Wednesday 1 December 2010

Can You Teach an Old Paddler New Tips?

When people find out I have a canoe for sale, they often ask, “why are you selling it?” and the answer is rather pathetic. I want the Maserati Gran Turismo of canoes and I have a Volvo V50. That is to say, I want a high end solo canoe, and I have a high end multipurpose canoe.

The Solo Plus
I purchased the Solo Plus, Wenonah’s answer to a “do it all” canoe, because I wanted a canoe that could be paddled tandum or solo. The Solo Plus is good for solo weekends and weeklong trips; ok for tandum day trips; and not a bad compromise between efficiency and practicality. Somewhere between a performance boat and a family friendly recreational hull. I liked that I could sit in it or I could kneel in it. The gunwales were narrow enough to use a double blade. And after using it for two years I realized that I was moving consistently and with greater conviction away from tandem paddling towards the true solo experience.

The SportPal
The turning point came on a trip this summer with Tom. Tom sports a Sportpal. A light aluminium hull with clever innovations from the period of everyman ingenuity following the second world war. It was a time of adaptation of military material to civilian purposes. It brought us wonders like aluminium foil and Tang. I love the Sportpal for it’s robust design, engineered practicality, and amazing multipurpose slyness. It is the Solo Plus with oar locks, a movable seat, and a place to put a mast for sailing.  It has a sort of recalcitrant thriftiness that is evident in a host of perfected ideas. The true jack of all trades watercraft. You can even put a motor on it.

The Summersong, the Sportpal, and the Spitfire
While I paddled and Tom rowed our way along Amor Lake we met Ron, a relocated easterner in possession of a Sawyer Fibreglass Summersong. The Summersong is also a product of it’s age, and while the Sportpal has the look and feel of the sixties, the Summersong has the look and feel of the eighties.  It has the same post-war cleverness (three height fully adjustable seat) with the lines and performance of a high tech race craft.

Summersong by Sawyer

In the months that followed I would learn that the Summersong was a product of a particularly innovative period of solo canoe design that focused on performance hulls for hit and switch single bladers. It was produced in the heyday of the solo canoe, at the cusp of shift in interest among paddlers to kayaks. The Summersong was sleek, fast, and light. Everything I held dear.

Ron said he had an Autumn Mist as well but preferred the Summersong

The shift to kayaks came about for a variety of reasons. New composite materials, extremely enthusiastic kayakers, the low profile on the water and low centre of gravity from sitting low in the boat, the efficiency of the double blade, the solo nature of the kayak (tandems are out there, but few and far between), and the decked design that tends to increase the boat’s seaworthiness. The west coast was a hotbed of kayak design in the 70s, 80’s, and 90’s and kayaks have displaced canoes in retail outlets. One Island shop told me they sold 100 kayaks for every canoe they sold. I think that social pressure  has played an unfortunate role in overshadowing solo canoes with kayaks.

Duncan Watts and Matthew Salganik ( are researches who set up an experiment to test the long held assumption that other people’s choices affect our own choices. They created a website on which their test subjects could download music and see what other subjects downloaded. Everyone could rate songs and ranked them and see what other people’s rankings were. Some tunes became hits, ranked highly and downloaded by many and others did not. The music was a collection of 48 original songs from aspiring but unknown artists. The curious thing was that each group of participants had a different “hits” list from other groups. There were a few songs that hovered near the top of the list in all groups, but everything else varied wildly from group to group. It seems that the songs that are actually good stand out, but the ones that are only mediocre are perceived differently depending on what other people say about them. Often people have bought kayaks when solo canoes would have been a better fit. But they were influenced by what everyone else was paddling.

 Kayaks are great for all the reasons I mentioned, but one unfortunate aspect of their meteoric rise to popularity is that boat designers also shifted their attention to the new crafts and it wasn’t until well into the 2000’s that people started to buzz about new solo canoe designs again. A few companies released new designs through the 90s, but many of the best designs out there today are 20 years old or older. And there is nothing wrong with that. The Summersong is a beautiful boat that seems like perfected technology for flat-water cruising.
Summersong on Amor Lake

Trouble is that Sawyer Canoes no longer exist, and the designs have been handed over to Scott Smith at Superior Canoes. Scott would build me a Summersong, but getting it to Vancouver Island poses a bit of a challenge. Before trying to work out a way to get a Summersong, or the equally desirable Rapidfire, or any of the other excellent boats in the same category from American manufacturers I decided that I would look around and see what local dealers could provide, and which Canadian companies would ship to me.

