From the Shop: the Condor.
I thought this week I’d talk a little bit (or a lot) about what went into the development of the Condor, why it took so long, how it changed the way I design boats and think about designing boats, and the result we got from the process.
Condor prototype 1:
The Condor project got started way back in 2014, though I’d been thinking about it for a lot longer than that. While the Option and Octane 85 plugs were out at the mold maker, I had some time to finally start working on the idea of an 11′ polyethylene boat. The goal was a boat that was “easy to paddle fast.” Not just fast in a straight line, but nimble and responsive and dry. Something that wouldn’t fight you, because when you’re going fast, you get tired and you need a boat that will respond when you’re tired. A down river racer, a creek racer, a slalom boat, a go-out-and-cruise-20-miles boat. And carry gear for overnight trips. It’s a lot to ask of one boat. Can we do all that? No one had ever made a rotomolded whitewater boat that long, so there was a bit of a question as to whether or not the boat would be prohibitively heavy, so I decided to find out by cutting up a scrap Octane 91, stretching it, and welding it all back together. It’s a crude way of prototyping, but I find it works well for getting sizing and general shape of a boat figured out. We took it to ALF that year, paddled it, raced it, broke it, put it back together.
Coming home from ALF, I was pretty happy with the boat as a proof of concept. It worked, but wasn’t quite right. Something about the rocker profile wasn’t quite right. But one of the advantages of prototyping this way is being able to cut and weld the boat back together differently. Compare:
I continued to paddle the boat throughout the year, and was pretty impressed with how it paddled. At this point, I could have pushed out a cleaned-up version of the boat, basically an “Octane 110.” But I wasn’t really in a position to put it into production, and quite frankly, I wanted to see what I could learn in the process.
Condor prototype 2:
I decided to approach this as a “development project.” The end goal wasn’t necessarily the boat, but the improvement of the process and understanding of what makes boats work. Rather than sketch the boat out on graph paper as I had in the past, I started designing in a free marine design CAD program (DELFTship). It was a bit clunky at first, but I eventually figured out how to make something that approximated what I was thinking the boat should look like. Or rather, maybe what the boat SHOULDN’T look like. I considered this to be an experimental prototype, I was trying things I didn’t think, or didn’t know would work to see what happened. It was bulbous and the edges were way harder and sharper than they should have been.
In early 2015, working from the computer model, I pulled off stations (cross sections) and built a wood strip plug with foam ends. I had used the same technique to build the plug for the Octane 91/92.
From there, it was a familiar process, build a fiberglass mold, take it to the molder, run a few boats to test out, and put them in the water. The result? The boat was fast. It wasn’t nearly as unstable as I’d expected it to be. I’d anticipated it having very poor secondary stability, and while it took a lot of effort to roll, the stability wasn’t a problem for paddling. It had way too much edge, it tended to “lock in” when you didn’t want it to. You’d be going fast, just not necessarily where you wanted to go. The bow edges were especially a problem, and I quickly took a Surform to them on my boat to soften them up as much as possible. But it didn’t have as much “too much” edge as I’d anticipated. I was starting to learn from it.
Condor Prototype 3:
After paddling the second prototype for a season, I went back to the drawing board. This was also the first boat I designed with extensive feedback from the Blackfly Team. There collaboration was invaluable, and I sought to incorporate their feedback into the next design. The goal with this one was less experimental, and getting close to the production boat. In the preceding months, I had begun learning to design in the modeling program Rhino- a big upgrade from the program I used for the second prototype. I was able to import the existing model into Rhino, and start tweaking.
Around this time, I also had a shift in my thinking on hull design, influenced by the trends in whitewater kayak hulls. Keep it simple. I changed from a double chine to a smoother single chine- no need for as much edge on a boat this long, especially though the mid section. I took some volume out of the ends and smoothed everything out. Rhino is a great tool for making smooth lines. There was one “oops” I made, that I didn’t realize until I paddled the boat. I based everything off the previous computer model, but I hadn’t really set the shear line (gunwale height) on that model- I just figured it out when I build the plug for the second prototype. It was a lot lower on the model, so the third prototype came out with the decks a lot lower than they should have been, making for a wet ride.
I bought a small CNC machine for the shop a few months earlier, meaning I could go straight from file to foam for the plug, even if it was in a lot of pieces.
And then the fun, familiar part, putting the boat in the water. I was instantly disappointed, which is common for me while prototyping. The rest of the team liked it, but I’m my own worst critic. The boat was fast and responsive while heading down stream, which was what it was supposed to do. The tail stayed engaged really well, but I could push the bow around where I wanted it to go. But it was wet, and did this weird thing where it would just cruise right across an eddy without the bow engaging in the eddy at all. Instead of doing an eddy turn, I found myself flying into the bank at a high rate of speed. It didn’t have the stability to make a good tandem boat. My goal for this boat was to raise the bar above the boats I’d done previously- “as good” wasn’t good enough. I wanted to this to be the boat I’d be paddling 80% of the time. It wasn’t there yet.
Condor 4: the Final Round
Nevertheless, I kept paddling it, testing, getting more and more feedback and ideas from the team. Things got busy and building another plug got pushed on to the back burner at least twice. I found myself asking questions and reading up on the answers. What makes a boat stable? Using CAD, i can model that. I can change the shape of the boat and see how the modeling changes.
Why isn’t the bow engaging the way I want it to? For one thing, the saddle was too far back. Now I can model the center of buoyancy and adjust the shape. Pull the chines in on the stern, round out the bow, the center of buoyancy shifts forward. It’s teaching me.
As a team, we spent a long time talking though every aspect of the boat. We had a long time before I had the opportunity to move forward on moving the boat to production, so we had a lot of time to kick around ideas. We tested the third prototype on every sort of water we could. We huddled around the computer tweaking chines and lines. One thing, interestingly enough, that didn’t change much over the entire design process was the rocker profile. I attribute that to being able to dial it in by cutting and welding the first prototype.
I’m not going to say the Condor is the best canoe ever made, or even the best boat I’ve designed. I think that’s an inherently flawed statement. The best for who? The best for what? If you’re 110 lbs and want to run manky steep creeks, it’s probably not what you’re looking for. I’m also not going to say that it represents some sort of paradigm shift in whitewater canoeing. Those come few and far between; I think we’ve only seen it once in the past decade, and I didn’t do it.
I will say this: The Condor is the boat I’m most proud of. I asked a lot of this design, and it took a long time, a lot of work, and a lot of learning to get there. Paddling the boat for the first time (and the second time, and the fifth time), I knew I ended up with the boat doing exactly what I wanted it to do. That’s not something that happens often- I’m usually really critical of my work. I’ve had multiple people tell me I’ve outdone myself on this project: that was the goal. It’s a paradigm shift in my design process and how I think about boat design, and I’m looking forward to applying that knowledge to future projects. But for now, I’m really looking forward to spending some more time paddling this one.