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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Making Your Own Beginners' Luck

Tips for First-Time SOT Buyers

By Tamia Nelson

September 12, 2006

Let's face it, not everyone who wants to mess about on a hot day needs a hot boat. Take my friend Connie, for example. Years ago, when I was just starting college, we shared a rambling old farmhouse. At the time, Connie's idea of a perfect day on the water was paddling an inner tube languidly around a small island in a big lake, basking in the sun. I never could get her into a canoe ("Too hard to paddle!"), let alone a kayak ("Too tippy. What if it turns over?"). I tried reasoning with her at first. Then I tried an on-water demonstration. Neither approach worked. Connie was determined to have nothing to do with either canoes or kayaks. But what about a sit-on-top (SOT, for short)? That would have been an easy sell — if SOTs had been around back then, that is. Just look at all the pluses I could have pointed to. SOTs are stable. They're easy to paddle. And they're nearly unsinkable. Best of all, there's no deck to trap a panicky novice in a capsized boat. With all that going for me, how could I have missed? If Connie had ever had a boat built just for her, it would have looked a lot like a SOT.

But SOTs weren't an option then, and Connie's fears kept her out of canoes and kayaks. She wasn't alone, of course. Many would-be paddlers still think that canoes and kayaks are only for experts and risk-takers, as a brief encounter outside a local big-box store proved to me recently. I was hunkered down, examining the seal on the hatch of a recreational kayak, when I caught sight of another shopper. He wasn't interested in the kayak, though. He had eyes only for a stubby, rainbow-colored SOT. The boat was small — very small — and he wasn't, but it was obviously a case of love at first sight anyway. I didn't think that the PRICE SLASHED FOR QUICK SALE sign was the only reason, either. "Real nice boat, i'n'it?" the Happy Shopper stammered, when I stood up suddenly and he realized he wasn't alone. And before I could even grunt in agreement, he continued his unasked-for explanation. It sounded to me like he was rehearsing what he'd tell The Wife, if and when. Maybe he was. "I'd sure have fun in this boat, fishin' the lake up t' camp," he said. He paused for a second while he studied the kayak I'd been inspecting, then delivered the clincher: "Don't like them — Whaddayacall 'em? Kayaks, right? — too much, myself. You tip it over, and you better hope you don't get stuck in that little hole there." He gestured toward the boat's cockpit to make sure I got the point. I did.

Admittedly, Happy Shopper wasn't exactly a lightweight. To tell the truth, it looked to me like the rainbow SOT would be riding mighty low in the water with just him aboard, let alone a heavy tackle box and a full cooler. And maybe he could have gotten stuck in the kayak's cockpit. It didn't seem very likely to me, but I remembered worrying about exactly the same thing the first time I slid my legs under a deck, even though I wasn't in Happy Shopper's weight class. I also remembered Connie. Still, I didn't think that Happy Shopper's budding romance with the rainbow SOT would survive the honeymoon. As luck would have it, however, I'd noticed another SOT further down the line, half hidden behind a swing set and a wading pool shaped like a giant turtle. This second SOT was a longer, beamier boat in lime green, and it boasted a well for the cooler, a couple of drink holders, and a rod bracket. Best of all, it too was on sale. "You might want to look at that one, while you're looking," I ventured, pointing to the lime-green SOT. "Seems to me like it has Fishing Machine written all over it."

And I guess he agreed. When I left the store half an hour later, it was clear that Happy Shopper had closed the deal. He and a bored-looking clerk were jockeying the green boat into the bed of his pickup for the trip home. Happy Shopper wasn't bored, though. Not one bit. When I walked past him, he beamed at me like a kid on Christmas morning. It looked like the start of a beautiful partnership between man and boat. The only cloud on the horizon was The Wife. I hope she was in a generous mood.

OK. Did Happy Shopper's story have a happy ending? I think so. But suppose he'd left the store with his first choice, the little rainbow-colored SOT. What would have happened then? His story could have turned out very differently, and there'd have been one more ready-made recruit for the Bassin'-'N'-Gassin' brigade.

And what about you? Are you a Happy Shopper? Are you looking at the end-of-season sales and dreaming of a SOT? Wonderful! Few boats are more versatile. But take a hint from me: a good boat can still be the wrong boat for some folks, including folks like you. Of course, you want your story to have a happy ending, too. So here's…

The Straight Skinny on Shopping for a SOT

Call this a virtual personal shopper: ten tips on how to pick a SOT that's right for you.

  1. Learn to Paddle  SOTs are ideal boats for beginners, but they're still paddlecraft. You're the motor. You won't have much fun in a SOT if you can't make it go where you want it to. And you can't learn to paddle by reading about it or watching a video, though some preliminary reading certainly won't be wasted. Next, find an instructor. Ask around. A friend or co-worker may agree to take you out on the water for a little informal "taster." Or join a paddling club — many offer instruction for beginners. Or take a course at a school, university, or outfitter. The bottom line? However you do it, do it. There's simply no substitute for on-the-water experience under the eye of a competent mentor, and your experience doesn't start till you pick up a paddle. Even a couple of hours spent in the warm shallows of a sheltered bay with someone who knows how it's done will pay big dividends, now and in the years to come.

