Monday, April 27, 2009

Robb White and snow in Sewanee

Robb White (right) showing off his Feluccia at Cedar Key Messabout

In the late winter before his untimely death, author and boatbuilder Robb White came to Sewanee, Tennessee at the behest of the Friends of the Library. Robb, standing on the left in the bottom picture, brought along his Feluccia (the boat on the left) and invited area boatbuilders to bring their craft. I brought the Joel White-designed Shellback dinghy, the boat to the right in the picture.

I had met Robb several times at the Cedar Key small boat gathering in early May each year, and I admired his twice-monthly writings in Messing About in Boats (some of which were published as How to Build a Tin Canoe). I had also published in Messing About in Boats, so the gathering in my home town was a special event for me.

We all gathered in front of the library, raised sails, and commenced to talking about boats and admiring one anothers' boats as if we were on the Atsina Otie beach during the Cedar Key Messabout. After a while, the wind picked up and began to blow cold and hard. Robb asked if I thought we should shorten sail. I answered that I had been taught that when you think of reefing, it's probably already a little late.

We both dropped our sails and fled to the lee of the library porch as a crowd began to gather for the "lecture." Snow was falling a few minutes later as we went inside for the discussion of plants (for Robb's formal training was as a botanist, and several prominent local botanists had come to see what he had to say.).

The talk and its aftermath of questions lasted about an hour and a half. When we emerged into the twilight, the students had made snowmen and put them at the helms of each of the boats. I dug the snow out of the Shellback and headed home to a warm fire and supper.

A couple of months later at the Cedar Key Messabout, I spoke with Robb about the snowmen. He said that he had pushed over the snowman into his boat and added a bit more snow from the lawn. The next morning he made a point to depart early and to drive as fast as he could back home to Thomasville, Georgia near the Florida line. There his grandchildren, who had never seen snow, were able to make snowballs and have snow ice cream.

About a month later Robb died in an operating room of a brain aneurism. I will miss him, and I reread his tales often.

(Matt Layden suggested that I share this tale.)

Friday, April 24, 2009

Herons on their nests

On my paddle at Tims Ford today, I paddled around Goose Island. No goslings or baby herons yet, but they should be here soon. It's the second day in the 80s, and the pollen is exploding everywhere. Crappie fishing has begun in earnest, and fishermen were all about. I also saw the first paddle boat I have seen on the lake: a fishing kayak.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Matt Layden

My profile of Matt Layden accompanies an interview with him in the May/June Small Craft Advisor. Matt is an innovative pioneer in small craft design. He has won the WaterTribe Everglades Challenge with one design, the Paradox, and led most of the WaterTribe Ultimate Florida Challenge in another design, the Enigma. The photo shows Matt on the beach at Atsina Otie (an island off of Cedar Key) standing beside Enigma and looking at Paradox.

Here is the Article (copyright 2009):

Every year on the first weekend in May, small boat enthusiasts from all over the Eastern US gather at tiny Cedar Key, Florida to admire one another’s boats, see old friends, exchange ideas, and mess about in boats.  The focus of activity is the white sand beach of uninhabited Atsena Otie, an island across the channel from the shops and restaurants of Cedar Key.

Matt Layden is on the beach with his battleship grey 13½ foot “Rob Royoid” canoe.  Matt’s canoe is decked like a sea kayak and has a one square meter bed sheet lug sail (sized to meet WaterTribe regulations – Matt says it could use a little more sail).  The rudder is the lower part of the canoe stern instead of a hanging appendage.  The boat gets its speed from diminished wetted area, but it is roomy and stable enough for Matt to sleep aboard.

Nearby stands Jim Brown, the designer of the Wind Rider trimarans and other innovative designs. Jim has brought along a wood strip sailing sea kayak of his own design and construction, complete with a butter knife bow, a daggerboard that runs through the deck and hull, a rudder underneath the beaver tail stern and a his kayak paddle for the boom.

Matt strikes up a conversation with Jim about boat design.  Each explains the thinking behind his design and each tries the other’s craft.  Jim is excited about the potential of Matt’s short canoe paddle as an alternative to the longer, heavier kayak paddle, both as propulsion and as boom.

The conversation rekindles at the evening cookout.  Matt shows Jim a Kruger Sea Wind canoe, and the conversation wanders from Verlen Kruger to rudders to Jim’s experience designing work boats for third world countries for the World Bank.  Topics like Pacific island designs and the Southeast Asian yuloh mix with discussion of the clipper ship rudders with their multiple steering stations.   The depth of familiarity with traditional thinking and the history of boat design is obvious with both men, but they are informed by that knowledge rather than limited by it. 

