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May, 2005
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Everglades Challenge in the Rob Royoid Canoe
By Matt Layden

 

 

 

 

 

 

Everglades Challenge
in the Rob Royoid Canoe

By Matt Layden (aka Wizard)

History

There was once a guy named John MacGregor. He was a British barrister, and an outdoorsman at a time (1860's) when that pass-time of the emerging middle-class was just starting to be respectable. His friends nicknamed him 'Rob Roy' in honor of the famous Scots outlaw. After trying a few outdoorsy pursuits that didn't quite do it for him, MacGregor went to a boat builder in the south of England and had a wooden decked canoe built, like none that had been seen before.

MacGregor named his canoe Rob Roy (it isn't clear whether for himself or the famous outlaw...). It was lapstrake planked of oak on elm framing, with a cedar deck and a moderately large cockpit with skirt. He propelled it with an Inuit-inspired double bladed paddle, then little known in Europe, and with a small, very light lug sloop rig. When it was ready, he set off on a pleasant summer-long cruise of German rivers and lakes.

After using it in far and various waters for several months, MacGregor had learned a great deal about his boat and how he used it, and the next winter he had a new canoe built, shorter, narrower and lighter, that he used for the following season's travels. He continued this pattern for a number of years, building a new boat each winter and touring in it in summer, as his ideas and experience evolved. After experimenting with narrower boats, the beam stabilized at 28", which became standard for the type for decades to come. Interestingly to me, each boat was shorter than the one before. The last and I think best of them was 12.5 feet long, 28" beam, 13" depth, with a rounded bow profile, deep upright stern, and a gentle, rising sheer. This boat, or a close copy of similar age (no one is sure), is now at the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut, and has been my favorite boat to visit there since I was too small to see over the railings.

This is history, recorded in MacGregor's four books of touring adventures through Europe and the Middle East (http://www.rtpnet.org/robroy/books/jm/TM.HTM and other web sources), and by contemporaries who avidly took up the type of boat and the style of voyaging that he described. The rapid growth of the movement led to formation of the Royal Canoe Club in Britain, and the American Canoe Association in the US; both continue today strong as ever. Canoes that became known as 'Rob Roy' type: stable, seaworthy, comfortable small paddling boats that could sail passably, were gradually outnumbered and replaced by their offspring, which tended to be longer, wider and heavier, driven by desire to sail more and paddle less. Day racing in protected waters took off. Eventually (1890's) the boats morphed into such extreme, unsafe and expensive racing machines that interest dropped and the decked sailing canoe receded into the past. Over a hundred years later, there's an evolutionary gap between MacGregor's historical orphan and today's paddling craft. They have their roots in different centuries, different cultures. But I think the old Rob Roy type has merits that make it worth another look for many paddlers in our time.

2004

What first got me into WaterTribe is the 'anything goes' approach to boat choice. Any boat you can drag off the beach is level with everything else. Sea kayaks, racing canoes, outriggers, high-volume cruising canoes with and without sailing rigs, fast-sailing beach catamarans, even good size monohull sailboats like the Sea Pearl 21, all start together and follow the same 300 mile course through a variety of coastal conditions. Performance is directly comparable across the whole fleet, overall and by class. It's a small boat designer's dream event: you can try out any off-the-wall concoction against a known quantity of similar and dissimilar boats, and get rapid feedback on relative performance as well as before and after opinions from a range of experts.


The Rob Royoid

For the 2004 WaterTribe Everglades Challenge (St Petersburg to Key Largo), I made a new 13.5' long by 28" wide by 15" deep decked canoe (you're welcome to call it a kayak, the definition is loose enough to fit) as a development of a couple of my previous designs that I had liked but thought needed improvement. It's similar in size and capacity to the average Rob Roy of 140 years ago, but of a simplified single-chine hull form for easier glass-over-plywood construction. This loosely 'Rob Royoid' shape forces some compromises to the traditional Rob Roy hull form: it's narrower on the waterline and a bit finer in the ends, which probably makes for a faster paddling boat but reduces sail-carrying power. Life is full of tradeoffs. She keeps the Rob Roy's easy bow and deep, plumb sternpost with vee'd sections for good tracking. I gave her a single balance lug sail of about 15 square feet, positioned clear of the paddle stroke to permit efficient paddle-sailing (like motor-sailing in bigger sailboats) in light winds. As built, she had no rudder and was propelled and steered by a double paddle.

