Canoe Ballast – Sink AND Swim

This is a response to a comment in Red Rock Outdoors from a reader who uses ankle weights to serve as ballast for a Quetico 16 solo canoe.   I thought it would make a great post about canoe ballast and safety concerns, so I added a bit more to it for our readers.

Paddlers seeking to solo paddle, try all sorts of ways to weight down the front of their tandem canoes.  The most common is to add a bunch of rocks.   Another way is to add a 5 gallon bucket partially filled with sand.  One kind reader likes to use up to 4 ankle weights in the bow of the canoe.  The point is to add weight to make the bow bite the water to aid in canoe tracking and improve overall stability by the canoe “wetted surface” or the most of the bottom of the canoe resting on the water.  The more canoe supported by water, the more stable it is resting on the water.  If you are riding a wheelie with the bow up in the air and out of the water, that means that you are decreasing wetted surface and putting more weight on a narrower section of the canoe behind you.  Imagine sitting cross-legged on a taut cable with each butt cheek on each side of the cable and your feet resting on said taut cable.  Aside from the incredible discomfort, your ability to balance comes down to that fine line and I’m pretty sure that a flying Walenda would be about the only person who could do this.  Now sit the same way on a flat floor and see how wobbly you will be.  You won’t.  You’ll be rock solid -assuming you didn’t sit on the cable first.    That is a way to describe the advantages of maximum wetted surface regarding a canoe resting level on the water.  That, and improved tracking are what we are striving for when using ballast in a tandem canoe used as a solo.

From a ballast standpoint, any object for weight will do.  However, there is a specific reason for using “the Perfect Rock” aka “bag of water”.   If you load up a canoe with rocks and it takes on water, it could go to the bottom of the lake.    Now, if the canoe rolls when capsized, the rocks can dump out but may not completely fall out due to the lip of the gunwales or maybe getting caught under a seat. A sinking canoe means there is no floating canoe on which to hang while waving the other arm furiously for help.   IF you have your life jacket on AND it is summer with warmer water, no floating canoe is a problem but less so.    If you are floating in the cold water of spring of a deep water lake, you may have  as little as 15 minutes to get to dry land and a fire.  Hanging on a floating canoe improves your chances a bit.   It is easier to see a canoe’s gunwale in the water than just a canoe bow or stern pointing to the sky and even then barely sticking out of water.

Securing a weight to any part of a canoe guarantees that it will not fall away from the canoe upon its capsizing.   This only increases the probabilities of an accident ending badly.   I usually recommend that nothing ever be secured or lashed to a canoe.  Let it go.  Get it later and if you lose some of  it, so what?   You can always replace gear.   In the event of a capsize, righting the canoe with packs and gear hanging out but tied to the canoe during the struggle of being half submerged really complicates self-rescue efforts and also tires one out a lot quicker.    There is enough going on without another distracting layer of complications.  Tying gear in for a Boundary Waters canoe trip is unnecessary.   If you want it to float, just put your gear in a garbage bag or big canoe bag within the pack, twist it closed and tuck it in.  Unless you are hauling gold bullion, you pack will float.

That being said, using a water bag means that wherever a canoe can float, there is ballast and lots of it.    Crossing portages is really easy.    When the canoe capsizes, the water bag is equal in density to the lake water and has no effect on the canoe’s ability to float, whatsoever.

While I agree the ankle weights do the job, they also potentially put you at risk.    Someday, when it is warm water, put on your swim suit, life jacket and take the canoe in 4 feet of water and roll it with the weights secured into it on the bow.   See what happens.   And, whatever you do, resist the urge to do this test in the deepest part of the lake. I’ve always marveled at our canoe demo paddlers who take a canoe and test it’s stability over a 30 foot deep part of the lake, far from other humans.   A canoe’s stability can be determined in 2 feet of water just as easily as 30 feet.    Your canoe’s flotation compromise, if any, can be determined in 4 feet of water, as well.

My guess is that the one end will sink and the point of the stern will be left pointing to the sky leaving you with very little to hold on to in the event of a capsize. This would not be good. I can tell you a true story about how a similar situation ended very badly in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.   Just the bow of the canoe was barely there to hold on to and two people drowned.  It was very tragic.

Be safe.

