Introduction: Kenya Outrigger Sailing Canoe

About: Tim Anderson is the author of the "Heirloom Technology" column in Make Magazine. He is co-founder of, manufacturers of "3D Printer" output devices. His detailed drawings of traditional Pacific I…

Here's a 12 foot long outrigger sailing canoe I built in Kenya this spring.
It has folding "beds" for two, a removable roof, and a sail.
It's easy to build.
The only tools needed were a machete, knife, drill, chisel, spokeshave, hammer, screwdriver.

Here Nathan Eagle, Eddie Elliot, and myself get the boat ready to launch.
In the second photo Powell Muli age 9 carves outrigger parts.

Step 1: Specifications

All measurements are actual not milled.
The wood species names are what the locals call them. The wood is grown locally and probably not related to the species we call by the same name. Their "cedar" is heavier and stronger than ours.

The hull is 12' 2" overall, made from 6mm cypress plywood joined with 3/4" cedar sticks at the edges. The hull is 18" deep, 18" wide in the middle. The stems are 2'x4" cedar carved into a wedge shape. The stems stand tall and the front one is carved into a dog's head.
The crossbeams are 2x2" square pine, 102" long.
The outrigger floats are 1" thick pine boards 127" long, carved to an upturned point at the front.

The mast is a 12 foot pine 2x2 shaved into an octagon shape, tapered down to a 2" diameter rod at both ends. The sprit is 1" square.
The sail is a 6' square shower curtain rigged as a spritsail. They don't have polytarp in kenya, and tarp like things are expensive.

in this photo Nathan Eagle, Eddie Elliot and myself get the boat ready. I'm lashing a tiller to the rudder with strips of innertube.

Step 2: The Local Style of "Catamaran"

My friend Nathan lives in Kilifi, Kenya.
Here's a local boat seen from the bridge over Kilifi creek.
The locals call them "Ngalawa" or "Catamaran".
The main hull is carved from a mango log.
The hull is has a rounded vee-bottom and no leeboards or centerboard.
The hull has a duck's-bill bow like an australian surf ski and a plumb stern. The wood is preserved by painting with oil from shark livers left in the sun in a bucket.
They have a cotton canvas lateen sail, a hinged rudder on the sternpost, and inclined outrigger floats made from thick boards. Most of the boats in Kilifi creek are purchased from Zanzibaris who sail them north for the fishing season and sell them before going home.
The crossbeams don't attach directly to the outrigger floats.
They are lashed to connector sticks that look like giant clothespins.

Step 3: Local Style - More Details

The "clothespins" or stanchions protrude through the outrigger floats and are secured by a bolt pounded through the protruding part.
The crossbeams poke through a hole in the clothespins and are lashed as seen here.
The wooden hook lashed to the upper stern of this float is to hold a fishing line for trolling.
A peg is inserted in holes through the hull and the crossbeam is lashed to that. This arrangement allows the crossbeams to shift and work slightly, thus avoiding large shock loads.

Step 4: Hull Drawing

Please excuse the crude drawings. Time is short and "The perfect is the enemy of the good" as my Mom says.

This sketch evolved a bit as the canoe progressed. For instance I didn't know how long I would make the ends.
Where you see a star symbol that means actual measurement rather than planned size.
For instance the sides ended up flaring out by an inch rather than being vertical as I had intended.

Step 5: Decks and Rudder Drawing

These measurements are all actual measurements of the boat.

This hull ended up being a lot stronger than it needed to be.
You could make every part of your hull at least 25% thinner.

Step 6: Outrigger Float Drawing and Shopping List

Figure out the volume of your floats and find out what weight of water they'll displace. As I recall ours added up to about a cubic foot or 64 lbs of water. Put that on the end of a stick in the water, and that's your stability. It was plenty for paddling and for our small sail.

I ended up buying more wood than I needed. I didn't want to have to make another lumberyard trip.
I didn't get enough of the 1" sticks and ended up ripping my own from the 1x2 with a handsaw, which was laborious.

I bought a bundle of chinese hogbristle brushes, a couple of pounds of galvanized roofing nails.
I'd considered making a "stitch and glue" boat, but opted for carpentry, and didn't get the copper wire.

