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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Track of the Pack Our Readers Write

It's (Mostly) About the Boat

May 31, 2011

What a difference a few weeks can make! Not long ago, many Canoe Country rivers were surging over their banks, flooding homes and washing out bridges. But now the waters have begun to retreat — in many places, at least — and the turbulent spring is subsiding tentatively toward summer. The signs are everywhere. Hills have turned from brown to green, seemingly overnight, and forests resound with the staccato notes of woodpeckers, while frogs trill or rasp or chirp in roadside marshes, and loons hail one another across wide bays. Somer truly is icumen in, even in places where no cuckoo ever sings.

The last "Our Readers Write" was published only two months ago, but our postbag is still filled to the bursting point, with much of the mail inspired by Tamia's article on choosing just one boat from among the bewildering profusion of canoes, kayaks, and sit‑on‑tops. So you could say that this month's "Readers Write" is (almost) all about the boat. But what better topic is there? None that we know of. And that being the case, why not sit back, read on, and enjoy? We have. Now it's your turn.

  —  Tamia Nelson and Farwell Forrest, In the Same Boat

An Artful Choice

The column that got things rolling, entitled "Three‑Way Split: Canoe, Kayak, or Sit‑on‑Top?" grew out of a question posed by reader Pat McKay. Pat was looking for one boat for all the waters he frequents, a boat that could also double as a platform for wildlife‑watching and photography. This hit home with several readers who, like Pat, delight in combining paddling with picture‑making. Louise Francke put it this way:

Dear Tamia,

Read your article with great interest since I am an artist, photographer, and bird‑watcher. Due to three new joints, I felt a little uncomfortable in my Wilderness Systems Sealution Kevlar kayak. I started doing research, knowing that for me a sit‑on‑top was probably best, because it would allow me to alter my body positions, among other things. I also knew that, due to my age and the lack of upper‑body strength in my kayaking buddies, I needed a boat I could load myself and unload from a high Honda Element with little help. I also wanted to be able to keep up with anyone who might be joining me while borrowing my Sealution on those exercise paddles.

I bought a Current Designs Kestrel, though if I had been able to try it before buying, I might not have purchased it, even though I had done enough research to decide this was the boat for me. I'm an intermediate paddler, and it seemed tippy to me until I went out with a fellow club member who was into SOTs. He taught me about keeping my body basically inside the cockpit, adjusting the foot pegs, ballasting with jugs of water if you aren't loaded with art supplies, and securing against a shifting load with cheap inflatable snorkeling PFDs. If he hadn't volunteered to go out with me, I wouldn't feel as comfortable in my SOT! People need encouragement when they get up in age and have to make adjustments to an older, less nimble body with new joints.

Ten times on the water with a new set of rules and I finally felt at home with my boat. She handles extremely well, and if needed I could add a rudder, but I don't think I'll want it. We paddle to secluded lake areas, and there we paint the day away, have a picnic, and then paddle home before dinner. It's a dream on the water. Given more time, the SOT might equal my Sealution in my estimation. One unforgiving thing about this extremely well‑designed SOT is that wet re‑entries are hard on the hips because the inside edges are sharp. I haven't capsized unintentionally, but I'm usually within a mile of shore and I can swim that distance!

I should add that I paddle with a Lumpy "Greenland‑style" paddle which isn't as stressful on the shoulders. It is all in the fine‑tuning, learning what you can and can't do by experimentation. I am determined to paddle as long as I can and no matter what it takes. Paddling is a Zen experience for me, and I will not give it up!

Louise Francke

• • •

Tamia replies:

Right on, Louise! While I often say that no amount of research can substitute for a test paddle, your experience proves that a test drive is not the be‑all and end‑all. First impressions can mislead. Luckily, a knowledgeable friend is a pearl of great price, and he (or she) can be a big help in deciding whether you'll "grow into" a boat over time. I'm glad the Kestrel is working out.

An Old Boat, but a Good One

Dear Tamia,

I have pondered this issue for the past three years. I am a senior citizen with somewhat limited flexibility. You are correct, in my opinion, about the pack canoe. I have convinced myself that even the SOT is not as friendly when one is trying to get out/off of the craft. I tend to think there are many shores that lend themselves to being able to hold the gunwales while traversing through the craft to that dry land. Always having to step into the water to depart was the greatest negative to all other boats.

My choice was finalized when an antique became available: an Old Town, 12‑foot solo fiberglass canoe. It is light, will hold its shape when loaded and afloat, and it is beautiful. It is my dream come true.

