At the 1981 Whitewater Nationals in upstate New York, canoe racer Tom Staz arrived to the event with a boat that caused a stir among competitors. He had modified his Wenonah race canoe with a low-set bucket seat and foot braces. If the conventional wisdom for paddler positioning were an indicator for how the race should have played out, Tom Staz would have finished dead last. Instead, he surprised everyone by finishing minutes ahead of the next competitor.
While materials, weight, length and trim are all aspects most paddlers consider when they are in the market for a canoe, rarely do we reconsider how we sit in our boats. And where we live determines how we sit.
“The Lower 48 is a sitting market, whereas Australia, Germany, the United Kingdom and Canada prefer to kneel,” says Bill Kueper, vice-president of Wenonah Canoe, which manufactures canoes with both seat styles. “There are cultures of sitting and kneeling, and you are more likely to sit or kneel depending on where you learn and what water you paddle.”
Kueper jokingly likens the two seating styles to the Reformation between the Catholic Church and Martin Luther. Some people swear by their seating position, and others just don’t know any different.
“The height of bench seats is the real reason kneeling became the staple of canoeing tradition,” says veteran marathon racer and coach Peter Heed. Kneeling lowers a paddler’s center of gravity, especially important for rough conditions and river running.
While kneeling was commonplace in the early days of recreational and sport canoeing, bucket seats were quickly adopted by marathon paddlers following Staz’s 1981 debut. Buckets were mainstream in the race scene and recreational market by 1983, according to Heed.
“Sitting is preferred as a more comfortable position over long distances, and for more powerful sprints,” says Heed. However, for lovers of traditional aesthetics, departure from the seating style of Bill Mason and the voyageurs before him may feel akin to blasphemy.
While the bench seat is simple, adaptable and easier to alter trim from, when considered from an ergonomics perspective, “the bucket seat is preferred,” asserts Greg Redman, lead physiotherapist for Canoe & Kayak Canada.
“Sitting places the pelvis in a better ergonomic position under the spine. The paddler’s back muscles are not in a stretched position and therefore allow easier trunk rotation to place the blade further forward,” says Redman. “Bucket seats are also more comfortable as they wrap around the glutes, providing better stability.”
Bucket seat design has come a long way since the refabbed tractor seats of the ’80s. Some manufacturers offer multi-point contact seat outfitting systems—keeping butt, knees and feet in contact with the boat—which increases control in rough water. For the pros, bucket seats are meticulously customized to ensure fit, offering greater side and lateral support for additional power.
Despite expert opinion that bucket seats promise to make us stronger and faster paddlers, there’s not a clear winner in this debate for average canoeists. Both seat styles offer their advantages.
Kueper notes that for the regular consumer, bucket seats aren’t custom-made and are shaped to fit the average butt. Bucket seats may also limit onboard maneuverability—the bow paddler can’t turn 180 degrees to face the stern for an on-water lunch or sit askew comfortably to fish, and there are no seating options for soloing a tandem design.
“Bench seats are simply more versatile for accommodating a variety of activities,” summarizes Kueper. —Gabriel Rivett-Carnac