My first list looked like this:

Bluewater Splitrock
Bluewater Mist
Wenonah Prism
Swift Osprey
Clipper Solitude
Clipper Packer
Souris River Tranquility

The Bluewater boats, the Prism, and the Clipper boats were all available from local dealers, and the Osprey and Tranquility were available via shipping directly from the manufactures. I had also looked at the long racing hulls like the Wenonah Advantage and Clipper Freedom, but friends had talked me out of them because of their near zero rocker and significant length.

The logic went like this, “You never paddle very hard Richard, and these boats are for athletes.” After I got over my initial shock at this obvious hyperbolic statement, I had to admit that there was a nugget of truth in it. I was attracted to the idea of a low lean racer, but would I appreciate the strengths of these boats in a healthy chop on a large open lake? I was also put off by the need to lean them in a certain way to get a nice turn out of them. I kept flirting with them, especially the Advantage, both because they are beautiful boats and because Advantage owners can be quite persuasive in their enthusiasm.

Then I hit the forums (Canadian Canoe Routes and It became apparent that everyone and their dog loves the Swift Osprey. I heard only one negative comment about that boat — it doesn’t paddle well with a rear quartering wind or going at an angle to the wind combined with big waves. But few boats do. I learned pretty quickly that the Splitrock was a racer like the Advantage and eventually set it aside. I learned that the Prism was not as well regarded as I had thought, and like the Mist, Packer, and Solitude was designed for sit and switch paddling. The Wenonah Argosy went onto the list for awhile, as did the Vagabond and Rendezvous. I had paddled and loved the Rendezvous, but eventually let go of that dream as it is not readily available in ultralight or graphite.

I had a very helpful talk with Peter Harris of Pacifica Paddle Sports who suggested the H20 boats. I had looked at the H20 boats on the Frontenac Outfitters Site, but didn’t think I would be able to get a hold of one, but Peter seemed to think he might be able to arrange it.The 16.6 and 15 went on my list.

So after much thought and review I came up with a rule of thumb:  

"a differentially rockered boat in the 15 foot range will reward a recreational paddler with fast acceleration and easy cruising with a single straight paddle, and a slightly longer boat, in the 16 to 16.5 range will not respond as well at lower horse power because of skin friction, but will perform better with a double blade on the long open sprints."

Given this, I set aside all the Wenonah boats except the Argosy, Many of the best boats for what I like to do are only available in the States and back east at that.

Here is my current list:
Osprey Mist Packer Argosy H20 16.6 H20 15
Length 15' 14'10" 14' 14'6" 16'6" 15
Weight 30 lbs 35 lbs 34 lbs 30 lbs 34 lbs 32 lbs
Price $3,000.00 plus shipping ($400) Kevlar Fusion, Carbon KV trim 2500.00 plus shipping ($400), Golden Brawn $2000.00 CAD  KV Ultralight $2000.00 US KV Ultra-light $2500.00 + shipping ($400), Super Kevlar $2500.00 + shipping ($400), Super Kevlar
Width at Water 27.5" 28" 27.5" 27 29.5" 26"
Width Max ? 30" 29.5" 30 ? ?
Width at Gunwales 26" 26" 24" 27 25" 27"
Rocker Bow 1.5" 0.5" minimal 2.25" 1" 2.5"
Rocker Stern 1" 0.5" minimal 1" 0.5" 1.5"
Bow Height 18" 17" 16" 18" 18" 17
Centre 12" 13.25" 13" 13.5" 12.5" 12
Stern 15.5" 16" 16" 16" 16" 15
Made in Canada Canada Canada USA Canada Canada

All of these boats do have a narrow water width, are in the magic waterline length range (14 to 16 feet) and are light. The front runners, the Osprey, Argosy, and H20 Boats have differential rocker.

The best choice at this point seems to be the Osprey, but it is the most expensive and I would have to trust the shipper and make any repairs myself.

The Argosy suffers from being regarded as not particularly fast or good in windy conditions — more of a down river hull. The Argosy is the least expensive.

The H20 Boats are relatively unknown. All are narrow at the gunwale which will allow for paddling with a double blade. The new and enticing H20 16.6, despite Charlie Wilson’s reservations, still looks good. It has a white bottom, great colors, and could potentially be faster than the Osprey.

The Mist and Packer have lost their lustre due to a less than optimal length and minimal rocker.

