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Buying a Boat

Bottom Lines—It Ain't Your Grandpa's Rocker

By Farwell Forrest

Seen from above, most canoes and kayaks taper to a point at each end. But now look at the same boats in profile. Some rest square on their keels from stem to stern. Others lift up at both ends. Some rise only a little; some rise a lot. Either way, this rise is called "rocker." To see how it got this name, just put a canoe or kayak with a lot of rocker on a level floor. Then press down on either end. See? It rocks back and forth! And that's not all. Like the breadth of its beam and the shape of its bottom, rocker, too, affects a boat's performance.

Not Your Grandpa's Rocker

Canoes and kayaks with large amounts of lift at the ends are sometimes known as "banana boats." They pivot quickly, and they're wonderfully easy to turn. That's welcome in whitewater, and it can also be helpful on narrow, obstructed streams, even if there's not a rapid anywhere in sight. But it's not so good on windswept lakes. Keeping a highly-rockered canoe or a whitewater kayak pointed the right way on a windy lake requires both strength and skill.

On the other hand, boats with straight keels—boats having little or no rocker, in other words—are happiest when they're going point to point in a line as straight as their keels. They're most at home on large, open bodies of water.

Understandably, flatwater paddlers and sea kayakers gravitate toward straight-keeled boats, while whitewater boaters (and surfers) choose highly-rockered craft. But what about folks who want one boat for all conditions? Wilderness trippers, for example. A golfer can have a club in his bag for every lie, but a canoeist or kayaker on a long backcountry trip has to get by with only one boat. What's he (or she) to do?

The answer, not surprisingly, involves compromise. The best tripping boats do everything competently, even if they do nothing superlatively well. So, if a lot of rocker is too much on the flats, and a straight keel is too clumsy in the rapids, why not choose a boat with just a little rocker?

Why not, indeed? Many tripping boats fit that description, and for good reason. When you can only have one tool to do every job that comes up, it's far better to have a big Swiss Army knife than the finest Sandvik handsaw. You'll curse the knife's tiny saw-blade if you have to cut a board to length, of course, but suppose you have to tighten a screw? Even the world's best handsaw won't help you there. Sometimes "good enough" is best.

It's also important to realize that every boat is an organic whole, a package of interrelated design elements. You can't pick a single feature—a straight keel, say—and assume that this one element will determine every aspect of the boat's performance. All the parts of a boat affect one another. Flat-bottomed boats, for example, are usually easier to turn than vee-bottomed boats. So a flat-bottom may go a long way toward offsetting the effect of a straight keel.

The paddler, too, is part of the boat—the most important part, by far, in fact. That being the case, the best way to find out if a boat is the one for you is to take it out and see for yourself. The only definitive test of any boat's performance is its behavior on the water, with you (and your partner, if it's a tandem boat) in command. No catalog can tell you how a boat will perform in your hands, on the water that you paddle. Nor can any reviewer, however expert he or she may be. It's something you just have to find out for yourself. 'Nuff said.

Copyright 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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