Design to soothe the soul
Paddling with Darren Bush
It’s a little known fact that I’m a classical musician. I have performed or listened to thousands of performances of classical music, both live and recorded. Contrary to logic, some recorded performances are less than perfect, and many are just bad. I’m not sure what caused the producers to put these less-than-memorable sounds into a permanent form.
So what makes a performance poor? Just as important, what makes a good performance versus a great performance?
More on that later.
So what makes a canoe or kayak hull poor? What about good? Or better yet, great? The difference for both music performances and boat design hang on subtlety; the skill of the designer (composer), attention to detail in its construction (musicianship), and a certain understanding of how water works (music theory).
The problem is that to an untrained eye (ear), a lot of boats (music) look (sound) the same. That’s because most kayaks are remarkably similar at face value: pointy at both ends, with a cockpit and a seat; same for canoes.
So what makes a rotten canoe so different from an elegant design that performs as intended, given its design parameters? There quite a few reasons.
There’s the problem in design parameters. While many canoes and kayaks are designed to perform a certain way on the water, others are designed to perform better in non-paddling situations.
For instance, a well-know company known mostly for their archetypal lanterns decided to get in the canoe business. The design parameters had nothing to do with paddling; they were to make it as cheaply as possible, and design them so they’ll nest inside each other for convenient shipping.
When the shipping department dictates the performance criteria, the boat will paddle like it was designed. Same thing when kayaks are created to fit a certain manufacturing method, or use a less expensive material. Nothing is mentioned about paddleability.
Take my E.M. White Model 5, a wood and canvas tripper of 18 feet, 6 inches. The design is from 1895 or earlier. Despite its age, the design holds up well, because the design parameters (they would never have used those words) were to make a fast, stable, seaworthy and beautiful boat. There’s nothing about shipping, dumbing down manufacturing, or any other parameter that doesn’t contribute directly to the paddling experience.
Luckily, a pretty canoe is likely to be efficient. Pleasing to the eye usually means the designer understood that water is fluid and follows pleasing curves. Water likes smooth transitions, not abrupt ones. Belly flop off a three-meter board if you don’t believe me.
The Coleman Ram-X is responsible for getting countless people on the water who otherwise wouldn’t have done so, so I tip my hat to the Ram-X, all 80 pounds of plastic, cast aluminum and steel conduit running down to keep the hull in some semblance of flat.
But it’s a bad canoe by my standards. It’s slow, heavy, and all that flare that makes it easy to ship makes it hard to paddle. It’s a canoe-shaped object. If you own one, I apologize if I offend you, but like a poor musical performance, you’d like to put it behind you as soon as you can.
Which leads to education. If you’ve only paddled boats that were designed for reasons other than paddling, you don’t know what you don’t know. I once went paddling with a friend who was in a CSO (canoe-shaped object). It was very frustrating for him, as he took two or three strokes for every stroke I took. By lunch he was seeing red and wanted to swap boats. I said, “Not on your life, pal.” His eyes were opened that day, and soon the CSO was off to another home, where a father and son would use it fishing on a pond near their home. A perfect solution, I think.
I own a dozen or so canoes. All of them are at least good performers, good enough that I want to keep paddling them. A few of them are great performers, boats I’ll own until the day I achieve room temperature and take a dirt nap. What’s the difference? It took me over two decades of paddling to be able to distinguish between good and great designs.
Thing is, like musical performances, the difference between good and great is a personal thing. I like Chicago Symphony’s horn section. I like the Berlin Philharmonic for Romantic period music, but I don’t like their Baroque stuff. I like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and have a strong aversion to Pavarotti. I love original instrumentation, many folks hate it, and they think Luciano is a voice from heaven (well, he is now).
A poor musical performance is one where the notes might even all be there, but the music is played without passion. Miles Davis flubs a note a few bars into Freddie Freeloader, and no one cares, because it’s a performance that is so full of soul it oozes it out of the groove of the record directly into your heart. Some of my favorite boats came from the factory with a small cosmetic blemish. Guess who doesn’t care? Me.
A poor boat comes from a designer who hasn’t paddled anything except perhaps his or her own designs. A poor boat comes from the VP of Marketing at Kayaks R Us, who thinks paddlers want accessories that are dysfunctional at best but look cool on the showroom flow. A good designer has lots of time with his or her butt in a boat – David Yost, Gene Jensen, John Stiller, Dave Kruger and the late Mike Galt, for example. Their boats are beautiful and fun to paddle. Kayak designs come from people who have paddled countless miles and hours – Nigel (Dennis and Foster), Frank Goodman, Brian Henry, Graham Mackareth and a plethora of others.
The good news is that most boats are at least good, except for the dusty ones hanging from the rafters at the big box store, or the ones chained to a cement pillar outside Farm and Fleet.*
In the end, you like what you like, and it’s better to paddle anything that floats than not paddle at all. That said, wouldn’t you like to paddle in a craft designed for efficiency, comfort and safety?
I know I do.
*I love Farm and Fleet, I just don’t like their boat selection. Their tools and automotive stuff are awesome, and it’s hard for me to go there without buying root beer and a bag of chocolate-covered anything.