Four Bluebird Days at Assateague

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I desperately needed to feel some bare earth under my feet, so another winter trip to Assateague was in order. I left my driveway in this



And arrive on the coast to find not a trace of snow. Yippee!

The canoe launch was empty – zero vehicles – and I was quickly on the water paddling south in a rare Chincoteague Bay calm. Windless enough that the only sound was the chuckling of Bufflehead in scattered flocks all around me. Frisky Bufflehead, with the males jousting and waterslapping around stray females to prove their worth. Somebody’s getting some tonight.

Into the Pine Tree site in short order I began setting up. Unpacking was a revelation. I had originally packed for this trip two weeks ago, but postponed several times as my weather windows repeatedly closed and I couldn’t get the truck up the driveway.

Apparently each time a new window opened I packed certain items yet again. I have three pair of winter gloves and enough toilet paper for a cholera outbreak. I really should remember to cross things out on the gear list.

First up, the winter wind chair.



Next, the Tundra Tarp set as a windbreak, and spaced so that my day hammock can be hung below. With a thousand closely spaced Loblolly pines the perfect selection of two specific trees for best wind orientation and distance would be tricky, but I have a length of cord, knotted at minimum tree spread for the both tarp and hammock.



The golf ball and eye screw are excellent for tossing a line over a branch, and the pushpin allows me to tack the measuring line to a trunk and determine which two trees offer the perfect tarp and hammock spacing and wind orientation.



That’ll do nicely.



That pre-measured hammock space fits nicely in the tarp’s wind block.



I’m pleased to find that the Thermarest pad cut for the wind chair seat fits well in the pocket my simplistic ENO hammock pad.



That ENO pad is crude compared to an underquilt, but I don’t sleep in the hammock and that pad is multi-functional.

I’ve used that little folding ENO pad in a number of guises. Folded lengthwise it fits across the backrest of the windchair for additional insulation and wind deflecting side “wings”. I’ve folded it and stuffed it under one side of my sleeping pad when tenting on an incline. In especially thorny areas it makes a comforting puncture barrier below my sleeping pad.

http://www.eaglesnestoutfittersinc.com/product/A4011.html

The wind is predicted to shift from west to south. An auxiliary tarp blocks the open end of the Tundra Tarp in that direction.




Wind protection is critical when winter camping on the windswept coast; even a sunny 50F day becomes chilling in 20 knot winds.

Camp warmly established it was time generate some body heat by walking out to the ocean. I don’t much care for the beachfront itself, but the walk out and back across the island traverses several distinct zones all compressed in a mile’s width.

From the edge of Chincoteague Bay and back marshes.



To the piney hammock of camp.



To the inner marshes, with another berm of hillocks and scrubbier pine looming in the distance.



Past that second stand of loblolly to one of my favorite zones, an easily wanderable stretch of open sand that meanders amidst the stunted growth behind the dunes, slowly opening to the beachfront further east.





And out to the beach, and the inter-tidal zone.



On the hike back into camp I take note of recent visitors.



I’m assuming that the ponies revisiting the same pile repeatedly is a way of marking territory, so I’ve begun urinating on them in response. That was originally intended as a gesture of contempt, but I’m beginning to think that it actually keeps the ponies away. I’ve not had many ponies in camp since I started marking my territory atop their piles.

Back acamp I’d like the warmth of a brief fire to take off the chill of inactivity, but I don’t want to start a real campfire just yet, nor have to extinguish it if I decide to wander away from camp again afoot or afloat.

Time to deploy the fire in a can. From spiral wick first lit (with feeder bars of extra wax at the ready nearby)



To this in (I timed it) 2 minutes and change.



I added a feeder brick to refill it, let it burned it for 5 minutes until the “wick” was refilled and I was rewarmed, and put it out. Putting it out may be the best part of fire in a can.





The complete and instant darkness when covering the FIAC at night is freaky. (I should make feeder bricks with citronella oil before spring bug season)

Sufficiently rewarmed it must be hammock time.





It’s a tough life, but somebody’s gotta do it.

I awoke the next morning to an odd flapping and rustling behind the tent. I ignored it at first, but it got louder. The tent and tarp are still taut and unflappable, but the noise continues, seemingly closer. There is no clump of hooves, so it ain’t ponies ignoring my territorial claims. WTF?

