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Gotcha Covered! Rough Water Ahead

More on the Pros and Cons of Spray Covers

By Tamia Nelson
tamia@paddling.net

July 27, 2010

Open canoes have many advantages, but they all share one shortcoming. There's a gaping hole in the top just waiting to swallow the next big breaker, and a single wave — if it's big enough — can swamp a canoe in a hurry. One minute you're paddling. And the next? It's swim time. That doesn't mean canoes can't venture beyond Golden Pond, of course. Canoeists have been keeping their heads above rough waters for as long as there've been canoes to paddle. What's their secret? Skill, for one thing. Caution, for another. And then there's Plan B: adding extra flotation for the times when skill and caution simply aren't enough. The recipe is pretty straightforward. If you cram securely tethered float bags into every empty corner of a canoe, you'll have an (almost) unsinkable craft. A flotation‑filled canoe is nearly impossible to swamp, and with enough practice you can even roll it back up on the rare occasions when it does go over.

But there's another way to address the problem cause by the canoe's too‑open embrace of stray waves: just plug the hole. Put a fabric cover on your canoe, in other words, thereby transforming it into a decked boat. As readers of my earlier article on this subject may remember, I'm not exactly a big fan of this approach. Still, I've never claimed to have the last word on the matter (or any other, come to that), and sure enough, while some readers cheered me on, others wrote in to set me straight. Now it's their turn to be heard. But first, let's take a quick look at the letter that started it all.

To Cover Up or Not? That Is the Question

Reader Jack Strebel was heading to Alaska, where the water runs swift and cold. That got him thinking:

Love your articles. I am looking for information that deals with decking a canoe to keep water out. I remember years ago seeing canoes that had snaps and/or tie‑downs for removable decks/covers on canoes. I would like to run a river in Alaska, solo, that goes through a canyon (Kenai River Canyon) with a long stretch of large choppy waves due to the narrowing of the river. After scouting it in a drift boat it seems unlikely that I can make it thru this section without filling up my canoe, a 16‑foot Mad River Freedom (carrying flotation), with water. I need to make it all the way through, as there is heavy brush and no place to eddy out. It seems to me the best way to stay dry and to maintain control would be to deck the canoe somehow. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

This got me thinking. The result was the column I mentioned above, but if you're in a hurry, here's the executive summary: I've never warmed to the idea of canoe covers. They're fussy to attach and remove, they complicate the business of bailing (no deck keeps all the water out), and — when push really comes to shove, and the cover collapses under the weight of hundreds of pounds of water — there's always the risk of entanglement. I simply don't fancy my chances if I have to swim with 16 feet of nylon wrapped around my legs. That said, my firsthand experience with fabric decks is limited to a couple of not very testing outings. So I invited more knowledgeable readers to drop me a line. They did.

Not For Me, Thanks… But Don't Forget the Wind and the Rain

And some, like Dan, shared my misgivings:

I'm glad you took the time to bring this topic up for us to consider by sharing your thoughts with reader Jack Strebel. I've always thought that those who cover their canoes with custom‑fitted fabric were doing it for reasons other than to keep a wave or splash from washing into the canoe, because the boat would be outfitted with as many float bags as one can get into a canoe around dry bags holding gear. So I assumed fabric covers were for tripping purposes where you didn't want long‑duration rain and weather to become a major issue (as in "let's stop and wait it out on shore"), and where a fabric cover could keep out the rains as much as possible. I've also heard from a number of others who use them and say that the canoe covers are a big help in strong wind.

I've never paddled serious whitewater, partially because I've never been geared for it with a proper canoe, float bags, helmet, [wet]suit and other required gear. But giving thought now about the possible use of a fabric canoe cover to keep the water water out, and hearing your personal thoughts on the matter, I've decided I will never be using a fabric canoe cover should I ever be of a mind to get into the bigger stuff.

I would expect to be getting pretty wet in an open canoe in rough water (outfitted properly, of course), but the last thing I would want is to trap water inside that would be more difficult to get out than if I did not have a fabric deck. Whitewater has its own increased risk, and the fabric cover sure sounds like it could quickly multiply those risks.

Well, as always, thanks for bringing an important topic to the table for all of us to consider, especially for those of us like me who might not have given much thought to them in the past.

