Bob Brown, Canoe Designer

by Charlie Mahler

Minnesota’s Bob Brown is well known as a successful canoe designer. But a smart-aleck could point out that he’s really just a failed sailboat innovator.

You see, Bob Brown’s career as a canoe designer and builder began with a sailor’s motives. An avid sailor in his younger years, Brown initially joined the Minnesota Canoe Association in an effort to learn about wood-strip canoe-building, but not because of the canoe part.

“I was still a sailor at heart,” the 72-year-old recalls now. “I wanted to steal their technology on how to build a strip canoe and build a sailboat.”

After building 60 strip canoes and designing canoes for Mad River, Bell, and Wenonah over the years, he’s no doubt had a successful career as a canoe-builder and designer. But as for the sailor …

“I never have built that strip sailboat yet,” he admits with a laugh.

Canoeing.com caught up with Brown in his cozy, knick-knack filled Apple Valley home to talk about canoes, canoe-building, and canoe design with someone who has been doing it a long time. When you drive into Brown’s driveway, you know you’ve found the right house – his pick-up truck topper is decked with racks and boats decorate his backyard.

“I got into canoe design because there were no good solo canoes on the market,” Brown tells me over cookies at his kitchen table. “The only solo canoes on the market at that time were by Gene Jensen, and they’re racers. Everything Gene designed is a racer; everything Dave Krueger designed is a racer. I wanted something other than a racing canoe and started playing around with my own designs.”

For all the popularity of racing designs, Brown preferred a boat with a different feel and capabilities.

“I wanted something that would turn easier, number one; something that was more weatherly – not affected by wind nearly as much as the racers are and something that would handle waves better; and also something that was lighter,” he specifies.

Brown’s first designs to make the commercial market were the C.J. Solo, which Cliff Jacobson – the C.J. – built the prototype of and sold to Mad River Canoes, and the Ladyslipper, which Brown also teamed with Jacobson on to sell to Mad River. That design was later renamed the Slipper.

Brown also designed the Bell Fusion and Bell Traveler.

Brown characterized the Fusion as a boat “similar to the Mad River Malecite” and the Traveler as “a long, skinny, straight-tracking canoe by my standards. It paddled very, very easy for long distances.”

Brown’s preference for more tolerant boats is a theme in his designs. He has an affection for the designs of his friend Dave Yost, an upstate New Yorker who has designed boats for Bell Canoes and Swift.

“Dave and I both have similar thoughts – that it’s got to be more forgiving boats than these racing boats,” Brown said. “More comfortable, easier … more user-friendly than the racers. So we both kind of went parallel directions.”

Brown didn’t meet Yost until he was years into his canoe designing career. Brown knew the late racing-style designer Jensen well too, noting that Jensen had once occupied the same kitchen chair I did during our interview.

“Racing canoes, basically, are designed to fit the waterline dimensions that are established by the USCA racers or the pro class racers,” Brown explained. “I feel like the widest point on the boat should not be at the 4-inch water-line, it should be considerably higher in the boat, that makes the boat much more forgiving.”

Two Brown-designed models are still in production, both manufactured by Wenonah Canoes: the Rendezvous and the Solo Plus, although the Solo Plus has undergone a redesign since Brown created it.

The Wenonah Rendezvous

“The [Solo Plus] was redesigned when Dave Krueger came back to the company, Brown said. “After that I got no royalties. It was still probably the most lucrative design I ever made, as far as putting money in my pockets.”

“For about three years there I was getting royalty checks from that one,” he continues. “But Dave came back to the company, retooled it slightly – I think he made a better boat out of it – and they still produce the thing under the new design.”

The Solo Plus is a solo boat that also works as a tandem.

Brown designed the Rendezvous as a western whitewater boat. He described it as a “short, fat boat,” but one reviewer dubbed it “multifaceted” – good in whitewater and tracking well in flatwater.

For all the designing Brown has done over the years, it’s never been his bread and butter. Prior to retirement, Brown worked on the Mississippi River Locks and Dams, spending most of his career at Lock and Dam #2 in Hastings.

What drove him and others to design, I wondered?

“Some of it is just for ego – you like to see your name in print,” he admitted. “A lot of it is that. I got some royalties from Wenonah, I got some royalties from Bell Canoe at one time”

Most of all, Bob Brown designs boats and canoes because he loves the water and he lives to paddle.

Brown’s still an avid paddle at age 72. His favorite haunts are along the upper Mississippi river where he spent much of his life working.

“I don’t go to the Boundary Waters. I haven’t been there for 15 years,” Brown admits. “I prefer to paddle on the Mississippi River. Some of the best paddling anywhere is northern Iowa on the Mississippi River.”

And, in a boat designed by Bob Brown.

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