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Anatomy of a Canoe & Essentials of Good Design

Within limits of materials and technology, both Indian and early white canoes were traditionally shaped to conform to the kind of waters they plied and to the job they had to do.  Mass production of the last 30 years has been more about conforming to the demands of the materials and the machines that mass produce them, than function. Efficiency in the water has taken a backseat to efficiency in the factory.  Building your own canoe allows you to shift the emphasis back to performance and rediscover the perfect harmony among canoe, paddler and the water.

Let’s define the Anatomy of a Canoe

Length:  The center half of a well designed hull provides 75% of its stability and carrying capacity.  Longer hulls will carry more weight but affect speed.  A typical canoe varies from 10’ – 21’

The greater the water line length and the height ratio of length to width the faster the canoe is to paddle.  The longer hull length will track better (hold it’s course) than a short hull.  Long narrow hulls with les wetted surface generate less friction and faster.

 Beam:  Beam is the maximum width of a canoe.  A narrow beam requires less effort to push water aside and less friction is arched at the hulls surface.  Wider more stable sides offer good “final stability” once its set in the water.  Flare sides also deflect water.  When gunwales are narrower than the maximum beam, the sides curved effect is called tumblehome.  Tumblehome allows paddlers to easily reach over the sides to paddle without sacrificing carrying capacity.  Tumblehome stiffens the hull also.  To its expense more tumblehome means less final stability.

 Depth:  Depth is measured from the gunwales to the bottom of the hull.  10 inches are common on a solo canoe to 20 inches on a tandem canoe.  Depth is also measured at the bow and stern from the top of the stern to the lowest point on the keel line.  Freeboard is the distance from the waterline to the gunwale.  Capacity is usually determined when loading to 6 inches of freeboard.  Freeboard also determines seaworthiness of a canoe as high sides draw wind, reduce speed & controllability.  Low sides which are less susceptible to wind will heighten the chances of swamping a canoe in whitewater or high waves.


Hull Contour:  How the canoe shape moves through the water by dividing it is hull contour.  The efficiency of the canoe is determined by the amount of friction created by the hull surface.


Rocker or Keel-line:  is the curvy upward slope from the middle towards the end of the canoe.  Essentially the rocker lets a canoe pivot on its midpoint.  The greater the rocker the shorter the water-line and the easier it is to turn.  This is typically a trait of white water rapids canoes which can be so extreme they look like a banana.  Too much rocker or curve in the canoe forces the center to support most of the weight, driving it deeper in the water with increased displacement and friction.  These are performance canoes, not necessarily designed for recreational paddling, carrying gear or the faint at heart. 


While there is no ideal canoe form, each time a design is manipulated for a specific result, inevitability it entails the loss of another feature.  An example: If you opt for tracking (straight lines and make the canoe longer for lakes) you sacrifice movability and turning (river and rock steering).  If you go for an extreme rocker (optimal move ability) you lose tracking.  Final stability is also a prime concern if you have kids, dogs or inexperienced paddlers in tandem.  Final stability is a lower priority if you are typical solo paddlers.  Finally functional canoes verses visually pleasing canoes are also a balancing of practicality with the beauty of lines.





Flambeau Canoe Company
W5992 Little Chicago RD
Phillips, WI 54555