The sleek river runners come in a confusing variety of sizes, designs, and materials . . . simply because there is no perfect, all-purpose canoe. You'll want to choose the style most suited to the type of paddling you'll be doing. For example, will you be cruising on flat water or running the rapids? Do you plan to travel as a solo paddler or with a partner? Are you primarily interested in fishing, racing, or canoe camping? These factors — and a good many others — can influence your choice of equipment.
Most canoeists prefer a 16 to 18-foot craft. The standard 17-foot size travels swiftly when powered by two paddlers, has the capacity to carry a good bit of gear, and is easy to handle in white water. Canoes over 17 feet have an increased capacity (meaning that they ride higher in the water than would a shorter canoe loaded with the same weight), but in gaining that advantage they sacrifice maneuverability. Therefore, craft 18 feet or longer are used primarily for cruising on flat water.
When selecting a canoe length, you should also be aware of the craft's beam (the width of the boat at its widest point) and the degree of fullness from the beam to the ends of the craft. The more pointed and narrow a canoe, the faster it will travel . . . however, that speed is achieved at the expense of stability.
Another aspect of canoe design is depth. On a wind-protected river you'll want a center depth of about 15 inches, in order to be sure you have adequate freeboard (that's the height of the craft's side above the water-line) to prevent white-water waves from splashing into your lap and swamping the canoe. On an open lake, however, the wind will tend to catch such high sides and blow you off course, so a shallower craft — 11 to 12 inches — would be more appropriate.
Hull configuration will play an important role in determining your canoe's specific function, too. There are two basic types of hulls: flat-bottomed and rounded. The former design has a very shallow draft (the amount of boat that rides under the water), ample cargo-carrying capacity, and stability. This type of canoe is generally the choice of fishermen or women, because it gives an angler room to stand up and cast, and will remain relatively steady while he or she does so. Variations of the flat-bottomed hull are the "shallow V" and the "shallow arch" designs. Each of these configurations results in a canoe that initially is somewhat tippier than is a flat-bottomed boat, but has a greater reserve stability if the craft should really begin to go over, and such designs are sometimes preferred for general-purpose recreational canoes.
The round-bottomed style feels least stable at first, but is actually very seaworthy in rough waters. It's also the fastest type, making it the choice of white-water racers and long-distance paddlers.
Finally, you'll have to decide what type of keel (the centerline that runs along the bottom of the craft), if any, will best fit your needs. Some canoes have a "fin" keel, others have a flat or "shoe" keel, and still others are keel-less. (An aluminum canoe, of course, always has a keel . . . since that feature functions as the joint that holds the two sides of the boat together.) A fin keel can help to keep a craft on course in a strong wind by minimizing sideways slippage, but in a swiftly flowing shallow river, the fin has a tendency to hang up on rocks ... so in such waters the flatter shoe keel would be a better choice. In fact, real white-water fans frequently prefer a keel-less design (it offers no drag and allows the canoe to slip sideways easily to avoid obstacles) with "rockered" ends, resulting in a highly maneuverable craft.
Each of the design elements — length, beam, depth, hull shape, and keel — will play a part in determining the handling characteristics of your canoe. As a newcomer to the sport, then, you'll want to try out different styles and combinations, and finally choose a design that suits you.
Wood makes by far the most attractive canoes and — if cared for properly — will last for decades. Wooden craft do, however, require some upkeep, and they're heavier than are those constructed of the more modern materials. In addition, the high price of wooden canoes ($1,000+) puts them beyond the budgets of most would-be owners. (Those purse-minded purists who yearn for the beauty and sleek performance of wood might consider buying a do-it-yourself canoe kit, such as the one offered by Old Town which produces a 17-foot cedar strip model.)
The low price, light weight, durability, and low maintenance needs of aluminum canoes make them practical for both white-water and general family use. The main drawbacks of aluminum are its lack of aesthetic appeal, its noisiness, and its tendency to cling to rocks rather than slip over them as plastic or fiberglass will do. On the other hand, aluminum will slide unharmed over sand bars, and can withstand the kind of brutal treatment that would often damage a wooden or fiberglass boat. If you decide a metal canoe will suit your paddling style, choose one with close, flush rivets on the keel line and neoprene seals... to assure watertight joints.
