OG Mini-Rafters

Below is some listener mail referencing our recent mini-boat podcast from our friend (and paddling legend) Bill Cross. Thank Bill!

I really enjoyed your Mini-Boats episode today; I listened to it while running. I thought I’d write and offer a little historical perspective. It seems that I’ve gotten so old that I can now bore everyone with yarns from the days of yore.

I think it’s wonderful that people are finally showing more interest in small rafts; the only surprise for me is how long it took for it to happen.

My own interest in mini-boats goes back over 40 years, and actually predates self-bailers. In 1978, on my ARTA whitewater school, the instructors brought along a 12-foot Avon Redshank with a wooden rowing frame, which students could row as a “suicide boat” without an instructor on board. In those days, the standard raft was a 16-foot Pro, and the 14-foot Adventurer was considered radically small. A 12-footer on the river was unheard of. The Redshank was actually never intended as a whitewater boat; it was a yacht tender, and it had virtually no bow rise, so a two-foot wave could swamp it to the brim. But despite that major shortcoming, I spent every second I could in that boat: it taught me a ton about rowing technical water, and it launched my life-long love affair with small rafts.

In 1982, I bought an 11-foot Campways Piute bucket boat. Initially, I used the Piute as an R2, but within a year I built a metal rowing frame for it. I rowed that boat for several years, and even used it for overnight trips. You can see a picture of it in Western Whitewater on p. 450. My wife and I created a custom spray shield for the bow to try to reduce swamping in waves and holes.

In 1986, just a couple of years into the self-bailing revolution, Jim Cassady and I talked SOTAR into building the first two 10-foot custom self-bailers. At the time, SOTAR’s smallest production boat was a 13-footer, and initially they refused to build a 10-footer because they thought we were crazy. They kept telling us we’d hate it. Eventually we talked them into it, and Cass and I started R2ing that same year.

R2-ing Troublemaker Rapid on the South Fork of the American River in 1986
R2-ing Troublemaker Rapid on the South Fork of the American River in 1986

As far as I know, we were the first people to R2 a round self-bailer. (I believe that folks back east had started S2ing Shredders about a year before we started R2ing our custom SOTARs.) Cass and I nicknamed our boats “MiniTars.” In the first year I owned it, I built a frame for it and outfitted it with a pair of 7.5-foot Sawyer fir-laminate oars. Over the next two decades, I paddled and rowed that boat more than any other raft in my fleet. Remarkably, I still have that raft, and at 34 years old it’s still seaworthy — a pretty amazing testament to SOTAR quality. Admittedly, the design is a bit dated. About a decade ago I switched over to a Hyside Mini-Me and Mini-Max, so these days the original MiniTar only gets out on the water if I need a second or third mini-raft.

Satans Cesspool on the American River in 1988
Satans Cesspool on the American River in 1988

The really surprising thing to me is how long it took for mini-rafts to catch on, both for R2ing and for rowing. Cassady and I were totally enthralled with our new toys, but for the first decade or so that I owned my 10-footer, it was just a curiosity on the river. We drew lots of stares and dubious looks, but even though we were far more agile than bigger rafts and could tackle much bonier runs, we couldn’t get people to share our enthusiasm. Cass and I even wrote articles for River Runner Magazine and the Friends of the River newsmagazine promoting R2ing and mini rafts, but almost nobody followed our lead. None of the manufacturers took the bait to build a small production raft. It wasn’t until Hyside built the Mini-Me that small rafts and R2ing really took off.

Anyway, there’s a little history for you.

Take care, and stay well.

Best wishes,