With Hawkesbury Canoe Classic 2011 just four months away, it was time to test the boat I’ve been looking at using for this year’s race. Like last year I’m keen to do the Classic in a canoe, but ever since last year’s non-finish, I’ve been keen to get into a performance boat to shave a little time off the effort. To do so I looked to North America and soon found myself buried in the Wenonah website looking at their incredible array of light-weight canoes. And of course their standout performance marathon boat, the Wenonah Minnesota II.
As fate would have it the Wenonah range was about to enter the Australian market via a new start-up, Paddle & Portage Canoes, and the team at Wenonah put me in touch with the canoe enthusiast behind it, Travis Frenay. I quickly ordered in my first Wenonah boat, the solo Wenonah Encounter, a sexy red canoe hotrod which I immediately fell in love with. So it was with great excitement that I organised a test paddle with Travis in the canoe that peaked my initial interest in Wenonah.
We organised a 6am paddle in the magnificent Ku-Ring-Gai National Park to Sydney’s north. Travis arrived with the Minnesota II on the roof and his wife, baby and dingo in the car (I’m trying desperately to refrain from baby/dingo jokes!!) and we quickly got the boat ready to push off into the cold air. The test boat, a Minnesota II in ultra-light graphite & kevlar, weighs in at less than 20kgs and was ridiculously easy for us to unload from the car. The sexy black boat looked stealthy as we pushed it into the inky waters, and with a range of paddles and the “Mystery Barrel” stowed away, we pushed off into the darkness.
I wasn’t sure what to expect with the canoe. I’d read many different reviews ranging from “best canoe ever” to “ridiculously tippy, couldn’t keep it upright”, so I was curious as to its actual stability (a crucial factor for a boat in the Classic). I was pleasantly surprised to find it wasn’t remotely tippy at all, and with two of us paddling in sync the boat moved through the water without so much as a sideways wobble. I was also surprised at how smoothly it passed through the water, with only a slight ripple as a bow-wake and a glide factor that was astounding. We’d stop paddling and watch as the inertia kept the boat moving effortlessly through the water, amazing us at how low the resistance was.
In terms of tracking the boat was brilliant, with it barely needing any corrective strokes at all to keep it running straight. This meant almost all of our paddling effort went into propulsion rather than steerage, keeping the momentum steady and efficient. The MNII actually steers quite well from the bow as well as from the rear, so for minor adjustments to direction Travis would control the boat with little ninja-strokes. For major turns we’d work in unison with him paddling and me stern-ruddering, quickly swinging the boat in whatever direction we wanted.
In terms of speed the MNII is fast…. for a canoe. As a kayaker I was a fraction disappointed with it’s overall speed compared to my kayak, but in comparison to my family canoe the boat is a flyer. It’s length, sharp bow profile, stiffness and lack of any rocker means that it tracks straight and runs fast almost effortlessly, and I could see why it has such a following in North America for marathons. I suspect the boat is actually faster than it seems too, since it moves effortlessly through the water giving away few sensory clues to the real speed that it is achieving. All I did know was that when we got close to shore I was surprised at the rate at which we were speeding past.
Another area I was keen to test was that of the seat. Canoe paddlers often kneel in their boats and utilise a traditional webbing seat offset at a slight angle. For people like me with serious back or pelvis injuries, kneeling isn’t an option and we tend to spend the whole time sitting. Prior experience has shown me however that sitting for extended periods on webbing seats can get bloody painful as the wooden mounts dig into the underside of your thighs or buttocks, so I was curious to see what the tractor-like bucket seats would feel like. After a few hours paddling I was excited to find no discomfort at all, the seats are shaped well and I found them to be far more comfortable than the webbing seats I was used to. Furthermore the MNII had sliding seats that were supposed to be used for trimming the boat in changing conditions, but this feature could also be used to shift position a little bit when wanting to stretch your legs. All in all the bucket seat was a real winner and to my mind a real game-changer in terms of marathon paddling comfort.
By the end of the days paddle I was in love with the boat. Canoeing is a paddling style I’m growing to love more and more in general but in a high-performance boat the experience lifts just that little bit extra. The Wenonah Minnesota II is a magnificent example of a high quality canoe which would be just as happy tripping your family into the wilderness as it would be by being pushed by athletes. In Australia, where there are few high-end brands, this will have to be be up there as the best canoe on the water.
I must note that I’ve yet to test the MNII in rough conditions so will be keen to try that soon as well, but regardless I think I’ve found my boat for the Classic. A extra special thanks to Travis from Paddle & Portage Canoes for bringing the test boat down to Sydney for me to try out. Cheers – FP