Three boards

There are some lovely little boats on the upper Mekong River.

They are made with only three boards. The one in the centre is basically parallel edged, but bent while lying flat, to raise both ends. Attached to this lengthwise, at 45 degrees, are planks (garboards) that are basically a long crescent shape, sweeping up and away from the centre. A series of thwarts stiffen the hull and provide seating (while kneeling) and opportunities to secure cargo. A boat could hardly be simpler.

Paul Epp
Paul Epp

Dugout canoes are, in that they consist of a single piece of wood (not counting thwarts), but who makes dugouts anymore? The Haida do, infrequently, but poor fisherman in Laos don’t.

Some of these are paddled like our canoes, but many of these three-board boats have a little inexpensive in-board motor that is quite similar to a lawnmower’s. It’s mounted a bit aft of the centre, canted so that a straight shaft, piercing the hull, will submerge the propeller. A rudder is hung off of the stern with a cross piece mounted above it. To this is attached a long slender piece of bamboo that runs up the inside of the boat to the middle. The helmsman, sitting there, will then pull this fore or aft to steer. It is altogether the essence of simplicity.

There are many variations.

If the boat is to be “long-tailed,” the centre (keel) board is triangular, being broader at the stern to support the aft-mounted motor’s weight. If more freeboard is needed, a topsides vertical board is added to each side, as well as an outward-canted little transom and a similar but smaller piece in the bow. Various additional gunwale or coaming members are sometimes utilized, decoratively or for some specific function. If the side-boards extend beyond the centre, there is space to inset a little deck. This is used as a seat by the vendor when the boat is full of fruit, a place to stand when poling in shallow water or even the platform for a Venetian style gondolier. It’s basically a very flexible system.

This building strategy is scaleable, limited probably only to the availability of long boards. It’s a bit ironic that then the boats exceed the limits of wood and are made of steel instead, the basic design is retained but the grace of the lines are not.

ThreeBoardsThat it not only works as well as it does, within the limits of its scale, but also that it looks so attractive is a tribute to an important characteristic of wood as a building material. Wood bends (and it floats). The bending depends on the thickness of the board, so tight curves need slender sections. Regardless, the resultant curves are nice and even, or “fair,” as boat-builders would describe it, if the wood used is free of knots or other growth irregularities. Through sheer good fortune, the fair lines of bent wood are also lines that create forms that move through fluids (like water) readily, with minimal turbulence. So here we have this marvellous material that seems to prefer to do just what we need when we want to make something move efficiently through water. It’s a gift to designers.

Birch-bark canoes are Canada’s equivalent, but reflecting a simpler technology. All of the lines of these canoes are dependent on the natural curves that the bent boat members take. When mid-nineteenth century canoe builders around Peterborough, Ont., made dugout canoes, it’s obvious they patterned them after the birch-bark predecessors. The lines had been proven to work. Most wooden boats share the graceful lines of bent wood. And most non-wood boats are based on the lines of their wooden antecedents.

I think there are a couple of useful lessons here for those of us who design. One is that some natural materials seem to want to help us do what we require. We just have to let them. Another is that beauty can come to us without effort. If we get out of the way of our own presumptions and use the right material in the right way, we may get very attractive results.

Those little three-board boats sit on the water like a fallen leaf, and skim along with such ease, it’s a delight to see. I didn’t think it could be so easy.

Paul Epp is an adjunct professor and former Industrial Design department chair at OCAD University.


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