Solo Canoe Reviews!!!!!!!

-- Last Updated: Jul-09-10 7:24 AM EST --


Many of you have “suffered” through my many posts asking questions about various canoes and experienced my apparent vacillation over what canoe / canoes are right for me….and my ongoing quest has not been without criticism.

So…I would like to share some of the conclusions I have arrived at during my experimentation with various canoes.

So first off, and just briefly…why so many boats? Good question. Well first off I am a perfectionist and never satisified, second I have been an avid kayaker for years and have been through the same with kayaks through which I have become fairly discerning about boat handling characteristics, and last because I am constantly re-defining the roles that I want my boats to play. I am constantly refining just what it is that I want to do as a paddler and refining my tastes and preferences. It is a learning process for me.

Next I would like to make a disclaimer that I do not claim to be an expert, etc….lest someone accuse me of being self-proclaimed expert. These are merely my opinions based upon numerous boats I have owned.

Last I want to point out that I did not make detailed notes and many of these boats I have not paddled in a year or so. My comments are based on memory alone.

Okay…I want to break this review down into various categories or “niches” that I see and the boats in that category I have owned. This could be redefined in various ways but here is how I am going to group these boats:

-WHITEWATER CAPABLE TRIPPING BOATS (capable of handling up to Class III with a load). Very seaworthy boats that can handle whitewater with ease, substantial rocker, limited capability on open water due to high freeboard and substantial rocker. Boats: Nova Craft Supernova, Mad River Freedom Solo, Mad River Guide.

In this category I most prefer the Mad River Guide. It is a potential keeper for me. I find it to be very maneuverable, have great and highly defined secondary stability and find that the boat does quite well in Class III whitewater, even with a load, although a load does limit its maneuverability noticeably.

The Guide is a blast to paddle on a river, catches eddies easily and surfs very well, perhaps aided by the edge of the fairly hard chines. It is a solid build with little oil canning or flex.

It has enough freeboard and flare to make it a reasonably dry ride in waves and on drops. However it is very slow and the high freeboard makes it pretty much suck in the wind.

It is not a tracker and needs a good correction stroke to paddle straight.

The Freedom solo is identical; however, I found its build to be so flimsy that I did not want to keep the boat. It was flexy and would oil can and flex laterally on even the smallest waves. Felt like paddling a margarine tub down the river.

The Supernova was a great boat as well. Really impressive build quality. It was very capable in whitewater and had significantly greater freeboard than the Guide. Side by side the Supernova dwarfed the Guide. I felt very secure in bigger rapids in this boat given its sheer size.

On the other hand that is the downfall of this boat in my opinion. It is just too big. It is so wide and high that it felt a little like paddling a bath tub. For someone larger than I am (5’8 and 200 pounds) it may have been better, but I found it hard to have an intimate connection with the water in a boat so big and it was harder to maintain a good paddle stroke.

It was highly maneuverable and slightly more so than the Guide….but again given the fit of the boat I felt like I could maneuver the Guide slightly better in rough water because it fit me better.

Surprisingly fast too. Faster than the guide.

I think that this boat would really excel as a tripper with a load. I think it would handle a load better than the Guide and would be faster on the flats.

The stability profile of this boat is a bit different. I found it to be sufficiently stable (but many complain about this based on reviews I have read) but the softer chines don’t offer that highly discernable edge upon which to rest. It is a smooth transition as you heel the boat over. Secondary stability is sufficient but not as good as the Guide.

On two occasions though I was able to bring the boat back up after having the gunwale submerged going sideways down a Class III rapid so I find that a testament to the boats stability if you can avoid swimming after such an incident.

Great whitewater tripper for a bigger paddler or a big load.

-KNEELING “SPORT” BOATS: 14-15 foot boats with reasonable rocker that make for maneuverable and fun boats for river paddling and open water paddling. More emphasis on maneuverability than speed or tracking. Moderate rocker. Capable of Class II and maybe Class III with limitations. Reasonable performance on open water. Bell YS Solo, Wildfire, Wildfire Composite, and Swift Osprey.

