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Ask the Expert: Why the Explorer?

Feb 07, 2013

It's often said that the Explorer is the icon of Mad River Canoe and by just about every definition of “iconic” I'm aware of, it certainly qualifies. “Deserving of emulation” – check; “durable and possessive of longevity” – check; “standard-setting” – check; the list goes on.


Since its' qualifications are secure, there's no profit or need to find more proof of the matter. It's far more interesting to look at how and why it has achieved such a status.


For 40 years the Explorer has defined versatility in canoe design. It was not much short of a revolution in canoe design when first introduced over 40 years ago. (Some of its' “thunder” had been stolen by its' sibling, the Malecite, introduced a couple of years earlier.) Jim Henry's adoption of the shallow-vee hull design was new to canoes and is central to the Explorer's capability in varied kinds of waters. Simply put, the shallow-vee is the most seaworthy of hull designs and provides the highest degree of secondary or final stability of any hull design, two criteria that should be high up on any paddler's checklist.


While the Explorer may feel a bit tender at rest due to the Vee yielding a bit of rocking back and forth as weight is transferred side to side, when underway and in confused turbulent waters, the Vee comes into its' own. It can be leaned over aggressively (intentionally or not) and has the highest of all shapes in terms of its ability to recover upright. There is a perceptible stability “shoulder” when the hull is leaned over, it'll go only so far fairly easily but then will reach a point where the resistance to roll increases substantially. This is desirable whether you're paddling with children, novices, in the midst of a challenging whitewater run, or setting and retrieving decoys or dogs, etc. Very confidence building (it's no coincidence that the MRC Confident Rabbit made its' appearance about the same time as the Explorer).


Beyond final stability, another attribute of the shallow-vee is that it enhances tracking (tendency of the canoe to go where it is pointed). The apex of the Vee is the lowest point of the hull in the water and provides resistance not only to turning but also to windage, ie the hull being pushed across the water by the wind, much like what you'd experience in a sailboat without a keel or centerboard. The result is a hull that tracks pretty well on the flats and for most paddlers, that's where they use their canoes an awful lot.


Yet for a hull to be versatile, it has to be able to handle more than just the flats. Rivers don't tend to run straight for very long and have contrary currents that shift side to side to center stream as they go along, not to mention also being full of obstructions such as rocks, logs, fallen trees, shallows, etc. There's not a lot of grace or longevity in a canoe that can only “pinball” its' way downriver, bouncing from obstacle to obstacle along the way. Most canoes that excel in flat water have to be really “worked” to get down river rather than able to simply go with the flow.


The shallow-vee hull in the Explorer isn't one of those hulls that sacrifices one kind of performance for another. The Vee hull can be quite nimble, enough so that the Explorer was the first open canoe to successfully run the Grand Canyon of the Colorado in 1975. When the Explorer hull is leaned over, you are basically presenting a flat bottom hull to the water, one that can be spun and turned pretty easily.


It's been said that the the shallow-vee hull can be tuned to paddle flat and tracking or to turn. Paddle it upright and you get the full benefits of the shallow-vee settled deep in the water and inclined to go straight, lean it over and the hull will be just as happy skidding into a turn.


So the contributions of the shallow-vee hull to the Explorer are quite significant. It provides unparalleled final stability to keep the canoe upright in varied conditions, encourages the canoe to track when desired yet doesn't compromise the ability to turn and maneuver when desired. Pretty impressive credentials but what really distinguishes the Explorer design is how Jim Henry complemented the attributes of the shallow-vee with other aspects of hull design.

 

The Explorer has what is often described as moderate rocker, ie, the lift in the ends of the keel line of the canoe. Increased rocker makes a hull easier to spin and turn and less inclined to run straight. Take the rocker out and you've got a canoe that will paddle like it's on rails (a slight exaggeration there but you get the point) but will not turn or pivot willingly or quickly. As you might suspect, moderate rocker strikes a balance between the two extremes, a straight enough keel line to provide some tracking but enough lift to allow the ends to break free and spin the hull.

