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Surfskis vs. kayaks: Revisited with new data.


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Reading MattD’s post here got me to thinking about why racers have been switching from standard sea kayaks to surf skis rather than switching to High Performance Kayaks (HPK) racing SIKs.

Some advantages/disadvantages between surfskis and racing SIKs that I can think of (I borrowed some of these opinions from a search of the Internet):

 In general surfskis have better ergonomics compared to racing SIKs. The surfski usually allows for better lower body engagement (knees centered and legs pumping). But the West Side racing kayaks have cockpits/combings/seats designed to accomplish that. So does the Epic 18X (not an HPK racing kayak)
 After a capsize a good roller in a racing SIK can probably be on his way a lot faster than someone using a surfski. I think rolling in rough conditions takes less energy and is easier than re-mounting a skinny surfski.
 In principle, given identical hulls below the water line, there should be no drag (frictional resistance and wave-making resistance) differences between surfskis and racing SIKs. Especially when the SIKs have understern rudders like surfskis (like the West Side Marauder or Thunderbird T-Rex).
 Surfskis usually have a weight advantage, but not always since the Marauder weighs only 24lbs.
 Surfski paddlers need sunscreen for their lower bodies and kayak paddlers don’t. Advantage to kayakers.
 Spray skirts on kayaks reduce torso rotation somewhat. However, racing kayaks have the advantage of not needing drain scuppers like surfskis (the drains introduce additional drag).
 Regardless of the waterline shape, the racing SIKs tend to have less bow volume than most surfskis. So, the skis have the advantage for ocean racing as the bow lifts over oncoming waves and stays high when surfing. But this design difference is not a necessity. I think a racing SIK could be built with higher bow volume. Actually, the Epic 18X (not an HPK) does have fairly high bow volume.
 All surfskis have pedal steering systems and most racing SIKs still use tiller steering systems. Ocean racers prefer pedal steering systems. But more racing SIKs are changing to pedal steering systems. My Epic 18X (an FSK kayak) has a pedal steering system. Onno makes a pedal system that can be added to any kayak.
 Racing SIKs have the advantage of a lower center of gravity for the seat - it's right on the bottom of the hull (improved stability). Besides, you can change seats on a SIK. With a surfski you're stuck with the molded-in seat.
 With the pedal system on a SIK you can push with the balls of your feet, rather than using your heels as must be done with surfskis. That’s an advantage for SIKs.
 The contour of a surfski doesn't always place you in the optimal position for a powerful stroke.

Anyway, below I summarized the data for the first few surf skis and racing SIKs (that competing in the HPK class (and finished) in each Blackburn Challenge from 1999 to 2015, inclusive.

Let S denote a surf ski and K denote an HPK racing kayak. Here are the results:

1999: SKSKSK: 11/4: (notation means there were 11 surf skis and 4 HPKs finishing and the first boat in was an S, the second boat in was a K, the third boat in was an S, etc.)

2000: SKKKSS: 7/4

2001: KSKKKS: 7/7 (first pace was Greg Barton who entered with a standard kayak, the Epic Endurance)

2002: SSSKKK: 8/8

2003: SSKKKS: 6/16

2004: SKKKSS: 8/4

2005: SSSK: 18/4 (the fourth S came in before the second K)

2006: SSSKKK: 14/5

2007: KSSKKK: 32/3 (first pace was Greg Barton who entered with a standard kayak, the Epic 18X)

2008: SKSS: 29/3 (the fourth S came in before the second K)

2009: SSS: 39/0 (there were no Ks in the race)

2010: SSKSSS: 28/4

2011: ?S?KSK: 29/2 (? denotes unknown)

2012: SSSSSKSSK: 38/2

2013: SSSS?SSSSK: 35/1

2014: SSSSK: 33/2

2015: SKSSSS: 23/2

Note 1. Although the S (surfskis) boats were generally ahead of the K (racing SIKs) boats, the time differences weren’t always significant. Also, as the surf skis became more popular many of the faster kayak racers switched over to surf skis. My conclusion from the data is that there is no significant speed improvement of surf skis versus HPK kayaks. I believe surf skis are becoming more popular due to the ease of re-entry versus a difficult roll in a HPK kayak using a wing paddle. Many of the fastest HPK kayaks don’t have sealed bulkheads and a failed roll is almost catastrophic, unless they have airbags installed.

Note 2. The Blackburn results above don't prove that surfskis are faster than racing SIKs. It only proves that the faster paddlers are usually using surfskis. Besides, there weren’t enough racing SIKs to be statistically significant.

