Adventure Racing Kayaks, All Watercraft Are Not Created Equal
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 maxed out at 600 in a few hours and it now sells out at 900 in a matter of minutes. I have been amazed at how successful these races have been at drawing a wide range of participants from complete beginners to elite athletes.
Adventure racers are quickly realizing that all kayaks are not created equal, and if you don’t have a fast boat it is nearly impossible to be competitive. 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 an administration headache. As a result, those with 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 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 very fast boats, but they are not optimal for adventure racing. The challenge with a K1 is that it is an extremely unstable 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 but flat water. 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 a 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.
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 natural instinct is always to request the fastest boat available. This seems logical if you come from the bike or ski world, but in paddling the fastest boat available is a direct function of your paddling skill level. 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. This is because the advanced boats require a level of balance that can only be developed through years of training. Without having this balance, you simply can’t put all of your power into the paddle stroke.
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 am always amazed at how unstable I feel when transitioning into the surfski in a triathlon. The combination of fatigue, race nerves, and switching muscular motions has a unique effect which ultimately causes less stability in the first mile of paddling.
Get a Surfski for more than Just Adventure Racing
Beyond triathlon racing, 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 ensure you have a blast out in the swell and the confidence to paddle hard which is 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 kayak triathlons and are already strong in the run and bike, getting a surfski could well be the final piece to putting you on the podium. All 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.
The alternative triathlon / adventure races are growing for a good reason, they are just plain fun. 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.