Instant Rowboat

by Josh Withe – Lebanon, Maine - USA

Some time back in the late 70’s or early 80’s my parents bought a Coleman Canoe. This was back when you paid extra for a canoe shaped canoe; instead ours came with the hull folded flat, with all the rails, hardware, and flotation blocks in a box. I don’t remember the hull being flat, but do have a vague memory of my dad putting the foam blocks into the boxed in ends of the canoe.

Over the years the canoe took our family on many trips exploring rivers, lakes, and the Atlantic Ocean. My sister and I both have memories of riding, back to back against the center thwart (any movement to the side brought a quick “don’t tip the boat!”. The captain insists my sister tended to lunge to the side she was pointing toward 🙂 ).

The shortest paddle we ever took was also one of the most memorable. With the canoe parallel to the bank, my sister and I both got in (back to back), then my mom in the bow, as my dad stepped down into the stern he caught the outer canoe rail. The canoe flipped and left my mom and I in nearly waist deep water. My mom yelled “where’s Hannah?”, we flipped the canoe back upright and there was my sister still clinging firmly to both rails and seated on her cushion. Somehow my dad only seemed to be wet up to his ankles, and my sister and I couldn’t believe we had to load up and go home again. For one summer most Saturday mornings my dad took me fishing. While I don’t really care to fish, I almost always caught something. Mostly I remember the time we chased a large black snake across the pond as it swam on the surface. (I was having a very bad year in school and spending that time helped me a lot) Unlike a wooden boat that requires maintenance and upkeep, the plastic/aluminum canoe was maintenance free. Wash the dirt off, brush the spider webs out, and it was ready to go. If you’ve read “push poles on the Ice pond” you know about the fun we had exploring the new beaver pond behind our new house. Our family also took the canoe exploring on the upper Parker River marshes a few times. I’ve found some slides from one trip, and still can remember towing my little Adventure People, Grumman canoe on a string, mostly because it made as much wake as our own canoe.

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As we got older, my sister and I began to use the canoe more on our own. I can still remember the time we got caught out on the Parker River by a powerful squall. Rather than being frightened by the waves, wind and dark clouds, my sister just knelt in the bow and kept paddling in spite of the spray. We wouldn’t have made it back to the car if she’d given up. I can also remember the time we went around a corner in her car and the canoe slipped off the roof and went around the corner still tied to the car, but sliding on its keel. No harm to the canoe or car resulted; try that with any wooden boat! (A 15’ canoe was probably a little long for her little Ford Festiva)

The canoe even spent a summer at my girlfriend’s house, to make it easier for us to get out on the water before my night shift job. Paddling on the Concord River just upstream from the Battle bridge, as well as local lakes and rivers in the area.

When we were first married my wife and I drove the 45 min from York, ME to the Rings Island Rowing Club in Salisbury, MA, for the weekly rowing sessions. We soon found the drive long, and the work involved in borrowing a boat to take rowing in ME, and then returning it too much. Since my parents hadn’t used the canoe in years, one Saturday I brought the canoe to Maine, where it stayed for the next 8 years.

We paddled the York River, York Harbor around the Nubble Light house and back, and a few other places. Then we moved inland and discovered new lakes. Milton Three ponds, Lake Mousam, lake Murdock, Great East Lake (where the Maine, New Hampshire border is no longer a straight line, as it then follows the Salmon Falls River south). After we moved we gave up on the drive to the rowing club and focused entirely on canoeing. We also began a, sort of, tradition of canoe camping for our Anniversary, the first camping ever for my wife, and my first canoe camping.

After our first child was old enough to wear a life jacket, we went canoeing again, only this time my wife had to hold the baby and I ended up with the worst backache ever from trying to paddle the canoe solo. Not wanting to give up on boating, I decided to add oars to the canoe, but knew that a canoe is too narrow for efficient rowing, so I came up with outriggers. The outriggers were simple 2×4’s attached in a V shape and secured to the rails and carry thwart by U-bolts. While they were functional, they were ugly, interfered with loading and unloading the canoe, and tended to mash my fingers when reaching for a good return (when the oar handles are farthest from the rower).

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I needed something that fit with the canoe better, and came up with folding outriggers from an article in MAIB. Using large gate hinges, and mounting the oar locks upside down, I was able to make a functional rowing canoe, that also was easy to load and unload, and could be paddled with no interference. Now I had the perfect boat for my family, not only did get my favorite exercise, rowing, but my wife could take care of the kid(s), read, or paddle when she was needed/wanted to.