Thanks for your articles.


• • •

Tamia replies:

Sounds like you've acquired an early version of Old Town's little Pack canoe, C.D. And while the Pack isn't for everyone, I think it's a great boat. But I'd add a cautionary note: While it's tempting to embark and disembark by bridging a canoe — grounding the stern and stepping in right from the shore, then working your way forward and shoving off with your paddle after you've settled down on the seat — this can be mighty hard on any boat, and fiberglass craft (along with wood‑and‑canvas canoes) are particularly vulnerable to damage. Sometimes a wet‑footed entry is the only way, but in many places I've had good luck floating my Pack parallel to the shore in a few inches of water and then side‑stepping in while holding the gunwales for balance. My feet stay dry, and I don't grind divots out of the boat's hull in the process. You might want to experiment with this approach. Good luck!

Kayaks are Great, but …

Dear Tamia,

In reference to "Three‑Way Split": I have used my kayak for creature‑spotting and photography for many years, and the only things I have found a problem with it are:

  1. Getting in and out
  2. Getting in and out when crossing a low dam, beaver dam, or a fallen tree.

I paddle sea kayaks because I may be on the ocean with it, or a river, or any lake, but I still cannot cross over low objects because I cannot get out with my bow on the object, and usually cannot get out ON the object, either. With a canoe, that can be a possibility, but many of the features I prefer would not be possible with a canoe.


• • •

Tamia replies:

I hear you, Connie. No boat does everything well, and long kayaks can prove awkward beasts on narrow waterways and around beaver dams. But practice makes perfect, and my earlier column on "Doing the Beaver Dam Shuffle" has a few ideas for making a hard job somewhat easier. Hope it helps.

Paddling to a Different Drummer —
A Craftsman's Approach to Boat Selection

I do not think there is a perfect boat, Tamia, but instead, I think there is a boat that is up to most or a large majority of the uses one has for it. Then it is up to the person to perfect his or her skills to make it perform in the desired manner for the captain. We are in a society that develops things to make the person better, and we have forgotten how to take the plain item and develop our skills to it, to make IT perform. This takes time and most people are not willing to take that kind of time, or make that commitment, in this instant society. I like my 14‑foot–6‑inch Mad River Guide. It is Royalex and holds up to all of the pounding I have to offer. It may not be perfect, but I am not sure I know what "perfect" looks like.

The story about Gene Krupa, the drummer, is that some bandleader was auditioning drummers for his band. When Krupa's turn came to get on stage and play the drums, he took his sticks and sat down on the stage floor and tapped out his beat. The rest is history. That is what I mean by developing one's skills to a honed, keen edge. With time and practice one can go from a paddler to a craftsman. As a paddler I want to be a craftsmen. The better I paddle, the more time I have to spend on getting that photo or sketching, not having to worry about the canoe and how to get it there.

Ric Olsen

• • •

Tamia replies:

Excellent points, Ric. Skillful boat‑handling can overcome many design shortcomings, and a good paddler can take most boats almost anywhere. That said, no boat is a true all‑rounder, as Connie's letter illustrates. So, even if there's no such thing as a "perfect" boat — and I'm with you here; I don't think there is — there are good and bad boats for every purpose. And as you note, the goal is to get a boat that suits the sort of paddling you like to do most. It's that easy. Or that hard.

A (Mostly) SOTisfied Customer

Hi, Tamia!

I just finished your piece on what to recommend for the different activities, a canoe or a kayak. I was also interested to read your thoughts on SOTs. I am a former university scow sailor, who migrated over to add kayaking about three years ago. My kayak of choice was a SOT, an Ocean Kayak Peekaboo. The kayak does have a transparent panel in the bottom for underwater viewing. I have not had the kayak in conditions where such viewing has been possible, but that may happen.

I am generally an inland lake kayaker. I am a photographer, wildlife observer, and clean‑up person. By that I mean that I routinely take my kayak (I call him "Limey") to do shoreline cleanup. Having a SOT makes it very easy to haul branches, refuse, and whatever other detritus that I find along my lake's shoreline, and along the shoreline of the channel on the backside of our property. Limey is self‑bailing, so I usually don't take on a lot of water. I also bought a small plastic kid's sled (it floats!) and use that as my "kayak trailer."

