C&K tests five ‘rough-water’ sea kayaks at British Columbia’s famed tidal rapids
By Dave Shively
The ever-changing tidal rapid at Skookumchuck Narrows changes your perspective on surfing saltwater. It’s not just the Steller sea lions diving through the stationary, river-like wave created by tide flood and bedrock constriction, it’s the shifting tide in sea kayak design that has brought a new crowd to this hallowed wave-riding Mecca.
The usual whitewater playboat pilgrims will simply label them “long boats.” But in the 15- to 16-foot range, any full- grown, adult ocean paddler would never categorize the following selection of five kayaks as long.
Perhaps “ocean play” or “rough water” are better monikers for a class of boats shorter in length, with decreased volume and increased rocker typical of British-style sea boats.
These kayaks prioritize handling and maneuverability in three-dimensional water rather than stability and speed on the flats. They’re also proof that manufacturers are injecting new energy into their fleets, with designs for intermediate to advanced boaters that look beyond the journey of the tour and focus instead on the destination: that crazy surf zone, wicked tide race or snarling rock garden.
We chose Skook. And after the long haul over the border, plus a ferry ride and a wet, winding drive to the end of Egmont Road, we put in and paddle the two miles to our rough-water testing feature: the fabled Skookumchuck.
As the tide floods, the wave comes alive, its amplitude rising to the perfect surfing level as a train of rollers and whitewash forms behind it. The paddling experience transforms as well, from a peaceful sea tour to park-and-play. All five skegs are retracted, and our gasketed tops, helmets, taught neoprene sprayskirts and improvised hip pads reek of a river outing.
The skills of our four testers were honed in rough waters, from whitewater creeks to coastal surf. Brandon Gonski and I have years of sea-kayak guiding between us, but like Scott Waidelich, who grew up paddling the swollen creeks of the Northwest, none of us had played in sea surf like this before. We enlisted Vancouver’s James Mole—a boat design guru and tide race regular—to add a Skook veteran’s appraisal of each boat’s performance on this very particular and powerful piece of water.
— This review first appeared in the March 2009 edition of C&K.