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Choosing the Right Canoe

Getting started sorting through the details

With only 900 or more canoe models to choose from — and with each manufacturer having its own classification system — what could be easier than picking out a canoe? And don't forget that canoes can be made from cedar strips, wood and canvas, aluminum, fiberglass, Kevlar carbon fiber, polyethylene and Royalex. It's no wonder so many people end up buying the wrong canoe — which means enjoyment and safety are compromised. Following is a way to choose the appropriate craft for your intended use

Ask yourself how you will use your canoe. This will make your final decision easy because shape, size, and construction all suit different performance requirements. Answer the following: Do I want to lake paddle, river paddle, or both? Will I paddle solo, tandem or triple? Do I want to do extended journeys? Will I be portaging, and how heavy a boat can I carry? How much maintenance am I willing to perform? Is my primary interest whitewater playboating and rodeo paddling? Will I use my canoe mainly for fishing or hunting? Do I want a canoe for casual use around the cottage.

You should now be able to place yourself in one of the following categories: Lake Touring; flat waterport-wildlife viewing, fishing and hunting; expedition paddling; whitewater touring; whitewater playboating and rodeo. Once you know the category of the canoe you want, it is simply a matter of knowing how to recognize what length, width, shape, and construction your hull should be.

The Right Stuff

Expedition and whitewater canoes must be strong to withstand the rigors of river environments, whereas lake touring and sport canoes must be strong enough to carry the desired load but light enough to be portaged. A nice combination of materials for touring and sport canoes is a hull made from Kevlar with wood gunwales, thwarts, and seats to keep it light. Expedition and whitewater canoes are best made from Royalex, polyethylene, or Kevlar — with vinyl-clad aluminum gunwales to ensure they can take abuse.

The Final Tactic

Paddle as many canoes as possible before you purchase. Demo the boats in the same kind of water you intend to use them in. Try performing the same maneuvers in each hull to ascertain the responsiveness of each boat. Load the craft and see how it changes performance. Choose a dealer who is experienced in canoeing so that you get professional input and not guesswork. If you choose the right canoe it will spend more time on the water and less time under the front porch.

Shape Matters

Size and Carrying Capacity

Seating Configuration

Shape Matters

The flatter the bottom, the more primary stability (steady when flat) the canoe has, but you give up some hull speed. The more rounded the bottom, the less initial stability but the swifter the hull. Flat-bottomed hulls are used in sport and cottage-type canoe hulls because their stability makes them good for fishing and for novice paddlers. A moderately rounded bottom is more maneuverable and capable of better speed; it is used in touring and expedition canoe hulls.

Hull shapes
Canoes come in all shapes

Lake canoes should have a keel or v-bottom to help the canoe track and river canoes should not have a keel, for maneuverability. Tumblehome (the width between the gunwales is less than the overall width of the canoe) allows the canoe to be paddled without giving up hull displacement — which determines weight-carrying capacity (burden). The greater the displacement, the greater the carrying capacity. Tumblehome is often achieved in whitewater playboats by using a gunwale tuck (a method of molding materials such as Royalex to create tumblehome).

Hull shape

Secondary stability (the canoe gains stability as it is heeled over) is created by flaring the sides of the midsections. This allows the paddler to heel the canoe over to carve turns— which is important for whitewater boats. Tumblehome is also found in some recreational hulls.

Rocker is the amount the hull curves from bow to stern. Rocker slows hull speed and decreases the accommodation of large payloads. Lake and touring canoes should have conservative amounts of rocker to increase hull speed. It is not critical for river hulls to be fast but it is important that they have rocker for maneuverability (5 – 6" is good for a 16-foot whitewater canoe). Touring and expedition canoes should have some rocker as well (2" is good for a l6- or l7-foot canoe). When choosing a touring, expedition, or sport canoe that will be paddled tandem and solo, look for a symmetrical hull (the shape of the canoe is identical fore and aft).

Rocker bottom

The bow is what cleaves the water, so it is important that the shape suits the use. Whitewater boats need high volume bows and sterns for buoyancy — assuring their ability to go over large waves and giving the canoe more buoyancy over shorter lengths. More rounded ends in whitewater playboats make it easier to change direction in upstream maneuvers as well. Touring and expedition canoe hulls need to take lake waves (and moderate whitewater) and still have good hull speed. This is achieved by shaping the bow and stern with a slight flare to direct water away. The bow and stern should have low enough volume, however, to cleave waves easily.

Size and Carrying Capacity

Length and beam (the widest portion of the canoe at the midsection) will determine weight, carrying capacity, maneuverability, speed, and the number of people that can paddle the canoe. The freeboard (the amount of the hull that sits above the water line) is greater with longer, wider, and deeper hulls — increasing carrying capacity. Know the carrying capacity of your hull. Will it meet the load requirements for the intended use and still maintain its performance?

Depth also determines a canoe's ability to carry a load. Touring canoes (usually about 16 feet) are are often 13.5 inches deep, while 17-foot expedition canoes are often 15 inches deep. Whitewater playboats (11 feet or so) are also about 15 inches deep. When loading rockered playboats and river-runners, maneuverability is more quickly lost. Flat-bottomed canoe hulls are least affected by loading, as they remain stable and slow.

The canoe's width and its effect on speed is related to length. Beam can be greater with longer boats and not adversely affect speed. Touring and expedition canoes need to maintain length-to-beam ratios so as not to compromise speed or load-carrying capacity. Sport boats tend to be wider to create stability and increase payload. A good length-to-beam ratio for a touring canoe is 16 feet to 33 inches. A good length-to-beam ratio for an expedition canoe is 17 feet to 36 inches. Whitewater playboats of 11 feet have beams of about 28 inches.

Seating Configuration

There are three basic seating configurations for canoes. Traditional lake and expedition canoes have the bow seat set almost twice as far from the bow end as the stern seat is from the stern end. A 17 foot expedition canoe will have the back edge of the stern seat about 30 inches from the stem end, and the front edge of the bow seat about 55 inches from the bow end. This is ideal for longer canoes that are often paddled tandem or three in a canoe. The bow seat location gives the bow more buoyancy in waves. Tandem whitewater touring canoes (6 to 14 feet long with four-plus inches of rocker) are often outfitted with seats placed equidistant from the ends. This provides space in the midsections for gear and a better paddling position for the bow person. The whitewater tandem playboat is best outfitted with seats placed in the Gemini position — paddlers sit equidistant from the bow and stern of the canoe in the midsections of the craft.

Solo whitewater playboats need their pedestal or saddle mounted so that when the paddler is sitting in in the canoe with his or her accessories stowed in their normal places, the hull is trimmed with the bow riding one to three inches higher than the stern. Saddle or pedestal height also is critical (the average seat height is about eight inches).

Contributed By: Douglas Whipper

Canyon Canoeing Adventures "The Steamboat Springs Canoe School specializes in whitewater canoeing. CCA provides highly personalized instruction & trips for beginners to experts. Certified instructional guides will be your paddling companions in tandem camp; solo canoeing adventures".










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