After buying my first wooden boat about a year ago, a 14.5' Mackenzie, I'm hooked on wooden boats and losing interest in rowing rubber. I have a few trips planned for the upcoming year including the grand canyon and I need to come up with a plan to acquire a full blown decked whitewater dory. The classified ads are all failing me, and to commission somebody to build one new seems out of reach. Of course I don't really have time to build one either, but that has never stopped me before.
And so, I have two questions.
Which boat?
Where do I get plans?
Regarding which boat, I'll say that despite my GC trip I'd like something more nimble than a Briggs, the flat spot in the middle really turns me off.
I love my Mackenzie but it is too small. I might scale up to a 17x54, but I think the design is a little squirrelly in whitewater. When I took my 14x48 down hell's canyon I got spun all over the place. I'll take that over a lack of maneuverability any day though.
I've read good things about the MLB honky dory but think I would have to scale it up and I question the asymmetrical design when I know I likely won't load the boat like it was designed for, and in whitewater I'll be rowing backwards half of the time anyway.
Anyway, if anybody has advice about the boat design and /or where I could get complete plans for a decked, non- Briggs, probably custom boat I'd really appreciate the help.

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Hi Elliot, did you know the first Grand Canyon dory to cruise through the Grand Canyon was in 1955. The boat was a fully decked McKenzie hull under 16 feet long! How cool is that!

I built a full sized replica of that boat and have taken it through Grand Canyon a few times now. It is a blast! Your 14'5" McKenzie could work fine if it was decked. Yes, you might flip it, but if you ran the conservative lines, you might not. Even if you did flip the boat, because it is decked, you have the time to right it, bail it out and keep on going.

Boulder Boat Works makes a 16 foot plastic McKenzie decked boat that seats two comfortably and carries a lot of gear. My point is you are absolutely right, there are other big water options besides the giant 18 foot Briggs people and gear haulers. There have been sporty smaller craft in Grand Canyon since 1955! There is a book out there called Big Water Little Boats that recounts the 1955 story.

Hope this helps, Tom

I'm reading it now, great book! I certainly don't have the cajones of Moulty Fulmer but I have nothing against small boats. Mostly I want something bigger for when I take the kids (and enough beer that I can tolerate them) down ruby horsethief.
I thought about decking the 14 footer but decided for that much work I'd rather have something that suits my needs better.
I love the "turtle" deck on the Gem by the way...that is something I would like to integrate if possible. Besides the historic aspect, do you find that that feature of your boat works well?
Thanks for the info on the Boulder boat. I'm hoping to stick with wood but I'll look into it.
Thanks for the reply Tom.

Elliot, You are most very welcome. Roger Fletcher taught me that form follows function. Meaning, if you figure out what you want your boat to do (take the kids and enough beer to get them drunk... wait a minute, let me check that detail... no, enough to get YOU drunk!) and where you want to take it (Cat at 70K cfs.... wait a minute, let me check that detail... Ruby Horsetheif? That's easy peasy) the boat you build (form) will follow what you want the boat for (function).

The Turtle deck works fine. Especially with splash boards. What I like about the Gem is it is small enough to do a lot of small flow rivers, like the McKenzie, and the Grand Canyon. It's not so big that when it is loaded it really becomes a pig to drive.

Yes, stick with wood. Boulder boats are a good idea of what a smaller McKenzie can look like.

Have fun! Yours, tom

Tom, great perspective.  You're right, there is a tremendous history of "smaller" boats, hardsided or otherwise all over the west to include the GC.

Big Water Little boats is indeed a testament to this.


Jeremy Christensen and Larry Hedrick built two decked versions of the (my) Montana Riverboats Honky Dory and ran them through the Grand. Several times.  The HD is made from 16' foot panels (has a 16' foot gunwale) so it's a bit too small for the Grand Canyon. But they made it work and liked it.

Scaling the HD up so it has an 18' foot gunwale is straightforward.  For every dimension given in any plan set for any 16' foot gunwale dory if you multiply by 1.125 you get the scaled up dimension.

For what it's worth the Briggs has a 48" bottom on a long boat.  Plus the infamous flat spot.  That makes the Briggs slow to turn and side-to-side tippy. All at the same time.  Most boats made from 18' foot panels have been scaled up to a 54" inch bottom.  The 16' foot HD (Honky Dory) has a 56" inch bottom. That means the scaled up version (made with an 18' foot gunwale) would have a 63" inch bottom. I really like wide boats. 

I'm making a new decked wooden boat now, made with 18' foot panels, that has a 66" inch bottom. But progress is slow, for reasons I won't go into here.  I do expect to be rowing that boat this summer however.  It will be a hybrid plywood boat without ribs or fiberglass above, with a fiberglass bottom, where the fiberglass extends 8" inches or so up from the chine.

The boat I'm making will have no glue.  It will be bare oiled 3/8" and 1/2" inch plywood screwed together at the seams with Torx screws, onto thick, laminated ash nailing strips with butyl roofer's caulk, so any and all plywood parts can be removed and replaced or repaired at any time.  The bottom and the first 8" inches of the chine will also be removable, made from 3/4" inch Plascore fiberglass. 1" thick Plascore would probably be a better choice but I have a stack of 3/4" to use. So I will. 

Thanks Sandy
Do you have any plans for the decking on the HD?
I don't want to get too far off topic, but how do you keep the oar handles from being above your head with such a wide boat? I cut the top off of my cat frame to get the locks 66" apart because I didn't like how 10' oars worked with locks 72" apart. 72" frame justifies 11' oars in my experience. Maybe there are other factors height?

RE> Oar handles too high on a wider boat?