Curiosity finally gets the better of me. I exit the tent, turn and stand up. And am greeted by abrupt and startling thunder as a flock of a dozen or more turkey explode away, the nearest ones just a few feet from the tent. They had turned up the pine duff behind the tent like a pack of rooting hogs,



Even before the awareness of morning coffee it was easy to track their route into camp, and find other sign. This had been a whole rotting log the night before.



Other birdlife was abundant as usual, and in calm winds there was constant birdsound, from songbirds singing in the trees and shrubs to ducks and shorebirds squabbling in the adjacent marsh. A wonderful aural sensation, absent any sound of syphilization.

I had human visitors but once, a trio of young field biologists studying piping plover predation. I must be doing something right, that is the second trip in a row on which I’ve enjoyed the company of young field biologists. Time spent with old field biologists in more familiar.

I had not appreciated how much technology had changed that kind of fieldwork; GPS, game cameras, GIS specialists and computers. As part of that study they were measuring and recoding both plover and predator habitat at several hundred locations on the island and recording images on game cameras.

And some things haven’t changed a bit. Two of the three visitors were students and they were doing the dirty work, running 100’ tapes into the dense greenbriar, retrieving cameras and recording data. And, from what I gathered, spending hours (and hours) looking at many (many) thousands of game camera photos.

I had seen their camera box a couple of years ago, and avoided it was best I could, but having heard about the extended battery and image capacity of their game cameras I couldn’t resist leaving them a special photo or two.

Repeat the above routine for four continually bluebird days. Day hike, day paddle, sit in the wind chair or lay in the hammock. No people. The only sound is the birds, the wind in the treetops, the distant surf.

The day’s activities assemble in an exceedingly slow and deliberate manner, wherein time matters only in the most basic form; it’s getting light out, it’s getting dark, it’s hungry time, it’s time to wander, time to read, time to write, time to sit with an unoccupied mind and just look and listen in the quiet. Time.

I had a permit good through a forecast-to-be-questionably Thursday. I had a printed copy of the extended Weather Underground forecast, and updated that long range prediction with the more accurate weather radio forecasts each morning.

Tuesday forecast remained perfect. Maybe more than perfect. Unquestionably the best day weather-wise at Assateague thus far in 2014. Tuesday: Highs in the low 60’s. SW winds 15 knots, becoming south in the afternoon.

Wednesday the bottom drops out – still warm, with rain after midnight and thunderstorms throughout the day, winds NW 30 knots, gusts to 40.

Thursday is worse, highs in the 30’s, west winds, gusts to 50. Um, I’ve got sufficient food and water left, but no thanks. I don’t need to pack up and paddle out in high winds and rain. I can linger most of Tuesday, pack up slowly and incrementally and sail out on a perfect southerly breeze late in the day.

And so it was. I do enjoy a leisurely take down, with time to dry and repack everything properly. The wind chair is always the last thing to go, but in the meantime it makes a handy repository to keep the tent and tarp off the sand and out of the greenbriar thorns.





There were a few gusty days along the way, but the Tundra Tarp, even set as a \ windbreak, was rock solid and far more wind protective than a parawing.

I’ve come to appreciate mil-spec stakes for windy venues. They are heavy and not appropriate for portage, but they are indestructible, hold very well and nestle superbly.





The square of green reflective tape on the stakes is an anti-toe stubbing addition, and the yellow cord makes them even more visible and easier to extract if I’ve buried them completely.

Slowly packed (the hammock went back up for a spell, I still had some book left), slowly carried down to the landing and into the boat and it was getting on towards dusk. Time to take advantage of an ideal sailing wind for an effortless ride back. I know the compass route well, 0 north outboard of Tingles Island, come 30 east to the canoe launch.



I turned the Monarch’s rudder but once and sailed out under yet another bluebird day at Assateague.



I sailed to within 50 feet of the still vacant canoe launch, arriving in the dwindling light just after sunset. Unpacking and racking was done in the dark, squeezing the absolute most out of the day.



The ride home was equally unhurried and nighttime traffic unharried, with a diner stop for real food and continuous coffee refills. That first freshwater-&-soap hand washing in a diner restroom is a grungy thing of swirling effluent revelation. And the first look in a mirror is always a surprise.

