CHOOSING A WOOD KAYAK DESIGN
All kayak designs involve compromises and no one kayak can do it all. Be careful when evaluating kayaks based on their measurements. One cannot look at a single major design component (like beam or rocker) and know how the boat will handle. Beam, length, rocker, shape and location of chines, sharpness of bow and stern, and fullness of the ends all play a significant part in determining how a boat behaves. And that's just in smooth water. When it gets rough, the amount of freeboard, flare, and shape of overhangs also play a part. A shorter boat can end up being faster in rough water, not to mention more seaworthy. Too large a boat can be a real hazard in windy conditions not to mention just wearing you out at cruising speeds. Do everything you can to paddle the real thing in real conditions before starting such a lengthy project.
Here are evaluations of the wood kayaks I know well:
Pygmy Arctic TernStable, predictable, well behaved, and very capable boat. It's a bit slower than the Coho. Like most of the Pygmy boats, it's too large for lighter weight adult paddlers. Being rather boxy it can get blown around a bit. I find it twitchy in ragged water. I suppose it's the sharp chine catching turbulence. Surfing small steep waves can put you upside down rather quickly if you try course correction by edging and that sharp chine catches. It works well for fishing or photography and as a boat for inexperienced guests. It responds to edging rather slowly until it is way up on edge. I find that it rolls fine if you have enough thigh brace built in. I have hundreds of miles in varied conditions in this model.
Pygmy Arctic Tern 14This popular model is a nicely balanced and maneuverable boat, but slow. People in group paddles with this boat usually lag behind. It can be a tough go to get around a point against some current with such a limited hull speed. I think novices would be better served by starting with something a bit longer and a bit more narrow. Slow speed efficiency would be similar but there would be more potential to cruise at higher speeds and also the boat would not be outgrown quite so easily as skills develop. Being as wide and tall as the full size model does not make it an optimal fit for the smaller paddler. If you want something for poking around rugged shorelines, dedicated surf play, or wandering crooked narrow channels, or don't aspire to grow your kayaking skills, this is a good candidate to consider.
Pygmy CohoThis is a very fine tripping boat for a full size male and lots of gear. It has good speed for its size and width. Compared to the Arctic Tern, it has a more silky, predictable feel, especially when edged. Some of my friends paddling this boat feel it weather cocks a bit too much. I can't help but feel that a Coho one inch slimmer and 6 inches shorter would make a sweet boat that would fit a lot of paddlers.
Pygmy Osprey (and Goldeneye)This is a very efficient cruiser, but it tracks much too strong for my tastes. Although less than sixteen feet, it is still designed to carry a full grown male paddler and a load of gear. It is too tall and too wide for efficient paddle strokes for smaller paddlers.
Pygmy Boats has a new kayak model in three deck layouts, the Murellet. After many years of not having a good design for experienced paddlers weighing less than 200 lbs the new Murrelet has something new to offer. Being 11" high in the front deck, 7.5" and 8" rear coaming heights, and one inch more narrow at 22" it is sized right in the sweet spot for many paddlers.
So far there have been two versions. The first design tracks more strongly than just about anything available. It's like driving your car with the steering column locked. I cannot recommend this model to anyone, but, version two fixed this problem. Several members in our club got into the new model recently and the consensus was that it rolls easily, and the handling falls between that of a playboat like an Avocet and a harder tracking touring boat. How it handles a stiff wind, following seas, or surf is unknown as yet.
Overall it seems like a nice design with good stability and speed, a wonderfully low rear deck for rolling, and middle of the road handling. Realize that kayak designs that turn easily usually have adjustable skegs, something the designer wants to avoid.
Redfish SilverA very efficient cruiser for the 130 lb. female paddler. Very neutral handling in wind and waves. It is much less affected by wind than the AT, is a bit less stable, but turns about the same. It is much more comfortable in rough water than the AT. My wife paddles faster and has no trouble keeping up with the guys once she moved from the AT to this boat, even on 100 mile expeditions or 25 mile day paddles. Packing carefully we got enough gear and food in it for a two week trip, with nothing on the deck. There are photos of Holly paddling it in the Queen Charlotte Islands.
Redfish KingFor it's size this is a responsive boat that turns well when edged, tracks reasonably well upright, and is good for covering a lot of ground if you are in the mood. It catches waves easily and rolls fine. It is neutral in most winds with a slight tendency to round up with wind from the rear quarter (like most rudderless kayaks). It has a lot of buoyancy giving a dry ride and resistance to burying the bow. It's top speed is about the same as my Tern, so it is not a high speed boat. But it sure is a satisfying one. I like the narrowness near my feet making for an easy plant of the paddle blade. I've carried a two week load of gear, so there's no worries there. Loaded up with camping gear it feels very nice. Everyone should have one of these. Here are some photos.
