Boat Building in Belize


Boat Building in Belize
A 2 1/2 week adventure in Central America,
building a 19', 3 man river racing canoe

by Skip Johnson

As part of some ongoing work on some local housing projects, I happened to be in Orange Walk Town in northern Belize in September 1999 when the first annual New River canoe race was held. Seeing the first boats come around the bend to the finish, I knew I'd have to build a boat and run in the second annual New River canoe race.

A little inquiry revealed that the race is 'about' 40 miles long and the rules were simple, 3 man boat 19' maximum length. The rules were a little more restrictive than the Texas Water Safari, for which I had designed and helped build several competitive boats over the years (Safari rules, human power only, period). On the other side of the coin, 40 really flat-water miles is a lot easier than 260 miles of really varied and rough river conditions.

My client and host, Mr. Joe Loskot, owner of New River Enterprises, a local lumber mill and manufacturing concern, readily agreed to furnish the lumber for the boat and a space to work and I would provide the rest (design, glass/epoxy, experience, etc.). Sergio Barraza, one of Mr. Loskot's employees, agreed to help paddle the boat and would find a third man locally to complete the team. Sergio suggested the boat be named "Miss Lavi" after Mr. Loskot’s youngest daughter (and Sergio's future fiancee). The only thing left was to break the news to my wife that I was going to build 'another boat' and that it would interfere with our planned working vacation trip to Belize.

Two days later, back in Houston, Susie understood my compulsion to build another boat and we would work our schedule around the boat building (thank God for understanding and indulgent wives). The design was done (see sidebar1). Materials ordered. Twelve yards of 60" wide "s" glass (ouch) and a gallon of Maas epoxy and a half gallon of tropical hardener and appropriate hand pumps. The extra expense of the "s" glass (3x) was rationalized on the basis that the effort going into a project justified the extra cost for such a relatively small increase in physical properties. And the "s" glass really is easier to work with and wet out. I hadn't used the Maas epoxy system before, but it was the 2:1 ratio type that I much prefer and the hardener was classified as non-corrosive, so shipping would not be a problem.

Shipping was a problem, too much stuff. Take 3 people (wife, mother-in-law and me), travel gear for three weeks, including some snorkeling gear and add the stuff to build a boat. A real load to get to the airport. We made it, but I got stuck in the doorway at Houston intercontinental with a five and a half foot long piece of 4" PVC pipe strapped to my back, wheeling two 48 quart igloo ice chests and other sundry stuff in front of me. Nine pieces checked, plus 3 carry-ons. The boat building stuff actually only took up 2 pieces of luggage a 48 quart igloo ice chest and a five foot plus long piece of PVC pipe (see sidebar2).

Dairy of a boat building:

Monday, 8 November, 1999

Flight to Belize, met at airport by New River staff member, who was also picking up some large crates of sawmill blades. We all fit in the vehicle, but I rode the 60 miles to Orange Walk in a cross legged Yoga position since the passengers floor boards was full of baggage. Got settled in a bit, It rained all day.

Tuesday, 9 November 1999

It rained all day. Got started with the set-up. I was given a spot to work in a new building under construction that will be used for some of the products in the new housing projects. 110 volt power available, but no compressed air, oops. To work, New Rivers construction grade plywood interesting in that it is much lighter than what is available in the U.S. and has virtually no knots or voids in any of the veneers and the veneers are equal thickness. One sheet of ¾” ripped into 5-7” x 8’ strips for the strong back plus the remainder in 1½” strips for frame bracing. One sheet of ¼” crosscut into 8-4’ x 1’ panels for strong back web. 2 sheets ¼” cut into 16” wide strips. All this plywood was cut in the mill and I carried it out to the new ‘boat shop’. In a hurry to get started, I took a shortcut across the yard carrying the ice (tool) chest and promptly stepped in a thigh deep rut full of water and muck. At least it entertained a few workers.

Back on more or less dry ground, cut up and butt block the ¾” ply into a 7” x 18’ & 7”x 16’ piece with 5- 7” x 10½” spacers. Assemble ladder style on side and then straighten along the 18’ side to a string line. Nail & glue the ¼” web pieces on that side. Roll over and clamp a few (3) pieces of ¾” x 1½” x 24” strips along the 18’ side and check for twist. Shim as required so that the top relatively planar (no twist), nail and glue ¼” web pieces in place. While glue is drying, cut out frames.

