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Building the Ultimate Expedition Kayak

Applying the Varnish

Before rigging the deck, I varnished the entire boat using high-quality Marine Spar Flagship Varnish—a popular choice because of its beautiful shine and its outstanding UV protection. Since the directions recommended allowing each coat 24 hours to dry, I applied only one coat per day, using 400-grit sandpaper to sand the surface smooth between coats. From a sanding standpoint, the last coat is the most important to get perfectly smooth. During the other coats, the only important thing is to rough up the surface a bit so the next layer can bond adequately. In other words, don't obsess too much about minor drips, sags, and runs until you begin prepping to apply the very last coat. Also, don't get too aggressive with the sandpaper or you'll end up taking off the thickness of the varnish you just put on, which means you're basically undoing your work each time. Take it from me, it's best just to lightly sand between each layer using a gentle grit of sandpaper (I used 400-grit, but if you want to get more aggressive, I still wouldn't recommend using anything coarser than 250-grit). Because fine-grit sandpapers clog easily, I recommend using 3M brand sandpaper, which lasts noticeably longer than the standard fare.

Generally speaking, four coats of varnish should suffice to ensure adequate UV and superficial scratch protection. Some builders recommend six coats to obtain a better shine, but really you need to decide for yourself how shiny you want everything to become. Regardless, be sure to put at least three coats of varnish on everything. And yes, that includes anywhere the sunshine can reach, such as inside the cockpit and immediately inside the hatches. If you put fewer than three coats, you run a much higher risk that your meticulous epoxy work may someday turn from clear to dull yellow, or perhaps even crack, because of overexposure to UV.

Because I varnished the deck first, and then the hull, I ended up sanding and varnishing for a total of eight days (four days to put four coats on the deck, four more days to put four coats on the hull). I expected this to be a tedious process, but to my surprise, this was by far the most relaxing stage of my entire kayak-building experience. There is something soothing about standing alone in a quiet garage with no sound but the sweep of the brush back and forth against the wood, and the faint smell of varnish lingering in the air. It's almost spiritual to watch the whitish, scratchy surface of a freshly-sanded kayak suddenly come to life with the rich, warm colors and patterns of the wood as the varnish restores the fiberglass to its former clarity and grants the cedar a whole new lustre.

Some builders obsess over the varnishing stage so much as to insist that you need to build a hermetically-sealed environment to get your kayak looking right. While it is true that you want to eliminate as much dust and debris from your varnishing workspace as possible, your meticulousness need only go so far. Yes, bugs might land in the varnish. Yes, a tiny amount of dust might sift down from the ceiling or from overhead garage lights. Yes, some of your hair might accidentally fall out and land on the freshly varnished surface. But honestly, unless you start kicking things around the garage or keep opening the garage door ten times in a day, it is probably sufficient simply to sweep the floor, let the dust settle for about two hours, and then start varnishing.

Let me offer this disclaimer: I'm not a maker of fine furniture; I'm a paddler who likes to build boats. My standards may not be as high as those of some builders out there. But having said that, I am pretty darn picky about the quality of the stuff I build. And in my humble, non-expert opinion, I achieved truly fantastic results simply by varnishing in a clean-swept garage. I didn't hang up plastic sheets or tape bags over the ceiling lights. I didn't "quarantine" my kayak to keep it away from insects and dust. I didn't wear a hair-net or obsess about putting on clean, dust-free clothes before each coat. All I did was sweep the floor quickly, let the dust settle for two hours, and then begin varnishing. In fact, to ensure good ventilation for the varnish fumes, I even left the garage door open during the application of each coat! As soon as I finished coating the boat, I closed the garage door and did not open it again until the next day, when it was time to sand and apply the next coat. And guess what? No problems! I'm sure there are insects in my garage, but none of them ended up stuck in my varnish. And yes, there's plenty of dust in my garage, but only a few small particles ever made their way into one of my glossy coats—and even then a quick scratch with my fingernail removed the offending specks easily. So if you want my two cents, exert some effort to reduce unnecessary dust and debris, but don't stress yourself trying to create a workspace cleaner than most hospitals. My varnish job turned out better than fine.

Rigging the Deck

A picture of the 'soft padeye' at work. A small loop of webbing is forced through a slit in the deck and then siliconed in place to serve as a solid anchor point for the deck rigging. A view of the deck rigging. Here, a length of 1/4-inch shock cord has been routed back and forth through six soft padeyes (three on each side of the deck).

