adventure racing kayaks

Adventure Racing Kayaks – All Watercraft Are Not Created Equal

Note:  See above – I counted at least 12 surfskis staged in the elite wave at M22 Challenge 2012

The growth of multi-sport racing events that now include a paddling portion has been exploding over the past couple of years.   In my first year racing the M22 Challenge there were around 150 participants.   By the third year the race was capping out at 600 in a matter of hours.   I have been amazed at how successful these races have been at drawing a wide range of participants from complete beginners to elite athletes.   Replacing the swim leg of a traditional triathlon with a paddle event really seems to help draw a much larger group of people who are too fearful and intimidated to tackle the open water swim of a traditional triathlon.

Adventure racers are quickly starting to realize that there is a very wide range of speeds for different water craft and if you don’t have a fast boat it is nearly impossible to compete with those who do.   It is also very challenging for the race organizers to establish separate classes for the different water craft as this splits up the field and quickly becomes a lot to administer.     As a result, those with the fast boats do have an unfair advantage, but the same could also be argued to some extent for bikes, and in the end it is something most racers just accept.   Additionally having a fast boat alone will not make you fast, there is a lot more technique  and skill to effective paddling in fast boats than most people realize.

My Very Biased Opinion on The Best Boat

The rapid growth of adventure racing is certainly driving a lot of interest in performance kayaks and roughly half my customers this year have approached me with a desire to get a faster boat to be more competitive in adventure racing.   The first question I am typically asked is:  “what is the best boat for adventure racing?”    My completely biased response is always “a surfski of course”.   While admittedly biased, I do truly believe this to be the case and most other experts in adventure racing would agree.   There are other fast kayaks available, specifically the kayaks most commonly seen in the Olympics referred to as K1s.   These are without a doubt very fast boats, but I don’t believe they are optimal for adventure racing.   The challenge with a K1 is that it is an extremely tippy boat that cannot be re-entered in deep water.   Additionally, they are nearly impossible for even the most elite of paddlers to manage in anything approaching 1 foot chop.   As a result, the use of these boats is limited to flat water where you can easily get to the shore in case of a capsize.   Contrast that to a surfski ,which in many cases can match the speed of a K1, is built to handle the roughest conditions you can imagine, and is very easy to get back on in deep water in the event of a capsize.  In summary, the surfski is just a much more versatile boat that in most situations will offer the fastest speeds of any solo powered water craft.   The surfski can also be setup with either a very low profile “weedless” rudder or a kick-up rudder which makes them safe for shallow water races where they only need about 8 inches of water.

Which Surfski?

Once I manage to convince a potential customer that their best choice is a surfskis,  the next inevitable question is, which one?    This summer I have talked to a lot of elite athletes who are new to paddling and interested in getting into a surfski.   Their first sense is always to request the fastest boat available.   This seems logical if you come from the bike or even ski world, but in paddling the fastest boat available is a direct function of your paddling skill level.      Similar to cross country skiing, you can buy the fastest skis on the market,  but until you develop the skills, even if you have the strength and cardio engine,  you won’t be the fastest skier.  This is even more so when it comes to surfskis.  Paddling is a very technique intense activity that takes most people several years to master.  Unlike many other sports, having an advanced boat will actually make you considerably slower than being in a beginner or intermediate boat because of the challenged you will have in balancing the boat that will take away from your ability to apply maximum power to your stroke.

In my own experience,   I have now been paddling a surfski for eight years and there are still many days where I am faster in an intermediate boat than I would be in an advanced boat.

What are the Time Difference Between Boats?

Once we start talking about boats the next common question I get is this;  “Assuming I am a super athlete and develop perfect elite level technique and balance, how much different would my times be in different boats? “   This is a great question that just about any competitive racer is going to ask.    The best reference point to answer this question is a Blog written by Greg Barton (Epic CEO, Olympic Gold Medalist, and a Michigan Native)    In this article, Greg compares the times he and an intermediate paddler would achieve in a 10k  on flat water in the different levels of boats.   You can see the differences are at most a minute and half between a beginner level surfski or performance kayak and an advanced boat.  Additionally, this assumes flat water where balance is not an issue.   If you then consider that most of the adventure races tend to include paddle legs of approximately 2 miles, you see that this difference comes down to approximately 25 seconds.   This is the amount of time you can lose with a fumble during transition.   It is also important to realize that if you decide to go with an advanced boat and end up with a capsize it can blow your entire race.  I have now done several adventure races that include paddling and I have consistently found that when the paddle event comes after other activities it is tough to transition to the paddle and I have typically been somewhat unstable during the first mile as I get settled into my paddling form.

Get a Surfski for more than Just Adventure Racing

Beyond just the multi-sport racing aspect,  I really like to see my customers get the most fun out of what surfskis have to offer.  I am convinced if you don’t get out and surf some swells, you are selling yourself way too short!    As you are beginning in the sport the extra stability of the beginner and intermediate boats will really ensure you have a blast out in the swell and the confidence to really paddle hard which is so critical to being successful in catching waves.

I recently published a blog on efficiency that takes a look at the hard evidence from my own experiences paddling the different levels of boats and recording my times and average heart rates.   The net/net from this analysis was that even after 8 years, I’m not at a skill level to achieve maximum efficiency in an advanced boat.


If you are getting into adventure racing and are already strong in the run and bike,  getting a high performance kayak or surfski could well be the final piece to putting you on the podium.   All high performance kayaks and surfskis will provide a competitive edge, but don’t be discouraged if your initial paddle performances don’t match those of the top performers in the race.   Keep in mind that paddling is a technique intensive sport and the more advanced a boat you purchase, the longer it will take to master and get maximum efficiency from it.   This is especially the case when you are in an adventure race and already quite fatigued when you get in the boat.

The alternative triathlon / adventure races are growing for a good reason,  they are truly the most fun races to participate in.   Don’t get left behind on the paddle, break out of your comfort zone and get into a surfski.  You’ll have a great time racing and even more fun training and playing in the waves.


Tagged with →