In this category the Osprey wins hands down. It is a keeper. The Osprey is really an impressive boat. Despite those Bell fans who may protest, it is significantly faster than the YS solo, maneuvers better, is able to handle bigger water, and has greater secondary stability.

The Osprey is quite fast and feels even faster. I have tested it pretty extensively against the Merlin II which is a fast boat. The Osprey is nearly as fast and only slower by a narrow margin.

The Osprey also has the best acceleration of any canoe I have paddled. Makes it feel faster.

It is not the greatest tracker though. It needs a good corrective stroke and if you sit and switch it for a period it can only take 3-4 strokes or so on each side.

Maneuverability is awesome. Very impressive. Turns different from the Bell boats though. Seems to have a looser bow and stickier stern. Responds really well to bow rudders as a result.

Secondary is awesome. You can heel the boat to the gunwale and literally dip it under the water until you begin to take water in. Also has a bit lighter primary stability which makes heeling the boat effortless.

Performance in wind and waves is superb. It weather cocks a good bit, but its maneuverability allows you to use strokes to get it and keep it on course. I have paddled it on 20 knot wind days and in big wind waves on open water. It handled well and was the most confidence inspiring boat I have paddled in such conditions.

It has sufficient stability and freeboard etc to where I think I would be comfortable with it in Class II+ water and maybe some Class III.

The expedition Kevlar layup is super impressive. I was taking the boat out on a 20 knot wind day and the wind ripped the boat out of my hands and blew it into the air about 3 feet (no lie). The boat hit the concrete and bounced. Not even a scratch.

Sliding seat really changes the handling of the boat but I still have yet to figure out the optimum position.

Love this boat.

YS Solo, Wildfire Royalex and Wildfire composite: The first two are identical boats. The last is similar but with symmetrical rocker. I found little difference in handling with the latter personally.

These are solid and predictable boats in my opinion but they can’t compare to the Osprey in any way in my personal opinion other than maybe having a bit more primary stability and feeling a bit more predictable in their handling. They do track better too….but that is because they are not as maneuverable. I also find that the secondary stability on these boats is a bit ill defined maybe. I found it solid but that it gave out somewhat without warning perhaps. Can’t quite put my finger on it but I did not care for the stability profile a whole lot.

I found that the handling of my YS solo dramatically improved when I added longer thwarts. I put 2.75 inch longer thwarts in, about 5 inches closer to amidships. Longer carry thwarts too. This required a hammer to wedge them in. The result was beautiful though. Really made the boat handle a lot better. More rocker, more flare. Way more maneuverable, better secondary.

I actually took that boat down several Class III rapids. It did fine for maneuverability but was a wet ride. Really penciled in on drops and took on a lot of water in haystacks. It would fill with water to where it was virtually swamped at the end of the rapid but I managed to stay upright in it most of the time. It is a bit outmatched by these conditions though.

I liked the boat a lot with the longer thwarts but not so much without them; however, if you can get an Osprey then skip the YS solo in my opinion unless you just have to have a royalex boat.

-CROSSOVER BOATS (between kneeling and sitting boats) Reasonably maneuverable when kneeling and reasonably fast and straight tracking when paddled sit and switch. Boats: Bell Merlin II. Some may also put the Swift Osprey in this category but I did not given its higher degree of maneuverability.

I found the Merlin to be just a tad faster than the Osprey but slower than the Magic.

It accelerates better than the Magic and feels easier to paddle at a touring pace, but it doesn’t track as well so it doesn’t make speed across the water quite as well.

It is a pretty good tracker though. Better than all but the true sit and switch boats; however this tracking makes it only marginally maneuverable in my opinion.

Kind of a compromise for either sitting or kneeling. Not really great for either, not really bad for either. A little wide for a good paddle stroke when sitting and a little bit to “sticky” for a good maneuverable kneeling boat. Was great as a fast and straight tracking kneeling boat if you just prefer to kneel and want to go fast.

Great if you could only have one boat to run mild rivers and open water, but I would rather own a river boat and a sit and switch boat.