I did find this past summer on a park‑to‑park paddle between Oshkosh and Menasha, Wisconsin, that Limey was not the best choice for the eight‑mile trip. Horrific wind and waves made the trip very challenging, and we definitely wallowed through the water. I am entering the sweepstakes as often as I can, hoping to win a more aerodynamically appropriate kayak for those sort of conditions. There's just not enough time for all the watercraft one could enjoy!

Best wishes,
Valerie Stabenow

• • •

Tamia replies:

You've opened my eyes, Valerie. I'm no stranger to using a trailer with my bike — in fact, a trailer‑hauled inflatable figures prominently in my "amphibious" jaunts — but until today, I'd never thought to haul a trailer with a boat. What a great idea for clean‑up trips in sheltered waters!

You letter illustrates another point, too, one that other readers have touched on, but which warrants repetition nonetheless. No matter how good a boat is, it won't do everything well. The trick is to strike the best compromise you can. Or buy a second boat, of course…

A Guide for a Photographer

Dear Tamia,

I do all of the things mentioned in the article. My solution was the Old Town Guide 119 (like the Old Town Discovery 119, except in camo for sneaking up on the wildlife). It is very much like your Old Town Pack. I did modify the seat to improve stability and keep me in it. (I slid right off the front of the plastic stock seat.) I also bought some sandbags at a local hardware store and put about 20 pounds of sand in each for ballast. Got the longest double paddle I could find (I carry a single, also), and it's much better. More stable, faster, better tracking.

Still, it's a good idea to carry your camera in a waterproof bag…

Larry Booth

• • •

Tamia replies:

We're of a mind, Larry. Moveable "trimming" ballast is a first‑rate idea. I've sometimes used a couple of filled 2½‑gallon water sacks for just this purpose. (Lighter than your sand ballast, I know, but water ballast is always easy to come by — and the same sacks, once emptied of water and filled with air, double as pillows or float bags.) And of course I'm a great believer in protecting any camera with a waterproof bag or box.

Of Deck Lines, SOTs, and SINKs

Dear Tamia,

Your article on the trio of paddle boats was mostly good and accurate. For Pat's needs I would have recommended a Pack canoe.

However, there is one statement that I disagree with totally and consider to be a massive error: "Furthermore, unless a SOT is outfitted with deck lines, it can prove hard to right when overturned, thereby complicating the already difficult task of self‑rescue."

I have practiced self‑rescue in deep‑water situations with all three types of boats — canoes, sit‑in kayaks (SINKs), and SOTs. My SOT 'yaks have been by far the easiest to right and reboard. Keep in mind that my left shoulder joint works less than the best and does get in the way at times. Deck lines are a liability, not an asset, in turning over a SOT, even though most SOTs have some deck lines.

From my in‑the‑water experience, the canoes have been the most difficult to get right side up, with SINKs next and SOTs the easiest. As far as getting back on board, the hardest was the SINK, then the canoe, and the SOT. The last was very easy to re‑board. A canoe or SINK is a bear to get bailed out enough to paddle decently if there is any wave action to speak of. A SOT never needs bailing out. To get on a SOT you just float up to it at 90 degrees to the boat, reach over to the opposite side and drag it under your stomach, then roll over, sit up and paddle. It took me nearly thirty seconds the first time I had to do it with a SOT. Now it is a lot faster to do.

As far as using SOTs for other things like photography, sightseeing, etc., I feel that a SINK or canoe does everything better until you have water washing on board. When you take a SOT out on the water, you should expect a good chance of getting any articles aboard wet from wave splashes. SOTs are definitely heavier than the other two choices. As for me, I consider the SOT style to be the least versatile of the three.

Keep up the articles, I love the way you write.

Barney Ward
Old Fat Man Adventures

• • •

Tamia replied:

Interesting point, Barney, though I'm not sure that all owners of hard‑shell kayaks will welcome the "SINK" appellation. But then "SOT" doesn't have the happiest of connotations, either, does it?

As your letter makes clear, the utility of deck lines is a subject of some controversy, with perimeter lines being probably the most controversial of all. I'd agree that thin, loose, poorly anchored stuff is worse than useless, as you suggest — and a snagging hazard, to boot. But ¼‑inch (6 mm) line, taut and well‑anchored, can make the business of righting and re‑entering a boat easier. At least that's been my experience. Moreover, I've found some SOTs to be slippery beasts, with too few good handholds and too many sharp edges. And while I suspect I've just been unlucky here — though I note that Louise found sharp edges to be a problem on an otherwise admirable boat — I can't say I've ever experienced comparable difficulties in righting a swamped canoe or hard‑shell kayak. On the other hand, re‑entering and bailing any wallowing, waterlogged craft can be a trial. (In fact, I find re‑entering a swamped kayak without assistance all but impossible.) Of course, that's what flotation is for: to displace water and make re‑entry and bailing easier. It works. I've emptied swamped (but flotation‑filled) canoes in mid‑river, while "parked" in a big, bouncing eddy. It's easier with two paddlers in the boat, of course.