Competing in that year's Challenge proved the Rob Royoid's abilities for my purpose. She easily carried the generous week's worth of supplies and camping gear with volume and buoyancy to spare. She was easy to paddle at my comfortable 3- to 4-knot cruising speed, and would readily get up and surf in a following sea, steering lightly and tracking straight. She was dry and forgiving, very non-technical to paddle or sail. I slept aboard at anchor most nights, to save the time and effort of finding a campsite. Her stability made it possible to take care of most daily housekeeping chores while afloat: digging out and stowing away sleeping bag and night things, changing clothes, preparing simple food (though I didn't try cooking aboard). I took the optional Wilderness Waterway route through the Everglades for fun and glory: the coveted gator tooth award; and finished 6th overall in a field of 26, 4th in Class 3 (canoes and kayaks with unlimited sailing rigs), in a time of four and a half days.

2005

For the 2005 EC, I made some changes, to try out a couple ideas toward an even better cruising canoe. I cut a notch out of the lower part of the stern and filled the lost hull surface with an integral trim rudder having the same profile shape as the original hull. The rudder shaft enters the boat through a seal above the waterline and takes an inside tiller connected to sliding foot pedals. The rudder lets me use a single blade paddle efficiently as advocated by the late Verlen Kruger and his disciples, to cut wind drag and body stress from the heavier double blade (which is demoted to a spare to be used in extreme conditions when it might be necessary to brace on either side quickly). Also the rudder allows hands-free sailing, so the boat keeps on course and moving along while the crew attends to other duties.

I cut the sail down to 10.5 square feet, just under the limit for WaterTribe's Class 1 (canoes and kayaks with down-wind sails under 1 square meter). The larger sail had been useful at times, but the original spars were hard to stow (below deck, shoved up into the bow in a crevice between buoyancy bag and sheer batten). The smaller sail is a good compromise between paddle-sailing in light air and needing to reef more in stronger wind. It sets up and stows quickly, reefs easily and moves the boat nicely whenever the wind is near or aft of the beam. It isn't worth much upwind, but without a leeboard (per Class 1 rules) that's no surprise. You can always paddle a canoe upwind faster than it could be sailed, so there's little incentive to develop a really efficient upwind canoe rig unless you race in sailing-only events.


Peace River Departure

So, the end of February 2005 found me laying in supplies and packing dry bags again. I'd been wanting to check out the Peace River in west central Florida for a long time. My wife Karen had the weekend before the EC available, so we made a short trip over to the Peace River Campground in Arcadia and stayed overnight by the riverside in their 'wilderness' area. We paddled together a few miles up river Saturday afternoon and found it quiet and pretty, easy slow water except for a short rocky stretch. Sunday dawned rainy. I loaded my boat under a tarp, made my goodbyes and I was off downstream on a rising river in the rain.

The wild, undeveloped river offered easy traveling, but showed clear signs of last year's Hurricane Charlie: blow downs, many live oaks and cypress stripped of branches but coming back. By mid- afternoon the wind settled in to blow 20 to 25 knots from the south, right on my nose. Later the rain broke up in a series of squalls and the sky began to clear. A sandy bit of riverbank berm in a swampy bend offered a fine campsite. Wind was light next day down the widening lower Peace to Punta Gorda, then came up from the west as my course turned that way across Charlotte Harbor in the afternoon. I finished the day at a small shell mound in the mangroves a mile south of Placida. Tuesday the wind had shifted to northwest as my course turned that way along the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway and Wednesday it continued moderate from north as I worked up Sarasota Bay and across lower Tampa Bay to Fort Desoto Park on Mullet Key.

In all I had ample practice going upwind with the new single blade paddle in this pre-race warm-up, and found it as advertised to be low drag and light, easy on wrists and shoulders. Boat stability was fine and there was no call for bracing or gymnastics in the 7-mile bay crossing into and across 3-foot spilling chop. The rudder worked fine, letting me paddle a plain forward stroke continuously on the windward side in rough going, or switch sides as desired in flat water to vary the work.

