Please Help Me Choose a First Canoe

I know this subject has been done to death by everyone new to paddling, but here I am anyway hoping for some general canoe recommendations. This is a great forum, and I’ve learned a lot reading through various threads here. I’ve spent a huge amount of time (an irresponsible amount of time, really) reading up on various models over the last few weeks, but I would still appreciate some personal help. Right now, I’m looking mostly at the OT Penobscot (RX, 16’), the Wenonah Prospector (RX, probably 16’ although maybe 15’), and the Mad River Explorer (RX, probably 16’ although maybe 15’). Other potential boats include the Bell Morningstar, various other Prospectors (Bell’s looks nice), Mad River Legend (RX, probably 16’ although maybe 15’), possibly the Bell Yellowstone, etc. But the OT Penobscot, Wenonah Prospector and the MR Explorer are the main three I’m thinking about.

Basically, I’m looking for the clichéd “do-everything” canoe that all beginners want, although I know it doesn’t exist. Well, not really “do-everything”: I have no plans for serious whitewater, nor am I interested in any long trips across lakes, or any very long trips at all, really. What I am interested in is: a boat that I can take out with my two young sons, for day trips or overnight weekend trips, on some lakes and some fairly mild rivers. They’re too young to do anything other than act as ballast, so this essentially means I’d be handling the boat by myself. Sometimes, mom might come along as well, so we’ll need space for that. Several times a year, mom and the kids will be left at home while I go on trips with friends, in which case the boat may be carrying another adult male, plus several days worth of gear. I don’t expect those trips to be longer than a week, max, and far more often they’ll be 3-day, 2-night affairs. Those will generally be in lazy rivers, although the boat needs to be capable of handling some mild whitewater (lots of class I and II, with occasional class III). Sometimes I might not have a rowing partner on those trips, depending on head- and boat-count, so again, I’d need to be able to handle the thing solo. No long portages, basically ever. Also, I’m hoping I can find time to get out with the boat all alone from time to time. I’d really like to try to learn poling, so I’d hope the boat was at least respectably suited for that (even if not ideal). I expect to paddle sometimes from a seat (the bow seat with the boat backwards, as applicable), sometimes kneeling. I expect roughly half the time I’ll be in very slow water, and roughly half the time I’ll be in faster water/mild rapids.

I’ve been in enough boats to not care about primary stability at all, but secondary should be very good. I’m pretty weak and lazy, so efficiency if important to me—if it’s a pain to move the boat through the water, I’m not going to enjoy it for very long. Also, being weak and lazy and having to get this thing on and off the car by myself at least some of the time, a lightweight boat is a real priority. I’m planning to stick with RX rather than a lighter composite because I understand the royalex is more durable, especially when not always treated gently, and that’s definitely what I’m looking for. I don’t want to worry about treating the boat gently. But, I’d like to try to find as light of a royalex hull as I can, and definitely don’t want anything over 70 lbs (closer to 60 or less would be much better). Honestly, I don’t want to blow a ton of cash on this, and I’d probably just be buying a cheap recreational canoe if it weren’t for the weight factor—if it’s too heavy, I’m just not going to be wanting to use it as much, and I’d rather pay a little more for something I’ll enjoy.

I’m a lanky 5’11” and only 150 lbs. So one factor that’s going to be important is that the boat shouldn’t need a LOT of weight in order to paddle well. On some trips it may just be me, although I can always throw in some water jugs as needed. I’d expect total passenger plus cargo weight on a typical trip to be somewhere in the 200-400 lb. range (with many trips on the lower end of that range). So, a boat that really needs 500 or 600 lbs in it to achieve peak performance isn’t for me. That, plus ease of handling, is part of what’s got me considering the 15’ boats.

So, any thoughts, especially on the suitability (or not) of the boats named above? I’d love to test paddle them all, of course, but it seems that’s not going to be possible. In fact, the only one I’ve been able to try was the Wenonah Prospector (15’). It turned on a dime but seemed a bit of a pain to keep straight, but it had nothing at all except me in it, so it’s not really a fair test run. I’m sure some additional weight would help with the tracking.

Again, the main contenders are the OT Penobscot (RX, 16’), the Wenonah Prospector (RX, probably 16’ although maybe 15’), and the Mad River Explorer (RX, probably 16’ although maybe 15’). I’ve read all the reviews of all these boats here and elsewhere. I know the Penobscot is more oriented towards still water, and the Prospector is generally better in faster moving water/rapids, although both should generally be okay in either (I think?). I don’t really know where the Explorer fits on that spectrum, although my sense is that it’s somewhere between those other two, in terms of the tradeoff between speed and maneuverability. I think the Penobscot beats the others on weight, although they’re all within 10 pounds of one another.