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The Real Food Pack for Boundary Waters

Check out this new post in South of the Border Outfitters about our famous Red Rock Super Pack.  Click Here

Red Rock Super Pack - Born in 1999 and still in use today
Red Rock Super Pack – Born in 1999 and still in use today

Come Stay with us as Northwind Lodge next to the BWCA wilderness -Click Here

Applying a Patch for Stress Reinforcement

This is a video of me repairing a Souris River Quetico 17 that is owned by all of us while residing in the US Forest Service.  This canoe had a million miles on it and showed signs of working ridiculously hard during the Pagami Forest Fire of 2011.  It was oil-canning and had some major, over-flexed stress marks/cracks that while they were still not leaking, would eventually need attention.  On this canoe, I ended up levering the bottom out to close to it’s original shape and then applying reinforcements to the chines (where the side meets the bottom).  The damage to this canoe would indicate to me that it was dragged over a fair number of beaver dams or other obstacles.  Very reparable and I will be releasing more vids of this repair/restore in the future.

Remember the principle is always the same with applying patches.  Clean, sand, wipe the dust, apply resin, stick on patch, apply more resin, smooth out the bubbles, check and re-check.

Come stay with us this summer – Northwind Lodge – Red Rock Wilderness Store

Kevlar Canoes : Souris River vs. Brand X – Epoxy does it best

It’s been a while since I’ve laid out a small dissertation about the differences in kevlar canoes.  As years go by and the markets change, people who know the differences are a fading group.  I will change all that right here.  All kevlar canoes are NOT the same despite looking similar to one another.

Souris River Canoes hulls are all made with kevlar cloth, a few other layers of cloths including polyesters and fiber glass and most importantly: epoxy resin.    All Brand X kevlar canoes are made with kevlar cloth, a few other layers of different cloths and important for you not to miss:  vinylester resin.

The resin used to hold the cloth in the shape of a canoe is first and foremost, the most important part of the canoe.  A canoe could be built out of newspapers or old sweatshirts but the only way that is possible it to use resin.  The type of resin used, along with literally the “cut of the cloth”  defines the canoe’s overall strength and durability.

I’m going to cut to the chase.  Epoxy resin is much tougher than vinylester resin.   Epoxy resin used in a Souris River Canoe is a heat-cured epoxy.  After the canoe has been laid out in a female mold with wet epoxy resin, they wheel it into a big oven and bake it for several hours.  Baking epoxy to cure it makes it runny and it seeps into the multiple fibrous tendrils that make up every kevlar fiber.  When it cures (dries – although technically not the same as curing since drying means a solvent evaporates and curing is a chemical reaction that leads to a hardened, non-liquid, state.) it becomes inert “plastic” but not before it bonds all those fibers together to make them more of a single piece of material with kevlar reinforcements running throughout.

Brand X uses vinylester resin which is a resin that costs far less than epoxy.   It too, makes a plastic with kevlar reinforcements running throughout when applied to a kevlar cloth.  However, the process by which it cures, while still a chemical reaction, is different than epoxy.  Vinylester resin used in Brand X kevlar canoes is cured at room temperature or about 74 degrees F.  That means, they wet out the kevlar in a female mold,  and once saturated with the excess resin scraped out with squeegees, (just like Souris River) the canoes are allowed to cure (dry) at room temperature overnight.  The next day, they beat the mold off of the hull with a rubber mallet, install the gunwales, seats, thwarts and yoke and out the door it goes.

At this very point, the two canoe brands have severely parted ways.  Inherent with epoxy resin, when it is done curing, it is done curing.  It does not age for lack of a better term.   What that means is the Souris River, after 10 years of paddling, when you go to do a repair on the canoe (yes, they’re tough, but nothing is as tough or heavy as aluminum, eh?   You may need to fix something once in a while), that old epoxy resin is still the same as it was the day it came out of the over 10 years ago.    So, when you take out some new epoxy resin to do a repair, you are bonding apples to apples – the same stuff.  Doesn’t make sense without the following comparison in the next two paragraphs.

Inherent with Brand X kevlar canoes, the room-temp-cured resin first, did not soak all through those kevlar fibers in each strand bundle that is woven together to make a cloth.  When curing at room temperature, that vinylester  resin doesn’t have a chance to soak in because it begins to cure and thickens before the soaking begins.  That means it ends up encapsulating the fiber bundles.  Well, that means, too, that less resin is needed and it makes the canoe lighter.  It also results in the canoe not being as tough.  If you rip the resin coat off the fiber bundle, water can enter into those fibers through capillary action.  Once that happens, an entire region in a canoe can delaminate from other fibers in the cloth or the foam core floor they use in Brand X to keep the floor of the canoe from flopping around.  It’s a diamond shaped looking thing with ribs running up the sides.  The foam ribs also support the sides of Brand X canoes because they are not as tough with the lesser resin saturation inherent with vinylester resin canoes.

