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The History of the Curtis Dragonfly and Shouldered Tumblehome

Glenn MacGrady

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I have personally interviewed Dave Curtis, Dave Yost and the late Harold Deal about the history of the Curtis Dragonfly and its then-unique "shouldered tumblehome."

These three men collaborated in the early 1980's to produce the Dragonfly, which was a canoe designed for the specific purpose of allowing Deal to compete better in the the "solo combined class" of whitewater racing. The combined class had by then evolved into a competition that used the same canoe for the whitewater slalom race and the whitewater downriver race. Deal conceptualized and specified the desired attributes of his desired (Dragonfly) canoe, Yost was hired to draft the formal specifications and build the plug, and Curtis did the manufacturing.

In my opinion, the memories of these three men—all giants of late 20th century canoe design, manufacture and technique innovation—are generally similar.

The most significant difference is who first conceived the concept of shouldered tumblehome, wherein a slightly flared hull gets tucked inward three or four inches below the gunwales. The Dragonfly was the first canoe designed by Yost or manufactured by Curtis to incorporate shouldered tumblehome. Deal, supported by written notes held by Curtis, claimed that he first proposed the general concept of shouldered tumblehome, for the whitewater heeling reasons he details in his written history that I quote verbatim below. Yost, who likely was the first to formally draw shouldered tumblehome on (the Dragonfly's) formal specs, tends to claim that feature as one of his design signatures, which he indeed incorporated into scores of his later canoes, as did many other canoe designers.

Ironically, Mike Galt's Lotus Caper incorporated a form of recessed gunwales and went on the commercial market slightly before the Curtis Dragonfly. Dave Curtis believes that Galt may have gotten this idea from seeing the Dragonfly plug, which Curtis and Deal tried to keep mostly hidden upriver, at the Canoe Specialists Solo Symposium on the White River in Arkansas in 1983.

What follows is Harold Deal's verbatim written history of the Dragonfly that he wrote on May 25, 2011, and sent to me two weeks later. It was reviewed by Dave Curtis, so I assume Curtis agrees with Deal's historical narrative. Sentences that are italicized and comments [inserted in square brackets] are mine, which I have included to clarify or explain some of Deal's text. I have omitted from Deal's history his entire discussion of the Crossfire, Shaman and SRT canoes.
____________________________________________________

History of the Curtis Dragonfly canoe and resulting shoulder (aka tumblehome):

© Harold Deal May 25, 2011

My attention has been brought to recent internet chatter concerning the old Curtis Dragonfly, along with my name being tossed around on a number of occasions. In addition to inquiries I receive about the Hemlock SRT and Shaman, I’ve also been asked by individuals about my involvement with the Dragonfly.

* Harold Deal developed the ideas and concepts and provided the specifications in 1982/1983 after discussions with Dave Curtis, the founder and then owner of Curtis Canoe in Hemlock, NY.

* Dave Curtis commissioned David Yost to loft the design drawings for the final shape and build the plug for Curtis Canoe in 1983 after connecting Deal with Yost to discuss the concepts and intended use of the canoe. An accounting record of payments to Yost for that service is on file according to the individual who made those payments.

* Harold Deal test paddled the plug in 1983 during the Canoe Specialists Solo Symposium on the White River in Arkansas. A number of builders [including Mike Galt] were in attendance so the testing was done farther upriver.

* Deal also consulted on some of the outfitting and construction options that were offered to the public or built specifically for him.

* Dave Curtis built the mold and the design went into production by Curtis Canoe in 1984.

* The name was determined by the manufacturer through a process I was not involved in.

It should be noted that these three people were first involved in bringing that boat into existence. Circumstances are what brought these three individuals together to work as a team and the concepts for the canoe originated directly from Deal’s diverse paddling background and interests.