All opinions are appreciated. Thanks.

For the sake of completeness, I should note that the Wenonah Prospector 15’ that I paddled oilcanned a lot more than I’d expected. It’s not anything that would prevent me from buying the boat, but I’d definitely prefer less oilcanning.

We’ve never regretted buying our
Penobscot 17. With mommy in the bow, I can’t imagine a better boat for a family of four to grow in. It’s like a minivan of canoes. We always had a 1 to 1 adult/child rule until they became competent swimmers, though.

…I don’t remember writing all that - but I could have. It seems you have described my needs pretty much - and you may already know that no single boat will be perfect for all that (but we can wish).

Those are all good boats. And I was thinking “Penobscot” until you got to the part about you and the wife and two kids. Maybe the Penobscot 17, as has been suggested, would be better. But then you mention poling. And so I think “Prospector” - until you mention efficiency…

And so it goes…

All I can suggest is…stick to the models you’ve been considering (and maybe bump up the length for the whole family) and buy used. You might be far happier with more than one canoe, but by all means get one to start…and then assess the damage. :wink:

If you are going to be taking another
adult, and two kids, I suggest you look into a 17 foot canoe.

I have a 16 foot Penobscot, and as much as I like the boat, I wouldn’t recommend it for two adults and two children.

Jack L

you need to determine priorities

– Last Updated: Oct-12-10 8:46 PM EST –

You are looking for a large volume tandem canoe in Royalex that is capable of handling 2 adults and 2 children, is competent on up to Class III whitewater, is durable, efficient to paddle, and weighs no more than 70 lbs, and preferably 60 lbs. It probably doesn't exist.

If you are really serious about paddling whitewater up to Class III, especially with kids in the boat, your best choice of the boats you mentioned would probably be the Legend 16. I have one, and my wife and I did paddle Class III water in it with 2 kids aboard and it did very well. But it is neither light nor efficient.

I do volunteer work for a group that has a livery of canoes including Wenonah Prospectors. I also have an MRC Explorer, but in composite, not Royalex. Both the Explorer and the Prospector are pretty capable jack-of-all-trades type of canoes. The 16 ft Explorer has capacity and stability more like a 17 foot boat.

I would base my choice on what you can find used in your area in good condition. You have identified some good candidates but I think you need to get something and start paddling it to refine your needs and determine your priorities before anyone can advise you which boat would be best for you.

Reality check
so burden will very between 150 lbs and 500 lbs, paddlers from one to four and you want to cross lakes and run class III. AN then lightweight RX?

If you’d drop the RX, and it is a horrible material for a boat, Bell’s NorthStar in Black/Gold with a kneeling thwart replacing the third thwart would float thje larger load, but even with the kneeling thwart and tumblehome, a 36" by 216" hull will make a poor solo canoe.

For a solo boat to take the boys out, look at Hemlock’s Eaglet or a Nova Pal with a kneeling thwart replacing the third thwart. There are others.

When small, you sit stern, both boys sit bow and paddle on opposite sides. When they get bigger, the weakest paddles bow, the stronger stern and you kneel on the thwart, paddling ~ solo as needed. When they get bigger yet, get a another hull for you and the wife.

Oh yeah, best to drop the class III requirement too. I cannot believe bumping down a series of Nanny Falls with young kids loose in the hull.

Having owned two Penobscot 16s, I’ve found that whether or not you go swimming in that boat depends upon the person. Some people I’ve had in mine just could not get used to the initial squirrelly feeling due to the relatively narrow shallow arch hull shape, and never got comfortable in the canoe (and neither did I, since I was continually shifting my weight to counterbalance their wobbles). Others, who had little or no experience in canoes, had no trouble at all and were rock steady in the Penobscot.

Which is my biggest reservation about recommending the Penobscot…you mentioned two young children. The Penobscot does have good secondary stability, but unless the kids are able to stay fairly quiet and still in it, the ride might be pretty uncomfortable for all concerned.

And as others have said, there is simply no canoe that can acceptably do all the things you want it to do. You’re going to have to set some priorities.

