Saturday, July 17, 2010

Kjeip or Kabes

I love rowing, but I am not a fan of oar locks. I've tried about every kind, and they just don't feel right. There's something about how the metal engages the wood that takes away from the organic feel of bone and muscle moving wood through water.

My eyes were opened several years ago when I rowed the Hewitt R. Jackson, a replica longboat built by the Grays Harbor Historical Seaport in Aberdeen, Wash. The longboat has 10 rowing stations, is 26 feet long and displaces more than a ton. It's a replica of the longboat Capt. Robert Gray carried aboard the Columbia and would be almost identical to the one in which Capt. Bligh made his famous open-boat voyage.

When I was with the Grays Harbor Historical Seaport - first as an employee, then as a volunteer and a board member - I had many occasions to sail aboard the seaport's flagship, the brig Lady Washington. As wonderful as crewing aboard a square rigger is, the longboat was much more fun. Although there are 10 rowing stations, she will move along smartly with only four or six rowers.

Part of what makes the longboat experience such fun is that the oarsmen pull against a thole pin with the oar held in place with a rope gasket. This was the eye-opening experience I had. This arrangement cured all of the complaints I had against metal oar locks. In addition to the feel - that can't be matched by metal oar locks - thole pins and rope gaskets are traditional, cheap, easily replaced and just look bitching!

Thole pins are what Atkin specified in the plans for Valgerda. I was planning, looking forward in fact, to putting thole pins on Ravn... that is until I saw pictures of faerings fitted out with kabes or kjeip. (I believe that kabe is the name Shetland Islanders call them and kjeip is the Norwegian.) These are even more traditional (on faerings, at least) than thole pins. And they are way more bitching! The problem for me was that I didn't have anything but pictures to go on in designing the two pair of kabes for Ravn.

I scoured the internet for anything I could find out about them. Other than a few pictures and some vague descriptions, I didn't have much to go on. I did decide that I liked the looks of the kjeip on the Viking-era faerings better than later, more modern - like, only a couple hundred year-old, versions. The Viking-era kjeip were made from a section of log with a branch sticking out from it. This would be much stronger than one carved out of a chunk of wood because the grain of the wood would flow correctly - otherwise you have, what woodworkers call, "a short-grain situation."

As soon as I decided to put kjeip on Ravn I should have shouldered my ax and bow saw and headed into the woods, but I didn't think I would have time to find what I needed and have them dry in time for the launch. Boy, was I blind: that was about 18 months ago!

Last winter I decided to dive in and make some out of white oak and glue some reinforcement pieces on the sides to strengthen the short grain so it didn't break off. This all looked good on paper, but once I sawed, glued and started to shape them I soon lost my enthusiasm. They just did not look right.

My enthusiasm returned a couple months ago when I spotted some eight-quarter purple heart in a specialty hardwood store in Seattle. I'd also been revising the design in my head and had a solution to the short-grain problem. Finally, last week I put pencil to paper, came up with a shape I liked and suddenly I was a kjeip maker again. My solution to strengthening the short grain is to drill a half-inch hole through the middle of the upright portion of the kjeip and epoxy in a half-inch dowel of purple heart I turned on the lathe. It sounds easier than it was, but it wasn't too bad.

The thing that took the longest was the shaping, first with a bandsaw, then with rasps, files and sandpaper. The process reminded me a lot of making cabriole legs, like Queen Ann and Chippendale tables have. The difference was that nearly any furniture wood is more yielding than purple heart. The stuff is like a mineral!

I used my best epoxy-gluing techniques to attach them to the gunwale and then reinforced the join with some 5/16 dowels. With no metal fasteners, you can remove the whole affair with a handsaw should it ever need to be replaced.

A hole - drilled on a near diagonal from outboard, aft to inboard - is for the length of quarter-inch line that will capture the oar. I may eventually splice together a proper gasket, but for now I want to play around with the length of the loop so I will use a Zeppelin bend to join the two ends.

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