A Question of Balance
Outriggers and the Canoeist
By Tamia Nelson
April 26, 2011
A small group of Pacific islanders pushes a canoe off the beach and points the bow toward the open ocean. Their destination? A land beyond the horizon, a tiny speck in the vast sea, known only from ancient tales retold by village elders. Now picture the islanders' craft in your mind's eye. Big by the standards of modern recreational canoes, it's all but lost in the wild immensity of wave and wind, a narrow dart launched at an invisible target, guided to its eventual landfall by the steersman's knowledge of stars and swells and seabirds. Nothing else. No GPS. No compass. Not even a chart.
And then there is the sea itself. Dead calm one day. Blowing a gale the next, with waves taller than the hills of the boat crew's island home, marching in serried ranks across a boundless waste of water. How can any canoe survive in such a sea? How, indeed? Few modern paddlers would brave the open ocean in a canoe. Conscious of the ease with which a single dumping wave can swamp even a well‑designed boat, we cross big lakes with trepidation, knowing that PFDs and float bags can go only so far in keeping us from harm. A canoe is a long, lean, round‑bottomed (more or less) craft. That makes it fast and agile, to be sure, but these virtues come at a cost. Canoes are not textbook examples of form stability.
So just how did early islanders in open canoes survive thousand‑mile treks across the somewhat ill‑named Pacific Ocean? Part of the answer can be found in one word:
The lives of the early Austronesian peoples were centered on the sea, and they needed seaworthy craft. The outrigger canoe filled the bill admirably, combining speed under paddle with stability under sail. And like many revolutionary innovations, the concept was a straightforward one: lash a single float to a pair of spars projecting from the hull. (The float is often called an ama; the spars, akas. The former word is Polynesian; the latter, Micronesian.) Drag increases when you add an outrigger, though not by very much. But stability increases dramatically. A typical open canoe is, well, tippy. An outrigger canoe can be as stable as a diving float.
Of course, there's no reason why you have to stop at one outrigger. Larger canoes often boasted two, and the largest of all were true double‑hulled craft, ancestors of the modern catamaran. These were the dreadnoughts of the Austronesian world, sailing ocean routes stretching from Madagascar to Maui. Yet the outrigger canoe is a strikingly simple design, and it's no surprise that it continues in use today, both as a working boat and a recreational craft. Here's an example from Samoa (the photo is copied from an original at the Wikimedia Commons):
It's also no surprise that the outrigger's virtues have become known in places far removed from its Austronesian birthplace. Quite a few folks have written to me over the years, asking what I thought about the idea of an outrigger canoe. Some were anglers who wanted to be able to cast a line while standing up, without risking a dunking. Others were photographers looking for a stable platform that allowed them to concentrate on framing a shot. And still others just wanted to take the kids — and maybe a big, active dog, as well — out for an afternoon on the lake without having to worry about capsizing. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to offer much in the way of help, my experience with outriggers being very nearly zero. All I could do was point the letter‑writers toward Paddling.net's Message Boards, where outriggers are a frequent topic of conversation. But then I heard from Lance Katzfey. He wrote around an earlier article, in which I discussed the relative merits of canoes, kayaks, and sit‑on‑tops. Lance thought I'd left a fourth alternative out, and he was right: I'd said nothing about outrigger canoes. He wasn't asking for advice, though. As his letter made clear, he didn't need any.
Here's some of what he had to say:
I read your article on picking only one of the three types of boats, but I have a different proposal. My wife and I used to have a standard canoe, but it was tippy and didn't handle wind very well. I made a 16‑foot outrigger canoe which works much better. The narrow main hull cuts through the water and resists sliding sideways in any wind. The outrigger hull also resists sliding sideways with a crosswind and adds a lot of stability. My canoe is much more stable than a regular canoe. The ama goes on and off using Fastpins, and the process only take a few minutes.
Lance's canoe is a real beauty, too. But you don't have to take my word for it. You can see for yourself:
Our correspondence continued over the next few weeks, and in subsequent letters, Lance told me more about how he came to build his present boat, shedding light on a number of critical design elements:
The first strip‑built outrigger I made 16 years ago was 19 feet long and had three seats. It was based on Hawaiian canoes, with a fine front and full back sections. For a short canoe this didn't work so well, and I had to add a skeg to improve the tracking. The canoe was decked on the bow and stern, and rather heavy. It went through a number of improvements mostly to improve the mounting of the crossbeams. I sold this canoe to someone who regularly uses it for fishing in the ocean off La Jolla.
