been slow but I don’t mind. The work is fun. I don’t have a schedule or much by way of drawings or plans. She’s in my head. When I come to a new component needing to be built I work out the details then. I just plan far enough ahead to avoid dead ends.

I don’t know what I’ll do with her. No voyage is in the works. Given my life situation maybe there won’t even be one. But it’s fun to contemplate. She’ll have great potential. When my wanderlust builds back up to critical mass she should be done. If circumstances allow me another voyage I will seize onto that with the usual gusto.

I started talking about the passive and active aspects of adventure. I passively accept these changes and wait for the situation to develop. Meanwhile I actively take the steps necessary for another voyage to come about. This is how it works for me: just a few voyages but they’re big. Others go on lots of little ones. It’s all good.

He Remembered My Lazarette Gasket

Published in Small Craft Advisor Magazine

I’m building a multihull now, so I’m a member of the Northwest Multihull Association (NWMA), headquartered in Seattle. They are interested in small multihulls as well as large ones, so if little multihulls turn you on, the Hobie Adventure Island trimaran for example, and you are in the Puget Sound area, check them out. Anyway, at a recent NWMA event I chatted with Jeff, a fellow member.

“Hey, man,” he said, “I’ve just realized that a memory I have from a long time ago is about you and your little boat, the one you went three years in! Allow me to resurrect that memory with you. Help me out here!”

We narrowed his recollection down to about the year 2000. I was promoting my book, Three Years in a Twelve-Foot Boat. I gave a talk at the Manette Book Store in Bremerton, my home town. I must have parked Squeak on her trailer in front of the store in case anyone wanted to see her.

“Yeah, I looked her over,” said Jeff, “and what I remember was the gasket you made for that little storage compartment you had at the stern.”

“The lazarette, you mean.”

“Right, the lazarette. The gasket was a bicycle inner tube! It was pure genius! You just glued a bicycle inner tube where those two surfaces came together. You should write an article about that lazarette gasket!” (He reads the SCA.)

I was flattered that he found my invention so memorable, so I am following him up on his suggestion, in a minor way. I find it interesting what people remember and what they don’t remember. Of that which goes into our heads, what sloughs off and what sticks? I remember nothing about talking to that room full of people, but he remembers an inner tube. It was a minor detail but to Jeff it captured the moment.

I suppose he meant I should write a technical article about it. I’m not, except to say that in the late 80’s, when I was building Squeak, I realized that a lazarette (which is like a cuddy at the stern) in a sea-going boat needs a water-tight seal, and I didn’t trust conventional gasket material. Squeak’s lazarette constitutes her aftmost two feet. Inside are an upper shelf and a lower hold. Its forward surface is vertical and faces onto the cockpit with holes for accessing the shelf and hold.

I covered these openings with a single hatch cover, the base of which sat on the wrap-around cockpit bench. I mounted the hatch’s hinges to that bench. In opening, the hatch rotates forward and down. Its vertical face comes to rest, perfectly flush, on the bench. The hatch itself has a foot of depth to it, too, so you can stow stuff in either the lazarette or its hatch cover.

The gasket needed to be a fairly large oval shape. I wanted to use a single cam latch to close it, nothing of great power. I was afraid that conventional gasket material might not compress sufficiently. I also wanted to avoid having to butt the two ends of conventional gasket material, fearful that there might be a gap for water to enter.

It occurred to me that the circumference of the needed gasket approximated that of a bicycle inner tube. This was easily obtained and glued onto the lazarette bulkhead with epoxy. The valve is at the top for accessibility. The inner tube needed only slightly more than atmospheric pressure to perform properly. I gave it just enough air so the latch would require a firm exertion. I always carried a small pump, the kind that mounts to the frame of a bicycle, but I rarely needed it. The pressure was so low, the air never leaked. The seal was watertight, as was proven in a night-long capsize debacle off the coast of Colombia.

The point, however, is not how clever I was. We see original ideas on boats all the time. Jeff himself is an audacious boating technician and racer. He spotted it because it was the type of thing he might come up with. He was generous in his praise. But the point is that after twenty years he remembered that one incisive detail. He saw a solution of humble elegance, appreciated it, and went on to gestate his own solutions as his watercraft career developed.

A life well-lived is a succession of such ah-ha moments. We remember those rare gems, and cherish them. Thanks for sharing, Jeff!

