Canoe Definitions

tumble home on a a canoe
Tumble Home on a canoe looks like this

Definitions of Canoe Terms

Gel coat – silica sand in a vinylester or polyester resin base which is applied to the canoe to reduce abrasion in kevlar or fiberglass canoes.  Adds weight and sometimes cracks up on impacts.  Gel coat is on everything from canoes, to speed boats, to shower stalls.  Makes a nice clean, smooth finish but also hides serious flaws and sloppy workmanship.  Avoid canoes which have gel coat on the inside – too heavy and who knows what your getting?

Royalex –  (extinct)  Trade name for an ABS plastic foam sandwich material which in the canoe world, has a vinyl color on the outside, a thin layer of harder ABS plastic next ( whitish-green color), ABS closed-cell foam next (grey, foamy looking) ABS plastic layer (whitish-green again) and the inside layer of vynil color.  It comes in big sheets, is heated in a oven and then sucked into a vacuum mold the shape of a canoe that comes down from the ceiling to pick it up.  It cools rapidly in the mold which splits open and drops the newly formed canoe to the floor where it is trimmed and gunwales and seats installed.

Polyethylene (P-tex) – available in linear or crosslinked design.  Linear is just one sheet of tough polyethylene which has been formed to make a canoe using heat.  Incredibly tough, but makes a cheap, bathtub-like canoe which usually needs the support of a keelson (long pipe or tube that lays in the keel in the bottom of a cheap canoe) and other aluminum tubing to keep its bottom from flopping up and down in the water.  Cross linked polyethylene canoes are usually formed from poly pellets in a heated, rotary mold which spins and rocks as the first layer (outside layer) is dumped into the mold and melted into a canoe.  Then the middle foam layer is added and finally the inside layer of pellets is added. Whole thing then cools and out pops the craft.  These are heavy and indestructible canoes and about the same price as lighter weight aluminum canoes.

Cloth Layup Canoes – canoes which are made from essentially some sort of cloth that comes off of a big roll.  Layers of cloth is cut into a rough shape, laid into a female mold and resin is pour in on top of the cloth and then squeegeed  thru the layers using paint rollers and rubber squeegees. These canoes are made out of various blends of cloth including but not limited to kevlar, carbon fiber, fiberglass, duralite and tuffweave  (both proprietary cloths made by different companies as a less expensive alternative to more expensive exotic cloths like kevlar, et al.)

four sheet construction
This is what four sheets of cloth would look like. They are laid into a female mold and wetted through with resin. The resin hardens, the mold comes off, and the result is a cloth-layup canoe. Could be kevlar, fiberglass, polyester, or old T-shirts. The cloth gives the shape and reinforcement, the resin seals out the water.


Vinylester resin – a two-part resin used to hold cloth layup canoes together in the shape of a canoe.  Generally thinned out with liquid styrene to make if flow more easily at room temperature.  Cures at room temp.  Bonds to fibers at about 500 PSI .

Epoxy Resin – a two part resin that holds cloth into shape of canoe.  Applied under heated conditions and requires heat to cure it in its purest form.  Bonds to fibers at 2000+ PSI

Skid plates – A “shoe” or covering made from kevlar felt material.   It’s a thicker cloth that acts more or less as a sponge to hold a larger quantity of resin in one place for the canoe to use as guard in the bow and stern areas which take the greatest abuse on any canoe.  Skid Plates or Bang Plates save the bow and stern from abrasions received while landing the canoe or pushing off from shore.  The bow and stern take the most abuse since the entire weight of the canoe ends up on a little strip about 1/2″ wide by 4″ long if you slam into shore.  The bows of  kevlar and plastic canoes without a good skid plate don’t last long in these situations so you see a lot of “wet foot” canoeing where paddlers jump in up to their knees to save that delicate bow or they install the skid plate themselves.  A few companies build them right into their canoes.  On other canoes, it’s up to the canoe owner to install or have them installed if needed.