Thursday morning I walked into St Petersburg for last-minute fresh food. Friday was the usual enjoyable pre-race day of renewing friendships and meeting new friends, rigging boats, viewing boats, talking boats, last minute instructions from the Chief and race volunteers Dennise (SandDollar), Leon (DrKayak) and Dexter (TABA). It went by too quickly, and I spent another night anchored on the flats north of Mullet Key. Before dawn I paddled down to the start beach and hauled up beside the other boats, ready to be off.

Saturday

The 2005 WaterTribe Everglades Challenge got under way shortly after first light in perfect weather: sunny with scattered light cloud, gentle northwest wind, flat water. I set sail as soon as I cleared the launching melee and paddle-sailed down wind across Tampa Bay in a loose clump of canoes and kayaks. I watched the back end of NiteNavigator and RoadkillMama's Kruger double from an ever-receding perspective as they kept up an economical but relentless pace that my shorter boat couldn't quite match even with the sail's boost. Tidal currents favored the inside route this day; it didn't seem worth going after the potential better winds and lighter powerboat traffic out in the Gulf of Mexico, so I headed inside of Anna Maria Island with the pack. Some of the original paddling group stayed in sight through the narrower waters of the Intracoastal Waterway, but quickly dispersed on entering wide Sarasota Bay.

The day went by pleasantly; a chance to talk with a few of the other Challengers: Water Rose, Shallow Minded, Doooobrd, Raptor and Docsalot; as we made our way southward down heavily populated bays, creeks and canals. Near sunset in Lemon Bay I phoned in my position to Karen and put on polypropylene long johns against a slight chill. The wind remained light but favorable and I was glad to be able to paddle-sail all the way to Checkpoint 1 in Placida, where I clocked in at 2230. Traded news briefly with Dennise & Leon, Ridgerunner & Greybeard, and several others who were passing through or finishing up their day, then got back in the boat and sailed down Gasparilla Sound and a ways into Pine Island Sound, anchoring off the east side of Useppa Island around 0130. With my end-of-day rituals well practiced on the Peace River warm-up, there was no wasted time getting settled and soundly to sleep.

Sunday

Overslept, must have been tired (...?), quite light out though the sun not yet up as I stowed for sea, got my anchor and started paddling south in a flat calm. Sighted Etchemin & Porky's temporarily catamaraned Seawind canoes drifting a mile to the southwest and reeled them in before they got their morning business finished and caught me up again in a light but building north wind. Slow going against the flood tide down lower Pine Island Sound and out under the Sanibel Island bridge. Saw Greybeard and Ridgerunner on a converging course west of me but they landed on the inside of Point Ybel to make preparations before the open water crossing, and I didn't see them again. The open Gulf off Ft Myers Beach was a writhing mess of powerboat wakes and I paddle-sailed a straight shot for the high buildings of Naples way off in the haze to the south, keeping as far clear of the Sunday afternoon boat traffic as I could.


Under Way

Winds were very light and shifty until a bit of convection cloud rising inland heralded the afternoon seabreeze, which came in as a distinct front around 1400. In another hour, wind was up to 15 kts or so from the west, pushing a cresting two- to three-foot beam sea off the Gulf. I reefed sail to be on the safe side, but the afternoon breeze stabilized at a comfortable level and I made good time sailing and often paddling a little. Enough water was coming over to keep the zippered spray skirt closed except for brief grabs for food or chart work, when I would slow and head up into the sea a bit to ease the motion. A couple breaking waves eventually caught me, dumping chest-high across the deck, but I managed to stay pretty dry and kept up speed till arriving at Gordon Pass just after sunset. Not relishing being cold and damp for another two hours and then working through unfamiliar shoals in the dark at Big Marco Pass, I ducked in behind Keewaydin Island, changed to night paddling clothes and phoned in my evening report while batting mosquitoes in the suddenly calm air. Paddled on in the inside passage to Marco, where I worked a few miles up Big Marco River against the ebb, and anchored behind a spoil island about midnight, not real tired but wanting to get fed and rested while the tide was against me, and continue after it turned in my favor at first light.

Monday


Under Way Calm

On up Big Marco River with the flood, much easier going, and out into the flat Gulf-side waters of the Ten Thousand Islands. The change from tall buildings and surf-washed beaches to gentle shallow water and uninhabited mangrove keys is always welcome. The previous day's heavy boat traffic had fallen to just the occasional fisherman, or a canoe or two pulled up at a campsite. Wind had shifted east overnight, a gentle headwind. Paddling felt slow after two days' good sailing.

