Posted on October 26 2014
By J.A. Diffily
My canoe project got started in 2007 when I was working at the US Embassy in Togo in West Africa. One of my friends, a Peace Corps official, began work on a strip canoe near the end of my tour there. After looking at his copy of CanoeCraft and helping him a little with the stripping, I thought I could build one too. I bought several books on the subject and did my research. In the end I decided to build a Redbird, “a light, fast day-tripper.” I found that CanoeCraft had the clearest explanations of the whole process. I am fairly good with tools but I had never built a canoe before. While I was on home leave I had some western red cedar shelves and white ash strip strips included in my shipment of supplies for my next post in Belmopan, Belize. I started on the boat in October 2008 in the TV room of my residence. My wife was in the States for several months so dust was not an issue. I went off the table of offsets for the Redbird in Ted’s book to made pattern pieces, and I built a strongback with wood from the liftvans in which my household goods were shipped. I bought a cheap little saw and sliced strips off my cedar boards. I made one strip from liftvan wood that came from Africa and used Belizean mahogany for the little decks fore and aft, so the boat is made of African, American and Belizean wood. I mounted my router on a piece of plywood, attached fences, and cut the cove and bead on the strips. I didn’t want nail holes in the strips so I used C-clamps and L-shaped brackets to hold the strips in the groove and on the station as I glued them. I steam bent the stem and gunwale pieces using a piece of plastic pipe and a hot water kettle. Looking at my notes, I see it took about a year of spare time – about 300 hours – to finish the boat. I made paddles with ash splines and cedar blades. I wove heavy nylon twine into seats. I did the whole project myself except for getting my buddy Hugo to mix the epoxy as I fiberglassed the hull. Ted’s book really covered the details and construction went well throughout. Hugo and I tested the boat at a nearby fish farm and then took a half day run down the Belize River for final checkout. The boat was fine and I got a lot of compliments on the look of the cedar hull.
After I finished the boat in Fall of 2009, I tried to put together a team of my American colleagues from the embassy to enter the Ruta Maya Belize River Challenge in Spring 2010. The Ruta Maya is a 180 mile canoe race run over four days on the Belize River. For various reasons our embassy team never really came together. In late January an embassy gardener asked about the canoe. He had put together a paddling team and I assembled a support team. With very little training they participated in the 2010 race and came in ninth in class. It was a good start. For the 2011 race we started training on Boxing Day. The guys practiced on the weekends and various embassy folks took them and the canoe to various put-in places along the river and then picked them up downstream. In 2011 they took 3 hours 20 minutes off their 2010 time and came in seventh in class. It was a satisfying result. I retired from the Diplomatic Service in 2011 and left Belize for Texas, but I left my boat with the Embassy. They raced Up the Cric for a third year in 2012. In 2012 the team was well prepared and they took 1:03 off the 2011 time but dropped to eighth place. The competition was getting faster and the team decided to retire Up the Cric from competition. It was cleaned up and revarnished and now sits on display in a fancy cradle in the atrium of the US Embassy in Belmopan, Belize.
I built the canoe to satisfy my own curiosity and to prove to myself that I could do it. I had no idea that Up the Cric would be such a catalyst for pulling our Belizean and American embassy folks together and for so many people to have so much fun along the river. Now that my wife and I are settled in Texas, I think I need to build another boat.