The other day I was checking the Wenonah Facebook account and came across a post asking why Wenonah puts bucket seats in our canoes.
Truth is, bucket seats are unusual. Wenonah one of only a handful of canoe manufacturers that use bucket seats as standard equipment on their canoes. Most other canoe companies use either web or cane seats. Why is Wenonah different?
The answer is racing.
Wenonah has a deep connection to the history of modern canoe racing. Wenonah’s founder, Mike Cichanowski, got into racing early-on and worked with with designers like Gene Jensen, Ev Crozier and Dave Kruger to develop new, competitive designs. Iconic Wenonah canoes like the Minnesota II and Advantage evolved from early racing designs. And Wenonah has produced more specialized racing canoes over time than any other manufacturer.
So it’s natural that Wenonah’s canoes have always been outfitted like racing canoes. Not because everyone will race them, but because they paddle better that way.
Marathon canoe racing grew in popularity following WWII and boomed in the late 70’s and 80’s. Early racers used traditional canoes made from wood canvas or aluminum, but designs rapidly evolved into faster shapes and high tech composite constructions. Wenonah pioneered the use of ultralight foam cores and Kevlar fabric to build the stiffest, lightest racing canoes possible. Today most people know these constructions from backcountry trips in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. In the earliest days they were developed to give racers an edge in competition.
As canoe designs and constructions evolved, outfitting changed to keep pace. Seats were lowered for increased stability. Footbraces were added for comfort and power transfer. Sliding seats allowed canoes to be trimmed on the fly for maximum speed. Even paddles changed. In the early ’70’s racer/designer Gene Jensen showed up to a local race with a bent canoe paddle. He got some laughs that day, but the elbow paddle was a winner. Today it’s standard equipment for racers and backcountry canoeists.
The competition of canoe racing drove designs and technique toward maximum efficiency. Paddling long distances at top speed requires efficiency. If you’re wasting energy you’ll tire faster and fall behind. The pressure of competition refined racing canoe outfitting to optimize efficiency and comfort. Bucket seats, footbraces and sliding seats were soon required equipment for competitive racers. So too were bent-shaft elbow paddles and a specialized marathon forward stroke–the “Sit-and-Switch”.
Together, these elements of equipment and technique form a system that helps paddlers to travel farther with less effort, regardless of whether they’re racing or out for a day of fun.
Traditional canoes seats are mounted high enough that the paddler can either kneel or sit, depending on conditions. If it’s rough or you’re running through some whitewater you can kneel for more stability. If conditions are calm you can paddle seated. The ability to shift between positions gives a canoeist a lot of options to move around, which helps with comfort and boat control.
As racing designs evolved the high seat position became a disadvantage. Racers were spending hours in the canoe sometimes paddling hundreds of miles. It was impractical to kneel the entire time. And the high seat position was less stable for a seated paddler. As canoe designs became narrower and faster, seats were lowered to improve stability.
Footbraces developed around the same time.
Footbraces make seated paddling better in two ways–comfort and efficiency.
Anyone who’s paddled a cheap kayak with no footbraces knows how uncomfortable it can be. The low position of a kayak seat requires the paddler to hold a “sit up” position or slouch back against the seat. Legs and lower back fatigue. In short order you’re ready to get out of the boat.
The same thing can happen in a canoe with a lower seat. Adding a footbrace to the canoe makes it easy to sit upright in comfort. It also helps to transfer energy from the paddler to the canoe.
By pressing against the footrest during the forward stroke the paddler improves body rotation for maximum power, and effectively transfers energy through the legs and into forward motion. Without a footbrace, much of this energy is wasted and the forward stroke is less efficient.
Pressing against the footrest and rotating the upper body during the forward stroke causes the paddler’s hip to shift slightly in the seat. On a flat canoe seat, this motion causes the paddler to slide backward a little bit at a time. Constantly readjusting position is an awkward waste of energy. A better solution is a contoured seat that holds the paddler’s backside firmly in place–a bucket seat.
The contoured shape of bucket seat connects paddler to canoe. You can press against the footrest (or bow tank) without sliding backward in the seat. You can also edge the canoe simply by shifting your weight from one side of the seat to the other.
Edging is an essential component of boat control. It helps long, straight tracking canoes to turn more quickly allows for subtle directional control without extra paddle strokes.
If you’re kneeling in a canoe, you can shift your weight onto one knee to put the boat on edge. Shifting your weight on a flat seat feels much less secure. The raised lip around the edge of a tractor seat allows you to shift your weight in the canoe without sliding sideways. You remain seated in the center of the canoe but are still able to precisely control the edge.
The truth is that most paddlers prefer to sit rather than kneel when paddling a canoe. And if you’re going to sit, you’ll be most comfortable and efficient sitting in a bucket seat with your feet on a solid footrest.