Step 7: Sail, "clothespins", Slats Drawing

These are all actual measurements from the finished boat.
At some point I started carving parts without drawing them first.

Manfred Pech writes 7/20/07 on Proa File:

"At the first glance it seems to be a very simple design. But it is a fascinating boat when you come near and have a closer look at it.

The "floats" are adjustable and you can achieve different kinds of compromise
between lift and leeway reduction. When the boat sails upright you have an
acceptable way to windward, when it heels you can`t avoid leeway but you get
lift to reduce heeling or the vessel slips sideways to prevent capsizing in a
knock down situation. With a slight toe in you go better to windward. When you
lift the bows of the amas you get more hydrodynamic lift by motion through the
water. There are a lot of possiblities to change the angles/lengh/measures of
these floats or foils.

In 1973 I had a correspondence with (Dr.) Brian Durrans from the Department of Anthropology of
the University College London. He had invested a lot of time in the ngalawa type of the east
African double outrigger canoe (similiar to the type of Tim Anderson). And he found out that the
ngalawa had variations in
their design, for example they changed the floats from lying flat on the water
to angled floats within 50 years. This is evolution in boatbuilding.

Dr John Morwood of the Amateur Yacht Research Society was very enthusiastic about the Malagassy
Outrigger which has simliar hydrodynamic benefits. Eric J.Manners designed and built a lot of
boats and models with interesting asymmetric floats and boards which seem to be forgotten now.
The same seems to happen to the developments of Edmond Bruce and his foils. But when Hydroptere
will hit 50 knots this will be achieved by developments going back to the early pioneers of

I think, Tim Anderson did an interesting job and it might be possible to try
such outriggers on a proa. Thanks for the link, Wade. Regards, Manfred"

below are copies of correspondence Manfred sent me.

Step 8: The Plywood Hull - As Our Picture Opens...

The hull was almost finished before I realized it was going to be really nice and I should document it.
Here is the first picture I took. It's inside the bow looking forward. The signs of the previous steps are still visible.

First I cut the sides of the plywood canoe and assembled them with butt blocks to make them 12 feet long from 8ft plywood. They are 18" high with slightly raked stems and 2" of rocker.

I made my own measuring cups for the epoxy. I measured water into a plastic cup and marked it with the right levels for my 4:1 ratio epoxy.
Then I copied those marks onto a lot of other identical cups to use them for measuring and mixing the epoxy.

I used plastic shopping bag mittens as improvised rubber gloves to keep the epoxy off my skin.
I thickened my epoxy with white flour to make it thick like pancake batter. I spread it over the mating pieces with a cardboard squeegee, laid plastic over a scrap board, laid my plywood sandwich over that and nailed lots of nails through to clamp it all together. I left the nail heads high so I could pull them out later.
Then I laid that whole thing in the sun to get hot and cure the epoxy.
When the epoxy was hard I pulled the nails out.

While waiting for that to happen I made the stems.
I ripped a cedar 2x4 lengthwise with a handsaw to make the two knife-edge stem pieces, then hewed the visible trailing edge to make it symmetrical. You can see the machete marks from hewing the stems.

Then I mixed more epoxy glue and glued and nailed the sideboards to the stems. Then I had a canoe with no bottom. I carried it into the sun to get hot and cure. By then I was too hot myself and needed a cure. I made a frozen banana smoothie with instant coffee in it.

Then I forced the sides of the canoe out into the shape I wanted by jamming transverse sticks in. I kept them from slipping by pounding nails through the canoe sides into the ends of the sticks. I put most of the curvature in the ends of the boat to give it a high prismatic coefficient and high buoyancy for its length. I flared the sides out sideways in preparation for the final shaping step.

Thus I spread the top edge flared out wider than than the bottom edge. I used a 22.5" long stick in the middle top and a 17.5" stick in the middle bottom. I had to tie cords around the boat to hold some parts from springing out too much. Then I nailed and glued the chine logs onto the bottom edge as seen here.

I had to pre-drill the nail holes to keep the nails from splitting the 3/4" cedar sticks. I used a nail with the head cut off as a drillbit. When it got dull I pounded the tip with a hammer and filed it.

