Floating a few ideas
May 12, 2003
NAPLES, Italy — Darrell Van Hutten found a way to combine two of his passions, water sports and woodworking.
The Navy captain paddles in wooden kayaks he builds by hand.
Van Hutten got the idea to construct a kayak six years ago when he saw plans in Sea Kayaker magazine.
“I did woodworking in high school, and it seemed like it’d be a neat project,” Van Hutten recalled.
Four months later, he was the proud owner of an 18-foot kayak.
But he didn’t stop there. He’s now crafting his seventh kayak and has coached several other wannabe builders, including his wife of 19 years, Kris.
The two Atlanta natives met in Georgia. She was the half-owner of a previous boat of his and, like him, an outdoor enthusiast. They both enjoy hiking, biking, diving, skiing and sailboat racing.
Van Hutten, 47 and in the Navy for 25 years, is the commanding officer of Engineering Field Activity Mediterranean, responsible for facilities engineering for Navy bases in Europe.
His love of sailboats is not compatible with a military lifestyle — “It’s very expensive to buy and sell [sailboats] every two years when you move,” he said — but kayaking is a different story, since it is a lot easier to move the smaller boats. Van Hutten has even modified plans so he can take apart his kayaks for easy shipping.
He enjoys a challenge. He spent 20 hours calculating out how to scale down a set of plans to make a smaller kayak.
“It’s intriguing to take an existing set of plans and scale them down,” he said. “Ordinarily, no one would do that.”
Van Hutten already had basic woodworking skills before he taught himself how to build kayaks out of okoume, a type of African wood.
“My mom would tell you that’s how I got through high school. If it wasn’t for wood shop, I would’ve dropped out,” he said.
To build a 55-pound kayak takes about 100 hours — 70 hours if using a kit with pre-cut wood — and costs $500 to $600.
“A drill, sander and jigsaw are the only power tools you need,” he said.
Van Hutten bonds the panels — 5 feet by 10 feet by 4 millimeters — with epoxy. After letting it seal for a few days, he stitches the panels together with copper wiring.
“When you do that, all of a sudden it looks like a boat,” he said.
He puts fiberglass on the inside joints and installs the bulkheads. Then, using only epoxy and no nails to detract from the appearance, he attaches the deck, which has hatches to store items like camping gear.
He laminates the kayak with fiberglass so the honey-colored wood shines through and adds varnish for ultraviolet protection.
“Then you install the foot pegs, the seat and go paddling,” he said.
Kris Van Hutten, 50, is used to her husband disappearing a few hours a night to their 2,000-square foot garage, where he builds the kayaks.
“He needs something to do all the time; he never just sits,” she said.
The Van Huttens usually go kayaking alone. Kris, the manager of Fit Zone gym at Capodichino, said she enjoys the full-body workout of the sport and the serenity.
“We’ve seen beavers and deer just 30 minutes outside D.C.,” she said.
The Van Huttens will move to Washington, D.C., in August, and Darrell plans to slow down on the kayak building to just one a winter.
“Clearly, I’m going to run out of room,” he said. “I don’t need the boats.”
That decision should give him more time for actual kayaking. He said whenever he puts his kayaks in the water, he can count on being approached by curious paddlers.
“It adds a half-hour to the process of kayaking,” he said.