Here are some helpful tips I picked up along the way:
  1. I appreciated John Winters excellent little article How to Buy a Canoe  Mr. Winters has a great little list of questions to help clarify the process.
  2. The choices I have listed above do not include a good number of excellent boats that are available but outside my narrow set of preferences. Unless you are very wealth there is no point pinning over a glorious hull from a company who doesn’t have a dealer in our area or doesn’t ship direct. If you don’t mind driving across the boarder to meet up with a delivery driver, or travel to the eastern United States yourself, then many more options open up.
  3. Designing solo canoe hulls is done with thought towards the stance the padder takes (sitting, kneeling, with a bent shaft single, double, etc.) and the intended use (ponds, calm flatwater, big waves on lakes, mild rivers, whitewater, oceans), and also the level of skill the paddler has. Few of the boats on my list would be immediately comfortable to a beginner.
  4. The weight of the paddler also matters and some boats have seats that are much more flexible than others (to allow for trim differences with different weighted paddlers).
  5. The most recognized names in solo canoe design are John Winters and David Yost. From what I can tell, all their designs are well appreciated. There are many other hulls of merit, but if it has the DY or JW name, it probably is a safe bet.
  6. There is a difference between efficiency and speed. Generally longer boats are faster, but may take more power to get them up to speed. The Square root of the length, in feet, multiplied by 1.55 roughly equals mph up to development of the two wave wash but the fastest speeds require significant power, definitely more than something like the Indian stroke will produce -- so boats greater than 15 feet are probably not worth the extra skin friction if paddling with a single blade is going to be the norm. Shorter boats have less wetted surface and so are much easier to get up to speed, if the top speed is more limited. Width and hull shape address efficiency at any given length.
  7. A high cadence is the most important factor for achieving speed.


  1. Wow! Looks like you Can indeed teach an old paddler new tricks;)))

    Well....all I can say is I hope you get what's on your Christmas Wish list!
    You have quite the information here...and when I one day get my "fancy canoe"..I know where to turn.
    Alas...I own a kayak, (along with a clunker canoe)....and for now that will be my lot on the lake;)

    Thanks for this post!

  2. To me my choice was alway limited to what the "used-boat-market" in Germany offered. Thus I am lucky to have found a Mad-River Independence in K-glass which - 'in it's time' as you describe it - was a formidable boat. It still is as I use it for canoe-poling.
    But as I am getting older I am on the lookout for a boat with less weight. Preferably annother Independence. This time one entirely in Kevlar. If I will ever find one in Germany? In secret I have already asked our local dealer what I would have to pay for an imported Millbrook 'Souhegan'.
    If I would not 'stand up' in my canoe I would be happy with an old Sawyer Summersong (alas - they were never exported overseas to my knowing) or with a Swift Osprey. I once paddled one on a Bavarian lake and was impressed by it's speed and easy acceleration - not by its maneuverability. The Argosy - by the way - is a boat for streams - it would disappoint you on lakes.

    I wish you good luck in your choice and am curious on the results

  3. Hi Dawn,

    My wife tells me I can have a new canoe for Christmas if I knit a stocking large enough for Santa to put it in.

    As Charlie Wilson says, and I'm paraphrasing, "Anything that gets you out on the water is a good boat."


    Wow, I thought Vancouver Island was remote from the canoe world, it sounds like Germany is even more so! The only trouble with Kevlar canoes is that they spoil you for anything else again.

    Interestingly, I got the Solo Plus in part because I thought I would do some poling in it, but realized that most poling is done in rivers and there just aren't that many on VI that afford the pleasure, and if one is to do such an activity, rocker is important. I saw pictures of a fellow poling a Solo Plus in the shallows of Florida waters, and that image attracted me.Funny how that works...

    I'll post when I do decide on a new canoe, but it might be awhile!



  4. Hi Richard,

    I just came across your article while cruising the internet looking for interesting paddling websites, and I gotta say, you really know your stuff! I also happen to work for Swift Canoe & Kayak, and all of us at the shop really enjoyed your detailed analysis of all the solo boats. Solo paddlers tend to really know their stuff, and that was probably the most comprehensive study of solo boats I've ever seen. Of course I appreciate that the Swift boat made it to the top of the list, but you're bang on about the Rapidfire as well (one of my other favorites). I myself own a Swift Shearwater, another John Winters design, and I love it (but of course, I know I'm biased). It's a fantastic solo tripper that can handle a large load. Efficient too (but not exceptionally fast). The Osprey is a personal favorite of our owner, Bill Swift, and he always takes one with him whenever he goes paddling. Thanks for your great article, I'll be sure to let the guys in our area know about your blog.


    Scott Way
    Inside Sales Coordinator
    Swift Canoe & Kayak

  5. Hi Scott,

    Thank you for your kind words, I think I am learning, slowly, from patient seasoned paddlers and friends.

