Some Sea Boats to Try
A new sea kayak is an expensive investment, and there are a bewildering variety of boats available. It is therefore well worthwhile to test paddle as many different boats as you can before committing to a particular boat which you will find can last for many years. Whilst composite (fibreglass) boats when cared for can hold their value very well, buying second hand with a view to selling on a boat which you turn out not to like can be a bit of a lottery - sometimes you will lose very little or even come out on top, but other boats may turn out to have been expensive errors. Boats have been designed for paddlers of different sizes and experience levels, for different sea conditions, and for differing uses. A boat which has been designed for long trips carrying high loads will not paddle well empty on day trips, and one intended for short days out will not cope with camping gear for several days for example. The boats you will mostly see today have evolved from origins in the skin-on-frame kayaks of West Greenland, adapted for modern methods of construction and diversified according to the market their manufacturers want to address. The earliest true sea kayaks manufactured by companies like Valley in the 1970s were not aimed at beginners, but at a small number of highly motivated folk starting a new sport. These boats were often supremely seaworthy in experienced hands, but not necessarily comfortable for novice paddlers. As the sector developed and people like Nigel Dennis started to provide instruction to beginners, boat designs evolved in which new paddlers felt comfortable early on. Hull shapes became more rounded and flatter bottomed, so as to be more forgiving, and fuller cross sections maintained more beam when boats were paddled empty as would often be the case on daytrips and in Outdoor Centres. As starting paddlers would often buy the same boat that they had been taught in, this became a major market. The Anas Acuta was developed into the Pintail by Valley, whilst Nigel designed his own boat, the Romany, still one of the most frequently seen boats today. More advanced paddlers preferred higher performance boats, but this was never such a large market for manufacturers, and was further spread into niches for load-carrying expedition boats like the Nordkapp, or into hard-chined boats preferred by some paddlers for their ability to turn. More recently with Greenland style rolling becoming popular, there has been an explosion in designs harking back to the Inuit boats, and not just the Greenland ones. Every kayak maker wants to sell as many boats as possible, so you would believe, from the literature, that almost every boat was a splendid all-rounder suited to daytrips in calm water and expeditions around the roughest of exposed coasts in all weathers. In truth, for all paddlers, there are many boats that are simply not suitable or pleasant to paddle, but a small number will be just what you want for a particular trip. You need to decide what sorts of trips you most enjoy, what sort of level you want to take your kayaking to, and what sort of boat will do that job for your size and physical ability. As paddlers will develop skills quite quickly, the boat that seemed ideal on your early trips may become quite limiting later on, so don't rush into a purchase until you've had time to try a number of boats in various conditions and on various lengths of trip. Of course, one option if you have the space, is to have more than one boat - not only does this give you a choice of the best boat for the trip, but one also finds that swapping boats between a forgiving one in challenging conditions and a performance boat in calmer waters is an excellent way to develop your skills more quickly.
Between the sea boats the club owns and ones that members may be prepared to let you try, you can experience quite a range of boats before committing to buying your own. There is, however, an entirely understandable bias towards North Shore boats within the club (built locally by Mike Nelson, who has been a member at various times) which might give the impression that boats from other manufacturers are somehow not favoured, and certainly gives you slightly less opportunity to try boats by Valley, Sea Kayaking UK (formerly Nigel Dennis), Tide Race, P&H and so on. It is therefore well worth attending events like sea kayak symposia or demo days where other boats may be available for you to try at a small cost, in conditions similar to those you will enjoy on real trips. Here we illustrate the sea boats that the club owns, a few other popular models paddled by members, and a number of boats which often feature on lists of boats which you should try before buying anything.
