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Home Port — Making a Berth for Your Boat

By Tamia Nelson
tamia@paddling.net

April 13, 2004

Are you the proud owner of a new boat? Congratulations! Any day you bring home a new canoe or kayak is a red-letter day. But where will your boat live between adventures? You can't store it on your car's roof rack, after all, and not every berth is a safe one.

If you haven't given this much thought, you're not alone — many paddlers don't. They prop their boats against the side of the garage or slide them under the lilacs in a corner of the yard, and then they hope for the best. That's what I did with my first canoe. Luckily, I learned better before it was too late.

A friend put me wise. One look was all Jack needed to begin ticking off the shortcomings of my boat's garage-side berth. My boat was visible from the road, a much-traveled state highway. The only thing missing was a sign on it saying "Free Canoe!" Before long, Jack predicted, the boat would be missing, too. Nor was that all. After every summer shower, runoff from the roof soaked the canoe's ash rails, thwarts, and seats. The boat rested on the ground. Weeds grew up around it, trapping moisture for days. Rot was inevitable, Jack warned me. But the weeds didn't grow high enough to give much shade. The noonday sun beat down remorselessly on my boat's upturned hull. Jack pointed out that the glossy red finish would soon be a chalky pink.

I didn't intend to let any of these things happen, though. I immediately set about finding a proper storage place for my beauty. First, I moved the boat to an old slate patio behind the house, out of sight of the road. A small grove of young locust trees cast a welcome pool of shadow and acted as a windbreak. Next, I got the boat up off the ground on two sawhorses, padding the cross members with carpet remnants to protect the gunwales. A well-guyed tarp completed the job. It protected the hull from sun and rain, while the guy lines kept my boat from becoming airborne during summer thunderstorms. In less than an hour, I was done. And I'd learned a few valuable pointers in the process.

Canoes and kayaks are like pets — if you want them to age gracefully, they need care and attention. Neglect them, however, and they'll die young. I wouldn't wish that on a dog, would you? I didn't think so. OK. Let's take a look at your boat's needs.

Shelter

First and foremost, keep your boat where it's safe from the ravages of sun, wind, and rain, and shield it from unwelcome attention. My grandfather called this "keeping honest men honest." It's only common sense.

Sun, wind, and rain. They're what makes paddling worthwhile, aren't they? Yes. A sunny day is a glorious thing, to be sure. But sunlight is as hard on your boat's skin as it is on your own. After too much time in the sun, once-resilient plastics become brittle. This is not good. When the rocks that you once wobbled over start generating ominous cracking noises, you'll have to retire Old Faithful to Golden Pond. The sun's rays also weaken nylon painters and grab loops. Polyester line fares better, but it's best to keep all cordage out of the sun when possible.

There's more. While the sun's ultraviolet rays weaken the bonds in your boat's plastic hull, the sun's heat can actually make its keel droop. Early polyethylene boats sagged so noticeably that they were christened "spastic plastic." Newer boats are less vulnerable, but no plastic boat — and remember that a fiberglass boat is a plastic boat — is completely immune. Even aluminum canoes can suffer from too much sun. Over time, the sun's heat can damage the rubber sealant along a tin tank's keel. The resulting leak, though seldom catastrophic, is a nuisance that no canoeist needs. Inflatable boats, too, should be kept out of the sun when not in use. Hot air expands, and the increased pressure can strain seams.

And what about rain? Water is a boat's natural home, isn't it? Once again, yes. But no boat likes being wet all the time. Wet wood trim will rot, and water can also infiltrate the hulls of fiberglass and Kevlar® boats, weakening the bonds between layers in the laminate. Freeze-thaw cycles are particularly damaging. Happily, good air circulation helps prevent moisture damage. Allow your canoe or kayak to dry completely after each trip, and store it out of the weather. If you don't have space in the garage, at least cover your boat with a tarp. This applies to aluminum canoes, too. While the tin tank may appear invulnerable, it's not. If an aluminum canoe is stored in the open, water can collect in its seams. Later, when the water freezes, it pushes the seams apart. Over many years and many winters, the seams can open. The result? A leak. Keep your tin tank dry between trips, though, and your knees will stay dry as well.

