Keel ballasting a canoe or kayak

I have a tippy canoe that I think would improve by about 80 pounds of keel ballasting.

Please, the topic is not whether I should get a different canoe or learn how to paddle better. Neither of those things is likely to happen. I would like experience or opinions on keel ballasting.

As background, keel ballasting an old practice. The Phoenicians did it with rocks. All modern cargo tankers take on water ballast when unloaded. At least one of the guys who crossed the Atlantic in a Klepper used lead keel ballast. The more sophisticated Niagara barrel runners used lead bottom ballast. Roz Savage, who is currently in the middle of the Pacific trying to be the first female to row that pond, uses keel ballast in her self-righting rowboat:

The benefits of keel ballast would seem to be miraculous. Primary stability would improve. Secondary stability would improve. All maneuvers and leans could be effected with more reach and confidence. And, finally, a capsized boat would be completely self-righting and much easier to climb back into.

(Where is Rube Goldberg’s patent lawyer when you need him?)

I’m thinking of using a PVC tube fixed along the keel in the center section of the boat. Lead would be the most compact form of ballast. It does not deter me that lead inside PVC under one’s privates may emanate rays that cause sterility and insanity. I’m too old to care about such trivia.

Sand would be more available and easily replaceable. Water would be best, as I could easily dump it out and refill the ballast tube for carries. But I don’t know if sand or water would be heavy enough.


It’s been done

– Last Updated: Jul-13-09 4:02 PM EST –

I've read about using lead shot in a PVC pipe on centerline to ballast a kayak for stability during photo work.

Heck, if your boat needs ballast to sit down on its design waterline, why not put it where it'll do the most good? Makes sense to me.

I'd suggest using a couple of easily-carried tubes instead of one backbreaker, and adding flotation to the canoe in proportion to the ballast.

For 80 pounds of water, you'd need roughly 15' of 4' pipe or 7' of 6".

Dry sand is roughly 60% denser than water. Lead shot would be 6-8X denser than water.

A bit more expensive

– Last Updated: Jul-13-09 3:59 PM EST –

But a lot lighter to deal with.. how about a set of training wheels for canoes..

More stability than added ballast, not heavy to carry around.

Don’t Forget Floatation

– Last Updated: Jul-13-09 4:16 PM EST –

Yes, I admit that I shudder at adding 80 pounds to a boat for no other reason than stability. During "side trips" while camping by boat, simply doing without my usual 50 to 60 pounds of camping gear IMPROVES speed and performance to such a huge extent compared to how that boat handles WITH that load, that I can't imagine that nearly doubling my gear load would result in anything other than a lot of extra work being necessary to go "from here to there".

But, if you are dead set on doing this, don't forget to add enough floatation to counteract that weight. Packs full of camping gear float and have no detrimental effect on a swamped boat. If your ballast is a dense material, that could be a problem. You mentioned the Phoenicians, but just remember what happened to all old-time ballasted sailing boats when overcome by storms at sea (hint: they didn't just drift and eventually end up on some beach). If your boat does tip or swamp in deep water and you don't have extra floatation secured on board, you'll never see your boat again.

William Nealy invented lead moose
antlers as an aide for playboaters. Mounted on the bow, lead moose antlers made it easy for almost anyone to get enders, nose stands, etc.

I used sheet lead in the listing board of my Schiedmayer replica clavichord. Lead has many uses.

Define Tippy
Does the boat turn over a lot? Or does it just feel tippy? I have a canoe that feels tippy when it’s on a even keel, but 5-10 degrees of heel to either side and it feels much more stable. You can feel it heel, then stop. It take much more lean to get it to heel more. It’s kinda neat once you get used to it.

So maybe it’s just that initial few dgrees that make your boat feel tippy.

I use depleted uranium.
Seriously though, there is no such thing as a tippy canoe - just unsteady passlers. Olympic flatwater C-1s are round bottomed to reduce wetted surface, and are difficult for mere mortals to keep upright. Yet skilled paddlers manage to propel them at amazing speeds.

The easiest way to play arounf with ballast is to fill several drybags with dihydrogen monoxide. This liquid can be obtained at grocery stores, convenience stores, and sometimes sinks in residential dwellings. When you are done paddling it can simply be drained into the lake, pond, creek or river.



Glenn we know you know how
to paddle so that is not the issue.

I have several hundred pounds of tube sand in my garage. Even in Connecticut you may be able to locate it in a hardware store… Its used to place weight over your tires in a truck in the winter without the mess of loose sand.

