Tracking in open water

I have trouble negotiating calm or open water in my Alapaka raft because it does not track well. With each paddle thrust, I don’t get enough straight-ahead propulsion. In a lake, for example, my path is more of a zig-zag tacking than a straight path.

I note the Fjord Explorer boat features a skeg which supposedly enhances tracking. Does anyone have any suggestions for improving the tracking in my boat?


This is one of those hydrodynamic properties of a short, flat-bottom, kayak-paddled raft that’s hard to get around. Couple thoughts…

Skeg Effectiveness: Speaking as the guy who’s been doing Alpacka CS for awhile now, I’ve seen a number of people try adding skegs to their non-rowboat Alpackas, but they haven’t reported effective results. That’s what I’ve found, myself, from personal experience. The rowboat has a symetrical propulsion system, and the skeg “tunes” it’s tracking, but the gross side-to-side effect of kayak-paddling the other boats overpowers the skeg effect.

Longboat & Improvised Keel: Hig & Erin pioneered using a spruce pole as a keel under two boats, to significant effect. I don’t necessarily see why this wouldn’t work as a tracking keel under a single boat, but I haven’t tried it yet. The tradeoff, however, is that you’re introducting more drag, especially from a strapping system. This bears experiment; if I can get the time. Hopefully this winter.

I’ve been meaning to try the single-boat pole for some time, but just haven’t quite done it (I keep carrying straps with me and not getting around to it.)

Also, there is a psychological component to “tracking” on flat water. When I first paddled an Alpacka on flat water, I found it awkward because of the zig-zag you describe. Eventually though I realized that if I just let the boat zig-zag, I still made 2-2.5 mph progress in a straight line. I got used to it, and started really enjoying flatwater paddling (near to shore anyway… crossings are still boring.) Now Erin and I have gone well over 1000 miles flatwater in Alpackas, and have done over 20 mile days a number of times.

Note that nearly all our paddling has been done with a weight on the front of the boat. We’ve noted that you do lose a significant amount of speed if you go with no bow weight, and have taken to strapping driftwood on the front if we find ourselves without a pack to strap on. I think the weight actually provides a counterbalance that moves the center of mass forward, rather than a “keel” effect resulting from sinking the bow in and creating a longer water-line.

I have a similar sort of question, but not for flatwater.

I want the boat to track more or less straight while drifting down a gentle river. The two ways I’ve thought of doing this are to drag maybe 20’ of rope behind the boat or a shorter rope with a small bucket or something similar.

Has anyone tried anything like this?

Arturgreen, try dragging a paddle as a keel.

The paddle in the water works particularly well when running with a strong wind. You can use it as a rudder and get a fair amount of control. If the boat isn’t moving relative to the water though, it’s not as useful, and regardless you do have to use one hand to keep it under control.

The “sea anchor”, like your bucket idea, is one I’ve only explored a little. The concern I’d have is that if you ran into something you’d want to be able to ditch the sea anchor quickly. Gordy Vernon used a big trash bag full of water on one trip (on the Yukon?) and it sounded like that worked ok. I wonder if an inflation bag would work? I’ve also thought about uprooting a moderate sized bush to provide the sea anchor.

My family and I have found that just having two paddle the boat (both facing forward) gives far better tracking than one in lakes and other flat waters. We have no pole on the bottom of the boat. Just two of us paddling gives great power and fantastic tracking.

Hig, is it possible that this is what the real benefit is with tieing your two boats together? The power of two for one?

The degree to which you track with a keel is far higher than what you get with a counterweight (even as large as a second person.) It really feels like a keeled boat… a kayak or whatever. It also depends on the size of the keel-pole. A thicker pole provides more resistance to turning. The first one we tried was definitely too thick, and made it difficult to turn.

But then maybe there are benefits to an oversized keel. If one found a nice log on a remote beach you could tie on top and have a truly gigantic keel that could be milled when it made its way back to civilization beneath your packraft and tired arms. And any time you have a keel that approaches or exceeds the mass of the people in the packraft(s), I expect you’d be very unlikely to capsize.

But overall we found that we plateaued on absolute speed very early in improving tracking… once you put 25 lbs or so on the bow, you’re going to get about as much of a bump in speed as is possible, even though tracking can be improved much more. We were disappointed to find that you don’t raise the hull-speed by tying the boats together.

Practical speed is a different matter. It’s very cool to take a nap while your partner paddles, or take photos while they keep you positioned. On a recent trip we considered implementing a longboat so that the person with the sore shoulder could trade off with the person who might need to comfort a baby now and then… When I’m in good paddling shape I can push to paddle the longboat as fast as my steady pace in a single boat without Erin’s help. Erin can’t quite get there, but she can get close… well over half her solo speed.

Also when fighting wind the long-boat is preferable… If you’re straight into it you have two paddlers with one bow. If you’re at an angle, you have the keel to make it much easier to keep a heading, though more difficult to spin into large breakers at the last second as is possible with a single packraft. In dangerous winds, the longboat also prevents separations.

The added stability of the larger boat is quite substantial too. I haven’t tried it yet, but I think you could comfortably stand in a longboat (if the other person was sitting.)

And if you let the pole stick out a bit you have a ram-bow for ice-bergs.

Maybe this October when we’re in Anchorage we can build a 6-raft longboat (perhaps a cata-longboat?) and paddle across Kink Arm for a picnic.

It is really very much tough to track in Open water. I am surprised to hear about the persons tracking in open water. Many good tips shared here in this forum.

Resurrecting this thread…

Has anyone tried lashing boats together for open water paddling? A couple variations come to mind:

  1. 3 boats tied side to side. Persons in the 2 outer boats paddle canoe-style, while the person in the middle uses their paddle as a rudder

  2. 2 or even 3 boats tied end to end. Hig has lashed a pole UNDER 2 boats before to make a “longboat” with a “keel”. But what if you were to merely lash the boats with straps end-to-end without a pole? Would the extra length help tracking, especially if the stern person used their paddle as a rudder?

  3. And another idea, varying on (2) above: lashing 2 or 3 boats end-to-end, but doing it with 2 cut poles or even 2 tarp poles. One pole is along the right side (not under water), and is long enough to connect all 3 boats; the other on the left side of the boats, fastened in a similar fashion. This would (in theory) more rigidly connect all 3 boats, making them behave more like 1 long boat. The first 2 paddlers work to propel the boat; the 3rd paddler in the rear also paddles, but rudders when needed.

In June, 3 of us have a trip where we’ll paddle the shoreline of a 2-mile-long lake. Then later in the trip, we’ll be on an ocean inlet, following a shoreline for about 7-8 miles before getting to our destination.

Anyone with opinions or experiences lashing boats? Whaddya think?