TopKayaker.Net: Guide To Kayak Sailing

Oahu's Kayak Sailing Race photo provided by Kevin ChingIn Search of the Perfect
Sailing Sit-On-Top Kayak
By Robert O. Hess


Part I Part II Part III Part IV

Make the wind your friend - Have you ever arrived at the beach or lakeshore longing for nothing more than a tranquil paddle across glassy water, only to discover that the wind was whipping the water into whitecaps?

Have you ever stared at the hazy outlines of an island or shoreline beckoning on the horizon, only to realize that there was no way you could ever paddle that far?

Have you ever felt a tinge of envy when you saw a sailboat effortlessly gliding upwind while you were paddling against the swells barely making any headway?

Chances are, you have. But have you ever considered, or even heard of, installing a sail on your kayak to harness the power of the wind, to make the wind your friend? Chances are, you have not. Until just a few months ago, neither had I.

Like most paddlers, I was perfectly content paddling my Ocean Kayak Scupper Pro as far as my arms would let me (which wasn't very far at all, really). When the wind picked up to more than a light breeze, I would often stand on the beach debating whether I really wanted to battle a 15 mph head wind for the next few hours. Worse yet, I would often gaze at the jagged outlines of Catalina Island some 20 miles offshore knowing that the chances of reaching the island under my own power were slim at best. This was a bitter pill to swallow for me. Catalina was, and still is, a beautiful, sparsely populated island surrounded by crystal clear water teeming with sea life (I'm an avid freediver). Besides, Catalina Island was simply an obvious paddling - and sailing - destination. It lay right across from my favorite launching spot, Royal Palms State Beach on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. The island was calling me, but I didn't know how to answer the call.

All that changed a few months ago, when I came across the idea of kayak sailing somewhere on the Internet. As a former windsurfer, it didn't take me long to realize the potential of a sit-on-top kayak (SOT) equipped with a sail: with the wind as my friend - and the right sailing kayak - I should be able to cover much greater distances than with just a paddle -- maybe even the Catalina Channel. Photo R - By Kevin Ching while kayak kite sailing between two windsurfers.

Catalina IslandBut what was the right SOT sailing kayak? And just how much more distance would I be able to cover? Would I have at least a decent chance of making it to Catalina Island? These questions sent me back to the Internet for more in-depth research. For several months, I googled my way through the world of kayak sailing, read numerous threads and posted countless queries on different kayak sailing forums (see links below), and called or e-mailed various manufacturers of kayak sailing equipment. After what seemed like an eternity, I finally felt comfortable that I had canvassed all of the possibilities and settled on a kayak and sail rig that fit my needs and goals. It's far from being the perfect sailing SOT, but it's the best I can do for now.
Photo: Catalina from kayak by Calamari Chris: Read:
Santa Catalina Island Crossing

Looking back at what was at times an arduous and, yes, frustrating process, I realized that I had picked up an incredible amount of information not only on particular kayak sailing products and options, but on kayak sailing in general. It is this information that I would like to share with you in this article and two upcoming articles that are still in the works. My hope is that for those interested in learning more about kayak sailing, these articles may provide answers that would otherwise be difficult to come by. While much of the information I present is available on the Internet, it has not been previously synthesized or summarized by anyone to my knowledge.

This first article looks at what could be described as the conceptual and historical foundations of kayak sailing. Section I introduces what is, in my eyes, the basic problem with the idea of a sail-powered kayak. Section II then goes on to provide some historical background on kayak sailing. These conceptual and historical foundations will serve as a framework for my upcoming articles. The second article will lay out and discuss various boat and sail rig options available to SOT kayakers today, and the third will outline what would, in my view, be the perfect SOT sailing kayak of the future. In each article, especially articles 2 and 3, I will also share some of my own hands-on experiences with kayak sailing, as well as some general thoughts and observations about kayak sailing.

I. The purist dogma

Phil Dang - See Outfitting A Drifter For SailingYou may wonder why, if kayak sailing is such a great idea, most people have not heard of kayak sailing, and if so, probably have not seen anyone using a kayak sail. The basic answer is that most kayakers are not sailors, and most sailors are not kayakers. Purist kayakers will say that a kayak is not meant to be sailed and that if they wanted to sail, they would get a sailboat. Purist sailors, in turn, are apt to point out that a sailboat is not meant to be paddled and that if they wanted to paddle, they would get a kayak or canoe. Left - Phil Dang's Drifter W/ homemade sail rig.

