Tandem Canoe or Double Kayak?
Choosing a Boat Built for Two
By Tamia Nelson
August 23, 2005
In the five years we've been writing In the Same Boat we've
gotten a lot of letters from folks who wanted help choosing a boat of their
own. Lately we've heard from several canoeists who'd like to replace an
aging tandem. Most are looking for another canoe lighter than the one
they now own, perhaps, but still a canoe. A
few, however, are considering a double kayak for the first time in their
lives, wondering if this could be the boat for them. Each letter is
different, of course, but they all share a common thread. It goes something
My old 17-foot Grumman is getting on. Not so surprising I've had
the "tin tank"
more than twenty years now. In fact, the wife and I learned to paddle in it.
Then it was the kids' turn. All in all, we've seen a lot of miles pass under
the keel. Don't get me wrong. The old hull keeps the water out, just like it
used to. No complaints there. Sure, it's taken a couple of good hits from
rocks over the years, and the showroom shine is only a memory, but the
'tank's still good to go. In fact, I can see it on the rack I
built next to the garage every time I look up from my desk. It's waiting
for our next weekend
getaway. So am I.
Recently, though, I've been thinking it's time for a change. Bottom line:
the canoe may not be showing its age, but I can't say the same thing for the
wife and me. My back's not what it once was, and now that the kids have moved
out, I'm not sure we need a boat this big and this heavy. The wife always
gets a little nervous when it's time to lift the old boat onto our car's roof
rack, in fact. This is one place where lighter would definitely be
better. And now I'm wondering if one of those double kayaks wouldn't be more
comfortable, too. My back sure does ache after a long day's paddling. I see
kayakers almost every time we go out, and I gotta admit I envy their
So, Tamia, what do you think? My wife and I have been paddling in the same
boat for a long time. We're not ready to go solo. But it looks like there'll
be a new boat on the rack next to the garage soon. Would a lighter tandem
canoe be the right choice for us? Or should our next boat be a double
Tough question, that. The obvious answer, the easy answer, and in some
ways the best answer, is "It's up to you." Study the catalogs. Talk to other
paddlers. Check out the Paddling.net
Reviews. Borrow (or rent) as many different boats as you can. Then make
your choice. That's the easy answer. But shopping for a new boat after
twenty years is never an easy job. It's good to have a little help when
you're evaluating the options and narrowing the field. So here goes.
Tandem Canoes The Upside
canoes are jacks-of-all-trades. They're probably the most versatile
watercraft ever. You can sit, kneel, or stand. You can paddle, row, sail, or punt. (Or
mount a small motor, if you're so inclined. I'm not, but.
) You can
sleep in one, eat in one, and even excrete in
one without having to be a contortionist. Want to go it alone for
a change? No problem. Most tandems make fair-to-good solo boats. A few even
come with a third seat installed just abaft the beam. And that's not all.
Tandem canoes are the pickup trucks of the paddling world. Planning on
setting up a backcountry base camp? Need a woodstove for your wall tent?
Piece of cake. Or maybe you've got a couple of large, active dogs that you
hate to leave behind. No problem! A tandem can carry the freight. Loading and
unloading are a cinch, as well.
Are you on a tight budget? Here, too, the tandem stands out. New or used,
there's a tandem canoe priced within almost everyone's reach. Sound good? It
is. But nothing's perfect. So now let's look at the other face of coin.
Tandem Canoes The Downside
All that cargo space and versatility come at a price: weight. Unless you
can afford a boat made of some high-tech composite, you'll be hard pressed to
find a truly lightweight tandem. Ultralight, ultracostly boats aside,
fifty-five pounds is close to the minimum, and some big freighters top the
century mark. And then there's that gaping hole between the gunwales. It
makes for easy loading, to be sure, but anywhere gear can go, water can
follow. If you plan on venturing beyond Golden Pond and maybe even
if you don't supplementary
flotation is a must. This adds still more weight.
Nor is that the end of the story. Lacking full decks, tandems rely on high
freeboard to keep the waves at bay, and the freeboard isn't free. It gives
the wind a lot to grab hold of. The result? Tandems can be skittish even in a
gentle breeze. And once that breeze freshens to Force 5 or
so, the whitecaps grow and multiply. Soon you may wish you'd stayed at home
no amount of freeboard can keep out every wind-driven
breaker. Conclusion? Novice boaters should think twice before taking an
open tandem onto any big water,
and tidal waters are for experts only.
OK. We've weighed both sides of the tandem canoe. Now let's look at what
the competition has to offer.
Double Kayaks The Upside
Kayaks are decked craft. As long as you keep your boat right side up and
the spray covers stay in place, you can laugh at most breaking waves. Of
course, spray covers have been known to pop off. So maybe you'd better not
tempt fate by laughing. Nemesis may be
listening. Still, there's nothing like the warm, secure feeling you get
when it starts to blow and you know you're buttoned up tight. And the kayak's
deck pays other dividends, too. Because kayaks don't depend on freeboard to
keep the waves out, they sit low in the water. Unless you pile gear high on
the decks not a good idea! the wind will have a hard time
getting a purchase on your slippery, stealthy craft. This makes a double
kayak a better sea boat than its open counterpart. (Want to make the wind
work for you? Just rig a sail. Kayaks also make great sailing craft.)
Then there's comfort to consider. It's a powerful weapon in the catalog
copywriter's arsenal of magic words. Bicycle makers have even started selling
bikes" to capture the hearts of middle-aged athletes whose fond memories
of their old racing ten-speeds are tainted by some not-so-fond reminders of
aching backs and sore butts. The copywriters have a point. It's hard to have
fun when you're hurting. My first touring kayak had a slab of closed-cell
foam for a seat. Period. A length of two-inch nylon webbing was the only
thing between my back and the cockpit coaming. Comfortable? No way. Today's
kayaks are different, though. They boast sculptured seats and contoured back
rests. And these seats are a far cry from the hard plastic slabs that you'll
find in a typical tandem canoe. Comfort is more than a word, after
Another thing: when you're seated in a kayak, you're sitting at or below
the waterline. The result? With the crew aboard, most double touring kayaks
are super stable. (In tech-talk, they "exhibit high primary
stability.") The big double fabric-over-frame kayaks known as foldboats
may be the champs in this regard, particularly the ones that boast inflatable
sponsons. And there's a safety advantage in going double, too. If one half of
the team is injured or exhausted not an uncommon experience on
extended expeditions it's fairly easy for the other paddler to keep
the boat moving along while her partner recuperates. To appreciate the
difference this can make, take a tandem canoe out on a blustery day while
your partner fishes from the bow. Then do the same thing in a double touring
kayak. Now imagine that you've got two hundred miles of wind-swept wilderness
waterway ahead, with you doing all the work. All by yourself. I know which
boat I'd choose under the circumstances. A hint: it wouldn't be the canoe.
But maybe you think this sounds too good to be true. You're right. It is.
There's another side to the story.
Double Kayaks The Downside
Just as the canoeist pays for the versatility of his tandem on every
portage trail, so too the kayaker pays for her double's stability each time
she exits or enters her craft. This is painfully evident when nature doesn't
oblige by giving you a good beach on a rock-bound,
wave-swept coast, say, or at a beaver dam.
Practice makes perfect, to be sure, but there's no doubt which boat is easier
to get in and out of. The double kayak wins no prizes here. And if weight's a
big concern, don't imagine you'll save much by moving to a kayak.
Notwithstanding the ultralight (and ultraexpensive) boats in the ads, most
double kayaks weigh nearly as much as a middle-of-the-roadstead tandem canoe.
There may be less material in the hull, but the deck adds pounds, too. Nor
does a double offer you much choice in seating position. If your seat is
still comfortable after many hours of paddling, all is well. But if it's
Tough luck. You can't kneel or stand in a kayak. Not for very
long, at any rate.
Or say you need a little space to do your best work on the water. Do you
like to do your own thing, at your own pace, in your own time? Then a double
kayak may not be the boat for you. The crew of a double enjoy an enforced
intimacy that makes a tandem canoe look positively roomy. Paddling a double
is as demanding as close-order drill. If you and your partner don't keep in
step, you'll waste a lot of calories going nowhere fast. It gets worse. I
knew a bow paddler in a foldboat who wore a helmet even on placid ponds.
She'd been hit in the head by her partner's paddle once too often. 'Nuff
said? And speaking of space, few doubles have anything like the cargo
capacity of a tandem canoe. If the typical tandem is a Ford F-150, the
average double kayak is a Porsche Boxster. Packing any
boat for a long trip is something of an art, but packing a double is a
very demanding art indeed. Amphibious
paddlers will probably have an easier time than most, but even they can
find tailoring loads to the double's odd-shaped compartments and tiny hatches
tedious. You have to watch your weight, too. An overburdened double maneuvers
like a wayward bull calf. If you've read John McPhee's Coming Into the
Country, you may remember that his group christened their heavily loaded
double kayak "Snake Eyes." As you've probably guessed, it wasn't a term of
Lastly, double kayaks aren't the best choice if you're pinching pennies.
New doubles don't come cheap. No surprise here. But used doubles are rare,
and they're often almost as costly as this year's models. There just aren't
many bargains to be had. In fact, a few much sought-after doubles the
Kleppers come to mind have actually been known to appreciate in
value over time, at least when well cared for. So if your heart is set on a
double, don't count on getting one dirt cheap. Better start saving up now.
Tandem canoe or double kayak? In the end, it's a question you have to
answer for yourself. It can be a big job. Luckily, you can make the task a
lot easier by weighing the upsides and downsides of each choice in light of
your own needs. There's no reason why you shouldn't have fun while you're at
it, either. Get together with your partner. Draw up a list of priorities.
Then go shopping, being sure to water test any boat that catches your eye and
holds your interest. Before you know it, you'll have found a canoe or kayak
that does just what you need, in exactly the way you want it to. And that's
not double-talk. It's a happy ending.
Copyright © 2005 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights