Kleppie & the Long Tail

Watercraft Makita Cordless Canoe Challenge 2011

In 2011 Watercraft Magazine threw out the irresistibly silly, but inspiring, idea of a race for vessels powered by a cordless drill. The competition was sponsored by Makita and held at the Beal Park Boat Show. The “Watercraft Cordless Canoe Challenge 2011” was born and I was inspired.

Dad was a keen canoeist and had a 1959 Klepper Slalom folding canoe and later (no doubt to placate or encourage my mother) a Tyne 2 seater folding canoe. At the tender age of 8 months this was the first craft I was taken afloat in. The Klepper Aerius folding canoe originally belonged to Dad’s friend Alfred. In the 1950s and early 1960s Alfred and Dad canoe-toured extensively in the UK and Ireland.

Dad & Klepper Aerius “Kleppie”, Nunnery rapids River Eden c 1960

By a circuitous route I became the keeper of the Aerius “Kleppie” in 2000.

The long-tail was inspired by a device originally made by Dad. During the descent of the River Blackwater in Ireland in 1962 he suffered a serious back injury slipping on a weir. Not wanting to give up canoeing and being an inventive sort of chap he made a long-tail, powered by a JAP petrol engine “borrowed” from a garden cultivator and fitted to the 2 seater folding canoe. This was used successfully in Scotland and on a descent of the River Eden from Carlisle to the Solway Firth. Reputedly it was powerful enough to “put the back of the canoe under”, and light enough that when they ran aground on a sand bank in the Solway, Dad and his companion were able to pick the canoe up and run with it to catch the rapidly receding tide. The long-tail lay gathering dust in a shed from the mid 1960s, until it “disappeared” some years ago.

Trails of our Long-tail on Gresford Flash

Building our Long -tail

Salvaging bits from various sheds, attics and garages, Jonathan and I made a new long-tail. For the trials a propeller was “borrowed” from a Mariner 2hp outboard. For the drive shaft I machined a stainless steel propeller mount, self lubricating tufnol bushes and thrust bearings all fitted in steel tubing. Jonathan hand-carved the motor connecting block, turned a fairing block and carved other components from ash. The power unit was a 18v Cordless hammer drill borrowed from a friend.

We successfully tested the rig on our local pond. Reaching 5.1 km/h (measured by GPS), with a logged distance run of over 0.5km on one battery we knew we had a contender. To improve steering we made a removable skeg and a rudder with a bamboo whip-staff tiller.

Beal Park and the Watercraft Cordless Canoe Challenge 2011

Beal Park Boat Show was very different from the big London and Southampton Shows. It brought together a marvellous bunch of free thinking individuals who loved their boats and all to do with them. The Amateur Yacht Research Society (www.ayrs.org), small traditional boat builders, boat building academies, amateur boat builders, The Dinghy Cruising Association and classic boat enthusiasts abounded. The stunning setting around a lake on the banks of the Thames in mid-summer with a camp site a short walk away was the icing on the cake.

As a folding kayak Kleppie slid easing into the boot of the Golf, along with all the camping gear, for the trip down from N Wales. Jonathan arrived by train and bike from University.

Day 1 dawned with bright sunshine and a fry up. Kleppie’s folding trolley helped us on the walk to the show, where we assembled her alongside the other craft being prepared for the Challenge.

Entrants were varied and esoteric.

The Competitors

Fast 3 a bright yellow pedal powered trimaran with home built high aspect ratio folding propeller looked up to her name. Four ultra light skin on frame boats were certainly very light, though their power units varied from a drill hooked up to a pedal power unit to a couple of long tails and a very high tech, high precision CNG cut outdrive.   

Beauty in Birch Ply, plus pilot

Head turner of the group was a beautiful folded birch ply boat, supremely hydrodynamic and fast.

AYRS ‘s paddle driven amphibious kayak

The AYRS entry was a paddle powered kayak which was also amphibious, wonderfully wacky but not very fast, the pilot sitting between the paddles.

Round 1 the knock outs were run in flights of three boats, fastest boat qualifying. Weed killed some otherwise hopeful contenders. A burned out motor saw an untimely end to Fast 3’s campaign. Low wind resistance and slick hydrodynamic form helped. Brute force of multiple cordless drills was a law of diminishing returns and most boats hit hull speed quite easily. High aspect ratio model aircraft and pedal power propellers won over more typical low aspect ratio marine propellers. The pedal power experts were certainly ahead in the power stakes. Simple reliability worked in our favour.


Unfortunately, one of our heat’s competitor’s engine was damaged when a spectator played with his motor, smashing the gearbox. Lesson learned take your battery out before leaving the boat.   Rather than getting through on a technicality we opted to wait until day 2 for our knock out race. Overnight our competitor rebuilt the smashed gearbox.

Day 2 dawned overcast with drizzle. Down to the lake and our delayed heat, Jonathan at the helm, and Kleppie’s slick hull held the race.

Round 2 again Kleppie pulled through to make the final.

Lining up for the final

For the final Kleppie lined up in the rain against the birch ply beauty and the twin engine Saltern’s flyer.

The beauty took an early lead with the high aspect ratio prop driving hard and a tight turn at the rounding mark putting the lead beyond doubt. Meanwhile Kleppie and the Saltern’s Flyer were neck a neck to the rounding mark, Jonathan took the tight inside turn aided by the skeg, but Slatern’s twin motor’s and lower drag pulled ahead to take 2nd by less than a boat length.    

The serious point the competition made was that by 2011 cordless drill and battery technology had evolved enough to make a cordless drill powered craft viable. High aspect ratio propellers as used by pedal powered boats had the edge over typical marine propellers. Maximising hull speed while minimising drag and windage allow more straight line speed. Tight turning cuts overall distance, but the drag of our strap on skeg gave the Saltern’s flyer the edge.

Subsequent editions of the Watercraft Cordless Canoe Challenge developed many of the original ideas and brought in some even more off the wall entries including a cordless drill powered human submarine.   

An inspiringly silly idea which brought out the very best of British shed based invention and innovation. All with sunshine, rain, tea and cream cakes on the banks of the Thames to boot. Great fun was had by all.

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