The Casiquiare: Back Door to the Amazon

Published in Small Craft Advisor Magazine

To our knowledge, Dana Starkell, Beto Pandiani and his team-mates, and my wife Ginny and I are the only living people who have navigated from the Caribbean to the Amazon via the Brazo Casiquiare. (Brazo means arm, the Casiquiare being an arm of the Negro, which is an arm of the Amazon. Its English name is Casiquiare Canal, but that implies that it is man-made, which it isn’t.) The Casiquiare connects the two because, oddly, it originates at a bifurcation.

When a river bifurcates, two distributaries result. Distributaries are common in deltas. They form islands which can be circumnavigated. But bifurcations high in a river’s headwaters are exceedingly rare. Wikipedia lists a handful in North America, Europe, and Asia. Each connects river basins with widely separated mouths. But the Casiquiare appears to be the only one navigable in small craft. Large craft are impractical due to a series of major rapids on the Orinoco and lesser rapids on the Rio Negro, but small craft can portage around them.

To understand this phenomenon, compare a river to a tree. Starting from the top and sides of its canopy, it begins as twigs. These come together as branches. These combine to form the trunk. From the extremities inward and downward the components become fewer in number and larger in size. The same is true of rivers.

A continent consists of various river basins. The lines where they meet are called divides. If the waters on the two sides flow to different oceans we call it a continental divide. The high land separating Venezuela from the Amazon is a continental divide in that the Orinoco flows into the Caribbean whereas the Amazon flows into the Atlantic. Yet one can boat directly from one to the other!

To understand how a configuration of river basins could permit this, imagine three balls of Play-doh on a table. One is blue, one is yellow, and one is green. Now flatten these balls out such that they press against each other with no gaps. Dish each one out slightly. Make the green blob taller but smaller in area. It represents the basin of the Orinoco-above- bifurcation. (I can’t call it the Upper Orinoco because that term refers to everything above Samariapo. See further.) The blue and yellow blobs are the basins of the Orinoco-below-bifurcation and the Casiquiare. Where the three blobs come together is the bifurcation. The runoff caught by the green Play-doh is distributed among the blue and yellow Play-dohs.

(I picked these colors because blue and yellow combine to make green. But green can’t separate back out into blue and yellow, can it? In this thought experiment it does! Imagine that the Orinoco-below-bifurcation is blue and that the Casiquiare is yellow. In that case the Orinoco upstream of the bifurcation, being a mixture of the two, would have to be green! Imagine seeing a green river separate into blue and yellow distributaries!)

Another way to put it is that streams normally flow through valleys, never on ridges. Yet in a way that is exactly what the Orinoco does at the point of bifurcation. Emerging from the remote Guyana Highlands, already a sizable river, it empties westward onto a plain. The north edge of the plain drops to the north, the south edge drops to the south. Most of the water flows off the northern edge, but about ten percent of it, the Casiquiare, flows off the southern edge. Geologically, the river could have flowed entirely either way. Maybe someday one side will capture all the flow. But since it hasn’t, the distributary that gets most of the water shares its name with the upper river, while the smaller distributary gets a separate name: the Casiquiare. Dana, Beto, Ginny and I all went up the Orinoco and came down the Casiquiare. It was our back door into the Amazon basin.

This inter-connection was first discovered by Portuguese bandeirantes (carriers of the Portuguese bandeira, or flag). These people were like the voyageurs of North America except that, sadly, they traded in native slaves rather than furs. In 1744 a band of them worked their way up the Negro and Casiquiare, then continued down the Orinoco. In doing so they encountered a Jesuit priest coming the other way. He accompanied the bandeirantes on their return, and spread the word of this strange phenomenon. European geographers became aware of it.

One such was the great German explorer, Alexander von Humboldt. In 1800 he used it to travel from the Caribbean to the mouth of the Amazon, probably the first person to do so.

In 1909 Joshua Slocum, already famous as the first man to sail alone around the world, sailed from the East Coast of the U.S. with the intent of repeating Humboldt’s exploit, but he was lost at sea and never seen again.

In 1924–25 an expedition led by Alexander Rice of Harvard University traveled up the Orinoco and descended the inter-basin connection to Manaus. He used aerial photography and shortwave radio to map the region.

In 1968 a National Geographic expedition transited the Casiquiare in a large hovercraft.

In 1982 Don and Dana Starkell did it.