On the Other Hand, There's the Cold to Think About

OK. It seems like Dan and I are on the same wavelength, but his letter raises two points I didn't consider in my earlier column: wind resistance and rain‑flooded bilges. I deal with the slosh from day‑long rains by bailing, and I cope with headwinds — is there any other kind of wind? — by paddling harder, but I'd be the first to admit that these "solutions" leave much to be desired. Could a cover be the answer? Maybe so. And then there's the problem of cold, which Canadian paddler Rob Brown raised:

Like your reader, I too own a Mad River Freedom, but I live in Alberta. The water is cold and the rivers can be rough here in the mountain areas, so I use a deck quite a bit, especially when paddling solo.

Clearly, my fear of finding myself wrapped in a 16‑foot winding sheet isn't shared by all rough‑water paddlers. And there's no doubt that a fabric deck and spray skirt can do a lot to blunt the cutting edge of a cold wind on a chilly day, besides keeping most of the icy water from dumping waves out of your boat. Of course, decked canoes can still capsize. So even if you're as snug as the proverbial bug in your covered canoe, it's a Very Good Idea to dress for the water temperature. You can never tell when you'll go for an unplanned swim, after all. But so long as you keep your boat's keel pointed in the right direction, a cover will certainly help you hold hypothermia at bay.

And You Can Always Build a Better Cover

My original column also gave short shrift to paddlers' ability to circumvent some of the limitations of fabric decks, as John McAlpin reminded me:

I am a sometime‑canoeist and boat builder, and have given some thought to the canoe cover problem. I agree with you that flotation bags are a necessary addition.

Fabric decking does tend to sag and create depressions that can fill with water, suddenly changing your stability. A solution to this is to make bows that spring between the gunwales to create a rounded frame for the cover that sheds water. Laminated ash with a layer or two of fiberglass makes a strong part. The problem with this is that it is a pain to rig all of this.

The Case of the Coastwise Paddler

There's no doubt that arched supports reduce puddling — similar logic led to the "turtle decks" on early motor torpedoboats — but as John points out, they also add to the fussiness factor. Still, if your trip doesn't require that you portage your boat every day, a deck may just be what you're looking for, particularly if you'll be crossing large expanses of open water. And make no mistake, coastal exploration isn't just for kayaks, as reader Jaakko Mäkikylä, the chairman of the Open Canoe Association of Finland, has demonstrated in the most convincing manner possible:

First off, I should say that I agree with you. I have always been for flotation, but here's a case for a fabric cover. In 2007 I paddled the Finnish coastline solo with an open canoe. About 900 miles in five weeks, some parts over exposed open water. My canoe was a Bell Northstar, which was modified to go solo for this trip. I was the first to paddle it with a canoe. Some 60 kayakers have done it during the past 10 years.

I had flotation, waterproof bags, and all my gear was tightly lashed into the canoe. But still I also had a canvas cover, not against water, but against wind. Having an even, smooth top reduces windage. Also, the cover kept most of the rainwater and drip from my paddle out of the bilges. With that much distance to cover, hit and switch paddling was the only technique to use. I did not want to lose any energy on steering.

I will say that in rapids, a spray cover is a no‑no. I am with you on that. It's no good.

You can see a picture of my fabric canoe cover online, and I wrote a blog about the trip, which is in Finnish but there are captions in English. I've also written a short booklet, in English and Finnish, which includes pictures of my set‑up.

Am I envious? You bet I am! I'm sure you'll agree that 900 miles is a pretty fair shakedown cruise. Jaakko's epic journey leaves little doubt as to the value of fabric covers on open water. But what about the larger question? To cover up or not to cover up? Well, thanks to the generosity of the In the Same Boat readers who've allowed me to reprint their letters here, I have a more balanced understanding of the pros and cons involved. And so do you.

What's my bottom line? I still have some qualms about fabric covers — the possibility of entanglement continues to trouble me — but these reservations are now tempered by the knowledge that many experienced boaters have found them valuable. In fact, were I ever to embark on a long coastal tour in an open canoe, I'm pretty sure I'd go covered. So I guess you could say I'm a convert. Up to a point, at any rate. I'll continue to run rapids topless. But if you weigh the arguments for and against covers and come to a different conclusion, I won't say you're wrong. In this, as in so many things, you pays your money and you takes your choice. That's how it should be, isn't it?

Just Ducky!

When the going gets rough, some canoeists abandon their open craft for decked, hard‑shell boats. But others simply cover their canoes with fabric decks. A little while back, I argued the case for going topless. Then the letters started coming in. No surprise there. It's a timely and important subject, and one about which readers have strong, well‑founded opinions. So this time around I've handed the mike over to them, so to speak. Now you, too, have a chance to benefit from their collective experience. That's a good thing. Whatever the subject in question — and thanks in no small measure to our cadre of knowledgeable readers — I'd like to think we've gotcha covered!

Copyright © 2010 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.









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