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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Practical Paddler

Sitting Pretty — 
Ric Olsen Makes a Good Seat Even Better

By Tamia Nelson

April 27, 2010Ric Olsen's Swing Seat

Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.  I collect all sorts of recipes, but this is one of the shortest in my files. It won't help you make a killer bannock or whip up a three‑course camp meal with one pot and a steel cup, but it's a useful guide to solving many seemingly intractable problems. Actually, it's more goad than recipe. If you say these three words often enough, and loudly enough, you'll probably be inspired to try harder. It works for me. And while I don't know if Ric Olsen has ever uttered the same magic words, let alone chanted them loudly and often, I suppose he might have. Anyway, I do know he has a keen eye and an ingenious turn of mind. The results are there for all of us to see. But that's getting ahead of my tale.

Back in September I described how I'd replaced the cane seat in my little Old Town Pack canoe, and I mentioned in passing that I'd raised the seat frame to gunwale height soon after buying the boat. Why did I bother raising the seat? Well, for one thing, it's more comfortable. It gives my feet room to roam when I kneel. But that wasn't what sealed the deal. A high seat is also less likely to pin a foot in a capsize. Mind you, I'm not suggesting that Old Town was remiss in designing the Pack. I'm sure they gave plenty of thought to the height of the seat. After all, most canoeists sit on the seat when they paddle this diminutive craft, with their legs stretched out in front of them. So they're not very likely to catch a foot on the seat frame if they go over. The obvious conclusion? For many paddlers, a dropped seat makes sense. It lowers the center of mass a bit, making "tippy" canoes less tender, and therefore less likely to capsize in the first place. But I like to alternate between sitting and kneeling, and I've been known to take my Pack canoe into fairly lively rapids. I also wear wellies on flatwater. So my feet need all the room they can get. There's a bonus to having a high seat, too: On those occasions when I do sit, it gives me a better view of what lies ahead. Even a couple of inches can make a big difference here.


Of course, there's more than one way to address any problem. In fact, one paddler's problem is another's opportunity — as Ric Olsen recently proved to me. If you're a longtime reader, Ric's name may be familiar. He's a keen canoeist and a regular correspondent, and his letters often appear in "Our Readers Write." In fact, he's been "paddling along" (his signature closing) with In the Same Boat for nearly as many years as we've been writing it. Moreover, Ric has a well‑developed bump of curiosity. He's always looking for ways to make his gear work better. And it turns out that he, too, has been giving thought to ways of minimizing the risk of entrapment. His solution is far more elegant than my own rough‑and‑ready improvisation, however. But why not let Ric tell his story?

I don't own a Pack canoe, but I do have an 14‑foot‑6‑inch Mad River Guide and a 14‑foot Bell Wildfire. I paddle on my knees with a kneeling pad. To solve the foot‑entrapment problem, I remade the seats, kept them at the original heights, and hinged them in the rear. With the hinge, the seat flips up and would let me out in a capsize. This also provides a backrest when I want to sit, relax and enjoy lunch.

Safety and comfort! How can you beat that? Let's take a look at Ric's swing seat in a before‑and‑after action sequence. Here it is in the paddling position:

Swing Low

Next, a shot of the seat in full lunchtime (or bail‑out) mode:

Swing High

Now here's a close‑up, showing just how Ric put it all together:

Up Close

Nor is this the only example of Ric's ingenuity. As he noted in his letter, he's added swing seats to other boats. This is another one, also in paddling mode:

Swing Low Again

And here it is in the raised position. (NB I've flipped Ric's original photos. Despite the "evidence" of the red cord — which appears to be floating in midair in the shots above and below, and which you'll hear more about later — the law of universal gravitation hasn't been suspended in Ric's workshop.)

And High Again

And just how did Ric do it? He simply bolted metal brackets directly onto the undersides of each boat's vinyl‑covered aluminum gunwales. Then he screwed common butt hinges into wooden members that were bolted to the brackets. The hinges secure the seat frame in place, while also allowing it to pivot. (In the first example above, Ric bolted wooden blocks to the top of the bracket's lower lip. In the second, he used long hardwood stringers bolted to the underside of the brackets. Both approaches work fine.)