Around noon I passed an odd-looking small craft with two people aboard, working along in-shore of me just too far away to see clearly. This later turned out to have been Chief and Manitou Cruiser in their catamaraned Kruger Dreamcatchers, and they were a little peeved with me for not coming over to say Howdy; sorry guys, didn't recognize you without your sails set. Worked up Indian Key Pass with the last of the flood and pulled into the Everglades Park ranger station at Everglades City to pick up a backcountry permit for the Wilderness Waterway. Took care of some other business (rinsed out salty clothes in the men's room sink, filled water jugs, re-stowed food and drink to be accessible), then paddled up the little canal behind the Chokoloskee causeway to arrive at the back door of Checkpoint 2 just after 1600. Chief and Manitou had arrived half an hour before and were sorting gear on the beach as I walked over; this was deja vu for me because we three had all arrived at the same beach on the same Monday evening the year before. With a couple hours' daylight left, they headed out Rabbit Key pass to the open Gulf, and I on my way up the Turner River into the heart of the Wilderness Waterway.

The Waterway is a defined route through the tangle of intersecting creeks, rivers and bays that is the coastal margin between Everglades City and Flamingo, marked infrequently with numbered 4x4 posts. It can be challenging to pick out some of these markers in daylight, they blend in with the dark mangrove foliage. Unless you have the entire route carefully fed into GPS (which I didn't), you need to follow the chart closely, stay oriented, and often refer to the compass to be sure which of several creeks or points of land you should be heading for next.

I phoned home while passing near Everglades City in Mud Bay. Darkness soon came down and the evening afterglow drained away leaving only a few scattered stars between drifting clouds, and a dull glow of Miami lights off to the east. At night it actually becomes pretty easy to find the Waterway markers by their reflectors. You just need to shine a good bright flashlight the right way to be rewarded with a distant flicker from the mark. Even on moonless nights (as this trip) there's enough starlight to see the dark silhouette of the trees against the sky, and a lighter lane of water ahead as you work up the twisting mangrove creeks or along the shoreline. Schooling mullet jumped in masses as my flashlight beam swept the shorelines, and night herons croaked and flew off as I came quietly by. Some might say I missed out on experiencing the scenic beauty of the Everglades by traveling at night; in fact I find the Everglades at night to be almost more powerful than by day: the unfamiliar environment and sensory deprivation somehow give an appreciation of the size, complexity and remoteness of the region.

The wind gradually veered and built through the night, good for keeping mosquitoes and noseeums off the water, but hard on a tiring paddler. Choppy bays alternated with narrow twisting thoroughfares where tree branches reached out of the dark to confuse my eyes or grab at my gear. Looking ahead on the chart I thought through several possible time/ distance/ tide/ weather scenarios and worked out a 'tide plan' that would get me through the big rivers of the southern Waterway with a minimum of adverse current, hopefully getting me to and across Florida Bay ahead of some approaching weather. I'd have to make it to the headwaters of Broad River by dawn for the plan to work, so I kept pushing into the wind, eating and drinking in short breaks every so often. About 0230 I came around a corner and was hit in the face with a stiff squall of southwest wind, choppy sea and a strong head current off Onion Key Bay, and decided I'd had enough. I anchored in a quiet lee behind a mangrove clump, lay down under the skirt without bothering to rig my bug tent, and was unconscious in seconds.

Tuesday

Woke a couple hours later chilly and with mosquitoes in my face (good alarm clock), had a bite of cold leftover potatoes and beans, then back on the road. Wind was down to a reasonable level and the tide had turned in my favor, justifying the layover. Sailed up the string of bays above Lostmans River while munching second breakfast in the early light. Ran the cutoff into Broad River, and the last of the morning ebb helped pull me downstream against a stiff southwest to west wind under low clouds. Mid-morning began a light rain, first in patches then continuous. The tide turned against me and I regretted those two hours spent sleeping last night, but you do your best with the conditions as you find them, and I kept on banging down the Broad against it, trying to make up time. Tide was well up as I approached the Nightmare, a twisting, mangrove-choked creek connecting Broad River and Broad Creek, so I took that cutoff rather than the open route via the open Gulf. Current was with me again and by working fairly hard and skipping breaks I caught up with my intended tide plan by the time I reached the cutoff into Harney River, and rode the last of the flood clear up to Tarpon Bay as the rain broke up into showers and a band of clear sky blew over from the northwest. A pair of swallowtailed kites soaring over the treetops livened the afternoon along with the usual wading birds coming out after the rain.