Glue ½ pattern print on piece of poster board. Cut out around outline of largest frame. Trace around pattern with pencil, being sure to mark the centerline and the sheer. Flip pattern over; trace the other half, once again marking the sheer location and the pattern number. Cut out around the next station with scissors and repeat. I usually mark one section of plywood and then cut out the patterns with a jigsaw. Repeat until all frames are cut out. Fasten frames to 1½” wide plywood strips cut 2” or so shorter than the frame width, be sure to fasten on the side opposite the centerline and sheer marks.

Mark centerline on strong back with stretch string and spray paint. Mark frame stations and square across top of strong back. Put some legs under strong back to get to a convenient working height. Finally, some 3 dimensionality, start at the midsection and fasten frames to strong back, one screw @ the center of the ¾” plywood strip and then nail at one edge of strong back top to square.

Got the front frames set up; enough for one day, go get cleaned up.

That evening, Sergio proposed to Miss Lavi, will have to work fast before the boat name has to be changed to Mrs. Barraza.

Wednesday, 10 November 1999

It rained all day. Worked in office all morning. Had lunch with Mr. Loskot. In the afternoon, met Edwin, who was to be my assistant in building the boat. We finished setting up the rear frames. The first Spanish cedar strips were cut and machined for bead and cove with the MLCS bits that had been sent down earlier with some drawings. The strips look really good; kiln dried material, tight even grain, light and strong, I could have used ‘e’ glass. I had Edwin cut up the 4” PVC pipe in 1¼” wide rings and then slit them for clamps. Holes drilled about 3” apart and 3” in from the edge of the frames for rubber band cleats. Cover edges of frames with clear packing tape.

Thursday, 11 November 1999

It rained all day, not quite so hard. Begin stripping. The longest strips are about 14’ long, so Edwin and I are cutting 3:1 scarfs by hand, holding 2 strips together on a scrap piece of plywood. The first strips are strapped on, radius side up, against the small nails tacked in the forms at the pencil marks on forms. The ends are bevel cut and glued together. The second strip is installed, glue run down the groove and then strapped down. Stop for a minute and make sure everything is fair and square, take a picture it’s the first time in 3 days the rain has let up enough to take a picture. Things go pretty well and we are able to get the hull stripped up to the turn of the bilge, so things can dry overnight and we’ll tackle the tough part in the morning.

Friday, 12 November 1999

No rain today! Keep on stripping, the sweep up at the bow really helped fit in the strips at the ‘chin’ of the bow. Small wedges cut from scrap plywood help hold the strips in tight where they twist from horizontal in the middle of the boat to vertical at the ends. Once stripping gets into the bottom of the boat, we start doing a zigzag cut down the centerline of the boat. Edwin starts filling gaps and holes with putty while I fit the last stealer pieces in the bottom.

Saturday, 13 November 1999

No more rain. There is still no compressed air available, so I borrow a belt sander with a 60 grit and 100 grit belts and get to work. Cut loose the rubber bands at the gunnel and pull out the bands, over a thousand but it goes quick. Start sanding in the middle of the boat to let the ends have more time to dry. Sanding takes all day and I’m pleasantly surprised that I can still move my arms without pain, since I hadn’t used a really heavy belt sander in a long time.

Sunday, 14 November 1999

Glassing day, Sergio has offered to help after he takes care of some other things, so we plan on starting about 1:00 PM. I get to the mill a little earlier and get set up. When Sergio gets there, we roll the glass out over the boat and cut to length and trim around the edges. I had made iron-on stickers for the boat name and little circular vignette portrait of Miss Lavi to put on the bow. In my haste to get on with the glassing I tacked all the stickers in place, then ironed them on. Oops! Iron ons should be done one at a time, removing the backing while everything is still hot. Lost the portraits, but salvaged the boat names. Start mixing epoxy, 6-oz resin, and 3-oz hardener to start, so Sergio can get a feel for wetting out the cloth and the process of working out from the middle always working towards the ends. Start to use larger batches, 9-oz resin, 4-½ oz hardener, battery gives out on cordless drill, we start mixing batches by hand. I really should have taken Susie up on her offer to help mix, it’s a three ring circus with only two performers. In any case, we get the glass wet out and the ends trimmed, glass lapped etc, its starting to get dark, we don’t have any lights and I haven’t even got the peel-ply out. Usually I cut the peel-ply in 8 to 12 inch wide strips and lay them across the hull starting in the middle. In the interest of time, we put the peel-ply on in one piece draping it over the hull and then starting to smooth it out starting in the middle and working out to the ends. In the haste to get everything wet out, there isn’t quite enough resin on the glass to soak up into the peel-ply so we mix more epoxy and squeegee it down through the peel-ply to smooth out the finish of the glass. It is dark and we are done.

