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Dave Curtis and the Genesis of Modern Solo Canoes

Dave Curtis and the Genesis of Modern Solo Canoes

Postby GregS » Fri Dec 02, 2011 1:49 pm

Dave Curtis of Hemlock Canoe Works was one of the original solo guys, along with Jim Henry, Mike Galt, David Yost, Pat Moore, Dave Kruger and so on. This thread discusses his earlier venture, "Curtis Canoes"... although accounts of the early years are rather thin on the ground.

The outline of the later story, adapting Roger Mac:

Curtis Canoes was operated by Dave Curtis until the company was sold to John Renner in '86. The company continued to be listed in the Canoe & Kayak Buyer's Guide until ~'96, but "probably not producing any hulls for 3 or 4 years". Dave Curtis stopped selling the Curtis Canoe line after '90 or '91, and was the first US dealer for Swift in '90, and an early Bell dealer, starting when the David Yost boats made their appearance.

Charlie Wilson highlights the significance of what the original line up achieved:

The Curtis line was the best thought out of it's day, size series of tripping and sport solos, a good combi hull and two fine river and lake tandems. It was a relatively complete but tight array of good hulls. Dave Curtis's lamination schedules were superb

The range was highly enough regarded for a grouping including Charlie Wilson and Dana Grover to seek to buy it in the name of "Avant" after the Conclave in Indianapolis in the fall of 1990, and for Ted Bell and Charlie Wilson to try and buy the assets in 1994 and for Joe Moore and Charlie Wilson to try to buy them as they put Placid boatworks together in 2004. The moulds survive (and some of the designs continue to be built) c/o David Yost, who passed them on to Colden Canoe, Placid Boatworks and Swift.

Some of the early Curtis solo hulls are about as famous in solo-canoeing circles as it is possible to get, as are a few in the Hemlock Range. Please see below for details on each of the classics. Most of the information has been compiled c/o the old catalogues and images held on the Hemlock Canoe Works website, but additional material comes from assorted online discussions and by personal correspondence. Wherever possible, sources are identified.

A final thought: no thread on Curtis hulls should go far without crediting a couple of others. This paid both merit discussion in their own right... but key players in the history of Curtis Canoe include:

  • Harold Deal - one of the "Paddlers of the Century" (an "unsung paddling hero"), plus 24-time Open Canoe National Champion (through to 2001), a pivotal contributer to the emergence of "Freestyle" canoeing and an accomplished designer. He is generally credited with having come up with the idea of the "shouldered tublehome": a trademark of many subsequent Yost-designed canoes.

  • David Yost - another of the "Paddlers of the Century" and the link between the original Curtis hulls and more modern variants (though not to the Kestrel and Peregrine, which were "descended" from the Vagabond and Nomad without reference to DY).

See also:
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Re: Dave Curtis and the Genesis of Modern Solo Canoes

Postby GregS » Fri Dec 02, 2011 1:51 pm

The baby of the Curtis Canoes line-up was the Curtis Mayfly:

Image

Apparently only twenty-something (22/26: depends what you read) were ever built, and only 2 of those in Light-Tech construction (at 20lbs). The dimensions suited smaller paddlers: 24.5" at the rails, 25" at the waterline, 26.5" overall and 12.5' long, with a max efficient load of 175lbs.

The Placid Boatworks Spitfire is the closest modern hull, but has a comparatively tame eliptical hull where the Mayfly had a typically (for Curtis) arched (more rounded) hull: perhaps a commerically sensible move given the increased stability, but sales of DD Spitfires (with a double diamond to stengthen the hull for the kneeling paddler) suggest that the market for hot hulls for smaller paddlers remains near enough non-existent irerespective of such niceties.

ETA: In February 2012, Conk reported on the construction of the first Mayfly in many years:

Conk wrote:Out of production and moldering in a barn for many years the Mayfly mold is now owned by its designer David Yost. He granted permission for its use and a contact laminate hull was commissioned through canoe builder Dave Curtis. I would trim and outfit the canoe.

The Curtis Mayfly was originally marketed as a sporting canoe for the petite paddler. While my build is not exactly small I am of diminutive stature below the waistline and felt that my 28-inch inseam would work well in this narrow canoe. The question was one of mass and maintaining reasonable freeboard. David Yost assured me that fit was of greater importance than staying below a recommended cargo capacity and that my greater than ideal weight would not be an obstacle to using this canoe.

I saw in the Mayfly the potential for an excellent bushwhacking tripper that would be both lighter and shorter than my other solo canoes. There are many small pack canoes developed specifically for this purpose but most are designed to be paddled from the seated position with a double blade. I have a strong preference to kneeling with a short stick. The Mayfly might be, just the ticket in my quest to explore remote Adirondack ponds.


