Sunday, no wind, the leaves on the hills surrounding town on their last legs, but yet golden with color, hardly a cloud in the sky, the perfect temperature of fifty degrees set the scene for the first test run of the Siskiwit Bay. We loaded the kayak on my car and drove a few back roads before turning on to Highway 61 and then into the municipal campground. At our destination of the boat ramp by the old power plant, we unloaded the kayak and set it into the cold blue water of Lake Superior. The private docks sat ashore pulled for the end of the season, and only two sailboats floated moored in the almost smooth water of the harbor. The only activity, except for us with our kayak, was a few lingering tourists walking the break wall out to the lighthouse. Or, to state it simply, the perfect day to test a perfect kayak.
The Design Criteria
Before the test, I revisited the design criteria that I had laid out when first designing this kayak, and although the conditions I was about to paddle in were less than challenging, I thought it worthwhile to see how well I hit my target. My main design criteria are as follows:
- A strong tracker.
- When leaned, a good turner.
- Mid-sized capacity for lightweight trips of 10 to 20 days or 280 to 300 pounds of displacement on fresh water. (I’m 190, 40 pounds for the kayak, and the rest for gear.)
- A hull easy to paddle at touring speeds or about 4 knots of speed at 3.5 to 4 pounds of drag.
- In the 17 or 18 foot range.
- Under 22 inches wide.
As you can see, my main design criteria would probably be pretty simple to hit, but in my mind, I also knew the look of kayak I was after, and I wanted it to be seaworthy. I figured it was best to design towards a limited number of items first and then add everything else I wanted if possible. So, the initial review is based on these criteria and my subjective impressions of the kayak overall on a very short paddle of around an hour. I was having too much fun, so it forgot to look at my watch.
What Paddle Did I Use?
It may interest readers that I used my West Greenland paddle for this test. I was also going to use my Aquabound Carbon Tripper, but I was enjoying my West Greenland paddle so much that I forgot to see if the boat performs any different with my Aquabound. I promise that on the next test, I’ll use both for those that haven’t made the conversion to sticks yet.
At first glance, my kayak design looks much better once outside. It’s beautiful lines and sweeping sheerline is exactly what I was hoping for. I actually internally gasped at first view of the kayak on top of my car. Very nice. The kayak looks slightly wide at the deck in the front giving it an almost fish form look, but this is deceiving to viewers because, the boat is actually slightly Swede form on the waterline. I did it this way for a couple of reasons: 1. I don’t like the look of a wide rear deck that most Swede form kayaks have, and 2. It looks wider because in the translation from computer to wood, I misjudged how wide the sheer and deck would look, so it looks slightly wider than I had hoped. But, this may be a good thing, because it now has a good amount of extra reserve flare above the waterline to keep the kayak from tanking in waves. I had some slight rollers in the opening of the harbor and outside the harbor – mostly, three fourths of a foot and maybe to a foot that were left over from the wind yesterday. Not big waves, but the kayak seemed to ride high and dry in them.
This kayak is easy to get in and out of. You can easily slide on the rear deck and slip in, or do a butt-first-then-legs entry. I have size 11 feet and with Teva’s on I had plenty of foot room when I angled my feet forward. I haven’t installed and knee braces, foot braces, back brace or seat yet, but the cockpit seems like after it is outfitted that it will be very comfortable. I probably won’t have to add knee braces to the boat other than foam under the deck. I’ll decide this after more use. Leaning against the cockpit coaming is actually pretty comfortable, but does move the your weight further behind the center of buoyancy (which both HULLS and Free!Ship predicted perfectly) than the boat was design, although I paddled sitting up straight for the most part without a back rest. Still, shifting my weight back seemed to have very little effect on the handling of the kayak. I really like the Layback Lounge (TM Pending). It’s a very nice touch that lowers the cockpit rim to a very comfortable level. The day hatch is easily reachable, but slightly hard to open. No deck lines yet, but I’m going to use the deck pattern from the Explorer and Chatham, so that should be good.
It’s been a while since I’ve been in a kayak. The last time I used a kayak instead of a canoe was way back in July, so initially it felt a little more tender than I thought it would. Ilena (my significant other) also paddled the kayak, and she said that she thought it felt very stable. The second time I paddled it, I think that it did feel more stable to me – plenty stable for photography. When leaned, it locks up rock solid.
This boat tracks. It tracks so well that after turning it 10 degrees it almost instantly settles on to its new course. I’m very impressed with how well the boat tracks. I had no wind, but the small rollers seemed to have no effect when paddling into them, angling into them or surfing on them or angling away from them. It was like fly-by-wire, you point it and the boat is going to go there. Even when running sideways to the waves. This reminds me of the tracking of my Bell Magic. I nailed this design criterion, I think, but I need wind to test it in.
