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Saturday, February 6, 2016

Belizean Dugouts #3: Construction Details

The dugout canoes of Belize are just as diverse in their construction details as they are in hull form -- a subject we addressed in the previous post in this series. 

Leo Lewis, dugout canoe builder of Hopkins, Belize
Leo Lewis, dugout canoe builder of Hopkins, Belize (click any image to enlarge)
Although we did not observe the construction process, we did learn from Leo Lewis, one of the last remaining builders, and his brother and assistant, Francis, that in recent years chainsaws were used for rough shaping, followed by an adze for finish shaping. When they were younger (they appear to be in their late seventies or perhaps eighties), and before they had access to a chainsaw, Leo and Francis used an adze for all shaping.

Although Belize was "settled" by Europeans as a logging station for mahogany, Leo did all his building in yemeri, another common Central American hardwood. (Two similar species are present: Vochysia guatemalensis and V. hondurensis.) According to a leaflet from the US Dept. of Agriculture Forest Service, "Heights up to 160 feet and diameters of 3 to 4 feet are frequently attained. The boles are straight and clear." The wood is typically straight-grained but occasionally has an interlocked grain. Although it works easily, it is very subject to rot when in contact with the ground, and it is readily attacked by marine borers. (More on yemeri here.)

Many years ago, Leo would harvest trees 2.5 to 3 feet in diameter within a mile or so of Hopkins, right on the coastal plain, but more recently, he had to travel to the nearby mountains for trunks of suitable size. He used yemeri for the hull, the added strakes, and for frames and floors on the canoes that had them. (Most of the dugouts we observed had no internal strength members other than thwarts.) He says using the same wood ensures that everything will swell and shrink at the same rate, although this reasoning seems questionable, since the grain in frames and floors is at right angles to the grain in the hull and strakes, and one would not expect it to move to move equally in both directions.

After the hull was hollowed, it was filled with sea water to soften, then sticks were inserted to spread or expand it to the desired width. Frames and floors were then inserted and the spreader sticks removed. Although I neglected to clarify the matter, it seems probable that strakes were added after the hull was spread but before frames were installed. The fastenings that I observed were nails, driven from the inside, through the frames and into the hull or strakes. When required by their length, the nails were clenched over so that their points re-entered the wood.

Let's look at some construction details.

Belizean dugout canoe with internal framing
A Leo Lewis dugout canoe with five pairs of partial frames and two floors -- an uncommon amount of framing for a Belizean dugout.
We found great variety in the attachment of thwarts, and this single boat exhibits three different methods. The one in the foreground is held solidly in place, sitting on risers nailed to pairs of vertical cleats on each side and held down from above by wooden brackets, also nailed to the cleats. The midships thwart is loose, held in place only by friction. The one in the background is only partially secured by brackets on top, which are nailed directly into the hull or the strakes. It does not rest on cleats or risers.
Belize dugout canoe with internal frames
Where there framing in the prior image provided transverse strength, the short partial frames in this dugout serve only to support the strakes. There are no floor timbers.
Dugout canoe, Belize
The majority of dugouts in Hopkins have no internal framing, and the thwarts -- if they are nailed in place -- provide the only transverse support.
Belize dugout stem and deck details
The false stem curves all the way to the bottom, its end butting against the end of the false keel. Note also the deck, which is plywood.
Belizean canoe sternpost and deck details
In contrast, the false sternpost on another canoe runs straight from top to bottom, while the false keel butts against its forward surface. The canoe's deck is solid lumber.
Belize dugout canoe with removable foredeck
A few canoes had large, removable plywood decks that seemed to fit directly behind the small, permanently installed bow deck. This might have provided a bit of protection against boarding waves, or might have served as a fish-processing platform. This canoe has an unusual number of thwarts in closely-spaced pairs, the reason for which is unknown. The next-to-last thwart shows yet another method of support: it sits on a horizontal cleat nailed into the hull or strakes, with no capturing bracket above.
Belizean dugout canoe with wide strake
Few of the dugout canoes in Hopkins have wide strakes like this derelict one.
Belize dugout canoe strakes detail
More common were two or, as shown here, three narrow strakes, topped by a gunwale cap, all of them edge-nailed.
This was the only canoe we saw sheathed with fiberglass, which covered it inside and out. We found this boat in Monkey River Town, in the Toledo District. All other canoes shown here were in Hopkins, Stann Creek District.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Belizean Dugouts #2: Designs