Skin-Coat hulls – are made of,  in most cases, just the resin that’s been squeegeed thru the cloth layup of the canoe when it was built. The shine you see on a skin coat is resin which cured making a duplicate of the female canoe mold.  Many major companies make skin coat canoes because they are the lightest in weight.  Unfortunately, the resin doesn’t provide a lot of abrasion resistance and rocks literally can tear into the bulky/coarse weave of kevlar cloth as the canoe passes over them.  When you flip over most used,  skin coat kevlar canoes and examine them closely, you’ll see that there are fibers about 1 mm long sticking out along the scratch.  To prevent fiber tear-out in kevlar canoes, some builders apply a thin layer of fiberglass over the kevlar.  Fiberglass is easier to repair, holds up to abrasion much better and ultimately protects the main cloth (kevlar, carbon, etc.) from excessive damage.

Flat Canoe Bottom
Flat Canoe Bottom – Feels secure, but can tip suddenly when canoe is leaned to far.


Shallow-arched bottom of canoe

Shallow-arched bottom of canoe- feels tippy and jittery but can lean over much farther than flat-bottom without rolling over completely.


cantilevered canoe bottom
Cantilevered canoe bottom – unsettling feeling when canoe is not fully loaded.  It feels tippy with a light load and will either “dump” to the right or left and then stabilize.  More suited to white water for leaning the canoe over to maneuver quickly.

The best canoe bottom is a combination of flat and shallow-arched shapes.  Then it has good initial stability and the ability to lean over without rolling (secondary stability).

Canoes with “rocker” can turn and maneuver. Non-rockered canoes don’t turn easily and travel faster through the water because they are not pushing that upside-down “hump” you see in the exaggerated diagram.


tumble home on a a canoe
Tumble Home on a canoe looks like this – the top sides of the canoe hull in to allow for more comfortable passing by of your hand on the lower part of the paddle.

I don’t care what anybody says.  Tumblehome does absolutely nothing for the canoe’s stability.  It exists to allow your bottom hand clearance when holding the paddle.   Also, tumblehome promotes sloppy paddling technique as you are able to keep the paddle in a “sweep” stroke position as opposed to as perpendicular to the water as possible.

So there you have it.   More information than you probably need, but it’s free.








Canoe Handling Characteristics

Here’s an absolute truth about canoes whether one chooses to believe it or not. How the canoe handles on varying and extreme waters is more important than anything else, period. By varying and extreme, I mean windy and/or rough wave action. I am not referring to whitewater conditions. By far, the vast majority of canoe paddlers out there never ever touch a river with whitewater conditions above Class 2. Most people paddle on lakes and ponds with very occasional river jaunts on slow moving rivers with few underwater obstacles. Flat water and wind are the parameters which affect most people in canoes worldwide.

Handling characteristics of a good canoe on flat water are the most important feature I can think of for safe water travel. The number one reason people consider a kevlar canoe is because of the weight. They are looking for a canoe that is easier to portage and car-top. The old aluminum is just too heavy and those plastic canoes even heavier. With weight first and foremost in mind, the vast majority of paddlers and most Minnesota boundary waters outfitters pay little to no attention to the way the canoe handles on the water. All other considerations aside, this is the biggest and most common mistake many make when considering which canoe is best.

If it takes a massive effort to turn your canoe into the wind, or if it requires that your bow paddler knows how to perform a cross-bow rudder maneuver, that canoe is a worthless piece of junk to most average paddlers. If, while crossing a large lake, the wind suddenly picks up catching you broadside and the canoe WILL NOT turn into the wind but instead goes faster off course with each stronger stroke you make and you can’t figure out what’s happening, you are paddling a piece of life-threatening junk. If a canoe is not somewhat user-friendly under extreme conditions, you may find yourself is a heap of trouble as you take water over the side while getting all tired out. If you think my referring to “life-threatening” junk is over the top, ask yourself why any sane individual would want to increase the inherent risk to life and limb even a tiny bit when it’s not necessary? There are way enough things out there that can kill you. Why would you want to add to the list a canoe that you can’t figure out or predict how it handles when it suddenly gets ugly outside?


