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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Practical Paddler

A First-Aid Kit for Your Boat and Gear

By Tamia Nelson

May 18, 2004

It happened in northern Québec on a fine late-summer day. Dazzling sunlight winked on dancing waves. A warm breeze hissed through the boughs of the stunted riverbank spruce. The evening was still a long way off. There was plenty of time to kick back and savor the wild, lone land. No need to rush. Yet Ken and Kathy were in a terrible hurry. They'd already been bitten by too many black flies, staggered across too many grueling portages, and missed too many showers. They weren't having fun anymore. They wanted out. A railroad bridge crossed the river not too many miles downstream, and the weekly bush train was due in less than 24 hours. If they got to the crossing before the train did, they'd soon be on their way home. But the clock was ticking. So they started taking chances.

Around a bend in the river, we hit a short Class IV drop. Farwell and I got ready to portage. Ken thought he and Kathy could line. "Piece of cake," he said. "Faster, too." And so it was, until.… Halfway down, their Mad River Explorer surged against the long stern painter, pulling Kathy off a precarious perch on a refrigerator-sized rock. In a heartbeat, the canoe's upstream gunwale went under. Kathy let go of the painter to keep from following the canoe. She and Ken had no float bags in their boat, and the lid on their big dry-box wasn't as well sealed as the manufacturer had claimed. The Explorer filled with water, then shot downriver, continuing its submarine journey until it wrapped a mid-channel boulder in a clinging embrace. We could hear the crack of the ash gunwales above the roar of the rapids.

Ken didn't lose any time. When we got to Kathy, he was already swimming away from shore, groping from one eddy to the next until he reached his boat. There he set to work salvaging their gear. I threw two lines out to Ken. He wrapped the first one around the hull and tied it off on an intact thwart. Then he began lashing packs to the second. Back on shore, we rigged a pulley on the first line and prepared to pull the canoe off the rock. Out in midriver, Ken worked feverishly. He soon had his camera bag tied onto the second line, along with a rucksack, three of his four paddles, and — irony of ironies — both bailers. The dry-box defeated him, however. He'd clipped the box's corners into aircraft-cable loops rove through the Explorer's wooden gunwales. It had always been a tight fit. Now that the gunwales were a splintered, twisted wreck, the clips where under too much strain to open.

Luckily, Ken had a repair kit in his rucksack, and in the kit he had a pair of pliers with a wire-cutter. The wire-cutter hadn't been designed to cut aircraft cable, but it was all Ken had. Slowly, one strand at a time, he began cutting the first of the wire loops that tied the waterlogged dry-box to his canoe. By the time he'd finished, his hands were torn and bloody. Still, he figured it was worth it. Only three clips now held the dry-box in place. Another spasm of effort freed it from the second loop. The remaining clips were loose enough to open normally. The dry-box soon joined the other packs on the line.

We hauled in the gear. Then we started on the boat. As we heaved, the tension on the line that Ken had wrapped around the hull rolled the canoe over and then eased it free. It swung toward shore. When we'd secured the canoe, Ken jumped off the rock and began working his way back, buoyed up by the extra foam in his "Hi-Float" life vest.

Happy ending? Not quite. Ken's hands were a mess. And his boat wasn't looking much better. Its once-straight keel now formed a crooked "U," with the bottom of the bilge bulging above the gunwales. Worse yet, each ash rail was broken in several places. But Ken wasn't the type to give up easily. He carried his boat to a more or less level patch on the river's cobble shore. Then he set it upright — or as near upright as it would go — and began to dance a jig on the protruding bilge, hopping up and down with all of his 200-odd pounds. Farwell joined him. ABS-laminate is sturdy stuff. In just a few minutes, the wreck began to look like a canoe again. Even the gunwales returned to something like their original contours.

While I coiled and stowed the salvage lines, Kathy spread her gear out to dry in the last hours of daylight. Later, as we set up a riverbank camp, Ken continued his first-aid efforts. He trimmed the splintered rails with the large blade on his Swiss Army knife, using the tiny file when he needed to. It was slow going, and we could track his progress by the blood stains on the wood. Before long, however, the cracked gunwales once again described smooth curves. Duct tape, wire, and splints quarried from the "closet of the woods" finished the job. Next, Ken covered the cracks in his boat's vinyl outer skin with more duct tape.

Now only a few final touches remained. Ken deployed his Swiss Army knife's screwdriver to tighten the screws holding the Explorer's short decks to the gunwales, while his ditty bag supplied a substitute for one screw that got away. Loops of nylon cord replaced the aircraft cables that had cost Ken so much frantic effort, and Skotch® fasteners brought the halves of a split paddle blade together. A duct-tape bandage covered the join. By the time the last tinge of red left the evening sky, the Explorer was a fair approximation of its old self: a bit battered, to be sure, but ready to head downriver.

