Buying a Boat
Bottom LinesLong and Lean or Short and Fat?
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
It's not that these phrases don't mean anything. They domore
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
kayakthat'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
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 craftand they'll feel tippier than fatter
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 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
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