I’ve had some great campfire conversations about canoes; spent countless hours debating the best brands, hull designs and all sorts of details that would put a normal person to sleep. But the best canoe conversations I’ve had have been with friends looking for purchase advice. These are my favorite talks for several reasons.
First, they mean if I play my cards right I might get a new tripping partner. Second, someone thinks I’m knowledgeable and approachable and care enough about them to help with a major decision, and that feels pretty good. Third, helping other people spend their money is fun!
I quickly learned something from these talks. The first thing anyone considering a canoe purchase needs to know is the anatomy of a canoe. After all, you wouldn’t buy your first car without at least knowing the difference between an engine, transmission and brakes, would you? Does this mean you need to know the intricate details that differentiate one car from another? Well, maybe, but you really just need to know what the basic parts are and whether in their entirety they’ll get you down the river – I mean down the road – safely and enjoyably for at least a few years. This is not a foregone conclusion with a canoe any more than it is with a car, but with a little bit of knowledge you can improve your odds of picking the right canoe for you, so let’s focus on what to look for in the anatomy of a canoe.
Did you know a canoe has an engine, transmission and brakes too? You! But you already know your own anatomy, so what about the anatomy of a canoe? Regardless of brand or model every canoe features certain components: layup, hull, thwart, yoke, gunwale, seat and hanger. There are other parts unique to certain types of boats (we will use boat and canoe interchangeably in this discussion), but these are the fundamental building blocks. Let’s look at each one individually.
Layup Layup is just a word for the material from which the canoe’s hull is made. That material could be Royalex (no longer in production, but many Royalex canoes can still be found on the water today), T-Formex (Royalex’s replacement), aluminum, fiberglass, Kevlar or Kevlar blend or polyethylene. Some hull materials are actually several different layers of materials laminated together like a sandwich. Pretty fascinating to see! Each has its pros and cons, but that’s another discussion.
Hull This one may seem obvious, but there’s actually a lot to ponder here. Selecting a canoe with the right hull design for your needs could mean the difference between a long and happy paddling career and a short paddling career with an ignominious end. Every boat’s a compromise, but there are hulls designed for all sorts of different types of paddling. Most of them fall under one of three categories: flat, V or round. Within those categories there are several variations including deep V, shallow V, shallow arch and Swede Form. Hull designs are further refined by rocker (degree to which the hull turns upward toward the ends), chines (hard or soft), symmetry or asymmetry, bow shape, shoe keel and other design modifications. Which is right for you depends on where and how you plan to paddle. You can read more about that here https://aradventuregram.com/gear/the-canoe-for-you/, then if you need help dialing it in drop me a line.
Thwart Imagine looking at a canoe from the top. Are there pieces of wood or aluminum spanning the width of the boat every few feet? There’d better be! Otherwise that canoe will be a floppy, uncontrollable mess. That’s because the thwart’s main purpose is to give the boat structural integrity. That’s not its only job though. Thwarts also have a hand in a canoe’s performance. Just like cars, different canoes handle differently. A big part of what determines a canoe’s handling is its width, and a big part of what determines a canoe’s width is the length of the thwarts. With the exception of aluminum most canoe hull layups are quite flexible, so manufacturers will use thwart length to fine tune a canoe’s width and handling characteristics. Simply put, a shorter thwart means a narrower canoe and a wider thwart of course means a wider canoe. Thwart length also impacts rocker which is something we’ll cover later.
Yoke You know what they say. You can’t make a canoe without breaking a few yokes! Sorry, couldn’t resist. I’m a real yokester…. Do you still have that imaginary overhead canoe view? Good! Do you notice that one of the thwarts looks different than the others? Is it shaped kind of like a very stretched out W? That’s the yoke. It’s there to facilitate transport by one person. The bow in the middle of the yoke is there by design to fit around your neck, and the yoke is (hopefully) optimally positioned for the canoe to balance on your shoulders. This is especially important for tripping canoes which are designed for outings that involve portaging. That’s just a fancy word for carrying your canoe and your stuff instead of floating it on the water. Without the yoke portaging would be pretty tough work. Now, you may not have a trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in mind any time soon, but if you’re considering acquiring your own canoe you will at least have a trip from the vehicle to the launch in your near future, in which case you may really come to depend on that yoke. One more quick word about the yoke; it’s essentially a dual purpose thwart. Some canoes just aren’t practical to portage and as such will not have a yoke but will simply have another thwart instead. For example, a canoe designed specifically for white water likely wasn’t really intended to be portaged (there are exceptions). That doesn’t mean it can’t or shouldn’t be. It just means the boat doesn’t really need a yoke and the additional weight and design considerations that come along with it.
Gunwale Gunwale is not spelled like it sounds. As such you may have seen it spelled gunnel on message boards or in articles. However you spell it, the gunwale is a critical part of any canoe. Gunwales are typically made of wood (usually ash), vinyl or aluminum. Wood gunwales are aesthetically pleasing and stout, but they do require care and possibly eventual replacement due to rot. Eventual could very likely mean decades if they’re properly maintained. Gunwales serve several purposes. Remember our overhead view of that canoe? Imagine the top of the hull without gunwales. It’s essentially a bald head. What happens to an unprotected bald head over time? It ain’t purty, friends. The gunwale protects the top of the hull layup from sun and water intrusion.
In addition to protecting part of the hull the gunwales are integral to structural integrity. Remember our thwarts? Guess where they’re fastened. That’s right. They’re bolted to the gunwales. The gunwales are in turn fastened to the hull, usually either with rivets or small bolts. They serve another purpose too that we’ll address soon. What the gunwales are made of matters less than how well they’re attached to the hull and what condition they’re in.
Seats As you’ve probably guessed by now, just like other parts of a canoe’s anatomy seats come in different sizes, shapes and materials. Canoe seats are typically aluminum, woven cane or web with a wood frame, or plastic. My personal preference is webbed seats because they’re light and durable and easily replaced. I also find them the most comfortable of all the options. In some canoes the seats add an additional measure of structural integrity though most of that comes from the thwarts and gunwales. There’s no need to obsess over the seats too much, but I feel compelled to caution you about one thing. Think very carefully before buying a canoe with seats that go to the floor. This design is most common in low end canoes found in big box stores. These types of canoes are not suitable for anything other than flat water. Buying one for any other purpose will inevitably result in disappointment. You will likely be able to find a much better canoe second hand, often with little use, for the same price. I’d love to talk with you any time about whether a canoe you might be considering would be a good choice. Just drop me a line.
Seat Hangers These are exactly what they sound like. Any seat hanger I’ve seen has been wood or aluminum. They are typically bolted to the gunwales and hold the seats, hence their name. As important as they are that’s about all there is to say about them.
That’s it for the anatomy of a canoe. More specialized canoes have additional parts, but if you’re still reading this you likely aren’t looking for a specialized canoe. Just be sure before you pull the trigger on an acquisition that all these anatomical parts are present (don’t laugh, they may not be!) and in good condition. If they are, and if you understand each one’s role in making a good quality boat you’ll be off to a good start.
See you out there!