I was paddling different solo composite boats in different environments and disciplines for a number of years before meeting Dave Curtis. I had met the owner and designer of Lotus Canoes [Mike Galt] while looking for a sophisticated flatwater solo boat. He put me in touch with Curtis, who was retailing different manufacturer’s boats in addition to building the Curtis line of lake-country canoes. I started discussing a new model with Curtis after buying a couple of solo boats and paddles from him in or around 1982.

One feature I attribute to the Dragonfly is the shape below the shearline called the shoulder. This was a departure from Yost’s bubble-sided designs and other approaches by various manufactures at incorporating tumblehome into the sides of a canoe at that time. This is thought to be the first modern sport canoe to offer an approach to tumblehome of this nature. It could be argued that some earlier boats of the 1800’s [such as Rushton canoes, which Deal had seen in pictures and in person, and which are pictured below] offered some inspiration in the evolution of this shape, although utilized for an entirely different purpose and not in that particular form.

My concepts in combining different features of whitewater boats and flatwater boats to achieve specific performance and paddling characteristics were directly linked to my interest in a race class called the Solo Combined Class, and the specifications I provided are what led to the shoulder and the Dragonfly. I started using the term “shoulder” because it resembled a person’s shoulder and I did not want any confusion with the typical low tumblehome used to achieve a narrowed gunwale width, which resulted in significantly less final stability. The term was accepted and caught on rather soon. The interest in that shape spread like wildfire and a number of other manufacturers soon began producing their own variations or requesting that it be replicated, although in some cases for different reasons or intended uses.

The Dragonfly “went public” at the Whitewater Open Canoe National Championships at Nantahala in 1984. It was delivered to the race site by Curtis and was paddled by Harold Deal.

The Whitewater Solo Combined Class: The original purpose of the Combined Class, as I understood it, was to test a paddler’s skill in both downriver competition and in slalom competition using one canoe suitable for both disciplines, instead of a specialized canoe for each discipline, and thus promote whitewater designs with higher performance levels than what I thought resembled scaled down tandem designs which were common in those days. These were also characteristics that related to river touring and tripping, which I was also interested in.

A formula was adapted to determine the overall placement of competitors, as it was common for a racer to place in a different order for the two events. The objective of the racer, of course, was to place first in both events. The race venues would change over the years, as would different formulas be tried, and the preferred characteristics of the boats being raced would change as well.

At the time I conceived the Dragonfly, the downriver races covered a longer distance and wider variety of water conditions, including flatwater and often times portages. Although sometimes both competitions were held on the same river, sometimes the slalom event and the downriver event would be held on different rivers but in reasonable proximity so Combined competitors could participate in the two events. There were also some racers who enjoyed competing in the two events using specialized boats for each one. It became increasingly difficult to locate venues with willing organizers that filled all the requirements to hold both events, so the two disciplines split, the downriver events got shorter and shorter due to the slalom site taking priority, and it no longer was convenient to include flatwater or portages. The characteristics of a Combined boat would change with the times and the Dragonfly would slide into a touring niche.

The concepts: I had to give thought to the paddling style I would develop to achieve the performance required in the slalom and in the downriver. The long distances and flatwater of the downriver would require more speed than the slalom oriented boats around that time were capable of and boats being used in the Combined events leaned toward the touring designs in the early ‘80s. But it also had to respond reasonably well in the slalom gates to be competitive. Some unconventional technical moves due to the touring stems plus liberal but precise use of whitewater river features would serve for a short period of time before that style of boat no longer became competitive.

Over the years I came to prefer a shallow-arch bottom for its predictability. My slalom boat had one, as did my downriver boat and my touring boat. The sides on those boats were all different, as were most of the other specs. Above all else, the boat had to meet race specs or it would fail inspection and not be allowed on the course, regardless of its performance range or any other factors.

