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How to Calculate Canoe Seat Positions

A canoe with a balanced seat position.

After you build a canoe hull, possibly from PaddlingLight’s free canoe plans, and trim it out with thwarts, gunwales and a yoke, you need to add seats. Historically, few canoes had seats built into them — the paddlers either knelt or sat on gear. While that’s still practical, it’s much more comfortable to sit on an actual canoe seat. If the canoe plan didn’t include seat positions, then you need to calculate that position yourself. Luckily, with a little high-school level algebra — and you thought it would never come in handy — calculating a canoe seat position is painless.

Canoe Seat Position Calculations

Part of canoeing and seamanship is trimming your boat to the conditions. Ideally, you want to balance the canoe so that the original design condition is met, which requires you to evenly balance both paddler’s center of gravity over the boat’s center of buoyancy. Imagine the canoe as a seesaw. The seesaw’s pivot point is the canoe’s center of buoyancy. To balance the seesaw, the heavier person usually sits nearer to the center than the lighter. To balance a canoe, you need to do the same. To find the seat position, use Ted Moores’ formula found in Canoecraft: An Illustrated Guide to Fine Woodstrip Construction.

Sternman’s weight x A = Bowman’s weight x B

Where “A” equals the distance between the sternman’s center of gravity and the boat’s center of buoyancy, and “B” equals the distance between the bowman’s center of gravity to the boat’s center of buoyancy. When applying this formula, you can assume that the paddler’s center of gravity equals the front of his seat.

Before you decide seat position consider the following:

  • Seats placed near the ends make narrower paddling stations and increase turning leverage.
  • Seats placed near the ends reduce stability unless loaded.
  • Seats placed near the ends reduce room for the legs of the bowman and width for the sternman.
  • Seats placed closer to center provides more lift in the ends.

You need to balance the seat according to your needs. For example, if you’re going to use the canoe for tripping, then move the seats out towards the ends, because the heavier load increases stability and you need the extra leverage to help turn a fully loaded canoe. If it’s a cabin cruiser, then move the seats closer together for more comfort and great stability. If the canoe is extra wide, move the seat towards the ends where it’s narrower, so it’s easier to reach the water with your paddle. If the canoe has skinny ends, move the seats more towards the center.

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Canoe seat position calculationAs an example, let’s say we want to make the Têtes de Boule Two-Fathom Canoe into a cabin canoe with roomy, but not too room paddling stations and plenty of leg room in the front. We first place the bow seat 3 1/2 feet from the bow and 3 feet 10 inches from the canoe’s center of buoyancy. Our bowman weighs 140 lbs., and our sternman weighs 180 lbs.

180 lbs. x A = 140 lbs. x 3.8334 feet
A = (140 x 3.8334) / 180
A = 2.982 feet

The distance between the canoe’s center of buoyancy and the sternman’s center of gravity is about 3 feet. That makes his paddling station 2 feet 2 inches wide and the bowman’s is 1 foot 10 inches.

Height of the Canoe Seat

The lower the canoe seats the more stable the canoe becomes. Higher canoe seats give more control and make the boat more responsive. Canoe seats mounted somewhere in the middle give a good balance between stability and responsiveness, because you can kneel when you need extra stability and sit for all other times. When mounting seats for a balanced approach, mount them high enough to get your feet in and out easily. Most paddlers will find about 9 or 10 inches high enough. To make the kneeling position more comfortable, angle the seat slightly forward by raising the seat’s rear 1 inch higher than the seat’s front. Consider knee pads if you plan on kneeling often.


  • Great post. First time I’ve ever seen calculations on where to put the seats. ‘Dugg’ and ‘Tweeted’ your article.

  • is that the center of buoyancy when both people are in the boat or when the boat is empty? And does this mean that the person in the back should be closer to the middle then the person in the bow?? im confused..

    • The placement of the seats depends on the person’s weight. The center of buoyancy is for an unloaded canoe in the design condition. You’re placing the seats to keep the canoe in the design condition. Ideally, with properly placed seats that account for the different weights of the paddlers, the loaded center of buoyancy will equal the unloaded center of buoyancy.

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