Then I planed the chine logs smoth with my spokeshave to be ready for the bottom. Then I glued and nailed the bottom on. Then I pulled the transverse sticks out of the hull and glued and nailed the gunwale strips on. While doing that I squished and tied the sides in so they are vertical in the middle. That bulged all the panels in a really nice way so the canoe is really stiff and strong.

Note the Kerfs (little crosscuts) in the gunwale strip and chine log. That enables the strips to be bent to the necessary curve without breaking. The kerfs have to be on the inside of the curve or the stick will break even worse. Note the plentiful nails. I used lots because I didn't have enough clamps.

Plentiful dribbly glue squeeze-out is visible from the joints. My first few joints were too dry and not very good. After that I added less white flour to my epoxy and my joints got better. These are great.

The ashtray looking thing in the bottom is the mast step. I carved the cup with a chisel and knife, glued and nailed the step in place. There's another just like it in the stern to step the roof support post.

All that just to make the pointy box with no lid seen here.

Step 9: Seat Supports and Seats

I'm using some wrought iron chairs as sawhorses for my boatwork. Powell's dad Charles made them. They're very nice.

Next I shaved the gunwales smooth.

Then I glued and nailed the seat support strips 5" below the gunwales. These are lengthwise 3/4" cedar sticks. You could also call them inwale stringers if you wanted to confuse people.

The seats are 6.25" wide chunks of 1" board. They are thicker than necessary but that's what I had and I was too tired to plane them down. They're screwed to the stringers with brass screws and not glued.

Please note the butt block below the seat. It covers the joint where the 8 ft. chunk of plywood ends.

You can see a hard bend in the gunwale on the left side (your left) of this picture. I broke it while bending, so the bend isn't graceful. Anguish! (anguish exhausted. moving on...)

At this point the shape of the canoe is finished.
It's 18" wide and deep, 12 feet long.
All the panels are nicely bulged so the canoe feels really solid.
You can' t "oilcan" it anywhere.

Step 10: Monohull Vs Multihull

If I'd made it a foot wider this would be a usable paddling canoe already.

But I'm making an outrigger sailing canoe, so there are a whole lot of parts yet to make.

Outrigger floats
Outrigger connection "clothespins"
Foredeck and aft deck. Also called "breasthooks".
sleeping deck

Step 11: Paint

I mixed up most of my remaining epoxy and squeegeed it into the bottom and other parts of the boat that I thought would get a lot of abuse. I left a little epoxy for possible repairs.

Then I bought a liter of linseed oil and soaked the rest of the boat with it. I put the boat in the sun to heat and soak in and cure as much as possible. It wasn't easy to find the linseed oil. It's used on the fancy carved swahili doors popular in the area.

Then I bought a quart of white oil-based paint. It barely covered the canoe so I went back to Hussein Enterprises and bought a gallon. Nathan and I had a great time painting the hull and outriggers. We got kind of dopey on the fumes. Two coats just about used up the paint. The boat looked fabulous.
When it rained that night the droplets just beaded up on the paint like a duck's dream.

Step 12: The Name Is NinaDave

Caroline, Nathan's girlfriend, got to name the boat. She chose "NinaDave" after the household's two female mutthound puppies. Here's Nina or Dave eating dogfood Kenya style.

It's "dog sausage", sausages made just for dogs, mixed with rice.
That's what dogs eat in Kenya, the lucky ones anyway.

Fortunately the end of the stempiece had plenty of wood left on it, so I carved a puppy head figurehead there.

Step 13: Boys to the Rescue

Having realized how much work remained, I hit the wall and started to despair.

At that moment Sophie the maid's boys got out of school for a holiday.
Powell, Adam, Alex and George, ranging in age from 9 on down volunteered. After I showed them what was needed they started chopping away in a really methodical and careful way. Mothers, young children NEED machetes. And they're ready.

They're amazingly good craftsmen for their age. The first time I got a machete to play with I chipped my tooth with it. That tooth is still chipped. These kids had apparently seen enough machete blood already and chopped carefully.

Before long the boat had more parts. Here Powell and Alex shape crossbeams and "clothespins".

Step 14: Another Use for Tires

Here are the machetes the boys were using.
The handles are made from old tires.

Step 15: Instant Paddles

The paddles were quick to make and turned out really well.
To see video of how to make them, check out the cozy boat instructable.

