Customizing Your Canoe
CUSTOMIZING YOUR CANOE
In my Paddling Prince Edward Island, there is section entitled “Coping With the Wind” that discusses the use of outrigger pontoons and leeboards. Both of these clamp-on units add to paddling safety and stability in rough chop and wind. In this web-site, I will expand the discussion of customizing your canoe to enable you to use your canoe for rowing, double-blade paddling, motoring and sailing.
Every body of water is unique. It has its own contour lines and temperament, just as we have our own unique fingerprints. Being aware of this is important if we are going to enjoy what the water offers and do it safely. There is more to our planning, however, than just reading maps, studying the wind, the tides, and the weather, important as these practices are. One can actually customize the canoe itself in order to utilize all of its potential. There is no other vessel that is as versatile as the canoe. Because of its lightweight, it can be transported easily to a variety of bodies of water. Its open design makes it very flexible and easy to use. It carries passengers, pets, camping gear, and it even serves as a freighter that can transport driftwood back to the campsite for cooking and a night’s fire. Modified, it can be a safe platform from which to bird watch, photograph, and fish. I push my canoe to its design limits: I paddle it, row it, double-blade paddle it, pole it, sail it, and motor it. Each activity and purpose demands a different customization.
With a little imagination, some trial and error inventiveness, a few simple tools, and a willingness to tinker, you can customize your canoe to perform all your needs and desires. Of course, if inventing is not of interest, or time is a factor, you can purchase items to customize your canoe. Here are the ways I have adapted my canoes for over fifty years.
Again, for a discussion of the use of outrigger pontoons, please refer Paddling Prince Edward Island.
ROWING YOUR CANOE
There is no greater joy than the surge and smoothness of rowing a canoe. The two oars more than equal the thrust of two paddlers in the traditional tandem position. The oars provide power and control and allow you to turn or stop on a dime. The canoe’s slim lines and balanced lightness react readily to each pull of the oars. Sitting low on a rowing seat creates a more effective center of gravity, which in turn increases stability. In a rowing posture, I would not hesitate to venture into any kind of water condition on the Island, and in addition, a rowing canoe can even keep up with a coastal kayak. I am certain that if more canoeists tried this method of propelling their craft, canoe rowing would become extremely popular. Pulling oars maximizes the muscles of the back, shoulders, arms, and abdomen. In a real sense, every canoe rowed becomes an Adirondack guide boat. When you think about it, there had to be a very good reason why the old trappers and guides in the Adirondacks developed a craft that was rowed rather than paddled in the conventional sense. Those long and often windy lakes demanded an efficient design. The guide boat, after all, was their principal mode of transportation. How can we utilize the rowing capability of the canoe? There are a few design modifications that have to be made before rowing can be an easy and effective option. The center thwart-yoke of most canoes, frequently, needs to be removed to accommodate a center rowing position. Many canoeists are leery about removing this center thwart for fear that the structural integrity of the canoe will be sacrificed. There is no worry here. If you have a concern created by the large open area in the canoe with no lateral support, then do as I did with my Wenonah Kevlar 16’. I added an extra thwart purchased from the manufacturer. I placed the thwart towards the bow. Riveting into the aluminum gunwales was a simple matter with the help of an electric drill and a rivet gun. For most canoes, however, the need to add an extra thwart is not necessary. For example, I also own a White fiber glass 16’ with hefty vinyl gunwales and no thwarts. I remove the center thwart with no maleffects. Actually, the gunwales of any canoe are sturdy enough to keep the integrity of the design assured. The removing of the center thwart to allow for the positioning of the center seat was easily accomplished by purchasing a removable thwart kit from the Hidden River Yoke Shop of West Salem, Wisconsin (E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, or tel.  786-4660).
The kit contains aluminum brackets and a clever hitch pin arrangement that allows the thwart to be installed when desired, for example, when the canoe is to be transported by utilizing the carrying yoke.
Another way to create a removable carrying yoke is to utilize a clamp-on carrying yoke, which can be purchased through Hidden River Yoke Shop, Piragis Northwoods Company, LLBean, or many other retailers. In fact, the removable yokes are also designed for kayaks, which eliminates the hassle of carrying a kayak. In addition, you can simply replace the bolts and nuts of the stock yoke and replace them with removable bolts and wing or handle nuts. In actuality, even if you remove the center yoke, you will soon replace the structural stiffening by the placement of the rowing thwart.
There are several different possibilities for a rowing seat. I prefer the fixed rowing seat that was so popular around the 1890’s that is made by Shaw and Tenney of Orano, Maine (www.shawandtenney.com). This adjustable seat allows the rower to achieve maximum comfort and efficiency. I attached my Eagle Creek camping chair to the seat and tied the sides. Using the rowing seat accomplishes two important requirements: one, the foot rests and the seat’s back present the resistance or torque needed to row most effectively, and two, greater comfort is achieved by simply leaning back in the seat and relaxing. This removable seat often is taken from the canoe and used as a camp chair on some deserted barrier beach.
Another seat that works very well is manufactured by Old Town Canoes. It is made of a polyurethane material that is strong, light, and washable. It snaps over the gunwales and can be removed easily or moved for individual positioning. Another way to fashion a rowing seat is rather elementary, though effective. I have taken a boat cushion with the Eagle Creek seat strapped onto it and placed it on the canoe floor. I tie ropes through the straps of the back- rest to a forward thwart in order to create the torque position of comfort.
For oars, I love my Shaw and Tinney seven foot, leathered spruce oars. I designed and built an oarlock system that is very effective. It extends the oarlocks out beyond the gunwales by eight inches on both sides.