This was one accompanying photo from a self-build album:

Image

IN response, Charlie Wilson paid a fine tribute to the hull and outlined further background:

Charlie Wilson wrote:The Curtis MayFly was an important boat. It started life as Emily Brown's "SoapBox", a smaller version of the LadyBug for petite women. There was as econd SpaoBox built for Sue Stoltz before the plug was stripped for Curtis. Unfortunately the production version has significant V added to the stern to improve tracking. MayFly became an early differentially rockered hull, but it lost some of the LadyBug/SoapBox performance. It was one of the first solo canoes targeted for women, Sawyer's StarLight being the other, both from D Yost's workshop. Unfortunately it wasn't a financial success, selling ~ 25 hulls in ten years of production.

When Joe and I speced the SpitFire for DY we considered purchasing the MayFly mold. We preferred DY's more recent shouldered sides to the MayFly's bubbled ones, for both dryness and because they carry volume higher, lifting the stems higher and more predictably than bubble sides; but hardly important for a pack canoe due to the difficulty of heeling it that far when seated that low.

The larger issue was bottom shape. DY used more Gothic arch in the late 70's early 80's. MayFly's Veed stern would aid pack canoe tracking but limiting maneuverability. Finally, the mold was in great shape but would have been a problematic conversion for infusion, so we commissioned the SpitFire. Spit has DY's newer elliptical cross sections, is more stable, fraws a little less water and turns better. While we built a few, Joe no longer manufactures kneeling versions of SpitFire. They came in between 19 and 20 lbs with CobraSox rails. Current production Spits should not be converted to kneeling boats because the sides lack extra stiffening to support a rail mounted seat.

Conk will have a unique and historical ride!


Source here.
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Re: Dave Curtis and the Genesis of Modern Solo Canoes

Postby GregS » Fri Dec 02, 2011 1:56 pm

Next up (in length) comes the Curtis Lady Bug:

Image

This was a precursor of the Bell / Placid / Colden Flashfire: it has less rocker (though much more than contemporaries such as the Lotus Dandy and BlackHawk Proem) and dates from before the days of shouldered tumblehome (implies that it carries more beam low down in the manner of many Wenonah hulls). Though listed as longer than the Flashfire, that discrepancy is apparently due principally to layout at the stems: the waterline length is apparently much the same.
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Re: Dave Curtis and the Genesis of Modern Solo Canoes

Postby GregS » Fri Dec 02, 2011 1:59 pm

Which brings us onto the most famous of the "sport" line-up, the Curtis Dragonfly:

Image

The Dragonfly was/is 24.5" at the rails (28.5" max) and at just 26" at the waterline (with rounded cross section, which forced the knees together and encouraged a high seat / stance). Ample rocker made for a manouverable hull that some who've paddled it have suggested has had no equal since... although we're told "it intimidated most intermediate and many advanced paddlers" - which perhaps explains why Dave Curtis sold only 56 DragonFlies in twelve years, where the comparatively tame Wildfire sold 57 by June of it's first year.

A bit of history from one of the participants...

Harold Deal developed the ideas and concepts and provided the specifications in 1982/1983 after discussions with Dave Curtis [...] Dave Curtis commissioned David Yost to loft the design drawings for the final shape and build the plug for Curtis Canoe in 1983 after connecting Deal with Yost to discuss the concepts and intended use of the canoe [...] Harold Deal test paddled the plug in 1983 during the Canoe Specialists Solo Symposium on the White River in Arkansas. A number of builders were in attendance so the testing was done farther upriver [...] Deal also consulted on some of the outfitting and construction options that were offered to the public or built specifically for him. Dave Curtis built the mold and the design went into production by Curtis Canoe in 1984.


Joe Moore at Placid Boatworks described it as a "retro" boat... but as the market for higher performance or "hot" canoes with a rounded hull profile has never been as big as the market for more forgiving craft with a shallow arch hull profile, the few other solo canoes offer anything like the same versatility. Dave Curtis argues that his SRT (see below) is superior for predominantly white water use as it carries more volume nearer the stems: it's a "fuller" boat and should rise better through waves... but not everyone is convinced that he improved the design by making it flatter under the paddling station and slightly skegged at the stern through differential rocker.

Harold Deal simply notes as follows:

It is likely that I paddled the Dragonfly for a wider range of uses and possibly have more hours in them than most anyone else and I'm certainly qualified to comment on it, but I'm not inclined to do that. I will say that I have not owned one in many years and do not miss paddling them.


