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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

SOTto Voce? No Way!

Shout It Out —
Sit-on-Tops Are Here to Stay

By Tamia Nelson

March 14, 2006

When I was in college, I shared a rambling farmhouse with another aquatic animal. OK. We didn't have much else in common, but we both loved being out on the water, though I admit that Connie and I had very different ideas about what this meant. Whereas I dreamed of following in R.M. Patterson's wake down the South Nahanni River, Connie imagined herself on the deck of a megayacht anchored just offshore from some golden tropical beach. Neither of us was likely to realize her dream right away, obviously, but at least we had the local rivers and lakes to enjoy. And enjoy them we did. So while I spent the summer chasing whitewater releases, Connie went camping with friends on Lake George. There she passed long, languid days circumnavigating island after island on a department-store pool toy, a sort of psychedelic air mattress boasting both a backrest and a drink-holder. With no more effort that it took her to flutter her feet and hands, Connie propelled herself slowly round tiny, pine-shaded islets, lazily absorbing the passing scene — until the pool toy's seams sprung the first of many leaks, that is. Then she was forced to strike out hurriedly for shore, towing her erstwhile magic carpet behind her. Luckily, she was a good swimmer, and when the pool toy resisted all efforts at permanent repair, she continued her summer circumnavigations wedged into a salvaged truck tire inner tube. It wasn't very chic, and Connie missed the drink holder, but her new magic carpet held air. That was the important thing.

Later, when Connie told me her harrowing tale of maritime disaster narrowly averted, I offered to lend her my kayak. "No way!" was her immediate reply. Kayaks, it seemed, were too tippy, and while Connie could face a one-mile swim with impunity, the prospect of finding herself upside down in the water with her legs "trapped" belowdecks was more than she could bear. With an evangelist's zeal, I tried again, patiently explaining to Connie that she was more likely to be trapped in a pair of jeans than in my kayak. But I was wasting my breath. Connie regarded kayaks with horror, and that was that. Still, I could be stubborn, too. Unwilling to abandon a soul so ripe for conversion, I persisted in my efforts. "How about a canoe?" I asked, confident that I'd found the key to Connie's salvation at last. But, no, I'd underestimated her. Canoes were also tippy, I learned. Worse yet, they apparently had minds of their own. They were always trying to go in circles, I was told, and getting them to head where you needed to go was too much like hard work. This was news to me, and I said so, but Connie was adamant. She didn't want her summers to become working vacations. Circumnavigating an island was one thing, but turning endless donuts in the middle of a big lake was something else. She'd have none of it, and I wisely said no more. I knew when I was beaten.

Of course, if sit-on-tops had been around back then, I'd have had a reason to fight on. How could Connie have resisted the lure of a leak-proof aquatic lawn chair that went where she pointed it with just a flick of a double paddle, yet stubbornly resisted all efforts to tip it over? I'm betting that she couldn't. After all, most novice paddlers are quick to see the virtues of SOTs. Funnily enough, it's only us old salts who stand back and sneer. I well remember my first sight of a SOT. Disparagement followed hard on the heels of disbelief. What was it, anyway? A kayak? A canoe? A surfboard? It seemed to have borrowed something from each, and while I didn't have any idea which of the three was parent to this awkward child, I was dead certain about one thing: it wasn't a boat for "serious" paddlers.

But I was dead wrong. Like the so-called "hybrid" bicycles that lure adults back into the saddle after a lapse of many years, SOTs combine the better qualities of several disparate bloodlines. (In classical genetics this is called "hybrid vigor," and it's generally considered to be a Very Good Thing.) It really doesn't matter what you call them. Canoe, kayak, or boardboat — the SOT can swim on its own bottom, without apologies or explanations. Let's tick off its strong points. It's stable. Versatile. Forgiving. Sturdy. In short, the SOT is exactly what a lot of folks want. And it's more than enough boat for people like Connie. She wasn't interested in cheating death on wild whitewater rivers, nor did she have any plans to attempt long, open-water crossings in the high Arctic. Moreover, I'm sure she'd never feel a moment's regret at not having mastered either the J-stroke or the roll. All she wanted was to get out on a lake on a summer's day and paddle around a small island or two. Right now, with General Winter still fighting a rearguard action against an advancing sun, and the snow drifts only just having melted back below my window sills, I can't think of anything much more alluring than that — and a SOT is the perfect boat for it.

Why? That's easy. Novices appreciate the SOT's stability. It doesn't take a long apprenticeship to feel at home in one. You don't have to be an acrobat (or a contortionist) to climb aboard or disembark. You don't need an expert's bag of tricks to make one go straight, either, or to keep it upright in a modest sea. And you don't have to break the bank to buy a long list of mandatory options, all of them adding to the cost. Besides your SOT, you only need a double paddle (and maybe an inexpensive spare), a PFD, a short painter, and a tube of sunscreen. That's all. The other "options" really are optional.

Don't get me wrong. SOTs have a lot to offer experts, too. To be sure, there are better boats for routes that require frequent portages, but a SOT can be an ideal companion on a laid-back weekend adventure close to home. (And a portage cart can make even a long carry bearable.) SOTs are also good platforms for birdwatchers and other naturalists, anglers, divers, and artists, to say nothing of scientists, both amateur and professional. Nor need athletes feel left out. Specialized SOTs invite hard chargers to play the surf or challenge big waves. Of course, all the old rules still apply. If you're going in harm's way, you need more than the right clothes. You need the right stuff, too — and the right companions. Dangerous water is no place to bet your life on the kindness of strangers.

Too bad SOTs weren't around when Connie's magic carpet sprung a leak. Of course, a lot of water has gone over the dam since then. There's a good chance that Connie's no longer circumnavigating islands in Lake George. Who knows? Then again, perhaps she'll see this article and remember our days together in that rambling farmhouse. And then maybe she'll think about getting a SOT of her own. If so, I'm sure she wouldn't mind a few tips on what to look for when she goes shopping. Needless to say, I'll be happy to offer whatever suggestions I can. But that's a topic for another time.

Novices see their virtues right away. Experts usually take a little longer. But while SOTs aren't the best boats for everyone, or every waterway, they're great for folks who wouldn't otherwise be tempted to pick up a paddle. So whatever your idea of a good time on the water — whether it's simply messing about, following your bump of perception around the next bend in a slow-moving river, or chasing the ultimate wave in a maelstrom of whitewater — there's probably a SOT for you. And when you find it, don't keep the good news to yourself. Shout it out! After all, whether you're an experienced boater or a raw beginner or something in between, SOTs are here to stay.

Copyright 2006 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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