The original club sea boat is an Anas Acuta, which was also the earliest commercially produced fibreglass sea kayak. Derived almost directly from a skin-on-frame Inuit original, this is a long, fairly narrow, elegant, hard-chined boat. We have an early model, which has recently been fitted with modern accessories like sealed bulkheads, hatches, and recessed deck fittings, but it doesn't have a retractable skeg, nor a built-in compass. The forward bulkhead position (allowing for someone with very long legs to get in) and small hatches mean that the boat is best suited to daytrips rather than long camping expeditions. It will feel wobbly on first encounter, but it can be leaned a long way over without capsizing, as the high rocker adds a lot of secondary stability. It is also a very easy boat to turn, given its length of over 5m. It has a small "ocean" cockpit which means you have to slide in from the aft deck, a little awkward sometimes, and it may feel a bit restricting to anyone used to huge keyhole cockpits from their whitewater paddling, particularly those with longer legs. However, it is a brilliant boat in rough conditions, as illustrated in Surfing the SOC Anas Acuta. One particular advantage of the Anas is a fairly low volume, meaning that less of the boat is exposed to the effects of the wind. It doesn't look that way in the photo below, but that's because Sarah was a very light paddler and the boat was otherwise empty.
Club Anas Acuta - Arisaig
Incidentally, Sarah is paddling with a Greenland Paddle in that photo - more about that in What's that stick?
In 2007, the club purchased an Icefloe. This is another older design, similar to several sorts of boat that often come up on ebay (Icefloe, Baidarka, Umnak...) and is a somewhat heavy boat, again with an ocean cockpit. This was bought specifically for its gear-carrying capacity so that we had a boat suited to longer camping trips. In many other ways it is the antithesis of the Anas. It has a long keel with little rocker, so it tracks in a straight line very well. It has a rounded hull, which feels more stable on first encounter, but may not fare so well in rough conditions if paddled empty - so is not such a good boat for day trips. With the advent of the Northshore Atlantic, demand for this boat fell away somewhat, so it is was sold on again.
Club Icefloe - Amble.
More recently, as a result of the sale of some donated boats, including two sea boats from veteran paddler Geoff Woods which were probably of little appeal to novice or intermediate paddlers, the club had the funds to buy a brand new North Atlantic RM, which is very similar to a lot of boats paddled by members, but is a rotomoulded plastic version. Plastic boats are a little heavier, less rigid and slightly slower than glassfibre boats, and a bit harder to repair, but the more flexible nature of the material also means they are less prone to damage by minor impacts on rocks. This boat is big enough for multiday trips, but stable enough to be paddled empty (or with a small amount of ballast) even in lumpy conditions. As a boat for beginners, who won't be going out in very rough conditions, nor trying to do huge mileages at high speeds, but do want to do longer trips than would be possible in the Anas, it's ideal.
New North Shore Atlantic RM, on Ullswater
The final club boat is a Valley Aleut 2 double sea kayak, which is a boat which splits in the middle to make two car-toppable units (this replaces the previous North Shore Calypso II sea double which would not fit in the club store). This is a great boat for taking someone on an expedition which is a little beyond their current paddling standard, or makes a fantastic craft for two competent paddlers who get on very well - though no-one in a single kayak will be able to keep up. It is also great for wildlife - the aft paddler can stabilise and drive whilst the forward paddler takes photos. Being a very long boat, like most doubles, it has a rudder, though it is not necessary to use this. Getting the trim right is important if paddling in windy conditions, especially if (as is often the case) you have a much lighter paddler in the front cockpit.
The original club double on a day trip in the Summer Isles
Among the North Shore boats paddled by many club members, there are two major variants. Mike Nelson's original design, the Shoreline, is a classic, still paddled by several people (only the very oldest ones don't have skegs). More recent derivatives, such as the Mistral and Fuego, have bigger hatches but are otherwise similar. The expedition versions of this same shallow-arch (rounded) hull include the Calypso and higher-decked Atlantic (not to be confused with the Atlantic RM which is a re-branding of the Shoreline design in it's rotomoulded form)
North Shore Calypsos
The other variant is Mike's hard-chined hull shape, the Polar and the bigger Buccanneer. The latter is an expedition-sized boat which has been great on longer trips, but was never really intended to be paddled empty on day trips - in the wind, the boats are much better with a reasonable amount of weight in them.