In 2011, Paul Meyer of Colden Canoe started production of the Dragonfly: see [url]here[/url] for discussion.
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Re: Dave Curtis and the Genesis of Modern Solo Canoes

Postby GregS » Fri Dec 02, 2011 2:00 pm

For completeness, we should also mention the Blue Gill:

Image

This is perhaps the least talked about of Curtis "Sporting" Hulls: at 31" max beam it was perhaps more of a fishing vessel for anyone other than "supersized" folk.
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Re: Dave Curtis and the Genesis of Modern Solo Canoes

Postby GregS » Fri Dec 02, 2011 2:02 pm

In addition to the "sporting" canoes, Curtis offerred the tripping range, starting with the legendary Curtis Solo Tripper (~1977):

Image

C/o a Paddling.Net discussion, we have Dave Curtis' own recollections available on this bit of history...

the Peregrine concept goes back to about 1977 when Dave Yost and I set out to create a solo traveling canoe that could stay with decent tandems on lake country trips, paddling and portaging. I don't remember how many strippers we built (DY would do the hulls and I would play around with different trim setups) but there were several, some are still around. We couldn't find anyone interested in building the boats for us so we starting building ourselves. This model was originally named the Solo Tripper, first under the Canoe Specialists label and then as a Curtis canoe.

The Solo Tripper then became the Nomad in the mid 80's after lots of input from experience trippers who offered there varied suggestions relative to the performance of the boat. The shouldered sides were the main improvement which was actually Harold Deal's idea, since he had been conceptualizing the model which became the Dragonfly. After we did the Dragonfly we re-did the Solo Tripper to include the shoulders as well as some bottom changes.


Dave's history then goes onto the equivalent canoe in the Hemlock line-up:

After the demise of Curtis Canoe, which we had sold shortly after the Nomad upgrade, the designs remained pretty much status quo for 10+ years. In the mid 90's Harold had been working on his new ideas for a solo combined boat (whitewater/flatwater) and sent me the strip plug for the boat which became the SRT, which I believe has proven to be an exceptional solo wilderness tripper.

We then incorporated some of the SRT bottom ideas into the Nomad style boat and that became the Peregrine. At that point we also layed out the stems which I personally prefer to plumb stems.

So; at this point in time the Peregrine is simply my best idea on what a solo lake county tripper should be. Fast enough so that a reasonably skilled solo paddler can keep up with a group of tandems on a trip; on the water and on the portages. Enough load capacity for at least 7-10 days, stable and maneuverable enough for whatever one might encounter and above all seaworthy enough for the toughest conditions. In my experience the Peregrine with an experienced paddler will actually lead the group of tandems.


This was also the precursor of the (~1990) Loonworks Mistral, the (~1992) Swift Heron, grand-daddy of Bell's (~1995) Merlin II and Swift's (2011) Keewaydin 15 (reportedly "A little wider and more stable, a little more maneuverable, softened shoulders but significant, 2" side, tumblehome, and 26 lbs in the top drawer laminate" - see source): designed for average sized, male, paddlers and to respond to kneeling technique with a straight paddle and to sitting technique with a bent... but see also the Vagabond and descendants (Swift Loon, Hemlock Kestrel, Placid Boatworks Rapidfire) as discussed below.

See also a more recent discussion on Paddling.Net.
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Re: Dave Curtis and the Genesis of Modern Solo Canoes

Postby GregS » Fri Dec 02, 2011 2:03 pm

..and the Curtis Vagabond (~1983):

Image

This was a downsized Solo Tripper: narrower and shorter to fit smaller folk.

Descendants include the (~1992) Swift Loon, Hemlock Kestrel and Placid Boatworks Rapidfire.

In discussing the Solo-Tripper descendants on Paddling.Net, Charlie Wilson notes: "The smaller amongst us could argue that the Vagabond was the best designed of the bunch as it had more rocker, particularly stern rocker".
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Re: Dave Curtis and the Genesis of Modern Solo Canoes

Postby GregS » Fri Dec 02, 2011 2:20 pm

Curtis Nomad (~1987):

Image

This was an updated Solo Tripper with shoulders and more rocker. At least one who knows most of the variants swears it is the best in the DY designed series that stretched from the Curtis Solo-Tripper to the [as of Summer 2010] Bell Merlin II.

Note: for craft related to the Solotripper, Vagabond and Nomad see the Loonworks Mistral (wood and Dacron construction, apparently similar to the Nomad), and the ~1990ish Swift Loon and Swift Heron (variants on the Vagabond and Nomad, but "bubble sided because Swift wanted to use split but one-piece molds"), and the ~1995 Bell Merlin II (using a two piece mold)... plus the ~2001 Hemlock adaptations (Kestrel and Peregrine). More here.
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