26 March 2010

Opinions on sea kayak's maneuverability

I read with great interest a post from Douglas Wilcox on his Seakayakphoto blog.
In his pictures it is clearly demonstrated that a given kayak will behave very differently with a lighter or heavier load (read: paddler).
Obviously the biggest difference will be felt in kayaks that don't use rudders.
A skegged kayak is often designed to be more maneuverable when edged.
When I transitioned from a ruddered kayak to a skegged one I initially observed how a skilled paddler could spin my kayak so quickly around by edging it aggressively.
No amount of extended sweep strokes (without edging the boat) could make it turn as fast as what I observed.

Instructor Craig McSween aggressively edging
If I was not edging my kayak the stern would firmly remain deep below waterline preventing a quick turn.
Eventually I learned that for effective fast maneuvering of a skegged kayak edging was essential.

However that is not always true.
If a kayak was designed to optimally perform for a given load, a heavier kayaker might hinder the maneuverability when edging.
As demonstrated in Douglas images it seems that a heavier kayak will not allow that stern to release and spin.
The same could be said about a too light person/load in a kayak.
The stern might be not buried enough in the water creating a "loose tail".
Weathercocking could be a typical consequence of a larger kayak that is not loaded sufficiently.
I know of some kayakers that deem a Nordkapp hard to paddle when empty.
Silvio at Bribie xing_3 (c)
Could be that the their weight is not sufficient to fully engage the intended waterline?
Therefore is a Nordkapp LV less maneuverable for a heavier person?
I believe so.
The Nordkapp LV is designed with a particular weight in mind.
A heavier person will be pushing that hull deeper in the water and when the kayak is edged maybe the stern is not released as much as with a lighter paddler.
Two different kayakers will give the same boat a very different opinion!
Needless to say that skill level will probably be a very important factor when hearing a report on a given kayak but weight should certainly be just as an important element.
Damiano in Sea Leopard
testing edge maneuverability
And just because your friend says that his/her kayak is really good for him/her, will that boat will be as good for you?
If you weigh substantially less/more then him/her, chances are that the kayak in question will behave very differently.

22 March 2010

Soft spot for pooches...

I have a soft spot for dogs.
They truly are "man's best friend".
I used to have an adventure companion when I lived in USA: an Australian Sheppard (think Border Collie).
She would come on most mountain bike rides, or at least on the ones that were not in the blazing sun in the middle of summer, keeping up to any single track speed

She would come backpacking with me in the High Sierra (we overnighted on a peak of 13.000ft once) and on skiing trips.

Foof with pack (c)
Foof backpacking in the High Sierra
Once I moved back to Australia I realized that if I had to have a dog here life would be much tougher, for the dog I mean.
Most recreational areas in Australia are designated National Park where domestic animals are not permitted.
A dog in Australia has a much more restricted life.
In my neighbourhood I would be able to exercise a dog off-leash only in designated pathetically confined fenced up "dog parks".
A far cry from the open environments my dog enjoyed in USA.
Occasionally when I go mountain biking, I see well trained dogs run around off-leash in the forest but I am sure that "technically" they would have to be on the lead.
Authorities seem to be much more aggressive here too and it would be probably just a matter of time before I would get a fine if my dog would follow me on my rides.
So, I was very pleased to see a nice boxer accompany his owner on a Sunday paddle.
kayaking pooch (c)
Funny thing is that the dog was so mellow about the outing that he nodded off, fell asleep, lost his balance and ended up in the drink :-)
After that rude awakening the pooch remained nice and alert for the rest of the trip.

PS any pooch deserves to be loved and cared for. If you really want to keep your dog safe consider the Safety Collar from Tazlab: the only collar that will prevent accidental strangulation...

