New to canoeing, need advice on canoe for Puget Sound and beyond

During this lockdown I have become interested in purchasing a canoe. I am temporarily living on the water on the Puget Sound (Gig Harbor) and I desperately want to be able to paddle. My permanent residence is a few blocks from Lake Washington.

In an ideal world, I would be able to use my canoe on the Sound, on Lake Washington, and for overnight trips. I’m not as interested in solo paddling so my canoe would need to fit two people comfortably.

I was close to buying a 16 ft aluminum canoe but since reading the forum have decided against that. My budget is $500 and I know that that will get me a used canoe.

My questions are, Is it possible for me to find a single canoe that would be able to fit all of my needs? What materials are going to perform well and still be in my price range? Is 16 feet an appropriate length? Any additional advice about other features I should look for would be appreciated.

Thank you!

First you need to realize that people drown every year on Puget Sound in open boats. because they sometimes do not dress for immersion. Wear a PFD always and dress for the 55 degree water temperature. It can be colder than that. Help can be a long way away or not around at all.

The Sound has strong tidal rips, waves and currents, especially around islands. Learn to use a tide table. Currents can easily overcome your ability to paddle against them. Rips of 3-4 feet can come out of nowhere. Best to go in a group and practice rescues.

For the Sound you need a deep, dry boat. Paddling solo is not such a good idea. Even with a kayak paddle you have less power than in a tandem canoe.

Lake Washington can get plenty rough, but it is smaller, warmer and there is more help around. Start there and perfect your skills. Good luck. Get some help with your canoe purchase.

That advice is really helpful. I should clarify that the area in Puget Sound that I plan on paddling is is sheltered and calmer than most places, and I wouldn’t be venturing far. but that’s a great reminder that the water is cold and falling in could be deadly. Thank you!

Hello dani dont know much bout canoes I am a kayak person cause to me they are somewhat more stable …just saw u were new to site and wanted to say hello and welcome to the paddling group a great bunch of folks that can and will help in giving sound advice

Hi Dani, welcome.

What ppine said is very true. While I’ve never been on the sound, I have a friend who’s sailed around a chunk of it and he has talked about all of that. Planning and practicing for the worst is always safest, and building skills is never a bad thing.

As to boat construction, I really don’t like aluminum. While it has it’s place for some folks, a concern for your use would be temperature. Sure it gets hot in the sun, but it’s also going to transmit the cold from the water which can become quite unpleasant, especially when you get caught in the rain. I would recommend something that has a foam core to it. Composite (think Kevlar, fiberglass, etc.) with a foam core, ABS (Royalex/T-Formex), and three layer polyethylene will all work well with 3 layer poly being the most likely to fall into you price range. It will also usually be the heaviest. Without portaging that’s less of an issue, but lighter boats are easier to load/unload (you may go more often) and they respond better to the paddler as you grow your skills. Composites will paddle the best (with the right design) and usually weigh less but cost more. ABS is in the middle.

As to specific boats, that is quite personal. I love some that others don’t and vice versa. Generally, all the “big” name manufacturers will make a boat design that will work, for poly boats your probably going to be looking at a fair number of Old Town designs, and most are good to great versatile boats but you’ll really need to test paddle to see how they feel.

16 is a great all around length. If you plan to solo the boat once in a while, you should be more picky about the design. A tandem boat can feel pretty big pretty quickly when you solo. I prefer paddling solo boats in groups, my own boat and style plus I can be side by side for better conversation and have a great boat when I can’t paddle with people. But a narrower/smaller tandem can work really well if only one boat is in the cards. I love soloing my Royalex Bell Northwind 16. If you won’t solo, ignore that and find the tandem that feels most comfortable to you.

I’m rambling… oh, disclaimer, I work in a small paddling shop but I promise I’m not married to any brands, though I have my personal preferences for how I like to paddle.

Not only do you have to consider dressing for conditions and cold water survival, but you are unlikely to be able to get back into a canoe in deep water if you do capsize. Canoes are not great in wind and waves either. I have a solo canoe (have owned a couple of tandems) and several kayaks – I personally do not go out in coastal conditions except in at least a 14’ sea kayak. The canoes are great for inland lakes and rivers. For the ocean I want something low profile that can ride up over waves, keep me dry and that I can roll or climb back into if I dump. And that’s a sea kayak or touring kayak.


Canoes have a much wider beam than kayaks and are inherently more stable in general.
They are open boats but can be outfitted with splash covers.
Canadians up around Vancouver Is are well known for long trips in salt water. It takes experience to do it safely. The Sound is more dangerous than even the really big lakes.

I agree with all the comments and have to wonder about the fundamental suitability of a canoe for such big water for anyone other than experienced experts. Many paddling tragedies start with “the weather changed”. Changes in wind speed or direction can happen instantly and seem to happen when you are furthest from safety.

One comment I have to add is that you want to avoid a canoe with a flat bottom. Most aluminum boats have flat bottoms. In wind and waves canoes with flat bottoms can become unstable, especially when wind or waves hit them on the side.

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I was just watching a video about a kayak club off Dungeness Spit near Port Angeles. This time of year, April, calm conditions. Afternoon winds. Three boats capsized. All were wearing PFDs, but the water temperature was 49 degrees. . There were some fatalities. The surviving club members went out and bought dry suits after this happened.

This 2015 incident? Some wore wet suits but for some reason they didn’t understand what a small craft advisory meant so I’m unsure how experienced they were.

Also discussed here at Pcom:

Whether the survivors ever paddled again is unknown. After such a tragedy it would be understandable to give up the sport.