To a certain extent, purists have a point. Kayaks, especially those with a narrow beam, would appear to lack the inherent stability needed to counter the heeling moment of a sail. Nor does a confining kayak cockpit (including a SOT cockpit) allow kayakers to shift their weight effectively to windward to counterbalance the heeling force of the sail. A kayak also lacks a keel, centerboard or daggerboard needed for tracking efficiently across the wind, not to mention upwind. Finally, a kayak offers only very limited space both above and below deck, raising questions about the viability of installing a mast and other sailing hardware, and about the ability to set, strike and stow the sail quickly and safely while at sea.

Conversely, a sailboat is too heavy and wide in the beam for efficient paddling and single-handed beach launching, especially in challenging conditions. Unlike kayaks, most sailboats, even the smallest ones, need to be transported on a trailer and, especially for a solo sailor, are most conveniently launched from a boat ramp - I don't know about you, but I hate the idea of launching from a crowded boat ramp - it also severely limits the number of available put-ins. In other words, kayaking appears to be completely antithetical to sailing.

But appearances can be deceiving. What appears mutually exclusive to some is mutually enhancing to others. And what is pure to some, is dogmatic to others. The real problem with the concept of a sailing kayak, as I see it, is not so much the limitations of the available hardware, but the limitations of our own "software."

Photo by Kevin ChingThe evolution of another watersport, windsurfing, is instructive in this regard. When the idea of combining surfing and sailing first surfaced, purist sailors and purist surfers were understandably skeptical. After all, a windsurfer lacked some of the features that made a sailboat a "good" sailboat (most notably a rudder), while it included other features that made it a "bad" surfboard ("like, uh, a freakin' 15-foot mast, dude"). But soon, it became clear that the combination of surfboard and sail wasn't so crazy after all. Photo R - By Kevin Ching while kayak kite sailing between two windsurfers.

For one thing, windsurfing became extremely popular, not only here in Southern California, where the sport was invented, but around the world. The simple reason: windsurfing works, and it's a lot of fun. But more importantly, windsurfing boards turned out to offer much better performance than anyone had ever imagined. Windsurfers were the first to brave the monster waves at "Jaws," the largest surfbreak on Maui, and the windsurfing speed record now stands at 48.70 knots! Windsurfers have even crossed the Atlantic Ocean. So much for the purist dogma that only a "real" surfboard is good for surfing, or that only a "real" sailboat" is good for sailing.

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The lesson learned: If we are ever to find the "perfect sailing kayak" or anything close to it, we will have to let go of our purist notions about what qualifies as a "proper boat." The key to success lies in the ability to compromise, to strike a perfect balance between kayak and sailboat. This will take time. The idea of kayak sailing, though it's been kicked around for quite awhile, is relatively new. Manufacturers are just now beginning to catch on, and several promising designs have barely reached the market. Like windsurfing, kayak sailing will continue to evolve, and with every new generation of products, performance will undoubtedly improve. In the meantime, we have a choice: we can cling to the old purist dogma, or we can be at the forefront of what promises to be an exciting, new development in the sport of kayaking.

If you have any doubts about which camp you fall in, maybe a closer look at the history of kayak sailing will help you make up your mind. As for myself, I have found the history of kayak sailing to be not only eye-opening, but also fascinating and inspiring in its own right. My hope is that you too will enjoy and hopefully take some valuable lessons away from the next section.

II. Two beginnings

Kayak sailing has not one, but two beginnings. And they couldn't be more different. One took place before the ancient Greeks had invented the concept of time, while the other occurred more than three hundred years after people first started wearing watches. One arose from the necessity of many, while the other catered to the pleasure of a few. One can be traced back to the wind-swept expanses of the Pacific Ocean, while the other grew from the calm waters of the Thames River.

This dichotomy is important to bear in mind because many of today's sailing kayaks and rigs, or at least some of their design aspects, have evolved, and continue to evolve, from one or the other lineage. That does not mean that each modern sailing kayak or design feature is directly based on one or the other historical design. Far from it. Chances are that manufacturers of kayak sailing equipment, by and large, have only a very rudimentary knowledge of - and interest in - the history of kayak sailing. To complicate matters further, the majority of today's sailing kayaks are, in effect, hybrids that incorporate (or omit) design features from both lineages. Despite these market realities, or maybe because of them, understanding why, from a historical perspective, a particular sailing kayak has - or lacks - certain features should help you make a more informed, rational decision about what is the "perfect" sailing SOT for you. It has helped me.

