Why so unstable?

Hey gang, newbie here…

VERY limited experience. I have done 3-4 rentals on slow rivers and never had a problem. Had a good time so I bought a used beater canoe.

Unusually warm today (water is still cold though) so I thought I would go for the maiden voyage (lake)…lasted about 2 seconds. No exaggeration.

It’s a 12’ sears canoe, I weigh 225#, bought one of those backrest/bleacher seats (right now I’m thinking my center of gravity was too high). I got in backward (sitting in the “front” seat) to get the weight closer to the center. I bought a book on canoeing and believe this was the advice from the author, I’ll look that up in a minute.

First attempt (yes, I’m that dumb) I pushed off with one foot, wobbled then flipped about the time my butt got to the seat.

Second attempt (hey, I was already cold & wet) I put the canoe mostly in, sat down & pushed off with a paddle. Again, wobble-wobble-flip.

Ready to sell after about 4 seconds of canoeing/wading.

Where am I going wrong?

Thanks in advance.


It’s partly the canoe. Length affects
stability as well as does width. Can you kneel? I know it may be hard on your ankles, and your feet might not fit under the seat if it’s too low. But if you can kneel, with your butt on the back of the bow seat, you’ll find you can control the sideways set of the boat much better.

A lot of Sears canoes were not all that well designed. If you decide to go for a different solo canoe, try for at least a 14 footer, based on your weight. I could probably edge in and paddle your boat in a seated position, but it doesn’t sound like I would enjoy it. I kneel almost all the time.

Tell us what the boat is made of. Some materials, like the single layer plastic in Ram-X Coleman canoes, tend to leave a boat rather floppy, which does not help balance.

Given that you did OK in some larger rental canoes, the problem is not you. It might be you and short boats. It might be your short boat and its design. Before your next purchase, make sure you try it out first.

first foot just off the centerline

– Last Updated: Feb-07-09 5:12 PM EST –

one hand on each thwart. Push off, get other foot in, get low...like kneel. DOES sound like a short canoe for a backrest. ( a backrest sheeesh ;-))

Or just get a pole!!

If your boat was doing a wheelie for those 4 seconds you were upright, stability will be greatly affected, and kneeling will also help by getting your weight more towards the fore/aft center.

More people swim getting in

– Last Updated: Feb-07-09 5:28 PM EST –

or out of a canoe than any other time. Trick is to stay low and centered in the boat. I would try getting in and kneeling in the middle. At your weight, a 12' boat might be too short for you to sit in the seat - even with the boat backwards sitting on the bow seat. I'll bet the front of the boat was way out of the water making you very unstable. We had a guy in our club with a similar size boat who insisted on paddling that way. Looked like a drag racer heading down the river, and we were always fishing him out.

Don't sell yet – try kneeling in the middle and I’ll bet you’ll have better luck. By the way, where do you live – not the season for swimming.

Hey Matt - we agree.

Second the centerline
and a hand on each thwart so that it’s easier to get that first foot in centered along the keel. Be going in with your weight already low, not standing straight up. Also, balance on the leg that will be going in second before you put the first foot in. That way there isn’t a lot of weight in your hands that can get unbalanced and suddenly drop an edge, and you can perform the whole motion more smoothly and quickly.

I find that getting into a canoe is a bit more of a dance move than the usual butt drop into a kayak with a regular size cockpit.

I’d pay mind to the advice here about paddling seated versus kneeling too, though I don’t know as much about that as the others who have weighed in.

Don’t quit, you would be surprised
to know how many people flip on the first few tries. It’s a matter of staying low, placing your foot in the center of the boat and not afraid to get your second foot wet. You’ll be getting in and out in no time.

Just remember, “Paddling is a Get-Wet Sport”.

Thanks for the replies

– Last Updated: Feb-07-09 7:40 PM EST –

Now that the wheelie was mentioned...on the second attempt when the canoe was "mostly" in the water the front of the boat did sink alarminly low before I pushed off. I assumed it was because the rear was sitting on something and all the weight was on the front. BUT, my thinking was that making the boat sit lower in the water would be a good thing. I didn't have time to evaluate the angle of my wheelie.

To answer one of the questions: I am in Tennessee, and it is not swimming season.

I thought I might get a little grief over the backrest - I bought it because I had envisioned hours of peaceful cruising and wanted to be comfortable. Had I known it would be four seconds of chaos I woulda saved my $$.