One of the earliest innovations to come out of canoe racing was “sit-and-switch” paddling. Long before he designed the first bent shaft canoe paddle, Gene Jensen developed this powerful forward stroke technique. Today, all canoe racers use this style. It offers a massive increase in efficiency over traditional forward paddling.
It can be tricky to paddle a canoe in a straight line. During forward paddling, a canoe tends to turn away from the stern paddler’s side. This has to do with the physics of how the boat moves through the water and the forces that the stern paddler puts on the hull. It’s very frustrating for inexperienced paddlers.
Skilled paddlers have several options to keeping a canoe on track. The traditional way to keep the canoe pointed in a straight line is for the stern paddler to use a corrective stroke like a J-Stroke. This involves dragging the paddle through the water with a motion that pulls the canoe back onto course. Mastering the J-Stroke takes a bit of time, and a skillful corrective stroke is frequently seen as the mark of an expert canoeist.
The problem is that corrective strokes waste energy.
Corrective strokes waste energy in several ways. First, the stroke itself creates drag that slows the canoe. Second, adding a correction to the stern paddler’s forward stroke robs it of forward energy. Finally, the corrective stroke takes a little time to execute, so the tempo of paddle strokes is slowed, which harms efficiency.
Depending on the shape of the canoe and the way it sits in the water it may be necessary for the stern paddler to make a correction at the end of every stroke. That’s a lot of correction and a lot of wasted energy.
Sit-and-Switch paddling eliminates the need to steer the canoe with corrective strokes. Instead of steering from the back of the canoe, paddlers simply switch sides every few strokes. All the paddlers’ energy goes into moving the canoe forward and none is wasted in steering.
In practice it works like this. Both paddlers put their paddles in the water at the same time, with the stern paddler matching the bow paddler’s tempo. When the canoe starts to deviate away from the stern paddler’s side, he calls a switch. Both paddlers finish their current stroke and then simultaneously switch sides, taking another stroke without missing a beat.
Paddlers can use any code word to call a switch. Jensen and his partner settled on saying “hut” adapted from a military marching command. It didn’t take long for “hut” to be the most common switch call in canoe racing.
If you’ve never tried the marathon forward stroke you might think it won’t make much of a difference. It does. The difference in efficiency and power provided by the marathon stroke is dramatic. Especially in a solo canoe. It’s like stomping on the gas and jumping into passing gear. And it doesn’t really require any more effort. You have to try it to understand.
The first time I realized how much more efficient sit-and-switch paddling is than paddling with a J-stroke was on a long backcountry trip in Quetico Provincial Park. There were three of us paddling in a Minnesota II and a Prism solo. I started out in the Prism using a traditional beavertail paddle and a J-stroke. Heading north on Kawnipi I hammered away, struggling to keep up. I went through my whole quiver of Bill Mason-style corrective strokes–J, Canadian, Pitch–it didn’t matter. No matter how hard I paddled I couldn’t keep up with my friends in the tandem. The Prism was just too slow.
At some point we switched. My friend Sam got into the Prism and started paddling sit-and-switch with a bent shaft paddle. He had no trouble keeping pace. In fact, he started pulling ahead. What was going on? Obviously it wasn’t the boat. Was he that much stronger than me?
The next time I got into the Prism I gave sit-and-switch a try. It didn’t seem as elegant as my Canadian stroke, and I zigzagged around a bit, but it sure was faster. I had no trouble hanging with the Minnesota II.
That trip made me a sit-and-switch believer, and it wasn’t long before I had my own carbon paddle and was spending time in racing canoes going fast and improving my forward stroke. I even did a race or two. But racing wasn’t really the point. Point was that I had been introduced to a technique that gave me another gear if I needed it.
Sometimes you need another gear. If you’re you’re in the middle of a big lake battling a headwind you’ll want to be calling switches. Same goes for paddling upstream on a daytrip with an empty canoe or keeping up with a fast tandem in a solo. By switching to a more effective forward stroke you’ll find yourself making progress where you were otherwise standing still. Sit-and-Switch paddling developed for racing, but you don’t have to be a racer to appreciate how effective it is. It’s a vital technique in any situation that requires power and efficiency.
Bent Shaft Paddles
Bent shaft paddles and marathon paddling are inseparably linked. Gene Jensen developed the first elbow paddles in the early 70’s after watching canoe racers churn the water during forward paddling. He observed that most racers lifted water at the end of their forward stroke, rather than keeping the blade of the paddle perpendicular to the direction of travel. Angling the blade slightly forward eliminated this lifting and made it easier to pull the paddle cleanly from the water at the end of the stroke. This translated into more efficient forward paddling with less of the paddler’s energy wasted and more of it driving the canoe forward.
