Solo Advice

I am going to purchase my first solo canoe this spring. I like Bell, and I have my eye on a Merlin II. I rented one last August for a 5 day solo BWCAW trip. I raised the seat so I could kneel in it. I was very pleased. It was quick, easy to maneuver and tracked pretty well when I paddled NAT. It could easily be my “perfect” tripping canoe (the quiz agreed).

My dilemma, and the source of my questions, is I am also getting into freestyle. I’ve given some thought to the Yellowstone as well, thinking it would be a better freestyle boat and still a decent tripper.

I have not had a Yellowstone on a canoe trip. I have not paddled the Merlin II freestyle (lots of wind on that trip). Some day I’ll have separate canoes for these purposes, for now I get one.

So the questions are: Is the Merlin II a reasonable canoe for novice freestyle? How much slower or poorer tracking is the Yellowstone?

BTW I’m 6’2", 225lbs

Freestyle hulls for bigger guys
FreeStyle includes both forward and reverse maneuvers, so most paddlers end up with hulls with symmetrical rocker. Merlin II YellowStone both have skegged sterns; less stern than bow rocker, to enhance tracking, or, to minimize yaw caused by poor forwards stroke mechanics. At your size, there are the Loon Works Aria, The Colden WildFire and the Merrimack Baboosic, in order by descending price.

Not to contradict a valued fellow paddlesports professional, but I’ve never seen a Rendezvous at a FreeStyle event, and I’ve taught at plenty. A fine downriver tripper, Rendezvous’ low bubble sides do not firm the hull when heeled near the rails.

follow up
so would it be accurate to say that the Yellowstone is not significantly more suited to freestyle than the Merlin II? Is it fair to assume the Merlin II would out do the Yellowstone as a tripper?

I am going to wind up with two boats for this eventually. If I can find a tripper that would also freestyle well until I could convince my wife to let me by a Wildfire (my dream freestyle boat btw) that would be a plus. I thought maybe a Yellowstone might be that boat. It has to be a tripper first…

Agree completely with Charlie
I will add that I think you should consider the type of paddling you will do most until you get those “separate boats”. I am also at the larger end of the weight scale and have both a Merlin II and a Wildfire (Bell). The Merlin I procurred when my skills were not quite as good and my weight was at the 290 range. I used it as my primary boat which usually was class I/II rivers and some lake paddling. Also was using it when I first started doing FreeStyle. After trying a WF and also dropping some weight, I determined that a Wild was just a lot more fun. I still use the Merlin for trips and can do FS paddling with no problem, the turns are just not as quick, and I have to heel it pretty much to the rail to break the stern loose. I had a FS class with a guy a few years back who had a Merlin II as his only boat and he could really make the boat dance. He also was only about 155 lbs and was not riding as deep.

Another thing to keep in mind is that a Merlin II will accommodate some more gear when used for tripping. My thought would be that if you continue in FS paddling, you will not be a novice indefinitely, but improving your skills. Go with an Aria, Wild or Baboosic as Charlie mentioned and rent a Merlin II for the BWCA if you need the lake capacity and no-brainer tracking. If I had to give up one or the other, it would be my Merlin.

I agree with Charlie and Canoeist11
but have an additional thought. If the price of a new Wildfire from Colden is out of reach, look for a used fiberglass Wildfire. The performance will be virtually the same as a new Carbon Composite hull from Colden and the weight will not be too different from the Yellowstone that you are considering. If you take care of it, you can get every penny back out of it when you decide to trade up.

If you’re serious about freestyle and can’t go for the Aria, or a similar,you won’t find a better boat than the Wildfire.

Marc Ornstein

Dogpaddle Canoe Works

Custom Paddles and Cedar Strip Canoes


I know of a used Aria that is looking for a new home. If you’re interested, email me and I’ll put you in touch with it’s owner.

solo canoe
If you want your boat to be a tripper first then you do not want an Aria, Wildfire, or Baboosic (yet)…the Merlin II is way better for cruising than any of those boats (I’ve got a Merlin II and an Aria…used to have a Wildfire).

The Merlin II is not the best for putzing around at freestyle.

It sounds like the composite Rendezvous is a good cruiser than still likes to play…a couple other boats that I’ve owned that cruise well yet still let you lean the rail to the water are the Swift solos…Osprey and Shearwater. Both are great fun for practicing freestyle (although neither is a serious freestyle boat and you won’t see them in freestyle competition) but they are also great cruising boats…way better than the symmetric 14 footers (WF, Baboosic) but not quite as good as Merlin II.

looks to me…
as though your priority is set. “It has to be a tripper first”. Okay, IMHO a design for optimum tripping will not be the most fun FS hull. On the other hand tripping hulls requre good FS skills to turn well. In an ideal world you would get two canoes, one for tripping, one for FS. Since that is not going to happen right now, go with your decision, but see if you can borrow one of the boats mentioned here from time to time for FS. A large friend of mine liked the Starfire and some others started FS with the less costly Mohawk Solo 14. Luck


Buy what you will use the most now.
If you get really serious about freestyle, you will eventually end up with a dedicated FS boat(or two), which will probalby work fine for river tripping also. You can do freestyle moves with almost any boat, but a boat with symetrical rocker is going to shine.

I also don’t buy into the belief that a boat with symetrical rocker sacrifices speed. But hey, that’s just me.

Well, it doesn’t sacrifice much speed,
especially considering that any canoe rather suitable for freestyle may also be fast, but not very fast.