Ric also made an all‑wood swing seat. Here it is in paddling mode…

Wooden You Know It?

And in lunch mode. (NB I've flipped this photo, too. Gravity still rules!)

Up With Wood!

Different materials, but the same idea. And the same functionality. The swing seat — whether the brackets are made from aluminum or ash — is elegant, efficient, and effective. Ric's imagination doesn't take a holiday when he gets to the take‑out, though. He's also got some helpful hints for…

Nearly Painless Portaging

That "nearly" is no reflection on Ric, of course. There's simply no way to make portaging completely painless without the help of a wheeled cart. But portage trails are often closed to carts, perhaps because wheeled transport of any sort is thought to compromise a park's "wilderness character." And some folks simply prefer to grunt and shoulder their boats even when carts are permitted. Hard men (and hard women) get by with nothing more than an old life jacket wrapped around a thwart to take the sting out of the load, but I like to rig a paddle yoke. It doesn't take much time, and it makes a long carry less painful. Here's what my yoke looks like:

The Yoke's on Me

Ric read the article in which I described my yoke, and it turned out that he'd been doing pretty much the same thing for years. But unlike me, he wasn't content to muddle along with "good enough." He knew improvements were possible, and he made them. Here's how he describes what he's done:

I also like the paddle yoke you described, and have used that for a long time myself. In some of the pictures of my flip‑up seats, note the cord off to one side. That cord is there to allow me to tie the seat down for transit. I then tie my paddles to the thwarts that are forward and aft of the seat. I never carry my paddles loose! Poorly stored paddles usually become broken paddles. The thwart tie‑downs serve a dual role: They (1) speed up the job of rigging a carrying yoke, and (2) provide safe storage for my paddles when the yoke is not in use. I always position the paddle blades so they are resting on my shoulders when used as a yoke.

The seat cords that Ric refers to can be seen in the flipped photos above. In one case the cord is red; in another, blue and white. Ric has also drilled holes in the thwarts, through which he's threaded shock cord to create holdfasts for paddle blades. Here's one example:


The red arrows point to the stern holdfasts, and you can also see a third (slightly blurry) holdfast on the bow thwart, in the foreground of the photo. Now all Ric has to do in order to rig his portage yoke is to slip blades and shafts under the preformed loops. It takes him less than a New York minute.

Ric has found other uses for thwarts, too. All canoeists and kayakers know the value of cord. It's handy for everything from lashing paddles into the boat (for those of us without Ric's foresight) to stringing up wet wash to hanging food out of reach of foraging bears. I carry hanks of the stuff in my getaway pack, short lengths in my pockets, and coils in my repair kit, but I still find myself groping around for it when I need it most. Ric has a better idea, however:

One of the other things I have done to my thwarts and paddles is to take 3 mm accessory cord and wrap one of my thwarts with 10 feet of it. That way I don't have to carry it in my pack, and it's always there in the boat where it's most accessible and always available. I've also woven each paddle shaft with eight feet of cord to serve as a drip‑catcher, both for looks and to have it handy when I need it for some other purpose. The cord is out if the way, but always available in a flash.

Simple and good, right? As far as I'm concerned, there's no higher accolade, and Ric's many innovations all meet the test. They do the job, and they do it without needless complications. Of course, Ric's not alone. Most paddlers work as hard to improve their gear as they do to hone their technique. I've learned a lot from readers over the years, and I hope to learn still more in the future — and you can bet I'll pass it on as quickly as I can (with your permission, of course). We're all in the same boat, right? So keep your good ideas coming!

Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.  That's a time‑honored recipe for dealing with all sorts of problems. It works for the Marines. And it works for practical paddlers, too. As one of our longtime readers demonstrated when he took some good boats and made them even better by building better seats. It's a great project for any canoeist who wants to start the season sitting pretty.

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