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Only one child has ever fallen out of the canoe. Our first child was very curious and fearless, she was leaning over the side to play with the water, when she fell overboard, my wife grabbed her ankle, but couldn’t pull her back in. I had to tell my wife to “let go!”, as we were dragging her head in the water. When she let go, our daughter’s life jacket turned her head up, after I got the canoe stopped and backed up to her she was just starting to fuss, she didn’t like how the life jacket also rolled her onto her back in the water. For the a few minutes she sat on mommy’s lap wrapped in a towel, but curiosity got the better of her, and before long she was actually dragging a foot in the water! Only now she had a firm grip on the canoe rail with both hands. (this past spring that same girl launched her own kayak, it took her two years to complete Beta, but she loves her purple kayak, and the fact that it is the fastest boat in the family fleet)

Due to the speed of the canoe under oars I gave up on the smaller ponds near us and stuck to Milton Three ponds (literally three ponds joined together by narrow rivers) or Lake Mousam, as they gave me hours of rowing without having to go around in circles. As the kids multiplied and got bigger, we went from a small car to a minivan and the canoe got smaller. We were wondering how to fix the space issue, when my parents asked for their canoe back. (This was the same year the beaver pond returned)

I wanted another canoe, only a 17 footer to fit all of us with room to spare. Being spring time, and a bad year for gas prices, many people were searching for canoes, the few that showed up in my price range (craigslist) were gone almost as fast as they were listed. More than one seller told me I could try back if the guy on the way there didn’t buy it.

I had just about given up on a 17 foot canoe; I figured we could make do with a 15 footer if we had to. I finally found a 15 foot Coleman canoe, but then noticed another listing for someone who wanted to trade a 17 foot canoe for a 15 footer.

When I got to the 15 foot canoe, it turned out the canoe was in tougher shape than the seller had let on. He got it for free with a vacation home, as a tree had fallen on it and bent one end. I ended up buying the canoe, and then spent an hour or so hammering, bending, and straightening the bent tubes. Other than a slightly lopsided end the canoe would float, BUT, one of the aft seat support braces was broken. The woman who wanted to swap needed secure seats in her canoe (she was very determined on that point).

I had noticed a local hardware store back in town on my way up, so I went in with a section of the seat tubing and searched for something that would fit inside it. I finally found a wooden broom handle, and asked one of the salesmen to cut a short section off and then hammered it inside the brace tubing. (If you ever saw the movie “on golden pond”, the lake they actually filmed the movie on is probably still home to the lopsided canoe)

I got to the swap point a little late, and told the woman I would understand if she didn’t want to swap for a slightly bent boat. It turned out she had a hip replacement and couldn’t drag the 17 foot canoe to the beach by herself anymore. She loves to fish, and couldn’t always get someone to help her move the boat. She tried the boat out, and after a short paddle in the slightly bent canoe, we made the swap and were both happy with our new canoes.

I had our new red canoe ready to row in a few days. Since then we’ve had plenty of time on the water, the kids got some more room to spread out, and my wife still has her place to just sit or paddle as she chooses.

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Of course children don’t stop growing, the two extra feet were enough for one summer, but then the baby was no longer happy to ride on my wife’s lap, which led to a conflict over foot space in the aft end of the canoe. A quick fix was to put one kid in the bow, but this became a logistics issue when passing out snacks and drinks.

This was the point where I finally built mouseboats, first for my two oldest, then two more for my wife and I. After a year or so we hadn’t used Cheerio (named for the rain of snacks that often fell out as I lifted it onto the van) so I listed her on Craigslist. Within two days she was headed off to another family with children, minus the rowing rig, which nobody else wanted.

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NOTES: While a plastic canoe isn’t what most people consider a good boat, how else are you going to skip directly to the oar lock mounting, phase of boat building if you want to get out on the water NOW?! If this inspires you to modify your own canoe, I made a set of step by step instructions here,

I also made the oars, I ripped a 2×4 to make the shafts, cut a slot in the ends of the shafts wide enough to slip a ¼” sheet of plywood in. After I drew a blade shape I liked, cut it out and copied it to make two roughly similar blades (the rough edge comes from the fact I didn’t own a skill saw at the time, I was using a rotozip, and in a hurry). Then I used West system epoxy to glue the blades into the shafts and coat the whole blade and oar. To protect the shafts where the oar lock rides, I wound garden twine around the shaft and then filled the twine with epoxy. The oars are 9.5’ long over all. A little long for the narrow spread of the oar locks, but perfect for me. (I always rowed the dories with the longest oars I could get)

My dad’s canoe still has the outriggers and oarlocks mounted on it, the outriggers don’t interfere with paddling at all, if you look at the pictures of the green canoe closely you can spot them folded away neatly. That old green canoe still sits beside the beaver pond in my parents back yard, mostly being a home to ants and mice. Every now and then she gets dragged out of the brush, hosed down, and chases the kids around the beaver pond in their fleet of mouseboats.

This past summer the old green canoe saw no use, when we paddled on the beaver pond there were enough mice, and a few Sawfish, enough boats for everyone who wanted. My parents have put their house on the market, it looks like I might end up with the old green coleman canoe again…

8 Comments

  1. My family once had a Coleman 17 footer. I remember one night my mom, my sister and I were on board, paddling it across the lake. It was a breeze less night and the water was flat a a pane of glass. Just when we got out into the middle of the lake, the norther lights put on a fabulous display.
    I’ll never forget it.

  2. Great read ! I was given a damaged red Coleman many years ago , repaired the bent aluminum rails and we continue to use it, now with the grandchildren !

  3. Thank you, Josh, for your very interesting story about your early life and boating! I still have most of your info about foam kayaks (Sawfish and others!) bookmarked and, maybe, some day I will try them out!

  4. Sailboatstogo.com has a rowing rig conversion kit for canoes. Looks well engineered, has added plus of preving capsize it you add pontoons to the outriggers which they also sell.

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