The discussion finally comes to rest on ways to use leg power to propel small boats.  The design must be simple and have a kick-up system for shallow water . . . maybe a more efficient yuloh, one that tacks rather than stalls at the end of each stroke, propelled by a shaft drive out the stern.  Cards and phone numbers are exchanged with promises to continue the discussion and to bring in other designers.  Matt is neck-deep in his element and he is happy.

At worse, Matt Layden is an eccentric; at best he is a genius.  He is unconstrained by conventional wisdom.  When everyone else is thinking that the way to make a boat faster is to make it longer, he focuses on shorter boats with less wetted area.  He uses chine wings instead of leeboards or centerboards, making an ideal shallow water boat.  When all the sailing magazines are touting bigger and bigger cruisers, he designs microcruisers; when everyone else is refining the Marconi sloop, he is using a balanced lug that goes faster to windward as well as off the wind. 

Matt, like the name of his most recent design, is an enigma.  Matt seldom wears shoes and does not drive.  He designs mega-yachts for a living while he sails in his own microcruisers and hopes to move more into small boat design.  He is a total minimalist without being anti-technology.  Reason with a touch of minimalism seems to govern his designs. 

We talked at supper on Key Largo (during a break in the WaterTribe race around Florida – the WaterTribe Ultimate Challenge) about doing the WaterTribe Everglades Challenge as a cruise, fishing and camping along the way.  Matt began to calculate the drag of the line and bait and to figure out the alterations in ballast and sail area required. In the recent WaterTribe Ultimate Challenge (, he used sandbags and food for ballast, replacing the food he ate with water to keep his boat sailing ideally. (His plan was to empty the sand and finish off the food in time for the portage.  Though he dumped the sand, he had 40-50 lbs of food left, which may account for his tire failure.)  Just to sit around a picnic table with him and discuss the trade-offs in boat design choices is an education itself.

Matt grew up steeped in traditional New England craft.  His dad was a sailor and his grandfather was a waterman and oysterman on the Connecticut coast.  Family legend has it that “boat” was Matt’s first word.  With his brothers and his father, Matt raced traditional keelboats around the buoys in New England summers.  Later he got a 16 foot Zip (He calls it “a kid’s first keelboat.”).

At school Matt was bored, often cutting class to read in the library.  His junior year, a guidance counselor sent him to apprentice at a custom cabinet shop.  There he learned drafting and woodworking skills that stand him in good stead today. 

Along the way, Matt learned to think about each problem as a new challenge rather than just accepting the way things were always done. Still, he believes that you must have a firm grasp of the way things have always been done in order to innovate.  Traditional New England work boats, he points out, are designed the way they are because of the limitations of wood; the attractive overhangs on many classic racing boats of the first half of the century were driven by racing rules rather than reason.  With modern materials and free from racing rules, one should be able to come up with a better cruising design.

In the 1980s Matt began to build a boat each year and to take his new creation cruising along the East coast and offshore to the Bahamas.  Each boat was an attempt to improve on the design of the previous year.  Then Matt met Karen.  After a few short sails, they decided to go cruising.  There was not time to build another boat big enough for two, and the boat had to be cheap.  Matt found a Balboa 20 (which his father-in-law still sails around Cedar Key in Florida.).  Matt refitted the inside, replaced the heavy drop keel with a centerboard and inside ballast, and sailed off with Karen for nine months along the East Coast and in the Bahamas.

Matt’s next design was the Paradox, a boxy 14 foot cruiser with chine wings and a balanced lug sail.  The Paradox has generated a strong following and has a Yahoo chat group dedicated to it.  Despite its short length, it is a comfortable and very shallow draft solo cruiser that protects its skipper from the elements and goes to the wind with ease.  This is the boat that Matt used to win the 2003 WaterTribe Everglades Challenge, setting a record for solo racers that only Matt has broken (in Enigma in 2006).

The WaterTribe has become an important testing ground for Matt’s ideas.  After the 2003 win, Matt has shown up with an off-the-shelf West Marine inflatable kayak adapted to sail (it can be carried on a bus), the Rob Royoid canoe, and the Enigma (the next iteration of the Paradox line, but shorter and lighter and capable of being transported on a car top).  Typical of his minimalist approach, he simply took the tribe name of “Matt,” but amazed 

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Spring Paddling

4-20-09 After months of rain and cold and busy-ness, Moki and I are back on the lakes and rivers. Yesterday I saw a five pound fish above me in a tree . . . with an osprey nibbling on it. The mountainsides around Nickajack were full of yellow-green new leaves, and the dogwoods were in full bloom.