custom multisport racing kayak
I should start by saying that I hate racing kayaks. Fragile,
expensive, tippy, and enough wetted surface to insure that each stroke
feels like it's planted in molasses. For many years I have
synonymized racing with toil and drudgery, the truth behind those long
sexy kayaks. It seems like every year the idea resurfaces,
only to be quashed by recollections of how much I hated my last
surfski. This year I was again bitten by the intrigue, and
serendipitously I recieved a phone call from Ty, a 250lb triathlete who
wanted a skin-on-frame racer. We struck a deal, I would design
him a boat, we would build it together, and he would only pay me if he
In some ways this project was easy because it had a definate goal, I'd
been thinking about it for so long that I was surprised when I realized
just how much I understood about what it needed to look like. To
keep wetted surface to a minimum a racing kayak needs to have the
shortest possible waterline that will still allow the target race
speeds and a little bit more under the hood to snatch a wave or kick in
the afterburners at the final stretch. For multisport this
means an 18ft boat with a target cruising speed of 6-6.5 mph. The
waterline needed to be 18ft. The width needed to be just
enough to stabilize the paddler so he could pour on the power, for Ty
this minimum was 21 inches. The feet need a full plate to push
against and the knees need unrestricted height. Shape is
simple, a long clean knifing entry, a half round mid-section, and a
wide flat shallow parabolic stern. This shape doesn't penalize
rocker like a sea kayak with hips does, so generous rockers of 3-4
inches are becoming the norm. Paddler should sit forward with the
bow sunk 1-2 inches and the stern just kissing the water.
There is no mystery here. Every race kayak designer will tell you
the same things.
My challenge was to make it come together in skin-on-frame.
I built my prototypes without any considerations for traditional ways
of doing things, I employed glue, and screws, and custom hardware,
making the kayak as light as I safely could while keeping it
strong. For a solid week I built, and cut apart, and
rebuilt the prototype until I was happy with the shape, then I saran
wrap tested it, and much to my delight, it was frickin' fast, AND easy
to push, two concepts I had heretofore considered mutually
exclusive. I went home cut off the wrap, and put it in the dead
frame pile with all the other prototypes. The next day I
flew to North Carolina to start the class Ty was signed up for.
Joints are carefully mitered and deck beams are set with stainless
screws, this is the final and only connection.
Setting up the keel, in such a long flexible boat the rocker needs to
be carefully managed.
We simply bent the ribs hot from the steamer and into the kayak, then
trimmed and jammed them into the mortises. Everyone in the room
had to give up their spring clamps.
We experimented with replacing some of the screws with dowels.
Setting the stringers and checking the shape.
We sweated on getting a cool looking bow shape, I must have asked
everyone in the room if it looked cool ten times before I made the cut.
After putting Ty in the boat we tore a good portion of it apart,
tweaking deck beam heights and locations, and re-fitting. A race
kayak MUST fit properly.
I bought all sorts of hardware for this build and with Ty in the kayak
we rejected the commercial rudder controls for their appalling weight
and inferior positioning. We built this custom full size 9mm
mahogany marine ply bulkhead with huki surfski pedals and felt quite
smug. And the ten minutes later I said, "this looks like
shit." and we tore it apart and rebuilt it out of all wood.
Before I could rebuild it I had to find it though, Dan had adopted it
as a fashion statement.
Only one shot to get the rudder bracket on straight.
Finishing touches, a small block makes me feel a lot safer about Ty
sitting on the back deck. You can see the rudder cable
housing tucked neatly into the gunwale.
Wooden ferrules connect the Huki rudder cables to the pedals with a
simple ball and slot system.
The finished foot board allows Ty to anchor his feet securely, any way
that is comfortable without working the pedals if he needs to push from
the balls of his feet. A bungee strung across the back
snaps the pedals back to neutral.
The bulkhead pops out easily. I'm having fantasies of using this
space for some ultralight fast touring.
I was a little nervous about buying a $300 carbon fiber Onno rudder
kit, until I opened the box. The rudder is a work of art, simple,
rugged, super light, exquisitely finished and designed. Due
to both Ty and my experiences with under the hull rudders we decided on
a non-retractable kick up rudder, and if it fails the kayak is
completely uncontrollable, with those kind of consequences I will put
an Onno on each and every kayak I build.
Ty contemplates the ice cold water.
Ultimately there is nothing left to do besides climb in. Ty looks
a bit tender, but I made the kayak as wide as I could while keeping him
I hand him the GPS and he very delicately puts one blade in front of
the other, without ever bringing it up to speed he paddles it back to
me and says, "easy 5.5". Next I climb in, which is an absolute
comedy, with me swimming in the cockpit unable to get any sort of
connection, I have to slide TEN INCHES forward to reach the foot
pedals. I arm paddle it to 6 and then bring it back to shore with
a big smile on my face.
Ty shoulders the 29lb kayak in classic surfski form.
And lets not forget it has to look cool on the car.....
What's next? First I'll say I have huge hopes for this as a
crossover racer and a fitness oriented fast tourer. I don't
expect to sell them to racers or anything like that, but I can see a
lot of people wanting to build one. The concept seems really
solid and so much success this early is a very good sign.
What I need to do is get home and build one to fit me, which should be
positively dreamy thinned down and lightened up. Then, the usual
testing, that is, beat the crap out of it on the open pacific, and then
hand it off to one of our local seasoned crankers for some independant
More to come...
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