The birthday boat
A review of the Northstar Northwind Solo canoe
Last year, I passed a milestone birthday. My present to myself, with a contribution from my father, was a new canoe, a Northstar Northwind Solo.
Here in the UK, solo boats seem to be a bit of a niche product. The majority of boats I see on the water and asked about on internet forums are tandem boats that will in all likelihood spend a lot of time paddled by just one person. There are now a handful of dedicated solo designs around from mainstream suppliers, and Northstar are I think beginning to gain some traction. They are known for their selection of solo boats which represent an evolution on previous established designs from Bell canoes. (No real surprise there given the owner and inspiration for Northstar used to run Bell.)
I have owned my northwind solo now for four months or so and thought it about time to write a review. These are billed as a general-purpose solo boat by Northstar and are supplied in a variety of composite lay-ups which in the UK context dominated by plastic boats run from pretty light to extremely light. I chose the IXP lay-up, which they describe as their expedition lay-up, tough enough to take sustained abuse without significant damage. It’s not the lightest option, but mine, at 19.9kg outfitted with very attractive wooden gunnels, is still considerably lighter than any other boat I own. I can lift it out of the water with one hand and carry it easily on one shoulder.
So why chose a solo boat? The most obvious reason is I almost always paddle solo, so it seems sensible to go for a boat designed for one rather than make compromises around a design for two. It’s probably worthwhile taking a moment to put this canoe into context on my boat rack. I have a nova craft cronje in tuffstuff, for tandem touring or solo touring with large loads on open water and easy rivers. I also have an Apache Trekk 14 solo canoe in carbon/innegra for trips on bouncier rivers, and a fibreglass Mega Outlander 16 which doubles as an occasional tandem and often my first choice for solo trips with or without my dog, sometimes with camping kit or photography gear.
So, to compliment my existing boats, I wanted to add a dedicated solo for open water and easy river trips, to carry myself and a load that might vary from my car keys and a flask to my large and heavy dog or camping gear and food for a week’s trip or. This works out at a range of around 110-150kg. I wanted it to be comfortable for a long day on the water, seaworthy, fast, but reasonably manoeuvrable. Canoes are meant to turn in my opinion, not run like they’re on rails, but I didn’t need it to spin like a top. I wanted it to be light, to make portages easier and to future-proof the purchase against age and infirmity. I wanted it to be hard-wearing so I would still be using it years from now. It needed to be able to shrug off a reasonable number of knocks and bangs. I don’t think I subject my kit to needless abuse, but equally I don’t want to break into a sweat at every accidental collision with a hidden rock. I wanted it to be cheap as well, but you can’t have everything!
These criteria produced a fairly short list of choices available on the UK market, which were quickly whittled down further to something from Northstar, or another outlander set up as a solo boat. The Northstar range, available in the UK from Marsport, has four solo boats – the northwind, magic, trillium and polaris. The trillium is too small for me, and the magic too orientated to flat water. The phoenix looks to be a lovely boat, but I felt it was probably too close to my trekk 14 in its design. So, it was to be the northwind solo or an outlander.
Much as I love the classic design and character of the outlander, I decided to go for a much more modern design in the Northwind solo. It has asymmetrical rocker, quite a lot of tumblehome to assist with paddle placement, and a high-shouldered arched hull that provides excellent secondary stability. The sheer is greater at the bow, which is quite flared above the water, while the stern is straighter and lower.
I had to buy blind, there being no demonstrator available in the middle of a Covid lockdown. I took a leap of faith, based on the paper spec and some internet footage of the boat on the water, so it was with some anxiety that I went to pick the boat up from Marsport after a long four months from ordering to delivery from the USA.
My first impression was what a beautiful boat! The resin finish showed the weave of the cloth, an ever-changing grey/black moire. The wooden gunnels and thwarts were attractive. And the shape just had that look of speed about it. The weight, or rather the lack thereof, was a revelation. It all but floated out of the shop onto my roof rack.