Assateague in March doesn’t get much better than that.
 
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Joined
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Yea, That was great, I really enjoyed the different zones, that hammock looks very comfortable. To see a new trip report this time of year is a real treat, Thanks
 
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Oct 5, 2012
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Genesee Valley, Western NY
I just applied the first coat of varnish on my canoe; it was time to vacate the shop and allow the Volatile Organic Compounds time to settle. What do you do when the risk of brain damage keeps you out of the shop? I saw an opportunity to work on the distruction of an organ of far less importance, my liver.

Knowing you have a deep preference to the IPA's, I was thinking of you as I popped the cap on an India Pale Ale. It was a new to me local brew called Caged Alpha Monkey. The label describes it as a big, bold, east coast animal that throws hops at you! The image conjured from this description brought you to mind as well.

How fitting it was to read of urinating on pony poop, thrashing turkeys and chuckling Buffleheads while holding a cold Caged Alpha Monkey.
 
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Enjoyed the TR! Looks like you just got in in time.. whats next Wilma or W something?? I might be stuck in Florida with my canoe forever gawsh darn.
 
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I really enjoyed the different zones

Those different zones all compressed into a mile or two from east to west is one the things that fascinates me about Assateague.

Reprinted below is the tale of a biologist friend’s transect of Assateague. (Slightly edited and reprinted without permission, but I cannot explain the complex natural history of Assateague any better).

We arrived at Assateague on a Friday afternoon. I had invited two longtime friends to join the class—Dick, a fellow biology teacher, and John, my under-graduate advisor, and later my boss and director of the Museum. This was going to be fun, plant transects across the island from the intertidal zone, across the various dunes, inner dunes, shrub zones, loblolly forests and of course into the salt marsh. I was looking forward to showing Dick and my former professor how one teaches about the zonation in a salt marsh. Hell!! it was spring and we were at the beach!! This would be great!

Unfortunately, by the time we set up our tents and waited for Elmer to arrive we found we were starting late in the afternoon and at maximum low tide. By evening we only had reached the high tide mark as Elmer pontificated on everything imaginable in the world between the tides, whether it happened to be present or not. By Saturday afternoon we had nearly reached the top of the primary dune, and by the time we finished learning everything there was to know about sand, tides, beach erosion, mole crabs, ghost crabs, water chemistry, sanderlings, sea beans, the geologic history of the Atlantic, WW II naval encounters, seaside goldenrod, beach grass, and half a dozen additional points about the inter tidal zone which Elmer forgot to tell us on Friday, it was getting dark. Early Sunday morning we continued and by mid-afternoon it was time to pack and head back home. We had managed to get our verbal barrier island transect all the way to a low inter-dune swale just behind the first dune. Perhaps one-hundred-and fifty-yards in just one weekend! Hum, and I could never entice Dick or John to come to another class. Oh-well their loss,. In slightly less than twenty-years, God knows how many plant keys, 1,299 classes and hundreds of field trips later, I think we had achieved the equivalent of a transect across the entire state of Maryland.
 
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How fitting it was to read of urinating on pony poop, thrashing turkeys and chuckling Buffleheads while holding a cold Caged Alpha Monkey.

IPA in cans is hard to find, and pricey for my retiree budget. I had to make do with holding a Yuengling Black & Tan while listening to the chuckling Buffleheads. There’s a lot of pony poop, so it’s important to maintain a full bladder. There is a game camera at Pine Tree with a photo to prove it.

whats next Wilma or W something??

It snowed last night and is snowing now. Seriously, enough already.

I’m with NOAA; I do not approve of the Weather Channel popularizing the “naming” of every inconsequential snow storm.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winter_storm_naming

Hurricanes? Yes. Every snowfall ‘til there aren’t enough letters left? No.

It has been very interesting to witness the island’s recovery from Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. The park was closed for several months and when it reopened the west side of the island had taken a beating.

The storm surge off Chincoteague Bay had driven debris and a thick layer of pluff mud well into the loblolly forest, with a tall layer of pine duff making the high tide line. The park service had chain sawed dozens of fallen loblolly into 18” lengths. That would have provided firewood for years to come, but loblolly logs do not age well in contact with the ground.

