Even though the canoe, our only native American watercraft, has undergone quite a few changes since its birch bark days, its distinctive shape has endured. And while that narrow, double-ended design is desirable in terms of hydrodynamics, many occasional “park lake” skippers have learned it has an inherent instability that can have upsetting consequences.
Of course this “tipsiness” doesn’t even faze experienced paddlers, but most beginners do harbor a bit of mistrust for the nimble craft. They’ll be happy to know that with only a few basic modifications, even the most fickle of canoes can be converted into a stable vessel — and back again — in a matter of minutes!
Pontoons Before Paddles
Not long ago, Dennis Burkholder and Robyn Bryan, two of MOTHER EARTH NEWS’ research staffers, invested a few days of experimentation to come up with a nifty set of canoe outriggers that can be clamped pretty as you please to the bow and stern thwarts, which stretch across a canoe’s gunwales. Once they’d done that, and discovered what a stable platform they’d created, they decided to go one step further. What about adding a sail to go canoe sailing? The fellows raised a mast, added a yard, a boom, and a polypropylene sail, and worked up a simple set of rudders and a pair of bow skegs to provide improved tracking. Viola!
Mounting the outriggers proved to be a straightforward proposition. After measuring the canoe’s beam, the would-be crew members bent two 10-foot sections of 1″ electrical conduit (E.M.T.), creating a pair of equal-length arms that extended downward at an angle of about 7′ from level when the rods were placed in position across the gunwales. They then welded a 5/16″ nut inside each end of both tubes, hose-clamped the supports in place, and bolted 1/8″ x 2″ x 6″ aluminum angle brackets to the 5/16″ nuts, with the flanges facing down and in.
Next, Dennis and Robyn laid a 10-foot length of 6″ Schedule 40 PVC sewer pipe beneath each pair of brackets (these pontoons are far and away the most expensive components used in the project, and new ones will run about $20 apiece) and drilled 5/16″ holes to fasten the floats in place. (Six-inch sections of 3/4″ conduit, with 5/16″ x 1″ bolts accurately spaced and welded perpendicularly to them, made excellent hangers. They could be tapped onto the end of a stick and inserted through the PVC wall from the inside without much difficulty, even though the mounting holes are well beyond arm’s reach.)
Once the pipe pontoons were installed, the fellows bent one pair of 3/4″ x 60″ E.M.T. sections into a modified “U” shape (one curve was 45′ and the other was 90′), and another set of 3/4″ x 26″ pieces into a 90 deg arc. They then welded these components beneath the center of the outrigger supports-about a foot apart-to create the cradle shown in the photograph. (A canoe’s hull depth will vary depending upon the craft’s configuration, so if you’re planning to duplicate what we’ve done here, you may have to alter the cradle’s dimensions to suit your own canoe.)
With the outrigger finished, Robyn and Dennis set about constructing the plywood parts that make up the 1/4 ” x 8 ” x 21 ” rudders and their 1/4″ x 6″ x 9″ boxes (which use 1/4″ x 4″ x 9″ internal spacers), the 1/2″ x 14″ x 16″ bow skegs, and the 1/2″-thick cut-to-fit mast step and partner.
To make the rudder boxes, Dennis first glued the side panels to the spacers and locked everything together — including a 3″ brass butt hinge — with No. 10-32 x 1 1/4″ bolts. Then, after sealing the wood with marine paint (or a waterproof sealer), he secured the rudders within their channels with 1/4 ” x 1 1/4 ” bolts. (A 1/4 ” x 6 ” tension spring strung between the upper hinge bolts, and a fastener on each rudder, allows those guides to pivot from their full downward position without snapping, should the pontoons run aground.) Finally, Dennis and Robyn attached a 1/2″ x 32″ E.M.T. tiller to the side of each rudder box, near the top, with two 1/4 ” x 1 1/2 “bolts.
Their next task was to fasten the rudder assemblies and the bow skegs to the four 6″ PVC pipe caps they’d purchased along with the pontoon sewer line. This was fairly easy, since it involved little more than locking the free halves of the hinges through thin plywood spacer plates to the center of one pair of caps with No. 10-32 x 1 1/4″ bolts; mounting the painted skegs to 1/8″ x 2″ x 5″ aluminum angle brackets with 1/4″ x 1″ fasteners; and then, in turn, bolting those hangers to the remaining pipe caps as before. (To prevent leaks from developing at the joints, it’d be a good idea to smear the mating surfaces with silicone sealant.)
Now, with both fore and aft assemblies ready, MOTHER EARTH NEWS’ freshwater salts filled the pontoon cavities with foam “packing peanuts,” smeared the inside of the pipe caps with petroleum jelly, and pressed the tips in place, locking them at the top with short sheet metal screws. Once that was done, they flattened the ends of a 10-foot length of 1/2″ conduit, repeated that performance on each of the free tiller ends, and mounted the makeshift tie rod with 1/4″ x 1″ bolts.
Jigging Through the Rigging
The 1″ x 10′ E. M. T. mast proved to be a cinch to erect. After first drilling a 1 1/4″ hole through the 1/2″ x 13 1/2 ” x 14″ mast partner — centered 10 inches behind the forward edge — Dennis and Robyn clamped the board temporarily in place at the top of the cradle frame, and set the 1/2″ x 13 1/2″ x 32″ step into its niche below. A 1 1/4″ pipe-to-hose barb threaded into a 1 1/4″ floor flange was then positioned on the step, and the mast was slipped through the partner and into the center of the fitting. Once the pole was straight, the crew marked drilling holes for the floor flange and both plywood platforms, removed the mast, made the bores, and fastened the parts in place. The partner received four No. 6 x 3/4″ panhead sheet metal screws, the step needed ten of the same, and the flange took two 1/4 ” x 1″ bolts.
Before setting the mast for good, our swabbies had to fasten a 3/16″ block pulley to its uppermost end. Then they made a boom by welding two more pulleys to a 3/4 ” x 10′ section of conduit, one 12 inches and the other 38 inches from the same end, and finished up by tacking a 1 1/4 “-diameter ring to the pole, at a point about 55 inches down the line from the center-most pulley.
The 3/4″ x 10′ E.M.T. yard — which was hinged to the boom with a 5/16″ x 2 1/2″ bolt — had a 1/2″-diameter eyebolt fastened through its body 3 feet from the unpivoted end. Once that assembly was completed, Robyn spread out a 10′ x 12′ reinforced poly tarp and laid the conduit frame on it to describe an equilateral triangle. By folding the edges around the tube, running rows of stitching along the scams, and trimming the extra material, he and Dennis were able to make themselves a pretty fair sail.
All that was left, then, was to slip the mast through the boom hoop and into its seat, fasten one 4 1/2″ cleat to the center of the aft outrigger strut and another to the cradle frame behind the partner, and rig up the 3/16″ line. The mainsheet required about 25 feet of cord, which was fastened to the canoe’s stern shackle, and run through the two boom blocks and back to the aft strut cleat. The yard halyard needed the same amount of rope, but when tied to the yard’s eyebolt, strung through the pulley on the mast, and secured to the cradle cleat, that line is used to raise and lower the sail rather than to control the boom.
Our waterborne researchers have found their new hybrid sailing canoe to be a lot more maneuverable and stable than they ever imagined. In short, they feel they’ve made their canoe a much more versatile vessel, yet one which can still be converted back to its original trim in jig time.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Always wear a life preserver when enjoying any kind of watercraft activity, and do check the boat licensing and access regulations in your area before you launch!