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The first pipe boat for the day. Used by a fisherman, moored in the river.

I was recently in Taiwan and my wonderful host at the mathematics department at the NCKU in Tainan not only shared wonderful whiskies with me but also took me out for some movement on the weekend. While the second day was a simple sweaty hike up a hill, past some quite amazing Buddhist monasteries, the first day had a bit more boating relevance.

We biked from the center of town (which quite terrified me, Tainan being a city of a million scooters) out to the river and followed it down towards the coast. Soon enough we came across the first local boats (about here) and I was reminded how wonderful they are. I presume that these boats are based upon the traditional bamboo rafts like those that I have seen in Papua New Guinea, adapted to the modern technology of plastic pipes. Then one can bend the pipes, to have a bit more safety, add an outboard to the back and one is in possession of a small but simple boat.

But it seems that this is not enough. There are all sorts of adaptions to be found. In the photo on the right you can see a second pipe boat where the sides and top have been encased in some kind of GRP (glass reinforced plastic = fibreglass) to give a more boat-like form. This can be extended to a more classical form as well.

The images below show the shaped bow and stern of a pipe boat I found on the beach near the mouth of the river.

Shaped stern of a beached pipe boat, near the river mouth.

Shaped bow of a beached pipe boat.

I imagine that with the bow actually able to cut through the water instead of just rising above it, such boats might have a bit more stability. We later saw a similar looking boat out tending the oyster beds out from the river, and it sped off at quite some speed across the waves. My friend and I discussed whether such vessels would be able to travel far from the coast: I was (strangely enough) the more optimistic of the two of us, thinking that such boats were probably quite stable and, if built strongly enough, quite seaworthy. I mean, people have sailed from Los Angeles to Hawaii on rafts made from old drinking water bottles!

A medium sized House Pipe Boat. We saw one that was 2-3 times larger, but too far away to photograph.

We also saw some pipe boats that had structures built upon them as houseboats. I am not sure whether they would be much good in a typhoon! Tainan is pretty much on the tropic of Cancer, so they get their share of typhoons coming in over the Pacific.

A rather large pipe boat with an inboard engine, deckhouse and all mod cons.

In the harbour we saw several larger pipe boats, around 10 meters (or perhaps more) in length, with large fishing rigs, outrigger nets and all sorts of amazing stuff on them. Looking at them I suppose that they must make longer trips with these vessels, they look amazingly seaworthy although I am sure that a naval architecture stability analysis would have a lot more to say about them.

First launching of our pipe boat, Andy Strauss acting as our volunteer seaman.

I came across this style of boats in 2003 the first time I was in Tainan, but unfortunately had only my memories to go from as it seems that I did not photograph them in any detail. When we needed a short lived floating structure we kept with the aesthetic that we imagined an Asian refugee from Taiwan heading for the Raft in Snowcrash, we decided to try to reconstruct one from memory. It wasn’t completely wrong, but is missing on several points.

So what is next in Pipe Boat research? Well, I think that the semi-open structure should allow us to easily pass a centerboard through the “hull” and let us experiment with a sailing pipe boat. All we need to do is locate about a dozen cheap, 4-6 meter long plastic water pipes, work out how to most safely bend and then seal them (the standard end fittings we used in the raft here are too expensive and not really secure: we need to glue them shut) and then assemble a rig. Traditionally it should probably be a junk rig, but that requires a mast that is free standing (stays get in the way of the sail, as far as I can tell) so it will have to be something else.

Let’s see where these thoughts lead us!