From other manufacturers, the Romany is a design that looks superficially like the Shoreline, but was designed by Nigel Dennis for his Anglesey Sea and Surf Centre and is subtly different in many ways. Valley Canoe adapted the Anas Acuta with the same purpose in mind (and at Nigel Dennis' instigation) to produce the Pintail, another low volume boat which is great in the wind, but the Romany seems to have been produced in much greater numbers. The Romany comes in a longer expedition variant, the Explorer. There are also various lightweight, low-decked and other minor variants, some of which seem to have the cockpit further aft than the standard model which gives them a tendency towards lee-helm.
Romany LV, Loch Alsh
The other boat which has to receive a mention is the Nordkapp. This was designed in the mid-seventies for major expeditioning after the Anas was found to have too little load carrying capacity. It has been used by many very long expeditions, not only to Arctic Norway, but in many parts of the world. It has a reputation for being very 'tippy', which is inevitable when paddled on daytrips, as it was intended to carry loads of up to 90 kg as well as the paddler. Empty, it can be a bit of a beast, and is not what you want as a beginner or intermediate for short trips in calm seas. But with an experienced paddler, a heavy load, and in the roughest conditions, this is a fantastic boat. If you are moving on to bigger trips, there are plenty of boats to try, but if you never try a Nordkapp, you will always be left wondering if you missed out on the worlds most seaworthy design. However, beware that a lot of boats have been made under the name, and the design not so much evolved as drifted between iterations of the mould over the years. The boats being made in the early 21st century were really quite a lot different from the original boats from the 1970s, and in many opinions were not as good, though better hatches, drop skegs and stronger deck fittings were certainly positive features. In 2015, working from a very early boat that Valley had bought back, the Nordkapp Førti was introduced with a return to the original hull shape, but with all the other modern innovations including a keyhole cockpit and drop skeg. The earliest boats tended to weathercock too strongly, whilst the "HM" variant introduced to combat this (with a fixed skeg-like extension to the stern) had to be very strongly edged to turn. The drop-skeg of modern boats is the "right" answer to this dilemma. The upshot of all this is that you need to be aware of what "Nordkapp" you are actually paddling before forming a definite opinion for yourself ! Early models can be quite cheap in places like ebay, but with a bit of work can often be as good as a new boat despite forty years of service. The earliest boats were built quite heavy (and therefore strong) and many have decades of life in them yet.
Late 1970s Nordkapp HM bought on ebay
Manufacturing costs have risen in Western Europe, and many of our familiar companies now have the shells made abroad, and then imported for final outfitting and customisation. There are also an increasing number of kayak-builders from the cheaper parts of Europe now importing directly to the British market. Narrow-beamed low-volume Greenland style kayaks seem to be becoming increasingly popular, and are very good indeed if you are planning to go in for Greenland rolling competitions, but will carry less gear than the more "Brit-style" sea kayaks which are great for trips of a few days to a few weeks.
Once you are looking at true sea boats, rather than compromise touring boats, there are several choices you might like to think about. Plastic versus composite (fibreglass), hard-chine versus rounded-hull, rubber hatch covers versus fibreglass ones and rudder, skeg, or neither ?
The original Greenland Inuit boats on which most modern designs are based were hard-chined, but this was as much a result of the availability of the materials and methods of construction as anything else. Aleut qajaqs developed further west under the influence of big Pacific swells and open crossings, were multi-chined and had a much more rounded shape. One also has to remember that the purpose of an Inuit hunter's boat was to get through the water, perhaps avoiding ice floes, as quietly as possible, so as to approach prey within spear-throwing distance, then be able to bring the dead seal (or whatever) home. A recreational boat doesn't have quite the same design criteria, and modern construction techniques allows a much wider range of possible hull shapes.
Apart from the new Atlantic RM, all the club sea boats, and most of those paddled by members, are fibreglass composite boats. These are lighter and more rigid than plastic boats, tend to be more waterproof, and are much more repairable. They give the designer somewhat more choice of hull shape compared to a roto- or blow-moulded plastic construction. They are also significantly more expensive, as the build process is much more labour intensive. The ultimate in lightweight boats of exactly the design you want is achieved by building your own, either as a stitch-and-glue using marine ply (usually hard-chined boats), or from wood strips (usually western red cedar) which gives you more chance to achieve a rounded hull shape. It's best to have a very good idea of the boat you want before investing the time (typically 2-400 hours) to build your own !
