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Buying a canoe without a test paddle is akin to buying a car without a test drive. You better have a very, very, good idea of what you're buying or there's going to be some surprises and not all of them are likely to be positive. You can read all you want about hull design and length vs beam and rocker or lack thereof but bottom line, oftentimes the canoe that's right for you will be the one that has the right “feel.” And you can't get that from a website (well, not yet) or a catalog, or on the showroom floor.
Feel is very highly resistant to quantification. It is deeply entrenched in the qualification world, embedded well into subjectivity. Yet it is a critical deciding factor in a canoe purchase. You can quantify the dimensions of the boat you're thinking about as well as its' hull attributes, but feel is kind of like the sum of all the parts along with the addition of a big “X” factor. Feel is something you can only get a hint of by getting a hull wet.
That said, you definitely want to do your homework prior to test paddling a canoe that looks to be custom made for your purposes. The demo or test-paddle should be the clinching argument in your selection process, validating all your prior research or perhaps sending you back for more if it's not what you anticipated.
The first step to having an effective canoe demo or test paddle is to do your homework in advance. Before cruising manufacturer's websites in depth and collecting catalogs or visiting local dealers, or talking with local paddlers and paddling clubs, etc., the first thing you need to do is to construct a picture of how you expect the canoe to be used and where it will be used. Take a moment and also consider honestly how diligent you are in maintaining your gear and where the canoe will live while not in use. Just as important, give some long hard thought as to how you anticipate the canoe being used a couple of years down the road.
Answers to these questions can go a long way in simplifying the canoe selection process by eliminating boats that don't fit within your parameters and helping you hone in on models that match up well.
Having a handle on expected use will also make it simpler to navigate websites and catalogs. Most manufacturers categorize their models by what kind of usage they are designed for. If you take the time to get a grasp on what uses are most important to you, you can quickly hone in on the canoes a specific manufacturer recommends for those activities.
Questions about durability, maintenance, storage will often have a large voice in what kind of material will best fit your paddling profile and this can further help qualify the number of canoes of interest.
Don't take the “easy” route when someone asks what you want out of a canoe by answering that you want an “all purpose” canoe. Those animals simply do not exist. If they did the buying process (not to mention the manufacturing and selling process) would be far simpler. What you can look for is varying degrees of versatility and that's one reason why it's time well spent to review websites and catalogs. There's different flavors and interpretations of versatility and if you can find a definition that closely matches your personal interpretation, you've found a good place to start.
At the same time, don't entirely disregard alternative definitions. That's one of the reasons you need to think down the road a little bit as you may find the paddling you want to grow into will favor a different canoe than the one that might seem best at this moment. The intent of this homework is to narrow down your options so that you don't spend time looking at canoes that have no hope of serving you well.
The role of the test paddle is to confirm and validate the best choice of the remaining candidates. For the best results, cast a bit of a broad net, including models with differing hull designs. One shape may ring some intuitive bells but don't sell yourself short by not taking advantage of trying some alternative designs. The experience may very well validate your original impressions or it could open new doors that need to be looked into.
That's the open mind we're looking for. Don't go into a demo planning on paddling one boat, plan to trial at least two, preferably three, one of whom differs somewhat in terms of material and/or design from what you anticipate is best for you. That's the best way to put your mind at rest. Think of it like trying different ice creams. If you lean towards vanilla, give that French version a try, it'll be close but a little different; then give a chocolate a test, just to make sure vanilla's still your preference.
Demo or test paddle opportunities come in a variety of forms. Manufacturers sponsor travelling demo days with factory personnel bringing boats to local dealers. Some dealers sponsor demo days on their own others may offer a test-paddle evening each week. Many dealers will accommodate a personal test paddle for serious customers.
It's important to confirm with the dealer that the models you are interested in will be available for a test paddle at the event. If you've done your homework, you well know it's unrealistic to expect a retailer to have every boat available. You may find that you need to “settle” for a boat close to what you have in mind, maybe a longer or shorter edition of same model or something with a very similar hull design but in a different material.
Don't let that keep you off the water. You'll no doubt gain valuable insight paddling similar canoes and that experience will likely confirm or contradict the expectations you had when you stepped on the beach. That's all to the good.
Alternatives to demo days can be identified by locating and contacting local paddling clubs. They may offer paddling “socials” or just present an opportunity to make contact with individual members who may paddle the boat(s) you might have in mind and may well loan you the canoe to try.
Another alternative is canoe rental companies. Depending on the canoe you have in mind, you may find a rental operation that rents those models or something very close to it. Now if you're looking for an ultralight foam-cored Kevlar© tripping canoe, you'll most likely have to head to the BWCA or Algonquin to find one to test but if you're in the market for a care-free versatile family canoe, odds are you can find one pretty close to home.
Once you have your test paddle opportunity nailed down, it's important that you prepare properly to make the most of it.
Number one, don't go into a test paddle opportunity with the mindset of going for a canoe ride. You'll sell both yourself and the retailer short if you do. The opportunity is too valuable and too important to waste.
