Building a Coho Hi Kayak: Part 1

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 word adventure can mean many different things. It can mean an expedition to Mount Everest; a Scuba diving trip to the Great Barrier Reef; a backpacking journey into the Olympic Mountains. Not many people would dispute that these activities are adventures, but what about taking a drive to a neighboring town, developing a new relationship, or visiting a museum? Are these adventures too? I think so. An adventure can be any sort of exciting experience or bold undertaking, any activity during which something unexpected or unfamiliar happens. Last week Freya and I embarked on something that I can only imagine describing as an adventure: building a Pygmy kayak.

Unexpected things are already happening. We are gluing butt-joints together on the pock marked wood floor of my parent’s garage. I had to Tetris boxes for hours to create enough space to work the panels. I discovered ancient comic books from my grandmother’s collection, old school work, stuffed animals, toys. Each item contained a memory that flowed from the smell or sight of it. I was lost amongst the memories for a while but I intentionally left many boxes untouched. I’ll leave those memories for another exploration.
Since we are working in such a confined space we have to build the boat in sections. We begin with the port side hull. We use weights from our home gym to hold the panels in place and to put pressure on the joints while they dry. We learn how to mix the epoxy—two parts resin, one part hardener. We’re using the fast hardener because it’s winter now and the garage isn’t insulated. We keep the containers of epoxy inside the house, mix small batches in a clear plastic cup and paint them on the joints quickly. Then we lay a strip of fiberglass tape over the joint and cover that with epoxy too. Finally, we take a piece of clear mylar and place it over the whole seam and set a wooden block and a weight on it to hold it down. The joints will be dry tomorrow.

It feels good to begin. I know there are going to be mistakes and hang-ups along the way but now we are committed. We have to see it through to the end. We have a lot of work ahead of us. An adventure.

The epoxy has hardened by the next morning and we return to the garage to inspect our work. For the most part, the joints look beautiful. The epoxy appears glass-clear as we peel the mylar away. Most of the joints are tight and the edges are true. There are no bubbles. However, there are a few problems. Some of the mylar pieces were too small to completely cover the width of the panel and, as a result, a few wooden blocks accidentally stuck to the panel itself. They are easy to remove though and they leave only miniscule grains of wood in what would have been completely clear epoxy otherwise. Nothing a few minutes of sanding won’t fix.


There is another problem. One joint shifted slightly overnight so that the edges of the two panels do not line up perfectly. They are an eighth of an inch off. Freya and I aren’t sure if this is enough to worry about so we call her dad, John Lockwood, the founder of Pygmy Boats. John comes to the garage and inspects the butt-joints. He compliments most of our work before looking at the one imperfect seam. My heart sinks when I hear him say that we must do this joint over again, but I feel better when he tells us that it is actually very simple to fix. All we have to do is sand through the fiberglass tape, break the joint and epoxy it again.


I plug in my orbital sander and get right to work. In my eagerness to correct my mistake I get slightly aggressive with the sander. Before I come to my senses I’ve not only sanded through the fiberglass but also dug into the panel itself, leaving an unsightly gouge in the pristine wood.


Luckily, this side of the panel will be on the inside of the hull and this seam will be in the stern of the boat. The gouge is not deep enough to have caused any structural damage and nobody will ever see the blemish unless they stick their head completely inside the stern hatch and root around with a flashlight. The joint breaks apart easily. New epoxy and fiberglass goes on smoothly. This time we use thumbtacks to secure the panels to the floor and it works much better than using weights. I think we might have to use the thumbtack method for the rest of the panels.


Learning is the direct result of having an adventure. I have a feeling that this particular adventure will involve a whole lot of learning and that is exactly what I’m hoping for. The interesting thing about an adventure like this is that each exciting experience will be glued forever into the wood of the boat. I will be able to look back on this project when it is finished and notice every slight flaw and remember the story that goes along with it. Like the comic books and stuffed animals, each perfect and imperfect seam contains a story that will be recollected at a glance and the boat itself contains an entire book of stories worth remembering.

Click Here to Read Part 2 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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