Redfish King Jr.As the name suggests, this is a downsized version of the King. It strikes me as a bit harder tracking, but not bad. Compared to my Golden it does not edge as well, feels a bit faster, and is less stable. That's what I would expect from a more narrow design with less rocker. It rolls fine but I didn't like the back deck as built as it prevents some kinds of rolls I can accomplish in my Golden. This is a nice design but strikes me as a bit small for camping but a bit large (mostly height) for a day boat. It will appeal to those wanting to cover ground quickly rather than close coastal exploration.
Redfish GoldenThis boat is very maneuverable without being squirrelly or tippy. It takes off like a rocket in two foot wind waves and small surf. Like its bigger brother the King it turns easily, only much quicker, and catches boat wakes even better. Being shorter it has a lower but still decent top speed. It's what I choose when heading for rough water. I've taken this boat to Cape Flattery in eight foot waves and to the Strait of Juan de Fuca in 30 plus winds. It worked great. I added an adjustable skeg to better handle quartering seas. It is now my first choice for day paddles and the King has become my camping boat. Unfortunately it's also my wife's favorite boat as well. Photos are here.
ADDENDUM: I like this kayak design, but some fine tuning might make it better for my uses. It is a bit squirrely on some waves and can bury its bow quite a ways surfing on short steep waves. I have a modified design that I hope to make some day. It has more deadrise ("v" if you will) amidship to help keep it strait on a wave, a little more length and rocker to help keep the bow from burying, to retain maneuverability after increasing dead-rise, and to better handle my weight.
GuillemotPaddling this boat is like pushing a grocery cart backwards. It takes constant effort to go straight and still gets away from time to time. Its turn response to edging is not linear. Edging the boat slightly sends the boat into a strong skidding turn right away, but edging moderately or even strongly does not increase the turn rate significantly. Trying to counter crosswinds or make minor course changes results in over correcting. It works better to keep the boat perfectly upright and maneuver with paddle strokes. Initial stability is firm but falls off rapidly with more edging. There is not much edge feel at the point of capsize making it somewhat unforgiving in playful conditions. Many owners add a shallow fin at the stern to minimize the skidding around. Lest you think I'm uncomfortable with maneuverable kayaks, consider that one of my favorites is my Valley Avocet which turns very well but is very well behaved and a blast to paddle.
Guillemot Night HeronThis model is generating a lot of interest in the kayaking community and current owners seem happy. My impression is that overall it handles similar to my King and does not have the loose tracking of it's brother the Guillemot. Being slimmer and longer than my King I would expect it to be faster, but I have not had a chance paddle it with a GPS yet. Watching from shore it does not look like the ends release from the water when edged hard, which hinders turning. While paddling it is clear that it does not have much reserve buoyancy in the middle sections when edged to allow quick turns. My impression sitting in the cockpit is one of a shoe-box. The front deck feels very high and squarish. Neither of the two I have paddled were outfit tight enough for me to perform good rolls, but others have no trouble. The thigh braces were much higher than those in my King and would take quite a bit of foam, maybe two inches thick, to outfit it for me. At 175 pounds and 5' 7" I'm too small for this boat.
Laughing Loon Shooting StarHaving heard all kinds of great things about baidarka's, I was very keen on paddling the Laughing Loon version built by Andrew Elizaga. Alas, this is not the boat for me. Most likely I am too heavy for it (175 lbs. without gear). The disappointing thing is that it tracked about the same edged as it did upright. Observers close by noted that the stern was still dug in when edged, which explains a lot. The boat seemed speedy enough, but there was too much wind and current to bother measuring speed. I was surprised at how much the bow gurgled and sprayed at higher speeds. Again, is my weight too much or is this the nature of the design? Another possibility is that the shape of the bow might give a better view of the entry resulting in a perception of more noise. It seemed that it was less affected by wind which is logical considering the low ends and firm tracking (for me at least). I did not roll the boat as the outfitting was so tight I could barely get in, or more importantly, get out. It looks like it might be a good touring boat for a light weight paddler. It certainly draws lots of admiration on or off the water.
I have only paddled the fiberglass version from Impex so there might be small differences from the wood design. Basically this is a low rocker, semi arched hull, long waterline design intended for strait line speed. Yep, that's what it does. As some have said, it nearly takes an adjustment of the rotation of the earth to execute a course change. It won't turn without forceful efforts. Not with sweep strokes, rudder strokes, or laid on its side. Being narrow and with a rounded hull shape one would expect it to be tippy but I found it to be just fine. Secondary stability had a nice feel as well. Rolling was no problem. It feels ponderous but I'm sure if you have a big enough motor it will go fast...in a straight line. It's a bit like trying to fly a 747 through the Grand Canyon. I was amazed when I found out it had a drop down skeg. For what? To go even straighter? This boat is not known to weathercock so I guess the skeg was included because that's what the manufacturer figures people expect to see.
UPDATE: A friend built the wood version and elected to round off the knuckle both bow and stern a bit during construction to reduce the strong tracking. It is a nice boat and it will respond to turning inputs, but slowly.