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Home  | Traditional Kayaks  | Nansen's Kayak




This is a crude drawing of Nansen's kayak. I used a better drawing from Sea Kayaker Magazine to replicate Johansen's kayak which was somewhat deeper and higher volume. The bamboo is rock hard and splits and splinters. The bamboo that I used is bone dry, but I would guess that the bamboo that Nansen used was also bone dry from the low humidity of the arctic cold. I used similar lashing techniques as they did  and generally followed their plan form. The frame turned out remarkably symmetrical and pleasing to look at.





This was the plan from Sea Kayaker Magazine that I used to build the Johansen replica. The notes

are my dimensional estimates. The bamboo grew and shrank though the frame building, but the over-

all dimensions are pretty close, within an inch or less overall.



 Although Nansen used bamboo of several different diameters, I used bamboo of three-quarters of
and inch to and inch as it was readily available at a garden center near me. The bamboo proved to
be a challenge to work with as it split and twisted when bent to shape. I eventually learned a few

techniques to deal with it's idiosyncrasies.

I bent the gunnels, which were the largest diameter pieces that I had, by tying them loosely together
and inserting a spreader to get the desired dimension at the cockpit area.

I then went fore and aft with the deck beams. I carved the forward slightly raised deck beam out of
a 2X4. That and the bow and stern piece are the only material other than bamboo used in the frame.
That is confirmed by several people that have viewed the original frames. In order to bind/lash the
 joints, I drilled a hole in the deck beams and the frames as Nansen and his associates did, and then
lashed them up. I also relieved the ends of the lashed pieces in a curve that fit the gunnels or the chine.
That kept the lashed piece in place and helped make a secure joint.


I lashed and relashed the bow and stern post several times. The gunnel material twisted as it was drawn together and made the bow and stern joints a project to get right and secure. Once I had them in place, I lashed up the keelson and aligned it with a couple of small cords.


The hardest part of the project was installing the chines. I started with two pieces of bamboo that were about six inches  longer than the bow and stern post. I loosely lashed them together at the two ends and secured them to the bow and stern posts at the correct location from the gunnels. I then inserted a spreader at the cockpit area and temporarily tied them in place. Starting at the middle, I worked forward and aft, installing the frames. It was very wobbly at first, but as I got more frames installed, I was able to get more of the desired shape. When I had the middle four frames installed, I lashed the bow and stern securely. After doing that, the shape came easier and by the time I had the last frames installed, I was able to bend and push the frame to get a nice overall symmetrical configuration.


It was easier to lash the frames if they didn't meet the deck beams, but I laid it out as in the drawings. Some of them met and some didn't. You can see the holes that were drilled to get the lashings to work. They made a surprisingly strong joint.


The nearly finished frame. Only a few frames left to install.


The finished frame without the cockpit. For all of the difficulty working with the bamboo, it came out pretty good.


Another view of the finished frame. It's very light and seems fairly stable.
The next step is to steam bend the coaming. Then it's ready to be covered.

Here is a good look at the lashings. They made remarkably strong joints. Nansen's lasted two long hard years.

I made a form out of glued up 2x6's to steam bend the cockpit coaming.

This is the coaming before being glued together.

Here's the finished kayak. Nansen covered theirs with sail cloth and water proofed the covering with

paint and whatever else they had. I used cotton duck and sealed it with varnish. Close enough.


Another view of Johansen's kayak showing the cargo hatches which I sewed into the deck.


One more of the same. The cargo hatches were round with a cloth sleeve sewn onto the deck material.

These could be rolled up and secured after loading and would provide some protection from the

elements. I doubt that these were used in any kind of big water and probably didn't have to be water



Here is a better view of the cockpit and the aft cargo hatches.



The vee is not as pronounced as it appears here, although the kayak ended up an inch deeper from

chine to keelson than the drawing. The bamboo kind of went where it wanted sometimes and it

continued to move around after it was completed. I suspect that it has to be loaded with a goodly

amount of gear to be comfortable on the water. When the ice goes out here, I'll give it a try.


Nansen and Johansen carried everything they had in their kayaks. Johansen made his with a deeper

Vee than Nansen to carry more gear. I ballasted the replica of Johansen's kayak with eight gallon jugs

 of water and two tents. Not much compared to what they had but it totaled about eighty pounds.

I had an old bear skin in the attic and for a little authentic touch, brought it to the lake and sat on it.

It worked great! I know the boys sat on their furs.


Without ballast, the kayak would just roll over, but once it was loaded, it was stable. There were

three circular loading hatches sewn into the deck. The ones in the bow were about a foot across.

The stern hatch was the first one that I sewed in and it got too small. The hatches worked very

well in loading the gear in the kayak and would have made it easy to fill it up.


Once loaded and seated on my plush bear skin, the paddling was easy and comfortable. Even with

the ballast and the paddler in place, it looks like there was a foot of freeboard. I'd guess that that

little kayak could float another two hundred pounds of gear.


Another view of me and the war club paddle. I used that paddle because it was big and long. The

kayak is very beamy and you need a big paddle to reach the water. It it sat lower, it would be easier

to paddle. The paddle is a replica of the one that goes with the Lowie Baidarka.


Another view on the water. The kayak was very stable. It was like sitting in an easy chair. I suspect

that the boys used a single blade paddle at times. I know that they rafted their kayaks together

and did as much sailing as possible.


The kayak was as slow as it was stable. It was like paddling a bale of hay around the lake. It went

absolutely straight and was not affected by the wind, but it was slow hard work to get it to go anywhere.

All in all, a huge success. These kayaks were built to be durable, heavy haulers. The boys knew what

they were doing. If you wanted something that would carry all your gear, your furs and ammo, a

butchered seal or walrus and work in the ice pack or the open ocean, this fit the bill. Nice jobs boys!



This is a picture from the Fram Museum showing Nansen and Johansen somewhere near the edge

of the ice. Who took the picture and where it was taken is not known to me. Perhaps this was taken

when they got to  Franz Joseph Land and a ride home. That's a lot of gear on the deck.

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  2009 Jim Rutzick