So after a few years I designed a new canoe [that's it in the photo above – Editor]. To lighten it from my original design, I left off the decking, made it shorter, and outfitted it with two seats. The redwood is finished with an inside and outside layer of fiberglass and epoxy. The bottom actually has three layers of glass for wear resistance. The epoxy and glass end up almost clear after curing so it looks like varnish. I varnished the rub rails and they are showing some need for maintenance. The epoxy is still looking great, and I store the canoe with a cover to protect it from the sun.
The canoe weighs about 85 pounds, and I can pick it up and carry it using the crossbeams. To improve the tracking I made the bow fuller and the stern narrower with little rear rocker. I still have the forms I used to make it. I used inside and outside forms with wedges so the hull has no staple holes.
This canoe is 12 years old, and has been used at La Jolla shores several times, where there were no problems going through small surf. I have surfed it there solo, and we've even taken it out to the ocean through the Mission Bay channel, with the large powerboat wakes found there. It handles small surf and waves well because of the narrow hull and high freeboard.
The first photo clearly shows the generous freeboard. Now here's Lance's canoe on the beach:
The ama is built up from laminated 1‑inch stock — mostly redwood — and then given its final shape with a plane. But fitting the ama was just the start. There's a knack to getting the most out of an outrigger canoe, as this excerpt from one of Lance's letters demonstrates:
Half of the stability of an outrigger is the weight of the ama. If you lean to the side of the ama to lower it, the ama sinks slowly and you have time to adjust. If you lean away to lift the ama, the canoe will tip over quickly once the ama leaves the water. With maximum load in the canoe, the main hull should be level or slightly leaning towards the ama. The canoe is very stable as long as you insure the ama is in the water. While we have never capsized this canoe accidentally, I did a test to see how easy it is to right. When capsized, sink the ama and right the canoe. The boat is very stable even when full of water. It is then easy — though time‑consuming — to bail out the water and then climb back into the canoe from the ama side.
As you might expect from the foregoing, the akas — they're the crosspieces joining the ama to the canoe, remember? — are critical structural elements. They must be both strong and rigid, with all fastenings made as nearly bombproof as possible. The reason for this is obvious. Seeing your ama part company from your hull in the middle of an open‑water crossing would put a decided damper on any day's fun. Here's how Lance describes the akas' design:
The picture below shows the clamp on the outrigger [port] side. This fits on top of the gunwale, and the pin inserts into a stainless‑steel tube in the hull. The wooden "wings" keep the crosspiece from rotating, and the projecting ridge solidly grips the hull.
Lance also epoxied a stainless‑steel plate (not visible in the picture above) to the hull, further reinforcing the join. In fact, he reinforced all the joins with stainless‑steel plates. Now here's a photo showing the underside of the clamp, giving a clear view of the lateral "wings" and the projecting flange:
Lance has shown similar attention to detail in designing the critical connection between aka and ama. In the photo below, note the stainless‑steel L‑bracket and the tethered fast pin. ("Fastpins" or "fast pins" are also known as ball detent pins. While somewhat less secure than wired clevis pins, they're much quicker to place and remove. To prevent loss — stainless steel doesn't float! — all the fast pins on Lance's canoe are tethered.) The milled slot at the end of each aka fits snugly over a tenon on the ama, after which the clamp is secured with the fast pin.
Here are close‑ups of one of the tenons on the ama …
And of the fitted clamp:
The fast pins make it easy to remove the ama and akas for transport or storage. They're the key to this elegant adaptation of an ancient craft to modern conditions.
Lastly, before we take our leave of Lance, he invites us to make …
A Quick Tour of the Garage …
Where another innovative craft is on display. Lance used his tandem redwood stripper as a mold for a second canoe: a two‑piece, breakdown epoxy‑glass boat that can be carried inside a van!
And it, too, is an outrigger canoe, with a laminated basswood‑and‑mahogany ama. Remarkably, only two fast pins are needed to join the halves, yet the boat is capable of taking a small Honda outboard for those days when the Old Woman proves implacable. It sure looks like all of Lance's boats are as versatile as they are beautiful, doesn't it?
Canoes are wonderful, go‑anywhere craft. But they're not barges. In fact, they're rather tippy. It's skilled handling rather than hull form that makes them seaworthy. But there are times and places when skill is simply not enough. Luckily, there's a way to improve a canoe's stability without turning it into a barge. Just add an outrigger. You can buy one, or you can make your own, as paddler Lance Katzfey did. But he didn't stop with the outrigger. He also built the canoe to go with it. In fact, he built several. How did he do it? It's all a question of balance.
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