Canoes need a bit of rocker and a few other details to be effective, safe, watercraft. A rockerless canoe is ALWAYS a flatwater racing design, period. Rockerless canoes go a bit faster – not a lot faster – than canoes with some rocker. Whitewater canoes like the Prospector hull design can have 4″ – 6″ of rocker. This is extreme rocker and allows the canoe to turn quickly in fast moving current, but it slows the canoe down on flat water and can make the canoe feel tippy or jittery until you put a load in it. Since you are drifting with current, it doesn’t really matter how fast the canoe goes forward. On the other hand, canoes with little or no rocker, which are proclaimed to be whitewater canoes, are junk from that perspective, but whitewater is a different subject.

Rocker is hard to understand for a lot of folks until they see this picture. Having paddled many canoe hull designs, I consider canoes which are “rockered” only on the ends to be in my same category for rockerless canoes – junk. They don’t turn worth a darn either. Rocker should start at the middle of the canoe, right under the yoke. With a slightly rocker canoe, if you were to set it on level concrete and push the stern sideways, the bow will travel an equal amount in the opposite direction. See the corresponding red and blue arrows which depict the rotation of the canoe in the photo below.

Canoe Rocker Defined
Canoe Rocker – Gotta have some

This is how a rockered canoe moves in the water and allows you to turn the canoe into the wind or anywhere else for that matter, when you need to turn it.

For every characteristic there is an equal and opposite characteristic that effects the paddlers of any canoe. A canoe with rocker will need a stern paddler who understands that the canoe is controlled entirely from the stern for the most part. Pushing the stern via J-Stroke or dragging the stern via a Draw stroke makes the bow of the canoe point in an opposite direction. That’s pretty much all there is to steering a canoe on flat water. A canoe with rocker will need a stern paddler who knows how to perform a “J” and Draw stroke when neccesary to make the canoe move where it needs to go. Rockerless canoes on the other hand generally travel in a straight line all the time regardless of whether the inhabitants paddle willy-nilly, on both sides together, or with any general sloppy paddling technique (if you can call it technique) employed to make the canoe go forward. If you are comfortable with not truly knowing what is going on with the canoe on the water at all times, then a rockerless canoe will be good for you so long as you don’t use it on windy days or whenever there may be adverse weather conditions present. When you can figure out how to predict the afternoon’s conditions accurately, let me know. Otherwise I’ll be in my canoe that turns when I need it to turn which is especially helpful for fishing and hunting as well.


Why Some Canoes are Wrong for a Lot of Paddlers

I met a guy in our store who was buying a packsack. He was building his cabin over on Farm Lake which is not too far from here and he started asking me about Souris River Canoes and how they handle on the water compared to Wenonahs. I replied with my usual experience-based answers and descriptions regarding Souris River Quetico 17’s along with details of our many outfitting customers to whom we rent specifically Quetico 17’s for various and similar reasons. I also included our retail customer stories of how they often paddled alongside Wenonah Minnesota II’s. I pointed out how I’ve had numerous customers tell me about watching the Wenonahs hiding behind islands waiting for the wind to die down in even a moderate chop while the Souris Rivers just carry on. I indicated that the smarter Wenonah paddlers do this because at one point or another, everyone who’s ever been in a Wenonah Minnesota II has experienced or will experience water coming over the side, or bow, or stern, of that canoe when it’s loaded down with ordinary camping gear. I also told hime that it’s pretty much a “given” that not everyone will admit to having experienced, but it does happen frequently. I know this because I’ve now heard the same story relating to Wenonahs in rough water about 200 times. Eventually, everyone who paddles a Wenonah will notice two things once they are on the water: 1. most Wenonah hulls are difficult to turn in all wind conditions, and 2. most Wenonahs do not have much remaining freeboard left when hauling even a moderately sized load. These details about these canoes that are “great on portages!” are what inevitably stick in people’s minds AFTER they’ve experienced any time in varied weather and water with most Wenonahs. At this point of any discussion I always point out the somewhat morbid truth that “nobody every drowns on the portage”. This discussion with the packsack guy brought a smile to his face and his story to tell.