That leaves turning, level it turns pretty slowly, but I didn’t run any objective tests to check for this. When leaned, it’s a whole different story. Leaning to the point where the boat locks up and then trying a sweep stroke turns the boat very quickly. I nailed this design criterion. In the small waves I had, I did play around a bit, and was able to maneuver very nicely around in them, but this boat likes to go straight, and does take some skill to turn and play. I almost, just almost, think it tracks too good, but I really like a boat that turns (read my article in the Summer 2005 issue of Masik for more info), so I’m slightly hesitant to say this, because I know that my feelings about turning aren’t reflected in about 95% of paddlers, and even I got frustrated touring in a boat that is easy to turn. Thus, this kayak.
This kayak accelerates quickly up to cruising speed. It was one of the first thoughts I had about the kayak. It also seems pretty fast. On a GPS, I clocked myself using my normal if not slightly under my normal paddling stroke (because of no back band or foot braces) going at an average of 3.8 knots (4.37 mph, I think) into the small waves that I had. Coming back on the waves, I was running 4.0 to 4.3 knots (4.6 to 5 mph, I think). Surprisingly or not, this kayak likes to surf. Even on the small waves that I had, the boat seemed to easily get up and go with the waves. I even managed to get one big wave that came through the harbor from the opening, and I rode it a good ways. I nailed this design criterion. I did notice some slight gurgling while sprinting with the waves behind me. I’m not sure it this is from the still rough-because-I-haven’t-sanded-the-extra-layer-of-glass-smooth-roughness, or the design. I was sprinting as fast as I could, so in normal paddling, you wouldn’t notice this. I wish I would have had the GPS with me on the sprint, but I left it on shore as it was during my second run with the kayak.
Roll and Rescue
You have got to be nuts to think that I was going to roll this in Lake Superior this time of year, so don’t even ask. Hopefully, I’ll be able to try in the pool after I get further along with the build. From shore it is easy to get in and out of the kayak, and, my guess is that in water, I’ll be able to easily empty to kayak with the close bulkhead rear of the cockpit, and judging from the stability of getting in on shore and in the kayak, a cowboy entry or paddle float entry will be pretty easy. My West Greenland paddle, which I used for the test, locks in nicely behind the coaming lip, so even without deck line, I don’t see any problem here.
I was out on the water for no more than an hour, I’d say, so how can I really speak to this aspect of the design. I’d say though that it would be easy packing this kayak. The cargo space should hold enough for trips of 10 to 20 days. Remember, I pack light and leave behind anything that I don’t think I’m going to use. Food, for me, on long trips tends to be the bulkiest items. If I were to make some snap judgments without trying to pack this thing, I’d say that the day hatch has too much storage area and the rear doesn’t have enough. My under deck bag will fit very comfortably under the deck without interfering with my legs. Using one air filled Sealline 10HD dry bag, I estimated that the rear will hold 3.5 bags, the front 5 bags, and if you could fit them in the day hatch, the day hatch compartment could hold 2 bags. This would leave more than plenty extra space in the compartments. Also the bags don’t reach all the way to the ends and the bags don’t fit perfectly up against each other. So, around 10.5 Sealline 10 HD bags worth of stuff could fit into this boat. I didn’t paddle this kayak with any extra weight. I weigh 190 pounds. I nailed this design criterion for the way I pack. Those that bring everything along may find the space not enough, but if you’re that type of paddler, maybe you should read this article.
The Bottom Line
Since this was an initial review, and one without loads, without outfitting, without challenging conditions, I’d have to say that I accomplished what I set out to do with a grain of salt. This boat paddles nicely, and after I put the words in her mouth, Ilena said, “That is the best kayak I’ve ever paddled.” But, no, really, this is a nice and fast boat with good stability, and one that turns well when leaned. Its lines are among the most beautiful kayaks out there. I doubt it will need a skeg, and I’d have a hard time putting a rudder on this kayak, except for sailing, which I still might build a mast step and sleeve into the front for. I almost feel like saying, “Mission Accomplished!” But that might mean another year of fighting . . . Urggg. . . I mean. . . figuring out how this thing paddles, and it might not be the perfect metaphor or would it? Anyway, I’m patting myself on the back. I did pretty darn well for my first kayak design from the ground up. Could I tweak the design a little? Maybe, but first, I want to get it into challenging conditions. And I want a couple of friends to give it a go.
Now, I feel much more comfortable in giving away one set of plans in a drawing to those who submitted name ideas to me. I want to finish the kayak and then run a few more objective tests, and some subjective tests in challenging November Lake Superior conditions before I know for sure, and maybe tweak the design slightly before then, but if that someone out of those who submitted wins and wants the plans, I’m pretty sure, they’ll end up building an excellent kayak.