I found the Merlin a bit boring because it didn’t really shine as either a kneeling or sitting boat.

Probably would be a great boat for tripping where you may have to paddle streams and open water (like in Adirondacks).

-SIT AND SWITCH BOATS. Fairly obvious what this category represents. Boats: Wenonah Advantage, Bell Magic.

I prefer the Magic. It is pretty fast. I can maintain about 5mph with it when paddling at an exercise pace. Tracks pretty well. Can get maybe 5-6 strokes per side before switching. Tracks well in windy and rough conditions too. That is one of the things I really like about it. It is pretty good in such conditions in my opinion. I have had it out on 20 knot days and it can be paddled in any direction relative to the wind without a lot of correction strokes to keep it on course. Surfs down wind pretty well too. Is pretty stable in these conditions but sometimes feels a bit tippy in beam seas when the wave engages the tumblehome where it feels like it could suddenly give way and requires a quick brace.

Pretty maneuverable without a load too. Much like paddling a sea kayak, you can lean on one but cheek and put the boat up on edge and it turns pretty well. With a load is a bit slower though but with some effort you can break the stern loose and it will slide around.

I paddled this on a very, very windy creek on a trip in the Adirondacks with a load. While it was not as much fun as a more maneuverable boat would have been it was able to skid its way through the 90 to 180 degree turns, but with some effort.

I am impressed (with the addition of an Eds bucket seat which helps quite a bit) at how far you can heel this boat over when sitting. I was paddling yesterday and found that I could put it on edge and do a low braced turn with the gunwale literally touching the water. When edged like this the stern skids quite nicely.

Really a fun and confidence inspiring boat to paddle in windy and rough conditions, but not as confidence inspiring as kneeling in an Osprey.

The Advantage was a lot of fun too. I did not own it for long as I decided on the Magic instead. The Advantage was faster but took more effort to paddle fast in my opinion. It was narrower with more tumblehome so allowed a much more vertical stroke. I liked that.

I found it maybe a bit less maneuverable but still pretty maneuverable surprisingly. It seemed to maybe have a stickier stern but a looser bow.

It was fast and fun, but I chose the Magic since I like to paddle in rough conditions and in wind and was told that the Advantage is not so great in either. I didn’t get any windy or rough days to test it in when I had it. I felt the Magic would be a better tripper but I liked the Advantage a lot and might get one again some day for fast flat water paddling.

So those are my thoughts.

Currently keeping the Magic, Guide and Osprey. May sell the Guide though because the Osprey can cover most of its niche and is much faster. Going to get a true whitewater boat tomorrow so may not have need for the Guide any longer for whitewater paddling. May also sell the Magic because I am getting a Sawyer Loon which should fill about the same niche…..but will have to test them back to back and see.

Matt Bowler

some others
I have either owned or paddled most of the boats you talk about and agree with most of your conclusions.

There are many other canoes that make excellent overnight tripping boats for moderate whitewater runs. Many of the early Royalex solo whitewater boats would work well. Some examples are the Blue Hole Sunburst and Sunburst II, The Whitesell Piranha and Descender, the Dagger Caper and Caption and, if one didn’t carry too much gear, perhaps the Dagger Encore, Genesis, or Impulse and the Mad River Fantasy or ME. An excellent boat that remains in production that belongs in this category is the Hemlock SRT.

I agree that the Osprey really shines as a boat that cruises very pleasantly on flat water but retains good maneuverability. I own a Merlin II and like it quite a bit, but would probably trade it for an Osprey in comparable condition.

I love the Advantage as a flat water exercise boat. I have never owned one and probably won’t for a while since I currently own a Sawyer Summersong, also a very nice sit and switch boat. Some other boats that are efficient to paddle sit and switch but have the capacity for extended tripping (like the Magic) are the Wenonah Prism and the Wenonah Voyageur.

Wildfire RX mods (longer thwart)
Matt, Thanks for your comments.

I made notes a while back when you first posted about lengthening the thwart in a Rx Wildfire or YSS to increase the rocker. I plan to try that on mine to see if I can get better handling. I use it on class I-II rivers almost exclusively and being female, 5’4" and about 140# I really have to work to get the responsiveness I want, playing in mild whitewater. I can get a nice surf in certain holes though.

