The Atlantic Ocean would appear to be no place for a 17-foot wood and canvas canoe. This has been pointed out to me on more than one occasion in the past few weeks.
Still, the first leg of my planned self-propelled trip from Kittery to Fort Kent will begin by launching my 1953 Old Town from Gerrish Island in Kittery on July 28.
I have paddled on saltwater plenty of times before. And I have sometimes pointed out to critics that the canoe is wider and longer than many kayaks that ply the waters of Casco Bay on a mid-summer weekend. I also have never been able to see much difference between a three-foot saltwater wave off Gerrish Island and a three-foot freshwater wave on Rangeley Lake. Both are common occurrences and both can capsize any small boat in seconds.
So . . . Rule #1: Don’t paddle either Casco Bay or Rangeley lake in three foot waves.
But in the wide spectrum between flat-calm conditions and the three-foot-wave rule there is a large gray area that needs to be addressed. Lots of non-catastrophic conditions exist that can make solo canoe paddling on big open water just plain miserable.
Tides, currents, headwinds, the wake from George Bush’s cigarette boat — and a bunch of other factors come into play. The coastline along the tip of southern Maine is relatively unprotected from the whim of these types of hazards. And although there is a degree of flexibility built in — I will have a schedule to keep that won’t allow waiting indefinitely for perfectly flat conditions.
It’s no accident that European settlers never adopted the Indian canoe paddle for saltwater travel. Oars and oarlocks were a step-up in technology that helped to tame the extremes of wind, current and tide associated with Maine’s coastline.
Canoes are fast and stable when powered by oars. I first used them trolling flies and lures for ice-out trout a few years ago. It beat the tedium of sitting in a cloud of blue outboard-engine smoke for hours at a time. And by facing the stern I could watch the progress of the lure and see the fish strike.
Seven and one-half foot, spruce oars from Shaw & Tenney in Orono — complete with sewn-on leathers and oarlocks — cost less than any small outboard engine. They will never need oil or gas, no annual service is required.
These oars are also functioning works of art. Shaw & Tenney has been making oars and paddles here in Maine since before the Civil War. They are truly a Maine institution.
The remainder of the oar rig is a mail-order hardwood frame that I adapted to bolt firmly on to a substitute thwart. Gunwale clamps keep the oar sockets solidly extended beyond the sides of the canoe to increase the reach and leverage of the oars. A home-made white cedar seat is fitted with a foot rest for additional rowing power. And a padded canoe cushion and backrest will guarantee comfort over the long haul.
The canoe is only 35 inches wide at its midsection. But with the oars attached to the rowing rig the effective beam becomes something like ten feet. Rowing is roughly twice as fast as paddling solo — and much more efficient because it requires no corrective action to offset the one-sided power stroke of the paddle.
It’s four-wheel drive for a canoe.