Building a Coho Hi Kayak: Part 2

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.

Have you ever had so many projects going at once that you can’t make progress on any of them? I know, it’s rare for me too, but life occasionally morphs into rush hour on I-5 and when this happens there isn’t an alternative except to go with the flow. Traffic has been constant lately and the kayak construction gradually floated into the rearview mirror. Creation is addictive though, and I knew sooner or later that the smell of fine wood dust would call me back to my parent’s chilly garage where the glued-up panels waited like fine wine. I ached for a fresh taste.

Sandpaper and files ground angles on edges. Hour after hour of repetitive rubbing with fine grits made my palms sweaty. This was work, there’s no question, but it was calming work and when things went smoothly, like the wood did, it felt like drawing—doodles etched onto a great paper flank.
I could start to see how the boat might look when finished. I hoped that reality would be as perfect as my imagination. I was sure it wouldn’t be. The key with a project like this is to not get anxious and impatient. I have a tendency to get impatient and hurl my way through without correcting my mistakes. It was tempting to employ that familiar technique given the clutter in my life, but I knew that if I wanted my boat to track straight, I had to proceed with the utmost care. Don’t press too hard with the sandpaper. Don’t bevel the shear seam too steeply. Don’t drill holes in the wrong damn place.
Cradling the panels in my arms like a Civil War soldier cleaning his gun, I lured straight edges into the wood. Freya grabbed a panel and went to work like a heron devouring a tadpole, a sign that she clearly knew what she was doing. I was a whelp learning the intricacies of the hunt from a veteran mother. I was glad to have her help, although I found myself half resenting the confidence with which she worked. She’s moving too quickly. She’s going to mess something up.
“Freya, be careful. If this was your boat you’d be more careful.”
            “For the last time, this is the best way to get the wood off. If I hold it the other way it doesn’t work as well.”
            “It’s just making a really scary sound. It’s like your grinding bone.”
            “Well I’m sorry, that’s the sound it makes. What do you want me to do?”
            “Just be more careful. Take your time.”
            “I am being careful.”
            “Just be careful.”
Freya rarely moves faster than me and perhaps I wasn’t sure how to react to it. Could I admit to myself that she had way more experience at this than me? She’s only been paddling these kayaks since birth. She did take a class a few weeks ago and built a whole boat herself. Her father is John Lockwood. I try to hold my tongue.
We finished beveling the shear seam and grinding the epoxy from the panel edges. The butt joints looked like sharp pencil lines and the edges were pristine. We had reached a turning point. It was time to start drilling, but it was also time for Christmas.
Amongst road trips, speaking engagements, writing projects, moving to a new house, and ski trips, Freya and I found little time for the Pygmies. The panels were lonely for weeks until a break in the traffic gave me a clear view of the exit and I motored to the chilly garage to reunite with the wood dust.
The panels were exactly as I had left them: beveled, edged, smelling exotic and feeling smooth. I purchased a few bits and charged the drill battery. The next step was to pepper this beautiful wood with a series of evenly spaced holes. It was like I was making an extremely long and intricate cribbage board. I felt annoyingly alone without Freya by my side. I read the instruction manual three times before pressing the spinning metal to the wood. I hope I’m doing this right. This is going to be one hell of an ugly boat otherwise.
            After a few hours I couldn’t take it any longer.
            “Will you come up here please? I need your help,” I was talking on the phone.
            “Leif, I have to work on these photos. I really need to get this done.”
            “I really need to get this done too. It was your idea to build these boats and now you’re just abandoning me.”
            “I’m not abandoning you! I told you I couldn’t work on them today.”
            “Fine. How bout’ tomorrow then?”
            “Yeah maybe tomorrow. But I have to go now.”
            “Kay, bye.”
            “Kay, bye.”
            I waited until tomorrow. She thought the holes looked good but I was doing the wiring incorrectly. We yanked out a few wires and replaced them after clamping the bow and stern ends together. I still read the manual twice, even though mother goose was there. The keel pulled together like lips locking for a kiss and the flat panels suddenly became the curved rump of a boat. This is promising.
            Perhaps it’s better that we build these boats in the calm moments between storms. That way, I’ll be forced to take my time; I’ll be forced to re-examine each section before moving on to the next. Also, the hull and deck may just absorb some of that stormy energy so that when we take the finished boats out in enormous waves they will simply frolic like dolphins catching surf. Anyway, it’s clear that this will not be a quick and simple project. Hell, it wouldn’t be much of an adventure if it were.
 Click Here to Read Part 3 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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