Had planned on a couple hour nap at the bottom of Tarpon Bay before starting down Shark River, but I was feeling good, so after a short break in a side creek to re-stow food and transfer water, I paddled on down with the first of the ebb tide at my back, favoring the right bank to stay out of a blustery northwest wind. Late afternoon found me punching up Shark Cutoff into Whitewater Bay, now early on my tide plan but, with the wind at my back, not minding the foul ebb current. The wind settled in nicely by sunset and I had a fun and speedy sail south up Whitewater Bay; slouching down in the cockpit with the skirt over my shoulders and food packets in my lap, steering compass courses from one clump of mangrove keys to the next and ignoring the widely spaced waterway markers.

Came into cell range of Flamingo about 2030 and battled busy signals for an hour until finally getting through to Karen after entering Coot Bay. As I stowed the phone away and got back under way, a quiet splash from astern announced Salty Frog coming up at a brisk pace in his light Pygmy kayak. We paddled on together, discussing our day and plans for tomorrow. He had had a challenging time of it in the Gulf off Broad River, it must have been about the time I was in the vicinity transiting the Nightmare. Rising wind and onshore sea breaking in the shoaling water made him wisely decide to head inside at Broad Creek, adding miles rather than getting beaten up outside. We must have been within a few miles of each other all afternoon.

We landed together at the inside boat ramp in Flamingo at 2230. Had a pleasant conversation catching up on the news of the race with Dexter, the Checkpoint 3 volunteer, and helped each other move our boats ashore. In so doing we stumbled over and woke up both Chief and Manitou Cruiser, who had come in at dusk and were resting in separate quiet (they thought) spots waiting for the tide. Salty Frog found a sheltered lawn, planning to wait for the mid-morning flood tide in Florida Bay. I put the Rob Royoid back in at the outside ramp and, deciding sleep was smarter than chancing the approaching bad weather in the dark, anchored in the Flamingo boat basin, ate a late supper and slept almost till first light.

Unknown to either of us, Chief and Manitou got up and slunk quietly out shortly after midnight, caught the night tide up Tin Can Channel in gentle north wind, and finished at Key Largo Wednesday morning. They were the smart ones.

Wednesday

I woke well rested with a feeling of urgency to get going. It wasn't just knowing that Salty Frog was right behind me in a faster boat; the sky had an ominous look and the NOAA forecast didn't sound encouraging- winds north becoming northeast 15-20 knots, chance of rain 70 percent. Well you get what you get, could be worse. I stowed my night gear and got out onto Florida Bay before sunrise, and followed the marked channel to deep water rather than mess around getting held up on the shallow mud flats on a falling tide. Picked up the Tin Can Channel and proceeded along the right (wrong) side of the markers in water just deep enough to move efficiently but shallow enough to avoid the stiff head current flowing out in mid-channel. Wind was on the nose at northeast already, 10-12 kts, but after clearing the end of the channel, my course was free enough that I got the sail up and paddle-sailed across to Dump Keys. Was able to sail relaxedly through that channel and over to the Twisty Mile Channel which cuts across the flat separating two deeper basins out in the middle of Florida Bay. I strapped the sheet in and paddled up the Twisty Mile following low markers barely visible in the mangrove shoots either side. Just as I came to the east end of the narrows, the wind started blowing up sharply. Eased the sheet and worked out into deep water where there was room to maneuver, hove to and rolled a reef into the sail as the chop rapidly peaked up and started shooting spray across the deck.

Barely finished the reef and was about to bear away on course for Jimmy Channel, three miles off to the southeast, but the wind was still building and the mast and yard of the little lug rig where whipping and vibrating badly. Headed back up and began rolling in a deeper reef with the sail crackling loudly and shaking the whole boat back and forth. The wind continued rising in a progression of gusts until it was well up in the 20's with gusts over 30. That was just too much to deal with. I gave up on the reef, yanked the mast out of its deck tube and let the whole rig blow into the water to leeward, then bundled it messily under the deck and got the boat back in control under paddle, reaching across a building two to three foot chop. The buoyant, high sided boat handled the fast-moving breaking sea fine, with only the occasional crest coming across the deck, but there was a lot of spray flying and my windward ear was full of deeply impacted seawater, eyes and lips tingly with salt. After a quick chart review I decided to bear off to leeward (south) of the little key at the tail of the bank that Jimmy Channel cuts through. I thought this would give me a rest and regrouping spot before continuing eastward for Manatee Key, which it did.

