The Practical Paddler
A First-Aid Kit for Your Boat and Gear
By Tamia Nelson
May 18, 2004
It happened in northern Québec on a fine
late-summer day. Dazzling sunlight winked on dancing waves. A warm breeze hissed
through the boughs of the stunted riverbank spruce. The evening was still a long
way off. There was plenty of time to kick back and savor the wild, lone land. No
need to rush. Yet Ken and Kathy were in a terrible hurry. They'd already been
bitten by too many black flies,
staggered across too many grueling portages, and missed too many showers. They
weren't having fun anymore. They wanted
out. A railroad bridge crossed the river not too many miles downstream, and
the weekly bush train was due in less than 24 hours. If they got to the crossing
before the train did, they'd soon be on their way home. But the clock was ticking.
So they started taking chances.
Around a bend in the river, we hit a short Class IV drop. Farwell and I got
ready to portage. Ken thought he and Kathy could line. "Piece of cake," he said.
"Faster, too." And so it was, until.
Halfway down, their Mad River Explorer
surged against the long stern painter, pulling Kathy off a precarious perch on a
refrigerator-sized rock. In a heartbeat, the canoe's upstream gunwale went under.
Kathy let go of the painter to keep from following the canoe. She and Ken had no
in their boat, and the lid on their big dry-box wasn't as well sealed as the
manufacturer had claimed. The Explorer filled with water, then shot downriver,
continuing its submarine journey until it wrapped a mid-channel boulder in a
clinging embrace. We could hear the crack of the ash gunwales above the roar of
Ken didn't lose any time. When we got to Kathy, he was already swimming away
from shore, groping from one eddy to the next until he reached his boat. There he
set to work salvaging their gear. I threw two lines out to Ken. He wrapped the
first one around the hull and tied it off on an intact thwart. Then he began
lashing packs to the second. Back on shore, we rigged a pulley on the first line
and prepared to pull the canoe off the rock. Out in midriver, Ken worked
feverishly. He soon had his camera bag tied onto the second line, along with a
rucksack, three of his four paddles, and irony of ironies both bailers. The
dry-box defeated him, however. He'd clipped the box's
corners into aircraft-cable loops rove through the Explorer's wooden gunwales. It
had always been a tight fit. Now that the gunwales were a splintered, twisted
wreck, the clips where under too much strain to open.
Luckily, Ken had a repair kit in his rucksack, and in the kit he had a pair of
pliers with a wire-cutter. The wire-cutter hadn't been designed to cut aircraft
cable, but it was all Ken had. Slowly, one strand at a time, he began cutting the
first of the wire loops that tied the waterlogged dry-box to his canoe. By the
time he'd finished, his hands were torn and bloody. Still, he figured it was worth
it. Only three clips now held the dry-box in place. Another spasm of effort freed
it from the second loop. The remaining clips were loose enough to open normally.
The dry-box soon joined the other packs on the line.
We hauled in the gear. Then we started on the boat. As we heaved, the tension
on the line that Ken had wrapped around the hull rolled the canoe over and then
eased it free. It swung toward shore. When we'd secured the canoe, Ken jumped off
the rock and began working his way back, buoyed up by the extra foam in his "Hi-Float" life
Happy ending? Not quite. Ken's hands were a mess. And his boat wasn't looking
much better. Its once-straight keel now formed a crooked "U," with the bottom of
the bilge bulging above the gunwales. Worse yet, each ash rail was broken in
several places. But Ken wasn't the type to give up easily. He carried his boat to
a more or less level patch on the river's cobble shore. Then he set it upright
or as near upright as it would go and began to dance a jig on the
protruding bilge, hopping up and down with all of his 200-odd pounds. Farwell
joined him. ABS-laminate is sturdy stuff. In just a few minutes, the wreck began
to look like a canoe again. Even the gunwales returned to something like their
While I coiled and
stowed the salvage lines, Kathy spread her gear out to dry in the last hours
of daylight. Later, as we set up a riverbank camp, Ken continued his first-aid
efforts. He trimmed the splintered rails with the large blade on his Swiss Army
knife, using the tiny file when he needed to. It was slow going, and we could
track his progress by the blood stains on the wood. Before long, however, the
cracked gunwales once again described smooth curves. Duct tape, wire, and splints
quarried from the "closet of the woods" finished the job. Next, Ken covered the
cracks in his boat's vinyl outer skin with more duct tape.
Now only a few final touches remained. Ken deployed his Swiss Army knife's
screwdriver to tighten the screws holding the Explorer's short decks to the
gunwales, while his ditty bag supplied a substitute for one screw that got away.