I concluded that the touring stems would require some radical outside leans in whitewater to manage tight turns on the slalom course. This was a rather unconventional crossover style I adapted from flatwater techniques which I was very familiar with. I wanted to maximize final stability when heeling the boat so chose to spec a flared hull. I was accustomed to laying the flared hull of my shallower flatwater touring canoe to the gunwale where it would firm up with the appropriate J-lean and knee pressure, but wanted additional freeboard at that point so whitewater waves would not pour over the side. [These italicized sentences explain how and why Deal claims to have been the first to conceptualize and specify shouldered tumblehome.]

I did not want a wide gunwale which would result from a flared hull built to the depth of whitewater specifications. A narrower gunwale and overall width was important to me primarily for efficient strokes. The maximum depth was limited by race rules. The minimum 4” waterline width was also limited to a percentage of the length. Could be wider, but not narrower. The dots were connected and a shouldered tumblehome was born.

It was bound to happen sooner or later: combining flare for heeling and final stability, a deeper hull for whitewater, and a narrower gunwale for stroke efficiency. For reasons mentioned above, the concept was not to lay the canoe over to the gunwale, which was recessed to stay clear of the water and provide a measure of freeboard when carving a turn. [Deal repeats his reason for conceptualizing and specifying a recessed or tucked "shoulder".] Nor did the development of the shoulder have anything to do with pinched fingers, since other forms of existing tumblehome had already achieved that.

It is likely that I paddled the Dragonfly for a wider range of uses and possibly have more hours in them than most anyone else and I'm certainly qualified to comment on it, but I’m not inclined to do that. I will say that I have not owned one in many years and do not miss paddling them.

The mold was stored in a NY barn after Curtis Canoe was closed in the mid 1990's. Dave Curtis became aware of the possibility of the mold being available after years of storage by his former partner and relayed that information to Yost in 2009. The mold resurfaced at a newly formed shop [Colden Canoe, now out of business] sometime after that, and then the internet postings began to appear after they had formed their new team.
________________________________________

Deal twice told me that he was partially inspired to adopt a shouldered tumblehome concept—to keep whitewater waves from slopping over the gunwales as he radically heeled the hull onto its maximum flare for turns—by his experience in studying the decked and large cock-pitted canoes of Rushton, such as this one in the Adirondack Museum.

Rushton canoe.jpg
 
Very interesting. Thanks for sharing this and other write up on these guys.
 
I have personally interviewed Dave Curtis, Dave Yost and the late Harold Deal about the history of the Curtis Dragonfly and its then-unique "shouldered tumblehome."
You were fortunate to have been able to do that. There are certain names that come up in discussions of canoes and these three are often mentioned. I'm relatively new to the history of eastern canoeing of the past four decades but always enjoy hearing about the origins and evolution of canoe design and build, especially solo canoes. Hopefully there's enough interest in solo canoes to build upon the legacy of these and other designer/builders into the next four decades.
 
I have personally interviewed Dave Curtis, Dave Yost and the late Harold Deal about the history of the Curtis Dragonfly and its then-unique "shouldered tumblehome."

You were fortunate to have been able to do that. There are certain names that come up in discussions of canoes and these three are often mentioned.

My discussions with them about this topic were all more than 10 years ago now. I decided to post Harold Deal's written history of the Curtis Dragonfly because that canoe is being discussed in a current thread, as it—now a sort of cult canoe—periodically is.
 
Your interview is the most thorough discussion of the Dragonfly I've seen on the web. Thanks for posting.

I hope to be able to talk with Dave Curtis at the Western PA Solo Canoe Rendezvous this weekend. I have a Lady Bug built in 1983 and am curious about it's history. Plus, I'm also hoping to paddle a Dragonfly while there. It's not a canoe I necessarily want to own, but I would like to try it out just for the fun of it.
 
I've chatted with Dave many times on this subject and amongst others. Back in June at the WPASCR I paddled all three Dragonflies Curtis, Colden and Swift. I absolutely fell in love with the boat and now have a 2023 Swift Dragonfly.
 