Monday, 15 November 1999

I stop by the mill just long enough to peel the peel-ply off the boat. Since we had squeegeed the epoxy through the peel-ply, it is stuck harder than usual, so I end up peeling it back in about 3” strips. Off on real vacation far from the beaten path with Susie and her Mom.

Tuesday, 16 November 1999


Wednesday, 17 November 1999


Thursday, 18 November 1999

Back at mill, disaster of my own making. I had coated the hull with a thin coat of epoxy to fill the texture left by the peelply and was in a hurry for it to kick off so I could take the hull off the forms. It was subtropical but not that hot so I started moving the form out into the sun so the epoxy would cure quicker. In the process of see sawing the form out into the sun, one of the legs broke and the whole thing fell over upside down on the concrete. I was sick and really ticked off at myself for getting in a hurry and not getting any help to move the boat. Some of the mill workers came over immediately and helped get the boat back upright and the legs re-braced. Then I squeegeed off most of the fresh epoxy and most of the bits of concrete, dirt, dust and other junk stuck to the bottom of the hull. Also set back up the hardener container I kicked over while running in tight circles. After I cooled off and the epoxy that was left on the hull cured a bit, I took the boat off the form. Enough for one day.

Friday, 19 November 1999

National Holiday, went to Key Caulker. Left Susie and her Mom for a couple of days

Saturday, 20 November 1999

Back batchin' it a couple of days, work fast. Move the boat over to the main mill work area to be close to compressed air that oops, doesn’t work. Start sanding out bottom with belt sander and mill foreman goes off to junk yard and finds a piece of scrap pipe than can be brazed into line to fix compressor. Now I can use the D/A sander. Sand. Sand. Sand. Quit.


Sunday, 21 November 1999

Glass inside of boat, do I always glass on Sunday? Don’t think so, don’t really know. A little more relaxed, start earlier and do the glass in 5 foot long sections with fiberglass running across boat. Also scarf the 5/8” x 1¼” mahogany gunnels. Good clean 6/1 scarfs this time because we don’t want hard spots in the sheer.

Monday, 22 November 1999

Install bulkheads fore and aft, cut out of local ¼” construction (exterior) plywood. Use epoxy wood flour fillets using the last of epoxy and wood dust (flour) from the mill shop sander. Glue on the gunnel strips using the absolutely very last drops of epoxy (had kicked over the hardener jug back when I dropped the boat and lost about 20% of hardener). Cut open the jug and disassemble the pump last bit of hardener, had plenty of resin left. The picture shows the gunnels clamped on with the pvc clamps cut from carrying tube. ‘Fishscales’ in picture (thought my digital camera was broke and only saved one picture of bunch) were due to electrical noise from the diesel generator that runs when the sawmill is operating. Local power grid can’t reliably supply power.

Tuesday, 23 November 1999

Returned to Cay Caulker and rescued Susie and her Mom, though they didn’t seem to appreciate being rescued.

Wednesday, 24 November 1999

Generally clean up mess and get ready to fly back to Houston. Lots of little odds and ends to take care of plus packing. Took a few pictures of boat with Edwin who had helped with building boat. Edwin didn’t have any experience with boat building but really knew how to work with wood and was a willing and able assistant.

Thursday, 25 November 1999

Fly back to Houston today, but can’t stand not trying boat out. We go down to the cut to the river that they used to float logs down many years ago and put the boat in. The paddle is a piece of scrap with construction plywood blades nailed to it, which is enough. The boat handles well with one paddler, accelerating and turning much better than I expected primarily because the ends are just out of the water.