But it was a mistake nevertheless. The mile or more of northing I gave up in reaching off under that key made my course that much more upwind as I continued on, far to leeward of the sheltering bank that connects Jimmy Channel to Manatee Key. I had a hard hour's workout banging against the steep square chop, bow well up to the wind and making thirty degrees of leeway as the wind tried to blow me away into deeper water. I finally started to feel the easier water in the lee of Manatee, regained lost ground and pulled onto the flats south of the key.

It was after noon, the tide had been rising for several hours. Gambling that even with the northeast wind blowing water out of the bay there would be enough depth to paddle over the shoal mud and grass banks, I continued on directly east, on and in the lee of the banks that connect Manatee to Stake and Bottle Keys, a good call that kept me out of the higher energy waves to windward of those banks and keys.

The rough sea had the water column stirred up from surface to bottom, mud was being lifted and churned into an opaque froth that foiled eyeball piloting, bottom invisible in six inches of water. Crossing from Stake to Bottle Keys was enlivened by a heavy rain squall that closed visibility down to a hundred yards and left me paddling a compass course in whiteout conditions, milky water blending with milky sky and only the motion of wave crests to catch your eye. Depth perception was poor, it was hard to estimate boat speed or leeway. Rain and washing waves trickled down my neck and through the zipper of my skirt till I was sitting in a puddle. The water was warm and the air not bad either; as long as I kept working hard I was fine, slightly on the warm side in my ratty old neoprene paddle jacket and medium weight polypros. Took advantage of each passing key's lee to eat something and sponge the bilge (I was a little sorry because my sponge, bailer and pump had all gone unused since the start, and I'd been looking forward to exhibiting the stiff, crackly sponge at the finish as evidence of the Rob Royoid's dry ride. Oh well, there are limits to everything).

I cut quickly across the deeper basin where the Intracoastal Waterway passes through, just managed not to be blown away from the little "Sunset" mangrove key, and set out on the wide deep bay off Key Largo, the final push to the finish. At times it seemed there was a drop in the wind, mid-twenties I guessed, and I would hope for a permanent letup, but in a few minutes another roll of dark cloud would blow over, a squall of heavier wind would hit me in the teeth, 30 knots sustained with higher gusts and sometimes a shower of rain. Even with short rests in the lulls, I was starting to get tired. I kept the tube of my drink bladder handy sticking out of the skirt, and grabbed a mouthful of energy bar or banana when possible, but I wasn't keeping up with the body's needs.

In the squalls forward progress would drop to a knot or less and the rudder would start to lose its bite, unable to correct for my single blade's torque. I had to head up into the wind and paddle a switch stroke, four or five short hard jabs on one side until she fell off the wind, switch, and as many jabs as needed on the other side to bring the bow back up to the wind, switch... The bubbles kept moving backwards, I could see houses and power poles falling behind... slowly... off my right shoulder. The wind just would keep on blowing, and I would just paddle another two miles, another mile; there was the dock at the campground, there was the line of buoys off the swimming area, the rocky landing, choppy surf washing nearly up to the seawall.

I put her stern to the waves and let the bow bang for a few seconds while I decided if I'd like to try standing up, then splashed over the side, stumbled, grabbed the bow toggle and dragged my good little boat ashore at Key Largo, four days nine hours and odd minutes out from Mullet Key. I wandered around, taking inventory of other boats above the beach. Chief and Manitou Cruiser's canoes, Shark Chow's kayak. Some of the sailboats must be in but no sign of them; smart to get them out of that surf. People came out of the woods where they'd been sheltering from the wind. "Congratulations, ugh, it's cold," they said. I didn't notice yet, but headed for the shower with a bag of warm dry clothes just in case they were right. If you're going to have bad weather make sure to do it on the last day, I always say.