16 March 2010

Buying your first kayak

Chances are that while reading this post you already have bought your first kayak, and maybe your second one (or third...) too.
I often read/hear about the pertinent questions that a newcomer to the sport has while trying to select his/her kayak.
It has been some years since I bought my first kayak and honestly I had none of the questions that I see others have.
My first kayak was an impulse buy: I heard that somebody was selling one, it tickled my mind and made me pause and fantasise on the places I could explore with a kayak and the fun I could have. Summer was approaching and soon it would be too hot to backpack (bushwalk) so I needed a diversion.
I inspected the kayak, knew nothing about it, it kind of fitted me and I bought it.
Was that the right kayak for me?
Heck yeah! It was the perfect kayak!
my first kayak
How come I was lucky to buy the perfect kayak with so little knowledge and research?
My luck was that I did not agonize for days, weeks and months over the purchase of something that most likely will not be used for long.
So, was I going to kayak just for one summer?
Maybe. I did not know kayaking from jetski-ing from scuba diving.
It was new to me and maybe it was not meant to be.
In reality though I knew that I was going to use the boat but I had no skills.
So, what would be the point to fret over something that I knew little about and most likely be persuaded by somebody (often the retailer) that a particular kayak would be the right one for me.
Think about it, your first kayak most likely will not be your last one!
Unless you don't take kayaking seriously, there is a very strong probability that your first boat will only last a year, maybe two.
How come? will it get trashed?
Not really: good kayaks last a very long time, your skill level (at the time of purchase) does not.
If you make kayaking a serious hobby/sport for yourself your skill level will increase and so will your demand for performance from a craft.
A kayak that is perfect for a beginner is usually a dog for an advance paddlers.
As with most things while you gain balance and maneuverability you desire a more responsive tool.
A beginner's kayak will probably be (painfully) stable, have a very wide cockpit (most of us fear getting "trapped" inside the kayak, if tipped) and probably handle like a bus.
My first kayak was the best because it was inexpensive.
I bought a used composite ruddered kayak that came with a sail, spraydeck (what would I need that thing for? :-) paddle and PFD.
I was ready to hit the water the next day.
Thankfully my skills progressed and soon I desired a kayak that was more maneuverable and that would fit me better: that wide cockpit was doing nothing for my boat control, I had to rely simply on the little inefficient rudder.
So I bought my second kayak and after that my third one and so on.
With each new kayak I learned new skills and pushed my boundaries.
I hear you say: a good tradesman never blames his tools. And probably you are right, I have seen kayaker handle the same boats that I eventually upgrade from much better than I did. I probably would now too, if I had to paddle my old kayaks but I would be frustrated in paddling something that just does not perform as well as other kayaks.

So, would it be wise for a beginner to demo boats before they buy?
Yes and no.
Anybody should try to fit a boat first before buying it.
A novice will probably fall for a kayak with a wide cockpit, so called comfortable seat (often with a great large back rest) and often a kayak way too large for them.
cockpit too wide for a small paddler; modified (black carbon braces) by Greg Schwarz
A large kayak is often stable (on flat water) and gives a reassuring feeling to a paddler that has not developed the balance for a more responsive kayak.
A beginner will often discard a performance kayak in a line up of demo boats: admittedly they are a bit tippy for the first timer.
Little do they know that within a few weeks that "tippiness" will be gone and they could have ended up with a better kayak if they chose the performance one.
However if the kayak is really narrow and seriously challenges one's ability to stay upright than probably will be too much of a hindrance to confidently develop better skills.
Hence my point: your first kayak should not be your last one.
Your first kayak should be something that gives you good contact with your body and maybe just a bit "tender" if demo paddled: you will overcome that initial instability usually pretty quickly.
What a demo day will NOT give you is a good understanding of how a kayak will perform for you.
To really learn what a kayak does (or does not) often takes a few weeks.
Unless you are really an expert and have paddled hundreds of kayaks you will rarely know what a kayak is capable of doing in just a couple of minute, or hours.
It could take a year (sometimes longer) to really get the full potential out of a kayak if your skills are not brilliant.
I, for example, purchased a kayak that initially I regarded way too advanced for me and totally disliked it. If I just demoed that kayak, I probably would have not purchased it.
It took many months (admittedly a few mods too :-) to learn how to really get the best out of that kayak. That kayak is now my favorite boat.
I know of proficient kayakers that owned a kayak, paddled it for a while, found it too demanding, sold it and a few years later, as their skills advanced, purchased the same model again.
So, I find no real point in doing endless researches on hull speed, boat performance and statistics for your first kayak.
Buy one that fits you (possibly snugly) and that keep you upright.
All the rest will come to you after a while and chances are that your "first love" will not be your last.

09 March 2010

REVIEW: first impressions of Elverkayaks

In the quest to find a kayak that would fit me and have a low deck I considered a skin-on-frame.

On a recent visit to Australia Brian Schulz (http://www.capefalconkayak.com/index.html ) taught a kayak building class in Sydney and produced a fresh crop of SOF and sparked a new interest in these ancient crafts.
Tom Nicholson from Elverpaddles was the organizer of the class.
During the course he built a classic kayak: the 1931 Disco Bay.
That kayak appealed to me very much.