  2. Get Good Advice  If you're in the market for a SOT, ask a relative, friend, or co-worker who's been paddling for a while to come shopping with you. No good? You don't know any paddlers who can spare the time? Then do a little homework before you head for the nearest Big Box. is a good place to begin. Read the Reviews to get real-life paddlers' takes on the SOTs they've owned and used, and for more general advice don't neglect In the Same Boat. Good outfitters can help a lot, too. Though they usually can't compete with the Big Boxes on price, their expert staff can save you a lot more than money.

  3. Know Thyself  Romance certainly has its place, but that place isn't on the water. If you buy a boat designed for circumnavigating Greenland and then use it to fish for crappies on Golden Pond, you're probably doomed to disappointment. Ask yourself a few hard questions before you go shopping, beginning with this one: What do I want a boat for? And answer the question as honestly as you can. Will you be paddling solo most of the time, or do you have a paddling partner who's as keen as you are — and who has the same work schedule? (WARNING! Novices don't belong on the water alone. Ever. Not even on Golden Pond.) How much do you weigh? Will Fido be coming along? How about the kids? Will you be hauling fishing tackle, snorkeling gear, or a cooler? Will you be happy with a lazy paddle in sheltered waters, or do you itch to know what's over the horizon? Will you use the boat only on calm, sunny days? Or do you plan to go into harm's way, mixing it up with big waves and gusty winds? In short, keep the difference between dreams (Romance) and needs (Utility) in mind. Then buy a boat that meets your needs.

  4. Color Isn't That Important  Bright is right in heavy traffic, of course, and drab is good when you don't want to be seen, but for most of us, most of the time, other things are far more important. Like what, for instance? Like…

  5. Getting a Good Fit  No, you probably don't need to tell the sales clerk your inseam and sleeve length, but size does matter. All other things being equal, big folks need bigger boats than short, skinny paddlers. On the other hand, too big a boat can overwhelm a smaller paddler. Manufacturers' capacity ratings are a good starting point, but nothing beats knowledgeable advice. Ask your buddies. Check the Reviews. If possible, take a boat like the one you're thinking about out for a test paddle. And speaking of maiden voyages…

  6. Your PFD Is as Important as Your Boat  In fact, it probably ought to be your first purchase. You'll need a PFD if you go out in a friend's boat, for example, or if you take a used boat for a test drive, like I just suggested. And you don't get a pass simply because you're a good swimmer, not even if you're the champion of the local swim club. Dehydration and heat can sap your strength, as can cold, and rough-water capsizes can leave even the strongest swimmer feeling like she's trapped in a washing machine's spin-cycle. A wild river or surf zone is a far cry from the gym pool. So buy a comfortable, properly-fitted PFD — and then wear it. Always. "Deliverance moments" are best enjoyed in the comfort of your living room. They're no fun when they're happening to you.

  7. Buy Two Paddles  Yes, even if there's only one of you, you need two paddles. (In fact, if there'll be two of you in your SOT, you need three paddles. And four would be even better.) You don't want to find yourself up the proverbial creek, do you? Well, if you only have one paddle, it's all too easy — and once you drop that one paddle and watch helplessly as it drifts away, you're no longer a paddler, are you? You're a drifter, instead. Not good. You think it can't happen to you? You're wrong. I've found other people's paddles on just about every river trip I've been on. I hope the folks who lost them all had spares. Break-down double-bladed paddles are ideal for most SOTs, but even a stubby single-blade is better than no spare at all.

  8. Comfort Is Not a Dirty Word  You'll probably spend hours in your boat at a stretch, and padded seats and backrests leave you sitting pretty. Just be sure that the foam isn't the type that absorbs water. (Not sure? Ask.) Drip rings on double paddles reduce the amount of cold water that finds its way into your armpits, too. They're worth having. A rudder also makes sense for longer boats — and for any boat that will be used where strong crosswinds are likely. Nothing wears you out faster than fighting to keep your bow pointed the right way in a hard blow. A rudder is a great help here. And don't forget plenty of waterproof bags or cases. SOTs are wet craft, and the "watertight" seals on storage compartments don't alway live up to their claims.

  9. Chill Out  In the store, that is. You want to stay warm — but not too warm — on the water. Don't be hurried or hassled into a making a hasty, ill-considered choice. Better to miss out on a sale than buy the wrong boat. You'll be living with your decision for a long time, after all. Take a little time now to get it right. Then, once the deal is done…

  10. Take Care of Your SOT  Have a safe place to store your new boat once you get it home, and look after it on the road, too. (A hint to Happy Shopper, if he's reading this: The bed of a pickup is not the best place to transport a SOT.) Whatever you do, don't leave your new SOT out in the sun all summer, or let ice slide off the roof onto it in winter. A good boat is an investment that's bound to yield big dividends in pleasure, but only if you take steps to protect your asset. 'Nuff said?

Are you a novice paddler? Or are you an experienced boater who's thinking about buying his first SOT? Either way, this is a good time to go shopping for a sit-on-top. As Canoe Country days grow shorter and the waters cool, "End-of-Season Sale" signs are popping up like so many late-summer wildflowers. But don't let the promise of big savings lead you astray. A good boat at a good price can still be the wrong boat for you. Luckily, it's easy to avoid making big mistakes. Just be guided by the secular decalogue of shopping tips I've outlined above. With that and a little common sense, you're almost certain to find the SOT that suits you best. See you on the water!

Copyright 2006 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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