More thoughts of boats

Recently there have been several articles and reports about the dating of cave art in Indonesia. The cave paintings are at least 43,900 years old. They depict humanoid figures with animal-like features. Archaeologists are speculating that the paintings may have had religious significance and the mythical beings depicted could be signs of religious imagination at work. Of course much about the paintings is speculation. there is more that we do not know than what we do know. But there is significant sophistication about dating such images and their discovery could signal that more discoveries are possible, perhaps even human-created symbols that are even older.

Unless they find a picture of a boat, however, we will continue to know very little of the origins of watercraft. Virtually all early vessels were made out of materials that readily decomposed, returning to the earth the elements from which they were made. So we are left to speculate.

There is significant evidence that humans have lived near significant bodies of water for as long as we have evidence of human activity. The discovery of the cave paintings in Indonesia is a sure sign of human activity in the area of many islands. It seems conceivable that humans had been traveling over water for some time before the paintings appeared.

The first watercraft were probably little more than logs or branches to which people hung in order to increase their flotation and cross some body of water. Most likely they held onto the flotation device with their arms and kicked with their feet to propel themselves. We do have evidence that at some point, hollowed out logs were used. Perhaps the first one had been naturally hollowed by decay or insects. At some point people used both fire and tools such as the adze to remove the unwanted portion of wood from the tree. Then, through trial and error, most likely, the outside of the log was shaped to make the craft more stable. Bows and sterns were crafted to make the craft more efficient. Paddles were probably at first just branches, but later shaped to increase their effectiveness. Dugout canoes were in use well into the 19th century and replicas of earlier dugout canoes are still made today.

At some point, perhaps inspired by a lack of trees in more northern climates, people began to stretch animal skins over wooden frames to make their craft. Some covered the deck with skins to make the craft warmer and able to tackle larger waves. In places where wood was more plentiful, the practice of making bark canoes became prevalent. These lightweight craft were quick, strong, and light enough to portage, enabling people to travel great distances. When Beverly damaged, they could be left behind and a new canoe made of available materials.

Paddles became oars for balanced propulsion. Craft became larger with multiple people at the paddles or oars. Somewhere someone held a paddle blade to the wind and discovered its power to propel the craft. Animal skins held up on poles followed and the age of sail began. For the largest part of recorded human history travel by sail was the predominant way for people and goods to be transported long distance.

For some of us, the shape and design of a simple bark or skin on frame canoe represents a pinnacle of boat design. Its efficiency, stability, ease of use and other features make it an ideal boat for our use. Those of us who paddle canoes don’t have to bother with motors or complex trailers or special launching ramps. We have no need of elaborate infrastructure to support our sport. We can carry our boats to the water, launch virtually anywhere and take ourselves where we want to go on the flat water of lakes, the moving water of rivers and even around the edges of inland seas and the oceans themselves. To us our craft represent the height of sophistication and elegance.

Of course many of us decide that if one canoe is good, more would be better. My first canoe is a tandem craft, which can easily carry three people or a couple of people with a significant amount of cargo. Next I built a small one-person boat with not much rocker and not too much freeboard. It will handle two in a pinch, but is most capable when paddled solo with little or no cargo. Just me, a camera and perhaps a lunch and I can explore small bodies of water wherever I find them. Then I thought I could improve on that first canoe and built one that is just a bit better. It handles beautifully with one or two paddlers. I can make it dance when I paddle solo from near the center of the boat. Then I decided I needed a decked boat for paddling in bigger waves on the ocean and certain rivers. Then I wanted a whitewater boat that could turn on a dime and pivot on its own center of gravity. You get the picture. Before long I had enough boats that I bought a trailer so I could haul them all at once.

Like the earliest of seafarers, however, the truth is that I can only paddle one boat at a time. Although I plan to continue to make more boats and perhaps will increase the pace of my building in years to come, I am aware that I am at a point where collecting more is not a practical idea at all. One of my boats is already in the basement of my son’s home. It is particularly well suited to children and beginning paddlers. They live next to a lake. It makes sense. Other boats will be seeking new homes as well. An historic canoe that I restored a few years ago needs to remain near its roots and will become property of the Whitney Preserve, named for the boat’s first owner. Other boats are still seeking just the right place for their next adventure. Eventually, some will be allowed to fall apart and the wood in them will rot and go back to the earth. I hope to transfer the stories along with the boats when they pass from my ownership.

Who knows? Perhaps hundreds of years from now, someone will look at one of the boats and speculate about its origins. I hope they are creative and make up good stories.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!