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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Curious Story of Mr. Orange and Mr. Pink, or … Going Nowhere

How to Stay on an Even Keel —
And Why You Want To

By Tamia Nelson

October 11, 2011

Once upon a time… But no, that bit comes later in my story. (I know this isn't the usual way with stories, but bear with me.) Now where was I? Oh, yes. If you visit any popular waterway during the height of the summer vacation season, you'll probably see at least one quarreling couple in a tandem canoe, paddling round and round in wide circles while they argue over whose fault it is that they can't get the thing to go straight, dammit! And if you watch long enough, you may also see a somewhat rarer sight — rarer, but not rare — a solo paddler, seated in the stern seat of another tandem boat, also going round and round, his progress (the soloist is usually a man) further enlivened by occasional wild yaws and frantic lurches, as the boat's elevated bow catches a stray gust of wind. But since the soloist has no companion to blame for his predicament, he likely blames the boat.

Anyway, such sights usually elicit a knowing grin from more experienced paddlers, though most of us refrain from laughing out loud, perhaps because we remember the many awkward scenes that punctuated our own early trips afloat. Sometimes, in fact, we offer unsolicited Good Advice, hoping to save a novice from needless frustration and embarrassment. But all too often, our well‑meant efforts are ignored — or even resented. Of course, this is usually the fate of good advice, isn't it? Still, there's a place for it, I suppose. So here's my contribution, a shortish disquisition on …

The Importance of Trim

Most of the time, attempts to set novice canoeists on the straight and narrow take the form of essays on the art of paddling, often invoking the venerable J‑stroke, or one of its numberless variations. Indeed, we ventured down that very path ourselves in an early column, imaginatively titled "Going Straight." But there's more to going straight than proper paddling technique. Even expert canoeists will sometimes find that their boat has acquired a will of its own, stubbornly swinging away from the desired course and demanding that both paddlers use all their strength to get the balky beast headed back on the right track — only to have to repeat the exercise in a minute or two, and then a minute or two later, and yet again, on and on throughout the day, without letup, until a combination of blisters and exhaustion drives them ashore, many hours (and miles) before they'd planned.

What's going wrong here? Well, the evil spirit that's taken possession of the experts' boat has a name, and that name is Poor Trim. This may sound like a character from Pilgrim's Progress, but it's not. A boat — whether canoe, kayak, or supertanker — is happiest when it's floating level, with its keel evenly and fully immersed. If this isn't the case, it's said to be out of trim, and the cause is always the same: an uneven distribution of weight. Why is this important? Because a well‑trimmed boat is easier to paddle in a straight line, and it also achieves maximum speed with minimum effort. Both are good things. So, what's the big deal, you ask? Just load your canoe evenly. What's so hard about that?

A lot, as it turns out, especially when two paddlers of different weights share a boat. As In the Same Boat reader Tony and his wife quickly discovered when they took their new canoe out for a shakedown cruise. Here's how Tony tells the tale:

We paddled a zigzag course up the lake to where the river spills in, and then we paddled back. It was lots of fun! But it was hard work keeping the canoe going where we wanted it to go. I think I have found one of the reasons. I outweigh my wife by at least two of her, so the bow of the canoe is up out of the water. Every stoke I take, no matter how slight, makes us turn. And, being up in the air a little, my wife has a hard time reaching the water with her paddle. So, I'm thinking three 35‑pound cinder blocks under her seat should do the trick to even the canoe.

OK. Tony may be relatively new to paddling, but it didn't take him long to diagnose the problem. He's already thinking about solutions, too, though I'll have more to say about this in a bit. In the meantime, I'd like to return to the story I began earlier:

Once Upon a Time …

There were two paddlers. Let's call them Mr. Orange and Mr. Pink. Mr. Orange was a big guy — a really, really BIG guy — while Mr. Pink was so skinny that he had to hold on to a tree to keep from being blown away in anything more than a gentle breeze. But despite this obvious disparity, they were good friends, and they both liked to spend time on the water. So one day, not too long ago, they rented an Old Town Tripper, one of the all‑time great all‑round tandem canoes.