Polynesian outrigger canoes

Hawaiian Voyaging Canoe The islanders of ancient Polynesia are believed to have paddled and sailed seaworthy outrigger canoes, including catamarans (two-hulls linked by outriggers) and even trimarans (one hull with two outriggers), as early as 4000 thousand years ago. Although we will never know for sure, it seems likely that their canoes were originally propelled by paddle power alone, and that sails were added only later. Right: Hawaiian Voyaging Canoe Scale Model by Artist Francis Pimmel

Like myself, they probably stood at the water's edge at times, wondering how they could reach other, distant islands in their archipelago just barely visible on the horizon - only to realize that paddling alone would likely result in failure - and untimely death. But unlike myself, they figured out on their own at some point in history that the solution to their predicament was turning the wind from foe into friend.

Propelled by simple, yet efficient crab claw sails (also known as oceanic lateen or oceanic sprit sails), they ultimately managed to cross thousands of miles of open ocean, most notably when they migrated from the Society islands (Tahiti) to the Hawaiian Islands. They did so ages before the idea of sailing, not to mention kayaking sailing, ever took hold in the rest of the world.

The historical significance of ancient Polynesian outrigger designs reaches far beyond the origins of early sailing paddlecraft. The most remarkable thing about the design of Polynesian outrigger canoes is that it has withstood the test of time. The idea of using outriggers of one kind or another has been copied by a number of manufacturers commercially offering sailing kayaks today.

The reason for doing so has little or nothing to do with paying homage to the ancient Polynesians. Rather, modern-day sailors - and, more recently, kayakers - rediscovered what the Polynesians have known for millennia: outriggers - consisting of long crossbeams, known as akas, attached to a buoyant, streamlined floats, known as amas, offer unmatched stability and performance.

Capable of being installed on virtually any narrow-beamed paddlecraft, they provide superb stability, with little loss in speed. Being light-weight and detachable, outriggers also offer great versatility. In just minutes, a tippy kayak can be transformed into a stable, fast sailing proa* (one outrigger) or trimaran (two outriggers), and vice versa. Last but not least, outriggers are relatively inexpensive and easy to build. Some of the best kayak outriggers available on the market today are basically aluminum poles with inflatable nylon bags attached to the end. No doubt, outriggers are a gift from the past to the modern-day kayak sailor.

Polynesian Crab Claw SailMuch the same is true for Polynesian sail plans. It has been shown that despite its ancient origin and strange appearance, the triangular crab claw sail offers far superior reaching and running performance compared to the modern high-aspect ratio sails used by most sailors today. This would appear to be at least part of the reason for the recent renaissance of the crab claw design. As we will see in article 2, the inverted triangular design has been adopted by several successful kayak sail makers in the last few years.

While upwind performance is inferior to that of other, more sophisticated rigs, such as Bermuda or batwing rigs, today's triangular kayak sails are easier to rig and derig, offer hands-free performance, and due to a lower center of effort (more power = shorter mast) combined with flexible rigging produce less heeling moment. The overall result is superior reaching and running performance, ease of installation and use, and unmatched safety. Interestingly, sailing kayaks equipped with today's triangular sails typically do not even require outriggers for stability. Instead, outriggers are today found mostly on high-performance sailing kayak's using modern high-aspect ratio sails.

Despite their speed and seaworthiness, Polynesian outrigger sailing canoes are hard to find nowadays. The only commercially available outrigger sailing canoes with traditional crab claw sails I was able to dig up (i.e., there may be others) were 1) the Hawaiian-made Holopuni OC3 sailing canoe, a 30-foot outrigger canoe and manned by a crew of three and intended for open ocean paddling, sailing and surfing, and 2) various Polynesian and Micronesian proas designed by New Zealander Gary Dierking, available in completed form only in New Zealand, and elsewhere as plans. Though these boats have little in common with a kayak, they sure are a beautiful sight to behold. If you take a look at Dierking's website (see Links below), you'll see what I mean.