But, it doesn’t end there.  Vinylester resin that has been air-cured continues to cure into perpetuity.  It’s really not done curing, it’s just not sticky any more.  What this means is that this resin gets more and more brittle with each day.  The resin is susceptible to UV radiation and that ages it.  Now, to be fair, epoxy resin is affected by UV as well but in a different way.  It does not become brittle.  It sloughs off a little at a time.  But, unlike vinylester resin, you can reapply epoxy with great results and a paint roller.  Not only is vinylester more brittle in the long run, it is no longer the same vinylester resin it was when the canoe was first built.  This means than when you put your foot through the side of a brittle vinylester resin canoe and need to repair that, the company Brand X will tell you to go to the local Fleet Farm and buy some polyester resin and the MEK  (methyl ethyl ketone) hardener or organic peroxide which might be the same stuff.  I don’t know, I’m not a chemist but over the years, I have spoken with several regarding the advantages and strength of epoxy compared to vinylester and those advantages are very significant.

At the molecular level, vinylester resin links to itself with a relative few bonds when compared to epoxy.  Less link ups means less strehgth.   Epoxy resin is noted for having  many, many cross-linked bonds to that which it is being glued together.  For that reason epoxy provides a substantially stronger bond of materials and is also noted for it’s ability to bond non-related materials, such as a copper penny to a piece of wood.  Vinylester resin may bond those two together, but then it will let go at the most inopportune of times.   The cross linking of molecules in epoxy also give it the ability to flex repeatedly without falling apart or cracking.  The whole focus about Souris River Canoes is their ability to flex under duress to minimize damage caused by driving it up on a rock.  Brand X, with their foam core bottom can be damaged significant when one drive them over a rock 4 inches below the surface and invisible.    Souris Rivers just slide over it with no exposed kevlar fibers resulting from the impact.  As you recall above, exposed kevlar fiber bundles in vinylester resin are like tiny hollow tubes that can suck up water and cause delamination at that area.  It doesn’t always happen, but when it does, you end up with a soft spot that needs your attention or it can continue to spread.

Putting a patch on an older Brand X canoe using their recommended method of applying cheap polyester resin to a piece of fiberglass or kevlar  patch and sticking it onto the canoe will,  more often than not, result in that patch letting go in six months to a year.  But it usually does not all let go.  Nosiree – only half lets go and the rest stays stuck to the canoe so you have like an “air brake on the wing of a 747”.  Or, you could consider it a water scoop since they usually let go against the direction of travel.  In my opinion, polyester resin probably has it’s place somewhere out there in making fiberglass bathtubs with a thick layer of gel coat, but it’s a worthless product for working on canoes.    It is also hard to work with as well.  It’ll say on the container of resin to add 2-3 drops of hardener.  Well, which one is it?  2 drops or 3 drops?  Depending on the ambient temp and humidity levels, 3 drops could turn the resin in your pot into a smoking, toxic mess that smells like burning styrofoam beer coolers.  (been there, done that – an wow, does it get hot!  Epoxy will do the same if you put too much in a con)

Epoxy on the other hand is more precise in it’s requirements for hardener and those different hardeners can affect cure time.  West System 205 hardener can set up in 9-12 minutes, but their 207 special coatings hardener can go to 6 hours before hardening the resin mix depending on temps.  West System epoxy mixed with either hardener achieves full strength over 7 days.  It’s will be dry to the touch and usable before that, but that is when final cure is complete.  Polyesters continue to cure (and change as a result)  forever.    Now, I mention West here because that is what I recommend for repair work mainly because I know it well and have used if for 20 years with excellent success about 99% of the time.  There are other marine epoxies out there that are quite good as well, but I just never had a reason for changing.  They are all expensive.  Note: Souris River does not use West System in the building of their canoes.  They use a purer form of resin with two hardeners injected into it at two different temps.  Then it is applied by hand in a 94 degree F room and then wheeled into a large oven to be heat-cured.  West System has additives to make it cure for repairs without the baking-part required.  If I had to be heating up resin and baking it, that would be a pain for me and everybody else who doesn’t have a canoe-sized oven.

So those are differences in Souris River Canoes vs. all the other canoes out there.   Sure, there might be a garage-outfit somewhere using West to make a canoe a year, but in the professionally, hand-crafted, production realm of canoe building, SR is the only epoxy kevlar canoe builder of which I’m aware.

More on Hull Shapes and Design in future posts.