Beginners Guide to Open Canoes

Introduction

How do you choose the right canoe for you?  There are many factors to consider when buying a canoe and the choice in the market is bewildering to say the least.   There are also many myths that only make the choice of the canoe feel almost impossible for the first timer.


Part of the problem is that you will only really appreciate the type canoe that will suit you best when you have actually been out on the water a few times and paddled in canoes of different sizes, constructions and shapes.  It’s worth examining some of these factors to see if you can narrow your choices from the hundreds of canoes out there, described in more or less detail on manufacturers’ websites, such as this one.


Open canoeing provides fun and adventure in spades, with the ability to leave behind the hustle and bustle of daily life.  The interior of a continent was opened up using just such craft and whole civilisations depended upon mighty rivers and lakes being traversed in them.  Their origins date back thousands of years and many designs became the stuff of legend.


If you've considered many types of canoe and come to the conclusion that the open canoe is for you then we congratulate you on your eminent good taste! So, now it is merely a question of choosing the right canoe based on your own personal requirements.  What follows are the key factors and some of the terms you will encounter when reading about canoes: 

The Shape of a Canoe

Length: The length of any boat will determine its hull speed. Until a craft travels so fast that the hull planes, like a speedboat, its natural hull speed is directly proportional to its length.  The longer the boat you buy, the faster it will travel through the water for a given paddle input. If covering epic distances is important to you then having a longer hull may be important.


Longer boats also displace more water and hence for those wishing to carry more people, or more gear, a longer canoe may be needed. So how do you know what length of canoe you need? This needs to be considered along with all of the other factors below as well as the type of water, but without dancing around it any more we think this should help:


Solo, day trips only: The smallest canoes are available to the solo day tripper. Anything from playboats to specialist short boats from about 3m long will do. These short boats will be responsive to the steering and, for inexperienced paddlers, may take a little effort to get going in a straight line. There’s no reason a solo paddler can’t buy a longer canoe, usually meant for two people, to improve straight line tracking and speed. Sitting on the front seat, facing backwards will help to trim the canoe better and this can be further improved with a gear bag placed in the bow.


Two paddlers, day trips or solo with lots of gear. Generally, you would look at boats of about 4.5m upwards to accommodate two people comfortably. Obviously, two generously proportioned chaps might need to choose a wider boat or one with greater volume at this length or go for something longer.


Two paddlers plus gear for multi-daytrips or a canoe for the whole family. For this it’s worth looking at boats around the 5m plus mark. These bigger canoes will be more of a handful when solo and lightly loaded, particularly on windy days, however, by heeling them over they need not be any less manoeuvrable or fun and they will still be fast in a straight line.


Over the other side of the Atlantic, it’s not uncommon to find boats of 18ft in length being described as tandem tripping canoes. These are the real mile munchers and suit the huge open spaces very well. For the price of a small family car, you can have such a beast imported, however, just like our roads, our waterways are a little more rough and more modest in proportion than the America counterparts.


So, most canoes in the UK will be in the 4.5 to 5m range and will suit probably 90 percent of paddlers most of the time.

  

Stability: There are two types of stability referred to in canoes, primary and secondary. This is something you will become familiar with the more you paddle.


Many canoes are very wide in the middle and have a shallow V shaped hull or are very flat. These tend to make it feel very stable when you first get in and they can be said to have a high degree of primary stability. If you intend to use your canoe mainly on flat water such as canals or quiet lakes then this is a good trait and also means the boat is ideal for children or other activities such as fishing. If, on the other hand, you prefer the idea of moving water then the flat bottom will tend to cause the canoe to be more affected by the peaks and troughs of the flow.


Once the canoe starts to lean, or heel, the shape of the upper part of the hull has a marked effect on how much it appears to push it back upright, or resist the heeling. This is the secondary stability and the more experienced paddler will appreciate this as they start pushing the boat on its edge to increase the ease with which it rotates or turns.

  

Width:  Width goes hand in hand with stability. Generally, the wider the canoe, the more stable it is and the more volume it has, hence it’s ability to carry heavier loads is improved. As you might expect, however, the trade off is in the speed through the water. Narrower boats go faster, simple. The majority of canoes are about 30inches to 36inches wide.


There is also an opportunity to change the shape of the canoe, within reason, if you feel the need. Some canoes can be “tuned” by making them narrower or wider. By pulling the gunwales in a little there may be a small effect on the arch and rocker of the hull. In which case they will track in a straight line more easily and go slightly faster through the water for a given amount of effort. On the minus side, they will have less primary stability and will be harder to turn. Neither are great traits in a fast-flowing river.


A good compromise to aim for would be 32 to 34 inches wide if you want a general purpose tandem for day tripping or longer trips.

  

Arch: This is related to the stability of the boat and is the curvature of the hull across the mid-section. In other words, if you cut the canoe in half across the fattest point, what shape would the floor be? Flat produces great primary stability, for example, our Tribe 16 model. The greater the curve, the more initial twitchiness, but the better it is likely to ride ruffled water.


Many famous canoe gurus have expounded the virtues of a “shallow arched” hull to encourage good riding of moving water with sufficient stability to give a feeling of security. The models in our range that have this characteristic are the Trekk 15 and Trekk 165. The Trekk 14 and Trekk 16 models have noticeably more arch and this gives a lively, responsive ride, especially in white water, where their fans love them.

  

Rocker: This is the same principle as arch, however it is measured down the length of the boat. Classic canoes, used for handling moving water, seek to turn easily in order to pick the best line down a rapid. This is achieved by lifting the ends of the canoe upwards by a few centimetres.  The more rocker in the hull, the easier it is to turn, however, conversely, this means that keeping a straight course is more of an effort and requires a better technique.

  

Tumblehome: The best example of tumblehome is a sailing galleon typically found in Nelson’s navy. The sides of the ship would be at their widest at a point just above the waterline. Thereafter the hull would become narrower up to the deck level. There were two reasons for this in the warships, namely, to increase the stability of the ship and also to accommodate the shrouds which held the mast up which were located on the outside of the rails.


In a canoe it has a similar function. The narrower gunwale means that reaching the paddle over the side is a little easier for a paddler positioned in the centre of the seat and the canoe feels more stable.

Try before you buy

All of these factors are pretty bewildering to the newcomer to canoeing. It is, therefore, advisable to try as many boats as you can before shelling out your hard-earned cash. This is possible in many ways; perhaps the easiest being to join a local canoe club. There are websites full of useful tips and people willing to let you have a go in their boats. One such is the Open Canoe Association and another is Song of the Paddle.


At Apache we will, of course, allow you to paddle a boat before you buy it, subject to availability, and also for an extended trial you may hire a boat for a day or even longer. See the Demo/Hire tab to arrange to experience the pleasure of paddling Apache canoes.

Weight

On the water a canoe’s handling has far more to do with the shape of the hull based on the characteristics described above. So, if you are simply putting the boat in the lake or canal at the start of the day and paddling to the end of the journey then the dead weight of the canoe is relatively unimportant. If you can get it off the car and in to the water then all is well.


If, however, you intend lifting the boat out to portage, whether around a canal lock or between stretches of inland water, such as between Scottish lochs, then every additional kilo becomes much more significant. Most of the additional money spent on canoes, over and above the basic price of polyethylene boats, is to reduce the weight.


As a guide, most folks can comfortably handle a boat of 30Kg, or thereabouts, from car to water. Once past 40Kg it is pretty certain you will need two people to lift the canoe. Once down to 25Kg, most people will be happy to carry the boat for a moderate distance.