Today elbow paddles are standard equipment for racers and are common among wilderness trippers. The angle of the bend has settled at about 10-12 degrees–bent enough to eliminate lifting water but easy to use for draws or other canoe strokes. And weights have come down. A lot.
The earliest elbow paddles were made from wood. These days racers use ultralight paddles made from high-tech composite materials. Today you’ll find recreational carbon fiber paddles that weigh 13 ounces or less and competitive racing paddles as light as 7 ounces. Dramatically lighter than wooden paddles.
Compare a 13 ounce carbon paddle to a 22 ounce wood paddle. In the hand it’s noticeably lighter, but the big difference comes when you start paddling. You lift the paddle with each stroke. At 50 strokes a minute you’ll lift it 3,000 times in an hour. That half-pound difference multiplied by 3,000 strokes adds up to just under 1,700 pounds of cumulative weight strain taken off your body in just an hour of brisk paddling.
Obviously things don’t add up exactly that way in reality. But the point is still valid. Every time you lift a heavier paddle you’re adding a bit of extra strain to your paddling muscles. Factor things out across a day’s travel and it’s easy to see why a lighter paddle is a huge benefit to any canoeist. With a lightweight carbon paddle you’ll paddle farther and be less tired at the end of the day. It’s a difference you can feel and it’s the reason that all of us here at Wenonah use carbon bent shaft paddles as our everyday canoe paddles.
The light weight of carbon paddles also makes for lightning fast switches. A heavier paddle is slower to swing across the boat when paddling marathon style. This breaks the tempo of paddling and reduces efficiency. A lightweight carbon paddle is easy to flip from one side of the canoe to the other without missing a beat. Faster switches are more efficient and greater efficiency means less fatigue for the paddler.
The final piece of the canoe racing system is the sliding seat. Sliding seats developed in canoe racing as a way to precisely balance the bow to stern trim of the canoe for maximum speed. A canoe or kayak is fastest when it is sitting dead flat on the water during forward paddling. If it is trimmed heavier in the stern it will track straighter but be slower. Heavier in the bow and it will be too maneuverable. Trim changes slightly as you paddle faster so you need to be able to adjust on the fly. Racers throw a handful of water in the bottom of the canoe and adjust trim using sliding seats so the water stays centered in the boat and doesn’t run toward the bow or the stern.
Speed is the name of the game in racing, but in recreational canoeing trim is largely about boat control. You can use a sliding seat to help balance out the weight of two different sized paddlers so the canoe will paddle more efficiently. And you can use a slider to improve control in wind and waves.
In touring canoes, sliding seats act in the same way that retractable skegs work in sea kayaks. They allow the paddler to rapidly adjust the point of lateral resistance in the canoe and improve tracking in varied wind and wave conditions.
This is probably easiest to understand by discussing what a skeg does in a sea kayak first. If you paddle the average sea kayak across the wind it will turn upwind despite your best efforts. This phenomenon is called “weather cocking” and it happens because the wind is trying to blow the kayak sideways but the bow is stuck in place by forward motion. The only part of the kayak that is free to blow downwind is the stern. The stern blows down and the kayak turns into the wind.
Lowering a retractable skeg corrects this by anchoring the stern more firmly in the water. The skeg is lowered until the kayak remains pointed in the desired direction of travel. The kayak will now hold a course across the wind because resistance to blowing sideways is balanced by the skeg. Both bow and stern blow down wind at the same rate.
If you put the skeg all the way down the kayak will begin to turn away from the wind or “lee cock.” This happens because the stern has been more firmly anchored than the bow. The center of resistance has shifted backward and the force of the wind blowing the kayak sideways acts more on the bow than the stern.
In practice this means that you can use a skeg to tune the performance of a sea kayak for a specific set of circumstances. Paddling upwind you’ll leave the skeg retracted. Downwind you’ll use the skeg fully deployed. Holding a course across the wind you’ll deploy just the right amount of skeg to maintain your course with the least amount of correction.
Sliding seats work exactly like this.
If your canoe is trimmed heavier in the bow it will track upwind. Heavier in the stern and it will hold a course off the wind and run with the waves. By adjusting the sliding seat forward or backward you can shift the trim until the canoe will hold a course across the wind with a minimum of correction. Combine this with the natural tendency of the canoe to turn away from the stern paddler and it’s easy to set up your canoe to head exactly where you want it to go with maximum efficiency.
A canoe in the wind acts like a weathervane. Whichever end is deeper in the water will point toward the wind. If the bow is deeper, the stern will blow down wind. If the stern is deeper, the bow will blow down wind. Controlling a canoe in the wind is all about getting the trim just right. Sliding seats are the best way to do this.
This is especially true for solo canoes. Solo canoes are extremely responsive to small trim adjustments and are very difficult to paddle in the wind if the trim is incorrect.
Moving a sliding seat seat forward or backward provides instant and precise correction to trim. It’s the most effective way to adjust canoe trim on the fly.
Here’s an example.
This spring my friend Ryan and I did a quick Boundary Waters trip to fish for lake trout. We wanted to move fast so we took a Minnesota II. Ryan is lighter than me so most of the time we paddled with him in the bow and the seat a little bit forward so he could comfortably use the floatation tank as a footrest. On our way out we were crossing Ima Lake in a stiff crosswind. The canoe was full of packs and I was hammering away on the downwind side trying to hold the boat on course. I asked Ryan to slide his seat all the way forward. The canoe immediately became more manageable. We tracked effortlessly toward the tall white pine I was using as a reference to hit the portage into Jordan.
A few minutes later we turned away from the wind and I asked him to slide the seat back again. We made an easy downwind run, turned the corner and picked up the portage trail.
For the rest of the day we battled into a stiff headwind, sprinting upwind from point to point as we made our way south down Disappointment Lake to our exit point on Snowbank. From time to time we had to adjust trim to ferry across the wind and tuck into shelter. By the end of the day we were both convinced that sliding seats are an essential tool for wilderness travel.
I’ve heard experienced paddlers say that that you can shift trim by moving packs in a loaded canoe. This sounds great in theory, but in the middle of a windy lake fighting a nasty chop it isn’t a great idea. We never would have tried it on Ima. It would have been too much of a hassle, and a little too sketchy. With the sliding seat changing trim was easy.
Why Bucket Seats
So, why does Wenonah put bucket seats in their canoes while other manufacturers use web or cane seats?
The answer is that bucket seats are part of a system of features and techniques that grew out of canoe racing. A system that helps recreational paddlers travel farther with less effort. And Wenonah is strongly committed to this system because we know it works from personal experience.
Buckets seats keep you firmly connected to the canoe. Footbraces effectively transfer power and improve comfort. Sliding seats fine-tune performance in the wind. Bent shaft paddles and the marathon forward stroke efficiently power your canoe with a minimum of effort. All the pieces work together to improve efficiency and reduce fatigue. Take away any part of the system and it doesn’t work as well.
Wenonah designs and builds canoes with the complete system of canoe racing features in mind. Other prominent manufacturers may put a footbrace in a canoe, or a sliding seat, or maybe even a bucket here or there. For Wenonah, this sort of outfitting is standard in a performance canoe. It’s how we think a canoe should be equipped.
Of course, most people will never race their canoes. And it’s fair to ask why features that win canoe races are important to recreational canoeists. I hope I’ve established this in the paragraphs above, but I’ll give it one more shot.
Think about something most of us use every day: cars. We don’t race our cars to work, but features developed through the competition of racing make our cars safer, more efficient and easier to use. Same thing is true of bicycles. And canoes. We may not race our canoes across a wilderness lake, but we do benefit from racing features that improve our efficiency and comfort on the water.
The intense competition of racing drives innovation that would otherwise not be developed. And that innovation often makes products better for a recreational user.
Canoe racing has brought a handful of significant innovations to the world of modern canoeing and Wenonah has been there every step of the way. So it’s natural that Wenonah’s canoes have always been outfitted like racing canoes. Not because everyone will race them, but because they paddle better that way.
Gene Jensen, Canoe Journal, 1998: https://www.jensencanoes.com/articles-news/canoe-journal/
A Conversation with Gene Jensen, Paddler Magazine, 1993: https://www.jensencanoes.com/articles-news/paddler/
The Surprisingly Interesting History of the Bent Shaft Canoe Paddle, Gear Junkie: https://gearjunkie.com/boats-water/canoe/history-bent-shaft-canoe-paddle
Wenonah’s everyday carbon paddle, the Black Lite Elbow: https://wenonah.com/Items.aspx?id=3
Wenonah’s Slip-On Bucket Seat Cushion is a simple way to add paddling to a bucket seat: https://wenonah.com/Items.aspx?id=44
Here’s a short video explaining the advantages of sliding bucket seats and how to use them to adjust canoe trim.
This video is from our friend Jeremy at Red Leaf Designs. It’s about 10 minutes long and shows sit-and-switch paddling and edge control in a Wenonah J-203 solo racing canoe. These boats really fly. This was an early season paddle so you see Jeremy wearing an inflatable PFD and packing a spare set dry clothes in case of a spill. Jeremy makes some fantastic canoe bags and custom canoe components. If you need a boat bag you should definitely check him out!
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