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Adventures in a Nutshell

Adventures in a Nutshell Adventures in a Nutshell

Frank Werner

How it all began

A paleolithic mom rushes into the cave:
“Quick, son, your father wants you to invent the boat!”
“Where is he?”
“Out in the lake, drowning.”

This is, according to Spike Milligan’s ‘Transports of Delight’ how it all began. And when Urk had gotten his dad onto the tree-trunk and paddled him back to shore, he thought to himself: “That’s useful! I’ll chop the branches off, so it’ll go faster and maybe hollow it out a bit, so’s my fur breeches don’t get all soggy again.” And so the canoe was invented. Urk, being a bright lad, wanted to see where he was going, of course, and thus he paddled his boat, facing forward. From then on he and his offspring never looked back, as it were.  

A few Paleolithic or Neolithic boats have been found up to date, mostly in Northern Germany. No doubt they existed in other places as well, and it is quite probable that the invention came about something like in the scene described above. Semi-nomadic man had to transport things and himself over rivers and stretches of water. He wanted to use rivers for transportation. He probably built rafts, too, but they are difficult  to move and clumsy to steer. So out of the tree-trunk evolved the dug-out, the “Ur-canoe”. These boats are still being used in some parts of the world, for instance in the Solomon Islands. (In fact, when John F. Kennedy’s boat sank during the war, he and his crew were rescued by 2 men in a dugout.)

As any boat-owner knows, once you have a boat, you want a bigger one. So sooner or later a tree trunk was not enough anymore and planks were added to the sides, resulting in a clinker-built boat, with the original trunk now being the keel. At some time oars started to be used, as having a rather better power/efficiency ratio than the paddle. However, the rower sits with his back to the bows of his craft and can’t see where he is going – Urk would have disapproved. As would Rudolf von Larisch, typographer, artist and kayaker. In 1918 he wrote a booklet "Der Kajak und seine Arten" in which he vehemently denounces rowing and praises kayaking as a panacea for all human misery (reprinted by Brockhaus/Antiquarium in 2008).

The canoe and the kayak, both “paddle-boats”, evolved in many cultures, always built and improved with a certain environment and purpose in mind. Among the best-known boats of this type is the Eskimo kayak, a real precision instrument – purpose built by and for the owner, fast, sleek and elegant. Of course the Eskimo also built the Umiak, a large, open cargo canoe, paddled mostly, but not only, by women. The North American Indians built their beautiful birch bark canoes to travel the many lakes and streams. Their shape remains almost unchanged until today, only the material differs. South American Indians and Africans south of the Sahara retained their dugouts made of huge trees, of which there was an abundance in these warm lands. The South Sea Islanders built elegant, fast boats, often with outriggers, that could be paddled or sailed, and covered immense distances. All these boats had the one common characteristic: The user sat, kneeled or stood facing forward, and the paddle was not fixed to the boat, as oars are. The boats themselves were made of practically anything: Animal skins, birch bark, wood, oiled fabric, rushes. On the Euphrates, there were boats made of clay, fired like huge pots. The drifted with the current, and were steered rather than propelled with paddles, and thus do not actually qualify as canoes.

Boats as tools

When the exploration of the earth by Europeans began, the early explorers always noted and described the indigenous boats. Be it the Eskimo kayak, the big Aleutian baidarkas, Malay proas or South Sea canoes, Cook, Langsdorff, Humboldt, Bougainville and all the others observed these boats and the way they were adapted to their surroundings and purpose. Langsdorff travelled in baidarkas repeatedly and in his “Bemerkungen auf einer Reise um die Welt“ we find several pictures and even plans of them. The missionary David Cranz shows details of Eskimo kayaks and describes the building techniques in his “Historie von Grönland”, as well as the skill with which they were handled. Eskimos were sometimes brought back and showed off their mastery of the kayak, but they were seen as curiosities, and often died of homesickness, or in one case, decided to paddle back home, never to be seen again. Forster admired the outrigger canoes and their speed and efficiency, and mentions them frequently in his “Reise um die Welt”.