 

Happily, the shallow-vee hull does a great job complementing the moderate rocker in the hull. The Vee's tendency to track when upright allows a bit more rocker to be designed into the hull to enhance the boat's ability to turn when the hull is leaned over. That extra bit of added rocker allows the ends to break free a bit earlier when leaned, minimizing the amount of lean necessary to get the boat to turn aggressively.

So shallow-vee hull and moderate rocker are a winning combination for versatility. Is there anything else at play? I think you might have a suspicion that there's more.


The Explorer has flare in the sides of the hull, that is, the hull is narrower at the waterline than it is at the gunwale. The narrower waterline makes for a hull that meets less resistance “pushing” its' way through the water which is a good thing as it makes for an efficient paddling hull. Having the hull sides wider above the waterline provides additional advantages.

  

Flare deflects waves and water away from the hull. Imagine a wave hitting the canoe broadside. As the wave pushes up the side of the hull, a flared hull will try to push the wave away from the hull whereas a hull with tumblehome (width at gunwale narrower than waterline) kind of gives the wave almost a staircase to walk up and into the hull as the wave simply follows the curve of the hull. The flare in the Explorer provides a drier hull, simply put.

 

Flare also enhances final stability as the angle of the hull when leaned to the extreme is in opposition to the surface of the water and contributes to the righting momentum that characterizes a shallow-vee hull. Flare enhances the feel of the stability shoulder mentioned earlier as the angle of the hull helps to dampen the tendency of the hull to want to roll over and regain stability in an upside down position (not a positive by anyone's measure). A more rounded or arched hull with a tumble home side starts to resemble a cylinder which as we all know has a decided desire to simply roll, and roll, and roll.


The Malecite predated the Explorer by a little and the Explorer is the beneficiary of its' ancestry. There's an awful lot to like about the Malecite and Jim got a lot of things right but it ultimately did not have the capacity to support extensive wilderness expeditionary paddling or the dryness to tackle high flow rivers with big waves and drops. To address these issues, Jim made the Explorer deeper in the center, fuller towards the ends and made the Vee a bit shallower to put a bit more emphasis on maneuverability and yield some added initial stability.

 

These changes had an impressive impact on capacity. A Malecite reaches a freeboard of 6” with about 850 lbs. of weight on board. An Explorer 15 will float 850 lbs. and maintain that 6” freeboard despite being almost a foot and a half shorter. The Explorer 16 takes about 1100 lbs. to reach the same freeboard. Now, remember, we're not talking a working load here but rather a comparison of capacity. The difference is pretty significant, in the range of almost 30% greater capacity in favor of the Explorer. I'd say Jim achieved his objective.

So, is the Explorer the perfect canoe? Simply put, NO. I always liked how the late Eugene Jensen, one of the most prolific of canoe designers, would say his greatest aspiration was to design a canoe that would paddle by itself. That just might be the perfect boat but good luck finding one.


Canoe design is ultimately a give and take, accentuate one aspect at the cost of another. The final stability provided by the shallow-vee results in a bit tender feeling initial stability as the boat will rock a bit plane to plane when at rest. At first, this might be disconcerting but that passes quickly. With a defined center line, the shallow-vee hull is subject to increased wear and abrasion in shallow rocky sit conditions. Compared to a shallow arch hull, in calm mild water conditions the shallow-vee is not as quick. Added depth and capacity can only come from additional material which translates into a bit more weight.


By focusing on making the Explorer the most versatile of canoes, Jim had to forego making it the most maneuverable or the faster but what he did accomplish is to create a hull that does more things well than just about any other hull design out there. And that makes it a serious candidate for the majority of paddlers, especially those looking for one canoe to empower them in the greatest number of environments. The Explorer is like a master key in the sense that it will open quite a few doors to the aspiring paddler. You can paddle it with confidence on your local waters whether flat or moderate in whitewater, fish or hunt from it, pack it up and head out into the boonies for a week or a month, etc. It's even a very competent sailing hull and the Mad River Explorer has won far more National Poling Championships than any other model of canoe.


Time is never wasted when you're dealing with an icon. And that is just one more definition of the word that the Explorer fits like a “T”.