Raptor 16 Expedition Outrigger Sailing CanoeTwo examples of Polynesian-inspired - but non-traditional - outrigger sailing canoes include the Hydrovisions Raptor 16 Competition and Expedition models (both proas), and the Adventure Trimaran (available as a single or a double). There is also the brand-new Tridarka Raider, another trimaran available as a plan only.

All three types of outrigger sailing canoe employ modern sail plans and are extremely fast and stable. They enjoy a loyal following among long-distance racers, e.g., The Watertribe.

As I mentioned above, certain design aspects of outrigger sailing canoes have also been incorporated into modern sailing kayaks. As early as the 1970s, EasyRider Kayaks started equipping standard sit-inside-kayaks (SINKS) with various types of outriggers and simple spinnaker-style sails. Lately, this idea has gained momentum and crossed over to the SOT market, with Hobie releasing a whole line of SOT models that can be outfitted with various types of outriggers and high-aspect ratio sails. The ancient crab claw sail has been reincarnated in several adapted forms, most notably Pacific Action's bungee-stayed inverted triangle sail, and Spirit's completely unstayed inverted triangle sail. These interesting developments will be discussed in detail in my next article. *The term "proa" strictly speaking refers to Micronesian, not Polynesian outrigger sailing craft, but the basic idea is the same.

British sailing canoes

Another, very different school of thought eschews the idea of using outriggers for a sailing kayak. While those favoring outriggers, probably the majority of kayak sailors, are motivated foremost by stability and speed, others favor simplicity, comfort and convenience. They prefer a monohull kayak (or canoe) matched to a relatively small, manageable sail. Their ideal (and remains only an ideal at this point) is to create a boat that strikes a perfect balance between paddling performance and sailing performance. Hence boats of this type are sometimes called 50-50 sailing canoes.

The idea of a 50-50 sailing canoe presents a tough challenge to the designer: Hugh Horton, one of the foremost authorities on 50-50 sailing canoes in the U.S. today, describes the problem as follows:

Horton's Sailing Canoe"All boats are compromises. Through experience and research, I have tried to define the design constraints of the sailing canoe. Balancing the requirements of its dual propulsion of sailing and paddling forces particular compromises. You have to balance such things as strength and ruggedness enough to drag loaded over a rocky beach with light weight for efficiency and easy car topping. Although the design requirements seem simple, they must be respected: not too long, not too short; not too wide, not too thin; not heavy, but not weak." Quote from Websystem.com

As I suggested above, the 50-50 sailing canoe has a history very different from that of the outrigger sailing canoe. To begin with, the 50-50 sailing canoe is of relatively recent origin. The idea is widely traced back to John MacGregor, a 19th-century Englishman, whose exploits in his self-designed sailing canoe are described in his book "1000 miles in the Rob Roy Canoe." MacGregor was inspired not by the relatively heavy and long wooden outrigger canoes of Polynesia (I wonder whether he was even aware of them), but rather by the light-weight, skin-on-frame kayaks of the Canadian Inuits. Inuit skin-on-frame kayaks were extremely seaworthy, light, and maneuverable, and could be paddled fast over long distances by a single person. Yet, MacGregor realized that even the best kayak could only be paddled so far and so fast. In what turned out to be a moment of brilliant insight, he came up with the idea of designing and building a closed-deck wooden canoe and outfitting it with a mast and small sail, enabling him to paddle as well as sail.

MacGregor's Rob Roy Sailing CanoeHis first creation, the Rob Roy, was a compact and relatively light, closed-deck boat (length 15 feet, beam: 28 inches: weight 90 pounds, including sail rig, rudder and double-bladed 7-foot paddle, extremely light by the standards of that era), equipped with a small lug sail that could be raised and lowered in an instant, plus a jib sail for added speed and upwind performance. By choosing a closed deck and a double-bladed paddle, MacGregor blurred the line between canoe and kayak. From a functional perspective, the Rob Roy was as much kayak as canoe.

MacGregor's Rob Roy could not only be paddled and sailed, but also launched, beached and portaged by a single person. MacGregor was able to take the boat down the tightest canals, across the shallowest of sand bars, and portage the boat over land single-handedly. Despite the Rob Roy's small dimensions, it offered stowage for all the equipment MacGregor needed for his 3-month expedition. In other words, the Rob Roy offered unheard of all-around performance for the solo explorer, and all that at reasonable cost.