Loops of nylon cord replaced the aircraft cables that had cost Ken so much frantic
effort, and Skotch® fasteners brought the halves of a split paddle blade
together. A duct-tape bandage covered the join. By the time the last tinge of red
left the evening sky, the Explorer was a fair approximation of its old self: a bit
battered, to be sure, but ready to head downriver.
Come dawn, we were all on the water again. The worst of the rapids lay behind
us, and when the train sounded its whistle at the rail crossing, Ken and Kathy were
there to meet it. We helped them load their battered boat in the baggage car, then
waved goodbye as the engine pulled away. The last car of the train soon
vanished into the shadows of the forest. It had been a close-run thing. Ken's
and foresight had made all the difference. The lesson was obvious. Good paddlers
and Ken was a very good paddler, with thousands of miles of
whitewater under his keel sometimes make bad decisions. When they do, only
a narrow line separates triumph from tragedy. Make sure you end up on the right
side of that line. Even on short trips, carry a first-aid kit for your boat, as
well as for yourself. Sometimes Golden Pond has surprises every bit as as
unpleasant as Dangerous
River. Now let's take a look at what you might want to bring along.
The Right Tool for the Job
Tools are a large part of what makes us human. Without the right tool for the
job, simple tasks become difficult and difficult tasks are all but impossible.
Each trip is different, of course, and each boat has unique requirements. So take
only what you need. Here are some suggestions to get your started:
- Knife The ur-tool. Don't leave home without one. Or two. I
always carry a sheath knife or folder on my person, but I also have a Swiss Army
knife in my repair kit. Not too many days go by when I don't use it. A thin
layer of petroleum jelly on the blades helps keep the
stainless steel stainless, even around salt water.
- Pliers As most anglers learn early in their lives,
fingers have their limitations. A light pair of needle-nose pliers from my
fly-tying kit comes along on every trip. They've already helped repair stuttering
stoves, restored zipper pulls that ran off the rails at the height of blackfly
season, and mended Farwell's eyeglasses and I keep finding new uses for
- Wire Cutters Handy if you use wire-loop tie-downs, or if you ride your
bike to the put-in. Be warned, though: the wire cutters on most needle-nose
pliers are for light-duty use only. Farwell just picked up a sturdy diagonal
cutter at the local dollar shop for you guessed it one dollar, and
the price included a companion pair of needle-nose pliers. They ain't pretty, but
the two of them are light enough to take along on any trip. And they work!
- Open-End or Box-End Wrenches Some stove repairs are
impossible without the right wrench, as is most work on outboard motors and bikes.
Take only the sizes you need.
- Screwdrivers When you've got to drive a screw and you don't
have a screwdriver, you're
screwed. Many Swiss Army knives have a
good assortment. If yours doesn't, take what you need straight, Phillips,
or Allen (hex-head) in sizes that fit your screws. And don't forget a
jeweler's screwdriver for your eyeglasses, if you wear them.
- Awl Swiss Army knives have 'em. They're useful for boring
holes in wood or plastic to take a wire tie, say, or to stop a crack in a
polyethylene hull from growing. An awl is also handy for putting new holes in your
belt when the summer's three-mile portages start eating into your winter
Flashlight A headlamp is best. In fact, it's just about
essential if you have to do repairs after the sun goes down, or if you need to
find a leak hidden away in a dark corner of your kayak. Holding a flashlight in
your teeth gets old in a hurry. The new LED lights are very light and usually
plenty bright. There's a bonus, too: the batteries last just about forever.
- Magnifying Eyeglasses These aren't just for middle-aged
eyes. Even if you have perfect vision, the magnifying glasses sold in every
drugstore and dollar shop make it easier to locate tiny screws. They help the
navigator see the small letters on her GPS display, too, not to mention the
minuscule print on some topographic maps and charts. I have several pairs tucked
away in various places repair kit, medical kit, and rucksack,
not to mention my bike's bar-bag.
- Scissors It's easier to shape a patch with a sharp pair
of scissors than a sheath knife and scissors make trimming your toenails
less bloody, into the bargain.
- Speedy Stitcher® or Sailmaker's Palm. One of these
travels in my
ditty bag. Always.
Whew! Are you worried you'll need another boat just to carry your tools? Relax.
Nowadays, even Nessmuk could
find a tool kit light enough to suit him. I used to think that the popular
"multi-tools" were toys. But I was wrong. The ingenious devices made by
Leatherman®, Gerber, and others have won over millions of sportsmen and
outdoorswomen for some very good reasons. They're functional and compact, and
there's one for almost any need (or budget). In time, they may even replace the
Swiss Army knife in my affections.
Whatever tools you carry, however, they won't do you much good if you can't
find them when you need them. A nylon tool roll (look in surplus outlets and
hardware stores), stuff sack, or plastic box will keep everything in one place.
