Thursday, September 1, 2011

Kevlar Valley Avocet Review

What an absolutely fabulous play-boat for day paddles! Not too shabby on a multi-day trip either--both in terms of load carrying capacity and cruising speed.  I am 6', about 180lbs, 32" waist, 33" inseam and have gone on a 4-night camping trip in this boat comfortably.  For longer trips, a Nordkapp HS and the Avocet complements Nordy extremely well.

When I first paddled the Avocet I was surprised at the small speed difference between it and Nordkap HS. There is a distinct difference though and I could feel how effortless the glide in the Nordkapp was at a pace where Avocet hit the wall.  It's just not as noticeable as I expected it to be given the 2' difference in boat length.

I was very pleased with the stability profile of the Avocet which I found to be more similar to my Nordkapp than to a boat in Avocet's class--NDK Romany.  The Romany has a distinctly stronger primary which beginners would relish. I found that Romany fought my attempts to put the boat on edge. When it comes to secondary, the Avocet is way more stable on the edge than the Nordkapp HS but comparable to Nordkapp H2O. However amply rockered the Nordkapp may be, 2' difference in boat length makes a huge impact in maneuverability and in tracking as well.  The Avocet quite literally turns on a dime!  Bow rudder turns with the blade at your knees is a thing of magic.  Neither of these two boats can be paddled comfortably without a skeg in wind and waves--not unless you desire an extreme practice in edging and sweeping on one side, that is.

I absolutely loved the boat in surf! In the Nordkapp, I slide off the face of the wave broach and the straight part of the ride is over. In the Avocet I can steer and keep the boat going straight! Makes for much longer and controlled rides. At 16' it's not a surfing boat by any stretch of imagination but at least I have a shot at some control in it.  And did I say it is much more fun in the surf? :)  I had a chance to paddle the Avocet next to Romany in 10' breaking surf.  This is not a conclusive evaluation but Romany felt even easier to maneuver and spin on the wave crest.  It may have been that the conditions were somewhat different.  On the other hand, Romany does have a flatter and more square hull under the cockpit so it may be that it planes noticeably better than the Avocet and rises higher out of the water during runs enabling the skipper to do more.

The cockpit of the Avocet fits me very well. I miss the tight fit of the ocean cockpit of the Nordkapp but not the getting in and out of it part :) Thigh braces are not as fool-proof method for being one with your boat but I have not gotten to installing any extra padding--have not found the need for it really.  In the Nordkapp I did that promptly after a 4-5' breaking wave sucked me right out of the OCEAN cockpit! I added about an inch on the sides in the upper thigh area for better contact with the boat. In the case of the Avocet, I am at the very top of the fit bell curve and the fit is tight enough (surprisingly, adding some 70lbs of load on top of my own weight, did not seem to overwhelm the boat's carrying capacity).  Can't complain about the back band--it's small and could be much improved but for my paddling style it more than meets the need.  I have a fancy white-water Immersion Research back-band sitting in my garage but have not felt the need to replace the simple back support of the Avocet yet.  My back feels quite happy.

The boat is extremely easy to roll compared to Nordkapp HS.  Given that the Nordy is quite easy to roll in it's own right, this is quite a compliment.  The boat is light, lifts itself out of the water due to the upswept bow and stern, the cockpit is low in the back and wide on the sides so that it does not interfere with the hip snap.

The boat is Pro Kevlar but weighs about as much as my light layup fiberglass Nordkapp. I don't quite understand how this is possible given that it is smaller boat.  A clue may be in the 1/2-inch thick layer of gel coat on the foredecks. I can see the thickness where the foot pump outlet exits on the top deck. It's thick! Could probably take a full tsunami!  It's also cracked because the front deck oil-cans under my weight.  The foot pump adds a couple pounds to the total weight of the boat too.

In summary, a perfect day boat and play boat sea kayak. Distinctly slower but much more maneuverable than Nordkapp HS. Fast enough for casual paddling. Big enough for a week of camping out of the boat.  No shortcomings that I can find.  I give it a 9/10 because no kayak should get a 10. They are all compromises of one kind or another.

Let me know if you have specific questions.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Vintage Valley Nordkapp HS review

There is a lot of confusing information in reviews of this boat on! Nordkapp is one legendary name.  That one name covers several quite different models of kayak. When reviews below are talking about Jubilee or H2O it is easy to see that they are not describing Nordkapp HS. Jubilee or H2O are quite different from the original HS!

Unfortunately, reader and potential buyer beware, even when a review is about Nordkapp HS, there are several different kayaks with this name in existence. I have no experience with the current "Nordkapp Classic" with 'HS' designation; however, based on some earlier reviews in this section, I strongly suspect that even the "Nordkapp Classic HS" handles quite differently from the original Nordkapp HS.

I have paddled my 1987 Nordkapp HS for the past 4 seasons. The way to recognize this older model and to differentiate it from the new "Classic HS" look for:
- round rather than oval stern hatch,
- absence of a day hatch,
- no recessed cockpit coaming in the back,
- molded gelcoat rather than screw-in plastic recessed deck anchoring points,
- skeg control box behind the cockpit rather than
in front of it, and
- hefty long square composite skeg,

- the older HS also had a hand chimp pump behind the cockpit.

From what I understand, the hull shape of my 1987 Nordkapp HS is the same as the original Nordkapp that was used for Cape Horn expedition.  It has a skeg which the original lacked. I have seen HS applied to the original Nordkapp multiple places so, if you are looking to get one on-line, make sure it has a skeg at all. Look here ( for an excellent coverage of the confusing Nordkapp family tree. Best I can tell, HS stands for 'Hatches + Skeg,' not 'Hull + Standard.'

I hope this will clear some of the confusion about the model. That being said, I had a chance to compare my HS to a 2000 American model with Jubilee on the deck and H2O on the manufacturer sticker. Way to go Valley--keep the nomenclature clear!  From what I understand, the original Jubilee had a round front hatch and '2O' in H2O stands for two oval hatches. The story goes that American distributors applied Jubilee stickers to boats that should have been designated as H2O. In other words, the comparison boat is most likely a purebred H2O or the most current version of the full-sized Nordkapp.

These two Nordkapps are very different boats. It is not easy to see the difference when they are on the ground or in the water. However, once hoisted on top of the car, the differences in hull are quite apparent. The newer boat has longer waterline, less overhang on both the bow and the stern, and considerably more volume toward the ends of the boat. The bow on the new boat does not rise up quite as much as on the old Nordy. Front deck in front of the cockpit is a bit higher and aft deck is lower on the H2O. H2O has less rocker—the difference is especially pronounced at the stern.

What is very hard if not impossible to see, is that the hull shape under the cockpit is also different—H2O is a bit wider and has a more pronounced (albeit still soft) chine, while HS is skinnier and rounder.

Not surprisingly, HS and H2O paddle and quite differently. Stability wise, HS is has substantially lower primary and virtually no secondary. Taking pictures in the HS in anything but flat water is touchy. HS is very easy to put on edge; however, there does not seem to be any point at which the boat starts to resist the capsizing momentum and locks in that edge—it will just keep on going and capsize if you let it.

I agree with previous posters who claim that HS has no surprises in rough water. Surprises come when you expect that the boat will keep you up and it fails. With HS you are always in charge of staying upright—the boat will not do that for you. Some may consider this as a negative; however, consider this—when broached sideways or when current hits from the beam, there is no chine to grab onto and trip you over. Stability profile of the HS is neither good nor bad—it’s just unique.  I would describe it as smooth and gradual tipping profile without any peaks or abrupt changes.  Some people will like it some will not; some conditions will reward it while others will punish.

