Canoe or Kayak? Which one is right for you?

A, slightly biased, look at an old quandary.

Canoe & Kayak Web Exclusive
story by Cliff Jacobson
photos by John Bolivar

Editors note about the author: You will probably figure out in reading this article that the author is a canoe man through and through. He currently owns twelve canoes-eight tandem’s and four solo’s. In his words” Canoes are like dear friends; one can never have too many.” He makes some great points in favor of canoes, especially if you are a beginner boater and all your friends are buying kayaks.

I guided a group of teens on a canoe trip in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters. As we rounded a point, a yellow kayak darted toward us. The paddler—a young woman in her twenties—flashed a smile, then poured on the coal. In a flash she was gone.


The kids, in their banged up aluminum canoes, were spell-bound. “Why can’t we have those?” they pleaded.


I just grinned and said, “You’ll see.”


Twenty minutes later, we reached a portage that bypassed a beaver dam. We had to balance on sinking logs to unload the canoes; everyone was up to their knees in muck. The trail soon deteriorated into a swamp and we began a game of musical canoes—one minute we paddled; the next we waded and dragged. Finally, we came to a dead end and began a mucky portage that ran a quarter mile.
Shortly, we came upon the kayak. It was stuffed into some brush and there was a heap of colorful dry bags (gear bags) nearby. The young woman was sitting silently on a boulder.



“How do you like your kayak?” I teased.
She looked up scornfully and replied: “Wanna trade boats?”


We all pitched in and carried her gear, sharing conversation along the way. She said her parents owned a cabin on the Flambeau River in northern Wisconsin, and that’s where she did most of her kayaking. She figured the big water of the Flambeau flowage would be good preparation for the Boundary Waters.


“I didn’t figure on the portages,” she moaned. “It was a nightmare getting in and out of my kayak so many times—stuffing and unstuffing bags at every portage. And my (double) paddle kept catching in the brush on the beaver stream. It was awful!


Most kayakers I know will readily admit that their boats are out of place in Minnesota and Wisconsin lake country, especially in areas where there are portages. If you’ve ever carried a kayak very far, you know why! If you fit the craft with a canoe-style carrying yoke, your head will be buried deep in the cockpit, with no view of the road ahead. This may be acceptable on a clear trail, but not on a tortuous one where one mis-step may mean a broken leg.


Knowledgeable kayakers generally hoist their kayak on to one shoulder or drag it behind them like a dog on a leash. Neither method works well for portages of any distance.


Given these handicaps, why are so many paddlers choosing canoes over kayaks? Scott Hamstra of the Rutabaga store (the Midwest’s largest paddle sports shop) in Madison, Wisconsin, suggests why:
“People who like to go alone find that a kayak is easier to paddle and control than a canoe. It takes some skill to paddle a canoe in a straight line, especially if you don’t have a partner.


Generally, recreational kayaks are also less expensive than canoes. Five hundred to seven hundred dollars (some short, recreational boats go for less) will buy you an entry-level kayak. Good canoes cost much more. A really fine lightweight solo canoe costs nearly $2,000 and it requires dedication and practice to master.


“Kayaks look cool and they get a lot of flashy press, so people have a mindset that they’re better than canoes, said Hamstra. “They don’t understand the benefits of canoes.”


“For example, a family recently came in and wanted to buy three kayaks. When they learned that one canoe would fit them all–and would be lighter, less expensive and easier to transport and store than three kayaks–they went for the canoe. People get caught up in the hype that surrounds kayaks.”


To understand the ageless lure of the canoe, let’s explode some popular myths.


Myth: You need more skill to paddle a canoe than a kayak.

No way! This myth persists because a novice can look good in a kayak on a mirror-calm lake, whereas it takes some skill to maneuver a canoe. But wind and waves change everything! You’re on your own in a solo kayak–there is no partner to help maintain the course or keep up steam. You need a proper “paddle brace” to stay upright in bad waves, plus a reliable “Eskimo roll” to right yourself if you do capsize. You won’t master these advanced techniques in a single season!


Now, play the same scenario in a well-designed double-canoe. You have two synchronized engines running with equal power applied to both sides of the canoe. If things get dicey, just point your craft into the wind and power ahead. The stern person may occasionally need to rudder to hold the canoe on course. Contrast this with a solo kayak in which you do everything.


The bottom line is that a beginning kayaker can get around fine on calm water, without instruction. Canoeists need some training. Without it, they may just go around in circles until they learn to paddle right. I might add that you don’t have to master the ancient “J-stroke” to make a canoe go straight. Modern paddlers use a 12- to 14-degree bent-shaft paddle and switch sides (in unison) every four to six strokes. Canoe racers won’t paddle any other way!
The learning curve for kayaks is gentle at the start but it gets steeper as you learn. With canoes, it’s just the opposite–which brings us back to our original premise that it takes less time to “look good” in a kayak than in a canoe. Ultimately, it takes equal discipline to master either craft.


Myth: Kayaks are faster than canoes.

No way. Canoes and kayaks are both displacement hulls; their top speed is a function of their length. The longer the boat, the faster it will go. You can compute the maximum speed by applying this over-simplified formula: Speed = 1.55 times the square root of the water-line length, measured in feet. Thus, an 18-foot canoe or kayak will peak out at about 6.6 miles per hour while a 15-footer will run roughly 6.0 miles per hour. You can plane a displacement hull (and thereby exceed its maximum speed) for a short distance if you paddle hard enough, but your body won’t stand the abuse for long. As soon as the craft drops off plane it will bog down and sink in its own wake.