In North America, the canoe continued to thrive as a vehicle for travellers, trappers and fur traders. Some of these were huge and could carry up to 20 passengers plus a ton-and-a-half of cargo! Franklin is known to have used canoes during his first exploration in Northern Canada. A midshipman, Robert Hood, describes these trips in his journals, which were recently published. These were all “working” boats, not pleasure craft. When, then, did “paddling” as a sport and a pastime begin?

“A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe”

It all began when John McGregor, distantly related to the highwayman Rob Roy, had a railroad accident. He’d been a crack marksman, but could no longer hold his rifle steady. As he’d been introduced to canoeing during a trip to the United States and Canada in 1858, he turned to boating. The boat he designed was “double-ended”, built of lapstrake oak planking, decked in cedar with an open cockpit in the centre. It was about 3 meters long, 70 cm wide, 25 cm deep and weighed 36 kilos, and it was designed to be used with a double-bladed paddle. He named it “Rob Roy” after his notorious Scottish relative. The boat could also be sailed. During the 1860, he had at least 7 similar boats built and he sailed and paddled them in Europe, the Baltic and the Middle East. In 1866, he published ‘A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe”, which popularised the design and, more importantly, the concept of canoeing:

“in walking you are bounded by every sea and river, and in a common sailing-boat you are bounded by every shallow and shore; whereas, a canoe can be paddled or sailed, or hauled, or carried over land and water ...”

The book was internationally successful and popularised canoeing as a middle class sport in Europe and the US. Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1876 voyage by canoe through the canals and rivers of France and Belgium, published in 1878 as “An Inland Voyage” used Rob Roy canoes. It was, incidentally, his first book. Although Jerome K. Jerome’s “Three Men in a Boat” - and the dog, of course - used a rowing boat for their trip up the Thames, this lovely book demonstrates that boating and camping were pretty much accepted at the end of the 19th century. And so the handbooks were born. Up to then, it had been mostly hunters and soldiers who knew about bivouacking, and surviving in nature. “Tiphy’s Practical Canoeing”, published 1883, gave good advice on the handling of small boats, what to buy and what to take on a canoe trip. Many others followed, outdoor activities flourished.

Folding boats and “paddling girls”

The revolution: In 1905, a Bavarian named Alfred Heurich constructed the first folding kayak and paddled down the Isar from Bad Tölz to Munich. He had built this first collapsible boat in three weeks. He built a second, improved version soon afterwards, and is said to have covered over 100,000 kilometres in it without capsizing. In 1907, a tailor named Klepper bought the design and started producing folding canoes on a large scale. The firm still exists, and it still makes the best folding boats: Klepper Faltboote.

The time was ripe. Gentlemen dressed in tweed suits and riding boots when canoeing, while the ladies looked very fetching in long dresses and parasols. As time went by, the dress sense deteriorated, and today kayakers take pride in being the worst dressed sportsmen around. Folding boats were quite expensive, so soon construction manuals were published. These ranged from absurdly simple (Nail a couple of planks together and you’re ready to go) to very elaborate affairs including full-scale plans and detailed instructions. These manuals, due to their nature, are hard to find in good condition nowadays.

During the First War, canoeing practically came to a standstill. However, in the twenties and thirties, it really took off. Young people had a little more free time, a little money to spend, and things were less straight-laced than before. “Mixed” canoeing was permissible, and there were handbooks that devoted whole chapters to the “paddling girl”. (Luther, Paddelsport und Flusswandern, 1923). The romantic “back-to-nature” youth movement called “Wandervogel” played an important role in popularizing canoeing in Germany. The most amazing voyages were planned and made. In 1928 Franz Romer crossed the Atlantic in a Klepper boat, only to disappear in the Caribbean. In 1952, the German doctor Lindemann was luckier: he crossed the Atlantic in another Klepper boat in 72 days. His book “Allein über den Atlantik” is still being reprinted today. In 1932, a man called Oskar Speck started on an unbelievable trip. He paddled to Australia! Beginning in Ulm, on the river Danube, it took him 8 years to get to the other side of the world. When he finally arrived, he proudly hoisted the little German flag he had with him. He was promptly taken prisoner, because Germany was at that time at war with, among many others, Australia, and he was unaware of this. Sadly, he never published a book on this amazing trip. His boat is still on display in the Australian Maritime Museum.