By the way, don’t sell fiberglass and Kevlar composites too short. I’ve paddled fiberglass canoes on rocky, gravelly Ozark streams off and on for many years, and they are pretty durable–and very easy to repair. The biggest drawback to them for me is not durability, but the noise factor, since I do a LOT of fishing in my canoes, and the glass and Kevlar canoes are a lot noisier than Royalex.

all three or none of the above

– Last Updated: Oct-13-10 11:32 AM EST –

The canoe that you want doesn't exist. Buy a wide stable boat and you won't enjoy soloing it. Buy a 17 ft boat and you won't enjoy soloing it. a 16 ft with 2 adults and kids doesn't belong in whitewater.
All three of the main contenders are good tandem canoes and I know the the 16RX penobscot works fairly well as a solo, which is what I do 90% of the time.
The canoe for you, mommy and the kids is 17 feet long and you probably shouldn't be putting them through class II water in a canoe... swimming with a canoe and two drifting kids? really...if you can't swim it, you shouldn't paddle it.
The canoe for you an/or you and mommy is one of the 16 footers. The penobscot has a 34 inch beam, which makes soloing reasonable. I'm 6ft tall and I am glad that I don't have to reach any farther. I fitted mine with a kneeling thwart just aft of the bow seat. I've paddled it tandem in class II water and it isn't too wet if you don't charge through the waves.
As to some of the other comments - RX is a great canoe material - it is incredibly,idiotically tough (this quality does have its place in the canoe world) and easy to maintain, medium in weight, and quiet. The penobscot 16 is a bit tippy, especially with nervous people in the bow (or wiggling children) although it gets quite stable with a load.

Thank you for the Responses
Thank you all for the responses–I really appreciate it. To clarify a few points:

(1) I guess I wasn’t clear enough that I wouldn’t be taking the kids in WW–those would be trips just for adults who are more experienced paddlers. (Or possibly me solo.) I’d like to be able to use my boat for those trips, though, rather than renting something else (or buying a second boat, which isn’t going to happen any time soon). I thought would be feasible since I’m not talking about serious WW–only up to moderate class III.

(2) I guess I also wasn’t clear enough that I’m completely aware that the boat I’m looking for “doesn’t exist”, and that all I can look for is the best compromise available. I’m not looking for a specific recommendation for a “perfect boat”, since there is no perfect boat for my needs. What I was really hoping for in this thread was for people who might be familiar with several of those boats to offer some more direct comparisons of the OT Penobscot, MR Explorer and and Wenonah Prospector (and other boats anyone thinks I should be considering), and their relative suitability for my intended uses. Since I can’t test paddle them myself, some more direct comparison if the stability, efficiency, maneuverability, solo handling, etc. of these boats would be extremely helpful. If any of them are downright inappropriate for any of the intended uses, that would be good to know. If any of them will generally perform better (or worse) than the others with the relatively light loads I’ll often have in them (200-250 lbs.), that would be good to know. If any of them pole better (or worse), or solo better (or worse), etc. etc., that would be good to know. As I said, some of this info I’ve been able to glean from various reviews (as well as just from reading descriptions of the various hulls), but not that much of it. I know the Penobscot is faster than the others, and the Prospector is probably the best on mild WW, but I don’t have a great comparative sense of the boats’ characteristics beyond that. I understand I’m going to be making compromises, and was just hoping to better understand the relative tradeoffs involved.

(3) I’m surprised to hear so many people describe the OTP as “tippy”. (Which I’m interpreting as: poor secondary stability–i.e., actually capsizing. If you just mean “feels wobbly”, then that’s different, and doesn’t bother me.) If that’s the case, that’s very good to know, and I’ll cross it off the list.

(4) I’m open to composites, but I’d really want something rugged and low maintenance. I was under the impression that royalex was the best choice for those characteristics (other than the heavier polys, which I’m avoiding due to weight). If that’s wrong and there’s something else I should be considering, let me know.

Thanks again for all the feedback.

More info…

– Last Updated: Oct-13-10 1:37 PM EST –

I have a 16' Penobscot and a Nova Craft Prospector. I have been in the company of a couple Explorers.

I think you will find that the Prospector and the Explorer are kind of similar in their capabilities from cl1 through upper cl2 rivers. Not the same, but not worlds different. Both of them will be slower, but drier than the Penobscot. The Prospector, in particular, will turn noticeably easier than the Penobscot - and the Penobscot will track best of the three.