Take your normal “crew” with you to the demo. A canoe is a pretty small vessel and it's best that everyone aboard is comfortable and happy with their accommodations. You can't stow a disgruntled bow paddler below decks after all and two kids without enough room is a recipe for disaster. A canoe that you think feels good and solid may feel too tender to your significant other. Now is the time to find that stuff out, not when the canoe is bought and paid for.
If a dog or pet is expected to be a constant companion, first check out whether the demo site allows dogs and also make sure the animal is no threat to other attendees. Keep the animal on a leash and make sure he/she stays in your boat or at your side at all times.
Dress to paddle; leave the loafers and high heels at home and dress warm enough that you can keep your focus on paddling instead of how cold you or your spouse or the kids are. Take along spare shoes and socks and leave in the car so folks can change to dry footwear after the event. If you want to play it safe, bring fresh set of clothes for each paddler.
Just about all demos rightfully require participants to wear PFDs while paddling. Don't just grab a couple of PFDs off the pile and head out, take the time to find PFDs that fit. Strapped into a too tight and binding PFD will do nothing but take your mind off what and how you're paddling.
Be judicious also in selecting your paddles. Take pains to get the right size paddles. Using too long a paddle is awkward and again distracts you from focusing on the canoe performance. Going too short may make you lean over towards the water too far, compromising impressions of the canoe's stability.
Don't head out thinking about paddling only the canoe you think is the one. Plan on trialing a number of canoes in order to confirm that you're on the right track. Paddle two canoes that are similar length and beam but differ in hull shape. You may be surprised which one has the best “feel” discussed earlier. Take advantage too to try out a boat of a different material. If you think you're going polyethylene try a royalex canoe; if you think royalex is the ticket, try a composite. You may find that you'll be happiest deferring your decision and heading home to save some extra dollars to step into a different material.
Strategize your test paddle, plan to put each canoe through its' paces, getting a feel for how well it goes straight, how easy it is to turn, how well it glides and how easy it is to maintain a cruising speed, how comfortable it is in terms of “accommodations”, how secure you and yours feel while afloat, etc. If there's some wind and some chop out there, test the boat going into, with, and across the wind and waves.
Think less about how powerfully you paddle and more about rhythm. Ease into your strokes and to test how fast a canoe is or how quickly it accelerates, increase the cadence (number of strokes per minute) rather than trying to dig harder into the water.
One of the most difficult skills challenging paddlers new to canoes is the ability to go straight. You can test the canoe by picking a point on the far horizon and see how well you can keep the hull pointing at that spot. However, bear in mind that your skills will inevitably improve the more you paddle and you may find over time that you want or need a canoe that can turn quickly and predictably as well.
Plan to paddle each different canoe the same, same course, same distance, same succession or maneuvers and tests. Consistency provides the most accurate basis for comparison. Have paddlers maintain same positions in the different canoes.
Be prepared to try out the same canoe more than once. Things can get a bit muddled if you're paddling 2 or 3 models and also trying shepherd kids, pets, etc to the right place at the right time. There's no harm in going out again and reinforcing first impressions.
If you're looking for a family canoe, try the boat out with different paddlers in different positions. Both adults may not always be available each time you go out, you may have a child paddling at times, check out how the boat handles in that situation.
If you're thinking about taking the canoe out solo at times, by all means do that as well at the demo. Bear in mind many canoes paddle better solo “backwards”, that is, from the bow seat with the canoe reversed. This puts the solo paddler closer to center and provides better trim.
It's advisable to test the canoe for stability by doing so closer to shore in shallower water where you can brace the hull upright by pushing against the bottom with your paddle. That way, taking it a step too far won't have such serious (and potentially embarrassing) results. If the kids are along, have them both lean over one side of the canoe to see how stable the boat is with an uneven load.
What you're primarily evaluating during a test paddle is the canoe hull design. When it comes to hull material about the only impact you can qualify is comparative weight. Many similar designs are made in both polyethylene and in Royalex. Both materials are pretty comparable in terms of durability and require minimal maintenance. Royalex has the advantage of being about 20% lighter and more easily repaired. Poly counters with lower price.
However, the demo does give you the opportunity to see how much weight you and yours can handle comfortably. Pick each canoe up and carry them up the beach aways – does that 20% make a difference? Better yet, fetch your vehicle close to the beach and with supervision from event staff, try loading the boat onto your vehicle. That's where that 20% may make a significant difference. There's no point in considering a canoe that you can't get onto your vehicle to get it to the water. That discovery may make the higher priced Royalex option far more appealing.
If you approach your test paddle with an established “agenda”, it will be more productive, rewarding, and informative and you'll be less likely to encounter some unpleasant surprises down the road. You'll be able to better quantify each canoe's attributes and performance and that is what makes comparison paddling so valuable in the canoe selection process. By the time the test paddle opportunity is complete, you should be in a position to choose your canoe with confidence.
Good luck, enjoy the process, don't anguish over it. After all, there's no such thing as a bad day on the water.