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Building Your Own Sea Kayak

ygmy Arctic Tern Boat Kit

Noah was 600 years old when he finished building his ark. I was significantly younger when I completed my project but, judging by the comments of several of my acquaintances, no less obsessed.
Why trouble with building a sea kayak when you could just pop for a ready-made model? I asked myself that same question as I examined the eight-foot-long pile of pre-cut marine plywood, 40 feet of fiberglass cloth, and three gallons of epoxy that arrived from Pygmy Kayaks (360-385-6143). The only answer I could muster: to save money. Pygmy’s Arctic Tern kit costs $935 with the optional bulkheads and hatches, one-third as much as a factory-built fiberglass equivalent.
If all goes according to plan, you end up with a 17-foot kayak made of four-millimeter-thick marine plywood and sheathed in fiberglass cloth. (Pygmy’s catalog says to allow for 80 to 90 hours of construction time.) What I began with, however, was numerous, only vaguely boat-shaped pieces of plywood, which a friend and I slowly built into a three-dimensional craft using a curious construction method called stitch-and-glue. Following the instructions (which are long on text and short on illustration), we set about bending and twisting slats into hull- and deck-shaped chunks and lashing them together with short lengths of wire, giving it the look of a vessel swarmed by twist-ties. After running a bead of epoxy along the seams and letting it cure overnight, we snipped off the wires, half expecting the whole thing to fly to pieces. It did not, so we continued, laying on fiberglass cloth to form a single, rigid structure.
Finally, we fitted the cockpit, bulkheads, and hatches, and...it suddenly hit us that we were no longer looking at wood and wire, but a kayak, and a handsome one at that, thanks to the plywood’s mahogany veneer.
The whole process could be completed in a couple weeks of straight work, but we made it a several-months-of-weekends project, taking extra care with each step and adding ten hours to Pygmy’s estimate. Accounting for our time, I certainly didn’t save any money by not buying an off-the-shelf boat, but when we launched her, we weren’t thinking about fiscal matters. We eased her into the surf carefully, tentatively. She floated! Just gliding along was one of the biggest thrills I’ve had in 15 years of kayaking.
The initial sea trials proved we had built not just a well-designed boat, but a well-designed kayak. The hull of the Arctic Tern has hard chines (corners where the bottom and sides meet), which result in confidence-inspiring stability. It tracks straight and turns on command, even without the optional rudder. And it weighs ten pounds less than fiberglass boats, yet it’s their equal in strength and internal storage space. In fact, though Noah would have scoffed at my handmade ark—it’s 11.3 cubits long, not 300—it just might hold enough gear for 40 days and 40 nights, assuming you forget the livestock.

—JONATHAN HANSON

Reprinted by permission from Outside Magazine
Copyright © 1999, Mariah Publications Corporation

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