Note 3. More Surfskis (11) didn’t finish the 2015 race than FSK boats, perhaps due to overly rough water.

Note 4. A racing SIK beat all of the surf skis (22 skis) in the 2011 Essex River race. The SIK was a West Side T-Rex, one of the fastest of all the West Side racing models. The T-Rex was up against many of the fastest surf ski racers in New England and beyond. I believe you’d see more SIKs win if more were used.

Note 5. As you can see, the number of surfskis is increasing and the number of racing SIKs isn’t.

Note 6. Personally, I’ve had to help a dozen or more surfskis in races that I’ve competed in. Only one kayak (actually two including me … thanks Andrew Binks).

Note 7. The weight of the evidence points to surfskis being faster given the number of paddlers that have switched. But they could be wrong. Perhaps it’s a popularity contest.

-Leon (who doesn’t have a dog in this fight)

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Hey there, Leon -- great writeup! I agree with much of what you've posited in your post.

When comparing surfskis and kayaks it's important to consider the design history. The modern ocean-going surfski came out of the lifesaving world, where people paddle 'spec skis' out through large surf to quickly rescue swimmers in distress. Many top ocean ski competitors are top lifesaving competitors as well -- Clint Robinson and Dean Gardiner come to mind. Spec skis are very functional, and have flared front decks to deflect breaking surf, lots of rocker, etc.. There are some great videos on YouTube of spec ski racing that are worth checking out -- very exciting and great demonstrations of things like forward stroke technique and surfing waves.

So the ocean ski derives from the spec ski, but it also features some design hybridization from the marathon and sprint worlds, too, thanks to people like Greg Barton who brought their own ideas to the table, including things like lightweight materials (carbon fiber, honeycomb, etc.). And then you have the downwind guys like Oscar Chalupsky, Sean Rice, and the Mocke brothers from places like South Africa, who are racing skis typically over 12-15mi distances in large swell, and want long, stiff boats that can pick up runners (swells) and really leverage the ocean's energy to go fast.

Anyway, my point is that surfski design has had a lot of influence from different camps over the past several years and is still undergoing a lot of tweaking as the top athletes push the boats harder and more people hop on them at the beginner and intermediate levels, which manufacturers have responded to by adding more of these types of boats to their lineups (such as the Epic V8, Think Eze, Epic V10 Sport, Stellar SR). There's a lot of energy and passion in the niche right now, which is fun.

As far as the West Side boats go -- yeah, they are pretty awesome, too! Fast, stable, and with a well-conditioned paddler in the cockpit can really move even in the roughest of conditions -- just ask Brian Heath :) The T-Rex is a slick craft, and the Marauder is scary to see on a registration list. If I were still a kayak guy I would put the West Side boats at the top of my list. Although I do like the Surge, too, as an SK option.

I think my main hangup with kayaks at this point (WSB and well, all of them really) is what you've already noted, the water hazard, re-entry, pumping out, all that. I have to confess that I fall off my boat more than most (I'm new to the V10), but it's so easy to get back on that I never worry about it. With my sea kayaks the exit was always a major event even beyond the re-entry. I love that skis are sealed and water's really not much of an issue. I've taken mine out in some pretty horrendous conditions and swamping or exiting+reentering just isn't a concern. You do get wet, yes, but with very little cost to boat performance thanks to the nifty little bailers and venturi drains they have, which empty the footwell fairly rapidly. Several boats feature bailers that close flush to the hull in order to minimize drag when you're not using them. So you're able to focus a lot more on keeping the boat moving, because taking water into the boat (which happens frequently) doesn't require any more diversion of your attention than a quick flip of the bailer lever with your foot. With practice that becomes pretty effortless.

+1 on pedal steering systems -- they are awesome -- and the Onno design s a great aftermarket upgrade for any kayak rudder system, imho. I think Pat makes fantastic stuff -- he built a sweet carbon fiber footplate for the rudderless Surge I raced in the 2012 Blackburn -- that helped to position my feet in the middle of the boat and get my knees up -- what a difference that made. I do disagree that the ski setup forces you to push with your heels -- I don't seem to have that problem on my V10. However, I will say that I took a class with Ben Lawry in 2012 and he talked a lot about leg drive and generating optimal force through your entire foot, as if doing a weightlifting squat press. I find Ben's perspective to be equally applicable in both kayaks and skis, at least for me.