Fast Forward

Wednesday, 13 September 2000

Back to Belize. This time solo, with 3 take-a-part paddles, 3 water jugs, lifejacket, my custom fitted seat cushion , some extra foam and misc. stuff. Plenty of epoxy now, had sent 2 gals resin and gallon hardener (Fiberglass Coatings) along with a shipment of parts and supplies for New river Enterprises.

Thursday, 14 September 2000

Cut and fit in decks, cut and fit in three seat platforms from ½” construction plywood. Seat platforms ‘U’ shaped with foot braces bolted across legs of ‘U’. Quick and simple. Glue in thwarts. (picture) Mill finishing guru stains decks to match mahogany gunnels.

Friday, 15 September 2000

We are generally picking up the last little details and getting ready for some practice paddling and the race organizer drops by mill. Effusive and heartfelt compliments “ thought I was too old, but I’m in love again”. Then, “Oh no, it is a canoe race, you can not use kayak paddles”. Arrgghh!! I don’t even own a canoe paddle. We spend some time fitting quick and dirty handles to the two wood take-a-part paddles I’d brought so we would have something to paddle with.

Saturday, 16 September 2000

We carry the boat down to the river and practice a bit. About 6 miles upstream to the sugar mill and then back. Boat handles good, but I feel pretty inadequate trying to instruct Sergio and his friend in any of the finer points of single blade paddling because I just don’t have the experience or expertise. My kingdom for a double blade.

Sunday, 17 September 2000

Race day. All the boat meet at the fire station and we caravan to Lamanai, Mayan ruins on a large lagoon near the headwaters of New River. The boat is strapped to the top of Mr. Loskot’s Land Cruiser and there’s an oval trail of drool marks around the vehicle as everybody checks out the new boat. Unfortunately some of that drool comes from some pretty fit looking fellows. We caravan to Lamanai (sunken crocodile) 19 boats no two alike, but the majority are aluminum or fiberglass standard doubles style boats. A line is stretched from a floating dock out across the opening of the lagoon and we are all lined up along it for the start. The gun sounds and we are off. Most of the boats are off in an explosion of spray and wakes, but it is 40 miles to the finish and we stay toward the back of the pack.

About a third the way through the race and a few boats have dropped out and we’ve passed a few but there are more ahead of us and beyond the next bend so we have to set our own pace and paddle, paddle. Beautiful, tropical country, no spectators at all except at Shipyard, a Mennonite community just before halfway and then at Orange Walk Town. Water is still and clear no current to speak of. No hazards at all except the heat, broken by showers two-thirds through the race, and the few occasions when the race committee boat came upon us around a blind bend. In any event we do the best we can and come in 6th of the 14 boats that finish, 6 hrs 45 minutes, almost 45 minutes behind the lead boat. We wouldn’t have caught them even with double blades, but would have done better.


Having arrived at the finish tired but functional, I stopped to talk to the lead paddlers about some of the finer points of boat racing and design. The lead paddlers were three Creoles from the Gales Bank area and really knowledgeable as well as capable paddlers. Also all over six feet tall with long corded muscles and maybe two percent body fat. One fellow looked at me finally and said the words I’ll always cherish and remember. “Mon, you got a lot of heart, but you’re too f*****g old and heavy to do this s**t”. True, but what an adventure.


What would I have done differently? Not much. The design I think is fine. Building technicalities aside, I should have verified that double bladed paddles were ok back when building the boat. I should have come back earlier in September so we would have been able to practice more. Also should have taken more pics at race time and given camera to someone to take more pics. Ah well, there are only so many hours in a day and so many days in a week. And only so much time to spend on a hobby-obsession. And the Creole was right, I already knew that no boat ever won a race, that honor belongs to the paddlers. Still, it was a great and worthwhile adventure.

Normally my obsession with boats and boat building is a solo event and I try to keep from letting it dominate my life. Susie is probably in a better position to judge my success than any one else and someday maybe I’ll ask her.

Building Miss Lavi however, intersected and affected a number of lives that I should acknowledge. Susie and her Mom for affecting a vacation we had already planned. Mr. Joe Loskot for providing the help, material and space to build the boat. Miss Lavi (Miraslova Loskot) for the gracious use of her name. Sergio Barraza, for his help and friendship. Edwin and others at the mill for their assistance. I thank them all.

click to enlarge