The Rowboat

A modified Wayland Marine Merry Wherry 19-footer. The boat was chosen for its speed, minimum weight, dryness in rough water, and adaptability for modifications. A sleeping cabin has been built forward of the rowing compartment and constructed so as to make the boat self-righting as well as offering a high degree of watertight integrity to the hull. The forward cabin is fully padded so as to minimize injury in the likely event of a roll over in rough seas. An aft cabin has been built for gear storage and additional watertight integrity. There are six watertight compartments in the rowing section of the boat.

[Chris rowing]

Northern Reach is a modified Wayland Marine Merry Wherry sold in kit form from Wayland Marine of Anacortes WA. No changes to the hull have been made so the boat is the same boat anyone could purchase. The design has been around for years and is one that has a wide base of owners across the US. The boat is light, fast, easy to build- although I found one already build- and a pleasure to row. So how did I modify it?

I started by sanding off all of the interior varnish stem to stern to get down to bare wood. I then used the West System and epoxied a layer of 6 ounce cloth throughout the interior hull. I put two layers on the floor of the rowing compartment for added strength and 6 layers way up at the bow where the sea anchor u bolt comes through and is bolted to a stainless steel backing plate. All of the strain of riding to the sea anchor will be placed on the fine bow and I wanted to be sure that it was sufficiently reinforced.

I then lowered the rowing rig a half-inch by cutting into the ribs that support the rails of the rig. I also lowered the seat of the rowing rig by removing the standard wood seat, scribing a line on the aluminum frame of the seat supports- down about two inches- and carefully bending the two sides down at a right angle thus giving me a broad support for a half inch piece of marine grade plywood which I then glued a two inch thick slab of closed cell foam onto. The foam was then carved out so as to fit the contours of my sit bones.

[Chris working on boat]

The fore and aft cabins are constructed with a cedar strip core and covered inside and out with the same 6 ounce cloth and epoxy resin. Watertight hatches were constructed by laminating 3 pieces of ¼ inch marine grade plywood. Routering out a groove to accept a 3/8 inch piece of surgical tubing provided a reliable gasket for the hatches. I used ½ inch stainless steel through bolts and "T" toggles from our local hardware store for hatch "dogs". It was a lot less expensive and more satisfying than spending 300-400 dollars for yacht hatches.

The rowing deck compartments are built using the same plywood and epoxy stitch and glue method of construction. This provides six watertight compartments for ballast stowage - two-gallon water bags made by Outdoor Research - as well as reducing the amount of floodable space.

The rowing compartment deck is designed to enhance the "wave shedding" ability of the boat, again reducing the floodable space on board. It also gives me a place to mount the reverse card compass as well as allowing me to change the standard rowing rig and mount my own design of folding outriggers.

The folding outrigger design offers several advantages over the standard rowing rig. It allows me to swing the outriggers in after I've removed the oars so that I can tie up to a dock. It gets rid of the problem of bashing my knuckles in rough water as I reach forward for the next "grab". When the seas are even moderately rough, my knuckles sometimes hit the knobs that attach the cross members of the rowing rig. Ridding the boat of the standard supports for the outriggers also gives me a clean aft deck upon which I have mounted my compass.

The rudder assembly is another self-designed thing. I wanted the option of setting the rudder in a neutral position to extend the hull length and improve the tracking ability of the boat. I also wanted to be able to set the rudder at any angle so as to, for example, offset the effects of a quartering sea. The solution was to have one line with a section of bungee cord attached from the rudder and fixed to the aft deck. The other line does not have any bungee cord at all and passes through a jam cleat, allowing for fine settings against the "load" of the bungee.

The Oars

As part of sea trials a number of oar types were used. Different lengths, shapes & materials were tried & evaluated. This led to a collaboration with Mike Snook of Wayland Marine in the design & construction of a pair of hollow light weight wooden oars specifically for use in the long open water passages expected to be encountered in the voyage. Mike brings a passion to rowing boat building & design based on a lifetime of ocean sailing, rowing & paddling & a professional worldwide career building & designing large commercial fast ferries. The use of these new oars has resulted in a considerable increase in average boat speed & a reduction in the fatigue experienced by the rower.

[The original oars]

Originally, I was using a pair of carbon shaft oars designed for shell rowing with a blade that was heavily spooned and quite wide. The problem was in rough water the blades would get trapped in the waves as I recovered and reached forward for the next stroke. The rougher the water, the more frequent and frustrating the problem became. The blade design just wasn't working for open water rowing.