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Depends upon the style of canoe. My solo has a 24’ beam. Racing canoes not much different. We need to stay away from generalized standard statements that may not be standard.

What do people in Puget Sound (Gig Harbor) paddle? Search a little wider if you don’t find a paddling presence in Gig Harbor.

Hi DaniFlint, welcome to the forum!

If you are planning to stay within the harbor and not venture out beyond the Gig Harbor lighthouse, that’s probably safe, but otherwise:

I agree with ppine and others, that an open canoe is not the right boat for big waters like the Puget Sound or Lake Washington, ESPECIALLY if you are not an expert canoer.

Weather conditions can change during even an hour or two’s outing, and an open canoe will quickly become dangerous if the wind picks up. The first problem you will notice is that it becomes more and more difficult to paddle your canoe upwind. Canoes have a lot of windage (surface area exposed to wind), and if your paddle strokes lack sufficient power the canoe will either fail to make reasonable progress or will even veer off until it is broadside to the wind. The next problem you will notice is that waves may start washing over the gunwales and into the canoe, making it even harder to control as the water sloshes back and forth in the boat.

If you decide to go ahead with a canoe, float bags like the product below can keep the canoe from sinking to the bottom if it capsizes or becomes swamped with water:

I hope you have heard of the Tacoma Narrows and know about its dangers. The whole Puget Sound is riddled with tide-related danger zones so learning how to plan your outings to avoid these problems is a big deal. And having a plan for what to do if your Plan A doesn’t work out. As I said before, the Harbor looks safe enough but otherwise please be careful.

nearly 60 years in canoes. First an unequivocal, “Don’t do it !!” The considerations.
Tides. Tides move water faster than you can paddle. Period. Yes, there may be slack tides, ebb and flood, spring tides, neap tides, king tides. Before you venture on to the Sound even once, you MUST understand them all, and WHEN they occur during the day and during the month.
Wind. On open water, wind can entirely exceed the ability of even the most experience paddler to make positive headway. I have literally been blown backwards onto a beach while continuing to paddle into the wind. The classic fatal error concerning wind, just occurred in Maryland. Robert F. Kennedy’s granddaughter Maeve McKean, and her son. Ball was blown off the land into a shelter small bay, the first clue is the ball was being blown offshore, they grabbed a canoe and went after the ball. The wind was too strong for them to paddle back into the wind and the safety of the shore. The shore was sheltered, because the wind was going from the land out over the water, it looked easy and doable, but 50 or 150, or 250 feet out, the wind was too strong to be able to point the bow into the wind, and paddle back to shore. There are many times, it cannot be done, by me, or by anyone.
Third. Sailing, or paddling on a schedule, you need to get back to your car, house, job, girlfriend, you need to get back on a schedule. “Oh, I can make it.” uh, No. You cannot. Open water, Lake Washington, Puget Sound, you ARE a sailor, and you “Sail on the tide.” You make or adhere to ZERO schedules, except are the conditions perfect. Wind light and from the correct direction, tide running exactly how is best, lights, night travel, You Do Not push off from shore because, “You have to be home.” The only clock you are on is the Sea’s clock. If you ever make a decision because you have to get back, you are dead.

I own 4 canoes and 9 paddles at the moment, some of the paddles, have 9 or 10 thousand miles on them.

IF you really want to do it, the right boat, sturdy and good tall bow and stern, high sides, The first two I would recommend are both from Clipper Canoe, the McKenzie 18’, and the Sea Clipper 18’6" WITH A full spray deck… North Water Vancouver, BC will build and excellent one for you. You should have some substantial floation under that cover. Both boats are beefy enough to be able to deploy a rope three step ladder over the stern so you can climb back in. You always go with suitable clothing AND dry spares in a dry bag.

We just went through 6 grand in gear, and we covered the must do, and must not do, gathered from 60 years in canoes. I was out paddling today. I have a 200 mile white water trip lined up for mid June.

Begin with an inexpensive boat, small lakes, and small rivers. The turns and twist of a river are absolutely essential training for what is coming. You cannot paddle a straight line, until you learn to paddle the twisty river. The two or three currents you MUST learn, a canoe paddles in the river current, the canoe at the same time paddles the wind current, you learn to play one against the other, the third feature, is waves and wakes. You must be able to without thinking about it to deal with a 3 or 4 foot tall wave, with the next following, and then the next,and the next.

The Puget sound is for an absolute rarefied canoeist who is also willing to stay on shore for Monday and Tuesday, before he heads home on Wednesday, 2 days late for work. He will get there safe and sound and alive.

Got it?

I am going to strongly suggest that you at least consider a sea kayak for what you have in mind. Take note that I did not say “a kayak.” A sea kayak is what is suitable for most of Puget Sound and even with the right sea kayak, it might take a lot of experience and instructions before you are competent to venture very far from shore.

There are tamer waters in the lower sound, but even there you have to know how quickly things can change and not necessarily the weather. Most of the sound features moving water at times and what was a nice flat, still bay can turn into a mud flat and leave you with a long walk, or stuck somewhere you didn’t want to be.

I have sailed and paddled all over Puget Sound, Hood Canal, the San Juans, the Straits and Lake Washington, but never in a canoe. I don’t regret that.

One more factor that you need to be very aware of is that if you always plan to go paddling with others, you probably won’t be going all that often.

Wow, thanks everyone for the advice, feeling much more informed. I should have clarified that I never intended on venturing very far into Puget Sound, and live in a more protected bay area, but your advice will definitely keep me there! I think I’m going to stick to calm lakes for now and build up my skills. I’ll stay safe out there, thanks again!

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