Non-Motor Watercraft Buying Guide for the Midwestern Novice

So you’re gonna buy a boat huh? I applaud you for your excellent choice in how to spend your limited leisure time. For residents of the St. Louis Metro area/Midwest region, there are an unbelievable number of rivers and waterways to get out and enjoy. I am very excited to see an increased interest in getting on the water in our area and look forward to paddling with all of you in the near future.

This is my attempt to share some advice on what kind of watercraft to select based on my very limited knowledge and experiences on the water.

When people ask me what kind of boat they should get, my immediate response is to answer their question with a question: what are you looking to do with it? What’s your ideal vision of a good time out on the water? Hitting class 5 whitewater? (Not a lot of those around here, but good luck!) Multi-day/night paddles on the pristine clear streams in southern MO? Setting speed records on the big rivers and becoming a MR340 legend? Taking a leisurely cruise down the River Des Peres with the Brown Water Navy while avoiding discarded syringes and stinky tennis balls? Whatever your pleasure, there’s a boat for that!

Stand Up Paddleboard (SUP)

I am not an expert in this category and have only SUPped for about 5 minutes total in my life. If you are interested in this, please contact one of the two local SUP experts, both named Shane for your convenience. (Timber Longboard Co. | SUP St. Louis)

From my view, if you like standing up, looking fish in the eye, like a full body workout more than a sit-in boat provides, and you are a minimalist who doesn’t need to bring a lot of gear when you’re out on the water, then a SUP might be for you.

Canoe

You’ve all been in one at some point in your life so you know what you’re getting. Big heavy aluminum battleships are perfect for rocky rivers, stuffing full of beer and camping gear and going on a leisurely multi-day paddle. But they’re a bitch to lift, haul and portage.

The Cadillac of canoes are Wenonah in my opinion. Many of them come in Kevlar or carbon fiber – super light, fast, stable boats, but you’ll pay for it. If you do opt for the Kevlar or Carbon Fiber, you’re going to want to steer clear of any bodies of water where you have a chance of hitting rocks, logs, small children or other obstructions.

You also can’t go wrong with Mad River or Old Town brand canoes. Most canoes you find are going to be tandem (or three seaters), but you can also find solos here or there.

(I currently own a Wenonah v1 Jensen, which is a custom built canoe I was lucky enough to acquire second hand. It is 18’6”, weighs about 30 pounds and is Carbon Fiber. A comparable boat retails for $3 – $4k, but if you are lucky enough to come across a used one, can get them for between $1 – $2k. It is super light, fast (when you have two finely tuned engines) and is very unstable for beginners. It takes a lot of hours in the saddle to get used to. I’ve used this boat on two different MR340s, countless runs on the local big rivers and even (unadvisedly) on some rocky stream trips in Southern MO and Kentucky. I did add Kevlar skid plates on front and back so I don’t cringe every time I pull up to a concrete boat ramp.)

Kayak

My most recent obsession so this is the category I have the most knowledge on. After many years paddling a single blade and striving to find the perfect canoe stroke to keep the boat pointing to where you want, I gave up and joined Team Kayak. With a longer kayak, it is much easier to steer where you want, to move down the river on the most efficient line, and (to me) have a generally more enjoyable experience. You don’t have to worry about learning any complex paddle strokes or counting strokes/transitioning from one side to the other/trying to stay in sync with your idiot canoe partner.

My first boat was a Dick’s sporting goods special – a 10’ Perception sit inside kayak. The shorter the kayak is, the more effect each stroke has on the direction of your boat. You paddle right, the boat goes left, you paddle left, the boat goes right. This effect is magnified the shorter your boat is. You can count on a lot more zig zagging with a 10 of 12 foot boat than a 14 or 16 footer. Short boats are great for small streams, short trips on lakes, or general fun on the water for an hour or two. Anything beyond that and you’ll likely want a longer boat.

With a 14 footer or longer, you generally get hatches for storage and buoyancy in the front and back. Compared to a canoe, you do have much less storage on a kayak, but with hatches on long boats, you generally have enough space for gear for a multi-day paddle camp. Strap a few more dry bags to your deck and it’s quite a bit of storage.

My current boat is a 16’ Eddyline Nighthawk. I ran across a guy selling it for $750 on Facebook and hopped on the deal. He threw in a carbon fiber paddle, hatch cover, spray skirt and few other cool accessories so I was very happy with the deal. (Generally people are happy to throw in extras in a deal, ask what’s included with the boat.) I do have a dropdown skeg, which is basically a fin I can drop into the water as I’m paddling. It generally allows the boat to track straighter in the water and cuts down on a lot side to side movement.

Unless you are set on getting into whitewater, I would highly recommend 14’ as a minimum on a kayak. This would allow you maximum flexibility in terms of the bodies of water and lengths of trips you’ll be comfortable doing. Longer than 16 or 17 ft, you’re really getting into the racing variety. (Google Surfski to see how high end some of these can get.) Most kayaks will be some kind of plastic composite, around 40 or 50 pounds which means you can generally load an unload them on your own.

Another choice you have is the sit inside or sit on top. Easy question – how often are you going to be getting in and out of the boat?

There are tons of brands of kayaks out there – common ones are Eddyline, Perception, Advanced Elements. I am not a brand snob, but I do really like my Eddyline.

Rudders

Rudders are a very convenient method of steering your canoe or kayak. You basically steer the boat with foot pedals, leaving you to paddle at will at whatever speed, strength and side of the boat suits your fancy. Also very helpful in windy conditions. I see rudders as more of a luxury or a convenience unless you are doing a race or a really long expedition. You can install a rudder in a boat if you don’t have one, but it’s most economical to get one included when you get your boat.

***Disclaimer – everything contained here is my opinion only, based on limited experience. I am happy to advise you to the best of my ability on any boats your looking at, deals, pricing, accessories, etc. Happy shopping and see you on the river!

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