The longer the oar, the greater the arc of pulling in the water, and thus the more powerful the stroke, and ultimately, the less work that has to be exerted to propel the craft. The photograph of the oarlock brace/thwart invites its easy replication. The oak frame I used is 3½” wide and ¾” thick. The aluminum right angle braces are 2 1/2” by 2 1/2”. The bolts are stainless steel and the four fasteners that connect the bottom horizontal brace with the vertical side pieces are nylon wing nuts with brass washers and lock nuts for easy disassembly when packing the car for long trips. I cut the traditional bronze sockets to fit snuggly against the right angle braces. There are several different kinds of oar locks, but I prefer the solid round ones to the horns. Bolts that hold the sockets to the right angle brace are counter-sunk and filed flat because the flat outer surface of the oar lock brace will also accommodate leeboards for sailing or paddling. The top wooden pieces that extend beyond the gunwales are routed out to accept the adjustable gunwale clamps that can be moved in or out to accommodate various beam widths within your canoes. These gunwale clamps came from an old Old Town leeboard sailing unit. The tightening handles also came from a leeboard unit made by Grumann, years ago. Instead of using plain stainless bolts for the clamp, I use stainless steel eye bolts so that I can hang a small bag of parts with a small carabineer. The gunwale clamp units can be purchased from Hidden River Oak Shop and Bell Canoes (www.bellcanoe.com). If you do not want to build your rowing thwart unit, you can purchase a well-designed one from Spring Creek Outfitters (www.canoegear.com) or Piragis North Woods Company (www.pirigis.com).
The only disadvantage to rowing is that you are facing backwards. Some people enjoy this retrospective perspective, but others will constantly turn half way around to see where they are going. I now use two bicycle side view mirrors, which work flawlessly. The above photograph shows how the bicycle bar-end mirrors are placed into small PVC pipes and then tightened and adjusted for a clear view beyond the bow. In addition, there are head set side-view mirrors that shell rowers use, and I imagine that the mirrors that attach to glasses for bicyclists could also work.
What should be the length of the oars to be used in your canoe? That depends on the width of your canoe and/or the width of the rowing thwart/unit you develop. Shaw and Tenney have provided a mathematical equation to determine the correct length of oars. Here‘s how to determine your oar length. First, measure between the two oar locks. Now add two inches to this number and multiply by 25. Now divide this number by 7. The answer in inches will be transposed into feet, and that will be the correct length of oar for your canoe. Let’s try this formula out on my rig. The measurement between my extended oarlocks is 44”. I divide that in half, 22”, and add two inches, 24”. I now multiply 24 by 25, which is 600”. I now divide 600 by 7. The answer is 85.7”. 85” is approximately seven feet. The oars I use are seven feet long.
In addition to the oars, I carry a traditional paddle with me in order negotiate narrow streams or low bridges and over-hanging branches.
There you have it. Canoe rowing is a favorite means of skimming across the water in all kinds of water conditions. The rhythmic swaying and pulling of the oars is meditative. The “feathering” of the oars (turning the blades to a horizontal plane in the recovery stage after the pull) is a graceful indicator that you are an accomplished oarsman. If your oars have leathers protecting them from the wear against the bronze oar locks, you will be known a member of the salty fraternity of rowers, no matter if you are a man or woman.
Double blade paddling my canoe is also ultimate joy. Because you are paddling from both sides of the canoe, you do not constantly have to correct your direction as you do with a single blade paddle. In addition, paddling with a double blade is like having another paddler on board. As every canoeist knows, solo paddling in a stiff lateral breeze is not easy, and sometimes, downright discouraging, even if you know how to use the wind so you do not have to correct your stroke. Double blade paddling allows me to go out alone even in the stiffest winds. The double-bladed canoe paddle was very popular in the late 1800’s. Old photographs and drawings of canoeing often reveal these double blades in action. I recently saw an 1880’s article from Harper’s Magazine that portrayed canoe racers, all of whom were using double-bladed paddles. The double-bladed canoe paddle differs from the kayak paddle essentially in its longer length. It comes apart and its blade angles can be adjusted to individual preference. When double-blade paddling, I use my rowing seat without the oarlock thwart. An advantage of double-blading is that you are facing forward for full visibility. I also keep a single paddle in the canoe for negotiating narrow streams or low clearances like a bridge or low branches. My double-blade, spoon paddles are so beautiful that I store them in a corner of my study during the winter months so that I can stroke them from time to time.
Double-blading should not be a vigorous pulling of one blade and then the other. If you hold your paddle too high, you will soon experience shoulder fatigue. Drop your paddle to a comfortable height, and as you pull on one blade, push forward on the opposite one. With the blades adjusted in opposing angles, the forward moving blade will naturally feather and slice through the air. If you do not off-set the angles of the blades, you will be creating wind resistance, which will tire you immensely. Kayakers have long known the efficiency of the double-bladed paddle; it high time that canoeists rediscover this traditional paddling advantage.
The use of leeboards is extremely effective to counter the power of the wind. The boards slow the sideward drift that is so prevalent with canoes, especially if they are light. In addition, the leeboards also aid in straight tracking. If you need to quickly turn about, raise the boards, though I have been experimenting with keeping the windward board down and using it as a pivot, similar to sailing with a dagger board, or skiing around a planted ski pole. If you are fishing from a canoe, you will appreciate how the leeboards serve as a brake to slow the sideway drifting away from your desired location.
The leeboards pictured here, manufactured by Spring Creek, simply clamp onto the gunwales. I have used them very successfully. I have also used my wooden sailing leeboards on my rowing thwart to full advantage.
The canoe is a work horse. It can be customized easily and inexpensively to produce more efficient and enjoyable experiences on the water. Coming soon will be discussions of motoring and sailing your canoe.
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