Three months after Sandy those loblolly cylinders would burn with after a night or two of drying and charring over the fire.



Twelve months later and they would burn readily without much prep.



After eighteen months they have begun to pick up moisture and are heavier than when they first fell, and it takes several nights of fire drying before they are useful. The big chunks that remain do make good habitat for dusky salamanders.



Beyond the loggy remains the island recovered well. The thick layer of pluff mud has vanished into the sandy soil. The wind and the turkeys have redistributed the tall berm of pine straw. Some flotsam remains at the high tide line, but it is slowly subsiding into the sand and straw.

Those changes and recovery must have provided interesting data for the folks studying the flora and fauna on Assateague. The young field biologists I met are in my Top Ten of backcountry people encounters; they were wry funny, sarcastic and intelligent.

They shared more than I can remember about their Polver research and other studies. I knew naught about Red Knots feeding on Assateague’s crab, bivalve and horseshoe crab eggs.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Knot

I need to time a trip for horseshoe crab spawning, an event I have not seen in close to 40 years.

http://www.dnr.state.md.us/fisheries/articles/hsc0404.html

I’m either a slow learner or a model for continuing education.
 
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Your paddle and sail set up seems perfectly suited to those environs. I used to think sailing was a charming thing to do, but far too finicky, complicated, and over dependant on conditions. I'm learning to put my preconceived notions on a shelf (and forget them there), and learn. Your trips to the Assateague are always a delight, thanks for letting me tag along.
I didn't know there were ponies (and turkeys!) there. It looks like a nature's treasure island, something to be discovered on every trip.
 
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Sails

Sails

Your paddle and sail set up seems perfectly suited to those environs. I used to think sailing was a charming thing to do, but far too finicky, complicated, and over dependant on conditions.

I love that simple Spirit Sail design for open water trips. We’re in the midst of planning a 4-day family trip to Tangier Sound on the Chesapeake Bay. That means open water and wind, and we’ll have four decked canoes with sails and rudders. These three (I finished the middle one last fall).



And the Monarch



I am absolutely sold on the ease and simplicity of Spirit Sails. Not finicky, not complicated, no giant mast to step and store, no leeboards. Hands free, no lines or sheets.

Not just decked or ruddered boats, I have Spirit Sail base mounts in our tripping canoes as well. I know Conk, Waterbearer, DougD and other tripper friends use them in their canoe as well.

And not just big open water; if I’ve got a tail wind and a straight stretch I’ll have my way with it.



Unfortunately I think the manufacturer may be going out of business. At the cost of a good paddle ($225) for the full kit - sail, base mount, Y connector and hardware - they may be the best piece of canoe gear I’ve ever purchased. They’ve certainly been the most fun.
 
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Assateague History

Assateague History

I didn't know there were ponies (and turkeys!) there. It looks like a nature's treasure island, something to be discovered on every trip.

OK, I can’t resist an Assateague history lesson. You don’t know Misty of Chincoteague?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Misty_of_Chincoteague

That damn book (sequels, and film) may be as responsible for more damage to Assateague Island than the jetties that keep the Ocean City inlet passable, sand-starving the north end of the island, creating an eroded dune-less moonscape moving ever eastward.

The inlet, torn open by a Hurricane in 1933, created the densely populated beach town of Ocean City MD. When the Core of Engineers dredged an ocean boat-able channel on the OC bayside the seaside vacation game was on, and much of OC is now high-rise hotels and condos.

Without that storm (I guess it pre-dates hurricanes with names) such would now be the fate of Assateague.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1933_Chesapeake_Potomac_hurricane

The “wild” ponies are a local economic engine. Literally buying engines; the annual “pony swim” and horse auction benefits the local VFD and draws huge crowds. Dayum but don’t that local VFD have them one hellacious annual equipment budget.

http://www.chincoteague.com/pony_swim_guide.html

The firehouse alone is worth a visit.

I could do without the ponies, especially the habituated herds on the Maryland side of the island. The herds closest to the State and National Park campground on the north end of the island might as well be raccoons. They will boldly stroll into camp, nose things around and eat unguarded food.