At nearly 18' Nordkapp is considered a fast boat. Unfortunately, with all the overhang and extremely low volume at the ends the effective waterline of HS is noticeably is shorter than H2O. HS has more rocker which further reduces its cruising speed. Unfortunately, it gets worse for racing fans: in waves, paddling side-by-side HS tends to bury the bow when going down a wave much quicker and more frequently than H2O which translates into further loss of cruising speed. In calm conditions, I can cruise at 4 knots all day in my HS, maintain racing speed of 5 knots for a marathon distance, and push the boat to a maximum speed of about 7 knots for a couple of seconds.

I have not noticed much difference in tracking and turning performance of these two boats. Nordkapps in general are quite bad in beam winds and require skeg. I would not recommend the original Nordy without the skeg for paddling in any wind. Manufacturers quickly noticed the problem and produced HM with a skeg permanently molded into the stern. HM is a beast that requires a lot of edge and effort to be turned and sacrifices all the benefits of Nordkapp’s rocker for maneuverability. HM has a cult following of its own.  I much prefer the original hull design with an optional skeg. You would think that HS would be easier to turn and more vulnerable to windcocking than H2O and it may well be that way. The reason for this difference between HS and H2O being small is, perhaps, in the fact that H2O is more comfortable on the edge and, due to its higher volume around the cockpit, may lift the ends out of the water more effectively when on edge.

Ocean cockpit is a thing of the past, in my opinion. I am 6’, with a 32" waist, and under 180lbs.  I used to have to wiggle quite a bit to get in. I added the recess to the back of the cockpit and lowered it by about an inch (see photo blog: Still, if I wear any boots, I need to wiggle to enter. Keyhole cockpits are much easier to enter and exit and, with modern materials for spray decks, they are just as watertight and reliable as the smaller and much less practical ocean cockpits. Ocean cockpit is a potential hazard when you need to get out of the boat fast--during landings on dumping beaches, for example. Capsizing is the only option for a quick exit. Re-entry repertoire is limited to re-enter-and-roll in all but the calmest conditions when you have a better than 50% chance of a successful scramble with a paddle used as an outrigger (unless you have a paddle float to stabilize yourself during a scramble).

Efficient forward paddling is limited by the inability to bend the knees but in this regard HS is probably little different from the H2O. Some people worry about getting stuck in the small cockpit after capsize. Fear not! Staying in is a much bigger problem :) I've been sucked clean out of the boat by waves as small as 4' and installed substantial additional padding around the hips and thighs to have good contact with the boat.

The original HS cockpit is only 15" wide. For me this means that my edging ability is limited by the side of the cockpit hitting my ribcage on extreme edge. C2C and hand-rolling is similarly hampered by this lack of space around the hips. The back of the cockpit is also too high for layback rolls. Even after I lowered it by 1", I still need to lift my butt of the seat for laybacks but I can now finally perform a hand roll. To be fair, my seat is only about 1" off the bottom.  Adding some to the seat height would provide better clearance for the hips.  As it is, with narrowness limiting your ability to do C2C and high aft coaming interfering with laybacks, forward-finishing roll is your best option in this boat.  Ocean cockpit provides excellent contact for the knees and will help with the hip snap.

My HS did not have a day hatch or a bulkhead behind the seat. It’s very convenient to have one for items you may need to access while on the water. Beyond comfort there’s a safety issue—since there is no bulkhead immediately behind the seat, in case of capsize the boat will take on an additional 5 gallons of water or so! Not helping is the fact that there is at least a foot of empty space between my footpegs (33" inseam) and the front bulkhead — that's at least another good 3 gallons of water and wasted gear storage space.
In place of the third hatch, Valley has installed an optional hand pump. Mine worked just fine even 20 years after the boat was manufactured. Unfortunately, its placement behind the seat made it quite useless in rough water. Balancing while pumping with my right hand behind my back is quite precarious in this tippy boat. It may be possible in the ocean where one has time between the waves; however, short wave periods of the Great Lakes' storms don't make it easy.  The end of the hand pump came when the straps of my PFD got caught under the handle when I was trying a layback roll.  I was stuck to the back deck.  Off with the hand-pump.

