Canoe, Kayak, or Sit‑On‑Top?
By Tamia Nelson
January 25, 2011
Suppose that you could have only one boat. That's right, just one. Maybe you have limited room for storage, or your budget won't stretch to more, or perhaps you live your life by the KISS principle. Whatever the reason, you want just one boat for all the things you do. One boat, and only one boat. What would it be?
Let's narrow down the field a bit. You mostly paddle flatwater. Any rapids you run will be easy: Class I‑II, say. And you like to watch birds and other wildlife. You also plan to bring your camera, sketchpad, or paints along with you, and from time to time you'll want to use your boat as a sort of floating blind for photography and sketching. A single boat now has to satisfy all these demands. Only one thing is certain: It won't be an easy choice. There are canoes in every size from pack to freighter, and kayaks that run the gamut from the little slipper‑shaped craft favored by creekers to long, elegant sea boats. And then there's the new kid on the block, the sit‑on‑top, or SOT. In short, it's a case of …
So Many Boats, So Little Time
Time to sort out the options, that is. Still, you don't want to be overhasty. Not only does a new boat cost a pretty fair chunk of change, but if you pick the wrong one, you'll have a long time to regret your mistake. It's an important decision, in other words. Which is why Farwell and I have tackled the topic several times over the years. Of course, each paddler's needs are slightly different. But the three‑way split comes up early in the game. If you're going with a single boat, which is it to be — canoe, kayak, or SOT? Reader Pat McKay wrote to me recently on this very subject. He's looking for a boat. A boat. Just one. And because his e‑mails highlight many of the hurdles any would‑be one‑boat paddler faces, I asked him if he'd let me use selections from our correspondence in this column, to which he graciously assented. So here goes…
All the rivers that I paddle on are flatwater — although I did ride some "whitewater" once when I paddled the Pocomoke the day after a hurricane blew through! I generally go out with a friend in a two‑person Old Town canoe that we rent at a local livery. But the boat I need is something that I could use by myself to explore the local rivers, primarily to observe wildlife. I don't mind sitting and waiting for a long time to watch waterfowl or to try and get the perfect photograph. Not all my friends are so inclined.
The biggest concern that I have on the water is a bit of weathercocking from the ever‑present winds on the Delmarva. I'm not convinced that a kayak would serve me for wildlife watching and photography any better than a canoe would. I guess I can try a smaller canoe, trading some speed for a bit of maneuverability.
Pat's requirements are fairly straightforward. As a photographer who likes to explore the places where freshwater meets salt, he needs a stable, seaworthy craft that's also nimble enough to negotiate twisty salt‑marsh channels. Luckily, he's an experienced paddler. He can keep a boat right side up even in trying conditions, and he has little trouble making it go where he wants it to go. It wasn't long before he thought he'd found the boat he was looking for, either — an Elie Sound 120 XE Angler. But the Sound 120 is a relatively new boat, and though it had just been added to the Paddling.net Buyers' Guide, there were no entries for it among the site's extensive collection of product reviews. I'd never seen a Sound 120 myself, let alone paddled one. So I was reduced to offering rather woolly general advice, beginning with an oft‑repeated mantra: If at all possible, rent or borrow any boat you're considering and take it out for a test paddle before you commit.
That's easier said than done, of course, particularly if a boat is new to the market. But it's a good idea, nonetheless. I also wondered about the availability of a spray skirt to fit the Sound 120's oversize cockpit. While spray skirts can often be a nuisance to attach and remove, particularly when you have to get at gear stored below decks, there's no denying that they're mighty comforting in breaking chop. And they also offer a welcome refuge at both ends of the paddling season. In warm weather, a spray skirt keeps your bottom half bug‑free. When the temperature falls, it shelters your nether regions from the assaults of arctic winds and freezing water. This ability to "button up" whenever conditions dictate is one of the kayak's strong points, yet not all recreational kayaks make it easy.
All that being said, however, my own favorite craft for poking about with a camera is the pack canoe. While these little boats tend to be somewhat "tippy," their versatility and light weight, coupled with the ease of entry and exit, are powerful advantages, and some — I'm thinking of my Old Town Pack here, though it's certainly not the only example — are surprisingly seaworthy, at least in experienced hands. The ability to alter the boat's trim under way, by shifting packs or changing your seating position, makes dealing with weathercocking pretty straightforward, too. (If you find yourself fighting to keep your boat's bow from heading up into the wind, just move one or more packs aft. That's easier to do in a canoe than it is in most kayaks.) Still, this ease of access and freedom of movement has a downside. In addition to their low primary stability, all pack canoes leak at the top. If you spend a lot of time crossing windswept open waters, there are better choices.