And then there was Herbert Rittlinger. Born 1909, died 1978, he was an author, photographer, spy and uncrowned German “Faltbootkönig”. In 1932 he paddled the upper reaches of the Euphrates. Then he spent several years as a South Sea trade, gold-digger and sailor, before coming back to Germany, only to depart again almost at once to South America. He descended the whole of the Amazon river, from its headwaters Maranon and Huallaga to the sea. And, being a journalist, he wrote about his trips. His books were all published by Brockhaus in Leipzig. Together with his wife, nicknamed “Aveckle” (from the French “avec” = “with, together” and the German diminutive “le” for “little”) he made extensive trips on German rivers and streams, taking pictures and writing in a delightful, light-hearted style that is still pleasant to read today. During the war, disguised as a harmless businessman, he ran an espionage centre in Istanbul. After the war he wrote a book about his sometimes incredible and sometimes deeply grotesque experiences. In 1952 he and Aveckle and friends tried to descend the Blue Nile, but their folding boats were repeatedly attacked by giant crocodiles, and they gave up the attempt. He published this adventure as “Schwarzes Abenteuer”, it was translated into English and called “Ethiopian Adventure”. Rittlinger was known as the “Paddling Poet”. His books are amusing in style, with philosophical and poetical passages, and, as one of the first, warnings on environmental follies and thoughtlessness.

During the Nazi reign in Germany, canoeing was not much encouraged. So it was a minor act of rebellion, when, in 1941 Lothar-Günther Buchheim (who was later to write the book “Das Boot” on his experiences in a German U-boat) paddled down the Danube right to the Black Sea, all alone. He wrote a small, poetical book about this experience: “Tage und Nächte steigen aus dem Strom” (Days and Nights Ascend from the Stream).

Adventures in a nutshell

Books on all aspects of kayaking and canoeing were and are being collected. I can speak mostly for the German market, being a German antiquarian bookseller on the one hand, and an equally German kayaker on the other. Starting a collection is fairly easy and inexpensive. The internet is the friend of the young collector here. All the 20th century classics can be had fairly inexpensively form the ZVAB or other platforms. Rittlinger’s books, for instance, in first edition and with the dust-wrapper, usually cost under € 50,-.  As is usual with any collection, one will start with a wide base, but sooner or later will have to specialize. And whatever field you decide on, you will have to consider the "classics" of travel literature, as mentioned above. They are, after all, where it all began, and if you are aiming at anything like completeness, they should be in your library!

A very nice field are waterway guides and river maps. Good or very good copies are quite hard to find. Although I must say, I also enjoy copies that are travelled and a bit water-stained. If they have old, handwritten  annotations, so much the better. Heurich, by the way, the inventor of the folding boat, published many of these guides in German, and patented a certain kind of folding river map. Guides are also interesting in that you can compare a river’s condition and changes over a hundred years.

Another challenging field would be ephemera: Catalogues of boats and equipment, old assembly instructions for folding boats, handwritten logs etc. Or one could take a certain river and its tributaries and collect anything on them. The field is nearly endless. One should however, avoid collecting the boats themselves, unless you have a lot of room and the intention of someday starting a museum. I know of one collector who has the skeleton of a folding kayak hanging from the ceiling and uses it as a bookshelf for his collection, thus neatly encompassing both his passions.

Whoever thinks, like the water-rat and I, that there is nothing like simply messing about in boats, will surely like to read about them when it is too cold or dry or even too wet or whatever to actually mess. So, my advice is: Go to it! It’s fun, instructive and inexpensive.

Besides messing about in boats Frank Werner (Brockhaus/Antiquarium) specializes in rare books on travel and exploration. The article is published here by permission of the author. Thank you very much.

Published since 21 Dec 2009