About 2 days prior, packsack guy’s neighbor came running over to his place and said, “Come on!”.

The neighbor sounded urgent and packsack guy thought he needed help with some heavy lifting as the neighbor, too was working on his own cabin. The neighbor hurriedly lead packsack guy right past the cabin down to the lake and onto the dock. On the dock there was a pile of gear – packsacks, fishing rods, tackle and other assorted stuff. Somebody dumped it on the dock. Just as they made it to the end of dock to the neighbor’s boat, packsack guy saw what was out in the lake a few hundred feet offshore. It was two paddlers hanging on to their rented Wenonah Minnesota II bobbing in the chop. Packsack guy and his neighbor took the boat out and pulled the two well-soaked paddlers out of Farm Lake and towed the water-logged canoe to shore. The paddlers declared that they were never going to paddle one of these particular canoes again in the future. They were very angry with the way the canoe handled and were blunt in offering their feelings toward said canoe. With the drama over and good deed done for the day, packsack guyheaded back to his own cabin. In telling the story to me, he surmised that they were going to drop off their gear on the neighbor’s dock in an attempt to lighten their load and make said canoe float higher in the water. Then they would paddle back to the outfitter on Farm Lake and retrieve their gear on the private dock via threir car. Packsack guy returned to his own cabin and the story ended.

Joe’s Commentary – Well THAT was special! They couldn’t even finish out their canoe trip. I’m going to conclude that the paddlers ran into problems all week long with that canoe. How else would they have come up with the last-ditch idea of attempting to lighten their load by piling all of their gear on the private dock to make a rough water crossing in an empty canoe? Clearly, it appears that they were trying to make that racing canoe sit higher on the water. Unfortunately, this particular rockerless canoe tends to NOT turn as expected. My guess is that with as rough as it was that day, they turned broadside to the wind and could not gain control over the canoe. When you see people in rockerless canoes struggling they usually commit a combination of faux paux’s (fox pox’s or “errors” for those of you who don’t talk high fallutin’ like me). The error’s are as follows:

Error Number One: When going out of control in wind, they first try to make the canoe respond by paddling really hard on one side.

It appears to me that most people who aspire to do a Boundary Water’s canoe trip (at some point in their lives) were introduced to canoeing in a Grumman or Alumacraft canoe. Based on even a small amount of canoeing exposure many assume that paddling hard on the left stern side of the canoe will make the canoe respond by turning to the right and vice versa. And, for a lot of “normal” canoes, this is a correct assumption. To support this point I’ve made, just ask yourself how long bentshaft paddles have been around (circa 1969) and how long straight shaft paddles have been around (circa the dawn of time). And based on how normal canoes act and react to padling, how long has the J-stroke (and other corrective strokes by other names) been around? If the canoe has no rocker, J-stroke necessity is greatly reduced. They also figure that the bow person can somehow direct the canoe’s bow by paddling really hard as well. And, in most normal canoes (normal being defined as the canoe most people grew up with), turning is the result of paddling hard and straight on one side of the canoe, even into the wind. like you see in the picture of rocker here:

canoe rocker
Rocker in a canoe allows the canoe to turn

In the above picture, this is how most aluminum canoes respond along with Souris River Quetico 17’s and 18.5’s. This is not how a lot of plastic canoe respond, however. Old Town Discovery 174’s do not pivot well in the water. They only want to go straight, But Old Town’s Penobscot 16/17’s require a corrective stroke. Some of Wenonah’s royalex hulls do not respond as you see in the picture above. Mad River Explorers do. Mad River Malecites do not. Souris River’s old Jensen Huron 18 does not turn easily because it has no rocker like a Wenonah Minnesota II which is also a Jensen hull, designed by Eugene Jensen. I could go on and on, but my point is that the material that the canoe is made out of is not what determines how it responds on the water. Many people wrongly conclude, based on one bad experience in a strange kevlar canoe that the cloth kevlar is responsible for the way the canoe handles on the water. This is not the case. Hull shape determines what the canoe will do, period.