During my solo circumnavigation of Ireland, I remembered seeing the Irish currough fishermen using oars that looked like they had almost no blade to speak of- rather just a slight widening of the shaft. They reminded me of the Greenland style paddles versus the European style. I took my old oars and my ideas for a new design over to Mike and we started talking.

Mike is the kind of guy who listens well and then thinks outside the box. He heard my concerns, liked the idea of creating a longer, narrower blade, asked some questions about the center of pull regarding where the back of the blade was in relation to the shaft and then went back to his shop to work out the details. In less than a week he called and said my oars were ready to be picked up.

Here is what he did with my request for a set of oars… He basically used the technique that has been used for decades to build yacht masts. He built a hollow box beam using Douglas Fir and Western Red Cedar, tapering the four sides of the beam so they fit into the oarlocks nicely then taper slowly down to where the blades begin. The four sides are glued beautifully to form a work of wood art that seems to belong on the wall rather than in the water. He then laminated two thin veneers of marine plywood and pressed them into the desired curve to form the blades. He then altered my request for a certain width of the blade because it "just felt right" and then epoxied the blades onto the wooden shafts. My description of his work does absolutely no justice to the process but it gives a rough summary as to how the oars were made. The more important aspect of all this is how the oars feel in the water. They enter smoothly, pull evenly without any flutter and most importantly, they don't hang up in rough water as the old ones did. Thanks Mike!

Safety Features

Eight watertight compartments. Self-righting. Lightweight for speed during the longer open ocean crossings. Tethered oars. Spare oars. Boat to rower tether.

Rowboat Modifications

Work on the boat has, and will, continue up until the day it is loaded into the container. The amount of pre-trip work has been staggering - it probably sounds odd, but I had no idea of the number of details that would keep me up at night. Here are just some of the major projects:

My Navy diving school buddy Terry Hegwood sent me a box of "goodies" including a stainless steel swivel hook that locks shut for the sea anchor. It's the little things that will either save the day or trip you up when you least need it. I've made an identical bungee loaded sea anchor lead out of some tube webbing that Terry had sent earlier. He's spent his life on or under the water and appreciates safety and back-up systems for when things go wrong. I now have two complete sea anchor systems.

Another major thing on my "to do list" was my self-righting test two weekends ago. I asked several friends at the Port Angeles Sea kayak Symposium, who were already dressed in dry suits, to help me out. They were willing to wade out in four feet of water and while I was locked in the forward compartment, they rolled the boat over. Without any ballast, the boat came right back around. We did the test 7 or 8 times so I would know just how it feels if it were to happen on the trip. I have to say, it was far less traumatic than I had imagined it might be. The compartment is quite small so I can brace myself against the ceiling and easily stay in place. I asked them to hold the boat up-side-down so I could check for leaks and, in fact, found one where the gasket wasn't sealed - have to work on that today - April 28th.

By far the biggest project was the sliding seat change that I was dreading. I hadn't been very happy with the track system, which was all that was left of the original rowing rig - so I took everything out - the tracks and the aluminum foot stretcher (where my feet push off). I epoxied in a piece of 1/2 inch marine ply and set it at the same angle as the original stretcher, thereby cleaning up the area forward of my feet and simplifying the design. I had already fixed four in-line skate wheels to the bottom of the seat so I cut some aluminum channel for the wheels to ride in. After testing it on the water, I realized the wheels would rub if my weight wasn't perfectly distributed on the seat - dang it- another problem to fix. I left the boat at Howard's shop and spent the next couple of days thinking how to fix it. Two days later, I had an idea worked out and went to Howard's shop figuring I had at least a day of work ahead of me.

What I didn't know was that Howard had spent those two days redesigning the track, taking out the old one, welding up the new design and installing it - on his days off. I was shocked to look into the rowing compartment and see it ready to go. Then I sat in it and was blown away - there is absolutely no friction as the seat slides back and forth. Unlike the nylon wheels of old, there isn't any feel of the wheels riding on the aluminum - the key, Howard explained, was cutting a one inch aluminum thick-walled pipe down the middle and creating an exact groove for the wheels to ride in - simple, functional and clean. He also bent some aluminum and bolted it on in a way that traps the seat in the likely event of a capsize.

We took the boat out for a test - Howard rowing for the first time in his life and loving it, and me in my sea kayak. A half hour later the test was complete - it works perfectly. I took the boat out later in the day for a two hour work out. The difference is like night and day in the feel of the seat.

Another small but important project was sewing up a life line that I will wear anytime I am out of the forward compartment. As I sat in our living room carefully hand sewing everything, I knew that my life could well depend on the stitches I was pushing through the thick webbing. I also sewed a place for a knife to clip onto in case of entanglement.