Wood boats

If the scientific community is right about the current “Out of Africa” theory, the earliest anatomically modern humans were living in East Africa between 200,000 and 150,000 years ago. I’m betting that when those earliest humans first found themselves on a lake or stream, they immediately began figuring out how to build a boat.


The early humans couldn’t help but notice that boats would be useful for fishing, hunting and gathering. With a boat, they could get to the other side of a lake or stream. With a boat, they could get out of town for the weekend.

They probably used rafts at first, but it wasn’t long before they were making boats from logs. The oldest boat that has been found is the Pesse canoe, a dugout of about 10 feet in length and 17 inches in width. Contractors discovered it six feet below the surface of a peat bog while excavating for a highway in the Netherlands in 1955. It was carbon dated at between 8040 BC and 7510 BC, which makes it about 10,000 years old.

By trial and error, we humans eventually figured out how to make boats by wrapping bark or animal skins around ribbed frames. By about 3000 BC, the Egyptians were building boats by “sewing” wooden planks together with woven straps. A cedar-planked boat buried at the foot of the Great Pyramid of Giza is the earliest known planked boat. Built about 4,500 years ago, it’s 143 feet long and 20 feet wide. Reeds or grass were stuffed between the planks to help seal the seams. These early Egyptians also used treenails (trunnels or dowels), as well as mortis and tenon joints in assembling this boat.

Most planked boats were — and still are — built by one of two methods. In “carvel” constructed boats, the planks are fastened edge to edge, or edge-butted. In “lapstrake” boats, often called “clinker-built”, the planks overlap.

The seams between the planks in carvel-built boats require caulking. To seal the seams, strips of oakum (hemp soaked in pine-tar) or cotton are driven into the seams, followed by an application of a waterproof substance. My first boat was a crudely built plank skiff, and I well remember having to remove and replace the calking between every joint.

One of the advantages of making boats with planks is that planks can be bent to follow an ideal curve. The Viking longships, among the most beautiful boats ever built, were clinker-built of riven timber (split wood planks). The Vikings used them in raids along the coast of England and Ireland, as well as for expeditions to Greenland, Iceland and even to North America. Powered by oars and sail, they were able to navigate in shallow waters, to the dismay of anyone within their fearsome reach. A longship excavated at Gokstad, Norway, in 1880 is 76 feet long and 17 feet wide. Clinker-built from oak planks, it has a mast, holes for 16 oars along each side and ornately carved decoration. It was commissioned at the end of the 9th century, at the height of the Norse expansion in Dublin, Ireland, and Jorvik (York), England. This ship is on display at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, Norway.

Most boats and ships made today are constructed of steel, aluminum or fiberglass, materials that require less maintenance than wood. Despite the amount of maintenance, some people still like wooden boats enough to own one. There are wooden boat kits you can order. If you have the moola, there are boat builders who will build a wooden boat for you. People who apparently don’t have enough pain and anguish in their lives are pulling old wooden boats out of junk yards and restoring them. Wooden-boat lovers hold an annual Wooden Boat Festival in Homer, where you can ogle a few, or even row or sail around in Kachemak Bay in one.

On the central Kenai Peninsula, there’s no shortage of wooden boats. You can see a carvel-built boat at the Soldotna Homestead Museum, near Centennial Park in Soldotna. One look at the graceful curve of its weathered hull, and you’ll appreciate why people get hooked on wooden boats.

Les Palmer can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.


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