Sitting Pretty

The Tripper, being the well‑designed craft that it is, floats level when no one's in it. But the two friends didn't spend much time admiring the Tripper's perfect trim. They couldn't wait to get started. So they tucked their Duluth pack full of camping gear under the middle thwart while the Tripper floated at the dock, and then they stepped aboard, one at a time. Mr. Pink, who was going to paddle in the bow, went first, followed by Mr. Orange. And now came the moment they'd dreamt about for weeks, the moment when they would paddle their canoe away from the dock and head straight for the tall pine on the far side of the lake that marked the start of the first portage. Only it didn't work out this way. The canoe didn't head straight for the tall pine — or for anywhere else in particular. And to make matters worse, Mr. Pink was sitting so high in the air that he had to lean way over to paddle, while Mr. Orange was so close to the water that every ripple threatened to soak his sleeve up to his elbow.

That's when both friends realized that real life was sometimes nothing at all like paddlers' dreams.

Out of Balance

But Mr. Pink and Mr. Orange weren't stupid. They soon understood what the problem was. So they zigzagged back to the dock, got out of the boat, and shoved the Duluth pack forward until it was right behind Mr. Pink's seat in the bow of the canoe. The Tripper no longer floated level at the dock when no one was in it, but after the two friends got back aboard, the boat was almost perfectly trimmed. Now Mr. Orange could concentrate on improving his J‑stroke, and Mr. Pink could get all of his paddle blade in the water without any danger of toppling over the gunwale. The upshot? Things were finally looking up for our heroes, though there was one person who had no reason to rejoice: the Old Woman, who now found it a lot harder to toss the bow of the canoe around with her sudden gusts. Too bad, eh?

Back in Trim

Of course, if Mr. Orange had been happier in the bow, and Mr. Pink had favored the stern, the Tripper might have trimmed better right from the start, with any remaining imbalance easily corrected by shoving the Duluth sack a few inches back. Why? Because the seats in a tandem canoe aren't symmetrically placed. The bow seat is further aft from the bow than the stern seat is forward of the stern. This means that most tandem canoes will trim better if the heavier paddler takes the bow seat. But Mr. Orange and Mr. Pink preferred to stay where they were.

And there was no reason why they couldn't. Once they'd moved the Duluth sack forward, everything was fine. Later in the day, however, after the two friends had made camp and eaten dinner, Mr. Pink figured he'd take the canoe out and see if he could tempt a lake trout with a streamer fly. (Sure, it was late in the season for a surface lure, but Mr. Pink didn't measure his success by the number of strikes he got. It was enough to be on the water.) So he settled himself on the Tripper's stern seat and headed off to try his luck. He didn't get far, though. Now he was in the position that Mr. Orange had found himself in, earlier in the day, only worse. The Tripper's bow rose high in the air, while back in the stern, the boat's gunwale was almost awash. And the canoe, which had felt so stable before, now felt dangerously tippy — so tippy that Mr. Pink began to worry about capsizing and losing his treasured Orvis rod.

Tippy Canoe?

For a moment, Mr. Pink thought about returning to camp and picking up the Duluth pack to use as a counterweight. Then he remembered that they'd emptied the pack when they set up camp, and an empty pack didn't weigh very much. But he also realized he didn't need a counterweight. All he had to do was slide off his seat and clamber forward carefully till he was kneeling just aft of midships, with his butt resting against the stern thwart. Once he'd done that, the boat was pretty well trimmed. It wasn't the most comfortable position in the world, to be sure, but he wasn't going far. And the next time he took the Tripper out alone, he figured he'd sit in the bow seat and face the stern. The boat didn't care which way he pointed it, after all. But it did care if it was well‑trimmed. And so did Mr. Pink.