Summary – Error Number One: The paddlers paddled hard in a tough wind to make the canoe turn and much to their chagrine, the racing canoe took off in a fast beeline broadside to the wind, crashing through, not up and over the waves. They began to take on some water both over the side and over the bow. Racing canoe hulls with no rocker are designed to go fast and straight, parting the waves, not up and over them. The fastest way from point A to point be is in a straight line.

Error Number Two: When the canoe was not responding, the next thing I’ve seen Wenonah paddlers do is put on the brakes with their paddles then they paddle backwards attempting to change directions by weather vaning.

This maneuver demands that the front of the canoe swings with the wind and it does. Unfortunately, Minnesota II’s don’t have much of a stern on them…and like the bow, it does NOT rise up and over the oncoming waves. Guess what? They plunge the back of the canoe into the oncoming waves and take on more water – only this time, they don’t see the water coming in. All they know in their panic is that the water in the back of the canoe is now around the guy’s ankles. But he’s not paying a lot of attention. Remember I’m methodically describing an event that actually happens in about 30 seconds. The stern paddler isn’t payong a lot of attention to his wet ankles as the wind is howling past his head. The extra water weight in the canoe makes it sit lower in the stern and bow-high in the front. the crappy stabililty of that racing canoe is now even further compromised. They neither realize nor actually comprehend the concept of decreased stability. I’ve observed this to be true and the case with most canoe outfitters from around here so I don’t expect infrequent paddlers who rent canoes to understand what’s happening either. It’s like paddling your canoe solo from the stern seat with no weight in the bow. In this position you are riding on a point which is ridiculously tippy.  In any tandem canoe, you almost need to add the weight of one person in the bow to make the canoe stable to maximize “wetted” surface or that part of the canoe which is resting on the water.

After orienting the canoe to go with the wind and taking on more water in the process, they tried to continue forward.  They each took three strokes going with the wind and they ended up sideways to the waves AGAIN.   Only, this time they are sitting even lower in the stern with all that extra water heading to the back.   That in turn, makes them a bit on the bow-high side which automatically decreases any canoe’s stability.    They get panicky and attempt the backwards reorientation maneuver, only this time harder, both on the same side of the canoe because they are no longer working as a team.   Hubby is screaming at wife who is higher up than hubby. Hubby leans as he reaches back for a good, strong backstroke in the raging waters and he takes the whole enchilada into the drink.   Of course, this is now the wife’s fault because he HAD it under control until SHE didn’t do it right!    If he needed to blame something, he’d be more accurate in blaming the canoe and the guy who rented them that rockerless, freeboardless wonder.

Summary – Error Number Two: A good outfitter would ask a few questions before setting up a rental customer with a racing canoe. But, many outfitters simply do not know themselves about the difference of their various canoe hulls.   My experience has lead me to believe that most (not all) outfitters believe that name brand recognition trumps actual function from a user standpoint.

An outfitter who doesn’t give a rip but wants to rent you a canoe, asks very few to no questions about your canoeing experience and abilities. Heck, anybody can be an “outfitter” when they rent out canoes like that!   Wait a minute…that IS what happens in the Boundary Waters!   That’s why I scoff at the term “outfitter” used for some of these businesses around here who simply give the customer what he wants instead of what he needs.   In my opinion, if you only see Wenonahs in the outfitter’s fleet, you gotta wonder about his canoe knowledge.

If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard a customer’s proud (and even sometimes slightly arrogant) declaration that he’s ” been paddling for 25 years”.   There’s a HUGE difference between sloppily pushing a canoe through the water while enduring a 5 day canoe trip in nice weather, and actually knowing what to expect performance-wise from the canoe by merely looking at it. I’ve only met a tiny handful of people who can predict how a canoe will handle by simply looking at its shape.   Guess what – very few of the tiny handful are BWCA outfitters.   That’s why you see people who shouldn’t be in racing canoes being rented racing canoes by “expert” outfitters.   It’s the blind renting to the blind.