Notwithstanding this caveat, my mention of pack canoes and their virtues didn't go unnoticed. In a subsequent e‑mail, Pat had this to say:
You got me thinking hard after I read "In Praise of the Pack Canoe" and "Is a Pack Canoe the Right Canoe for You?" Maybe I should just be in the market for a new canoe instead. I'm mainly looking for something that would allow me to get close enough to wildlife so I can watch and photograph them (but not too close!), and I'm not convinced that a kayak would serve that purpose any better than a canoe. I guess I can try out a smaller canoe, trading some speed for a bit of maneuverability. I've got a lot more reading — and thinking — to do.
Which soon had me expanding on the virtues of my favorite craft. I praised the Pack's easy maneuverability and its responsiveness when driven hard with a double paddle, in addition to its ability to make a nearly silent approach to wary wildlife under the impetus of a single ash blade — at least when that blade is kept in the water through the whole of the paddle stroke. I also waxed lyrical about the ease of changing seating position and getting at my rucksack and camera gear while under way. Perhaps I waxed too lyrical. After all, as I've already noted, these virtues come at a price. My Pack is a tender beast, as are most pack canoes. This is of no consequence to an old hand, but a novice may find the boat's lively motion a little unsettling. And even old hands will be well advised to keep vulnerable camera gear in a waterproof bag or box when not in use.
Now I'd given Pat more to think about. Luckily, winter isn't the best time to take unfamiliar boats out for trial paddles, so he had plenty of opportunity to digest what I'd said and test it against his own (and others') experience. And this led him in a very different direction:
I have another kayak question if it's not too much trouble. Here's a picture that I took in Chestertown this past October during the annual Downrigging Weekend:
The sailing ship in the background is the Pride of Baltimore II. Specifically, I was wondering about the type of kayak in the foreground of the picture, and the advantages and disadvantages in this type of kayak vis‑a‑vis the pack canoe.
To which I was tempted to reply that things aren't always what they seem. Why? Well, here's a closer view of the smaller vessel that caught Pat's eye:
And it's a sit‑on‑top, rather than a kayak. That was my initial reaction, at any rate. Then I started having second thoughts. Is a SOT also a kayak? After all, there's no small measure of what Winston Churchill memorably labeled "terminological inexactitude" in the paddling lexicon. Still, I'm irredeemably old‑school. Kayaks are kayaks and SOTs are SOTs. You sit in one and on the other. But then where do canoes fit in? Is a SOT simply a canoe with a very low freeboard? Or — this gets worse and worse — are kayaks properly called canoes? That was the case in the UK until quite recently, as it happens.
The upshot? I'm sticking to my guns. Canoes are canoes. Kayaks are kayaks. And SOTs are SOTs. So the boat in Pat's photo is a SOT, and SOTs are interesting hybrids. They're forgiving craft, with many of the virtues of canoes — simplicity of entry and exit, ease of access to gear — while also possessing some of the good qualities of kayaks, including seaworthiness (a SOT can be overturned, but it's mighty hard to swamp one), comfortable seating, and protected storage. They can be wonderfully stable, too. That's good news for any photographer. So SOTs are well worth considering by the one‑boat man (or one‑boat woman, come to that). Do they have drawbacks? Of course. What craft doesn't? They're often a little on the heavy side, and you're usually limited to a single paddling position. Furthermore, unless a SOT is outfitted with taut perimeter deck lines or molded grab handles, it can prove hard to right when overturned, thereby complicating the already difficult task of self‑rescue.
But none of these is a deal‑breaker, and that pretty much leaves the ball in Pat's court. Which is where it should be, of course. And what's …
My Take on the Three‑Way Split?
No surprises here, I'm afraid. Though she has to bow out of the picture on amphibious jaunts, where portability trumps all other considerations and boats in bags rule supreme, my Old Town Pack remains my maid of all work. Like Nessmuk's little Wood Drake, the Pack "waltzes on the waves by day and rests with me at night." And she's versatile, too. She's served as both floating photographic blind and artist's studio. To be sure, she has her shortcomings. She's tender enough to make me wary of moving suddenly, and she's certainly not a sea boat. But she does most of the things I want a boat to do. If I had no other craft, I wouldn't miss much.
Would a similar boat suit Pat? I'd guess not. He frequents bigger water than I do. But the decision is his to make. And he's going about it the right way, thoughtfully and deliberately. When he makes his choice, therefore, it will likely be the right one. You can't ask better than that, can you?
What would you do if you could have only one boat? Suppose that you like to paddle flatwater, and you also like to watch birds and other wildlife. You're a keen photographer, too. But you want just one boat for all the things you do. One boat, and only one. Which would you choose? Canoe, kayak, or sit‑on‑top? Well, this much is certain, at any rate: Even if you come to regret your choice someday, you'll still be happier with one boat than you would be with none. And how many three‑way splits come with that kind of guarantee?
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