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Tales from the Northwest Passage: Arctic ‘Bricolage’, Part 2

In January this year we published Tales From the Northwest Passage: Arctic ‘Bricolage.’ Written by the Resourceful Sailor, Joshua Wheeler, the story featured a few ways the crew of Breskell, a 51’ wooden sloop, ‘made do’ while transiting the Northwest Passage in 2019. Typically focused on creative and resource-conscious solutions regarding boats, the Resourceful Sailor acknowledges that it is not exclusive to that scene. Here he offers a few more examples of bricolage on boats, and on land. defines bricolage [bree-kuh-lahzh] as “a construction made of whatever materials are at hand; something created from a variety of available things.” With financial means and healthy supply chains, this definition can have a broad interpretation. But when these break down or are nonexistent, creativity and ingenuity must prevail. Whether sailors or landlubbers, many people are ‘bricolagists,’ and they often have similar materials at hand.

For example, can you imagine a world without duct tape? On land, we know it is used more for emergency repairs than for ducts. On Breskell, duct tape worked for retaining a stripped roller furler screw, keeping the furler operational. And in combination with the also-tenacious sail tape, it served to mend the vinyl and canvas of the dodger, deteriorated from age, chafe, and ultraviolet radiation. Duct tape sticks to itself and is weather-resistant, though it requires clean surfaces. It is rarely an elegant or permanent solution, but its simplicity, function and economy justify its fame.

Duct taped dodger
How long will this last? Hopefully long enough.
© 2020 Joshua Wheeler

What about the ubiquitous wooden pallet? Warehouses often stack them outside for the public to help themselves. Usually first used for freight, their upcycled lives can be much more dynamic. An internet search will turn up hundreds of creative examples around pallet reuse, from simple planters to upholstered ottomans. But at sea? On Breskell, we had a wood stove for heat, which required the stowing of firewood. We repurposed a pallet to be the temporary fourth wall of our storage bin, fastening it between a bulkhead and the navigation table. It also allowed airflow, helping to keep the firewood dry.

Who has rope somewhere around the home? Maybe you’ve hung a plant, made a makeshift clothesline, or tied lumber to the roof of a car. Trent, of Waste Knot Want Knot in Newfoundland, weaves floor mats with recycled fishing rope, and gifted one to Breskell that we used near the navigation station. On a boat, where a rope is called a line, keeping some extra on board can prove handy. In the previous article, I highlighted an example in the creation of a staysail pole. One of several others was when Captain Huin made a harness for the outboard motor for shipping and unshipping it to and from the dinghy. Sailors can purchase a specially manufactured harness for $35-$85 from a local or not-so-local chandlery. Or they can apply basic seamanship and marlinspike skills to create their own in just a few minutes.

Floor mat made from old fishing ropes
One of Waste Knot Want Knot’s mats made from recycled fishing rope.
© 2020 Joshua Wheeler

Bricolage is prevalent in modern art, too. Pablo Picasso made Tête de Taureau (Bull Head) in 1942 from the seat and handlebars of a bicycle. There is also the Heidelberg Project of Detroit, a community endeavor that paints old houses bright colors and turns found objects into sculptures. Breskell made a re-supply stop in the Canadian Arctic settlement of Cambridge Bay. In their heritage park were sculptures of wolves, musk ox, and a snow machine welded from scrap metal by local teens involved in a youth-skills and artist development program.

Cambridge Bay Wolf made from bricolage
The Cambridge Bay Wolf was made by local teenagers, from scraps of metal.
© 2020 Joshua Wheeler

Bricolage is everywhere. A term of French origin, the English equivalent is do-it-yourself. In COVID-19 times people have made their own face coverings. The endeavors of Captain Cook, Ernest Shackleton, and their crews necessitated improvisation. Offshore sailors only have what is on board to survive. Dockside boaters with limited budgets must make do for sustainability. There is no shame in a bit of bricolage.

The purpose of the Resourceful Sailor is to highlight ways that improvisation can accommodate a sailor’s needs. Realizing that most modifications are custom, he hopes to stimulate the mind and conversations around the possibilities. Do you have a favorite you would like to share? Remember, keep your solutions prudent and safe, and have a blast.


  1. Ross Angel 3 years ago

    wonderful Bricolage and Lattitude… please make this a regular feature every week in lectronic !
    Ross Angel

    • Joshua Wheeler 3 years ago

      Thank you for reading and your enthusiasm.

  2. jack chalais 3 years ago

    They say that necessity is the mother of invention, but inspiration and imagination are right there with it. Great article…. Bravo!!

    • Joshua Wheeler 3 years ago

      Thank you for reading and the kind words.

  3. Fran Stateler 3 years ago

    Didn’t know that was the official name but there are some good examples around the bay on various beachfronts.

    • Joshua Wheeler 2 years ago

      Fran, Thanks for reading. I don’t know that it is an ‘official word,’ but it sure is fun to say.

  4. Dennis Bailey 3 years ago

    On my Herreshoff 28 modified wooden ketch, when my remote sheathed cable for the transmission failed, I replaced it with two ropes and blocks below the cockpit sole. The forward rope is for forward and the aft for reverse. Then my cable for my Yanmar engine stop failed and is now served with a rope. The original Herreshoff design also used ropes for transmission!

    • Joshua Wheeler 2 years ago

      Awesome. Thanks for reading and sharing Dennis.

  5. Jayne 3 years ago

    I have one of Trent’s at my front door and two at the back. Maybe more for the boat are in order.

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