Make sure it's packed where you can get at it easily.
Of course, tools are only part of the picture. You'll also need
In the days of sail, the bo's'n (boatswain) was the man who looked after the
ship's canvas, rigging, and ground tackle. Even today, on naval vessels and
merchantmen alike, the bo's'n has direct charge of all work on deck. Your canoe or
kayak may not be a supertanker or a ship-of-the-line, but it still needs a bo's'n.
And the bo's'n is no better than his stores. Be sure you always have what you need
to repair your boat. Here are a few ideas:
- Duct Tape If the Swiss Army knife is the universal tool,
duct tape is the universal repair material. It binds, seals, splints, and
protects. Quality counts here. If the adhesive won't stick to just about anything,
the tape is useless. The best I've used is "90 MPH Tape," sold mostly
through military surplus
outlets. It sticks like a tick and hangs tight day after day. Stow it in a
plastic bag to keep the edges of the roll from sticking to everything in your
- Rip-Stop Repair Tape Not a substitute for duct tape
it's much more expensive, for one thing but handy for repairing
tents, tarps, anoraks, and spray skirts.
- Nuts-'n'-Bolts Can Think of this as the bo's'n's
counterpart to a shooter's "possibles bag." Nuts go missing. Screws unscrew.
Washers rust away. A small tin holding a good selection of nuts, bolts, and
washers to fit your seats, foot braces, rudder assembly, and stove can be a
trip-saver. If you'll be traveling very far off the beaten track and relying on a
rudder, a spare rudder cable (with all the necessary fittings) makes good
sense, too, though it won't fit in a film can.
- Plastic Cable Ties Also known as "zip-ties," these sturdy
composite ties give duct tape a run for its money in the versatility stakes,
despite the fact that zip-ties can't cover a crack in your boat's hull. They make
great semi-permanent lashing loops, and they do a fine job securing splints to
gunwales and paddle shafts. You can even use them as temporary substitutes for
missing seat-bolts. They can't be reused, though, so bring a dozen or more
and don't use them to secure anything you'll need to get at in a hurry! The
only way to undo a cable tie is to cut it, and that's not as easy as it sounds.
- Wire "Soft" steel wire will do many of the jobs that
cable ties do, and more besides. But it takes a little longer to twist it into
place, and you need pliers to cut it to size.
- Nylon Parachute Cord Another maid-of-all-work. Use it for
clothes lines, and bootlaces. You can even use it to lash a
split paddle shaft.
- Wetsuit Repair Kit You don't want your wetsuit to be too
wet, do you? A square of neoprene and a tube of contract cement make repairs a
- Skotch® Fasteners You probably won't find any in
your local Big Box outlet, but many rural hardware stores have a box or two of
these staples-on-steroids tucked away somewhere. They're just the ticket for
emergency repairs to split wooden paddle blades.
And now for Job One:
A Hull Repair Kit
No one needs to be be reminded that wood-canvas canoes, foldboats, and
are vulnerable to cuts and scrapes. But not even ABS-vinyl laminates
and polyethylene are indestructible. When duct tape isn't enough to get you
back on the water, you need the right stuff to stick the pieces of your boat
together again. Most manufacturers sell hull repair kits for every type of boat
they make. Buy one. Be sure that the kit has plenty of material, however, and that
the adhesive is fresh.
Just how much material fabric (or plastic sheet) and glue is
enough? That depends. How big is your boat? If your trusty craft were torn in two,
would you have enough of everything to make it whole again? Unless the answer is
an unequivocal "Yes," you'll want to beef up your kit's contents. Anytime you need
a hull repair kit, you usually need it bad. This isn't the best time to discover
that the epoxy has "gone off," or that the kit contains only a couple of six-inch
squares of fiberglass cloth. Be sure you have enough of the indispensable little
things, too: measuring and mixing cups, applicators, and sandpaper. And read the
instructions. Twice. They may contain a few surprises. If you have a poly boat,
you'll probably need a propane torch, for example. (A Svea stove makes
a workable substitute if you wear heavy gloves and always hold the stove
right side up, that is.)
It's possible to assemble your own hull repair kit from scratch, of course, but
make sure you know what to get. Unless you've done a lot of repair work, you'll
need help. Ask the manufacturer's advice, just to be on the safe side.
We've all heard about the old woodsman who spent weeks in the backcountry
with only a knife, a skillet, and a wool blanket. And I've known a few
who could. But times have changed. Maybe we have, too. I bring my knife and my
skillet, but I don't stop there. I want to leave the woods in the boat that brung
me. The right tools and a good selection of bo's'n's stores make this easy. Don't
leave home without them!
Copyright © 2004 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights