The Practical Paddler
A New Seat for an Old Canoe
By Tamia Nelson
September 22, 2009
It's usually a mistake to play the "favorites" game, but my Old Town Pack canoe might just be my favorite boat of all time. I admit she's starting to show her age. In fact, she's been floating me around backcountry waters for almost a quarter of a century now. I christened her Grebe on her maiden voyage, and the name has stuck. She's chunky, to be sure, but she's as seaworthy as her namesake, and she has a remarkable turn of speed. She also tracks well, bobs jauntily over big waves, and weathers hard blows with confidence. Yet she's still small enough to thread her way through the reeds and snags of secluded inlets. I think of her as a mini all‑rounder. She's carried me down Class II‑III rapids, across choppy lakes, up alder‑choked creeks, and into the remote beaver ponds where herons and brookies both thrive. Not surprisingly, she's my first choice for day trips — and often for longer getaways, too. Nor is she just a fair‑weather friend. By making the most of late winters and early springs, I've paddled her in every month of the Adirondack year. And if all this weren't enough, she makes an excellent platform for wildlife‑watching, photography, sketching, and simply messing about.
Of course, even the busiest boats spend much of their time out of the water. Grebe's no exception, and for most of her days ashore, she's been stored outside on a wooden rack, protected from sun and snow only by the overhanging eaves of a shed. True, she once did a short stint as a coffee table inside a lakeside cottage, and she also spent several years suspended from the rafters of a small boathouse. But these were exceptions. Mostly, she's watched the seasons change from a vantage point in the open air. She certainly hasn't led a sheltered life, and she's got the scars to prove it. Her hull has long since lost its showroom shine, and it sports more than a few white scabs of pine pitch, while her once silver‑gray bilge is now a mottled black, testimony to the incremental, grinding wear and tear of sandy boots and muddy packs. The ABS decks and vinyl rails are in good shape, though, and the hull still flexes and rebounds reassuringly when I misjudge the depth of water flowing over a rock (as I do all too often). The ash thwart and seat frame are in great shape, too. Occasional touch‑ups with marine varnish see to that.
There's one exception to this happy state of affairs, however. The years of sun, wind, and water have not been kind to Grebe's woven cane seat, and just this spring it gave up the ghost. Farwell was the first to discover the problem. He did it the hard way when he took Raven — that's Grebe's sister ship, an identical Old Town Pack canoe — out for a morning paddle, early in the season. The seat looked OK to him when he hoisted Raven onto his shoulder for the short carry to The River, and the wavelets played a delightful tune on her bow as he lowered her into the water. But then he settled his rump onto the cane seat, and the music stopped abruptly, its place taken by…
The Sound of Shredding
Don't get me wrong. Woven cane is great stuff — a clear improvement on the plastic slabs that afflict all too many modern canoes. Cane is airy and comfortable, and water drains effortlessly through the open weave. It's also attractive, a pleasing retro touch on an otherwise state‑of‑the‑art boat. And it's light. But nothing's perfect, and nothing lasts forever. Cane is easily cut, and it becomes brittle after years of exposure to sun and wind. True, a service life of twenty‑odd years isn't exactly cause for complaint. Still, Farwell wasn't feeling very charitable this last April, as he sat in his little canoe in a shallow bay on The River, with the cheeks of his bum wedged uncomfortably between the seat frame's crossmembers. Extracting himself was easy. Now, however, he faced a dilemma: Give up the idea of paddling for the day and head back up the hill to effect repairs? Or carry on? He chose the latter, kneeling against the seat's forward thwart while stretching first one leg and then the other out in front of him, in order to alleviate the inevitable tingling and ease the strain on his damaged knees.
Later on in the day, back at Base, he got to work on a temporary repair. Lacking a suitable sheet of cane — the cane in the Pack canoe's seat is anchored by splines forced into milled grooves in the frame — he made do with the materials at hand, weaving an improvised seat from a length of cotton‑sheathed nylon clothesline. It wasn't the cordage he'd have chosen, but it was what he had. And here's the result:
Not so bad, is it? Even elegant, in its way. And best of all, five months on, it's holding up well. In short, the makeshift seat does the job. "Improvise. Adapt. Overcome." Farwell would be the first to admit he's forgotten a lot over the years, but he isn't likely to forget that.
Which explains why I found myself pulling Grebe down from her rack not long afterward. My seat hadn't yet failed, but I didn't see any reason to wait for it to let me down. In fact, I figured I could go Farwell one better, anticipating the problem rather than reacting to a fait accompli. First, though, I swabbed Grebe inside and out with warm sudsy water, removing several years' accumulation of grime, along with a small wasps' nest under the bow peak. (Grebe may be a solo canoe, but that doesn't mean I'm always alone in her!) Then — thinking that Farwell's cane seat had become brittle because it had dried out over the winter — I tried soaking Grebe's cane to see if I could restore its lost resilience, with this result:
It looks good, doesn't it? I thought so, too. And I congratulated myself on my foresight. That said, appearances can be deceiving. A hard thrust with my fist was all it took to spoil the picture. When push came to shove, the cane tore, pulling away from the seat frame with alarming ease. Well, I reasoned, it was better for this to happen now than in the middle of some remote beaver pond. But it left me with the job of…
Weaving a New Seat
And I hadn't thought to order a replacement sheet of cane before beginning my impromptu program of destructive testing. (Foresight? Ha!) Despite this, I was becoming impatient. I didn't want to wait for a new cane insert to arrive, only to have to give up another afternoon to the fussy job of trimming and fitting and waiting for glue to dry. I wanted to get out on the water. Now. Not tomorrow. Now. So, with the example of Farwell's ad hoc repair fixed firmly in my mind, I rummaged around in my bag of tricks. I didn't find any more clothesline — Farwell had used the last of that — but I did find something even better: two 50‑foot skeins of parachute cord. Not the seven‑strand‑core milspec stuff. Just some cheapo hollow‑braid nylon. But it was good enough, I figured. I had what I needed to weave my new seat.
First, though, I had to remove what remained of the old one, and this meant not just cutting off the cane, but also chiseling out the glued splines and cleaning up the spiky bits of broken cane protruding from the milled grooves. Which was exactly what I did.
It wasn't easy. Old Town builds their seats to last. But I persevered, and when I thought that the last splinter had been cleared from the last groove, I began weaving. To start, I took two turns around the seat's starboard crossmember, securing them with a reef knot. (Why "starboard" rather than "right‑hand"? Easy. Right becomes left when you turn around, but starboard is always starboard.) Then I ran the cord under the seat's stern thwart and back around over the top…
Before weaving the cord under the front thwart and bringing it up and around again. I then continued in this vein across the hole in the seat frame, weaving elongated figure‑eights around the seat thwarts, until…I ran out of cord.
Luckily, I was almost halfway across, and I had a second 50‑foot skein in reserve. So I just tied off the end of the first cord, using a round turn with two half‑hitches, backed up with a stopper knot:
Then I began weaving figure‑eights again with the second skein, working from the port side of the seat frame toward the middle, and tying off the end in the same way. In a fit of aesthetic frenzy, I also replaced the splines in the exposed seat‑frame crossmembers, but not before discovering a number of spiky bits I'd missed on the first go‑round.
I gouged these out with tip of my Gerber River Runner knife. It's a recent purchase, and this was its first real test. (I'm happy to say that it passed with flying colors.) Finally, when I'd removed the last jagged fragment of cane, I pressed the splines into place and sat down on a stump to give my aching back a rest and admire my handiwork.
Not too bad a job, eh? Even if the cord on the near (starboard) side is darker than that on the port. (I dropped the first skein of cord into a puddle of dirty water in the bilge.) No matter. Time will even the score.
Now here's a shot from directly above:
I must say I'm happy with the result. What began as an exercise in improvisation ended in something a lot more lasting, and while I'm sure I'll restore the cane eventually, I'm more than satisfied with its interim replacement. Grebe's woven seat is strong, it drains water readily, and it's cool on hot days. Moreover, it's as comfortable as the original cane. I've no complaints.
Improvise. Adapt. Overcome. You don't have to tell that to the Marines. They invented it. The good news? It works for paddlers, too. When the seat in my pack canoe threatened to let me down, I didn't reach for my credit card. I grabbed some parachute cord, instead, and in little more than an hour, I'd woven a brand‑new seat for my boat. It may not look as pretty as the cane seat it replaced, but I think it still looks pretty good. And it does the job.
Not even Gunny Highway would ask for more than that.
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