I saw a stallion with a Doritos bag stuck on its nose like a feedbag at the State Park beach years ago. I don’t remember if they were Cool Ranch or Spicy Nacho, but he has enjoying the hell out of them and they appeared to have some aphrodisiac affect. He was one happy and well hung pony.

The herds at the also-heavily-visited Chincoteague end are nearly as bad. The herds in less visited middle of the island away seem far less bold.

Best pony story – A friend was camping under a tarp and awoke with an odd feeling. He opened his eyes to discover a pony 18” away. Well, not a whole pony, just a pony’s belly, suspended over his face, two feet on one site of his sleeping bag, two feet on the other.

The Sika deer, which also don’t belong there, are at least less aggressive, and hearing elk bugling at the ocean is just plain weird. Like the ponies the Sika on the north end of the island the Sika thereabouts are also quite tame. Do not try to lasso one; you may be successful and, well, honestly, you really haven’t thought this all the way through now, have you….

http://www.assateagueisland.com/wildlife/sika.htm

Not just natural history either. The unnatural history of Assateague is equally beguiling. The high-end hunt camp era from the 1930’s and 40’s (with some camps grandfathered into the 60’s) was quite the scene.

Think white gloved wait staff serving patrons that day’s wild game, the hoity-toity fly in to a beachfront airstrip for the weekend’s hunt with local guides. Those must have been some times.

Most of those old hunt camps are still (somewhat) intact. Allen Sklar’s investigation into the history of that time and place is another Assateague treasure.

Oh, Assateague treasure you say? Let me Google that for you.

http://bit.ly/1nBeFzU

Charlie Wilson the Pirate. I wonder if he too was often found on his knees, spinning in circles?
 
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I enjoyed the trip report (understatement). Nicely done.
I wonder what the local enviros (if there are any) would say if reminded that all North American horses are invasive species.
 
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How do you attach the Spirit Sail to the Monarch?

The Monarch (and most of our other tripping boats) has a “utility thwart” with a Spirit Sail base mount (essentially a Scotty rod base) permanently installed. A Y shaped piece fits into that base mount and allow for the sail to be positioned at 0, 30 or 60 degrees. The Spirit Sail battens sleeve over the Y.

Simple, easy, up or down in seconds.






What size is that sail of yours??

That is the mid-sized Spirit Sail. I have a full sized SS as well (twice the area), but in anything much over a 10 knot wind it is more sail than I need.

 
Joined
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Thanks Mike. I have a pacific Action sail that is 11.5 sq ft. and it has always seemed a bit small. I wonder how that area compares to yours? Their web site doesn't mention area at all.
 
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Now I am intrigued because my Monarch really needs a utility thwart. Construction hints please. For now I just have a bungee cord there. It's not working
 
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Now I am intrigued because my Monarch really needs a utility thwart. Construction hints please. For now I just have a bungee cord there. It's not working

Kim,

There is an overlong write up on outfitting a friend’s Monarch here. Unfortunately all of the (Webshots) photos are gone.

http://www.myccr.com/phpbbforum/viewtopic.php?f=49&t=40214

To save you time reading through days of shop work blather here is the sequence cut and pasted:

Sequentially it was time for the last big task, to cut and do the initial installation on a utility thwart/sail mount.

DP cut a piece of Luan as a template, sanded the edges to fit perfectly inside the cockpit and, satisfied with the exactitude of the match, used the template to cut and custom sand a piece of hardwood for the utility thwart.

A run through the router, a little RO/DI sanding action and the utility thwart was ready for installation.

We traced the butt end of the utility thwart on kevlar felt, cut out that trace and stapled the felt material onto the ends of the utility thwart. The staples held the material in place during installation and it was easily saturated the felt with epoxy resin and propped/wedged it into perfect position.

(Note: We “wedged” it into place by building a temporary platform of boxes and boards below the center of the utility thwart)

Once the kevlar felt saturated Gflex sets up it will be easy to continue work on the utility thwart with it held firmly in position.

A bead of Gflex filled any small gaps or voids along the top edges and it was time call it a day before either of us bumped into the hull or was unable to resist the urge to further futz with the resin as it set. Anyone who has worked with resin knows exactly what I mean.

