First solo canoe and solo safety

Howdy Everyone,

I’m looking for advice on getting into solo canoeing. I’d describe myself as an intermediate tandem paddler. My wife and I routinely go out on ponds, lakes, and rivers, and we’ve done multi-day trips. We oftentimes fish along the way and occasionally bring along a dog. No class 3 white water or anything too crazy, but lots of paddling where care, coordination, and some skill are needed.

I occasionally paddle our tandem canoe (Penobscot 16 in RX - before that, an old fiberglass Sawyer) solo, but mostly on ponds. It’s pretty big for one person, gets blown around when there isn’t enough weight, and can be annoying to load, unload, and carry.

I’m looking for two pieces of advice:

  1. Recommendations for a first solo canoe. I’m 5’9, 175 pounds, located in the Southern Tier of NY. Budget matters, but the used market is thin, buy once cry once, etc. Ultralight isn’t a necessity at this point, but I do appreciate the benefits. At least to start, I’ll be doing mostly day paddles on local bodies of water, with some shorter camping trips sprinkled in. I do like to cover some water (my wife prefers to fish, I prefer to paddle), but maneuverability is also important for fishing and winding waterways. We also go up to the Adirondacks when we can, but that will be mostly tandem. I don’t do many long carries right now, but I don’t want something prohibitively heavy, either (I’m used to carrying the Penobscot, about 58 pounds). I currently lack indoor storage but do have covered and raised outdoor storage.

Some of the canoes on my radar are the following (all in the <$2000 range new, which is about my limit):
Esquif Adirondack (too much of a bathtub?)
Esquif Echo
Hornbeck New Trick 13 and 14
Adirondack Canoe Company Boreas
Grumman 129 solo (controversial, I know, but I’m intrigued)

  1. Safety advice. How do you recommend progressing as a solo paddler who does not paddle with a group? I like paddling alone. That’s why I want to get into solo paddling. But I’m also safety conscious and nervous about pushing my capabilities without other people around. For example, when would you feel comfortable doing a multiday solo trip on, say, the Oswegatchie in the Adirondacks (a trip I’ve comfortably done tandem)? Are there any good self-assessment tools for solo paddlers?

Thanks!
Bonpawtuck

Given where you are located I’d suggest getting in touch with both Adirondack & Hornbeck & see if you can set up a visit & demo. If I were to be shopping for a new solo I’d have the Boreas on my list.

On solo safety: In my view, it’s all on you. I’d recommend starting in areas that you know. Work on your boat control in relatively safe conditions. For lakes & big water, play a bit on windy days where the wind will blow you TOWARDS shore and your attire is appropriate for conditions. On moving water, play branch or stick slalom & also game what you would do if you came around a bend an found a river wide tree blockage or water fall. Do your research on your route and try to get an understanding on possible hazards. Much easier these days than 50 years ago.

If you are going to go out overnight or longer I’d suggest getting PLB/InReach/Spot satellite communicator. If nothing else you can send out markers in the morning & evening so others know where you are & can send an SOS if needed (but do you best to assure that you don’t need the SOS). There is some point in having one of the newer ones that will let you send out text messages so that you let people know if you are having a weather day.

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Thanks for the advice, Rival. I do think it’d be best to test before buying. I’m especially intrigued by the pack vs traditional versions of the Boreas (having paddled a classic Hornbeck pack, I’m leaning towards traditional, but I’d still like to try both).

On a related topic, though: What explains (justifies?) the massive price difference between, say, Hornbeck/Adirondack and Swift/Wenonah/Hemlock? Given economies of scale, it seems that one should expect the opposite - that Hornbeck/Adirondack would be significantly more expensive.

For a single blade, I don’t think you can go wrong with any of the 14’ “river-runner” canoes. Pretty much every manufacturer makes one, and you can find them used on occasion, but they go quick. Maneuverable in moving water, can handle open water, room for camping gear – they are good all-around boats. You don’t see a lot of people fishing in them though – might want a little wider boat for that. The other decision you will have to make is primarily kneel vs. sit, because that will dictate the height of the seat.

I don’t think that there are any unique safety concerns to paddling a solo canoe. There are things that even as a fairly experienced paddler I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing alone that I would do in a minute with a group. Long lake crossings is one because I can’t self rescue. I’d probably walk most rapids as well rather than taking the chance of pinning or losing my boat and gear. I wouldn’t recommend a solo camping trip until I’ve had some time in the seat and feel comfortable with the boat.

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I don’t know canoes well in terms of the various craft. I have been able to work with rescues in various and have an ultralight which I take out for ponds sometimes when I just want a break from the weight and gear of my sea kayaks. Not a great canoe paddler but I get where I need to.