    As much as an old poet like me is loath to admit, when it comes to canoes, there is a strange alchemy of math and aesthetics that leads to a beautiful hull -- and math seems to play the leading role. The true gurus of design like Mr. Winters and Mr. Yost seem to get the formula right.

    Swift is to be commended for your attention to both these aspects of the "craft" -- double meaning intended. As important as the design is, the fit and finish and manufacturing know-how are what takes a beautiful idea and makes it a beautiful reality.

    I did look carefully at the Shearwater and I don't think I would be disappointed with it, but for my intended purposes I felt it would not be a big enough change from my Solo Plus to warrant the switch. I certainly could be wrong about this and without the chance to paddle a boat it is so hard to really decide. In the end I think it was the "Richard you don't paddle very hard," comment that narrowed my search to boats with lower skin friction.

    Now I just need to make that final decision on which boat to buy...always the hardest part...

    Thanks again,


  6. mike in kamloops3 December 2010 at 15:59

    lol, the thrill of the hunt..

    I enjoyed following your post on CCR Richard, and am interested in what your final choice comes down to.

    Don't forget to leave some room for luck and chance in your final list, coming across a sawyer on your day at the lake would seem to have a role in that.


    ps my parents love their Sportspal, They found it after searching for one for years; it's the best little canoe the have ever owned, complete with the faux treebark paint and foam seats.

  7. An excellent and informative post, Richard. We've paddled various kayaks for over thirty years and, despite growing up with a cottage in Ontario's Madawaska Valley, have only rarely had the opportunity to enjoy a canoe. My dad build a kayak when I was young (quite a long time ago now!) and I guess that's what we learned to paddle. You have certainly made me think that we may well be missing a special experience on the water - might just see if we can borrow one! So yeah, I think you might just be able to teach an old paddler some new tips!

  8. Mike,

    Thanks for the encouragement, and yes, nothing out there quite matches the Sportpal for aesthetic... ummm... uniqueness. The thing about the Sportpal is that it is just so wonderfully practical. It is light, rugged, and flexible, as well as being quite seaworthy. Those garish (ooops, did I say that?) I mean visibly imposing exterior foam bumpers also make the boat virtually unsinkable; and those movable foam seats are actually comfortable and, well there is that word again, practical.

    Does your folk's have the layer of foam throughout the whole interior? Tom's does, and so goes a long way to reducing noise.

    I'm sure there are those who would find fault with the Sportpal but I actually think it is a great boat. I admire the obvious thoughtfulness that went into almost every inch of it.

    I appreciate your advice about luck too. The guys on also drove that point home. My friend Paul also wants me to keep an eye out for those serendipitous gifts that come along in the life of a canoe lover.

    My eyes are officially peeled.


  9. Duncan and Joan,

    It will be interesting to see where the hybridization of hulls lead us. Kayaks have diversified immensely and boats like Warren Light Craft's Little Wing have almost tempted me back to the kayak. For me a lot of it is weight and confinement. If I don't need that extra deck, and if I don't plan to do a lot of rolling, then my options become much wider.

    When I started looking for kayaks a half dozen years ago, a light kayak was a skin kayak. Composites were all in the 70+lb weight range. Rotomold models (Manatou, Pungo 100) were around, but somewhat uninspiring.

    Now I see carbon versions of a growing number of kayaks and this reflects the reality that many of us, in fact I guess all of us, are not getting any younger! Light weight is good for aging backs!

    And then there is the pleasure of single blade paddling. I am a sucker for the Indian Stroke, and I don't think there is a better way to wile away the hours than cruising along a shoreline never taking the paddle from the water, just slipping along silently. That is my bliss I guess.

    When I get my new boat maybe you would like to come and give it a try?


  10. Hello Again Richard,

    Thanks for your comments. I figured I'd also mention that Swift has been working on an online database of articles and documents related to boat design, engineering, and building. Most of them were written by John Winters himself and cover a lot of territory about the finer points of boat building. Since he's an aquatic engineer some of it is a little dry, but there is some really interesting stuff that might be of interest to you. The address is:


    Scott Way
    Swift Canoe & Kayak

  11. I am happy to see the H20 Composite Solo boats make your final list! I have helped build a few of those in my life, and am somewhat partial to them!

    I truly love both the Swift and the H20 Composite boats (amongst a group of select others), as the attention to detail when it comes to such things as fabric layup and placement, precision cutting and placing of structural foam cores and ribs, other structural layers, and the like, is really second to none.

    Having done enough tedious work passing foam through bandsaws to make precise (and accurate) cuts and miters, and carefully cutting fabric by hand, repeatedly using 'boat specific' templates, that attention to detail shows up in the H20 boats, and from what I have seen and paddled of Swift, in theirs also.