Day 3

Pulling out the props and wedges the next day the utility thwart was already rock solid. But a couple pieces of 2” fiberglass tape spanning the thwart and cockpit edges will help secure it even further, and will clean up the transition between thwart to cockpit coming.

I masking taped and papered the edges of the boat for drip protection and added a little yellow pigment to the resin mix before laying in pieces of 2” glass tape. DP wants a yellow and black color scheme on his green boat.

Peel ply smoothed out over fiberglass tape, so the sanding stage will be that much easier. Time to walk away again.

Day 4

Peel the ply on the top tape. I’m still always a little amazed that peel ply actually, well, peels off epoxy resin the following day. And then further amazed that it peels off leaving such a nice, uniformly smooth surface.

The peel ply eliminates the raspy raised-seam edges and any loose strands of the fiberglass tape, and helps fill the weave with resin. Sanding the faint and uniform texture left by peel ply is a pleasure compared to the laboring away dustily at the bumps, strands and unfilled weave.

Topside done, time to flip the hull over to glass in the bottom of the thwart. Working up inside a hull having the boat positioned the 4 foot tall sawhorses is a godsend. As is a wheeled shop chair for scooting in and out underneath. And I’ve finally found a good use for a headlamp.

Bead of Gflex to fill any voids along the bottom edges, 2” glass tape and epoxy lapping the bottom of the cockpit rim and utility thwart, peel ply smoothed out and walk away again.

Day 5

Remove the peel ply from the bottom and, dayum, that is one sturdy mommajamma of a utility thwart. I expect archeologists to unearth it one day after the rest of the boat has rotted away and wonder what the hell.

Since that utility thwart is subject to considerable stress from a wind filled sail overly sturdy is welcome.
+++

I just got back from a 4-day family trip on Tangier Sound. Four decked boats, all with rudders, utility thwarts and sails. I’ll post some photos eventually.

I am absolutely sold on the value of a utility thwart. Not just for the Spirit Sail mount, but also for some J-hooks to hold a deck compass, a > of bungee on either side to hold paddles and a lateral run of bungee to hold misc items so they accessible and not down in the bilgewater.
 
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Thanks Mike. I have a pacific Action sail that is 11.5 sq ft. and it has always seemed a bit small. I wonder how that area compares to yours? Their web site doesn't mention area at all.

Dave, the mid-sized (1.5 SQM or 16 square foot) and large (2.2 SQM or 23.6 SF) Pacific Action and Spirit Sails are essentially the same size relative to each other. IIRC the Spirit Sails are slightly larger in each case.

The mid-sized Spirit Sail (they don’t make a small like PA does) is perfect for what I want to do under most conditions. I have both a 2.2 SQM Pacific Sail (bought used) and similar size Spirit Sail and that much sail area on a vee sail is more than I want to handle except in light winds.
 
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Utility Thwarts

Utility Thwarts

I remembered to take some utility thwart photos during a family paddling and sailing trip on Tangier Sound.





The first utility thwart I install was the one in the Sea Wimp, and I got a little too cunning, shaping it in the manner of a traditional thwart. I wasn’t thinking about the possibility of hooking a deck compass on the thwart and didn’t leave room for such.



I corrected that oversight on the Monarch, and also foresaw the utility of having an open cleat to hold the bow painter within reach. That utility thwart is wider than necessary (7”), but the extra space is handy.



The utility thwarts in the Vagabond and Optima are narrower (5 ½”) but still provide enough width for the Spirit Sail base and other things I want to have provided on those thwarts.





The pad eyes, deck hooks and bungee <’s on either side are perfect for holding paddles. I like having a spare paddle within easy reach. When launching or landing I have the spare paddle secured on one side and the primary paddle on the other, so I have both hands free when hoisting myself out of the boat and grabbing the painter line. That is also a handy place to put the sail if I’ve taken it down but not collapsed the battens.

I’m convinced that decked canoes with rudders benefit greatly from having a simple sail, and a utility thwart is the way to go.

 
Joined
Sep 2, 2011
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Thanks Mike.. I am still wrestling with how to attach it to the coaming.. Surely its not held in place by bungees? The thwart and coaming look one piece to me in the pictures.

My nakkid coaming looks like the one with the red thwart. Did you do some metal work to make the utility thwart?? Attaching it is my head scratching question.
 
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