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Taking Your Boat on the Road

By Tamia Nelson
tamia@paddling.net

April 6, 2004

Springtime is the season of new beginnings, and for some folks, it's the time to go shopping for their first canoe or kayak. Maybe you're among them. If so, you're in for a treat. The day you pick up your first boat is always a happy one. Still, even on the sunniest morning there's usually at least one cloud in the sky, isn't there? And for many new boaters, this cloud appears overhead right at the start. How, they wonder, are they going to get their dream boat home? Luckily, the answer to this question isn't hard to find. I should know. I've been there.

When the canoeing bug first bit me, I didn't have much cash. It took me several months to find a boat I could afford. But at last I found one: a 16-foot, fire-engine red beauty with ash rails and cane seats. It was love at first sight, and I turned my wallet inside out to come up with the cash to hold my treasure, telling the dealer I'd be back in a week to pay the balance.

Seven days later, my friend Roxanne and I headed down the highway to bring my baby back home. The road followed the Battenkill water gap through the mountains. We could hear the rumble of the meltwater-swollen stream as we drove, and the heady scent of fresh mud perfumed the air. But I was blind to the sap green of new growth in the hills around us. In my mind's eye, I saw far-distant rivers hurrying toward Hudson Bay. Soon, I told myself, I'd be following the wild geese on their northward flight.

First, though, I had to get my new boat home. And therein lay a problem. I didn't own a roof rack. In the intoxication of the moment, I'd simply overlooked the need for one, and roof racks weren't common items on the shelves of the hardware store in the little farm town where I lived. No problem, I thought as we drove east into the sun. The dealer was sure to have one.

He did, too. And it fit my Jeep Wagoneer perfectly. But that's where my luck ran out. I was in no position to bargain, and the dealer set the price accordingly. I looked forlornly at my empty wallet. Roxanne looked at me. Then she dug deep into her pocket and thrust the money I needed into my hand. I smiled my thanks. The dealer smiled his. In just a few minutes we'd lashed my new canoe to the rack with odds and ends of nylon rope that I'd thought to bring along. After I was satisfied that everything was nice and taut, we hit the road. I may have been a novice canoeist, but I knew something about knots. My canoe stayed put. That evening, Roxanne and I were paddling quietly across a small lake near my home, watching turtles basking in the last rays of the sun. It had been a very good day.

Of course, it could have been even better if I'd given a little advance thought to the problem of bringing my boat home. Don't make the same mistake I did. If you're in the market for your first boat, remember that it will probably travel 100 miles by road for each mile of water that flows under its keel. So plan ahead. Consider all your options before you leave your driveway, starting at the top with a…

Roof Rack

Many new vehicles come equipped with luggage racks. They're often "mandatory options." (Some option!) But few such roof racks can carry canoes and kayaks with aplomb. Often you can work wonders of transformation with a couple of lengths of 2x4, some carpet remnants, and a few heavy-duty bungee cords. Check the load limits in your owner's manual first, then borrow a friend's boat and try your brainstorm out. If improvisation fails, however, you'll need to buy an aftermarket rack. This won't be quite as easy as it was in the days of universal rain gutters. If you have a car, wagon, or SUV, you'll need at least two pairs of legs (also known as "towers" or "feet") and two crossbars, and you'll probably want a set of kayak saddles or canoe carriers for each boat, into the bargain. You may also need a "fit kit" adapted to your make and model of vehicle. Owners of pickups — with or without caps — will have an even harder time, though the catalogs now offer a variety of ingenious add-ons to fill the gap.

Complicated? Yes. The process is nearly as intricate as ordering a bespoke shotgun. You'll need the help of a knowledgeable dealer to be sure you're getting the right bits and pieces. And it won't be cheap. Prices start at around US$200. (If your car does have rain gutters, you're in luck. The old Quik-N-Easy brackets can still be had — or at least they could the last time I checked.)

When you've acquired a rack that fits, the rest is simple, though it may not be quite as simple as it looks. If your rack's crossbars extend beyond the sides of your vehicle, it's a good idea to pad the ends and mark them with pieces of brightly-colored tape. In the usual pre-dawn scramble to gear up for a day on the water, it's surprisingly easy to bang your head or poke an eye. Whatever the time of day, always use care when you load and unload your boat. A 19-pound pack canoe probably won't do much damage if you drop it, but the bang when it hits the ground certainly won't improve the showroom finish. And a plummeting 105-pound freighter can really put a dent in your skull, not to mention your wallet.

Once you've got your boat up on the rack, you'll want to tie it down securely. The combination of a short car and a long boat is especially challenging. So take your time. Get it tight. Most important of all, get it right. There are few things quite so alarming as glancing in your rear-view mirror to check traffic and catching sight of your new canoe or kayak disappearing in the distance behind you — unless it's the sight of someone else's boat flying toward you as you drive down the Interstate. With that in mind, this is a good time to review your knots. You'll find the bowline and the trucker's hitch particularly useful, on the road and off. Remember, too, that knots aren't enough. You need locks, as well. Boats aren't cheap, and a shiny new canoe or kayak can be a powerful temptation.

Loaded up? Before you head on down the road, check your state or provincial laws to be sure your boat doesn't overhang too much and your crossbars don't extend too far beyond your vehicle's sides. To keep in the good graces of the law, you may need a safety flag, or even a hacksaw. While the likelihood that you'll be ticketed for a violation is small, it's a nuisance you'll want to avoid. Moreover, if you'll be carrying more than one boat, double-check your vehicle's load limits and don't exceed them. Period. Vans and SUVs, in particular, are rather tender craft, and while it's a blast to roll a kayak, it's no fun at all to roll a car. Gusty crosswinds and winding, high-crowned rural roads add to the risk. Watch out for low bridges, too — and don't forget to eyeball the clearance before driving into your garage for the first time. More than one novice canoeist has been brought up short by a crash just when he thought he'd got his new boat home all safe and sound.

Does the price of a high-tech rack give you sticker-shock? Don't worry. There's no sin in flying…

Economy Class

The suction-cup rack is coming back, and while it's probably not the best choice for long expeditions down the Interstate, it'll do fine for local trips. The same can be said for foam-block carriers. And if you're old enough, you'll probably remember when cash-strapped paddlers used partially-inflated truck inner tubes as cradles to support their boats on the roofs of their cars. Well, inner tubes aren't as common as they once were, but you can now buy ready-made inflatable carriers. Be warned, though: any carrier that isn't clamped to your vehicle demands meticulous lashing. Even on the shortest and slowest of trips, you'll want both fore and aft tie-downs, as well as two independent belly ties. In fact, for safety's sake you'll need these with any carrier, whatever the length of the trip. If you don't know a tautline hitch from a turtle dove, however, it's best to stick to rigid, clamp-on racks.

That's the downside. But there's also good news. Foam-block and inflatable carriers — and suction-cup racks, too — are easily removed at the put-in. If you lock them in your trunk, there'll be one less thing on your unattended car to attract a larcenous eye. Still got your heart set on a rigid tower-and-crossbar rack? Don't let the high prices get you down. Just keep you eye on the classifieds. You can never tell what might turn up.

Got more boats to haul that you can get on your roof? Or maybe you'd rather save your strength for paddling. Then you'll want to consider putting your problems behind you in a…

Trailer

They're not just for bass-boats and jet-skis, after all. And trailers have real advantages, even if you only own one boat. Loading and unloading are a snap, and your vehicle's center of gravity stays low. But there's no such thing as a free launch, is there? Trailers aren't cheap, and there are insurance and registration costs, as well. Furthermore, pulling a trailer takes skill, particularly when you have to leave the highway, back into a parking space, or maneuver through the crowd at a popular put-in. You'll want to practice these things in advance. Trailers don't always stay where you've parked them, either. To make matters worse, some communities prohibit storing a boat on a trailer outside your house. If yours has such a rule, you'd better have a big enough garage. It's a good idea to find out before you buy.

Springtime. There's no time like it. The call of the wild geese, headed north. The song of the newly-liberated waters. The highway unrolling before you. But getting your new boat on the road is just the first step. Once you've brought it home from the dealer, you'll have to find — or make — a place for it. And that's a topic for another time.

Copyright 2004 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.






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