Let's talk TRACKING for boats

-- Last Updated: Sep-06-12 10:46 AM EST --

A term that gets thrown around often with
little thought to what it truly means :

Some may think it means pushing a completely empty boat
as hard as you can from land into the water and it's
""supposed"" to go exactly straight, no turning.

Others may think that when you sit in the boat and
paddle on one side of the boat, it's ""supposed""
to still go straight for a while.

Brand new boat owners,
( who often favor their dominant hand/arm ),
and have little time actually paddling,
claim their boat ""doesn't track straight"" .

With a endless multitude of factors and forces
acting upon a boat in the water on any given day
having some salesman or brochure claiming
the boat ""tracks great"" really means what exactly ?

It seems to be everyone wants ""tracking""
but many new boat owners don't fully grasp
the why, where, when and how of it all.

So let's discuss the issue, on a forum :

first, weight isn’t relevant

– Last Updated: Sep-06-12 12:35 PM EST –

...in that a loaded boat can track well, and an unloaded boat can track well.

Secondly, the boat's tracking has nothing to do with a new paddler. The profile of the hull isn't dependent on the paddler's skill level.

Now then: my opinion is that tracking describes the ability to hold a straight course while paddling. Add wind and waves for more factors. My preference is to rely on the hull and a fixed skeg - and the skeg as little as possible. sometimes when boredom sets in I try and see how well I can do without the skeg, no matter the conditions.

The other reason I like to rely on the hull is that in a crosswind or quartering seas, with the right hull, one can simply lift a knee and tilt the hull to maintain good tracking. It becomes more reflexive and intuitive than using a rudder IMO. This part of hull design is interesting to me: the ability to track straight with the hull tilted.

Ideally one should select a hull that best suits their paddling needs. If you're rock gardening those may be different than if you're traveling point-to-point.

OK - fire away!

Premise: By design intent, boats should be perfectly symmetrical left-to-right.

Physics: Newton’s first 2 laws of motion.

First law: If an object experiences no net force, then its velocity is constant; the object is either at rest (if its velocity is zero), or it moves in a straight line with constant speed (if its velocity is nonzero).[2][3][4]

Second law: The acceleration a of a body is parallel and directly proportional to the net force F acting on the body, is in the direction of the net force, and is inversely proportional to the mass m of the body, i.e., F = ma.

It follows from the above that a “perfect” boat, loaded symmetrically left-to-right, that is given a push exactly on the center line, and is traveling in perfectly still water, and perfectly still air will go straight. Drag will cause it to slow down and eventually stop.

Reality check:

Boats are not manufactured perfectly. There is always some degree of asymmetry.

Boats are never loaded symmetrically. There will always be more weight on one side or the other.

Paddle force is not applied perfectly on the center line.

Water is never perfectly still.

Air is never perfectly still.

All of these reality factors induce unbalanced forces on the boat, and these unbalanced force cause the boat to turn.

“Tracking” is the boat’s sensitivity to these unbalanced forces.

A “strong tracking” boat develops relatively large reactions to externally imposed unbalanced forces, and thus needs relatively high externally imposed unbalanced forces to cause it to deviate from a straight line.

A “poor tracking” boat develops relatively small reactions, and thus small external forces cause it to turn.

Many new paddlers go in circles

– Last Updated: Sep-06-12 2:36 PM EST –

Why does a novice often have trouble going straight,
- if - sooo many boats offer wonderful tracking capabilities ?

They can always find one that tracks even worse and so they advertise theirs tracks better (than at least the worst).

Of course even in the very best tracking boat they may not go straight but they’ll at least go straighter than one that doesn’t track as well.

Generally the better tracking boats are longer (yeah, I’m sure someone can find exceptions) and these are less likely used by beginners which just makes the tracking issue worse for beginners.

To me, a boat that tracks well does not “oversteer”…that is, when I pull a straight stroke on one side it has some pull off center — but not so much that I’m zig-zagging my way across the water.

Conversely, the more I use a J stroke or alternative turning strokes…it should respond well/favorably to these (but I am a rudder guy anyway so this is less of an issue).

Should a beginner boat have a keel

– Last Updated: Sep-06-12 3:45 PM EST –

Many out there seem to want that line down
the bottom of the hull, instead of a smooth hull,

Something like this :

I say the tracking issue is counter-intuitive
and newcomers purchase an initial first boat that
doesn't do what they want it to do.

I will also simplify things by calling
a kayak nothing more than a covered canoe.

Tracking is a relative term

– Last Updated: Sep-06-12 7:36 PM EST –

When I say that one boat is tracks harder than another I mean that it has less tendency to yaw off course in response to a forward stroke. When paddling hit and switch in a canoe with the hull flat it means that more strokes can be taken on one side before switching. When paddling on one side it means that the boat can be made to go straight with less attention given to correction strokes.

Nearly always it also means that the boat will require somewhat more "effort" to turn. That might mean that the turning radius is larger, it takes longer to execute a 180 degree turn, it requires the use of more exaggerated turning strokes (like bow draws, cross-draws, or sweeps, or it requires a more pronounced heel to clear the stems up out of the water (or any combination of the above).