Come dawn, we were all on the water again. The worst of the rapids lay behind us, and when the train sounded its whistle at the rail crossing, Ken and Kathy were there to meet it. We helped them load their battered boat in the baggage car, then waved goodbye as the engine pulled away. The last car of the train soon vanished into the shadows of the forest. It had been a close-run thing. Ken's ingenuity and foresight had made all the difference. The lesson was obvious. Good paddlers — and Ken was a very good paddler, with thousands of miles of whitewater under his keel — sometimes make bad decisions. When they do, only a narrow line separates triumph from tragedy. Make sure you end up on the right side of that line. Even on short trips, carry a first-aid kit for your boat, as well as for yourself. Sometimes Golden Pond has surprises every bit as as unpleasant as Dangerous River. Now let's take a look at what you might want to bring along.


The Right Tool for the Job

Tools are a large part of what makes us human. Without the right tool for the job, simple tasks become difficult and difficult tasks are all but impossible. Each trip is different, of course, and each boat has unique requirements. So take only what you need. Here are some suggestions to get your started:

  • Knife  The ur-tool. Don't leave home without one. Or two. I always carry a sheath knife or folder on my person, but I also have a Swiss Army knife in my repair kit. Not too many days go by when I don't use it. A thin layer of petroleum jelly on the blades helps keep the stainless steel stainless, even around salt water.

  • Pliers  As most anglers learn early in their lives, fingers have their limitations. A light pair of needle-nose pliers from my fly-tying kit comes along on every trip. They've already helped repair stuttering stoves, restored zipper pulls that ran off the rails at the height of blackfly season, and mended Farwell's eyeglasses — and I keep finding new uses for them.

  • Wire Cutters  Handy if you use wire-loop tie-downs, or if you ride your bike to the put-in. Be warned, though: the wire cutters on most needle-nose pliers are for light-duty use only. Farwell just picked up a sturdy diagonal cutter at the local dollar shop for — you guessed it — one dollar, and the price included a companion pair of needle-nose pliers. They ain't pretty, but the two of them are light enough to take along on any trip. And they work!

  • Open-End or Box-End Wrenches  Some stove repairs are impossible without the right wrench, as is most work on outboard motors and bikes. Take only the sizes you need.

  • Screwdrivers When you've got to drive a screw and you don't have a screwdriver, you're…well…screwed. Many Swiss Army knives have a good assortment. If yours doesn't, take what you need — straight, Phillips, or Allen (hex-head) — in sizes that fit your screws. And don't forget a jeweler's screwdriver for your eyeglasses, if you wear them.

  • Awl  Swiss Army knives have 'em. They're useful for boring holes in wood or plastic — to take a wire tie, say, or to stop a crack in a polyethylene hull from growing. An awl is also handy for putting new holes in your belt when the summer's three-mile portages start eating into your winter waistline.

  • Small Flashlight  A headlamp is best. In fact, it's just about essential if you have to do repairs after the sun goes down, or if you need to find a leak hidden away in a dark corner of your kayak. Holding a flashlight in your teeth gets old in a hurry. The new LED lights are very light and usually plenty bright. There's a bonus, too: the batteries last just about forever.

  • Magnifying Eyeglasses  These aren't just for middle-aged eyes. Even if you have perfect vision, the magnifying glasses sold in every drugstore and dollar shop make it easier to locate tiny screws. They help the navigator see the small letters on her GPS display, too, not to mention the minuscule print on some topographic maps and charts. I have several pairs tucked away in various places — repair kit, medical kit, and rucksack, not to mention my bike's bar-bag.

  • Scissors  It's easier to shape a patch with a sharp pair of scissors than a sheath knife — and scissors make trimming your toenails less bloody, into the bargain.

  • Speedy Stitcher® or Sailmaker's Palm.  One of these travels in my ditty bag. Always.

Whew! Are you worried you'll need another boat just to carry your tools? Relax. Nowadays, even Nessmuk could find a tool kit light enough to suit him. I used to think that the popular "multi-tools" were toys. But I was wrong. The ingenious devices made by Leatherman®, Gerber, and others have won over millions of sportsmen and outdoorswomen for some very good reasons. They're functional and compact, and there's one for almost any need (or budget). In time, they may even replace the Swiss Army knife in my affections.

Whatever tools you carry, however, they won't do you much good if you can't find them when you need them. A nylon tool roll (look in surplus outlets and hardware stores), stuff sack, or plastic box will keep everything in one place. Make sure it's packed where you can get at it easily.