I bought a Probe 12II this spring for ww, so it’s less of an issue, but I’m still curious how the longer thwart will change the handling.

my comments are only based on the boats I have owned. I would agree that the Prism and voyager would be great boats too…but I have heard the latter really needs a cover in order to be manageable in the wind.

Any one addition or change in one’s “fleet” seems to upset the balance.

If I get this Loon then I may have no need for the Magic in which case maybe I would want another Advantage or other fast flatwater boat since the Loon will obviously cover the need for a canoe for wind and rough water and for a maneuverable sitting boat since I understand it is maybe a bit more maneuverable than the magic as well…but we’ll see. The Loon has a rudder so what it lacks in top end hull speed will likely be made up for with tracking and “speed made good.”

I do like the magic for its ability to be portaged though and for the fact that it is just a lot closer to a “traditional” canoe than the Loon which is anything but.

Seems a fair enough summary…
I’ve followed the earlier discussions of all these canoes with interest… and reading through the summary here, I don’t see hugely much that should be hugely contentious: if someone 5’8” tall and 200lbs had asked me to pick four widely available, standard production craft, I’d probably have pointed to the same four hulls!

For smaller folk, at least three of the four selected boats might be too big. Millbrook boats would perhaps need to be considered for a WW boat… the Flashfire or something smaller (adapted pack canoe) for a “sport” hull… maybe a Rapidfire with the extra belly band for cross-over/tripping… and god only knows for sit-n-switch – maybe a GRB classic!

Hi Matt !
If you haven’t already done so; if/when you get a chance, do some paddling in a Hemlock SRT.

See how (in your opinion) it holds up against the Mad River Guide/Freedom Solo, and the Nova Craft Supernova.

Keep on keeping on…ignore the naysayers.


if you are going to make blanket
recommendations on speed, I would like to see your testing criteria. Water conditions,wind, and GPS time over what distance?

Also it would help to compare LWL /W for all boats tested. Its sometimes hard to find LWL.

So I get it that you have paddled lots of solos. I dont particularly agree with all of what you have said particularly re the Fire series…all of which have different handling characteristics depending on finish materials(yes gunwales make a difference!) and core materials.

The Coldens apparantly have a different character than the Bells. I am off to paddle for a week and am looking forward to trying the Colden Fires.

Merlin II is pretty near an excellent boat. Slows down if not trimmed properly though.

And we can debate that sitting vs kneeling boat thing. Really no difference. RapidFire can be both. The only criteria for a sitting boat is that you be able to plant a vertical blade.

And that as in so much of paddling depends on the paddler as much as the product.

You have left off some of my solos…but I regret I dont have time to elaborate. Its time for two months of paddling with only occasional Web access.

Not just one Boat Fit !!! Re-current
boat schlepilepsy!

Speed is a hard one to test given wind and water conditions and is based on paddler’s effort as well. How did I test speed? Well I tested boats back to back on multiple days in the same conditions, using GPS to determine speed and over set courses over which I paddled and compared times.

I made comparisons between crusing speed and sustained speed at an exercise pace.

I infer that there is an implication that my testing was subjective on the issue of speed. It really wasn’t. It was as quantifiable as possible and I tried to be as unbiased in my determinations and calculations as possible and I really feel that I got a good understanding of how the boats compare in terms of speed.

My speed comparisons took hours and hours of testing and it was done pretty carefully and obsessively.

As far as measuring waterline length….that will only determine the max hull speed really which is not necessarily make one boat faster than another at a fixed level of effort at which a given paddler feels most comfortable paddling….and that’s a fact. Not all of us always paddle with enough input effort to drive and maintain a boat at max hull speed.

Other factors come into play like frictional resistance….but I don’t want to get into this whole discussion on what influences speed. If anyone wants to know more on that subject read Winters book, “The Shape of the Canoe.”

I found the speed of the merlin and the Osprey very close, but the Merlin was faster in all trials. It is a faster boat than the Osprey in my trials but not by a significant margin.