Step 16: The Rudder

The rudder is pretty simple, just some boards glued and nailed like this.
Then tied to the stern post of the canoe.
It's strong and works really well.

The tiller is just a longer stick tied to the top. That was the last thing before testing the canoe and didn't get much attention.

Step 17: Foredeck and Partner

Here's the foredeck.
A rib under the middle of the deck makes it even stronger.

The hole in the splash rail is the mast partner.
The mast slides through there and rests in the mast step.

I positioned the mast step so the mast would rake back slightly.
If I'd known I was going use a plain square spritsail I would have made the mast vertical.

Step 18: Rear Deck, Roofpost Partner, Reserve Rudder System

The rear deck also has a partner and corresponding mast step.
It serves several functions.
If the rudder breaks you can put a rudder post in here and steer with a quarter rudder lashed against that and the protruding end of the splash rail.

If you want a roof over your boat you put a stick in here to hold it up.
Here are pictures of three types of folding roofs seen on boats in Lamu.

Step 19: Sleeping Facilities

Here's the folding bed deck system.
I ripped some 1/4" thick cedar boards and wound two strands of monofilament along each side to join them into a roll-top desk sort of thing.
These fold out to lay on the seat support stringer. They're very comfortable to lay on.

You could also lay them on the chine log and sleep just above the bottom of the boat.
Add the top layer, and the other crew member gets to sleep also.
Not palatial of course, but there's only so much space in a boat this size.

Step 20: Not Quite Tortured....

As you can see, the bottom is bulged just a little.
That's because the sides were spread wide when the bottom was attached and then bent to vertical after the epoxy cured.
This put just a little compounding in all the panels, making them very stiff. You can't "oilcan" this boat anywhere.

If you've ever built a "tortured plywood" boat this will be familiar to you.
This method isn't exactly torture, so let's call it "enhanced interrogated plywood".

Speaking of which, there's a big American military base north of here, with helicopters flying everywhere, lots of roadblocks and refugees. It seems the U.S. is fighting a war in Somalia.

From what I heard it's just as stupid as our last one.

Step 21: Quick Release Crossbeam Lashings

Need to take the crossbeams off in a hurry?
Grab the little sticks, break the cotton strings, and everything comes apart in an instant.

To attach the crossbeams, just poke the little sticks through the polypro cord loops, twist them tight, and slide the cotton strings over the ends of the sticks as shown.

This system works very well.

Step 22: Clothespins and Assembly

We all called them "clothespins" for some reason. I think the Swahili name is "miringei".

They go from the crossbeams to the outrigger floats.

It's late afternoon and it seems to be the day for testing the boat.

Step 23: Off to the Beach!

In the morning it's calm and the fishermen paddle down Kilifi creek in their dugouts to fish on the reef.
They paddle back with their catch before the wind comes up in the afternoon.
By the time we have the boat ready to test the big waves are here.

Step 24: Paddling Out

The waves are a lot bigger than these pictures make it look.

We see our chance, run out with the canoe and start paddling.

Nathan and I paddle through the top of a big wave just before it breaks, taking in some water. We keep paddling and get out to the swells. Yay!

Step 25: Meanwhile, Back on Shore

Family and friends watch anxiously as we disappear behind the waves.

Step 26: Sailing

When we've paddled out past the breakers we hoist the sail.
It's pretty small and there's not a lot of wind, but the boat sails all right.
I nearly capsize us while putting up the sail. It's surprising how much time we have to lean the other way. The outrigger float boards don't have much buoyancy, but it takes a lot of force to push them through the water sideways. We tack a few times and then sail back toward the beach.

Step 27: Landing

We sail toward the beach til a wave takes us, and then we're surfing. Everything goes great until we're just about on shore. Then just as the bow touches the sand, the wave stands up and dumps us sideways. Much floundering, crashing, and dragging stuff up on the beach ensues.

We take the boat apart in a hurry in the shore break and heave the parts up the beach.

We survey the damage. A couple of clothespins are broken. Everything else is fine.
I lay down in the canoe and see what it would have been like as a coffin.

Step 28: Elation!

We carry the boat back to the house feeling jubilant.

The next night we repeat the performance in even bigger waves, break some more stuff, and feel even more like good things are happening.

Verdict: The canoe is a success, and it might be wise to take it out in the morning before the big waves show up.