TopKayaker.Net: Kayak Instruction Articles

Trimming Your Kayak and Canoe

by Steve Eisenhauer

Paddling hard, I‘m having trouble keeping up with Brian; but we're paddling the same kayaks – 10.2' Wilderness System Kaos surf kayaks – across the mile-wide Ocean City, NJ, inlet.  I’m a much stronger and more experienced paddler, who paddles nearly every day, while Brian usually rides waves on a surfboard and only occasionally uses a kayak.  He’s about 30 pounds lighter than me, but these kayaks are designed for up to 240 pounds and, at 210, my weight is well within the kayak’s capacity.  So why am I struggling while Brian maintains what looks like a leisurely stroke rate? I found the answer by doing some experiments with my low-tech body and my high-tech GPS unit.

My day job – in addition to leading water trips – involves managing thousands of acres of wildlife preserves along southern New Jersey’s Delaware Bay coastline.  Waterproof GPS units are an important tool for us.  Our most accurate unit is a Trimble GeoExplorer but, at around $4,000.00, it’s not a unit well-suited for kayak use, particularly since it doesn’t float if dropped.  For years, we’ve relied more on the much-cheaper, easier-to-use, more buoyant (yes, it floats) Garmin marine 76 GPSMAP units.  But we recently purchased a newer Garmin marine model: the Montana 650.  Although it doesn’t float, it is rugged enough for kayak use and is accurate within a few feet on clear days in open water.  I just have to remember to keep a safety line clipped from it to my lifejacket or boat.

My preferred seating position for 10.2” Dagger Kaos surf kayak: about 6” in front of molded “seat” back.  Most Kaos users have manufacturer-supplied fabric backrest in place, however, I’ve found it restricting in surf conditions and, regardless, it comes apart (broken fittings, primarily) in rough water and limits sliding your weight backward, which is often required on a wave face.
Center seat bolted to gunnels of 17’ Old Town Penobscot about a foot behind center yoke.  On one of our canoes I removed the yoke and fit the center seat a little behind center but I miss the yoke, so haven’t done this with other canoes.  My legs are long enough to drape them over the yoke when paddling in the seated position, and there’s enough room between seat and  yoke to kneel when this position is desired.
Center seat in 16’ Mad River Explorer bolted directly behind yoke.  This is probably a more efficient (faster speed) seating position than a more rear-ward position but kneeling – often necessary in rough water -- positions the paddler too far in front of center for most rough water conditions. 
Garmin marine GPS showing speed in MPH.

By using this GPS unit, and paddling at the same rate (counting strokes per minute is advised) along the same route multiple times while seated in different positions, I found moving my body yet another inch forward adds another .1 or .2 mph to my speed.  Unlike powerboats that become more efficient when you crank the engine up to a speed to get most of the hull out of the water, human-powered canoes and kayaks tend to be more efficient with more of their length in the water.  But nearly all canoe and kayak hulls are different.  Getting the full 10.2 length of my Dagger in the water – including its upturned nose – would require too much weight positioned forward.

My contribution to this topic will focus only on boats I frequently use:  recreational sit-in kayaks and canoes, and sit-on-top surf kayaks.  But the core proposed technique – using an accurate GPS unit to calculate speed – is likely transferable to most, if not all, kayaks and canoes. 

Back to crossing the inlet with Brian, I shift my body forward a couple inches after seeing how he seems – with his bent knees stance compared to my straight legs on the boat bottom – to have his weight more forward than me.  With this change I find it’s now easy to keep up with him. 

Over decades of paddling kayaks and canoes, and leading hundreds of river trips, I typically rely on common sense and gut feeling to establish the best boat trim.  Move cargo around, lean forward and back, shift seating positions. 

In two-person canoes always position the heavier person in back so the boat is a little rear heavy.   A level boat seems to paddle best.  After a few dozen strokes in a kayak or canoe, I’ve always thought I could sense if a boat is not close to level and, if adjustment is possible, I could make the necessary changes.  How wrong I’ve been all these years!

The literature about proper boat trim is fascinating.  For example, in a 2013 Internet exchange on the topic, recommendations for a Jensen 18’ racing canoe ranged from level at rest to slightly bow down to slightly bow up. 