Back on an Even Keep

Pretty simple, wouldn't you say? But what if Mr. Orange and Mr. Pink hadn't had a heavy Duluth pack with them when they left the dock? What then? Would a couple of light day packs have done the trick? Maybe not. In fact, that's the problem that confronted In the Same Boat reader Tony and his wife. Tony's solution is to add some "trimming ballast" in the form of concrete blocks. I hope Tony won't mind if I demur, at least in part. Concrete blocks are great in their place, but that place isn't in a canoe. Much better to use ballast that won't send your boat to the bottom if you swamp. Like what, you ask? Like water. Water is heavy, but it's not so heavy that it will sink a swamped boat. (The technically minded will put this differently: Water, they'll tell you, has neutral buoyancy. It neither sinks nor floats. It just goes with the flow.) Better yet, you don't have to lug it around with you. Just bring a few 2½‑gallon collapsible jugs to the put‑in and fill them at the water's edge. Each filled jug will weigh around 20 pounds. Use as many as you need. Now slide your trimming weights toward the light end of your boat until you're riding level. (You'll want to lash them in place in rough water, of course, but you probably won't want extra weight in your boat then, anyway.) The further away from the midship thwart you place the filled containers, the greater their effect. Call this the teeter‑totter principle. And what could be easier? One cautionary note: Invasive aquatics can hitch a ride in your water jugs, so if you won't be returning to your put‑in at day's end, take the time to empty them well back from the shoreline.

So much for the basics. But what about the fine print? Is level trim always desirable? In a word, no. Sometimes …

It's Not Such a Bad Thing to Be Unbalanced

If Mr. Orange and Mr. Pink had been paddling into a strong headwind, they might have found the going easier if their boat had been a little bow‑heavy, or "down by the bow." Why? Well, a canoe is a bit like a weather vane. The wind grabs the part that sticks up highest, like the tail on an old‑fashioned weathercock. So if you want to head straight into the teeth of a blustery wind, it doesn't hurt if the bow is down and the stern is up. Then the wind will help to push you back on course whenever you start to yaw. If the opposite is true, however — if the bow of your boat sticks up higher than the stern (if, that is, you're "down by the stern") a headwind will tend to shove you off course. Not good. On the other hand, if you're running with the wind behind you — this sometimes happens, or so I've been told — it helps if you trim your boat down by the stern. Now the wind will work with you in your effort to steer a straight course, rather than fighting against you.

Confusing? I suppose it is. But there's a simple rule of thumb: If you're battling a headwind, trim your boat down by the bow. And on those rare days when the wind is behind you, pushing you along toward your destination? You want your boat to be down by the stern. Or, to put it even more succinctly… Headwind? Then shift some weight forward, toward the head of the boat. Tailwind? Move weight back, toward the boat's tail. Of course, it's not really this simple. There are other things to take into account. A strong headwind will probably be driving big rollers your way, so you won't want your canoe to be too bow heavy — unless you like to spend your time bailing, that is. And a strong tailwind (when you're lucky enough to have one) will send equally big rollers chasing after you, so you won't want your stern too low, either. If it is, you risk being pooped by a following sea. This is not good. There's nothing like uninvited guests to dampen a party atmosphere, after all.

Bottom line? In most conditions it's best to start out trimmed level. Then, if the wind shifts or strengthens, play around with your trimming ballast a bit (moving a rucksack a foot or two, forward or back, is often enough), making small, incremental changes until you find the sweet spot where the wind works with you but no waves come aboard. It's a bit fiddly, but it's worth the trouble if it keeps the water where it belongs — out of your boat.

And what about Mr. Orange and Mr. Pink? How did their story end? Happily, of course. It was just a question of balance.

Ride the Wave

Small boats are always at the mercy of wind and wave, but while you can't do much about the waves, you can do something to loosen the wind's grip — to keep it from taking control out of your hands and making you work harder than you need to. The secret? It's all in how you trim your boat. And the good news? If you've read this far, it's a secret no longer.



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