Tom paddling "Marzipan"
The classic lines, the low profile and the simplicity of the design intrigued me.
I wanted to paddle that kayak.
A meeting was arranged and I eagerly drove a few hours South to meet with Tom and paddle the “Marzipan” (his Disco Bay).
What first surprised me was that the kayak had a very tight skin and not the saggy affair that I have seen pictures of builds from others.
The kayak had a smooth finish and no urethane paint drips were visible.
Inside the kayak the typical skeleton made of wood was supporting the tight nylon skin. The ribs however appear to be stronger than usual with the use of bamboo.

The kayak is pretty true to form. It is however expanded in by 7% all over, which equates to about 30% increase in volume. It has historically correct lines, includes the historically correct deck fittings (including the two rifle attachment points on the bow), and is basically a ‘correct to form’ west Greenland boat for large paddlers – but it’s not a ‘replica’. Its based on documentation of KOG 67 in Harvey Goldens book
Kayaks of Greenland’.

Sliding into the ocean style cockpit is different than my large butt-in-first style cockpit of my composite kayaks.
Launching off the beach required getting into the kayak first and then beach launch.
Since the kayak is so incredibly light that was an easy task.

Van superkayaker (c)
The very first paddle strokes were tentative while trying to understand the kayak’s initial and secondary stability.
A couple of sculling strokes gave me enough feedback to regard the kayak not any more “tippy” than my Mockpool.
The secondary stability was however way more solid.
Being a hard chine kayak it was a totally new style of maneuvering for me.
This kayak was responding to my lean turns.
The location provided ideal conditions for gentle surfing.
The swell was producing very soft and long waves that rarely crested and spilled.
While the waves were not steep, surfing them with “Marzipan” was a real joy.
I was using an Elverpaddle Tour carbon (balsa core) that was allowing me easy propulsion of this superlight kayak.
I was catching waves that I would not dream of in my Impex Assateague.
My paddling companions had all composite boats and while some of the waves were caught by all of us some other ones were clearly mine solely :-)
The kayak does not broach more then my hard tracking Mockpool. The biggest difference was edging the kayak: if I was misaligned on the wave and the kayak was starting to turn (broach) I could easily bring it back with a bit of a stern rudder and edging, something that my rounder hull Mockpool or Assateague don’t respond to as much.

Elverkayak #1 (c)
Rolling the SOF however was a different story.
The traditional small cockpit did not allow me to do laybacks.
The kayak is only temporarily fitted with a bit of thin closed cell foam and no back band.
In my composite kayaks I am used to have a contoured seat and the back band to stop me sliding too close to the cockpit rim.
With those two items missing in the SOF I was hitting my back on the coaming.
Later on a talked to Tom and he said that he was not that happy with the cockpit set up.
I suggested a longer cockpit that by the aid of a back band would allow me to be further away from the hard edge of the coaming and let me bring my back closer to the deck when doing layback rolls.
Tom had only temporary arrangements on the Marzipan and was still working out a more secure and contoured seating position that would lift the body away from the keelson (yeah, kind of annoying to have that piece of would digging into my crack :-)

Paddling a skin of frame requires probably a higher degree of skill level since rescues from wet exits are not as easy as with a kayak with bulkheads.
Some skin on frame paddlers use sea socks to prevent the kayak getting flooded in the event of a capsize that could not be rolled back up but I envision a sea sock a little hot in a tropical climate.
Special large inflatable bags that fill the space inside of the kayak not occupied by the paddler’s body are the alternative.

I believe that a skin on frame would not totally replace any of my current kayaks but it would just add to the collection.
Specifically designed to my requirements an Elverkayak could be what I am longing for: a kayak that would fit me exactly.

