Hartford or Bust.
South Louisiana is crisscrossed with bayous, canals and just about every other type of waterway you can imagine. If you drive 20 miles in any direction, chances are you will cross a bridge. Growing up here, you learn how to navigate these waterways and you also learn your way around a boat. I have been around motorboats ever since I can remember. Ski-boats and fishing vessels are innately ingrained in so many of my childhood memories. Within the last few years I’ve began fishing from a kayak, mostly due to the fact you can pretty much go anywhere in one, and the motor never fails to start. My dad, Jimmy, brought me on my first paddling adventure. I vividly remember him teaching me how to steer a canoe on a camping trip to the Lower Buffalo River in Northern Arkansas. As I recall, I caught on rather quickly, but he remembers a very different story, claiming I bitched for the next ten miles until I got the hang of it. Ill chalk up his memory loss to his old age.
Last October my Dad and I decided to participate in a paddle race on the Bayou Teche. The Tour de Teche is a 125-mile long boat race stretching from Porte Barre to Patterson Louisiana. The Bayou twists and turns through rural farming towns and Acadian cultural meccas alike. It is a beautiful journey to say the least. My Dad and I were unloading our plain-old roto-molded kayak before the race began when we caught a glimpse of this beautifully handcrafted wooden skiff. As is turned out, the owner of the cypress boat was a distant cousin of my Dad, he even had an embossed plate on the bow reading “Bienvenu Boat Co.” We spoke to him for a while about how beautiful his craft was and he explained to us that he and his brother had recently gotten into building these wooden boats, and how much they enjoyed doing it. I could tell by the tone in my Dads voice that the idea of building his own kayak excited him. If you know my father at all, you know how nostalgic he is. His last two vehicles consisted of a 1973 Land cruiser and an 89’ Jeep wagoner, driving whichever one decided to start on that given day. The race stage began, and the rest of the day was spent paddling down the Teche towards New Iberia, but our thoughts still lingered around that immaculate wooden boat.
Two weeks after a successful race finish I received an email from my dad. The email contained information about a strip-building boat class that was to take place just outside of Hartford, Connecticut in late January. The instructor of the class, Nick Schade, is the nations foremost kayak strip-builder and designer. Nick is a “Guru” in every sense of the word. He has been building and designing small wooden crafts for the last twenty years, and is incomparably accomplished in his field. Nick even has a boat permanently on display in the Museum of Modern Art. His business, Guillamont Kayaks, sells custom made vessels along with plans and supplies to build a boat on your own. With all of Nick’s credentials and an opportunity to learn from best, there was no way I was passing up this opportunity. We booked the class along with my younger brother Edward and my wife Leslie. My uncle Kip and his daughter Elizabeth would also be joining us on this adventure. Travel arrangements were made and all that was left to do was wait for January to come.
The day finally arrived to head North and wouldn’t you know it, our flight from Lafayette to Atlanta got cancelled. An ice storm was sweeping across the nation and even South Louisiana couldn’t escape it. We rebooked a night flight out of New Orleans instead and slowly made our way east. It took a little longer than expected to get there since every bridge and overpass was iced over or closed from Lafayette to Morgan City, but we made to the airport just in time to make our flight. After another cancellation and a long night in the airport, we arrived in Hartford early Saturday morning. With no time to waste, we dropped our bags at the hotel, braved the nine degree weather, and headed to the Connecticut Valley School of Woodworking, the shop we would be building in.
The front of the shop was a traditional woodworking store while the back was a fully functional workshop. In the woodshop we met Nick, the ex-navel engineer turned wood boat authority. Nick gave us a general overview of who he was and his passion for boat design, then we immediately jumped in and started the building process. The strip-building process is both tedious and forgiving. The process allows you to build a lightweight, flexible, and durable work of art. For the next five days our class of twelve would be working on a two-seater kayak, dubbed the “micro bootlegger”, and also a traditional style canoe. The class consisted of a very diverse group of individuals. There was the six of us coonasses from South Louisiana and the rest of the class was spread out from all over continental North America. Guys from Oregon, Washington, Maine, North Carolina, and even as far north as Canada. This made an interesting class even more thought provoking.
The northerners wanted to know if we ever paddled near Alligators while we wanted to know why the hell they would ever paddle in such cold waters! As the class progressed we learned about all the different aspects of building a wooden boat, the strip-built way. We learned terms such as: forms, center beams, beads, coves, book matching, block planers, Japanese pull-saws, and dookie smutz. Yes, the last term does actually exist as a type of wood filler/epoxy. We cut, scraped, sanded, stained, re-sanded, fiber glassed, epoxied, and re-re-sanded! Slowly but surely, our boats began to take form. It was a beautifully meticulous process that required all your attention and effort. We would get to the shop at 8 a.m., work until lunch, then work until dinner. Nick was the perfect teacher for this type of class. Not only was he a wealth of knowledge on the subject in general, but he also allowed us to learn on our own and make our own mistakes, then he would show us how to fix them.
As the class drew to an end, and boats came to fruition, I couldn’t help but be on an emotional high. In front of me were a couple boats that started out as nothing more than two-inch strips of red cedar. The boats weren’t held together with nails or pegs, instead with mostly wood glue and marine grade fiberglass. We had shaped these bundles of wood into functional pieces of artwork. We enjoyed ourselves so much; all we could talk about was building another one, and doing this step different, or using this type of wood. In fact, my dad ordered a kit to have waiting for him at home when he returned! On the last day of the clinic we tried to get as much done on the boats as possible, as it was obvious neither would be completely finished at the classes end. We spent our last day traveling to Mystic, Connecticut, meandering around the old port city and sneaking into to old seaport even though it was closed for winter. At least we got to take a closer look at the old Waling ships before we were asked to leave.
Nick was a great teacher and I can’t wait to get him down to Louisiana to teach another class! The clinic was a great experience and a “boatload” of fun. It gave me a much deeper appreciation for these handcrafted boats and an intimate knowledge of how they take shape. To be fair, the boats were auctioned off to class participants by pulling names out of a hat. We were lucky enough to get the kayak, which is now on a truck being shipped back to Lafayette where I am, anxiously awaiting its arrival. Leslie and I are going to finish it in a local woodshop here in town.