(Courtesy of Messing About in Boats)

Umiak, An Illustrated Guide

by Skip Snaith, Illustrated by Tina Rose
Walrose & Hyde, 1997, P.O. Box 992, Eastsound, WA 98245

Review by Mark Reveaux

Skip Snaith's book is an important work on a craft that played a key role in early migrations of Indians and Eskimos to the island chains and shores of the Pacific Northwest. The Umiak is a skin boat that originated about 10,000 years ago. It was built with a flat bottom. The ribs came from what wood could be found. Some of the parts were of bone. Most fastenings were of sinu, tied in specific patterns where the framing and longitudinals meet. The skin was normally from seals, and walruses, replaced periodically. Modern Umiaks use fiberglass cloth saturated with poly urethane resin, hypalon, or other flexible waterproof coating. If you're going to build one, you may want to contact the author for advice on where to obtain the coatings.

Skip Snaith observed the similarities between the Umiak and the dory. Both evolved in parts of the world far removed from each other with the differences being mainly in available materials. Skip calls the flat bottomed Umiak the "pre-contact" style that was in use before European influence created the round-bottomed bent rib boat sometime after 1850. They needed to mass produce the boats for cargo and hunting. The round hull was said to be stronger and more seaworthy, but this wasn't universally true. Flat bottomed Umiaks (some with a shallow "V") had crossed some of the most dangerous waters of the Pa- cific Northwest.

The flat-bottomed style also had the advantage of lying level when pulled up on a shore, whereas the round bottomed boats rolled to one side or the other. Both styles were in use side-by-side throughout the 1900s and are still in use today. The Europeans also used dories very successfully, but they were a strain on the crew when they needed to be dragged for long distances over the ice. The Umiak is a much lighter boat, having its hull of skin rather than strakes of solid pine or cedar. It also had a flexing motion that was said to have advantages in certain sea conditions. The larger Umiaks of 25' transported extended families and hunting parties. They had various types of sailing rigs and the later models had outboard motor wells, Many of them had spray covers that extended two feet above the gunwales. Skip's book has a photo showing one boat so overloaded that the water is within inches of the spray cover. When pulled up on the ice after a day's run, they were propped up on their sides and used for shelters.

The reader is brought from the historical origins of the boat to its evolvement through to the present time, and on to showing us how it's built. He and his illustrator, Tina Rose, show us step-by-step methods of building the flat-bottom and round-bottom boats. I liked Tina Rose's style of drawing. They're much better than photographs. In sketch form, they show us parts and how they go together, almost as through we were standing there and watching it being done. She's also shown the boats being built in various construction stages by the Eskimos themselves, using the tools they had at the time.

When you look at her sketches, there's almost a living quality about them, as though Tina captured a motion in time in a way no camera could duplicate. If we actually had been there and saw two Eskimos helping each other fitting a walrus skin to the frame, we would remember the scene much in the same way as Tina sketched them. I hope she goes on to more of this work. In this book she's done all of us an important service, Thank you, Tina, for being so skilled and having the ability to portray things in such real life ways. Skip's writing is so clear that, combined with Tina's sketches, the book is a valuable resource for anyone with an interest in small craft, even if they don't plan to build tbe boat.

For someone who thinks they may consider building an Umiak, this book could almost be used as a guide. Although I bought both the flat-bottomed and bent rib plans from Skip, I have no question that if I floated up on an island from a shipwreck with nothing more than Skip's hook and a jack knife, that I could huild one of these boats on the beach. Should you plan to go ahead with this project I would, of course, recommend that you do get the prints, hecause they provide expanded views and details you'll want to have.

When I became interested in the baidarka and Umiak, I spent a week at Corey Freedman's school in Anacurdes, Washington, where he showed me various Umiaks under construction. Corey does a great job with these boats and, I would have built one there had it not been so expensive to ship the boat back to the East Coast. Corey also built a variation of the Umiak with a lattice-work bottom covered with fiberglass cloth. The sides are sponsons, much like an Avon Navy rescue boat.