In 1865, MacGregor sailed his original Rob Roy down the Thames River, crossed the English Channel by ferry , and proceeded to explore the rivers and lakes of Continental Europe. The account of his travels, "1000 miles in the Rob Roy Canoe," sparked the imagination of thousands, and MacGregor is widely credited with single-handedly transforming small boating, in particular sailing, from a mostly commercial endeavor into a recreational past time.

Today, 50-50 sailing canoes in the tradition of the Rob Roy are still around, though it appears they are receiving even less recognition than their ancient cousins from Polynesia. At least here in the U.S., true 50-50 sailing canoes are extremely hard to find, and in many, if not most, cases are home-built from kits or from scratch by die-hard Rob Roy enthusiasts.

Chesapeak Light Craft - Mill Creek Sailing CanoeExamples of classic 50-50 sailing canoes are the Mill Creek sailing canoe from Chesapeake Light Craft, available as a kit in a 13-foot, 15-foot or 16.5 foot version, and Selway-Fisher's 15-foot 50-50 sailing canoe, likewise available only as a kit. In terms of fully-built boats, there is Kevin Martin's Princess (14'3") and Rob Roy (12' or 13') sailing canoes, both custom-made and all-hardwood.

Perhaps the most intriguing 50-50 option is the upcoming "Bufflehead" sailing canoe designed by Hugh and his two partners, Meade Gougeon and Howard Rice. According to Horton (who prefers to think of the new boat as a 100-100 sailing canoe or something close to it), the plan is to release the "Bufflehead" as a plan, kit, and perhaps even fully-built boat in the near future. Constructed of composite materials or simple marine plywood and glass fiber, and equipped with one of several new, refined sail rigs, the Bufflehead promises to be the most "highly evolved" and seaworthy sailing canoe yet.

The benefits of 50-50 sailing canoes should not be underestimated. If Polynesian outrigger canoes impress with speed and stability, 50-50 sailing canoes shine with "all-roundedness": while they excel at nothing in particular, they do everything rather well. The clever design of the 50-50 sailing canoe makes it suitable for all sorts of environments and conditions, including the open ocean. With its relatively wide beam, full ends with a high sheer, the 50-50 sailing canoe is a stable, relatively safe platform offering good sailing manners and plenty of stowage. At the same time, a length of only around 15 ft. and sleek lines ensure easy paddling at cruising speed. The large cockpit opening allows for easy entry and exit, and the paddler can move about the boat with little restriction, lean to windward when sailing, and even lie down and sleep on the bottom. Thanks to its light weight and short length, the 50-50 sailing canoe can also be easily car-topped, launched, beached, and stored in the garage or backyard by a single person.

Unlike outrigger sailing canoes, 50-50 sailing canoes seem to have had little or no influence on SOT (or SINK) sailing kayak design so far, from what I can tell. This is unfortunate because there are some valuable lessons to be learned from the Rob Roy's progeny. The basic lesson is very simple - balance. A good sailing kayak without outriggers involves more than just mounting some sort of sail on a touring SOT (or SINK). Yet, this is pretty much what SOT (and SINK) manufacturers have done so far. To achieve a balance of paddling and sailing performance, designers will have to go back to the drawing boards and try to incorporate some of the unique design aspects of the 50-50 sailing canoe. Examples include a more sailing-oriented hull, more convenient deck layout, and more comfortable and versatile seat. I will return to these and other interesting issues for a more in-depth discussion in my third and last article.

For now, I hope that I have given you a basic idea of what is involved in the idea of kayak sailing, and how that idea originated and evolved (or failed to evolve) over time. In my next article, I'll introduce various SOT kayak sailing options available on the market today. To spare you the surprise, I should tell you right now that the options are rather limited. The sport of kayak sailing is definitely still in its infancy, with a long way to go before it reaches the level of sophistication of, say, windsurfing. My last article will try to outline some of the hurdles that will have to be taken by the perfect sailing SOT.

Robert is a regular contributor to Topkayaker.net's Forum. He also welcome's
your questions or comments: Robert O. Hess.

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Related articles at TopKayaker.net:

1. Outrigger Canoe Resources

2. Sailing Canoe Resources

3. General Information Sailing Canoes

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