Of course, tools are only part of the picture. You'll also need…

Bo's'n's Stores

In the days of sail, the bo's'n (boatswain) was the man who looked after the ship's canvas, rigging, and ground tackle. Even today, on naval vessels and merchantmen alike, the bo's'n has direct charge of all work on deck. Your canoe or kayak may not be a supertanker or a ship-of-the-line, but it still needs a bo's'n. And the bo's'n is no better than his stores. Be sure you always have what you need to repair your boat. Here are a few ideas:

  • Duct Tape  If the Swiss Army knife is the universal tool, duct tape is the universal repair material. It binds, seals, splints, and protects. Quality counts here. If the adhesive won't stick to just about anything, the tape is useless. The best I've used is "90 MPH™ Tape," sold mostly through military surplus outlets. It sticks like a tick and hangs tight day after day. Stow it in a plastic bag to keep the edges of the roll from sticking to everything in your pack.

  • Rip-Stop Repair Tape  Not a substitute for duct tape — it's much more expensive, for one thing — but handy for repairing tents, tarps, anoraks, and spray skirts.

  • Nuts-'n'-Bolts Can  Think of this as the bo's'n's counterpart to a shooter's "possibles bag." Nuts go missing. Screws unscrew. Washers rust away. A small tin holding a good selection of nuts, bolts, and washers to fit your seats, foot braces, rudder assembly, and stove can be a trip-saver. If you'll be traveling very far off the beaten track and relying on a rudder, a spare rudder cable (with all the necessary fittings) makes good sense, too, though it won't fit in a film can.

  • Plastic Cable Ties  Also known as "zip-ties," these sturdy composite ties give duct tape a run for its money in the versatility stakes, despite the fact that zip-ties can't cover a crack in your boat's hull. They make great semi-permanent lashing loops, and they do a fine job securing splints to gunwales and paddle shafts. You can even use them as temporary substitutes for missing seat-bolts. They can't be reused, though, so bring a dozen or more — and don't use them to secure anything you'll need to get at in a hurry! The only way to undo a cable tie is to cut it, and that's not as easy as it sounds.

  • Wire  "Soft" steel wire will do many of the jobs that cable ties do, and more besides. But it takes a little longer to twist it into place, and you need pliers to cut it to size.

  • Nylon Parachute Cord  Another maid-of-all-work. Use it for storm guys, clothes lines, and bootlaces. You can even use it to lash a split paddle shaft.

  • Wetsuit Repair Kit  You don't want your wetsuit to be too wet, do you? A square of neoprene and a tube of contract cement make repairs a snap.

  • Skotch® Fasteners  You probably won't find any in your local Big Box outlet, but many rural hardware stores have a box or two of these staples-on-steroids tucked away somewhere. They're just the ticket for emergency repairs to split wooden paddle blades.


And now for Job One:

A Hull Repair Kit

No one needs to be be reminded that wood-canvas canoes, foldboats, and inflatables are vulnerable to cuts and scrapes. But not even ABS-vinyl laminates and polyethylene are indestructible. When duct tape isn't enough to get you back on the water, you need the right stuff to stick the pieces of your boat together again. Most manufacturers sell hull repair kits for every type of boat they make. Buy one. Be sure that the kit has plenty of material, however, and that the adhesive is fresh.

Just how much material — fabric (or plastic sheet) and glue — is enough? That depends. How big is your boat? If your trusty craft were torn in two, would you have enough of everything to make it whole again? Unless the answer is an unequivocal "Yes," you'll want to beef up your kit's contents. Anytime you need a hull repair kit, you usually need it bad. This isn't the best time to discover that the epoxy has "gone off," or that the kit contains only a couple of six-inch squares of fiberglass cloth. Be sure you have enough of the indispensable little things, too: measuring and mixing cups, applicators, and sandpaper. And read the instructions. Twice. They may contain a few surprises. If you have a poly boat, you'll probably need a propane torch, for example. (A Svea stove makes a workable substitute — if you wear heavy gloves and always hold the stove right side up, that is.)

It's possible to assemble your own hull repair kit from scratch, of course, but make sure you know what to get. Unless you've done a lot of repair work, you'll need help. Ask the manufacturer's advice, just to be on the safe side.

We've all heard about the old woodsman who spent weeks in the backcountry with only a knife, a skillet, and a wool blanket. And I've known a few who could. But times have changed. Maybe we have, too. I bring my knife and my skillet, but I don't stop there. I want to leave the woods in the boat that brung me. The right tools and a good selection of bo's'n's stores make this easy. Don't leave home without them!

Copyright 2004 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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