Regarding seat height -- it's true that the paddler tends to sit a little higher in some skis, although it depends on the manufacturer and even the particular boat. The K-1 guys who come over to the skis seem to like sitting as high as they can -- according to the guys I've spoken with sitting higher helps your forward stroke form. They sit on pads sometimes an inch tall or more in order to gain height. It does decrease your stability. I don't use a pad at present, although I may add one in the off season to work on my stability.

Could you elaborate more on your statement about the contour of the ski and optimal stroke positioning? Seems to me that's a major focus of ski design -- proper stroke technique is probably the most-debated topic in the ski community.

As far as the number of skis who didn't finish the 2015 Blackburn -- I'll only point out that it was approximately the same ratio as the overall field (~1/3).

I do agree that surfskis are increasing in popularity. Even the entry level designs with the heaviest layups will do 5-6mph without too much effort given a wing paddle and reasonable technique. I did a 10k course this morning in my V10 and averaged 7.4mph for the session (ok, yes, that was really hard work).

Speed aside, in my personal opinion, skis are just easier to manage than a kayak. There's more focus on paddling. Maybe it's a mental thing, I don't know, but skis just 'click' for me in a way that kayaks never did. I think this is what is bringing more people to skis who might otherwise move to an FSK or even HPK kayak. This is also why you're helping more people in skis than other boats, I think -- there's a learning curve involved and skis are very new for a lot of people. Balance, stroke, underhull steering, catching and riding swells/waves, on boats that can be 21 feet long and 18 inches wide -- it's a full-on community learning mode. That's the really awesome thing about the surfski, imho -- people are getting into it as a sport, training, racing, setting and breaking records, tackling big stuff, having some amazing rides, it's really a lot of fun.

And someday, who knows, maybe there'll be enough interest in surfskis to run a big series on the North Shore -- now wouldn't that be cool :)

Until then, a hardy group of guys and gals will be doing it over at Lynch Park on Tuesday nights at 6:45pm all summer long :)



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I think my main hangup with kayaks at this point (WSB and well, all of them really) is what you've already noted, the water hazard, re-entry, pumping out, all that. I have to confess that I fall off my boat more than most (I'm new to the V10), but it's so easy to get back on that I never worry about it. With my sea kayaks the exit was always a major event even beyond the re-entry.

Could you elaborate more on your statement about the contour of the ski and optimal stroke positioning? Seems to me that's a major focus of ski design -- proper stroke technique is probably the most-debated topic in the ski community.


I think a successful roll is less of a problem than falling off of a ski. Of course a wet exit from a kayak is a much bigger problem than falling off of a ski.

Regarding the contour of the ski: While paddling with a friend using his new surfski he had a hip pinch from the deep rounded bucket (I think he was paddling a Huki something). I gave him some foam pieces to sit on. He played with the incline/decline angle and was able to get a better position on a flatter surface that apparently helped. I guess you can have the same problem with some kayak seats; however, kayak seats can be changed.

You make a convincing argument for surfskis. That’s an impressive video too. Seems like all of the Epic skis were the real tippy V14s, except for Oscar in a V10.

Good luck in Salem Sound.


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I agree that a bombproof roll is faster (and thus safer) vs. the typical surfski remount, plus with a roll you're not put in the position of separating from the boat. A full wet exit, as you mention, is a different story and I would take the ski remount over managing a wet exit any day.

Now I see what you mean regarding the bucket shapes and positioning. As with kayaks, many paddlers will 'foam out' their surfski cockpits to get the proper fit, and this can seat padding, thigh padding, etc. I don't have much in my own boat -- just a small foam square on each side of the cockpit at my calves to help keep my legs aligned and knees upright because I have a tendency to let my knees fall apart in choppy conditions.

The V14 is an elite boat -- only a couple guys around here paddle them, and really only in the flatwater races like the Essex. You see a lot of guys paddling the V14 in the South African races as well as the Molokai Challenge (the same guys, most of the time). Hank MacGregor is a good example of an excellent V14 paddler -- he's also a kayak marathon champion and those K-1 boats are extremely unstable, so he's put in a lot of stability work.

Went out this morning again -- a nice easy 5.5mi paddle with a focus on stroke form -- water was calm and the wind was light. Even at a low cadence taking deliberate, slow strokes (but with good form and power) I averaged 6.9mph -- it's really hard to go slow in these boats :)



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Matt, baaie dankie vir de video! Excellent; but you sure know how to make a person homesick! (Blerry homesick!) (Nou, waar de fok is my passeport, ek sê?)

PS: The name Dreyer is <quite> common in RSA -- slight difference; but not much...(it's Afrikaans)

Edited by Pintail
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