Don’t confuse top speed with ease-of-paddling! The formula tells you only the maximum hull speed the boat can attain, not the amount of effort required to get it there. A fat canoe and a skinny kayak of equal length can achieve the same top speed. But the narrow kayak will paddle more easily because it has less wetted surface area (and therefore, less friction) than the canoe.


Ease-of-paddling—not superior speed–is a major reason why some people prefer kayaks to canoes.


Myth: A double paddle is easier to use than a single paddle.

No, but it is more efficient, simply because the effort used to return one blade to the catch position is used to power the opposite blade. But a double-paddle is twice as heavy as a single canoe paddle, so you lift more with every stroke. And wind attacks the air-borne blade so you have to “feather” it on the return stroke, which requires rotating the shaft each time. Over the long haul, this can do a number on your body, like causing tendonitis. That’s why some paddlers choose non-directional blades that can’t be feathered. The horizontal “windmill” arm position also bothers some people. I’m one who can’t tolerate it for long.


Myth: A kayak is more comfortable than a canoe.

Essentially, you wear a kayak. Once “shoe-horned” into the hull, you’re stuck there. Downed trees, portages and even docks pose problems getting in and out, especially if you’re not athletic. Grandma won’t like your kayak, and neither will your dog.


The seating position is cramped and your legs fall asleep. Water gets by the paddle drip rings and runs down your arms and into your lap. Of course, you can wear a spray skirt and a dry suit top. But bare arms and breathability are precious in the heat of July.


The higher seating (or kneeling) position of the canoe also permits a better view of the road—that’s why decked canoes often lead kayaks down dicey whitewater passages. You’ll see wildlife better from the seat of a canoe, and have a more stable platform from which to fish or photograph.


Myth: Kayaks are more maneuverable than canoes.

Than some canoes, yes! But it depends on hull design. A short, fat boat (canoe or kayak) will usually turn more easily than a long narrow one; a highly rockered (the ends curve upward like the rails on a rocking chair) craft will turn faster than a straight-keeled one. Some hot whitewater canoes and kayaks are so twitchy that a quarter paddle stroke will spin them full circle! Stay away from these boats unless you know your stuff.


How maneuverable a particular canoe or kayak is depends on so many factors that it would take a feature article to review them all. But you can use this simple “spin” test to approximate performance:


Set the boat on a carpeted floor or grass, then grab one end and give it a hard push. If the boat spins full circle, it probably has a fair amount of rocker and will turn easily. If it drags and stops after a quarter turn, it’s probably not very maneuverable. You can also look at the hull at ground level to see how much dead rise there is at the ends—or you can measure it precisely. One-half inch is about average for a quick touring canoe or kayak; one to two inches is reasonable for a river cruiser; whitewater junkies will want three inches or more!


Any canoe or kayak will turn more easily if you lean it to one side as you make the turn. Generally, the stronger the lean, the snappier the turn. The advantage of a decked kayak over an open canoe is that you can lean far out and you won’t ship water or tip over. For example, a skilled kayaker can spin an 18-foot sea kayak around in its own length by laying it on the sidewall so the ends clear the water. You’ll swim if you try that with an 18-foot cruising canoe!


THE BOTTOM LINE

The bottom line is to choose a craft that fits your needs. Try it before you buy it—if it makes you smile it’s right for you!


A canoe or kayak is usually a wise investment. Low-to-mid-priced models will retain about 75 percent of their original value after five years, if they are well-maintained. High end boats often appreciate! Remember this, if your dream boat costs more than you had planned to pay.


I might add that you’ll enjoy your canoe or kayak much more if you learn to paddle it well. There are some excellent video tapes and paddling books that will get you started right. Many canoe shops offer free or low cost paddling clinics. The American Canoe Association (www.americancanoe.org/) is the club to join if you’re serious about paddle-sports.


My friends Nick Boismenue and Stephanie Urbonya live on a sprawling 380-acre lake in Wisconsin. They own six canoes—five pricey high-tech models and one ancient aluminum Grumman. They also have three inexpensive polyethylene recreational kayaks.


What do you like best? I asked.
“We keep the kayaks and the tank-tough Grumman down by the dock all summer so we can just drag ‘em out and go for a ride,” Steph answered. “When we’re done, we just haul ‘em up the beach and out of the sun. We wouldn’t dream of treating our Kevlar canoes this way!


“We take the kayaks out almost every summer day, and we’ve found that our guests largely prefer them to canoes. The kayaks are also safer when we paddle Lake Superior. But the canoe is our boat of choice in cold weather and when we want to explore or photograph. We love our lightweight high-tech canoes, especially on trips where there are portages.”


What would they do if they lost all their boats in a tornado and had to buy them over again?


“For starters, I’d get six canoes and three kayaks,” she laughed. “We’ll get more boats when we build the new shed.”


A note about the author: By now, you’ve probably figured that I’m a canoe man through and through. I currently have twelve canoes–eight tandem’s and four solo’s. They cover the spectrum of what I love to do–play on local ponds, run challenging rapids, drift down sparkling streams, and make long wilderness trips in Canada. Canoes are like dear friends; one can never have too many.

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