The Penobscot will be more controllable in wind. The "tippyness" that everybody refers to is a lack of initial stability when compared to, say, an OT Camper or even my Prospector (some Prospectors have more initial than others). Don't worry - it has an abundance of secondary stability.

All three can be soloed, but I find the Penobscot to be easiest for that on flat water by far. For poling, the nod goes to the Prospector design, IMO....although there are lots of folks who pole Explorers quite well and I do pole my Penobscot on milder water.

I can't speak to cl3 performance of any, since I have no experience in canoes above upper cl2.

As far as royalex material's qualities...
It is not the most efficient material. Composites are stiffer, can have finer lines, and should be more efficient, all else being equal. They are often lighter while still being quite strong and resilient (as I have seen from my Composite Malecite), and minor damage is relatively easy to repair. However - royalex is less expensive and more forgiving of catastrophic mistakes. Wrap two canoes around a rock - one composite and one royalex - the royalex boat is most likely to be repairable.

The "durability" of royalex to hold up against dragging on rocks is something of a myth. Royalex is softer than composites and you will leave a visible accumulation of your boat's skin on every rock you slide over. More so than a typical composite boat. The heavier standard royalex boats (as opposed to the thinner "royalex-lite" layups currently popular) seem to suffer a little less by this, if my NC Prospector is any indication - at the expense of greater weight.

Prospector over Penobscot
Just to add my affirmation of what has already been said. I own both a 16’ prospector and a 16’ Penobscot. The Prospector is the more versatile boat that carries a bigger load. The Penobscot solos nicely on flat water and does not get blown about as much as the Prospector. But you do have to be aggressive with it in moving water to avoid dumping. This seems to be largely because there is little or no rocker and the stems are fairly plumb and given to “catching” in the current. The plumb bow also causes the boat to stop when you bang into a rock where boats with more radius to the bow will ride up and off the obstruction. I like them both, but if I had to choose one it would be the Prospector.


– Last Updated: Oct-13-10 1:55 PM EST –

On the local river, there is what many consider a cl2 drop over a diversion dam. I've gone over it standing in both the Penobscot and the Prospector. In the Penobscot, I get a rough landing into the wave at the bottom and quite a bit of water in the boat. It can be difficult to remain standing for the ride, but it gets through okay.

In the Prospector, the ride is smooth and dry with easy control. Standing is easy as pie.

Throw some steady stiff upstream or quartering breezes into the picture on that same river and the Penobscot starts to become the preferable boat (assuming I am solo and lightly-loaded).

Allow Me To Rephrase
Allow me to rephrase the question thusly:

You’re planning a 3-day trip down a river, about half of which is very calm and nearly currentless, and about half of which is much faster current and/or mild whitewater (class I or mild class II). You’re planning to paddle solo (or maybe pole a bit) for the first day and a half, and then pick up another adult passenger and two small kids to finish out the last day and a half.

Which canoe do you choose for your trip? Why?

RX durability factor is worth
consideration for storage/maintenance concerns. For me, the ability to leave it for extended periods outdoors (under cover) to suffer countless freeze/thaw cycles and its relative bomb-proof toughness is worth the performance trade-off. If I were the OP, I’d look for an under 10 year-old Penobscot 16 or 17 in good shape in the $400-600 range yet remain open to a good bargain on alternatives. A good Penobscot will be hold its value for when time comes to trade up or out.

Still depends.
Based on the additional load and particularly the two small kids - I would move up to a 17’ Prospector. Get it in one of the tougher composites (a 17’ NC in fiberglass would be fine) and realize a little gain in performance over RX. Expect to go slow in the flats and the wind. Learn to pole.

OTOH - you could go with the OT Tripper or 17’ Penobscot, so long as your whitewater doesn’t require a lot of maneuverability. Expect to get some water in the boat. Learn to pole.

I think that if you are confident

– Last Updated: Oct-13-10 2:24 PM EST –

enough in your ability to safely run class II rapids with small children aboard, you should probably already have a pretty good idea of which boat to do it in.

Okay, fine
No small kids for the rapids portions of the river. We’ll make them get out and walk along the shore. (I actually thought about this issue when I was composing my previous comment, but didn’t want to overly complicate it, since it’s just an imaginary hypothetical.)

OT Tripper is about 80 lbs? Not sure I could manage that on my own.

Not hypothetical…
…here’s a “for instance”…

For this, I would (will) choose the Prospector. Still think you need to go 17’ for the intended load. Not as easy to solo, but should be easy enough if you are good with a pole.