The kneeling thought came to me (that was also in the book) but only after I was mad and loading up.

Thanks again,


Oh, the material…

– Last Updated: Feb-07-09 7:35 PM EST –

Two layers of fiberglass/plastic? Not sure. Each end of the boat has a raised section that I assume has some sort of flotation material, again I'm not sure.

Oh, another thought. There is a tag in the boat that says "3 people/850#"...wishful thinking?

wow, yeah
big time wishful thinking. 12 footer has me thinking 350 tops. My son Aaron, pictured here in his poling boat


often sits in the BACK seat of this 15 footer, and at 185 pounds he gets a wheelie out of this. He’ll have about a 6 foot waterline, then he spins 360’s in the eddies. Cracks me up.

Trim is Important
You want to have the canoe trimmed so that it sits pretty well flat in the water - if an end, especially the stern (or end behind you) is deep in the water with the bow in the air, it tends to act as a pivot point.

We’ve canoed for a long time, and I’d never gotten wet until we got a nice Prospector hull a few years ago - yep, got chucked out a couple of times when boarding inexperienced friends before I figured it out - our Oneida 18 is a much different and inherently more stable design.

Make sure it is floating
If just the stem (very end) is on land, and the middle isn’t supported, you are walking a tightrope between the ends. Either pull it up more, or put it in more, so that the middle, most stable part, is supported.

Also, as others have said, stay low and in the middle.

I’m pretty good with a pole, but
I don’t think I could stand for long in any 12’ canoe I’ve ever seen.

step-by-step almost-foolproof
Okay, first step is to last more than 4 seconds in the boat without falling. That’s critical, because the way you’re going so far is less ride time than them wild bulls at the rodeo. In fact, let’s see if we can get you in the boat without capsizing again, or at least not until you’ve been floating for a couple minutes.

The kneeling part is key, and Daggermat and Celia gave you good advice for a step-by-step procedure that should get you in. Let me suggest 2 slight modifications to what they told you to make it even easier. First, start off standing in the water, about 6-inches deep, with the canoe floating freely, not touching land or anything else. Then grasp one gunwale in each hand and put one knee in the boat, on the centerline. Now, slowly lift the foot that’s in the water while shifting your weight to the 3 points contacting the canoe. You should find that you are totally balanced on those 3 points, whereupon you can lift the foot all the way out of the water. However, move slowly, and if you find that you are not balanced, you can use the foot in the water to catch yourself from falling. Then adjust your position in the canoe and try again with the wet foot.

Eventually, you should find the balance point and be able to lift the wet foot all the way out of the water and hold it up in the air behind you. From that position, slowly bring your knee down beside your other knee, but don’t put any weight on it yet (because your 2 knees together would not be centered in the canoe). Now, shift your weight to your hands and toes, and move your knees so the centerline lies between them, and then shift your weight back to your knees.

At this point, you should be able to release the gunwales and sit up on your knees. Now you can look around for your paddle, find that you forgot it and see it laying on shore, curse softly, and then paddle with your hands back to shore.

Getting back out is the reverse of how you got in, only it’s a little more difficult. Grasp gunwales with hands, relieve the weight on your knees, slowly shift your knees over so one of them is centerline, then put some weight on the centered knee. Now lift the other leg and slowly put a foot in the water, and then slowly lower it until you find a firm place on the bottom that will take your weight. If you can’t reach bottom at that spot, bring your leg back inboard and move the boat to another place where you can reach bottom when you put your foot out.

Once you get this method down, it’s a small step to what D and C suggest, which allows you enter without getting your feet wet.

Please don’t quit
You’ve found pnet now, you got a site with good info and people to help you.

Sears brand was probably not the best way to go. I understand budgetary constraints. But even at bottom dollar you can get a canoe that paddles well enough, even if it weighs over 80lbs.

The main thing is seat time. The more time you spend in a canoe, the more it becomes second nature. It’s cold, not swimming season, so I can understand giving up early. But you’d be surprised at what a difference even an hour can make.

So don’t give up! Spend your time now researching and learning, and try to make the next time out in whatever boat really count! I am telling you it is worth it!

One more fool-proof tip

– Last Updated: Feb-08-09 12:33 AM EST –

I was just about to describe something just about the same as what Memphis told you, so I'll leave that part alone. The final tip, or "non-tip" as it may be, is this. When stepping into or out of the boat, not only should the foot that's first into the boat or last out of the boat be positioned along the centerline of the hull, make sure your head is directly over that spot.