Individual examples of even the simplest of types of watercraft can vary substantially from one another even when they are built within a limited geographic area for use in similar conditions. We discussed this recently in reference to coracles in the British Isles, and we found it to be equally true concerning dugout canoes in Belize. (See our previous post on our Belizean dugout "field work.")

Although many of Belizean dugouts we observed were in poor condition, they were all well designed and well crafted, revealing a sophisticated understanding of hull form and how it influences boat performance. Differences in hull form is the topic of this photo essay.

All the canoes below were photographed in the village of Hopkins, in the Stann Creek district, except one, which was found in Monkey River Town, in the Toledo district. The two are less than 40 miles apart as the crow flies.

First, we'll take a look at the forward sections.

This hull is narrow relative to its depth, with a nearly V-shaped bottom. As in many of the dugouts we saw, two strakes have been added to the dugout base to raise the sides. (Click any image to enlarge.)
Round-bottomed with fuller bilges.
Much broader relative to depth, with a somewhat V'd bottom and slacker bilges.
Now we'll compare entries:
Very lengthy, very hollow entry waterlines, from the bottom all the way to the deck.

Shorter entry and considerably less hollow: at the deck, the waterlines are nearly straight. 
Hollow entry from bottom to top, with very gentle waterlines and no appreciable shoulder.
Much shorter entry: i.e., the bow here does not narrow down to a stem-like extension as in the previous canoe. This is the Monkey River canoe.

Fairly straight waterlines near the top, angling back to shoulders set well back. Not very sleek, but there's a lot of buoyancy and carrying capacity in the bow.
Now a look at different stem profiles. This one transitions from has a slightly sharp transition from the keep to the stem, which curves almost to vertical at the top. 
The boat in the background has a soft transition between the bottom and stem, which is straight and angled for a good amount of overhand. The one in the foreground also has a soft bottom-to-stem transition, but the stem is curved, with less overhang. 
Sterns also exhibit a great range of shapes, with the presence of transom sterns and canoe sterns making the most significant difference.

Most of the canoes have a sharp transition between the bottom and the sternpost. In this case, the sternpost is nearly vertical, and the waterlines are quite hollow from bottom to top, but the sternpost is not extended far from the hull's shoulders.
Another sharp bottom-to-straight sternpost transition, but this one is angled more for greater overhang. The waterlines are much less hollow than the one above, and nearly straight near the top. The homemade gudgeons identify this as a sailing canoe. 
Only outboard-powered dugouts has transom sterns. The few we saw were all vertical, and they were all added to an open-backed hull, not carved integrally with the rest of the hull. The bottom sections on this one are a sharp V. This hull is also notable for its long, straight, parallel waterlines with little hull shaping amidships.  
This transom stern, in contrast, are hollow. It's a rather tall but nicely shaped wineglass stern.
In contrast to the dugout with the mounted outboard, this much shorter paddling dugout is much shapelier at the gunwale waterlines, being significantly convex nearly from stem to stern.
In our next installment in this series on Belizean dugouts, we'll look at construction details.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Last Dugout Canoe Builder in Hopkins, Belize

