I am a grandmother paddling alone over 2,500 miles from Maine to Guatemala. Along the way I will be:
- telling the story of the children who live in the Guatemala City garbage dump community
- honoring their entrepreneurial mothers
- talking about the success of the Safe Passage model school and
- raising funds for additional grades for the school.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Which Kayak Should I Use? Part 1

I'm planning a long sea kayak trip - from Maine to Guatemala - The Kayak Safe Passage Expedition. One of the biggest decisions is which kayak to use use.

Deb paddling a traditional cayuca in Guatemala

What about a crazy idea of going traditional and using a Guatemalan fishing cayuca?  It was fun to paddle the one I borrowed from some Mayan friends at Lake Atitlan in Guatemala.  I liked the simple wooden construction.  But the paddling rhythm of stroke, stroke, stroke, bail - even on a calm lake - was challenging.

Catalogue Photo of West Side Boat Shop's Thunderbolt
A slightly less crazy idea would be to use a Thunderbolt - 21 feet long and 18 inches wide.   This kayak is a speed demon.  Back in the 90's when I decided to switch from canoe racing to kayak racing, this was the kayak I lusted after.  I went to see Doug Bushnell at West Side Boat Shop to ask him to build one for me.  He took one look at me, and said that first I should lose weight and then start a weight training program.  True, with the Thunderbolt's molded seat hung from the sides of the cockpit, I couldn't fit in the kayak.  But I pointed out I would fit in the boat, just not in the seat.  I suggested a modified seat design Doug could build for me.  After several more trips to his shop, lots of great conversations about his paddling and my casual mentions of placing first in all of my canoe races ... Doug relented and accepted my deposit check.  I was so excited!  Imagine my surprise a few days later when I received a small thin envelope from Doug with nothing in it except my check - ripped into many small pieces.  My husband said I should just give up and buy another kayak, but I was in love with the Thunderbolt.  I called Doug and he said he was just heading out for a workout.  That gave me an idea on how to convince Doug to build me a boat.  It was mid December in Western New York and the lakes and rivers were frozen.  But there was a small, rocky creek with lots of little riffs that wasn't frozen.  Doug said he was putting in at 1 p.m. and paddling upstream to the falls.  So I got out my little solo canoe I use for tripping and put-in at noon.  I didn't do much winter canoeing, but it was fun to work my way against the current as I headed upstream.  I love paddling against a current.  You have to stay focused to avoid being swept broadside, and you have to keep up the power to move forward, or even to stand still.  The air temperature was so cold that the ice built-up on my paddle between strokes, making the paddle less of a lightweight bentshaft racing paddle, and more of a lead weight.  But I reached the falls!  I stopped to knock ice off the paddle.  Around the bend I saw Doug coming upstream.  He was very surprised to see me there, and agreed on the spot (again) to build me a Thunderbolt.   This time it stuck, and I picked up a lovely kayak in the spring, with its newly designed seat that slides along the bottom of the hull.  Many years later I ran into Doug at the Blackburn Challenge, where we were each heading out for the 20+ mile open water race around Cape Ann in Massachusetts.  Doug let me know that that new seat I had helped him design had become the one most frequently requested by his customers.

If I used the Thunderbolt for the Kayak Safe Passage Expedition, I would be very fast!  But with no bulkheads, no hatches and not much storage space, it's not a tripping boat.  And it is rather tippy too.  When you want to take a drink out of your water bottle, you have to first build up speed and then brace with your paddle while you quickly take a few gulps.  The lovely Thunderbolt is out, since I will need a boat that is more stable and luggage friendly.

Deb's Nautiraid: ready to portage a falls in Nunavut
At the other extreme of kayaks are the folding kayaks I take on my Arctic solo and other expeditions where I have to fly.  They are slow, stable and heavy.  I started with an American Folbot double, moved on to a German Klepper single, and then a German Pouch single, before finding my true love in folding kayaks - the French Nautiraid double.  The one I use was designed for the French military and is narrower than most so that it can fit through the hatch of a submarine.  Mine is in the dark colors that are helpful to remain unseen in military maneuvers.  That got me into trouble in the Arctic.  I unwittingly participated in a whale hunt - playing the unfortunate role of the whale!   An Inuit family out hunting had me in their rifle sights, thinking I was an injured whale.  But when I acted oddly (for a whale) they motored over to me.  I asked them why my bright yellow PFD hadn't clued them in that I wasn't a whale.  They smiled and pointed at my chest.  Looking down I saw my dark khaki raincoat was completely covering my PFD, and I joined in their laughter.  In the photo above, I had just paddled upstream and was about to portage my gear and boat around a small waterfall in Nunavut.  I was looking for the muskox herd that an Inuit friend told me had just been spotted in the area.   

