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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Double Talk

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 like this:

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 easy-chair seats.

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 kayak?

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 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

Tandem 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 "comfort 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 all.

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 not.… 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 endearment.

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 reserved.

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