To return for a moment to the subject of re‑entering a swamped hard‑shell kayak: There's one nifty trick that makes the impossible possible, if not quite practicable. It involves sliding back into the flooded cockpit — that's a bit of gymnastic exercise in its own right! — fitting your spray skirt into place, and then rolling back up and pumping ship. With enough practice, along with ample flotation and a good integral bilge pump, this works a treat in a heated pool or placid farm pond. Well, it does for some folks, anyway. Farwell got so he could do it with some degree of confidence in sheltered waters, but neither of us has ever had occasion to attempt it in a hard chance on a choppy seaway. And I'm not unhappy about that, either.

• • •

Barney wrote back later, describing his technique for righting an overturned SOT in more detail:

If the SOT is upside down, you reach under it and grab the opposite side handle, then pull the boat to you, and it flips right side up and ready for entry. Even with my canoe and SINK stuffed with flotation, the boats did not have enough freeboard to keep up with the small waves (a minimum height of one foot or so) that are ever‑present on Texas lakes and bays. The boats rode upright just fine, but still were very hard to get bailed out. The hand pump I had purchased worked very well with a big blast for every stroke. I personally am a major fan of spray decks for the areas I frequent. When bailing out in a lake or bay, the spray deck helps tremendously for keeping the wave splashes out of the interior.

I wonder if the big difference in our home waters comes into this discussion. I have never played on a small river or moving stream. The smallest river I have been on was the Columbia up in Washington, and it was wider than a lot of Laguna Madre down here on the coast.

To which Tamia then replied:

I couldn't agree more, Barney. Righting and bailing a boat in open water is a very different affair than dealing with a swamped canoe or kayak in a rapids, where there's (almost) always the option of beaching the boat. Which is why sea kayakers seldom venture out alone. A companion — or better yet, two companions — can be a great help when you get into trouble on big water, though even with a couple of strong, well‑drilled helpers, an assisted deep‑water rescue will prove a lot more difficult in a seaway than it was when practiced in a heated, Olympic‑sized pool, where such rescues are often rehearsed. Which is why kayakers place such stock in perfecting their rolls, of course. As you know, I'm sure.

In any event, you've given me food for thought, Barney — and a welcome excuse to tackle a few total immersion exercises this summer, when the temperature in our northern lakes finally struggles above the 60‑degree mark. The things we do in order to have too much fun, eh?

Little Boat on a (Very) Big River

Hi, Tamia!

I thought I'd share my account of this year's excursion, when I repeated my 340‑mile solo river trip down the Missouri River from Leavenworth to Hermann, Missouri, in my Old Town Pack canoe.

Tyler Higgins

• • •

Tamia replies:

Your journey was certainly a remarkable one, Tyler, both for the prodigious distances covered ("Nearly 70 miles, not at all a bad first day…") and for your choice of craft, Old Town's diminutive Pack canoe. Thanks for inviting us along!

NB Readers can follow "Tyler Higgins' Missouri River Odyssey" by clicking on the highlighted title. I guarantee that you won't be sorry you did.


Little Boat, Big Water


It looks like Tyler gets the last word, and it's good to end with a gentle reminder that we shouldn't get too caught up in technical matters. In truth, it isn't all about the boat. It's about the journey. As Tyler's story demonstrates.

Still, if you're scratching your head over the choice of craft, you've come to the right place. is an unequalled resource for anyone who's in the market for a canoe, kayak, SOT, or inflatable. And it's the site's many readers and contributors who've made it what it is. Every one of us is in your debt.

Hope you enjoy the coming season. But don't forget to drop us a line now and then. After all, it's "Our Readers Write"!

A little fine print: Although we often ask, just to be sure, we assume that it's OK to reprint any letter you send us, unless you tell us otherwise. (Just put "Not for Publication" at the head of your letter. That's all it takes.) We will never put your e‑mail address online unless you specifically ask us to, however. We also edit letters occasionally for length or clarity, and we add links to articles or other resources wherever and whenever appropriate.

Copyright © 2011 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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