British paddlers in general don't favour rudders. They have a lot to go wrong and your rudder is either deployed or not - no half measures. Many paddlers dislike the spongy feel of footrests which also act as a rudder control, and the foot to push on with a rudder is the exact opposite of what one uses without (such as in a whitewater boat). If a boat was designed to be paddled with a rudder, it will tend to weathercock (point upwind) without it. If you get the trim wrong and the boat blows downwind, deploying a rudder, far from enabling you to steer, will make the lee helm worse as well as generating a lot of drag, which can be dangerous. A rudder is also of almost no use unless you have enough speed through the water to make it work. Rudders are often fitted to American style boats which, with big flat bottoms designed for stability, not for edging into turns, don't steer as well as British designs. It is as well to learn to paddle a boat without either skeg or rudder, as that ability will inevitably be needed at some time when hardware fails. Most UK boats come with a retractable skeg. The boat is designed to weathercock slightly without the skeg, and point downwind if the skeg is fully deployed. Provided you get the trim reasonably correct, you can always adjust the skeg for wind-neutrality and have a relaxing paddle in any direction. An important point often not appreciated by beginners is that a boat is inherently less likely to capsize if you are edging the boat into a cross-wind. If the boat weathercocks slightly, then this edging is exactly what you want to counteract the effect. A boat that lee-cocks (the bow tends to blow down-wind) either because of its design or because you got the trim badly adjusted (stern heavy) needs you either to edge away from the wind (making a capsize more likely) or do strong steering strokes on the lee side, which can be very tiring. Whatever boat you try, get out in it on a windy day and paddle it in all directions to be sure it handles comfortably for you.
Different designs may be more or less wobbly - but it's more complex than that. We can speak of "primary stability" which is essentially how wobbly the boat feels when you first get in on flat water, and "secondary stability" which is how resistant the boat is to capsize when you have it leaned well over in the water, or when it encounters a beam sea. Boats with a lot of rocker and/or flared sides tend to have very good secondary stability whilst flat-bottomed and beamy boats have high primary stability. Many boats for recreational use have higher primary stability than the original Inuit boats because manufacturers can sell boats more easily if people feel comfortable in them when they first get in to try. This is also a useful quality for boats being used by outdoor centres, who mostly have beginners to cater for and don't go anywhere very exciting. However, if a boat naturally wants to stay parallel to the water, what happens if the water isn't flat ? The boat still stays parallel to the wave surface, which can put it a long way off the horizontal. For paddling in a rough sea, it is useful to be able to lean a boat into the wave quickly (so low primary stability helps, and high secondary stability allows you scope for getting the amount of lean wrong), so boats which initially seemed more wobbly can be a lot more seaworthy when paddled by someone with a bit of experience. The stability is also affected by what is in the boat. A boat with camping gear, food and water for a three day trip or more will be a lot more stable than the same boat paddled empty, both becasue the boat sinks in the water and has a greater waterline beam, and because the centre of gravity of the load is lower. If you are only ever going to do day trips, the boat you will feel most comfortable in will be different from a boat which would suit multiday expeditions. Finally, a boat with lower primary stability and higher secondary stability due to significant rocker, will tend to be easier to roll - big flat-bottomed boats are going to be very stable both ways up, and rolling may be very hard !
Hard-chined boats tend to have less primary, but more secondary stability, and with edges, they can be confidently leaned to steer tight turns. More confident paddlers tend to feel that they have better control in a hard-chined boat. The reduced initial stability, and the tendency of edges to catch in moving water has exactly the same penalties as in whitewater boats - the boats may feel twitchier and require greater concentration in some conditions.
The original Inuit boats were paddled by people who had paddled almost since infancy, so they were inevitably very skilled. The risks they took in order to earn a living were also of a different order from those we may wish to take on for a weekend of pleasure. If you don't ever want to go out in rough conditions, a high performance boat may be quite unsuitable.