Is that the whole story? Not quite. Too much of a good thing can be…well…too much. Air circulation is good, but too much air moving too fast can carry your boat into the next county. Always tie your canoe or kayak down when storing it outside. Then you'll be sure it won't get carried away. Don't be fooled. Size is no protection. Though pack canoes and other lightweights are quickest to get airborne, even freighters will take flight in a gale. And now that you're thinking about airborne hazards, look up when you choose your boat's berth. Wind-blown debris — falling limbs, sections of metal roofing, even highway grit — can damage any boat. So can toppling piles of cordwood. Farwell learned this early in his paddling career.

Wind, rain, sun. They're the Big Three, but not all threats are inanimate. Insects and wildlife are almost certain to set up house in your boat if you don't take steps to discourage them. Preventing rot and touching up the varnish on wood trim when needed will deter many insect pests, but the sheltered nooks and crannies in canoes and kayaks look a lot like home to mice, squirrels, and other small animals. Salt from sea water or sweat can attract porcupines, too, and few creatures can resist the temptation of a free lunch. If you'd rather watch wildlife at a distance, therefore, it's best to remove any leftovers from yesterday's waterside picnic without delay. In fact, it's a good idea to rinse off your boat with fresh water after every trip. Allow it to dry thoroughly before covering it up, however. A cockpit cover will discourage small critters from moving into a stored kayak, but don't cinch the cover in place until the boat is dry inside and out.

Of course, finding a place to store your boat is only half the battle. The other half is getting it off the ground.

Support

The best place to berth a boat is on a rack in a large, airy boathouse, but if you don't happen to have a boathouse handy, don't worry. The catalogs now offer a wide array of "storage solutions" that permit you to make the most of the space in your garage or basement — or even your apartment. Farwell and I once used a pack canoe as a coffee table in our living room. It worked fine. If you're thinking of trying something like this, however, be sure to measure the available space first. Even a pack canoe starts looking mighty big when you bring it into a tiny apartment.

Handy paddlers and do-it-yourself types may want to build their own storage solutions. After all, a boat rack is no more difficult to make than a wannigan or a deadman. If you're in need of ideas to get you started, take a look at the sketch below. Want more detailed plans? You'll find them in old editions of Canoeing, by the American National Red Cross. Chances are you have the materials you need already. The scrap lumber left over from your last building project, for instance, or the lengths of PVC pipe from the time when you remodeled the bathroom. Rope and webbing can also be used to suspend boats from ceiling joists in the garage or basement. Kayaks are usually stored upright — often on shaped cradles — while canoes are typically inverted and placed on their gunwales. These rules aren't carved in stone, of course, but use your common sense. Never store any boat upright where it can fill with water. Water is terribly heavy.

In a hurry? You can always use sawhorses.

Rack 'em Up!

Whichever design you choose, make sure it's strong enough to carry the load. And if you're storing your boat outside, always be mindful of overhanging tree limbs and other hazards.

Some canoes and kayaks require more attention than others. You could say that these are boats requiring…

Special Handling

Wood-canvas, birch-bark, and wood-strip canoes aren't your average water toys. Neither are skin boats and kayaks, even if their "skin" is a high-tech fabric. All such heirloom craft should be stored inside and inspected regularly for damage.

Folding boats and inflatables are skin boats, too. They need extra attention. It's true that they can be kept in a closet between trips — a big, well-ventilated closet, to be sure — but it's vital to clean them and then dry them thoroughly before putting them away, loosely rolled or folded. The importance of good housekeeping can't be overstated. Sand and cold temperatures are the great enemies of all skin boats. Sand abrades fabric, weakens seams, and clogs ferrules. Cold cracks coated fabrics. The moral? If you own a boat in a bag, keep it as clean as possible. And don't fold (or unfold) it until the fabric has had a chance to warm up.

Trailers aren't boats, and few of them are heirlooms. But they also need special handling. The highway is an unforgiving environment. Inspect hitches, brakes, and bearings regularly, and maintain them as needed. If your boat is secured to your trailer with webbing straps, don't forget to check them, too.

You've spent good money on your new boat. And you're looking forward to a long and happy life together. You don't want to endanger your relationship before it's properly begun, do you? Of course not. Fortunately, it's easy to make a safe berth for your canoe or kayak. You'll be glad you did — and so will your boat.

Copyright 2004 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.






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