Don, Dana’s father, had studied the literature. Going over the Casiquiare hump was only part of their accomplishment. They paddled a canoe from Winnipeg to Belém, at the mouth of the Amazon. This earned them the Guinness World Record for the longest canoe trip. But mileage doesn’t begin to tell the difficulty. Coming out the mouth of the Mississippi in their twenty-foot fiberglass canoe, they followed the coast of the Gulf of Mexico to the Yucatan, then the Caribbean coasts of Central and South America to the mouth of the Orinoco. This was so difficult, painful, and hazardous that Don’s book, Paddle to the Amazon, shouts out on its dust cover, “It was crazy, it was nuts, it was the adventure of a lifetime!” And that was an understatement. To Dana the oceanic portion was far more difficult than paddling a thousand miles up the Orinoco, but both feats amaze me. The only way to explain it is that the Starkells were strong canoeists in the finest Canadian tradition. What they could do with a paddle would astound you. Their top sprinting speed must have approximated that of Ginny and me in our Sea Pearl with our two-horse Honda, because we both barely made it up various minor rapids. But they did it straining with unfathomable endurance while we just held our motor’s twist grip wide open. There is no comparison. I rank Paddle to the Amazon up there with Endurance, about Shackleton’s voyage. Don has passed away but Dana now runs a music instruction business in Iowa.

In 1994 Beto Pandiani was part of an eight-man Brazilian team that crossed over it in two Hobie cats with outboard motors. He has written a book in Portuguese about it, Entretrópicos. The Nov/Dec 2021 issue of the Small Craft Advisor published an interview of him. I hadn’t heard of their Casiquiare transit until then.

In 2012 Ginny and I went over the Casiquiare in a 21-foot Sea Pearl sailboat with a sliding-seat rowing station and a two-horse Honda outboard. I knew about the connector from Paddle to the Amazon. Our new book, The Five-Year Voyage: Exploring Latin American Coasts and Rivers tells our experience.

The Casiquiare is beautiful beyond words. So why is the inter-connector so little-known? One reason is the rapids (and now a dam) between Puerto Ayacucho and Samariapo on the Orinoco. Only boats small enough for a forty-five-mile road portage can get past them. Another impediment is the rapids at Sáo Gabriel on the Rio Negro. We were able to shoot them going downstream but couldn’t have gone up them without portaging.

Another reason is that the inter-basin connector occurs where Brazil, Venezuela, and Colombia come together. To navigate through requires permissions from at least two of these countries. These aren’t easy to get. The Venezuelan authorities are especially uncooperative.

Finally, the region is swampy, buggy, and virtually uninhabited. It is probably the most remote part of South America. Along the first 170 miles of the Brazo Casiquiare Ginny and I saw not a single person or house on shore, and only two other boats on the water. When we finally saw people, near the Casiquiare’s mouth onto the Rio Negro, it was a Yanomami village. Ginny played with kids on the riverfront while a young man who spoke Spanish walked me in and showed me around. There was only one other person there. To quote from our new book: A young man, who spoke only Yanomami, was hypnotically chanting and dancing on the packed earth around which the thatched huts were circled. He wore paint on his face and arms. Short feather arrays projected from either side of his head. My guide said, “He is under the influence of a drug, a powder that one person blows into the nostrils of another. His song is for communicating with spirits.” The dancer stopped, picked up an open-top box with a wooden handle and small objects inside, and extended it toward us, offering the drug. My guide waved him away and we returned to the river.

To back up a bit, when Ginny and I got to Puerto Ayacucho, the man who made it happen for us was Virgilio Limpias, a medical doctor and part-time outfitter. He got us the permits and gasoline, and hauled us to Samariapo. “For thirty years I have guided people into the Amazonas,” he said, “and in all that time only two other parties have gone through in their own boats.”

“What do you remember about them?” I inquired.

He furrowed his brow. “One was a father-and-son team. I don’t remember their nationality.” (This must have been the Starkells. The timing works.) “The other was a French couple, I think.”

If the latter memory is correct there is a French couple I have no record of and Virgilio had forgotten about the Brazilian team. Or maybe Beto’s team had turned into a French couple in his memory. Eighteen years had gone by. In any case, Ginny and I are proud to be members of the “Brazo Casiquiare Club,” if you want to call it that. It’s a small group.

If you subtract those who used motors only one person is left: Dana Starkell. Dana is currently finishing up an autobiography of his father, and hopes to someday publish Don’s full 1400-page journal of their odyssey. “A lot dropped out when it got converted into a 316-page book,” he says. I can imagine.