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Articles > GuideLines > Getting Started Paddling: Understanding Canoes & Kayaks All articles by: Farwell Forrest
Bending Branches

Buying a Boat

Should You Go It Alone? Solo v. Tandem

By Farwell Forrest

The Big Day has come. You're ready to buy your first boat. You've already decided on a canoe—or maybe you prefer a kayak. Now you've got another decision to make. Do you want to go it alone? Put another way, should you buy a solo boat or a tandem?

For some folks, this is an easy question to answer. If there are four of you, and if you can only afford one boat, you're going to need a "tandem" canoe—and a big tandem at that! On the other hand, if you live alone in a backcountry cabin, and if you want a boat to run steep mountain streams, you'll want a tiny creek boat. That means you'll be going solo.

Most of us, however, won't have such an easy time of it. For us, the question will be harder to answer.


Let's start with the obvious. Tandem boats are bigger. That's good if you've got a big family, or if you have a lot of gear to carry. It's bad if you often paddle alone. A skilled paddler can paddle most tandem canoes or kayaks solo—you can buy solo seats to put in many tandem boats, in fact—but there's always a price to pay. Tandem boats are designed to be paddled by two (or more) paddlers. When paddled solo, they can be sluggish and unresponsive. And when the wind rises, they can be blown around a lot.

Still, tandem boats are more versatile. It's easier for one person to paddle a tandem than it is to cram two adult paddlers into a solo pack canoe. That can be done, of course, but solo boats are best when paddled…you guessed it…solo. So, if you aren't rich enough to afford a barn full of boats, and if you've got a growing family, tandem's the only way to go.

A well-to-do couple has other choices. They can choose the "alone, together" option. Instead of one tandem boat, they can buy two solos. This can sometimes be the best of both worlds—if both paddlers are equally skillful, that is. When one partner's still learning, however, things may not work out so well. It's no fun to watch your companion disappearing over the horizon, after all. And it's not much more fun to have to stop repeatedly to let a less skilled paddler catch up.

Differences in skill and strength don't have to cause such problems, though. Patience and understanding will work wonders. But not everyone is patient—or understanding. Such folks are better off in a tandem boat. No one gets left behind in a tandem. There's also no better way to learn to paddle than to share a boat with an expert. Spend a few months in a tandem, and you'll be better able to go it alone with confidence.

Not all partnerships are made in heaven, of course. There's such a thing as too much togetherness. Most folks who've been paddling for a few years will remember at least one battling couple. If you find yourself shouting at your bowman every time you go out on the water, maybe its time to get a couple of solo boats. It's probably cheaper than counseling.

Solo boats are ideal for spur-of-the-moment trips, too. They're lighter than tandem boats made of comparable materials—easier to throw on the rack for a quick run down to the local park when a client doesn't keep an appointment, or when a wholesaler calls to tell you this week's delivery won't be coming until tomorrow. That's a good thing if your work doesn't leave you much time for paddling. Just hang a "Gone Fishing" sign on the door and head for the water. For many of us, such opportunities are our only chances to get out.

Expedition paddlers, on the other hand will probably opt for tandems. Paddling hour after hour in all weathers takes its toll. It's good to be able to ease up and let your partner carry the load for a while. Just be sure to return the favor. Anglers and hunters, too, often prefer to pair up. On a river, you can take turns being "guide" and "sport." That way, each person gets to concentrate on the rise (and his backcast), while his partner handles the boat.

Paddlers who really plan to venture "off the map" have another reason to go tandem, even in a kayak. Injuries happen to careful people. Healthy folks get sick. If you're in a solo boat and you're suddenly incapacitated, you're in a world of hurt. At best you'll have to be towed. At worst, you'll have to lay up in camp and wait for help to come to you. On the other hand, if you're in a tandem, you can go along for the ride while your partner paddles.

Solo or tandem? It's not as simple a question as it seems. But it's not impossible, either. Ask yourself what you want your boat to do. Then make your choice. And remember—you may need both. 'Nuff said.

Copyright © 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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