Eventually you have to make the call: British or North American-style sea kayak? Choose wisely. The distinction between our continent’s roomier, ruddered battle wagons and the Brits’ high-strung steeds is a cornerstone tenet of sea kayak snobbery. Conflating the two, one English member of our boat-test team patiently explained, is like confusing a bowl of spotted dick with a steaming plate of toad-in-the-hole.
The Brit backers make a valid point: The rudder can break down the road to proper paddling technique because the paddler doesn’t learn to engage the boat’s edges. So the Brit boat (think retractable skeg, soft chine, moderate V-hull, and more rocker for maneuverability) requires a higher degree of paddling skill, while providing less initial stability, less packing room, and often less speed.
The tradeoff is that as your skills improve, you can feel comfortable taking your Brit boat into the rougher and rowdier waters it’s designed for. And since our local waters lack the dynamic testing conditions that prevail off the Isle of Anglesey, a hotbed of British sea paddling progression and design, we did the one thing that us Americans do best: outsourced the project to Mexico.
It helped that we had a handful of readily available Brits following San Diego’s popular Southwest Kayak Symposium, plus the “absolute dog’s bollocks” conditions that made them feel right at home: “It’s very similar out here in the size of the coastal features, but it’s more powerful. There’s just so much more energy here behind the waves,” said veteran BCU coach Owen Burson, one of our boat testers. Despite the warm water and clear skies, he said the rock-riddled sea off Punta Banda in northern Baja is similar to Great Britain’s rugged Pembrokeshire Coast. Add a heavy swell piling in from the North Pacific, and you have the perfect proving ground for five of the highest performing composite sea kayaks on the market.
Of course, the trouble with inviting a cadre of elite British sea kayak instructors to paddle sporty new kayaks in such conditions is that moderation goes out the window. No stiff upper lips here – the blokes were grinning ear-to-ear, even as they occasionally pushed the kayaks past their logical performance limits, putting the structural integrity of boats and bodies to an unscheduled test. Three damaged – scratch that, “modified” – boats, two broken and shredded fingers, plus a broken windshield and one flat tire later, we’d run the fleet through the rough-water gauntlet, toying with fierce rock gardens, punching out through waves and back on impromptu surf landings, and catching unending rides on the downwind express to Arbolitos.
– Dave Shively
Contact Aqua Adventures Kayak Center for info on guided multi-day trips to these world-class paddling spots, aqua-adventures.com.