Fiberglass is one of the most popular canoe materials, because of its reasonable price, attractiveness and low maintenance requirements. However, fiberglass craft can range in quality from poor to excellent, so you'll want to examine any prospective purchase closely. Avoid the "chopper gun" models, which are made by shooting shredded fiberglass matting into a liquid resin, resulting in a heavy but weak hull. The hand-layup method, in which sheets of fiberglass cloth are wetted down with a high-quality resin and placed by hand on the canoe, is a far superior construction technique. When buying a fiberglass canoe, you'll get what you pay for... so be leery of "bargains," and always look for the cloth weave on the inside of the craft.
A newer material called Kevlar (it's a fiberglass polyamide) is woven into sheets and hand-laid in much the same way as is fiberglass, although the Kevlar process is considerably more costly and sophisticated. This synthetic is substantially lighter and sturdier than fiberglass, too, and these qualities are reflected in a typically higher cost.
The most recently developed canoe-body substance is ABS (it stands for acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene) plastic, marketed under such trade names as Royalex and Oltonar. A typical ABS "sandwich" consists of expanded buoyant plastic foam encased in layers of ABS and covered with a tough vinyl skin. This unusually durable material has the unique ability to snap back into shape after a collision. Plastic canoes are relatively maintenance-free as well as being rugged, and — not surprisingly — frequently command hefty prices.
Like canoes, paddles come in a variety of designs, and again your choice will depend on the type of canoeing you'll be doing. The common "beavertail" blade, for example, has a rounded tip as opposed to the square blade popular with white-water canoeists. You'll also have to select either the long-established "pear" grip or the newer "T" handhold.
There are two rules of thumb commonly used to determine the length that will suit you best: You might simply choose a paddle that — when you're in a standing position — reaches up to your chin or a bit higher . . . or you could, instead, buy one that just fits between your hands when your arms are stretched out to the sides.
Once you've gotten the "feel" of paddling, get a partner and practice the different strokes in a canoe . . . keeping close to shore at first. If possible, have an experienced canoeist friend take the stern while you sit in the bow, and let him or her instruct you in the various techniques. You'll want to learn how to go forward and back up, pivot the boat, turn in a wide "sweep" stroke, execute emergency maneuvers, and — once you graduate to the stern — master the "J" stroke.
Of course, just getting into and out of the boat can be an education in itself. To board, first pull the canoe parallel to the dock. Then stow all your gear (which should be in watertight bags), balancing the weight fore and aft as well as from side to side, and lash it securely to the thwarts. Be sure — even on short outings — to take along an extra paddle, bailers (capped milk jugs, cut off at the bottom, and sponges will do nicely), and duct tape (for emergency repairs). Also, attach a painter (a length of line) to the bow and coil it neatly in the boat and always wear life preservers. Finally — with all the gear secure — the person who will sit in the bow climbs aboard and, once he or she is seated, the stern rider eases in place.
It's best to paddle from a kneeling position (in order to keep your center of gravity low in the boat), resting your buttocks against the seat and using pads or cushions to minimize the wear and tear on your knees. Some canoeists find this position uncomfortable, however, and prefer to paddle from a seated position except when in stormy water or rapids, where a low center of gravity would be essential.
Practice paddling in calm waters until the maneuvers become familiar. Also try capsizing the craft on purpose — holding onto your paddle — and then right the swamped canoe and propel it to shore.
Before actually making the trip, read all you can about the waterways on which you'll be traveling. You can get topographical maps from your state's Geological Survey or Parks and Recreation department (look under "Government Offices — State" in the Yellow Pages). In addition, there are innumerable canoe-trail guidebooks put out by canoeing organizations and outfitters (it's best to get several and compare the information). You'll want to be familiar enough with the route before you set out, to be able to anticipate each stretch and be aware of any possible fluctuation in the river. (If at all possible, canoe with a partner who has traveled the waters before.)
You'll also need to find out whether there are restrictions on fires and campsites or a quota system on the waterway, whether fishing is allowed (and whether the water is even potable), and what problems you may encounter when putting a craft in or taking it out (is it necessary, for instance, to obtain prior permission to portage on private land?).
Finally, begin a steady program of physical conditioning well before the excursion. Take several day-long trips to accustom your muscles to continual paddling — and practice canoe carries over various kinds of terrain, with a pack on your back — before graduating to overnight (or longer) excursions. As always, travel with a friend or in a group.
Whether you take up canoeing for the challenge of white water, for the relaxation of an afternoon of fishing, for the fun of a family trip, or simply to satisfy your yen to wander, you'll discover that there is still peace along the waterways . . . and the opportunity to find real companionship, beauty, and adventure. Happy paddling!
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