Choosing an open canoe to use for sailing

Open canoes come in a variety of sizes, with different lengths, widths and depths. Other aspects to consider are bow height, rocker, weight and price. Lengths range from around 14 to 18 feet, widths from around 30 to 40 inches and depths from around 12 to 16 inches.

Length and width

Boats that are intended for solo use will generally be shorter than tandem or family boats. If you plan to sail on your own all of the time then a canoe around 15 to 16 feet would be a good length. Generally longer canoes will paddle and sail faster than shorter ones, but extra length also adds extra weight and this is best kept down to be manageable for use alone. If you plan on going on extended camping trips in the canoe then the longer ones would be best.

If you plan to sail two up, a canoe of 16 to 17 feet would be a good choice. Again if you plan on carrying a lot of gear then go for the longer ones.

Solo paddling canoes might start with a width/beam of around 30 inches and go up to 35 inches. For sailing extra width is a good thing as it increases stability and the ability to hold up the sail. So usually it is a good idea to go for the widest canoe. A 36 inch beam canoe will be around twice as stable as a 30 inch beam one, so width is a good thing. Also as you try and sit out to counterbalance the sail when going upwind, a wider canoe gives you more room in which to move your weight to the upwind side. Canoes that are wider still, maybe 38 inch or more, will offer even more stability and are worth considering. Be aware that in a canoe shop the salesperson may not have any or much sailing experience so may steer you towards narrower hulls, as they can be more efficient to paddle.

Depth and freeboard

Depth of the canoe is another important consideration. The paddler might prefer a lower freeboard to cut down on windage when paddling into the wind, but the sailor has enough power to overcome the windage. A sailing canoe can travel at over 4 or 5 knots into the wind and the resulting waves. It is important that a sailing canoe has higher freeboard to minimise waves entering the boat. Also the sailing canoe can heel quite a lot under the power of the rig, so having extra freeboard can make for a drier boat. A few inches extra freeboard can make a lot of difference.

Bow height is another important consideration. As with freeboard (or depth), extra bow height can keep the canoe from burying into a big wave as you power upwind or sail fast downwind.


Rocker, or the amount the bottom of the ends of the canoe are above the middle, is another factor that different canoes you look at will have. For flat water paddling, a minimally “rockered” canoe is favoured, as the canoe will be less twitchy and will track better. But under sail, once you have a large rig and therefore a rudder, tracking won’t be an issue. The ability to turn quickly as you go upwind can make it easier to keep up momentum as you go through the tack. Some rocker will make the sailing canoe more manoeuvrable and make it easier when doing multiple tacks as you sail upwind.

Mid sized open tandem

This picture is of a Nova Craft Pal with a SD 25 sqft standing lugsail. This is a small / medium two person boat that has been fitted out for solo sailing. The seat has been added near the middle of the canoe so that it can be sailed with level fore and aft trim. With a length of 16 feet, gunwale width 34 inches, centre depth 13 inches, end depth 20 inches, a weight of 53 lbs and made of ‘TuffStuff,’ it is a good general purpose open canoe. Many canoe manufacturers make similarly sized open canoes for tandem paddling and these make an ideal boat for solo sailing. Its depth is sufficient for solo sailing but deeper would make for a drier boat for more open water in strong winds.

Large sized open tandem

This is an Old Town Penobscot 186 fitted out for one- or two-up sailing. It is a large canoe and has plenty of freeboard, even when two-up and carrying a lot of camping gear. It measures 18 feet 6 inches long, with a gunwale width 37.5 inches, depth 14.5 inches, bow height 21.5 inches and weighs 75 lbs.  Its width and depth make for a very stable seaworthy canoe capable of carrying a larger rig. A downside of large boats though is that the bigger they are the heavier they become, and a light boat is much easier to car top or move about on the beach or portage. The hull is made from Royalex which gives it a weight saving over a roto-moulded canoe, but at a price increase. You can get a further weight saving by going for exotic carbon fibre and /or Kevlar laminated hulls, but again at a trade-off with expense.

Large Kevlar open canoe

This canoe is a Swift Temagami, in expedition Kevlar. It is a large canoe, 17 feet 6 inches long, gunwale width 37 inches, centre depth 15 inches and yet weighs only 53 lbs.  Other hull layups go down to 46 lbs, which is very light for a boat this size. This particular boat was used on a sailing/camping expedition right around the coast of the UK with two people on board. Colin Skeath, the owner, wrote a book on the adventure, Only Fools and White Horses. He used a 30/14 sqft lugsail ketch rig, but also had a strong bow paddler (his nephew Davis), allowing them to circumnavigate mainland Britain in a record time for an open canoe of 88 days.

Small open canoe already fitted out for sailing

This canoe is a Solway Dory Quetico –  Length 15 feet 6 inches, gunwale width 34 inches, centre depth 13 inches, and bow height 19.5 inches. Built from Carbon/Kevlar and fitted out for paddle sailing it weighs just 45 lbs.

Balancing all the variables

As we have already seen, a sailing canoe can be improved by increasing length, beam, depth, bow height and rocker. However all of these increases can result in a craft that is too heavy to easily load on the roof of a car or carry up a rocky beach. You can overcome some of the handling problems by going for more exotic (and pricier) materials. Rotomolded polyethylene canoes are the cheapest to make but also the heaviest. Royalex was the first big improvement, introduced in the 1970’s, and larger canoes started to become more manageable. But the Royalex factory that made the sheets, that canoe manufacturers used to make the canoes, closed down in 2014. You can still find Royalex canoes on the second hand market and these may be a good compromise for someone who wants to keep the price down. Since then the canoe manufacturers have been trying to replace royalex and have come up with materials such as T-Formex, Tuf-weave, TuffStuff etc which go some way to replacing Royalex.

More expensive but lighter still are the exotic fabric layups, Carbon, Kevlar and others that can offer a significant saving on weight.