It’s surrising to me how often the assymetry issue comes up in open canoe cruising and freestyle circles. Non-symmetrical hulls are more the rule than the exception in whitewater boats, and we don’t have problems backing or back-ferrying, however inclined to spinning and doing things in forward mode we might be.

whitewater versus non-whitewater design

– Last Updated: Mar-06-10 3:18 PM EST –

This is just a guess on my part, but I think not an illogical one. It seems to me that a non-symmetrical whitewater boat probably has some design attribute, most likely plenty of rocker at the stern, that make make reverse moves pretty easy. Try backferrying in a Merlin II, or just reversing for an extended time, and you won't say that non-symmetrical rocker has no pronounced negative effect when back-paddling as a blanket statement. Even the Yellowstone Solo I tried out one time bugged the heck out of me, the way the stern just "wouldn't let go" of the water when playing the role of the "bow" during reverse maneuvers. Actually, I don't like the way it grabs on turns when going forward either, but going backwards amplifies the problem (and no, this doesn't make it a "bad boat", but since it is marketed as a highly maneuverable design, the skegged stern seems seems equivalent to training wheels). Yeah, you can lean the boat to the rail to counteract that, but I prefer a boat that can do such things in rougher water too. Besides, I've had no reason, so far, to become good at freestyle moves (I seem able to negotiate the twisty-turnys without extreme lean, in the right boat).

I just betcha that whitewater designs have enough rocker that even though there's "less rocker" at the stern than the bow, that there's is enough to prevent the stern from being grabby, and following every little jet of turbulence when backing up. I bet that no blanket statement about reverse maneuvers can be applied to non-symmetrical hulls of BOTH whitewater and cruiser designs.

Seems like

– Last Updated: Mar-06-10 6:21 PM EST –

Rocker increases speed once the paddler has his/her top hand outside the shaft hand, uses torso rotation to a forward catch and ends the power portion of a forward stroke at the knee.

Skegged sterns simply minimize yaw that is induced by poor paddle mechanics: carrying the blade aft of the body or allowing the top hand to drift inboard the shaft hand. Both add a sweeping component to the forward stroke and both turn the boat away from paddleside. [Don't do those things!]

ICF hulls, over 16 ft long, maybe 14 in wide at max WL generally have 3" of rocker forward and over 2: aft, pretty well carried out. With a L/W ratio of 14 or so we know they'll track and they don't need to turn on a 1000 meter straight line course. Rocker moves the water that goes downwards away from the hull more slowly.

For what it's worth, which can't be much, I generally trip in a 13 ft FlashFire, 24# with CobraSox rails and thwarts. [I'm 5'9"/165, fairly well trained up.] I've never done a five day trip in her, but did do one seven-day and a few four day events? Computed hull speed is 5.5mpg which is way faster/more effort than I usually put out, and she caries pretty nicely, a big fav here in the Adirondacks.

For your priorities
get the Merlin II and bring it to a FreeStyle event.

If you understand that the heeling skill is going to be what enhances turns and are willing to perhaps get wet while practicing the Merlin II will work fine. There is no real need to make complete U turns…just enough of a satisfying turn to learn the principles of FS.

I remember Paul Meyer of Colden Canoe taking lessons not too long ago in his Peregrine.

Then while you are there tinker and play with everyone elses boat. We always have a share and play time. No better time to try three or fifteen different solos. Then you will have a better idea of what you want in your (dare I say it…next boat)

I used to play making turns around snags on the river with my Merlin II. Drove the powerboaters nuts.

One thing that needs to be said again

– Last Updated: Mar-07-10 8:28 PM EST –

and again and...

Freestyle is a body of techniques used to move the boat efficiently and effectively. In practical, everyday use it is rare to do 180s except occasionally entering or exiting an eddy. It's also neat when you decide it's time to head back home and the stream is only a bit wider than your boat is long.

Generally the techniques are used to maneuver around obstacles, follow the twists of the stream or to side slip into the slack current.

The video was of an Interpretive Freestyle routine where we take the techniques to an extreme level. Judged turns need to be 180 degrees or better and good routines generally include their fair share of reverse and offside maneuvers, both of which get limited use in the real world.

If the intent of the original question was to determine which boat was most suitable for general purpose paddling in which freestyle technique would be employed, either hull would be suitable. The preference would be based upon what type of water body was being paddled. Merlin II is perhaps better suited for lake travel, and Wildfire for twisty streams. If the intent was to determine which would be a better "pure" freestyle boat, perhaps with a leaning toward the interpretive "lunatic" fringe, then it's the Wildfire or something similar, hands down.

Marc Ornstein
Dogpaddle Canoe Works
Custom Paddles and Cedar Strip Canoes

Some additional info…
Thanks for all the awesome input. I really appreciate it. As I’ve stated I plan to own separate solos for tripping and freestyle at some point. This is just my first solo. I would like it to be very well suited to at least one of these purposes.

I’ve been trying to get in 3+ BWCAW trips a year. This year I will be paddling solo (solo or odd man) on all of them. It’s to expensive to keep renting. This is why I say I need a tripper first. Whatever I buy I am going to spend 3 weeks padding it in the BWCAW.

My trips involve a mix of lakes and streams, some narrow, but I don’t run white water. I am not a particularly light packer. I will have to keep up with tandems on some of these trips.

I expect that the Merlin II will carry a larger load and be a little more efficient than the Wildfire and perhaps be more seaworthy with a load.

If the Merlin II was no better suited to this than a Wildfire would go with a Wildfire hands down.

based upon your addtional info…
Get the Merlin II. You will enjoy it for all the paddlin you described.

Got a Merlin II
I picked up a Merlin II demo from Bell at their tent sale. It’s a 2007 model, black gold with aluminum trip. Very good condition, a few dings but no real wear or damage. Very good price too. Perfect for a tripping canoe.

I did get an opportunity to paddle a wildfire and while it is clearly a better freestyle craft, the Merlin II will be the better tripper and will get me by in freestyle until I can secure a wildfire.

I want to thank everyone here for their valuable input in helping me make this decision.