Upper James River Water Trail

Buying a Boat

Bottom Lines—Long and Lean or Short and Fat?

By Farwell Forrest

Stripped of all but its essential elements, a canoe or kayak is just a hull. And what's a hull? A device for displacing water.

Of course, it's not that simple, is it? A glance through any catalog will show a bewildering variety of designs. Read enough catalog copy or magazine boat reviews, and things get even more confusing. Phrases like "well-rounded chines," "huge amount of secondary stability," and "shouldered tumblehome" pop up like barely-submerged rocks in a steep drop, waiting to hang up any unwary reader.

It's not that these phrases don't mean anything. They do—more or less. At least they convey something about the design or performance of a boat. More accurately, perhaps, they convey something about a writer's opinion about the link between particular design elements and performance.

Opinion. That's the rub. The science of boat design (naval architecture, if you prefer) is comparatively young, and it's anything but an exact discipline. The power plant of a canoe or kayak—that's you, by the way!—may easily weigh three or four times what the hull weighs. In paddlecraft, the crew aren't just going along for the ride. Their contribution to their boats' performance and stability is of critical importance.

As a result, the design elements that are juggled by naval architects and advertising copywriters often mean less on the water than the skill (and attitude) of the crew. This doesn't mean that design is unimportant. If you're an Olympic racer or an expedition paddler determined on circumnavigating Greenland, small differences in design may well make the difference between success or failure. For less demanding boaters, however, the link between design and performance isn't always as clear-cut as the copywriters' lively prose might imply. As ever, the proof is in the paddling. A boat that's damned by all the reviewers may still suit you and your paddling style just fine.

Some things, though, are true for all hulls. Until a boat is driven hard enough to plane, a long, lean hull will always be easier to paddle than a short, fat one. The difference isn't as dramatic as you might think, however, and this efficiency doesn't come without a price. All other things being equal, long, lean boats will be harder to turn than shorter craft—and they'll feel tippier than fatter boats.

So how long is "long"? What's "lean"? And what's "fat"? It depends. Absolute measurements matter less than proportion. A 14-foot canoe that's 38-inches wide at the waterline is pudgy going on fat. If it were only 26-inches wide, however, it would be downright skinny. On the other hand, my big 20-foot freight canoe also has a 38-inch waterline beam. It doesn't look the least bit fat, and in fact it moves along pretty fast. The ad writers would say that it has an easy turn of speed. It's all a matter of proportion.

The same thing's true of kayaks. A 10-foot kayak with a 30-inch beam is definitely tubby, but the same beam in a 21-foot-long triple is fashionably thin.

The Long and Short of It

The bottom line? If speed and ease of paddling are important to you, go long and lean. If you're more concerned about maneuverability, though, think shorter and broader. And if you don't like "tippy" boats, fat is beautiful. Just be sure you try before you buy. 'Nuff said.

Copyright 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.


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