Outfitting made me think carefully. The boat has built-in buoyancy, so the hull wont sink if swamped, but it won’t offer much more support than that. But for my intended use, I felt that was probably enough. I also decided against lacing to secure bags of kit. Again, I didn’t feel the need for this when not paddling whitewater. It lacked carry handles and a yoke, but has two thwarts, so I could fasten a leash to one of these so bags didn’t get lost in a capsize. I use my canoes a lot as photography platforms, but the forrard thwart very handily supports the belt bags I use to stow the cameras when paddling. I didn’t want to drill the hull for bow and stern loops, partly because I didn’t feel I needed that strong an attachment point, but also because the air tanks come quite high up, making it awkward to place a hole near the stem. The wooden laminate decks are scuppered though, so I threaded some cord through these to make a small loop at each end to fasten painters to. I found my foam kneeling mat fitted neatly inside, wedged under the gunnels quite securely so not needing any additional fixation.
This has to be the most minimalist outfitting I have ever done, but it does seem so far to be all that I need.
On the water it proved to be very different to my other boats. At 30” maximum width, with a waterline width narrower still, it is slimmer by two or three inches than the trekk or the outlander, so I expected it to feel tippy at first. But actually, it felt incredibly balanced. Not unresponsive at all, it moved easily side to side with small weight shifts but felt almost like there was a damping mechanism at work to smooth things out. I chose a kneeling seat, which gives a fairly low kneeling position, but one I found comfortable. There isn’t much clearance under the seat, so someone with large feet might struggle a little, or want a removable kneeling thwart instead. I was surprised at how connected I felt when sat rather than knelt though. I kneel nearly all the time because I like the degree of connection and feedback I get, but that balanced feeling persisted when paddling seated as well.
It is a little over 15’ long, with 2 ½” of bow rocker and 1½” at the stern. That difference really does notice. Tracking is good, and the narrow hull and tumblehome help keep the paddle close to the keel line, which helps too. The seat is placed centrally, so trim could be changed to a degree by how far forwards or back I sat, but I didn’t find that made much difference to the tracking with just me on board. The bow turned with forward steering strokes more easily than the stern did with steering behind my hips, so for sharper corners I found I was using quite different techniques to my other boats. I found it a little hard to carry speed through a sharp turn, which might just need time in the boat to correct, but small adjustments to direction could be made with subtle adjustments to the catch and power phase of a stroke which helped maintain boat speed nicely. And it does feel fast, reaching a decent speed within a few strokes and not needing much effort to maintain it.
The narrow hull meant there was little or no need to lean the boat over when paddling straight, but it felt steady when put on edge for a turn.
My impression was it wasn’t a boat to spin around with a flick of the paddle and a turn of the head like the trekk, but it was a mile-eater that would still allow a bit of playfulness.
Taking my 42kg dog with me was interesting. I wasn’t sure how the boat would react to a heavy load all at one end or the other. My other boats have the seat placed a bit behind the central yoke, so some weight forward generally helps.
With him behind me, the boat felt unhappy, wobbly and slow, like I was climbing out of a hole all the time. The directional control was really affected, with the bow drifting away very easily. With him in front, it felt very different, more stable, both in balance and direction. Tracking was affected, in that it became much easier to turn the stern, but nothing I couldn’t correct being used to the trekk which has much more rocker at both ends than this boat. I think if loaded out for a camping trip I would have to pay more attention than I’m used to on weight distribution fore and aft but would choose to bias it a bit forward.
Comparing it to the trekk 14, my other dedicated solo canoe, it is very much a fast tourer, where the trekk is first and foremost a riverboat. I wanted my new boat to be fast, comfortable and to handle a moderate load, while still having a little fun. It is light enough for me to lift one handed. Time will tell how tough the IXP laminate really is, but all the real-life reviews I can find say it stands up well to everyday use and abuse. I think it will fit the bill.