So Many Boats, So Little Time
Time to sort out the options, that is. Still, you don't want to be overhasty. Not only does a new boat cost a pretty fair chunk of change, but if you pick the wrong one, you'll have a long time to regret your mistake. It's an important decision, in other words. Which is why Farwell and I have tackled the topic several times over the years. Of course, each paddler's needs are slightly different. But the three‑way split comes up early in the game. If you're going with a single boat, which is it to be — canoe, kayak, or SOT? Reader Pat McKay wrote to me recently on this very subject. He's looking for a boat. A boat. Just one. And because his e‑mails highlight many of the hurdles any would‑be one‑boat paddler faces, I asked him if he'd let me use selections from our correspondence in this column, to which he graciously assented. So here goes…
All the rivers that I paddle on are flatwater — although I did ride some "whitewater" once when I paddled the Pocomoke the day after a hurricane blew through! I generally go out with a friend in a two‑person Old Town canoe that we rent at a local livery. But the boat I need is something that I could use by myself to explore the local rivers, primarily to observe wildlife. I don't mind sitting and waiting for a long time to watch waterfowl or to try and get the perfect photograph. Not all my friends are so inclined.
The biggest concern that I have on the water is a bit of weathercocking from the ever‑present winds on the Delmarva. I'm not convinced that a kayak would serve me for wildlife watching and photography any better than a canoe would. I guess I can try a smaller canoe, trading some speed for a bit of maneuverability.
Pat's requirements are fairly straightforward. As a photographer who likes to explore the places where freshwater meets salt, he needs a stable, seaworthy craft that's also nimble enough to negotiate twisty salt‑marsh channels. Luckily, he's an experienced paddler. He can keep a boat right side up even in trying conditions, and he has little trouble making it go where he wants it to go. It wasn't long before he thought he'd found the boat he was looking for, either — an Elie Sound 120 XE Angler. But the Sound 120 is a relatively new boat, and though it had just been added to the Paddling.net Buyers' Guide, there were no entries for it among the site's extensive collection of product reviews. I'd never seen a Sound 120 myself, let alone paddled one. So I was reduced to offering rather woolly general advice, beginning with an oft‑repeated mantra: If at all possible, rent or borrow any boat you're considering and take it out for a test paddle before you commit.
That's easier said than done, of course, particularly if a boat is new to the market. But it's a good idea, nonetheless. I also wondered about the availability of a spray skirt to fit the Sound 120's oversize cockpit. While spray skirts can often be a nuisance to attach and remove, particularly when you have to get at gear stored below decks, there's no denying that they're mighty comforting in breaking chop. And they also offer a welcome refuge at both ends of the paddling season. In warm weather, a spray skirt keeps your bottom half bug‑free. When the temperature falls, it shelters your nether regions from the assaults of arctic winds and freezing water. This ability to "button up" whenever conditions dictate is one of the kayak's strong points, yet not all recreational kayaks make it easy.
All that being said, however, my own favorite craft for poking about with a camera is the pack canoe. While these little boats tend to be somewhat "tippy," their versatility and light weight, coupled with the ease of entry and exit, are powerful advantages, and some — I'm thinking of my Old Town Pack here, though it's certainly not the only example — are surprisingly seaworthy, at least in experienced hands. The ability to alter the boat's trim under way, by shifting packs or changing your seating position, makes dealing with weathercocking pretty straightforward, too. (If you find yourself fighting to keep your boat's bow from heading up into the wind, just move one or more packs aft. That's easier to do in a canoe than it is in most kayaks.) Still, this ease of access and freedom of movement has a downside. In addition to their low primary stability, all pack canoes leak at the top. If you spend a lot of time crossing windswept open waters, there are better choices.
Notwithstanding this caveat, my mention of pack canoes and their virtues didn't go unnoticed. In a subsequent e‑mail, Pat had this to say:
You got me thinking hard after I read "In Praise of the Pack Canoe" and "Is a Pack Canoe the Right Canoe for You?" Maybe I should just be in the market for a new canoe instead. I'm mainly looking for something that would allow me to get close enough to wildlife so I can watch and photograph them (but not too close!), and I'm not convinced that a kayak would serve that purpose any better than a canoe. I guess I can try out a smaller canoe, trading some speed for a bit of maneuverability. I've got a lot more reading — and thinking — to do.
Which soon had me expanding on the virtues of my favorite craft. I praised the Pack's easy maneuverability and its responsiveness when driven hard with a double paddle, in addition to its ability to make a nearly silent approach to wary wildlife under the impetus of a single ash blade — at least when that blade is kept in the water through the whole of the paddle stroke. I also waxed lyrical about the ease of changing seating position and getting at my rucksack and camera gear while under way. Perhaps I waxed too lyrical. After all, as I've already noted, these virtues come at a price. My Pack is a tender beast, as are most pack canoes. This is of no consequence to an old hand, but a novice may find the boat's lively motion a little unsettling. And even old hands will be well advised to keep vulnerable camera gear in a waterproof bag or box when not in use.