Your head will be nearly in-line with your center of gravity IF your body is nicely centered as it should be, SO, anytime your head is not over your foot or feet, you will end up leaning on one rail to keep your balance and over you go. Instead, make sure that when you look down at your foot or feet you are looking *straight down*, not diagonally down, and you will have no need, and will not be tempted, to lean on one hand more than the other.

Okay, I can't leave well enough alone. I'll also say that unless that 12-foot canoe is as wide as a barn door, you probably should have fallen out on your first couple of trys. Following the earlier advice about not overloading one end will help a lot (siting too close to one end causes your weight to be supported by a very skinny part of the hull). Also, save that fancy "pushing-off with one foot" stuff until after you start getting good at getting in while the boat is completely stationary. Nothing about getting into such a small boat is intuitive without experience.

I used to stand in my 12 American
Fiberlite tandem and paddle it, but I’m 5’6" 155 lbs. It was a flat bottomed canoe with a keel and 31" or 32" wide at the outside edge of the gunwales. It weighed 60 lbs.

It was a chopper gun fiberglass boat and I think that some of the Sears boats may have been made by American Fiberlite.

Stadium seat
I think the stadium seat was a big factor. I tried to use a two and a half to three inch thick cushion to sit on while paddling my seventeen foot grumman canoe. The difference in stability was alarming. I quickly put the cushion in the bottom of the canoe and only used it to kneel on.

A guy I once paddled with tried to use stadium style seats, that were mounted on pedestals, in his sixteen foot tandem canoe. Those seats probably raised his center of gravity a good six inches. He lasted only a bit longer than you before he and his wife flipped their canoe. After several tries he was convinced that the seats were too high.

If you raise your center of gravity just a few inches ( or less ) it makes a surprisingly big difference in stability. Getting your body lower ( lowering your center of gravity ) usually means you will be more stable. Just getting rid of the stadium seat should help a lot. Kneeling will help even more.

As stated many times in this thread, the canoe length, your size, launch technique, trim, cold weather, and several other factors played in to your bad experience. I just think that the stadium seat was a major factor and without it you might not have had such a bad experience. I hope you’ll give it another try, without the stadium seat, when the weather is warmer.

Thanks to all you experienced folks

– Last Updated: Feb-08-09 12:52 PM EST –

for the replies.

More info if someone would like to mull it over. I took some measurements to help paint the picture.

Widest point = 31"
Width at seat = 26"
Stadium seat = 1.5" thick, leaving it ~1 below gunnels
Gunnel 13" above GROUND (measured in the yard)
Seat is roughly 2' back from the center.

Correction on the max load tag...3 people 425#, I somehow doubled that in a previous post. (3 people at 425# must be 1 adult + 2 kids)

So, right now I'm thinking of selling this one (for thin and/or experienced paddlers only) and buying something bigger. But, I'm a little worried about repeating this experience. I actually had the money in hand to buy a new Penoscot (?) at Gander Mtn but ran across this cheapie and spent the rest on paddles, camping gear...

I'm sure I can get out of this one with a minimum loss but if I spend $1k on a boat that I'll never get my money back on (if I fail with it too) - Grrrr. At this point I can laugh it off, not so much if I buy new.

Working this too hard
Getting into and out of a canoe takes practice, that’s all. Getting wet is common at first. If a couple of dumps seem to be a large problem, you may want to rent some canoes as well as some transition type kayaks boats before going further with purchases to see if canoes and you are the match you expected.

I didn’t spot a clear response to the idea of kneeling in your replies, unless I missed something. Is kneeling a possibility, or do you have a physical reason it won’t work? If the latter, it might affect your choice of canoe.

Ya got me
I am probably overanalyzing this. I’m OK with getting wet but yesterday I was dumped almost instantly, twice. I was/am pretty shocked and was hoping there was a simple explanation.

I have rented a couple times without incident. My son and I did an overnight trip a few years ago and it seemed pretty easy.

I avoided the kneeling option because it sounds like a position I wouldn’t be happy with for more than a few minutes (50 soon).

Maybe it’s just a matter of practice, maybe I’m too heavy, maybe it’s the wrong boat, maybe it’s just not for me.

Thanks again for the reply.