03 March 2010

GEAR: light shelters

When I talk about outdoor activities I usually mean more than a few hours away from the comforts of home.
If I venture into areas not overrun with people and buildings chances are that it takes more than a day to get there and consequently I need to camp.
Camping brings an elevated sense of adventure to my outings.
While most outdoor pursuits might end at sundown (or way before) when I camp I extend my recreation.
Sleeping outside away from the mundane predictability and security of 4 walls is something that I cherished since very young.
Unfortunately my parents were not that keen on camping. Spending summer holidays in a caravan was not what I call camping either.
Good camping in my book is something that is usually found away from buildings, vehicles, fences and signs; a location that is not man made.
Reaching those places however involves walking, skiing or kayaking and therefore my gear selection is compact and light.
No other item symbolises camping more than a compact tent even though not always essential, in my outing (more on that later).
I love venturing to locations that are off the beaten track, literally.
My ideal campsite would be where there is no sign of previous human visitation.
That often involves remote locations that are regarded not "ideal" places to camp.
You will find me looking for a spot for the night on top of mountain ridges where my goal is having the endless view.
When I am kayaking I search for an elevated spot along the shore so I can spend the evening hours just taking in the distant scenery.
Those spots are often exposed and occasionally windy. Having a decent shelter is sometimes essential.
Looking rather stormy (c)
campsite below Mt Twynam, Mt Kosciusko National Park
My tents are always selected on two major factors: sturdy and light.
I dislike a tent that is going to keep me up at night if the wind picks up.
I want the peace of mind knowing that it will stand up in high winds.
Large tents usually don't offer that; they are just too big and act like a sail where the wind can easily push them to the ground or rip them apart.
Strong tents, if inexpensive, unfortunately are heavy.
After years of being a devoted user of Macpac tents for extreme conditions I finally found a better tent that is also lighter: Hilleberg.
Designed in Sweden, manufactured in Estonia a tent from Hilleberg will deliver better performance than any other tent I have owned (I lost count how many) and still be the lightest around.
The tent pictured below weights a mere 900gr.!
Snowgum camp (c)
Being a modular system I can leave the inner part behind and use only the poles and fly. In conditions where bugs are not too thick it is the ultimate shelter for windy places. The complete tent weights just 1.9 Kg. (4 lbs 3 oz)!
Not being a freestanding tent it does not mean it can not be pitched on a slab of rock. I use a couple of little boulders to string out the ends.
Hilleberg on Mallee Ridge (C)

Make no mistake: light is not always good, especially if cheap.
A badly designed tent will flap in the wind and occasionally let go. Cheap poles will snap leaving the occupant a bit panicky :-)
Windy camp
this little tent not coping well with the wind
My trips don't always take me to cold and windy places. I often camp in areas where my main concern is having a haven from biting insects or pouring rain in tropical conditions. On those trips I choose my 3 person tent that consists of a body made from mosquito mesh and a waterproof fly.
While it will stand up to decent winds it won't hold a candle to the Hilleberg in 80 Km/h winds.
In the REI Quarter Dome T3 I have enough space for 2 and plenty of wiggle room. There is no need for a small tent in tropical conditions; staying cool is more of a worry than staying warm.
I use a lightweight tarp over the tent to keep the rain out; it offers outstanding ventilation at the same time.

If the conditions are windy then the tent fly will keep me more comfortable.
At 2.2 Kg is one of the lightest summer tents that I can find that offers that much room, and substantially cheaper than the Hilleberg offerings.

REI Quarter Dome T3
When the buggy conditions are not present I select a tent that is just a bit more than a shaped tarp: the Black Diamond Megamid.
Circus at sunset (c)
campsite at 11.000 ft in the High Sierra (USA) using Black Diamond Megalight
At 1.05 Kg this is probably the lightest shelter solution for 4 that can take the weather. If buggy conditions are predicted an inner mosquito net is available however it adds a fair bit of weight.
I have modified mine and added just a "skirt" of no-see-ums netting at the base and one entrance panel. While it doesn't have a floor (separate extra) it can still keep the bighties at bay and I added only 120 gr to my tepee.
When I plan to camp in areas of low wind and when bugs a re not a threat I simply use a siliconized nylon tarp.
Two of us have happily slept in heavy downpours under that tarp.
Girraween APR10_snowgum camp (c)
Nothing beats 365 gr for a tarp of generous dimensions (290cmx320cm).
On trips where weight counts (backpacking) the tarp can make a real difference on your shoulders.
I can configure that tarp to make it into a tepee as well and shelter myself from adverse elements (rain).
It does take a bit of ingenuity and a bit longer set up but a tarp is still my preferred shelter when conditions allow it (no bugs).

1Lt Nalgene bottle, the silnylon tarp and the REI Quarter Dome T3 tent
Last but not least is the "commando" shelter: none.
I have slept a few night outside despite having a tent in my pack.
Nothing beats that feeling of being very close to nature where literally there is nothing between you and the night, just your sleeping bag.

winter camping in the Australian Alps