But in messing around with rescues I made a discovery on the ultralight and rescues, for solo paddling. Mine happens to be a Merlin II. And I love moving around a boat that weighs 22 pounds.

After lots and lots of tries, I found that the boat is not rescuable from a capsize just by me without float bags fore and aft. At which point it weighs a good bit more than 22 pounds. We were able to manage an on-water rescue with assist from someone in another boat - don’t recall if it was another canoe or a sea kayak but either are doable. But all that happened on my own was that I was sitting upright up to my chest in water - albeit stable - because the flotation cells on each end of the boat were not enough to keep it out of the water while I got in.

This includes having dumped out plenty enough water before trying to reenter.

In various rescue sessions - granted when I was in a bit better condition than I am right now - I was able to get back into a number of canoes by myself and end up with the boat emptied out and ready to go. Pretty much anything with two float bags, a classic wooden Mad River canoe without them and something else along that latter line.

But the ultralight without float bags defeats me. So for more serious solo paddling, I suggest you factor in float bags.

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Previous posters have given you some excellent advice, so I won’t rehash those. However, I’d like to give you something to think that you might not have considered.

You already own one of my favorite canoes for solo multi-day trips particularly with a dog, the Penobscot. Granted, I’m larger person than you (6’3" 230lbs), so that may factor into this, but I find with a load and proper trim it is stable on windy lakes and with some careful paddling works in up to Class 2. I have done several multi-day trips in mine.

Additionally, as @eckilson, @Celia pointed out dedicated solo canoes can be difficult to self-rescue, and if you’re out solo that’s all you have. The size and stability of the a boat like the Penobscot makes scrambling back into the canoe much easier.

Just my two cents, as I recently heard someone say, “some choices aren’t a choice of right or wrong just a choice of preferred consequences”.

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Thanks for the reply, Celia. I’ve only practiced self rescues in a tandem, and I hadn’t thought about the smaller size and lighter weight of a solo canoe making it more difficult to self rescue.

Do you (or anyone else) happen to know the depth of the Merlin ii, or, more generally, whether a slightly deeper boat would be easier for self rescue? My thought is that the added depth would help keep the boat out of the water while one got in. This is interesting to me now because some places offer pack and traditional versions of the same boat, where the pack version (because the seat is on the ground) has the depth trimmed down by a couple inches.

Thanks for the reply, davbart. I’m sure the Penobscot 16 would be enjoyable with a load and proper trim, but that’s just it: we’re talking multiple carries to and from car and for any portage to make it enjoyable (for me).

I love the Penobscot as a tandem, though. It captures some of my favorite aspects of the Sawyer and Merrimack I had before it.

The depth of the ultralight Merlin II is fine for self-rescue with someone maybe having a bit more reach than me. The boat is really a bit big for me.

The FLOTATION in the boat is what keeps it high enough. With float bags the ultralight would likely be OK. Without it not happening.

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I don’t know what you have available near you. The closest place to me that sells canoes is 2 hours away, and they only carry Novacraft. I own a Bob Special and it is a great smaller tandem that I enjoy solo. They do have solos in their line, but I’ve never seen them let alone paddled one. Jim Baird, the adventurer, seems to like their Prospector 15 for solo use, but he does massive trips and carries big loads.

I have owned dedicated solos, Bell Magic, Grasse River Classic XL, and Wenonah Voyager, and they were all great boats. My favorite was the Classic XL. All bigger than you probably want or need, although a Grasse River Classic would fit. That said, none of them were easy to get back into from the water, and they’re more straight line boats not very maneuverable. Grasse River is in upstate NY, and makes other boats that you might want to consider.

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I have been paddling tandem canoes solo for decades. They have plenty of room and flotation. I bring my dog and travel a little heavy compared to people that portage.

As long as a canoe has some rocker, you can trim it for the conditions. Even in wind a bigger canoe works fine.

Recently I found an OT Canadienne , the 15’7" model. I changed the seats and thwarts for solo paddling. It has a beam of 32 inches and feels tender without a load. A tandem boat is much more versatile.

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I’m a canoeist and far from an expert, but have been evaluating self-rescue and capsize floatation methods on and off for the last year. Bow and stern floatation require quite a bit of space when you start factoring in not just keeping the gunwales out of the water so you can rescue the canoe but rather allow righting the canoe and reentering and bailing. Bow and stern floatation aid a lot in allowing a swamped canoe in fast water to avoid being pinned and making it easier to swim it to shore etc.

Side floatation is much better in helping with unassisted self rescue. It can take the form of external sponsons or internal air tubes etc. I’m actually surprised sponsons haven’t become more popular on general purpose touring canoes.