Once the varnish dried, I attached the deck rigging using a variation of Joe Greenley's "soft padeye" approach, which has the advantage of requiring absolutely no metal hardware anywhere on the deck. This of course means that there is nothing to scratch, bang, or tear your flesh against when you're paddling or attempting rescues in rough conditions. It also looks just plain nice—certainly more elegant than a lot of other deck rigging solutions I've seen.

Basically, the process involves melting a short length of 1-inch webbing into a closed loop with a thick plastic backing. These are incredibly simple to make: just fold a 6-inch piece of webbing in half, clamp it between two metal plates or pieces of wood with the ends sticking up about one inch, and light the ends on fire, allowing them to burn and melt until they have fused together and created a bulbous mass. Congratulations! You've created a soft padeye. Now you just need to cut a 1-inch long slit in the deck, no thicker than each loop of webbing, and force the loop up through the slit, taking care to seal it in place with industrial-grade flexible, waterproof bathroom sealant. Cut a slit everywhere you need a solid anchor point for your deck rigging, and seal a loop in place at each slit.

For the deck rigging immediately in front of the cockpit, I made six soft padeyes and cut six corresponding slits in the deck (three on each side of the deck). After these were sealed in place with silicone, I routed a length of 1/4-inch shock-cord back and forth across the deck in a criss-cross pattern. Taking care to test how much tension would be in the resulting rigging, I then tied the shock-cord into a closed loop and concealed the knot inside one of the soft padeye loops to make it less conspicuous. I used the same technique to create a loop of bungee near the bow and the stern of the boat (for storing spare paddles or other gear) and to create a pair of webbing straps with quick-release buckles running over each of the two main hatches.

A view of the perimeter line tied off at the bow to a small loop of the same cord which runs through the same hole used for the front carrying toggle.

When it came time to add perimeter line, I used 3M 4mm reflective niteline cord. Twenty feet was plenty to rig the front and the rear deck with perimeter line, and the soft padeyes for the deck rigging made the whole process a snap. Sticking to my plan for having no metal hardware anywhere on the deck, I drilled a small hole (slightly smaller than the diameter of the perimeter line) behind the two padeyes closest to the cockpit. Then I threaded the perimeter line through and tied a knot inside the cockpit to prevent it from being pulled back out. As a result, it creates the illusion of a perimeter line that starts at the first padeye in front of the cockpit (exactly where it should start), runs all the way to the bow (where I tied it off to a small loop running through the same hole used for the front bow toggle), and then back to the first padeye in front of the cockpit on the other side. Repeat this process for the rear deck if you desire another perimeter line aft of the cockpit.

The Rule 500 gph bilge pump, permanently mounted in the cockpit and attached to a discrete, 1/2-inch outlet hole located off to one side of the rear deck.

Next I drilled a small, 1/2-inch hole in the rear deck as an outlet for the bilge pump. After epoxying a threaded PVC hose attachment into a block of wood, I epoxied the block of wood up against the rear deck in line with the outlet hole. A day later, after it had dried sufficiently, I attached the bilge pump via a short length of hose and used 5-minute epoxy to permanently mount the removable base of the bilge pump to the center floor of the cockpit, tight against the rear bulkhead. As I found out later in testing, the 5-minute epoxy holds well when undisturbed, but is not strong enough to keep the bilge pump from being knocked loose if you bump it during the hip-flick motion of the eskimo roll or accidentally squash some piece of gear against it. In the future, a protective enclosure will need to be epoxied or screwed in place to prevent the pump from being knocked loose.

Since, in my particular set-up, the solar-powered battery pack is stored inside the day-hatch compartment, the bilge pump power wires run straight through the bulkhead, through small holes drilled no larger than the diameter of the wires themselves and then sealed thoroughly with silicone. I mounted the waterproof switch for the pump just behind the left thigh pad, so that activating the pump would be as easy as reaching down at my left hip and flipping the toggle switch to "on". Although I have never yet needed to use the bilge pump in a serious emergency, some basic testing shows this position to be fairly convenient since it not only can be reached while sitting in the cockpit, but it can also be reached from outside the kayak, swimming alongside it, as may happen during a real-world capsize and wet-exit.

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