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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Going It Alone, Together

The Case for (and Against) the Solo Boat

By Tamia Nelson

September 27, 2005

Two's company, right? But we all like a bit of a change every now and then. So if your old tandem canoe is showing its age, maybe you're thinking about replacing it with a double kayak. The choices don't stop there, of course. You don't necessarily have to be in the same boat, do you? Maybe you and your partner are wondering if it isn't time to give each other a little more space. If so, you're already weighing the merits of going it alone, even as you stay together. Sound complicated? It is, and for lifelong tandemistas it's not always an easy decision. Still, a systematic approach often helps to navigate through the shoal waters of conflicting choices. Let's begin by tallying up the…

Benefits of Going Solo

The most obvious advantage? Independence. In a solo boat, you get to do your own thing. Suppose you've been planning a weekend getaway for several months now. Then, right at the last minute, your partner learns he has to work. Yes, you could go it alone in your big tandem. It might not be much fun, however, particularly if the wind looks like blowing up into half a gale or the portages loom long. But solo boats are something else. If you have the necessary skill and judgment to travel alone in the backcountry, your weekend trip is still on. Your partner will probably envy you, but he'll get over it. He knows his turn will come, after all.

Then again, maybe neither of you ever has to work weekends, but you each like to chart your own course, at least occasionally. In a solo boat, you don't need to hold a committee meeting before changing direction. Suppose your partner likes to ride the big rollers in the middle of the lake, while you'd rather glide along near shore, listening to the birds. No problem. Or say that one of you wants to fish the pools while the other wants to play the drops. If you're in the same boat, you can't do both. At least you can't do both at the same time. But if you're going solo, it's a piece of cake. In a solo boat there's only one captain on the bridge. The rewards of command — and the burdens — are yours and yours alone. Of course, there are plenty of times when you don't want to be all by yourself, aren't there? When things go wrong, for example. No sweat. This is one case where you can eat your cake and have it, too. If you and a partner go solo together, help is always at hand, even though there are only two of you. And that can be a Very Good Thing.

Let's get back to the subject of burdens for a minute. Is life weighing you down lately? Then go solo. Everything else being equal, solo boats are lighter than their tandem counterparts. Portaging is easier, as is lifting your boat onto your car rack or storage cradle. And solo boats are (usually) shorter, too. If space is hard to come by where you live, this is good news indeed. It also helps if you think outside the box. I once used an upturned pack canoe as a coffee table. It made a pretty crappy table, I admit, but at least I always knew where it was.


OK. You know what's coming next, I'm sure. Partners go solo for many good reasons, but there are also good reasons for staying in the same boat. So before you make your decision, let's look at…

The Downside of Going It Alone

Paddling partners aren't clones. One will be stronger. The other, bolder. One may have better boat-control skills, while the other has a keener eye for finding the best line through a tricky drop. But if you're in the same boat and you've learned to work together, you're in luck. You're not just two paddlers. You're a team, and a team is always more competent than any individual member. This is particularly important when one partner is just starting out. A novice in a solo boat faces a steep learning curve, and the price for failure can be high. It's hard to have fun when you're exhausted, afraid, or frustrated. Going it alone makes all of these things more likely, and in a solo boat you're always on your own, even if your partner is only two boat-lengths away. When the going gets tough, it can be terribly lonely on the bridge. Think about it.

Most of us are social animals, too, at least some of the time, and solo boats don't lend themselves to taking company along for the ride. True, many solo boats will accommodate a passenger — a child or small adult, for instance, or a well-trained dog — but there's always a price to be paid. Your light and lively craft will now be ponderous and heavy. You may even find that paddling seems more like work than recreation. And that's not all. What if your partner is injured or becomes ill while you're deep in the backcountry? It doesn't happen often, to be sure, but when it does, it can pose a real challenge for a couple of paddlers who are traveling alone, albeit together. At best, it means leaving a lot of your gear behind. At worst, it can make a bad situation desperate. A solo boat makes a mighty poor ambulance, after all.

Speaking of the gear you may someday have to leave behind, don't forget that two solo boats will almost always cost more than a tandem of similar quality. The extra costs don't stop there, either. You'll need two of everything, from sets of float bags to repair kits. All this gear has to be muscled over the portages, too. Even if your boat weighs less than your old tandem, your total load will probably be greater. That's bound to take some of the spring out of your step on the trail. And what happens when you get back home? If you and your partner share an apartment or small house, remember that two solo boats won't necessarily be easier to store than one tandem. There really is no such thing as a free lunch.


This isn't straightforward, is it? And it's about to get worse. Going solo entails another, contingent choice:

Canoe or Kayak?

Solo boats can be either. It's a familiar dilemma. It's also one we've touched on recently, but if you're in a hurry, here's an executive summary. (WARNING! Like all summaries, this one leaves out a lot. To get the whole story, see the highlighted articles.)

Canoes are…

+ Versatile
+ Easy to load and unload
+ Easy to get into and out of
+ Simple to portage
+ Roomy
+ Cheap

- Easily swamped
- Pretty good wind vanes
- Uncomfortable (for some paddlers, at least)

While kayaks are…

+ Seaworthy
+ Comfortable (for most paddlers)
+ Sporty

- Cramped
- Hard to load and unload
- Awkward to get into and out of
- Difficult to portage
- Costly

Confused? Don't be. A solo boat is just a hole in the water. If the hole has a deck it's usually called a kayak. If it doesn't, it's called a canoe, at least on this side of the Pond. There are good and bad boats of both types, but even a bad boat is better than no boat at all. The shape and size of the hole in the water is what matters most. Everything else is secondary. Canoe or kayak? Choose what makes you and your partner happy. Or choose…

One of Each

This works for some couples, but it isn't for everyone. As the summary above suggests, canoes and kayaks have different personalities. The canoeist struggling to keep up with his kayaking partner as she powers across a windswept lake may have very good reason to curse his choice. (But wait till they come to a tall beaver dam on a small stream. Then it will be the kayaker's turn to curse.) Still, many "mixed marriages" turn out just fine. If the boat suits the paddler, that's what counts. And what if you're having trouble finding just what you want? Then there are…

Other Choices

Sit-on-tops, for one. Folding boats, for another. And don't forget inflatables. SOTs are probably at their best as beach cruisers and platforms for wildlife watching or fishing, but folders and inflatables can be perfect choices for adventurous apartment dwellers, boaters with lots of frequent-flyer miles, and amphibious paddlers. What's an "amphibious paddler"? Just someone who likes to combine the pleasures of bicycling and paddling, while leaving the melancholy faces at the gas pumps behind him, if only for the weekend.

Two's company, but everybody needs a bit of space. That's where solo boats come in. In single-seaters, you can have both solitude and society. It's not for everyone, but for "them as likes it," there's simply no better way to travel than going it alone, together.

Copyright 2005 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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