After

Karen and my brother Steve arrived before I got back from the shower Everybody sat in the lee of a tarp and wondered if we'd see Salty Frog that day. We worried a little but he's a smart and experienced guy, he'd either tough it out or stop and wait for an improvement. He made it in about 2130 after I'd gone to bed, and had a fine story to tell next morning, by which time the wind and rain were finally starting to taper down a bit. Turned out the Wednesday NOAA forecasts had started mentioning the high winds mid-morning, after I was under way and no longer listening. It's worth listening to the weatherfolk, but you need to know that the they are sitting at a desk in a windowless room far away, and the weather where you are is under no obligation to do what they say. The boater on the water is responsible for her own weather decisions. Neither Salty Frog nor I was in any trouble coming across Florida Bay but we both kept backup plans going in our heads in case conditions should worsen, body or equipment give out. Wednesday's band of weather hit everybody in the Challenge differently, and others not so far away chose to sit it out, or changed their route, as they saw best. There were no casualties or big delays, but it got everybody's attention.

Finishing sixth out of thirty-three starters and second in Class 1, the boat continued to serve me well in its second Everglades Challenge. It's big enough to be comfortable all day, but small and light enough to move efficiently with low power. Volume is concentrated amidships, so gear is stowed where the paddler can reach it rather than miles away sealed up in end compartments. Wide, deep and with the seat right down on the bottom, range of stability (the angle the boat can lean over before capsizing or needing a bracing stroke) is better than any kayak or canoe I've used, promoting a relaxed posture and a regular stroke in rough water.

The single paddle experiment was a big success. I've messed around with the idea a couple times before, but hadn't had a boat with the right stability and tracking properties to work well. Exposure to the Kruger decked canoes and to Verlen's paddling philosophy at these events brought it back into my thoughts, and the Rob Royoid's seaworthiness made it possible. I'm sure I made better time along the EC course, and especially the last day into the heavy wind, with the single blade than I would have in the same conditions with my unfeathered double blade. One might argue that a feathered double paddle would have had more power banging into Wednesday's hard blow, which is perhaps true, but even a feathered kayak paddle has significantly more air drag than a canoe paddle, and you need to work harder to achieve the increased power, let alone wear and strain on wrists from feathering under load. My goal, in boat choice and paddling style, was to minimize strain and drag rather than maximize power, and the single blade paddle fits in with that thinking. I had no stress-related complaints at the finish this year: no blisters, numb fingers, sore wrists or shoulders as in previous challenges. I attribute it to the shorter range of motion of the single paddle stroke, and the ability to unload one side of the body at a time before repetitive stress sets in. Except when spray is flying my hands and clothes stay dry; paddle drip is low and outboard where it rarely blows back into the boat, unlike the constant wetting most double blade paddlers endure.

The integrated trim rudder is a departure from the traditional Rob Roy canoe, but worked out fine. I wanted it to be just big enough to offset the single blade paddle stroke without adding much drag; maneuvering and tight turns are done by paddle. Its area is about the minimum that would work decently: 4" long, 7" high. It's slightly shallower than the hull's maximum draft, to avoid beaching damage. Its rigging is simple and all internal, not out in the weather deteriorating in the salt and sun. A drop-blade rudder as on many sea kayaks would give tighter control in some conditions, but would be heavier and more complicated, with uphaul and downhaul lines. And I just like the clean look of this all-inboard rudder.

I'm not here to push my sometimes unorthodox thoughts and designs on anybody. Existing production kayaks and canoes have proven themselves well up to trips like this and are deservedly popular. Still I think there's room for a wider range of choices between sea kayaks, which are excellent fast day boats but wet and uncomfortable when loaded for a long haul, and high volume canoes like the Krugers, great load carriers but bigger and heavier than I need. Length (top speed) isn't such a big deal in a long cruise, as Rob Roy MacGregor learned long ago. My Rob Royoid is one of a few loose modern-day interpretations of its namesake that look back at the roots of the decked canoe to recall forgotten lessons.

I came to WaterTribe hoping for two things: to learn about state of the art light touring boats from a diverse group of experts, and to try out some of my own ideas alongside those boats. The Challenges have fulfilled both these goals beyond my hopes, not only the events but the people involved. Without exception WaterTribers are friendly and generous, helpful, and free with good advice and good humor. I plan to be back again next year with more ideas.

© Matt Layden 2005

 

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