What Makes a Canoe Fast?

Have you ever wondered why another canoe beside you seems to go a bit faster than yours even though the paddlers in your canoe are as strong or stronger?

How Fast Does a Fishing Boat Go?
How Fast Does a Fishing Boat Go?

There are lots of factors that contribute to boat speed, but I’ll shed some light on why a canoe is faster or slower without getting too technical!

The main factor that makes a canoe fast is its length. With all other factors being equal, a longer canoe will always be faster than a shorter canoe. This is based on the length of a wave that the canoe creates, and the longer the wave, the faster it is.

I’ll explain a lot more about the waves and other factors that affect canoe speed in the paragraphs ahead! My goal is to add to your storehouse of canoe knowledge and help you determine what canoe is best for you.


6 Factors that Affect Canoe Speed

IMPORTANT NOTE: When I refer to certain factors increasing or decreasing the speed of a canoe, it’s important to understand that all other factors are equal so that individual elements can be measured with no other variables.

1 – LENGTH

Length is probably the single biggest factor that affects the speed of a canoe. Many veteran paddlers know this but the reason behind it can be a bit technical and hard to explain. I’ll do my best to make it short and understandable!

The first thing we need to understand is that a canoe hull displaces water. It does not ride totally on top of the water, but rather, “pushes” water out of the way as it moves forward.

When the canoe is moving forward, the bow pushes water up and away from it creating a wave. This wave has a crest. This wave then gets lower (trough) towards the mid-point or center of the canoe’s length, and then it has another crest near the stern.

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Remember that when you’re paddling solo in a tandem canoe (especially a Prospector like this one), much of the canoe will be out of the water effectively reducing the length of the canoe and therefore the speed!

The length of this wave has much to do with the length of the canoe itself and how fast the craft is moving. Now, here’s where it gets interesting;

There’s something called “hull speed” of a canoe (or any boat) which is a calculation (don’t worry about the math – not important for this answer) of the maximum speed of a canoe before it starts to surf or skim on top of the water.

Canoes will NEVER surf under normal paddling conditions so we don’t need to worry about this factor.

So, when your canoe is up to HULL SPEED, it will sit basically between the crest of the wave at the bow and the crest at the stern. It’s kind of “stuck” between those crests.

The only way to overcome this “stuck” position is to apply extreme forward thrust (like a ski boat’s motor) so the boat will be “on plane” or riding with most of its hull above or on the waterline (rather than just below the waterline).

When you are canoeing with paddles, you will not be able to overcome the resistance, so you’ll stay in your position inside your wave.

This means you will ONLY travel as fast as the wave you are “stuck” in travels. So, here’s the bottom line:

A LONGER WAVE MOVES FASTER THAN A SHORTER WAVE.

As longer waves are faster, they reach the coast earlier.

K.S. Varyani – Ocean Engineer – University of Glasgow (in reference to the study of waves created by watercraft)

That’s the basic answer and it should work for most people. I’m guessing anyone reading this article is not an academic scholar looking to find an exhaustive answer.

2 – PROPULSION

This seems pretty obvious so I won’t make this long. The more power moving a canoe forward, the faster it will go. The dynamic here works in conjunction with the explanation of wavelength earlier in this article.

For example, if Canoe A has 2 paddlers using X amount of energy and it’s moving at 3 MPH, and Canoe B has 3 paddlers using X amount of energy each, then the canoe will move faster – let’s say 4 MPH.

The wave crest at the bow becomes higher, which makes the wave longer than Canoe A (assuming canoe lengths are identical for Canoe A and B).

That means the larger wave will move faster and basically “trap” the canoe inside of itself, so the canoe moves faster.

3 – ROCKER

The rocker of a canoe refers to an element in the KEEL LINE of a canoe. Specifically, rocker refers to the amount a canoe is curved (gunwales or hull) front to back.

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An example of Symmetrical and Asymmetrical rocker

If a canoe has lots of rocker as in the drawing above, less of the canoe touches the water, which means the wave it forms is shorter, so the canoe is not as fast.

In case you’re wondering why anyone would want lots of rocker, it’s simply for one reason – Maneuverability! A canoe with lots of rocker can be turned quickly and easily. This is exactly what you want if you’re canoeing in whitewater since you’ll need to change course and direction often, quickly and radically.

4 – WEIGHT

A lighter craft typically moves faster than a heavier craft through the water. Though it may also stop quicker and have less momentum, it’s still a faster craft (remember, all other factors being the same) than a heavy boat.

5 – HULL SHAPE

Hull shape can have a dramatic effect on canoe speed. We’ve outlined hull rocker and profile, but the other hull factor is width and shape as seen from above. A wide canoe with blunt ends will be slower as it displaces more water and fights more friction.

A canoe with sharp entry lines is more efficient and faster, but offers less cargo storage space.

Entry line is a term used to describe the sharpness of the bow (or stern).

If your canoe is very wide, it will likely have blunt entry lines, while a narrow canoe (especially if it’s really long) will have a very sharp entry which makes it faster, but also more susceptible to taking on water by smashing through waves rather than riding over the top of them.

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Racing Canoe – Asymmetrical design for extreme speed

A racing canoe will have an asymmetrical hull shape (as seen from above) which maximizes all the elements that make a canoe faster like a sharp bow entry line, enough stability to keep it upright, and enough length to maximize the wavelength (and speed).

6 – HULL PROFILE

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Hull profile has quite a bit to do with adding to (or subtracting from) the canoe’s speed factor. A typical hull profile is either wide and flat-bottomed or has a shallow arch. These are great for stability and user-friendliness, but not for speed.

Ideally, your canoe’s hull would have minimal water contact to reduce friction. The round hull in the illustration above is similar to the shape of an actual Olympic racing canoe. It has more of a “V-shape” than even a normal round hull.

Stability is minimized, while speed is maximized.


How Fast Can a Canoe Go?

I did a speed test with myself and my wife in an empty but far from efficient 16-foot kevlar prospector canoe and here’s how fast we got it to go!

Summary

While other factors determine the speed of a canoe (environmental, like wind speed/direction, etc. and hull depth) their effects on a canoe are either minimal or environmentally variable (which takes them out of the canoe design equation).

References:

Abstract from K.S. Varyani – University of Glasgow

Sailing Magazine – How to Articles


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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