This post is somewhat out of the ordinary for this blog, in that it's about a personal experience. It leads off a series of planned posts about dugout canoes in Belize in my more usual, somewhat analytical mode, but I found this, my experience of "field research," so fulfilling that I'm inclined to share it. It's mostly personal and there's not much in it that anyone will learn about Belizean dugouts, so feel free to skip it and wait for my next post, which will, I hope, prove more instructive on the subject.
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My wife, Cate, and I were given a weeklong trip to Belize as a gift, including a stay at a really nice resort in the village of Hopkins, in the country's Stann Creek District (essentially the south-central coastal region). Prior to arriving, I queried the resort's management about the use of dugout canoes in the area. I received a vague response that they might still be in use, but little concrete information. They gave me two names of locals whom they thought built canoes, but on following up, I learned that neither of them did, nor did they know anyone else who did. On contacting representatives of various cultural groups in the country, I learned that dugouts are indeed in regular use in some areas, but these were too far away and too difficult of access to fit into my trip plans. So I went to Belize with only slim hopes of observing dugout canoes in use or under construction.

On my first full day in Hopkins, I borrowed a bicycle and rode into town. As I did so, I noticed a decrepit dugout canoe in front of a small, open-air restaurant. Returning the next day on foot with Cate, I was permitted to photographic it by an enthusiastic, middle-aged Garifuna man who was obviously connected with the restaurant in some way. In response to my questions, he told me that only two men still built dugouts in Hopkins: Nestor Augustin and Leo Lewis, both of whom lived in the north end of the village. He explained that there are no street addresses in Hopkins, but that if I asked around, I'd find them. 
Dugout canoe, Belize
Approaching the rare and skittish Hopkins dugout in its native element (click any image to enlarge)
Belize dugout canoe
The canoe was for decoration only, well beyond its useful life, rotted throughout. 
Belize dugout canoe
Nonetheless, one can see that it was nicely formed, with thin sides and hollow entry.
This didn't seem unreasonable, as the population of Hopkins is only about 1,000, and its people -- primarily Garifuna -- have a deserved reputation for friendliness. The dark-skinned Garifuna are, according to Wikipedia, descendants of West African, Central African, Island Carib and Arawak people." As with most Belizeans, their language is English, spoken with a Caribbean-influenced accent and many local idioms. 

Cate and I walked the short distance to the village's north end and began asking people where the two boatbuilders lived. After only two or three queries, we found Mr. Augustin -- very elderly, very crippled (probably with arthritis), and apparently very ill. He was lying in a hammock on his porch and nearly unable to move. It was obvious that he was no longer building canoes. He was difficult of speech, and it was only with some effort that we communicated. He confirmed that he had built canoes in the past, and pointed me toward the home of his nephew, Leo Lewis.

We went the direction he pointed and along the way saw several dugout canoes under palm trees along the beach. Most of them were badly rotted, cracked, falling to pieces and well past their useful lives; some were on their last legs but apparently still in use; and a few were reasonably functional, though none were in really good condition. Unlike the canoe that we saw at the restaurant, most of these were "extended" dugouts, with strakes added to raise the sides. Most of those that appeared to be still in use were sitting on log or PVC pipe rollers that are used to shift them into the water and back. 

Belize dugout canoe
The extended dugout Uncle Len Len has seen better days. The top strake is taller than on most canoes in Hopkins.
Belize dugout canoe
Uncle Len Len had a transom stern. She's now used as a dumpster for driftwood and other beach trash. 
Belize dugout canoe
Our first evidence of dugout canoes in current use in Hopkins
Belize dugout canoe
Clean and with a fresh coat of paint, this dugout is evidently still in use in spite of its broken gunwale and crooked shape.
Belize dugout canoe
The same canoe as in the previous photo has a mast step and a hole in the thwart to accept a mast. Not in evidence are provisions for a rudder or any lateral plane.
With a few more questions, we found Mr. Lewis's home. Like many of the homes along the beach there, it was on stilts. Beneath it was a dugout that looked badly battered and unusable, but intact enough to be worth a closer look. Before I could do that, though, we had to introduce ourselves to the three women watching us from the house's screen-enclosed porch.