I have a Dave Curtis Eaglet, set up solo for my dog Jake and I. As a larger paddler and a 65 pound dog traditional solo boats just don’t work well for us, especially as Jake ages and needs to move about more to easy his sore joints. I am continually amazed at how easy it is to get a vertical paddle stroke in this boat. Also how stable it is for a 15 foot boat and the glide we get, even paddling up current on the Wisconsin River. That shouldered tumblehome design is a real winner.

Bob.
 
I have a Dave Curtis Eaglet, set up solo for my dog Jake and I. As a larger paddler and a 65 pound dog traditional solo boats just don’t work well for us, especially as Jake ages and needs to move about more to easy his sore joints. I am continually amazed at how easy it is to get a vertical paddle stroke in this boat. Also how stable it is for a 15 foot boat and the glide we get, even paddling up current on the Wisconsin River. That shouldered tumblehome design is a real winner.

Bob.
Exactly why I love mine!
 
I have been reading up on the history of all of these boats I have been paddling lately and have come to love (and I am also wondering why in the world I have not paddled these great boats in the past - I have been canoeing as long as I have been walking it seems!). What jumps out at me is that ALL of these boats I now LOVE - the FlashFIRE, the WildFIRE, the SRT, the Merlin 2 (and boats I really want to try and suspect I will also love like the Dragonfly) - are all more than 30 years old in design. Even the newest designs on the market like the Phoenix, Firebird, NW Solo, Trillium, and Keewaydins are variations on a (quite awesome) DY theme. Of course the age of the design doesn't mean much if it's great - but it still amazes me that there has been relatively little change or advancement in design in decades.

I guess the biggest design innovation has been the Keewaydin "stepped rocker", or perhaps the S-gunwales on the Swift Cruisers, but considering how much boats changed between 1980 and 2000, it's interesting that there has not been more significant changes between 2000 and 2020.

While typing this - I do recognize that there have been HUGE changes in construction materials and techniques, particularly with infusion and integrated composite gunwales - but I do wonder why there has not also been more movement in the development of shape? Have we sort of plateaued the design potential of a canoe?
 
I believe stepped rocker is not new. DY designed the Loon Works boats and they do exhibit that. Loon Works was in existence early 90's to 2015 My Curtis Nomad has shouldered tumblehome too so it was used in more than one early Curtis boat.
 
While typing this - I do recognize that there have been HUGE changes in construction materials and techniques, particularly with infusion and integrated composite gunwales - but I do wonder why there has not also been more movement in the development of shape? Have we sort of plateaued the design potential of a canoe?
I don't design or build canoes but my hunch is that there aren't as many people taking on the time and expense of building prototype sport/touring strippers to test designs for production of high-end composite hulls. There are highly regarded designs already available for sale and there isn't a big demand for these specific canoes so there isn't a lot of incentive for investing in research and development of new designs. And a good design is a good design; canoes in any given category are going to be more similar to each than different so radical changes aren’t likely.
 
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What is stepped rocker? I've never heard that particular term.
Charlie Wilson is definitely the one to ask about it - in a Facebook discussion he mentioned that you can best see it by looking about 2' back from the bow of a Kee '15. My impression is that it is rocker that starts at a low angle but increases in intensity as you get closer to the bow. Again, I may be wrong, but my impression is that basically starting rocker gradual further back and then stepping it up to a slightly more intense rocker closer to the bow...
 
- but it still amazes me that there has been relatively little change or advancement in design in decades.
I think canoes are a mature design. My impression is things have changed very little since wood canvas canoes. As much as I love shoulder tumblehome I'm not sure it is really much different than tumblehome.

There have been innovations to paddlecraft. Like white water play boats that can be flipped end-over-end. Hobbie's fin drive is pretty impressive. The stand up paddle board thing might be the biggest deal recently. Or maybe foiling kayaks. But viewed to the very narrow definition of "canoe" those don't count.
 
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