That self righting feature though…it sounds like complicated engineering to make sure the ballasted craft is not self sinking and has adequate air tanks or such.

I had a dog named Tippy.
He got hit by a car.

That would never have happened…
…if you would have fastened 80 pounds of lead to his belly.

Hey, some good feedback here

– Last Updated: Jul-13-09 11:23 PM EST –

I thought it went without saying that I would only use my PVC pipe ballast when paddling empty. I don't paddle with 300 pounds of useless weight anymore. I got divorced.

The counsel to use added flotation is wise. But very, very annoying.

I'm positive the boat would self-right with 80 pounds of ballast affixed to the keel. It's one of those fancy canoes with shouldered tumblehome -- a newfangled feature that ensures the canoe will be unstable even when upside down.

(BTW, and with all due respect, anyone who swallows that Kool-Aid about secondary stability being more important than primary stability is either an Olympic level paddler or in serious need of a cult deprogrammer.)

I could mount the lead pipe on rails so it could slide from bow to stern. That way, I could dazzle rec paddlers with bow and stern enders. No, seriously ... I could use it to shift the longitudinal center of gravity, the lateral center of resistance and the apparent peripatetic pivot point abow and astern to precisely counterbalance weathercocking.

Alternatively, I could mount the lead pipe on side-to-side rails so I could cock the hull into a permanent 60 degree heel. Omer Stringer did this as a young boy in Algonquin Park, Ontario. He was shuttling fireplace rocks back and forth on Canoe Lake, and a heavy boulder got lodged in the chine of his Chestnuts canoe. He was too skinny to move it, so he left it there for 60 years and paddled that way.

OK, you can forget all that, but I still think 80 pounds of lead shot in a fixed but easily removable plastic pipe would have all the salubrious benefits I claim. That's no more weight than the dogs and kids and beer cases that the good paddlers tote around.

It’ll sink it
It’ll be just like a car battery in a canoe. It’ll sink the boat. Kids and camping gear might weigh more than a car battery but they also displace more water, so if you do tip it over it will sink.

Please don’t ask me how I found this out.

Just try it when the water is warm. Lead is handy ballast but in deep water you may want the flotation.

You crack me up.

– Last Updated: Jul-13-09 11:30 PM EST –

Okay, some of your humor was pretty clever, but as long as giving "wise" advice is "very annoying", I might as well keep it up.

You said "BTW, and with all due respect, anyone who swallows that Kool-Aid about secondary stability being more important than primary stability is either an Olympic level paddler or in serious need of a cult deprogrammer", but I noticed the secondary stability of my first "real" canoe (nothing fancy, just a Wenonah Vagabond) before I'd ever heard or read about the term and before I had even learned how to paddle a canoe solo. I thought "Hey, this is really cool" when I noticed that the harder I leaned the boat the harder it was to make it lean even more. This was very unlike my round-bottomed guide-boat (which is very rolly-polly and doesn't really "firm-up" much at all when leaned) and also very unlike the flat-bottomed canoes I'd paddled previous to that point (which are hard to tip in general, but if tipped far enough will reach a "point of no return" that is quite difficult to predict).

In most ways you sound pretty clever, but if you think secondary stability is what you say it is, you need to paddle some different boats or analyze what you see happening in a logical way. On the other hand, I don't think a Supernova or even a guide-boat is "tippy", so right from the start it seems to me you've been drinking a brand of Kool-Aid of your own.

Hey, I warned you that this post would annoy you!

I smell a troll…
Solid, high density ballast has to be the worse idea since the TV show, “Small Wonder”. Self righting boats generally have this thing called a “deck”…a feature most canoes lack.

Sounds like a great plan to send a decent boat straight to the bottom.


It will self-right…

– Last Updated: Jul-14-09 8:16 AM EST –'ll just be underwater and sinking when it happens.

I agree that 80 pounds of lead will sink your boat if it does not self right as you think it would.

Water, on the other hand wouldnt’sink the boat.

at 8 lbs per gallon, you’d need 10 gallons of water.

REI sells some water bladders that hold about 3 gallons or so of water - they are the same concept as the bladders in a wine box. So 3 or 4 of those would work, and could be emptied out for easy transport. I couldn’t find this item on the web, but they had them in my local store a week or two ago when I was in last. Might be other sources for similar products - they cost 2 or 3 bucks each. Possible some of the large 2 gal size ziplocks would work ?

Anyway, the water bladders are kind of pillow shaped, and would sit flat on the bottom of the canoe - maybe jsut a couple of strips of duct tape to hold them in place would be all you’d need.

If it were my boat, I’d use water instead of lead.