Nelo 55o Review

I’d like to start this review by first saying that we all have our strengths, and I don’t consider one of mine to be  boat reviews covering all of the detailed engineering nuance of  hull design. I also don’t have any real flat water analysis data on how the 550 compares against other skis. There has been some excellent ad-hoc reviews and discussion at surfski.info and I know that Wesley is planning a much anticipated review of the 550 in the very thorough and numbers based fashion that he does.

Additional disclaimer, I am a Nelo dealer and Oscar has been a close friend, mentor, and inspiration to me over the years.  I was very fortunate last February to have a chance to spend some time with the great Nelo team in Portugal. In fact, I had the opportunity to paddle the 550 in Porto when it was still an unmarked prototype boat. I knew then it would make waves, and was excited to get one of the very first off the line and the first one to hit the shores in the United States.

All disclaimers out of the way,  what I plan to focus primarily on in this review is how the 550 handles in my local downwind conditions and some theories as to why. I’ve been fortunate to have insightful discussions with Andrew Santos (CEO of Nelo) where he shared the design concepts and goals of the 550 and I plan to expand further on this and put it all into context.

First Off – My Point of Reference

I am 6’3” and 203 lbs (190 cm / 92 kg) with a 34” waist and 34” inseam. I’ve now been paddling a surfski for 10 seasons. As a surfski dealer, I’ve paddled a number of different boats over the years, but spent most of my time this past season in the Epic V10 GT, Nelo 550 and Epic Legacy K1. I also had a chance to spend a week paddling and racing the new Epic V12 out at Hood River and absolutely fell in love with that boat.   I have not spent any significant time in the 560, so unfortunately cannot comment on how it compares to the 550.      I’m not a fan of self-labeling, but generally would consider myself an advanced paddler striving to break into the ranks of the elite downwind paddlers.

I live in Leland, MI on the windward size of Lake Michigan and do 90% of my paddling in anywhere from 1 1/2 to 6 foot wind waves. (on the windless days I either do technique drills, intervals, or cross-train). The wave conditions vary quite a bit based on wind conditions. The dominant summer wind pattern from the Southwest delivers clean wind waves due to the nature of the channel and several prominent points that help to clean up the waves. West wind is almost direct onshore with the Manitou Islands about 10 miles offshore that impact the wave patterns. Typically straight west wind creates a technical mixed wave profile with waves crossing over each other constantly. Wind from the North/Northwest has well over 100 miles of fetch and makes the lake feel much more like an ocean, with a good size swell and wind waves over the top of that. Finally, wind from the Northeast creates beautifully clean and well formed runs as the waves wrap the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula and roll parallel to shore all the way down for miles.

Comfort and Feel

I am thoroughly impressed with the fit and feel of the cockpit design. The Epic boats have always worked extremely well for me and I’ve found the same to be true of Nelo. I have the 550L and while a slightly narrower seat may be optimal for me, I really don’t notice the extra width to be detrimental in anyway. Having now had the chance to log several hours of training in the K1, I’ve come to love the higher seated position and narrow bow profile. The Nelo 550 mimics this wonderful feeling better than most other skis I’ve paddled.   The leg length is more than sufficient and I suspect this boat would easily accommodate a paddler up to 6’6″

I noticed a few comments in the discussion forum on Surfski.info around disappointment with the foot brace materials and design. For me, I don’t care whether it is plastic or carbon, just that it operates well. It has taken some time to get fully dialed in, but I do appreciate the adjustability of the Nelo design. The hard formed foot strap wasn’t fun on my first paddle when my size 13 feet with 3mm booties were crammed in underneath it, but once the barefoot season started I grew to love the firm strap. It is so easy to mount a GPS and most importantly when launching in surf, quick and easy to get your feet in, not having to fight a caving strap. There is an option to replace the firm strap with a soft strap and I will be doing that now that the bootie season is here to last for the next 7 months.. ugh.. but at least winter brings more wind 🙂

I agree with one reviewer that the rubber stoppers on the bottom of the foot rest don’t feel solid. I notice this every time I come back to the 550 after paddling other boats. It feels mushy and slightly unsettling for the first couple of paddle strokes, but that quickly goes away and I honestly never notice it through the rest of the paddle. I have found the peddle/rudder adjustment to be very innovative and intuitive and a great feature.

Ski Behavior

This is where things get good and fun. As has been widely reported in all of the reviews, the 550 is one quick and nimble machine. But let me explain why this is.

This past summer while in Hood River, I had a chance to hear from Andre Santos exactly what the design strategy for the Nelo 550 was. The team wanted to create a downwind boat that would excel for intermediate (I know this is a very subjective and broad term) level paddlers. What they concluded was that they wanted a seat that sat a bit further forward, with more of the volume behind the paddler. In effect, this allows the ski to pick up the runs sooner. Typically an elite level paddler wants to balance the boat on top of the wave longer and with more bow in front, there is more margin to do this. But intermediate paddlers often struggle to get onto the wave and the 550 design noticeably changes this.

In my own experience, the design concept has proven to be very effective. My first reaction in paddling the 550 was sheer amazement at how responsive it was and how I could put it literally anywhere on the wave. It was an absolute blast to carve left and right on waves and to push over/through waves whenever I felt the urge. It is so fun to carve with, that I suspect in some cases I may be compromising my speeds, by turning too much 😃 This all makes sense when you think about the 18 foot length, combined with the hull design. I believe the seat position and distribution of volume not only helps the 550 to pick up runs sooner and easier, but it also makes it easy to push over and through runs because there is much less bow volume to push. I’m not sure if it is the length, volume, or rocker but the 550 also seems to be less “grabby” in the stern. This can probably feel a little unsettling for some at first, but ultimately with an aggressive paddler it seems to make the boat more stable as it is less likely to get “grabbed” by cross waves behind you.

I have had the bow deflector on my 550 from the very beginning and I’ll admit it wasn’t pleasant getting blasted by cold water in the face when paddling upwind, but the deflector works extremely well going downwind. Most importantly, despite the lower volume of the bow, I really don’t find that I bury it any more than I do with other larger volume skis.

I’ve had some great downwind paddles this summer (this one in the V10 GT) and am thrilled to see the numbers showing small but steady improvements in my metrics including a personal record for a single mile which I clocked in the 550 averaging 9.9 mph.  I can honestly say that the most flow inducing and dopamine generating sessions have been on the 550. I had more than one day when the conditions were quite technical with steep and confused waves. This is where the design of the 550 really shines. In these conditions the runs tend to be short as the waves are quickly canceling each other out. You have to take every run when it presents, and you are constantly zigzagging direction to ride the waves as they are rapidly changing direction. The 550’s ability to catch the run quick and early, maneuver on a dime, and punch through/push over when required, make it a dream boat for these conditions.

Speed

There are many factors that influence speed in a surfski including your stability, your technique, your size, power, etc.. I don’t have any flat water statistics to prove speed of the 550, but I would tend to agree with others, that it will likely prove to be one of the faster boats among the intermediates, but not as fast as the advanced/elite boats on flat water.

My general experience in downwind conditions indicates that for me, the 550 is as fast as the advanced boats.

Stability

Many have commented that the stability of the 550 probably sits somewhere between the V10 Sport and the V10. I would agree that this is a pretty fair assessment

Final Thoughts

The Nelo 550 is a spectacular boat for a solid intermediate to advanced paddler. It is a pure joy to paddle both downwind and on the flats. So much fun in fact that while I originally planned to put it away for the winter,  after 4 days in downwind conditions without it,  I’ve decided I can’t live without it, and plan to bring it back out of hibernation and into my garage (which only fits 2 boats that must be under 20 feet 🙂