With a 40 hp outboard, we cruised 70 miles of the San Juan islands at high speed over very rough water. The boat flexed over conditions that any hard-shell boat would have had trouble with to say nothing of the crew. The flexing also creates a cushion effect that's easier on one's bottom while at the wheel. I paid close attention to the bottom as we skipped from one wave top to the next, and saw the flexing and working of the hull as it twisted, racked, and torqued in a variety of stresses encountered only in a seaway.

What impressed me was bow the lashings held, even under such continuous pounding, slamming and twisting on the choppy seas. Not even a sign of loosening anywhere. It's as though the hull were speaking to the waves, saying: "You can work me any way you want, but I'll spring back no matter what you do." After our day on the water it became clear that if an Umiak-style hull can withstand continuous heavy pounding at 20 mph, the same hull loafing along at 5 knots can stay out there for ever.

But when we talk of speed, the Umiak is not a slow boat and often exceeds its designed hull speed. A neighbor friend of Corey Freedman, who built a 16' Umiak with a mast step, told me that when he sailed out into one of the island groups recently, "We swept along at a very brisk rate and got to our island in no time". And when at your destination, you simply take the mast out and store it. Many use the sprit sail, a simple and easy rig that gets packed away in minutes.

The Umiak's advantages are evident as a utility craft in the Pacific Northwest environment. The boats are light, flexible, carry a tremendous amount of cargo for their size, using every cubic inch of inside space, they can be rowed, paddled, and sailed efficiently, can be pulled up on shores without difficulty, propped up to serve as overnight shelters, and serve as floating base camps for kayak hunting parties. The framing can last more or less forever, With occasional replacement of lashings here and there. The skin is another question. Ultraviolet light is the biggest enemy of most resins, and constant exposure to the sun can deteriorate it. There are ultraviolet inhibitors, but I have to learn how effective they are when the resin and cloth combination are so thin and transparent.

A round-bottomed umiak (with handlining paddler) approaches a flat-bottomed type with possible engine trouble. Study sketch from archival photo. (Rasmuson Library, Univ. of Alaska Fairbanks.)
I understand that a typical Umiak can survive several years of being outdoors before suffering any appreciable ultraviolet damage, and when it comes time to replace the skin, it can be done more or less in a day with the help of a couple of friends So this problem is not necessarily a major one, nor an impor- tant factor in deciding whether or not to own the boat.

The other consideration is where you'll be beaching the boat. I live in the Thimble Islands (12 miles East of New Haven, Connecticut). We have clam and oyster beds everywhere. I've never seen anything sharper than oyster shells when trying to drag the bottom of a boat over them. They're like jagged razors. The boats normally used here are the flat-bottomed boats with heavy flat skegs to protect the bottoms from the oyster shells, and even these need to be replaced from time to time.

An Umiak, with its thin skin, may not survive our conditions here all that well, although you can build the boat with an external flat skeg running the whole length of the bottom, which would afford quite a lot of protection This flat keel also helps in tracking. While this isn't enough of a concern to prevent you from owning the boat, it's something to be kept in mind.

Launching is another issue. A heavier wooden boat would be launched off its trailer, immersed in water. The Umiak could be carried into the water by four people. It could also be lowered into the water off a sea wall from a light gantry crane, of the type I built (originally nally for launching my Old Town canoe).

The Umiak is a wonderful boat that deserves a closer look by those of us thinlttng about building a dory-type boat, but who may not have the facilities or time for such an undertaking. Once you've built the Umiak, you might find that it's not a major compromise over having a dory, and it could serve you very well, as it has for the past 10,000 years to the Pacific Northwest Eskimos and Indians.

If you do plan to build the boat, one of the quickest ways would be to get a group of other interested builders together. Two people can build two boats faster than one person can build one boat. A team of four could put four boats together in two weeks or less. Part-time after work, four boats could be ready for launching within two months, and this accounts for the at least one of the members having to drop out from time to time because of family commitments. The cost for a 17-footer would he under $1,000. With four boats, the cost might be under $700 each. That's a lot of bang for your buck.