Then the legendary Olympic paddler Bruce Barton weighed in with:

“The Jensen 18 is an old design.  If racing this canoe in shallow water trim it at least 2" bow down when the canoe is not moving. When moving the bow will rise up.
A very strong team would run it more bow down. It will be easier to turn if it is not stern heavy. This canoe has little rocker.
By running it bow down it will free the stern for easier steering.  I have been racing canoes for 45 years.”

In a few sentences, Bruce brings up important variables: boat design (particularly rocker), paddler strength, water depth, steering needs.  Variables mentioned by others include wind, waves, up or down stream currents. 

Since I’m in the ocean a lot, I’d guess the greater buoyancy of saltwater vs. freshwater is also a factor since boats behave differently as more or less hull is submerged. 


One might argue that, for recreational paddlers and day-trippers, the difference between 3.8 MPH and 4.0 MPH is insignificant.  And sit-on-top surf kayakers constantly shift their weight anyway, sliding up or back, leaning in all directions, changing foot positions in reaction to waves and wind, so how important is a bit more speed? 

The difference of .2 MPH over a 5-hour trip is a mile, which seems significant to me.  And surf kayakers typically spend most of their time paddling out to wave breaks, paddling around to get in position or, in my case, paddling long distances on the frequent days waves aren’t big enough to ride.  Maybe 1% of my total paddling time is spent surfing on a wave face; the rest of the time I’m cruising along, if there is such a thing with a 10’ surf kayak.  A little extra speed is actually very important on big wave days when getting out past the breaking waves is a struggle; even one boat length of extra speed is sometimes the difference between making it out and being driven back to shore.

Seat Position

Perhaps the most important aspect of a properly-trimmed boat is its stability.  About half the sit-in kayaks in my fleet of 12 – used for novice paddlers – have easily-adjustable seats.  Not far into nearly every trip at least one paddler used to tip over, and it usually was someone who slid the seat back far from center, compromising its stability. 

I’ve since hose-clamped all seats into a center position, and now have fewer inadvertent tips and fewer stragglers. Similarly, a few of my 16’ and 17’ Old Town Penobscot and Mad River Explorer Royalex canoes have third seats bolted to the gunwales just behind center.  Novice paddlers are usually pleasantly surprised to see how stable these boats are when paddling solo in this position, even though the center seat is mounted a few inches higher than the other two. 

When I shifted my position a couple inches forward after being embarrassed by Brian in that Ocean City inlet crossing, I quickly adapted to the “new normal”.  Sure, I have to more quickly slide and/or lean back when screaming down a wave face, to keep the nose from diving under.  And I still have to slide and/or lean forward to drop into a wave or to gain speed when the kayak’s rear end is buried in a wave.  But I can sense the added speed that was helpful in catching more waves, and the increased overall stability.  What I couldn’t sense was that there was still more work to do.  Using a GPS unit to calculate speed has helped me take another step forward.

Having spent two outings with a GPS on-board my surf kayak, I’ve learned a lot.  With a 7.5 minute topographic map loaded into the unit, I can even imagine staring at the GPS screen and being somewhat mesmerized while paddling down a narrow river.  In my two outings that involved crossing a tidal waterway inlet, I was fascinated to see how tidal action, water depth and currents dramatically affect my speed.  But staring at a screen is the last thing I want to be doing in a kayak or canoe.  I’m out here to get away from screens.  It’s always disturbing to see people taking hikes in the woods on a nature preserve while staring at a little screen: ignoring most of the sights, sounds, smells and vibrations around them.  It’s even more disturbing to see people doing the same thing in boats on the river, bay and ocean.

So, try trimming your kayak and canoe by temporarily mounting a GPS unit that can accurately gauge speed.  Then, leave it on shore or pack it away onboard where it’s not easily accessible.  Because, if I run into you on the water and you have your GPS prominently mounted, in navigation mode with a voice broadcasting where to make a turn and what obstacles or sights lie ahead, I might just be moved to effect a collision that would somehow silence that voice and darken that screen.

Camp Cedar KnollAbout the author - Steve Eisenhauer

In Steve’s position as Regional Director of the Natural Lands Trust, his work focuses on managing 9,000 acres of preserved land and water, preserving addition acreage and running an outreach program that includes many kayak and canoe trips, often involving first-time paddlers.  For information about the Natural Lands Trust’s activities see www.natlands.org (photo right: Kayakers from Camp Cedar Knoll in Natural Lands Trust’s outreach program)

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