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Row & Sail Boat Builder Canada
our rowboat on the cover of Cottage Magazine
article, Boats Bring Builder Full Circle, as seen in Cottage Magazine
article continued....made in Canada

Photographs by Evo Marcon

Boats Bring Builder
Full Circle

A love of boating and the desire for an affordable, easy-to-use and low maintainance craft led to
Christopher Kelly's take on the classic row boat


It seems a long way from being a photographer in the glitzy world of advertising to building rowboats on Vancouver Island. But for Christopher Kelly the journey represents a full circle in his life.

Growing up in Calgary, Kelly and his family vacationed in Mill Bay on Vancouver Island. He moved to Cortez Island in the early 1970s and took up commercial fishing. When he met his wife, a model, he relocated to Toronto. Not much demand for fishermen there, so he took up photography and for the next decade worked in high end commercial advertising for agencies that represented companies like Molsons.

Meanwhile, his parents retired to Vancouver Island and when they became ill he returned to the West in 1996. It didn't take long for the relaxed pace of rural life to get back in his bones, and he began to consider another career change.

"I've loved boats and the water for a long time, and at first I decided I just wanted to build a boat for my own enjoyment," Kelly recalls. He got together with an old fishing buddy and started tinkering with classic row boat designs.

"I was looking for the ultimate boat, really. One that is comfortable to transport and easy to park in the driveway as well as use on the water. I wanted it versatile; for rowing, fishing, sailing, on ocean or lake. It had to be light enough that anyone can use it and affordable enough for the average person," Kelly says.
The result is Freebooter, a 14-foot fiberglass row/sailboat that Kelly makes in a small building surrounded by the rolling farmland of the South Cowichan Valley.

"I like to think this is the perfect blend of New World materials in an Old World package," Kelly says. The hull is made of hand laid fibreglass with a smooth gelcoat exterior and a waxed gelcoat interior that makes it easy to maintain. The Australian gumwood he uses on the gunnels is not only beautiful to look at but also adds strength and durability because of its extreme density. Seats are made of oak and all the wood is protected from moisture and sun damage with Cetol Marine finish.

Options for the 14-foot boat include a forward deck and large forward hatch. The sailing model includes a centreboard and slot, rudder, mast, mast step and rigging.

When it comes to added power, Kelly "wanted something that would be quiet and efficient." The optional electric tiller has five forward speeds and three reverse speeds for easier docking. The 12-volt batteries are installed in the forward compartment to distribute ballast. "you could modify it for solar power too," Kelly says. "Or on the other hand the boat can be designed to take an outboard motor."

Kelly even makes the canvas boat covers himself. "My mother was a sewer and as a kid I used to sit on her knee and fill bobbins and stuff," he says.

Although Kelly still takes the occasional advertising assignment, he's content to "just fly east, do the job and get out," he says adding that many of his Toronto colleagues who first thought he was nuts to leave that life, are now envious of his decision. "They all say that they'll move here when they retire. But I figured, why wait?"

Aside from appreciating the less hectic lifestyle, Kelly says he gets much more satisfaction from boat building. "For the agency you'd take days to create these huge sets. Then - click click - you take the picture, and it's all gone. But these boats are going to outlast me."
Ironically, Kelly is shying away from any major advertising campaign or media attention, hoping to rely on word-of-mouth to sell the dozen boats he builds each year.

I'm not looking to build 100 boats a year or get into a factory set-up with lots of workers. I left all that craziness. I'd just like to keep it small, build them in winter and enjoy them in summer." he laughs. In this first year of production, the plan seems to be working.

A floating resort near Campbell River also purchased a couple of Freebooters, and reports have come back to Kelly that the staff liked them so much they claimed them for their own use rather that letting tourists take them out.

But Kelly's real dream is to share his love of boating within his community.

"I'd like to set up a sort of club with a small fleet of boats for local people and visitor," he says. "So many people who live in the area don't have access to a boat or docks, and the cost of buying a boat to use only a handful of times a year doesn't make sense for a lot of families. But it'd still be great if they could take the kids out on the lake a few times a summer."

His goal now is to find a lakefront access and storage facility on Shawnigan Lake. For an annual fee families could sign out boats for and hour, an afternoon or a day.

"I remember as a kid spending my whole summer exploring in a little dinghy. I guess I'd like to give that chance to other kids, and adults, too," Kelly says.








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