A renowned kayak instructor once said to me "going straight is all about turning". What he meant, or what I think he meant is that any boat is going to yaw off course sooner or later in response to forward strokes and keeping the boat on course requires exerting a counter-force to resist the tendency for it to turn. The easier the boat turns, the less counter-force is needed to keep it going straight, or to turn it back on course if it has yawed off. So even the shortest, most highly-rockered boat can be paddled straight with practice.

I like hard tracking boats for lake paddling or paddling for exercise since they require less attention to paddle in a relatively straight line. I think a lot of beginning boaters favor hard tracking boats since they are somewhat more forgiving of questionable technique, at least so far as going straight is concerned. But I have seen a number of boaters gravitate to more shorter, more rockered boats over time because they are more agile, yet they can still be paddled straight with good technique.


– Last Updated: Sep-06-12 6:57 PM EST –

First one needs to know what they want it to do before they can say the boat doesn't do that. I would suspect that other things being equal having such a keel as in the picture will make it go straight with less effort. I suspect something narrower than the 32" beam of that boat would be better yet.

Whether they want or need it to go that straight depends on their goals. If they with less skills want to cover longer distances with less hassle then it would be good. If they want to maneuver more as in creeks, etc. then it would hurt.

I sense you have a specific message to convey and are waiting to see if someone hits upon it.

I’ve tracked herons, otters, muskrats,
lots of critters in my boats. When you have something to track, somehow tracking isn’t a problem…

Seldom hear "It edges well"
We seldom hear people mention

“It edges well” but we often

hear people wanting a boat to track well.

I’m guessing few new boat purchases,

are made on the fact, a boat edges wonderfully.

hear often in certain contexts
especially for those looking for a maneuverable boat. In the context of tracking many will talk of how some boat tracks straight but once on edge can turn well. Beginners obviously don’t talk as much about this because a) they don’t really know much about edging yet and b) failure to go straight is their greatest frustration.

Talk to anyone that bought a Romany and they will likely talk about edging a bit.

Ask a salesman about edging
…the crickets will be louder than the salesmen

at a big box store when asking about edging

versus tracking.

For Me…
tracking means the tendency of a kayak to stay on course. When I was brand new at this kayak thing that’s what I valued. Aim at that lighthouse 4 miles away and keep a straight line. It didn’t take me long to realize that kayaks that turn well; correct course easily, are the thing.

Trim, and track.

I’m new to kayaking but
I have paddled all my life, mostly in moving water. I bought a boat that tracked really well and I hated it because it was a bear to turn. Returned it in a months time and replaced it with a boat that tracks ok and turns really well. I’m happy now. That first boat would not turn well enough to satisfy me no matter what I did. No amount of edging and no matter how strongly I applied a sweep stroke would move it smartly around. My new boat responds predictably and strongly to turn inputs and with practice it will track just fine.

just depends on goals
Any boat that turns easy can track with enough skill and effort and any boat that tracks well can turn with enough edging and some patience. So it depends what you do the most and is why many own more than one boat. My Aquanaut with the help of a shallow V hull tracks very well (but not like some race boats) and turns fairly well on edge – I can focus on speed and cover distances well. My P&H Delphin requires a bit more focus to track straight but when I need to do a 180% to get out of the rocks before that next wave it does the job.

The REC Boat phenomenom

– Last Updated: Sep-07-12 11:49 AM EST –

Yet people continue to buy lousy rec boats
by the millions which don't track hardly at all .

Beginners want to go straight, but handicap themselves,
right from day one of their kayak purchase by buying
a cheap, short, slippery smooth hull, rec boat .

Sounds to me like a lack of knowledge,
lack of instruction, lack of information gap;
in the beginning paddler, novice, demographic.

This is why taking a class, demo before buy, and
acquiring some intuition before that purchase matters.

I truly LIKE the REI stores, spend money there often,
but no mention of edging in their "criteria"

Pretty typical of the Big Box store purchase info
tracking is a big issue, using edge non-existent

The whole "wearing a kayak", "fitting a kayak"
is lost at the Big Box purchase points.

are we talking about tracking?
…or are we talking about new paddlers (again)?

finally done beating around the bush?

– Last Updated: Sep-07-12 2:22 PM EST –

Tracking as pertains to new paddlers:

I agree that one is best suited to demo a kayak before purchasing - for tracking as well as other characteristics.

But once one develops some experience, and also based on the type of paddling, "tracking" is not the end-all be-all. I have an explorer I'd trade in a heartbeat for a pintail or Romany surf, because in big water I'm more interested in playing.

If you're talking rec boats, one can approach the desire for tracking with a straight keeled rec boat or a ruddered rec boat. But again, people progress differently across the kayak continuum. Some stop at recreational boats, some progress to touring boats, some go to whitewater where short boats and maneuverability rules, some progress to occasional flatwater sea kayaking, and some progress to regular rough water sea kayaking. Tracking may be prioritized differently along that continuum and among paddlers, but it's not something that is exclusive to one type of boat.
It's best to try before you buy. OTOH, your desires may change over time. I've been kayaking for fifteen years as an adult, and my interests are still changing.

I don't think you can guide a new paddler ("new kayak user", "big box plastic boat splasher", whatever you want to call them) completely through instruction like a schoolmaster, so that they begin and end up with the exact boat that fits their needs, because the paddler develops different preferences and interests. I think it's natural to have an evolution of kayaks you've owned to suit those changes. Some people even keep them all!