Otherwise there is really no comparison among the other boats. The Magic is DEFINITELY faster than the Merlin. The Osprey is DEFINITELY faster than the YS solo. You don’t even need a GPS to determine that…and it makes sense too given that I am comparing a composite Osprey to a royalex YS solo which has blunter entry lines, etc. Comparing the two composite models would be a more fair comparison.

As far as the paddler being the biggest factor….yeah but so what…it’s the same paddler and the comparison was of the boats and how they differ.

A Magic will always be faster than the YS solo with the same paddler……always.

If we put the same V-8 engine in various different cars, all with different transmissions and suspensions etc, they would all perform differently too.

This was a comparison of boats and not of paddlers or what a boat could do with a better paddler.

And while the paddler is the most important thing the fact is that the boat matters too. Put the best marathon canoeist in a race and give him a royalex YS solo and I doubt he will win racing against other lesser paddlers in a bunch of racing boats. Give a guy like Harold Deal a Wehnonah Advantage and let him go run a whitewater slalom course….I doubt the results will be impressive.

So in no way am in saying that the boat is more important than the paddler and I really wish people would stop implying that I am in any way saying that. I am only comparing boats and passing on what I have found to others as they may find it helpful and useful information to help them to make decisions about what boats are best for them……and again in that case the paddler is held constant.

And last…as far as sitting vs. kneeling boats…this is my comparison so I chose to categorize them as I saw fit.

You can sit in any canoe…you can kneel in any canoe. But a YS solo is really not ideal for sit and switch paddling nor is it designed to be so. Same with the Magic as a kneeling canoe.

Lets face it and stop being so critical about sitting and kneeling. Some canoes were designed with the intent to be used for sit and switch paddling. You can still paddle them kneeling of course but to argue that point is somewhat fruitless. Lets face it…the Magic and the Advantage were designed with the intent to be used as sit and switch boats. That’s a fact. They are both delta shaped hulls. Even David Yost will tell you that. He specifically said that the Magic was designed to be used for sitting and that if you wanted to kneel then that was okay but then why not just get a Merlin which is not a delta shaped hull specifically designed for sitting.

You could sit and switch a whitewater play boat too if you wanted to but to.

My categorization of the Magic as a sitting boat and the YS solo as a kneeling boat is pretty reasonable and accurate.

Some boats are designed to be used sitting and others are designed to be used kneeling. You can use them any way you want to…but they are designed for and optimized for different purposes.



– Last Updated: Jul-09-10 11:56 AM EST –

To address more of kayamedics comments...

I can't comment on the Colden canoes etc. My review is only of boats I have owned. I have made no comments that the Fire series is no good etc. I have only compared the royalex YS solo I owned to the osprey.

These are my opinions based on what I have owned and my personal opinions which are as objective as possible.

I am sure that the Colden fire series are great...but when comparing the royalex YS solo to other boats I have paddled those are my conclusions...not as fast or maneuverable as the Osprey, faster than the Guide and better tracking but not as maneuverable.

And unlike her comment I did not write this to show that I have paddled a lot of boats. I am trying to share information with others that I have learned through a lot of time and testing. Maybe it will be helpful to someone else and others have actually asked me to do so......

Boat nerds
I just had the trip of a lifetime on the Allagash, only me and my son. I guess I could have spent the same amount of time testing boats and writing reviews. To each his own.


or you could spend less time being critical of others and make everyone happier…

All this testing is done after work when most people are probably watching TV so I don’t find any of this to be wasted time. It’s just more time on the water.

And I went on several multi-day trips this year myself in several different states so in no way is my boat testing taking away from my quality time on teh water.

And…not being married I got paddling as much as I want to.

Does your wife let you do that?

Since I live on the water and have no one to answer to I generally paddle every day…and sometimes twice a day. So again, I don’t think that I am missing any good paddlign time by doing my testing and comparison.


I don’t remember where I read it but
I read a review in which two good paddlers paddled the Merlin II against the Magic and traded back and forth, concluding that the Merlin II was as fast on flat water as the Magic. Paddled flat sit and switch, I believe the Merlin II would require more switches than the harder-tracking Magic and therefore be a little slower.

I find that I can get the Merlin II carving a bit and greatly reduce the frequency of switches and I suspect that I would have to paddle it this way to match a Magic. I have kept pace in the Merlin II with a good paddler in a Wenonah Prism, a boat to which the Magic is frequently compared.

As for the Royalex Yellowstone solo, I’m sure it couldn’t touch the performance of either a Bell Wildfire composite or a Colden Wildfire. I did paddle the Colden Wildfire a little in June. I can’t say I noted any great difference between it and the composite Bell Wildfire, but I didn’t paddle them back to back. Some of the free stylers thought that the Colden was subtly different from the Bell, however.

Well, discussing the relative merits of
different boats is no doubt a form of mental masturbation, but it doesn’t preclude paddling.

And talking about boats is the next best thing to paddling them.

I have quite a few different boats and I like switching around. When I paddle one I haven’t been in for a while I am often pleasantly reminded of what it does particularly well.

Another “Boat Nerd” Here
I have enjoyed your reviews and musings on the different solo canoes. I guess i too am a certifiable “Boat nerd” also on the quest to find that “Perfect” stable of boats. I’m certain there are many others out here that feel the same.

I can remember when my paddling consisted of a river trip a couple times a month while awaiting the next “Big trip” I was planning. But now, thanks to medical issues and expenses, those “Big trips” aren’t possible and I live for those couple of short trips a week and the opportunities to paddle different boats looking for that “Perfect canoe.”

I have thoroughly enjoyed paddling vicariously through you while you sample and muse upon different hulls. Please, keep it up! I’m certain I’m not the only “Canoe Nerd” out here that is enjoying your quest to find canoe mecca (LOL)! WW

I invite Disagreement…

– Last Updated: Jul-09-10 1:48 PM EST –

By the way, I invite disagreement on my conclusions above and would like to hear others share their opinions, whether or not the are the same as mine.

However....just plain criticism that assumes that my methods must be flawed, that I don't know what I am talking about, or irrational statements that I could have gone on wilderness trips had I not spent so much time making mental notes about my boats I have owned are really not necessary and add no value.



– Last Updated: Jul-09-10 2:09 PM EST –

The one boat you tested that I have a lot experience in is the Supernova. I think your impressions pretty much mirror mine. Except with 6" additional height, the boat doesn't feel too big for me to have good control. But I have tried to discourage others in your height range against it, you included I think. As far as not having a secondary stability point at which to rest, what I always did was tilt the boat so that my left (onside) knee was completely at the bottom of the boat. It's a great way to rest completely. But it also created a habit that didn't play well with other hulls like the Osprey. I agree with you that it is a fast boat for its class.

So what WW boat are you getting?

it’s just a little big. big enough to where I did not feel I could man handle the boat as much as I would like to when necessary.

As far as the secondary I was referring more to the fact that it doesn’t have that really well and discernable edge on which to rest. Still balances well but is not as defineable as on other boats that have harder chines.

I am getting a used Probe 13…probably will go through a bunch of whitewater boats too but that is a safe bet with which to start.

I resisted getting a true whitewater boat for a long time.

i am going to paddle Little Falls on the Potomac River with it tomorrow.


You can paddle a WW boat on flat water.
You might get frustrated.

You can paddle a flat water boat on whitewater. You might get hurt.

Nice Reviews
Nice write ups, Matt. Seems to me if I was looking for a high-end solo canoe, that’d be a valuable set of notes. Suggest you cut and paste over to the reviews section of the web site so that people looking for user reviews will have a resource.

Not everybody has access to the water and the gumption to go paddle like you have been doing. For those of you who don’t know Matt, he paddles about every day, including winter, in the dark, and in what he calls “interesting” conditions, and what the rest of us call a gale warning. So, I’m glad you took the time to set down your observations for those of us who can’t put the hundreds of hours into comparing canoes.

I’m looking forward to Matt’s Notes on WhiteWater Boats!