World-famous sea kayaker and expeditioner Ed Gillet once said there are two kinds of sea kayakers, dolphins and seals. Dolphins love to play the open waters, traveling fast, surfing every swell, and crossing to distant islands. Seals need the constant stimulation of new sights along the coastline, rarely travel in a straight line, like to surf the shore break, and are continuously darting into small places and weaving through rocky outcroppings close to shore. Luckily, in today’s kayak market, there is a boat that suits each of these paddling styles, and then some. To put this year’s boats to the test, we took a salty core sample from the San Diego kayaking scene and unleashed them in sea caves, rock gardens, famous breaks, and, of course, open ocean with six new models. After some epic surfs, a few overnighters, and some nice hull repair jobs, here’s what they had to say.
Seaward Quantum ($3950 CAN, seawardkayaks.com)
WT: 54 lb.
Materials: fiberglass or Kevlar
skeg comes standard
The Quantum is a dolphin’s kayak. It is a fast and straight-tracking British design with little rocker and a pronounced "V” hull, both of which enhance forward speed. Most of our testers rated the primary stability on the low side, finding it uncomfortable to sit still-this boat is much happier traveling at close to hull speed. Secondary stability is very good, likely due in part to its hard chines, and the low back deck makes it easy to roll. In close-quarter maneuvering, the Quantum leaves something to be desired and responds slowly even to aggressive edge turns. The low deck creates sleek aesthetic lines and helps maintain momentum as the bow punches through, rather than rides over, waves-the downside is a very wet ride. In cross winds the Quantum weather-cocked until the skeg was deployed and properly adjusted. The construction of the fiberglass test model reflects Seaward’s high build quality and attention to detail; paddle float rescue straps on the back deck and a comfortable foam seat that can do double-duty as a paddle float are especially nice touches.
Delta 18.5 Expedition ($2,600, deltakayaks.com)
WT: 57 lbs.
Materials: thermoformed plastic
rudder comes standard, can be fitted with a skeg
Designed for sea kayak guides and overnights, the Delta 18.5’s yawning hatches provide great storage capacity for multi-day trips. The cockpit is roomy-big enough to accommodate a 6-foot-6 paddler-and the wide, flat bottom creates a very comforting primary stability. Combine this with significant rocker, and the hull shape results in a remarkably maneuverable kayak for its length. With less than about 200 pounds, the entire bow rides just at or above the water, making it highly responsive to maneuvering strokes. Course corrections are easy enough without the included rudder. With a heavier load, the keel sinks into the water a bit, increasing tracking and speed somewhat without sacrificing maneuverability.
Dagger Euro X ($1,700, dagger.com)
WT: 65 lbs
rudder comes standard
We’ve seen it over and over on trips in Baja (seven or more gallons of water on a multi-day trip are critical cargo): frantic paddlers desperately trying to cram their gear past skeg boxes and fit it all in their playful, low-profile "Brit” boats. Others, fully packed and calmly sipping a last cup of coffee, are the unmistakable owners of cavernous gear haulers. Eventually, they tire of the entertainment (or finish their coffee), and in a seemingly selfless gesture (they really just want to get the trip started), offer to take some of their compadres’ gear. The Dagger Euro X is one of these cavernous gear haulers: a solid workhorse that will get you, your stuff, and half of your buddy’s stuff where you want to go. A day hatch and a recessed compass mount, features rarely seen on rotomolded kayaks with rudders, prove the designers had expedition paddlers in mind. The Euro X is fast for a rotomolded boat, which comes in handy against headwinds. With its large, deep cockpit and enormous 400-pound capacity, the deck is quite high. Consequently, without a load, the Euro X had a tendency to weathercock and testers found the rudder useful across the wind. The cockpit was a bit too roomy for many of our crew, but aggressive, comfortable thigh braces gave them good control and most found it very responsive to edged turns. Primary and secondary stability are both solid.
Tsunami 175 Pro
WT: 61 lb
Materials: fiberglass, or Kevlar
rudder comes standard
The comfortable, adjustable seating system was one of the first things we noticed in this boat-par for Wilderness Systems outfitting. Billed as a "transitional touring” kayak, the Tsunami 175 can accommodate large paddlers, long legs, and big feet, as well as piles of gear for long-distance trips. Both primary and secondary stability are high and the kayak responds well to edged turns. With lighter loads and less keel in the water, the Tsunami 175 Pro is still easy to edge and very maneuverable; heavier loads enhance tracking. In either case, the rudder comes in handy on a long slog across the wind. One tester (although a bit too small to really fill out the boat) felt comfortable enough to get in close to a few rocks and learned first hand that this boat can take quite a licking and come out not much worse for wear. The same person, with strict instructions to "stay the hell away from the rocks,” had a great time playing around in the surf catching a few very nice long rides.
Necky Eliza ($2,549, necky.com)
WT: 40 lbs
Materials: fiberglass or polymer
skeg comes standard on composite models
Though it’s designed for petite women paddlers, and despite its flashy magenta deck, we could barely pry our smaller-framed male testers out of the Necky Eliza. With a hull design resembling Necky’s popular Chatham series, the Eliza aims to make paddling and transporting the boat easy. At just over 15 feet, it travels effortlessly at a very comfortable cruising speed. Though it reaches lower maximum hull speeds, the amount of energy needed to push the Eliza at 3.5 to 4 knots is much less than the amount of energy needed to push a 17- or 18-foot boat at the same speed. Reducing the Eliza’s weight to less than 40 pounds did, however, come with small sacrifices in durability. Necky’s designers eliminated eight pounds of gel coat, replacing it with a thinner polyurethane paint and rendering it vulnerable to pressure dings. Necky will make the Eliza in a conventional lay-up in 2008, with plans to offer a slightly beefier "ultra-light” version as well. For a petite kayak, the Eliza fits a surprisingly large range of shapes and sizes (from 5-foot-3, 120 pounds to 5-10, 170 pounds). It’s narrow enough for smaller paddlers to edge easily and has excellent primary and secondary stability. The Eliza is predictably maneuverable given its length, but its tracking ability got the short end of the compromise. The skeg (standard equipment) compensates nicely. Fun and lively in open water, and well-suited for cruising with the dolphins, the Eliza definitely shines playing with the seals.
Current Designs Willow ($2,899/$3,349, cdkayak.com)
WT: 45 lb/41 lb
skeg comes standard
The Willow is another lightweight, easy-handling scaled-down design for the smaller paddler. At just 15 feet, 6 inches, this kayak cruises nicely at casual day tripping speeds. While it’s more of a dolphin than a seal, don’t expect to win any races in it. Primary stability may feel a bit low initially to inexperienced kayakers, but give it a chance; secondary stability is great. A British style design with soft chines, the Willow tracks beautifully and responds nicely to skeg adjustments across the wind. The designers chose to enhance tracking ability and compromised a bit on maneuverability–the Willow resists turning even with aggressive edging. Dolphins will find this a delight, while seals may be frustrated. The Willow and the Eliza make a great pair: if you’re a small paddler who fancies yourself a dolphin, pick the Willow. If you fancy yourself a seal, pick the Eliza!