Taking the Nautiraid apart on the shores of Hudson Bay
The Nautiraid is 17.7 feet long and almost 3 feet wide.  The Nautiraid's wooden frame is put together in two halves, which then slide into the hypalon skin.  In this photo I was packing it up at my campsite on the tundra on the outskirts of Igluligaarjuk on Hudson Bay, getting ready to fly back home at the end of a six week solo trip.  While the Nautiraid is great in the Arctic, I'd like something faster for the Maine to Guatemala expedition.  It's such a long distance, that having a faster kayak could save me several months of paddling.  Another problem is the width of the Nautiraid - too wide to do a vertical racing stroke - unless you have a Hulk like shoulder span.  The 80 pound weight is also a problem.  For the Expedition I'll need something lighter, and brighter!

Catalogue photo of Willow Excalibur
At the lightweight extreme in my 18 foot Excalibur Baidarka that weighs just 29 pounds.  It's a skin on frame boat built along traditional lines.  It's the boat I take on road trips, as it's so easy to throw up on top of my pick-up or to hand carry into to a wild lake or at a hidden spot along the coast.  In a baidarka you paddle low in the water, and cut through waves, rather than riding over them.  It's a wet and wonderful ride where you feel a part of the sea, not just a sojourner floating on top.  But like the Thunderbolt, no bulkhead or hatches, and minimal space for camping gear.

Deb portaging her Epic Endurance 18 - Atlantic coast of Nova Scotia
My carbon fiber Epic Endurance 18 is also lightweight, as you can see from this shot of me portaging it on a trip along the Atlantic coast of Nova Scotia.  Not as fast as the Thunderbolt, but this boat is no slouch.  Again the seat was too narrow for me, so I sawed it out and made a new seat from an inflatable pad and a foam bumper.   I used the Endurance 18 on the Watertribe Everglades Challenge, a 300 plus mile adventure race from Tampa, along the Gulf Coast, through the Everglades, and across Florida Bay to the Keys.  (I came in first in my class in that race, and also last in my class... but I did cut a day and a half off the record time for the class.) The Epic is a comfy (but a little tippy) boat to paddle, surfs like a dream and has the most bombproof hatches I have ever used.  I love the Epic's SmartTrack rudder system, because I can use a racing stroke where I drive my legs onto the rudder pedals as I rotate my torso.  Those larger muscles in my thighs and torso do most of the work, lightening the load on the smaller muscles in my arms.  The Epic has been my go-to tripping boat for years, doing many camping trips along the rocky coasts of Maine and Nova Scotia.  But my my friends all had "plastic" boats.  They would just paddle ashore and jump out of their kayaks.  I would pull up close to the shore, get out of the boat in the water, grab my two lengths of pool noodles, lift up the bow, place it ashore on one noodle, and then lift up the stern and carefully swing it around to rest on the other noodle. A carbon fiber boat doesn't seem like the best thing to use when I know I will encounter rocks and oyster bars.  

Deb in her Wilderness Systems Tempest 165 - great as an ice breaker in Maine in December
What about a rotomolded "plastic" boat?  That would be much more rugged than carbon fiber.  It was only a few years ago that I finally acquired a plastic kayak.  It's a Tempest 165, which you'll notice makes a good ice breaker for those of us who like to paddle in Maine in December.  It wasn't the plastic that sold me on the Tempest, but the way it handles rough water: solid and maneuverable.  The hatches do leak a little.  It's also my first boat with a skeg, which has been fun to learn.  I'd like to add a small sail to my kayak for the Expedition, so a boat with a large rudder would be better than one with a skeg.

What will be the perfect kayak for the Kayak Safe Passage Expedition?  As all kayakers know, there is no perfect kayak.  It's always a tradeoff, which is why I own so many different kayaks.  What I'd like is a relatively fast, relatively narrow, relatively lightweight kayak with lots of volume for camping gear, watertight hatches, a large rudder, a bright color, in a material that can stand some abuse.  Is that asking too much?

I spent many hours pouring over the kayak reviews in Sea Kayaker magazine.  I compared the speed versus resistance stats to find a relatively fast kayak.  Interestingly, the kayaks that are really fast for racing are actually less efficient at lower touring speeds.   Looking at the righting/heeling moments told the story of initial and secondary stability.  I compared volumes to find out how my camping gear would fit into the various kayaks.  Finally, I narrowed it down to two kayaks.  In the next blog I'll talk about those two kayaks and the surprising story about how I found the perfect kayak!

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