With a conversion of a tandem hull to a solo center seat you have some extra width in the center and that wider hull will add stability for fishing and also make enough room for side flotation. In a perfect world I would like a solo for usage like you described made from 14-15’ canoe that was on the wider side with a tumblehome hull with side bags secured down both sides and then maybe a smaller bow and stern sized bags added to finish off the total volume of floatation I wanted. Personally I like the pack-canoe shaped hulls but with a higher non kayak seating while still having a foot brace. Something I could paddle with a single or long double blade would be perfect.

Those are my dream all around thought in reality all I could afford for now was taking a OT147 and converting it to a solo.

Don’t worry about the weight between the car and the water a cheap fold up dolly solves all that. Moving the canoe on land during the trip is an issue however. Depending on where and what is involved the dolly can still help. Mine always folds and goes with me and I have went over some tough ground with mine, but don’t know what you had in mind.

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I can’t tell if this is a current “canoe for sale” listing (in the Finger Lakes) but I have a Lady Bug and it’s a great little solo. I’m 5’ 5" and was a bit over 160 pounds when I got it and it was a good size. Bought it from a guy your size who loved it, just wanted to fund a tandem. I also helped another canoeist (also about your size) sell his Bug to another average sized guy so I think it would be scaled well for you. The original designer and builder, Dave Curtis, is now Hemlock Canoes (in Hemlock, NY).

The 34 pound weight makes it a cinch to carry (that is the actual weight of mine, though the spec sheet is more conservative). I’m a 71 yearsold blue haired little old lady and I can easily carry it some distance overhead grasping the gunwales and resting my head on the seat. That’s the going price for the model on the used market and they do come up used regularly especially in upstate NY. There were 4 for sale within 300 miles of me when I decided to buy one in 2018.

I am also pasting the spec sheet.

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There is also a Bell Bucktail in kevlar (12’ pack canoe only 26 pounds) for sale just south of Buffalo for $1400 or best offer.

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Hi, bonpawtuck,

I’ve been paddling solo canoes for decades and love the freedom they offer. Not that tandem canoes aren’t great but I just feel more connected to the canoe when solo canoeing.

Since you haven’t paddled in a solo canoe much I suggest buying a reasonably affordable used solo canoe that has most of what you’re wanting to try, and then paddle around with it, learning about the design and build aspects that work well for you and those that don’t. You’ll get a good idea of whether that boat or a different design would be a better match for you and the places and conditions you canoe. You can always sell a used canoe for about what you pay for it and won’t have the initial cost of a new one.

As for materials and build up of a canoe, the price usually does reflect the cost of materials and labor. And layup has a lot to do with differences in weight and durability. That Boreas looks like a great ultralight boat but I probably wouldn’t run it down rocky whitewater. A Hemlock canoe is going to weigh more but I’d take one down a rocky stretch of river without worrying as much about damaging it.

Just another suggestion to add to the ones above but there’s a Bell Yellowstone for sale in the Paddling.com classifieds for what seems like a good price. A reasonable 44 lbs in Royalex. You could have some fun in that boat without worrying about it too much and get a good idea of what you’re after in a solo canoe.

Tom

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Willow, I can’t fathom you as a " blue haired little old lady"!

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Bonpawtuck: If you can wait until the first week of June you could drive down to the Western PA solo canoe Rendezvous weekend which is 45 minutes north of Pittsburgh. There you can try dozens of solo canoes on the water – it’s held on a small pond. There are usually a number of used ones for sale as well as new models from the vendors who come. There were at least 50 solo canoes there from every maker you can think of and most attendees were generous about letting others try them out.

Last year I got to meet Dave Curtis, who built my vintage Lady Bug solo. Dave was there with his Hornbeck boats. Other vendors were Stewart River and Savage River. It’s at a very nice campground if you wanted to make an overnight trip of it, but depending on where you are in the Southern Tier it is probably not a bad drive for a day trip. I camped overnight even though it was less than an hour from home because the gathering was so much fun and there were activities both days. I got some paddle technique coaching from other attendees that really helped, since most of my prior experience had been kayaks and tandem canoes.

https://wpascr.org

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Yup, String, I am true blue.

I shall not go grey-ly into that good night (apologies to Dylan Thomas.)

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Thanks for the reply, Tom.

Regarding materials: For the Boreas, Adirondack Canoe company says that the “Standard lay-up is carbon fibe and kevlar.” For the Kestrel, Swift describes a “Kevlar/Hybrid hull” for the base model. What info are you using to make inferences about their comparative ability to hold up in rocky whitewater? To me - someone who is new to canoe materials beyond fiberglass and Royalex - these descriptions don’t mean much more than “light and fancy.”

You can add tough and expensive.

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