Skeg control box on my HS is behind the cockpit. Same issue as with the hand pump—in rough water, where you are more likely to need the skeg in the first place, balancing the boat becomes very interesting; especially if the skeg gets stuck. I have capsized once while trying to adjust the skeg and promptly moved the controls from the back to the front of the cockpit. The old-fashioned skeg is very nice, works well and does not vibrate at high speeds the way the skinny modern plastic skegs do; however, there is a price—the skeg box in the rear hatch is enormous and takes up quite a bit of storage space. Getting to the space behind the skeg box is difficult.

So there you have it, my honest assessment of the Nordkapp HS. It was my first real sea kayak and it was an excellent teacher. Before I knew better, I was an ardent advocate for this craft. My skills went up faster than they would have in a more stable boat, I am sure of that. The old HS is a great tripping boat with sufficient bracing recovery and balancing skills. It has good hull speed and is very maneuverable for a boat of it's length.  It also gains substantial stability when fully loaded. You will need to pack everything in small dry bags to fit through the round 7.5" hatches but I don't really see that a drawback. HS is great training platform for rough water and behaves very predictably in it. It will teach you balance and self-reliance. It will amply reward skills and, when it does not, you will only have yourself to blame. It is considerably less stable than most other boats in this class including its younger Nordkapp brothers (Nordkapp LV may be an exception but I have not paddled that boat recently). HS is also slower and less convenient than the modern models. On the positive side, you can snatch one for under $1,000 on the used market which is hard to find for any other fiberglass kayak model. For that price, it’s a good deal as long as you realize what you are getting and are willing and able to put up with the requirements that this boat imposes. It's a good boat, worthy of it's legendary name; however, it's not the boat I would choose if finances were not an issue.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Will It Float?

Years ago, or maybe just last Friday, there was a segment 'Will It Float?' on David Letterman show. They would toss all kinds of things into a tank of water and guess whether the objects would float. Some said it was not very funny, silly and pointless. Others opined it was fascinating, educational and taught scientific principles of answering questions through empirical research through an accessible comedy medium.

Kayaks, especially the sea kayaks, float--we know that, right? It's the ultimate sea-going vessel that, in capable hands, can challenge seas that threaten big strong supertankers. Just to confirm this, I've flooded the cockpits of multiple kayaks and once I even filled the entire bow chamber separated from the cockpit by a bulkhead. The horizontal machine that is a kayak turned into a vertical bobber fit to catch whales, yet, the kayak stayed afloat. I've filled my bulkheadless folding kayak with water and it floats thanks to structural sponsons.

But is a fiberglass kayak really just an 'unsinkable' Titanic in disguise? I already knew that it is no nimble sea creature with a cockpit even half-full of water but will it stay above if all compartments are filled? In other words, will it float?

Here's the answer.

No tricks, no weights just water in all four chambers. If this happens to you in deep water, the kayak will go to the bottom and you will remain without a ride home.

That being said, it took quite a bit of pushing, spinning, shaking and wiggling to force the air completely out of the kayak. This particular model--Valley Avocet--has upturned nose and tail which, as it turns out, trap just enough air to keep the boat on the surface. I wonder if that's an intentional design feature. I needed to push the bow and then the stern down deep under the water in sequence to get those last air bubbles out. Only then the kayak sank. So that may take care of an accidental loss of hatch covers.

Another likely scenario is hull breach. If a kayak is floating upside-down with air leaking through the bottom of the hull in all chambers, in theory, it will eventually sink. A typical kayaker would have something in dry bags in the hatches. Given how little fiber and resin differ in weight from water it seems to me that even a single dry bag would keep the kayak on the surface even if completely submerged.

None of these assurances should comfort a paddler, however. Yes, sinking the kayak is very unlikely but a water logged beast completely submerged under the waves is entirely useless as means of travelling or surviving on the water. I was just looking for something to do at a pool session other than work on the hand rolls.

So there goes our own little round of "Will It Float?"

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Lake Michigan Crossing, 2010

On September 11-12 I crossed Lake Michigan with three other CASKA paddlers.  Here's our write-up on CASKA blog: