Parts of a Canoe: An in-depth photo guide

Although a canoe looks like a very simple and straightforward craft, it’s crucial that if you own one and use it, you’ll need to know what every part is, what it’s for and how it functions.

The parts of a canoe are the bow, bow deck, bow seat, thwarts, yoke, stern seat, stern deck, stern, gunwales, keel, stems, hull, belly, and handholds. Also, various parts of a canoe have names in the context of their design features or functionality in the water. For example, the draft and freeboard.

All canoes that have ever been designed from early native Americans right on up to modern, high-tech creations, have many similar features. We’ll show you exactly what they are, what they mean, and how they are important.

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It’s important to note that different canoes will have parts or features that are absent on another canoe like a keel or extra thwarts for support, an extra seat, or any number of other accessories or design features. We’ll cover most of them and tell you what they do.


What is the Bow of a canoe?

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The bow of a kevlar lake tripping canoe

The BOW is the front of a canoe which is differentiated from the mid-ship or main space of a canoe. It is the opposite of the back of the canoe (called the STERN). To find the bow, look at the seats. The BOW seat is wider than the stern seat and has room in front of it for the legs of the bow paddler.

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What is the Bow and Stern Deck?

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You can see the bow deck with the metal plaque logo, as well as the bow flotation chamber and the carry handle

The Bow deck (AKA. Deck Plate) on a canoe is a cap or plate at the very front of a canoe. Its purpose is mainly to discourage water entry over the gunwales at the bow. It is often used as the area where the manufacturer of the canoe will place a logo, and it also adds to the overall aesthetic of the craft.

The stern deck usually looks exactly the same as the bow deck and it serves a similar purpose.


What is a Hand Hold or Handle?

The Handle or Hand Hold on a canoe is used primarily for carrying the canoe upright with 2 people. The bow handle is also typically the location of a bowline or painter line used for securing the canoe to a dock or any object in addition to other functions like tracking a canoe through rapids, etc. It’s also a key item to use while tying down your canoe on your vehicle for travel.


What is a Gunwale?

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Aluminum trim including footrest for the stern paddler, thwart, and gunwales. only the yoke on this model is wood

Gunwales on a canoe are the top rails on each side of the canoe (at the top of the hull) that run the entire length of the canoe and join together at the bow and stern decks. Gunwales can be made of aluminum, wood, plastic, vinyl or carbon/kevlar. Gunwales offer structure to the otherwise flimsy hull of a canoe and they serve to attach many crucial parts like thwarts, yokes, and seats.

We can further differentiate the parts of a gunwale. The inside edge of the gunwale (closest to the inside of the canoe) is called the “inwale” while the edge of the gunwale farthest to the outside of the canoe is called the “outwale”. This terminology (is used at all) is used typically on a canoe with pronounced gunwales usually made of wood (like the canoe used for this overview).


What is a Yoke, or the bar in the middle of a Canoe?

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A cherry wood yoke on a wood-trimmed kevlar canoe

The Yoke on a canoe is really just the center thwart. It is set at a location along the canoe’s length that is central and therefore balanced almost exactly. The yoke is used for adding rigidity to the structure of the canoe, but even more importantly, it is the item used to carry the canoe (typically on a single person’s shoulders). The yoke is usually molded in some way so as to make it more comfortable to carry on one’s shoulders.


What is a Thwart on a Canoe?

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Wood thwart attached to the underside of the wood gunwales

A thwart on a canoe is a stabilizing bar running between the gunwales or from the gunwale on one side of the canoe, across the main part of the canoe to the gunwale on the other side. Its purpose is to add structure and strength to the body of the canoe. Thwarts are typically made of either aluminum or wood. They are not designed to bear the weight of someone sitting on them (which is always a temptation in a canoe – especially for children).


What is a Canoe Stem?

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Technically, this canoe does not have a stem per se, but on a cedar strip canoe, the stem is the support piece that cuts through the water while the canoe is in motion

The stem on a canoe is typically a piece of wood that runs from the center of the bow or stern deck plate down to the keel or bottom of the boat. It’s referenced usually only in wood canoes since it is the piece of wood to which the strips of cedar planking are attached.

Stems are usually not referenced in aluminum or fiberglass/kevlar canoes since they don’t exist as they do in wood canoes.


What is the Stern of a Canoe?

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The stern is generally the rear of the canoe also known as the “aft”

The stern on a canoe is the back of the boat. It is generally known as the back 2 to 3 feet in a canoe. To find the stern, look at the seats. The stern seat is narrow compared to the bow seat and is located much closer to the back of the canoe (stern). When seated in the stern, there is very little room behind the paddler.

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What is a Flotation Chamber on a Canoe?

A flotation chamber on a canoe is a design feature in nearly every canoe (except for some wood and custom wood/canvas canoes). It’s a chamber built into both the bow and stern (under the bow and stern decks) that serves to keep the canoe floating relatively high in the water if it capsizes and fills with water. Typically, flotation chambers are made with either very buoyant material or air.

The idea or goal of a set of flotation chambers is to keep the canoe (if sitting upright but full of water) high enough so the gunwales are at or near water level or perhaps even slightly higher than the water level.


What is a Bow Seat and Stern Seat?

A canoe’s bow seat is different than a stern seat though obviously, both are meant primarily to sit on. The stern seat is usually narrower since it is located in a narrower section of the canoe. A bow seat is wider and features more space on either side between the bow paddler and the gunwales on each side.

They are not part of the canoe’s structural integrity design. Depending on the material and design of the canoe, seats are attached differently, but usually, they are attached to the gunwales. Some seats (usually in solo canoes) are built into the floor and do not touch the gunwales. This allows for easy kneeling on both sides of the seat.

On some canoe designs, the bow seat can slide back and forth for optimal positioning to adjust the trim of the canoe.

Also, you can use the location of the bow and stern seats to determine the front and back of a canoe. The front (bow) is the end where the seat is FARTHEST from the deck plate. That’s because the bow paddler needs room for his/her feet.


What is the Belly of a Canoe?

The belly of a canoe is the lowest part of the hull and is also in the very center of the canoe. It’s where most gear is placed during a canoe trip. You could call it the “cargo hold” of a canoe.


What is the Hull of a Canoe?

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The hull of a canoe is simply the main body and material of the canoe itself. If the canoe is made of kevlar, you would say it has a “kevlar hull”. Most often, a hull is mentioned in reference to its profile or shape. If you were to cut a canoe in half across its body from one gunwale across to the other, you would see the cross-section of the hull.

It would have a shape like flat bottom or shallow arch, or round bottom or shallow V, etc. Each hull shape has a specific purpose and excels in some function, but functions poorly for another purpose.


What is the Keel of a Canoe?

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Here’s a beat-up old canoe bottom with a pronounced keel

The keel on a canoe or any boat is the ridge that runs lengthwise from the bow to the stern of a canoe along the center of the canoe’s bottom. Some canoes have no keel which means the bottom is completely smooth and featureless. If a canoe has a keel, it will be an obvious ridge that is often seen not only from the outside of a canoe but also from the inside.

Keels serve the purpose of adding a bit of stability to the canoe while also making it track straighter in the water. However, canoes without keels are much easier to turn and maneuver. Canoes with no keels are also considered to be more “efficient” in the water and offer less drag overall.


What is the Keel Line of a Canoe?

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A keel line of a canoe is basically the shape of the canoe’s hull from bow to stern and is seen most clearly from the side. A keel line is either straight or rockered. In other words, the entire canoe front to back is either curved up at each end, or it’s almost totally straight front to back.

A canoe with a straight keel line (as many lake tripping canoes have) has very little rocker which means there is no upsweep from the yoke in the center of the canoe to the deck plates on each end. This is a great design for fast, efficient lake travel.

On the other hand, a heavily rockered keel line is typical of a prospector-style canoe has a pronounced sweep up from the center of the canoe to the bow and stern. This is a great design for maneuverability and control since less of the entire length of the canoe sits in the water.


What is the Beam on a Canoe?

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The widest part of a canoe side to side is called the beam

The beam on a canoe is the part of the craft that is the widest side-to-side. It is best measured at the location of the yoke which is usually located in the exact center or balance point of the canoe.


What is the Freeboard and the Draft on a Canoe?

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The freeboard on a canoe refers to the distance between the waterline and the gunwales of a canoe when it is in the water. The draft refers to the section of the canoe that is below the waterline or the distance from the waterline to the very bottom of the canoe below the waterline.


Is a Canoe Symmetrical?

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One of the big differences between a symmetrical and an asymmetrical canoe is the depth of the hull at the bow and the stern. Usually (as in this example) the bow depth (exhibit A) is taller or deeper than the stern (exhibit B)

Canoes can be either symmetrical or asymmetrical. These terms refer to the design of the hull. If a canoe is symmetrical like a prospector design, it is identical in design from the yoke or halfway point forward as it is from the yoke backward. Asymmetrical canoes are not the same in the stern as they are in the bow.

In other words, if you cut a symmetrical canoe in half at the center side-to-side parallel with the yoke, both ends of the canoe would appear 100% identical in shape and design. That means either end can serve as the bow or stern and the performance would be exactly the same.

An asymmetrical canoe is designed to have a very specific bow section and specific stern section. They are not at all the same, and you cannot efficiently paddle the canoe in both directions. Even an aerial view from above would show visual differences in the design lines which differ from the front half to the back half of the canoe.

Asymmetrical canoes are designed for speed and efficiency, while symmetrical canoes are usually less expensive to manufacture and are more versatile in their usage profile.


What is Tumblehome on a Canoe?

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Tumblehome on a canoe refers to the area of the hull that protrudes out farther from the center of the canoe than the gunwales. Tumblehome on a canoe allows for a more stable ride, allows for maximum cargo capacity, and easier access to the water for the paddler.

Tumblehome allows the paddler to dip his paddle into the water closer to the hull than a flared canoe or a canoe without a tumblehome. A canoe with a tumblehome will have the gunwales closer together than the full beam or width of the canoe. In other words, the beam is at the widest part of the canoe which is below the gunwales.


Conclusion

While much more could be said about canoe parts and features along with their purpose, if you know the parts outlined in this article, you’ll look like a pro in any conversation about your canoe.


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Pete Stack

After 40 years of experience canoeing, camping, fishing, hiking and climbing in the Ontario wilderness, Pete is eager to combine his love for the outdoors with his passion to write. It is our hope that his knowledge can be passed on through this site and on Rugged Outdoors Guide on YouTube.

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