That's the key question on wider boats.  The only answer is to make the rower's seat six inches or so higher. That makes a higher center of gravity which does tend to make the boat more side-to-side tippy again.  But that tendency does get offset by the wider bottom.  

I also plan to make the rower's seat and all passenger foot wells as minimal as possible, so they fill up with less water and drain quicker and sooner.  I will also have no gunwale.  I've done this once already and like it a lot.  The deck will extend directly over from the top of the side panel. so the deck provides the stiffness. That way the top of the boat is no longer a 300 gallon bucket when you crash a wave. That way it drains instantly, so you don't get that 3 or 4 second period when the boat is temporarily unmanageable.  More distance between oarlock pins allows a good balance on longer oars too, which also offsets the "handles are too high" problem.

AJ has a Cyrus Happy boat with a 69" inch bottom.  I rowed it once. I loved that boat.

One more note on white water boats.  Most of the boats I've seen made an attempt to drain foot wells out sideways, to some sort of a scupper that exits the side of the boat above a theoretical water line. Perhaps I just haven't seen that many white water boats.

I like to make a 3" inch or 4" inch wide drain with PVC drain pipe that goes straight down.  The wider the drain pipe the faster the drain. If the boat in question draws 4" inches of water that means a vertical drain pipe would have 4"  of water inside the pipe.  As long as the floor of the foot well is an inch or two higher than the water line your feet will be dry. Most of the time anyway.  Water does squirt in an out of that hole in big water but  the out flow is fastest that way.  White water boating isn't meant to be dry.  

I know that the briggs flat spot is ugly out of the water, and changes the boat, but definitely try rowing one before making up your mind. We have 2 with flat spots (6' long on a 16' boat and 8' long on an 18' true briggs boat), and I must say that I love it, especially in the canyon. I've never found them to have a nimbleness issue, and in fact, they row much better once loaded down than any rockered boat that I've been in. We've rowed both on Hell's, the main and lower main salmon, grand ronde, and even tiny rivers like the Santiam and Umpque, and I've fully converted to a flat-boat kinda guy. They draw less water, track well, and still spin on a dime. Definitely a lot less squirrely in any kind of waves. 

Just my 2c, feel free to take or leave. 

I would deck over your little Mckenzie and take it down the Grand. You can fit plenty of gear for 2 people for 3 weeks (including a 100+ qt cooler) in that boat, assuming others with rafts can help with shared group gear. You will have more fun in the little dory than you (or anyone else) deserves. Build the decking & hatch openings to suit your cooler & gear you want to bring. 

I've built and rowed a 14.5' X 54" decked "Honky Dory", and a 16'9" X 48" Briggs (Andy Hutchinson design). I've also had a chance to row a whole bunch of other dories and driftboats, production and homemade - decked Tatman, stretched & decked Honky Dory, and a bunch of other one-off designs.

When I was building the 14.5' Honky I didn't know if anyone still took small dories down the canyon. I was on a trip and ran into OC Dale at Bass Camp, with his little 14.5' Derald Stewart mckenzie dory. I was all like "Oh yeah???" and he was like "Oh, fuck yeah!!!!!" and the rest is history.

Here's me and my (now) wife on our first date, at Warm Springs on the Yampa at 27k cfs (2008) rowing backwards through the river-right lateral in the Honky Dory, that boat Powell'd like a boss. 

The Honky Dory is a stellar design, loads really well for a private boater, really stable in big water, sometimes a bit squirrelly in heavy hydraulics. Super stable side to side. I sold it begrudgingly after a bunch of incredible years and lots and lots of trips.

The Briggs is a tank and likes to go straight, and it's fast through flat water and hydraulics. I hated the side to side tippiness of the briggs, especially with dogs in the boat. I sold the Briggs after only a few times on the water.

My next project, the boat I hope to keep forever, will be a big wide Mckenzie hull - around 17' LOA, 58" wide bottom, decked over, stitch and glue, plywood with a plascore bottom. Family camping boat. The Mckenzie's just fit my style of rowing. If I was still single, or was going to own a 2nd dory, it would be another decked over Honky Dory. 

We took my friend's custom decked Tatman down the Grand at really low water (7k?) and had a blast annotating Tom Martin's guidebook w/ "Multiple exposed rocky pourovers at low water" next to every single rapid description. The dories were so easy to maneuver through the more technical than normal runs, while the rafts really struggled in places. DOries rule. 

Jeremy, I dig your attitude.  Too many times people will say" oh you can't do ( fill in the blank). That  boat wasn't designed for ( fill in the blank) etc.  Too often these days we hear others limiting another's idea or plan.  There is a ton of advice on this site and most of it outstanding. Some is just too limiting and cautious.   We should all remember to live and let live.  Not much of an adventure if we are guaranteed the outcome.

It is the hand that guides the tool!

Deck the McKenzie!


Building a decked over dory takes me about 500+ hrs. Decking over an open boat, I dunno, ask Larry Hedrick, but significantly less time, it's pretty straight forward. Take out the existing interior pieces (add shear supports if needed) and add vertical bulkheads. Then add some framing for the bench, footwell, and hatch openings. Make your hatch openings as big as possible to accommodate all your gear in various configurations. Make cardboard templates for the decking pieces, which you can make from a bunch of smaller pieces (as opposed to one large plywood deck piece) and then fair out the seams. I think doing the flush mount lids is a waste of time, so I add a tall combing piece around the hatch opening, and a lid that fits tightly over with a glued on rubber gasket, stainless piano hinges, and Southco draw latches. Total cost to convert an existing hull to a whitewater dory, probably around $750-1500. Cost to build a Grand Canyon Dory from scratch, $4500-6500. 


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