Doing so, I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Lewis's wife -- elderly and wheelchair-bound, but open, welcoming and informative. Mr. Lewis was not at home, but he was nearby, working on some project outdoors with some other men. There were canoes there too. I thanked her and asked permission to photograph the canoe below the house, which she readily granted.
Belize dugout canoe
Moribund dugout canoe beneath the home of Leo Lewis
A few minutes later and another hundred yards up the beach we found two healthy-looking, elderly Garifuna men sitting beneath an open-sided, palm-roofed shelter. One canoe was inside the shelter and another just outside it. There was no evidence of work in progress. I asked, and found myself talking with Leo Lewis and his younger brother Francis.
Belizean dugout canoe builders Leo and Francis Lewis
Leo (left) and Francis Lewis
I explained my quest, which sounds pretty inane and culturally naive. Something like this: "I'm interested in dugout canoes. We don't have them where I live, and I find them fascinating. I study how they are made and used in different places, and I write about them on the internet. I have great respect for the craft of building them. May I ask some questions about how you do it?"

We learned that Leo had indeed been a prolific builder of dugout canoes, including the two at the shelter. But he had stopped building them because of his age -- the use of the adze had become too painful. How long ago he had stopped building was not specified, but my guess is probably within the past three to five years. He asserted unequivocally that he was the last canoe builder in Hopkins. Francis was not a canoe builder himself, but had often worked with Leo as his helper. He also no longer worked on canoes.

Francis proved to be the more talkative of the two, and he answered most of my questions, deferring to Leo on some points. Toward me, they were patient and gracious, but I was clearly somewhat of an oddity to them -- a harmless but nosy intruder -- and the conversation never got beyond a question/answer format or become thoroughly comfortable. I didn't know how to elicit really free conversation, with the kind of memories and anecdotes that make history come alive.

Cate is neither knowledgeable about, nor especially interested in, boats, but she is far more personable than I, and seemed able to establish sympathy with Francis, sitting beside him comfortably, making sketches and jotting down some of the answers. Her notes were helpful later in reconstructing some elements of the interview, which will be the subject of the next post.
Belize dugout canoe
Leo and Francis Lewis and Cate Monroe, amanuensis. The dugout canoe, built by Leo, has frames and floors.
When I reached the end of my questions, I asked permission to photograph the two canoes -- both of which were a bit past their useful years. Leo hesitated and wordlessly betrayed some reluctance but gave permission with no further urging from me. 

Belize dugout canoe with transom
The same dugout as in the previous photo, showing a transom stern
Belize dugout canoe
Another Leo Lewis dugout, this one a double-ender, in apparently good condition but no longer in use
As Cate and I walked back toward the resort along the beach, we saw -- and I took photos of -- perhaps six or eight more dugout canoes. Again, some where rotted and dead, some were rough but still usable, and a few were respectable. Most were double-ended, but a few had transom sterns. One canoe in the rough-but-usable category had fishing nets and gear piled inside. As we watched, its owner mounted a fairly new Tohatsu outboard on its transom and prepared it for launching. We later saw him blasting through chop at 15 or 20 miles per hour, sending up showers of spray in all directions. 

Belizean fisherman with outboard-powered dugout canoe
Belizean fisherman about to launch his outboard-powered dugout canoe
And then we came upon two dugout canoes that looked brand new: fresh paint, no indication of wear or repairs, clean inside and out. We didn't see their owners, so couldn't ask. But it appears that Leo Lewis -- probably one of the last of the dugout canoe builders in Hopkins -- is not the last.

Belize dugout canoe
Extended and expanded double-ender in excellent condition
Belize dugout canoe
Another view of the same canoe, showing fine, hollow entry and straight waterlines amidships. The thwarts are not fastened in.
Belize dugout canoe
Another Hopkins dugout in new condition and obviously in use. Equipment includes two bleach-bottle bailers and an anchor, home made of rebar and protected by fresh palm leaves from scratching the paint.
All photos ©2016, Bob Holtzman. All rights reserved.