RED SQUIRREL was the canoe my father built me in 1964. Originally she was 17 feet long and double ended. Later she was adapted to have a small transom stern so that the rudder was mounted vertically, as you can see in the picture. This shortened her length to about 16’6”. The rudder was operated by the feet of the rear crew member, leaving his (or her) hands free to paddle. This was the rudder bar, like in an aircraft. This photograph I took in 1971 is near the site of Hellesdon mill on the river Wensum. Holding the bow painter is my sister Margaret (Tiggie). This was in the late summer, as you can just see some pink Himalayan balsam flowers on the far bank. It was the third boat I had as a boy – two of them made by my father – and Red Squirrel was the one I had the most fun from owning. In theory she would hold three people, but she never held more (or less) than two. She was very shallow in her draught, and that made her very adaptable; she was equally at home navigating a shallow stream or cutting her way through the waves of the open sea. There was also plenty of storage space under the fore and aft decks. They were no buoyancy bags and fortunately we never needed them. I think we had a couple of plastic footballs fore and aft, which may (or may not) have been enough to keep her afloat. About 3 feet wide amidships she was very stable. You see her set up in her simplest form, as a paddle powered vessel. She also had a lugsail and lee boards which transformed her into a small sailing boat. With a cross member attached to the combing frame just aft of the rear seat she became a motor boat with the aid of an outboard motor (a low horse power Johnson) which had originally been bought for my Enterprise dinghy.
She was built of marine ply and steamed oak frames, with softwood stringers. These were covered in pvc coated canvas. At first she was decked in plain green canvas, but this soon rotted and was removed and the yellow pvc covered canvas substituted. Although we called Red Squirrel a canoe she was strictly speaking a kayak. A canoe, or properly a Canadian canoe, is an open boat without a deck and propelled by two crew, each with a single paddle. They used them kneeling. The canoe of the native North Americans was skinned in birchbark. The kayak was an Inuit (or Eskimo) craft and was covered in seal skin. Once they were adopted by the Europeans they were covered in rubberised canvas. The method of constructing kayaks changed, first to a monocoque skin of marine ply with no stringers (the so-called stitch-and-glue method) and then to a fibreglass or thermoplastics hull. The old way of building from a frame covered by canvas ( later by pvc) died out within a few years of the building of Red Squirrel. The techniques of making canoes of plastic produced a lighter craft, but not such an attractive looking one. It is also not a method for DIY or kit builders. After her first year when she was carried to the water on the roof-rack of our Hillman Husky (she overhung at both ends) we adapted a trailer to take her. This was much better; although she was not heavy, the lifting her up on the roof of a car and then tying her down to make all safe was quite an undertaking. And she wasn’t really safe up there anyway.
The rivers we explored in Red Squirrel included the Tas, Waveney, Wensum the Bure and Yare while we used her in the sea of the east coast of East Anglia at Southwold, the North Norfolk coast at Weyborne and the west coast of Norfolk at Snettisham. These sea trips were mainly to go fishing. Although we used only handlines the results were far better than using a rod off the beach. The urge to paddle back as soon as we caught our first fish was soon overcome by the prospect of more. As I remember we mostly caught dabs and plaice, flatfish that are delicious, especially when freshly out of the sea. It was all done by going just a few hundred yards off shore. I eventually got rid of my boat in the early 1980’s, by which time all my leisure time was taken up with playing the double bass.
JOSEPH MASON, THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIAN LIFE email@example.com