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Choosing the right canoe for you

How to choose your new canoe.

If you’re like many thousands of people in Australia this year, you may be considering getting into canoe or kayak paddling for the first time. And why not? It’s a great way to experience our beautiful water ways, is fantastic exercise and is suitable for people from 6 to 96 years old (well usually somewhere in the middle there). Whether you’re a loner, a family or a group of friends, paddling can offer something special that few other recreational activities can, and like most other activities is greatly enhanced if you choose the right gear.

To help you make a good investment and allow you to have a great experience out on the water, here are a few tips for buying your first canoe. I’m aiming this article at choosing a canoe, as that is where most of my experience lies, but most of the points will apply equally well to choosing your first kayak.

First off, you really need to think about where you’re going to be doing most of your time paddling. Anyone who has bought a one size fits all shirt, knows that one size DOES NOT fit all! By that I mean decide what 80% of your journeys will look like. Will it just be you or with your family? Will you be fishing, sightseeing or camping? Will you be paddling down rivers or across lakes? Having a clear vision in your mind of the typical makeup of your paddling trip will go a long way to helping you decide what canoe is going to fit your needs best. Some of the most important things to consider are number of passengers, type of waterway, distance to be paddled, carrying capacity required and other activities undertaken whilst paddling.

Sure, there will be exceptions to the norm, and they can be factored into your selection criteria, but defining the most common use is what you need to do first. If you have absolutely no idea where your paddling journey will take you, its probably a good idea to hire or borrow a canoe for your first few outings and see what takes your fancy.

Once you’ve got a handle on what you want to use your canoe for, its then important to understand how the different design characteristics of a canoe affect its performance and ultimately deliver a boat that is fit for your purpose. Afterall, there’s no point buying a 4wd if you’re never going to go off road… A little bit of basic understanding of hull shape and fit out will go a long way to helping you buy the right canoe.

Sure, canoes do tend to look all alike. There are however a few basic features of a canoe hull that you need to be aware of and consider in your new purchase. I’m going to exclude length and width of the canoe from this list as boats of similar physical size can have widely different performance. We will discuss those in the next section. The things I tend to look at are the shape of the hull bottom and sides, the shape and style of the ends at bow and stern and the amount of rocker (curve) along the keel of the canoe. Let me explain in a little more detail.

Hull Shape of a canoe affects its stability on the water. The flatter the bottom of the hull is, the more stable it will feel whilst sitting still on flat water. The more round the hull the more it will feel unstable whilst sitting still. This is known as primary stability. The flip side of that is when the canoe is exposed to choppy water from waves or boat wash. In this case a rounder hull will tend to be less affected by the waves and will feel more stable than a canoe with a flat bottom. As a consequence, most designers opt for a shallow curve in their hull bottom to allow for a range of water conditions. In addition, some canoe designs will have a generous curve in the hull where it passes from the bottom to the side and the side will have a small amount of flare outwards to increase the resistance to overturning in choppy conditions. This is known as secondary stability. The decision for you to make is, do you want a boat that will feel very stable in flat undemanding water or do you want a boat that will feel initially unstable but will have a tendency to resist overturning in chop or boat wash?

The shape of the canoe ends has an effect on a number of factors including manoeuvrability, stability and drag of the hull (how well it cuts through the water). A fuller more rounded end of a canoe will tend to offer more stability, a bit more carrying capacity and better turning ability, but will suffer from increased drag and create more wash. A more slender end will offer slightly reduced carrying capacity and will sit in the water a little deeper, but will track better and offer less drag to the paddlers. Beginner paddlers will appreciate the stability of a fuller end but may be frustrated by its tendency to wander about and not hold a straight line.

Rocker, or curve along the keel of your canoe, affects its manoeuvrability. Canoes with a pronounced curve have less of their ends in the water and therefore resist turning, whilst canoes with flat straight keels, very little rocker, tend to track very straight but are harder to turn. The intended use of your canoe will determine your choice. A canoe for running down rivers and making tight turns will need a good deal more rocker than a canoe used for long straight runs on a lake.

So, with a basic understanding of the effects of hull shape on your canoe, you can now consider the physical size of your craft. As a general rule with any paddle or rowing craft, longer is usually better. Longer boats tend to track (stay on course) better, have better stability, increased carrying capacity, and have a higher top cruising speed than a shorter boat of a similar style. Wherever possible I encourage people to buy as long a canoe as is practical for their use. The down side of choosing a long canoe is reduced manoeuvrability and increased overall boat weight. Some people may also have limitations placed upon them by their car and storage space at home to what length of craft they can accommodate. Common sense ultimately will be your best guide, a fisherman dragging his canoe down steep banks into twisty back waters will always err towards a shorter lighter canoe, whilst a family of 4 doing overnight trips on open water will lean towards a long lake cruiser.

Width of the canoe doesn’t play as much a factor in the decision process as you would think. Most designers of recreational craft will select a waterline width that gives good stability without overly increasing drag and ultimately performance. Generally speaking if you want increased carrying capacity, get a longer canoe. A quick read of the intended purpose of a craft will give some clue to its stability i.e. a canoe described as a fast lake cruiser, is probably not going to be ideal for a family with small children or a fisherman wanting to stand and cast.

In summary choose longer canoes for increased speed, carrying capacity and tracking and choose a shorter boat for increased manoeuvrability and ease of handling off the water.

The final consideration is fit-out and construction of your new canoe. What is your boat made of and what accessories are fitted to it? The old argument that arises here is fibreglass verses plastic, a topic I have covered previously. My advice to people is unless you are intending to run down some serious white-water, fibreglass is better. Fibreglass is lighter, more abrasion resistant and easier to repair than plastic. Plastic is generally cheaper and has very good impact resistance but you suffer every time you have to lift the canoe onto your car! If you can afford it, get a fibreglass canoe. Your kids will still be using it in 30 years time!

The other main consideration with your new canoe is seating. How many seats, what style of seating and what configuration? Unless someone tells me they are a confirmed hermit, and will never paddle with a friend or loved one, I advise them to buy a 2 seater. The reason being is that most 2-seater canoes can still be paddled very comfortably as a solo. The usual way this is done is to sit yourself in the bow (front) seat and paddle the canoe facing towards the stern. This seating position is closer to the centre of the canoe and gives better trim and control of the canoe when paddled alone. To do this a bench or flat style of seat must be installed to allow for a sitting position in either direction. If additional seats are required in a canoe for extra passengers or paddlers, I usually recommend that people buy a removeable centre seat (or seats). Removeable seats allow a 2-seater to be loaded with gear on camping trips or when put in place give a dry perch for family members or friends. Starting with a standard 2 seat configuration is the best way to ensure you have a versatile boat suitable for a wide range of uses.

So now you’re ready, or at least a little more informed, I hope. There is a lot to consider if to want to make a purchase that is going to last you or your family a long time (paddling does have that effect on people). To be on the safe side, it is best to speak to someone who is an experienced paddler, or to try a few different boats out before you buy. Most retailers have a demo or hire fleet available for customers to get a feel for their new craft prior to making a purchase. I highly recommend you take that opportunity.

If you need any more information about selecting a new canoe or other paddle craft, or want to arrange to hire a canoe, please give Dan a call from One Tree Canoe Company on 0424 00 1646 or visit our website Happy Paddling

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