Buildig a Coho Hi: Part 4

About the Author: Leif Whittaker is a writer and adventurer based in the Pacific Northwest. His love of the wilderness and wild places has led him to the summit of Mt. Everest twice, once in 2010 and again in 2012, and many places across the globe. Leif also has a great love of the water and we’re excited to share his story of building his Coho Hi here.

The Olympic Mountains, visible from the garage window, are veiled in humidity, but Port Townsend occupies a happy circle of sunlight. Admiralty Inlet calmly glows like a knapping cat purring on a warm lap, beckoning to be pet. Fine white dust covers every eclectic item on the cluttered shelves. The workbench is scattered with bastard files, sandpaper, dirty tongue depressors, spent syringes, paper towels. John inspects the sheer seam, adding his own practiced touch to the rounded edge so that the glass will sit just right. I follow suit on the port sheer seam, pushing long strokes along the swirly grain.


Fiberglass cloth on inside of pre-saturated hull.

            Today we’ll apply the last major piece of fiberglass to the Coho Hi kayak. Freya’s dad, John Lockwood, has been kind enough to lend us an experienced hand. The fiberglass on the hull, which Freya and I applied a few weeks ago, did not come out like we had hoped. There are obvious humps and valleys along the largest panel. Running my callused hand from bow to stern, I can feel the imperfect ridges beneath my fingers. It’s a problem that can be fixed with a palm sander and a dust mask, a monotonous project that must be completed—according to John—before we fiberglass the deck.


Removing excess fiberglass cloth.


Laying out cloth on stern half of hull.


Wetting out fiberglass with epoxy.

            After making sure I’m using the sander at the correct angle, John and Freya drive downtown to buy light bulbs and slices of pizza. It’s late afternoon and there’s no telling how long the sanding might take. Saturating and squeegeeing the fiberglass requires a certain amount of meticulousness. Having sufficient light to see our work is essential and, without daylight, the garage is like Plato’s cave: one bright bulb silhouettes reality into counterfeit forms.


Finishing the bow and stern ends on the inside of the hull.


Getting ready to sand and file after the deck has been glued in place.

            I chain myself to the palm sander, wrap the dust mask over my face and dig in, grimacing. 120 grit sandpaper balances aggressiveness and delicacy. Variable speeds extract unwanted layers. Wrinkles disappear beneath the vibrating, spinning, churning machine. Now an authentic form is beginning to be revealed. This is what the word “kayak” truly means: immaculate lines, sexy curves, weightlessness.


John and I sanding the hull.


Applying epoxy and squeegeeing bow end of deck.

            “Wow! Looks great,” says John, handing me a slice of feta, green pepper, sun-dried tomato pizza.
            “Thanks,” I reply, swallowing an enormous bite.

            “If you do the same thing to the rest of the hull panels, you’ll really have a boat you can be proud of.” I will feel like a doting father watching his daughter perform miracles on the violin. That’s right people. She’s mine.

            I stand on a milk crate and screw in the new light bulb. What an incredible difference. The boat shines brilliantly, as if thankful for this overdue change. John, Freya and I lay the white fiberglass cloth over the deck, smoothing it out with our gloved hands. Freya mixes a batch of epoxy and pours it into a paint tray. John explains and demonstrates exactly how he likes to load the foam roller with epoxy, and how to apply it to the fiberglass. He seems to be remembering his ideal technique as he distributes the first coat. Perhaps the physical movements are jogging his memory. Soon, he settles on a simple method, which is slightly different than what Freya and I did on the hull. He uses less epoxy to wet out the glass, utilizing the squeegee to press it lightly against the wood. John philosophizes briefly about small details in the process before handing me the squeegee and setting me to work.


Putting a fill coat on the finished deck.


Gluing the cockpit coaming onto the deck.


Cockpit coaming clamped in place.

Night robs color from the sky while the clouds release the mountains. The cozy garage is a lighthouse amongst concrete and lawns. Shadows cannot survive in these conditions. There is only the shimmer of wetted out fiberglass, the faint smell of chemicals, the weary chuckles of three satisfied workers. The deck is perfect. Now that we know what looks right, Freya’s boat will be a cinch. I shake John’s hand and thank him for his enlightening help. We exit the cave together, leaving the boat to harden. A pure and fluid shape, it begs to get wet.

Click Here to Read Part 5 of “Building a Coho Hi”.

Story by Leif Whittaker
Photography by Freya Fennwood

For more stories about Leif’s adventures, see his blog:

For more photos from Freya see her website:

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