    I borrowed a Canadian made boat this year (manufacturer not identified) and the attention to detail just didn't compare: structural ribs were all hand cut and a bit sloppy, other little cosmetic issues showed up, and it just didn't look sharp at all. Although these were just cosmetic nags, I find if a company makes a boat 'look' like it is extremely well made, it probably is extremely well made!

    Why not drive to Ontario next year, stay in a little Bed and Breakfast I know of, visit a couple of shows at the Stratford Festival, and pick up a H20 Solo while down here!

  12. Scott,

    Thanks for that link. IT IS GREAT! wow. I just read two of them (Speaking Boat 1 and 2) and I have to say, thank you to whomever thought of doing this. That is excellent material, readable and mercifully brief (speaking as a confessing windbag I should know how hard it is to be brief).

    I also like the Scribd layout. clean and easy to read and use.

    One question, should those articles have an author named at the top? Maybe Mr. Winters requested his name not be used? Or maybe someone else wrote it? Or maybe I'm just not seeing it. As an author, I always notice these things.

    Anyway, I will try and fit that in somewhere as a permanent link on this blog. Really good stuff...


  13. Hello Again Richard,

    I'm really glad you liked the link. I thought it might be right up your alley (or any solo paddlers alley, for that matter). I'll be adding more today and in the following days, so keep an eye on the site for more. And you're right about the authorship part, I'm actually in the process of re-embedding those documents with JW's name properly showcased. Thanks again for the positive feedback and good luck on your search for a great boat!


  14. David,

    Thank you for the insiders take on H20. Do you know if H20 is planning an update to their website soon? The two solo boats that are of most interest to me are not listed on it. It would be great to have some up to date news on what H20 is up to. From my admittedly removed distance it looks like the boats are very interesting and Jeff Hill and Chris Oxne seem to have a good reputation in the rowing shell world. Do you know who the designer or designers are for the solo canoes? Is it Jeff and Chris?

    With regard to traveling to Ontario, there is a certain appeal to that idea, but having driving from her to Prince Albert Saskatchewan (which is probably not even half way) I can say with some confidence that pigs are more likely to fly.

    I suppose if I took two weeks holiday and planned enough stops along the way...I have always wanted to visit Waterton Lakes National Park, and of course Riding Mountain National Park is sort of on the way...and then of course what am I thinking...

    It was a nice little dream though...


  15. I enjoyed this write up very much, Richard. You recall that I was having much the same debate with myself this time last year. Finding the Wenonah 'Prism' on craigslist was a happy accident for me. I'm very happy with the Prism and could never imagine finding another one for such a bargain price.

    By the way, I pretty much always paddle it with a kayak paddle now. Kayakers always give me odd looks and smiles when they see me. I dare say I could probably keep up with most of them on a calm day.

    And with a lighter boat, which was the big motivating factor for getting a new canoe, I did a lot more paddling this past summer and fall.

  16. Harold,

    Interesting observation re: lightness and getting on the water more often. I couldn't agree more! Also a helpful comment regarding using the double blade. Interesting that you have "converted" to the double blade after a good many years paddling with a single blade, right?

    By the way, the photo of the Prism on your blog is one of the best on the web, really shows the lines and tumble home.



  17. Hi Richard! I discovered your blog via the Outdoor Blogger Network. Most impressed with your information and knowledge of paddling! I own two kayaks, and no canoe... yet. I became a follower so I can keep tabs on your "frozen north" adventures and maybe pick up a few good tips along the way! My paddling is done a little more "south" of you. When you have a minute, I invite you to check out my blog for paddling adventures in eastern North Carolina!

  18. Hi Mike,

    Had a browse of your blog --looks excellent. I appreciate your "Mike's 10 Wishes and Hopes for 2011" list.

    It really is frozen here now, but has been mostly above freezing in my neck of the woods until just this week. Looks like you have had more snow in NC than we have here!

    I confess I have not been out paddling, however, as I have in past years over the winter, but maybe now that the holidays are over. Cool calm winter paddling can be wonderful, if requiring more caution!

    Thanks for stopping by and for contributing to paddling culture on the web. write on!


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  20. Good that still canoes are there, I am not a paddler but I know that Kayak are less open than canoes that have wider open decks and composite material makes kayaks lighter I am guessing. Well, still canoes are cool I reckon, great still to paddle long journeys solo and tandem. Nice write up.

  21. Learned a lot about canoes from this post, you have done lots of research to see which canoe you should buy, very interesting.