Kayaks on the Med

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Ilan Sahar and Eyal Vardi combined their love of the sea with their love of woodworking to embark on a new adventure: crafting a seaworthy kayak with their own hands. They overcame all sorts of technical challenges and today are teaching people all over Israel to build kayaks.

> by ERETZ Staff

Both Ilan Sahar and Eyal Vardi love the sea. Vardi has extensive experience kayaking in Israel and abroad, while Sahar has completed a course in skippering and sailing yachts, sailboats, and kayaks. The two friends also share a love of woodworking. A seaside conversation about their favorite hobbies inspired a creative way to combine them: building a kayak, the small, age-old craft whose single occupant moves and steers it with a double-sided paddle.
“The first kayaks were built thousands of years ago by residents of the Artic regions … by forming a frame from driftwood that they found and then covering the frame with the skin of seals that they hunted,” Sahar explains. “Our idea was to stick as closely as possible to the traditional method of building a kayak, but without hunting a seal and using its skin.”
When they began to research the topic, they quickly realized that there is a wealth of information about kayaks on the internet, but much of it is amateur and imprecise. After some critical reading and research, however, they learned a great deal about the history of kayaks, types of kayaks, their uses, and how to build them.
“The Inuits used these early kayaks mainly during the summer months, when the sea is relatively calm, to fish and hunt,” Sahar says. “The word ‘kayak’ means hunting boat in their language.”
Over the ages, different cultures have built kayaks of different shapes for different purposes, he notes. Longer, narrower kayaks can move faster and so are better for traveling, while shorter, wider ones offer more space for storing fish and are more stable in rough waters. In recent decades, kayaks have been built out of modern material, such as fiberglass, plastics, and high-tech aeronautical materials. Sahar and Vardi decided to use oak, parachute cord, and nylon sheeting to construct a Greenland kayak, which also is called a skin-on-frame kayak and is known for being lightweight and easy to build. Like all kayaks, a skin-on-frame kayak sits low on the water and if it capsizes, it is easy for the kayaker to right himself quickly by flipping over in what is known as an “Eskimo roll.” Sahar and Vardi wrote a detailed manual based on their research for themselves to use as they built their first kayak, adapting it as they worked and learned.
“Initially, the work seemed straightforward, but we concluded that like many things in life, until you actually do the work, you simply don’t know…. Sometimes what appears to be simple and clear in theory actually is not at all,” Sahar says. “We had to repeat some of the steps a number of times or adapt completely different techniques in order to obtain optimal results.”
Building a kayak consists of six steps, Sahar explains. The first is to build the upper part of the kayak’s frame. This took them several weeks initially, as they adjusted the size not only to suit their height and girth but also to create a frame that is strong yet lightweight.
Next comes building the hull, the frame’s lower part, which is formed out of 22 wood ribs, each one precisely arched at a slightly different angle. Before they could begin, Sahar and Vardi built a makeshift steamer in which they exposed each rib, one by one, to steam until it was pliable enough to bend.
“We broke more than a few wooden ribs at first, but by the second kayak, we had become skilled at bending them,” Sahar recalls.
The third step is to tie everything together, which they accomplished with one long piece of parachute cord using a variety of knots.
“We found that we had not forgotten the knots and skills that we had learned and practiced years ago in our youth movement when we were children and that they were very helpful throughout the entire construction process,” he says.
Step four is building the oval cockpit in which the kayaker sits. They employed several different techniques to shape thin pieces of oak into an aesthetic and strong oval. Once this was attached, the frame was complete and they could move on to covering the frame with nylon sheeting and sewing it tightly in place. This step too involved much research and experimentation with various sewing techniques until they discovered a way to stretch the material as part of the sewing process, which took a full week.
The final step is waterproofing the nylon sheeting by painting it with epoxy glue.
“After drying for a few days, the nylon was waterproof, partially transparent, and shiny in sunlight. The kayak was ready for its first dip in the sea,” Sahar recalls. “We waited impatiently a few days for a nice day with calm sea. The long-awaited moment finally came and we tied the kayaks on top of the cars and headed to the Tel Baruch Beach in north Tel Aviv. The sea was calm and clear, but freezing – it was March.
“We lowered the kayaks into the water and began photographing… We entered the kayaks, which also involves learning a technique since it can capsize easily, and with a couple of strokes with the wooden paddles that we also had made in the Greenland style, we were cruising alongside the breakwater in our two kayaks.
“The kayak looked and behaved wonderfully in the water…. It sailed quickly and reacted wonderfully. The paddles, which we had custom made to be exactly our size, also did not disappoint us: they were comfortable to grip and rowing with them was easy and efficient.”
Sahar and Vardi were so excited by this success that they are continuing to build kayaks. Today they even teach youths and adults all over the country how to do so.

Ilan Sahar and Eyal Vardi offer workshops, lectures, and advice on building kayaks. Their workshop is suitable for all and no prior knowledge of carpentry is needed to create a seaworthy kayak. For details, contact Sahar at ilan.isbc@gmail.com or Tel.: 055-883-5649.

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