Frontlines

To invent a better weed trap

Mark Budgen September 17 1979
Frontlines

To invent a better weed trap

Mark Budgen September 17 1979

To invent a better weed trap

Frontlines

PORTRAIT

By Mark Budgen

"There are two sets of rules in this country,” says Dale Hammill, the mayor of Kelowna, in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley—“the one the rest of us Canadians live by, and then there’s Jennens’ rules.” Despite that buildup, this Jennens of the self-serving rule book is not the mayor’s political rival, a local developer, or even a local Mafia boss. Rather, he is a mild-mannered, puckish-looking—and fascinating—inventor-cum-entrepreneur in his mid-50s whose greatest fan is this selfsame mayor. The seed of the mayor’s wry comment lies in Gordon Jennens’ eccentricities, obstinacy and independent-mindedness, which have been a source of vexation to many people, particularly officials, for decades. The mayor, a good friend of the Jennens family, is quick to add that “Gordon is the most intelligent man I’ve ever met in my life.” And it is as well that the mayor thinks so, because the rest of Kelowna seems to think he’s a bit of a nut.

However, should his current project succeed—a mechanical weed killer that he hopes will rid central B.C.’s lakes of a choking scourge, the Eurasian milfoil weed—he could become an overnight hero. Since its first appearance in the

early ’70s in B.C. as well as in Eastern Canada, milfoil has spread at an alarming rate, threatening to clog the shallow waters of lakes and destroy their economic potential. So far the main solution to the problem has been to kill the weed with 2,4-D pesticide, which itself may be hazardous to wildlife and the population that gets its drinking and irrigation water from the lakes. The beauty of Jennens’ machine is that it removes the weed without disturbing other marine life. That, at least, is the theory. But although reports of the machine’s imminent appearance have been made monthly for two years, the unveiling is yet to be. The machine, Jennens insists, will not only clean out the milfoil but has a potential for at least 15 other types of jobs from underwater archeology—Jennens is a consultant in Europe on ancient ship excavations—to submarine pipelines.

“This machine uses entirely original principles,” he remarks quietly, “and that’s why it’s taking so long to build. The B.C. government had a competition for a weed-clearing machine but why should I have bothered to enter it when they would have owned all the rights to my invention? I believe in free enterprise—if the bureaucrats can’t design a machine themselves, why should they get the benefit of mine?” It should sur-

prise nobody that Jennens refers to himself as an “individualistic cuss.” Tales about Jennens—such as the speculation over his milfoil machineare legion in Kelowna. For example, in the days when he used to build rowing shells in the late ’40s and ’50s, he once transported one of the 36-foot craft balanced on his motorcycle sidecar. People still talk about the time he delivered a load of racing shells by truck to Toronto and was still working on them during delivery—balanced precariously on the trailer hustling down the highway. He was once called upon to design 42-foot oars, from single timbers, to row bales of rubber down the Amazon River in Brazil. But Jennens, unlike his neighbors, finds no pleasure in retelling and embellishing his unusual exploits. He would rather just be left alone to go about his business—which in Jennens’ case has involved a rich variety of activities.

During the Second World War, working for aviation companies building planes—and gliders on the side— gave him an abiding distaste for working for anyone else ever again. So, having a natural talent for building boats—he made his first rowing boat

out of scraps from a lumberyard when he was only 5—and enthralled by the shape of rowing shells, he decided to start his own business. Never mind that he was supposed to serve a seven-year apprenticeship—Jennens just “knew” how rowing shells were built, and he improved on previous designs, selling the shells all over North America within a few years. Since then he has seldom stopped turning out useful objects, mostly from wood—laminated beams

for large buildings, floors to convert ice rinks into gymnasiums during the summer months, airplane floats, marker buoys, his mammoth oars for the Amazon and other products which, according to his long-suffering wife, Sylvia, “were challenges that nobody but Gordon would take on. He just went about solving them in his own way.”

Many of his challenges were tinged with passion, for Gordon Jennens has had a long love affair with beautiful

boats, particularly Viking ships, which he feels so deeply about that he decided to build one himself in 1965 using the original methods and materials—not an easy task. The oak first had to be felled and then shipped from California, then mellowed by leaving it in moist soil—he still has oak buried in places as farflung as Norway and Ontario—and finally boiled to remove the sap. He and his family took the next five years to finish hand-forging 3,000 rivets, weaving the sails from raw wool, taking two years to find the perfect shape for the prow, splitting the timber and finishing the 60-by-13-foot ship. The project itself seemed harmless enough, but it was Jennens’ choice of a workplace that irritated the locals. “He built this plastic-covered shelter on department of highways land across the bridge from Kelowna,” remembers Bill Stevenson, the manager of the Chamber of Commerce, whose office overlooked the site. “And it was an eyesore, what with piles of lumber around. People kept asking what was going on there. Eventually we closed off our washroom to the Jennens crew and it was amazing how soon afterward the boat was finished.”

The family displayed the boat and accompanying exhibition across the United States and Europe before arriving in Norway, from where an international crew was to sail it back to North America. “This was the first time that anyone had built a Viking ship in the original way for 1,000 years. For me the attraction was repeating the process that marked the peak of naval architectural achievement until Nelson’s time,” says Jennens. “The Viking hulls were so

flexible that they moved like snakes through the sea.”

But the combination of an inexperienced crew and a late sailing season prevented them from emulating the voyages of the Norsemen. So the ship was returned by freighter to Canada, only to be greeted by a customs officer who wanted to see Jennens’ landing permits. That was just so much gobbledygook to the iconoclastic shipwright, who never bothers with such “bureaucratic nonsense.” “Nobody had asked for them in Europe,” he remembers, “so I could not produce them. Anyhow they let me through eventually.” The journey ended sadly when Jennens’ proud Viking raider was dropped by a crane in transit: which explains the rather large heap under a tarpaulin in Jennens’ garden.

Back from the ill-fated Norse journey in 1972, Jennens had to fix up the family’s lakeshore house, which had started to settle rather alarmingly. So the concrete was poured, the scaffolding put up, the house was raised, and all the activity stirred the rumor-mongers into life again.

The whisper went around that Jennens was working on a mysterious project far more exotic than straightening a crooked house. As it turned out, Jennens had actually stopped all work on his house in order to start designing his milfoil harvester. And after he has shown that the machine works, well, it’s back to fixing up the house and the Viking ship; there’s still an 18th-century square-rigger to be built, and an amphibian plane; and that oak mellowing nicely in Norway and Ontario still has to be collected.