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.