Saturday, February 19, 2011

Valley Etain sea kayak test preview

I was lucky to be able to spend testing the new Valley Etain on the waters round Oban last Thursday. In Celtic mythology, Etain was a young second wife who was turned into a butterfly by a jealous first wife. For seven years she could only land on rocks by the sea...

The Etain is a full sized expedition kayak. It is designed to attract customers who for various reasons do not like Valley's classic expedition kayaks, the Nordkapp and the Aquanaut. Those that decide they don't like the Nordkapp generally do so after 2 minutes because they don't like its apparent lack of primary stability when sitting in calm water (if only they would persist because the Nordkapp is wonderful in rough, confused water). Anyway, a primary design brief was to have rock solid primary stability and Valley have done this by moving the wide point slightly aft of the cockpit but more subtly so than in the P&H Cetus, with which this kayak will be competing.

Now I had better make a declaration of interest. I think I am reasonably impartial when commenting about my experience of different kayaks. I currently own three sea kayaks, a P&H Quest LV, a Valley Nordkapp LV and Rockpool Alaw Bach, so clearly I am not slavishly attached to any particular manufacturer. I have also been lucky enough to have had long term test boats lent to me by various manufacturers/retailers including P&H, Valley, Rockpool, Seakayaking UK,  Point 65 and others. In 2009 and 2010 I had a P&H Cetus on long term test. It is no secret that I thought it was a superb sea kayak. For the purpose of this test, I brought along my own Nordkapp LV, a traditional Valley design to compare with the Etain, which in Valley's words  is "a new strain of DNA in the Valley range, one that is a little more contemporary both in style and paddling feel."

I have a bad knee but even so, I found getting in and out  of the Etain's huge cockpit very easy. The plastic seat with padded cover is fitted low in the cockpit which aids stability but the rear deck is not too high to inhibit lay backs. On the water, at rest, this is a very stable kayak. It has a bit more V than the Cetus and so it tips from side to side by a few degrees but then becomes very stable. Taking a photograph, with an expensive DSLR in the Etain, is sooo much more reassuring than in my Nordkapp LV!

You can edge this kayak right over and you rest on a comforting wall of solid, secondary stability which is quite unlike the Nordkapp LV (which we were paddling along with it). On edge the Etain is very manoeuvrable but it did not feel so quick to turn as the Cetus. It felt about the same as the Rockpool GT, which is still a manoeuvrable expedition kayak.  On edge the Etain did not turn so quickly as the Nordkapp LV but the Nordkapp required a great deal of concentration to balance on edge to turn quicker than the Etain! We had light force 0 to 2 winds so I cannot comment on how it handles in a wind but it tracked very straight.

This was a preproduction model (and lacked some finishing details as it had been rushed out for testing) but the standard of the GRP layup was outstanding and blemish free.

In this photo you can just see some very soft chines washing out towards the bow and stern. It is a very big kayak and carries more volume up front than the Cetus but less than a Rockpool GT. It is less rockered than the Nordkapp LV. The profile of the stern has a moderate built in skeg, a little less prominent than those of the Cetus and GT.

A unique feature is the removable deck pod, secured by deck elastics (and on production versions by a line with a mini carabiner).

There is not a lot of room inside the pod, certainly not enough for a VHF, but it will take a wallet, keys, biscuit bar and a phone.

The pod and its valuables can be quickly removed, if you want to leave your kayak on a busy town beach while you go shopping. As a result of the pod's modest size, you can see that there is not a huge intrusion into the cockpit space. This means there is plenty of room for the feet, unlike the Cetus, where your feet are restricted to remaining either side of its bigger pod.

For a moment we wondered why a carrying strap had not been fitted to the pod. Then again, I might be prepared to walk round George Street in Oban in my dry suit but I draw the line at carrying an item that looks like something the ward sister might bring to the bed bound in the middle of the night! I would be quite happy to slip it into a plastic carrier bag.

The cockpit is incredibly easy to get in and out of. The thigh grips did not connect with my thighs at all and I have bulky thighs! I thought they were too far back and would need padding with some foam. Both the Cetus and Rockpool GT  have better thigh grips. My knees ended up in a recess under the deck, outboard of the cockpit. With a little padding my knees would have been really comfortable.  The foot pegs are the same as  fitted to other Vally kayaks: aluminium tracks with small plastic pedals. They do not have adjustable wands but can be adjusted while sitting by hooking the toes of the opposite foot behind the pedal and pulling back on the locking lever then sliding the foot peg either way while it is squeezed between both feet. The base of the seat back is secured to the seat by a mid line button but both Stuart Wagstaff, owner of Sea Kayak Oban, and I removed it as it did not really work for us. The seating position, in a relaxed paddling position has plenty room for the feet and was really comfortable all day. I found it less comfortable with knees raised in the braced position and would pad it out with closed cell foam. Note the moulding, behind the cockpit, that will be fitted with a security bar/tow mount on production version.

 The left mounted skeg slider mechanism worked faultlessly.

We did not have enough wind to really test the skeg but it is the same as that fitted to other Valley composite kayaks.

The slight V of the Etain hull shows up in this shot, as does the rearward distribution of volume...

 ...but it is not so obviously Swede form as the P&H Cetus. Valley's website has a graph that shows that the Etain's median, ideal load is only 20 lbs more than the Nordkapp LV's. That equates to about 10l of volume and I just don't believe that for a second. Side by side on the beach, the Etain is much larger, compared with the Nordkapp LV and on the water the Nordkapp LV feels tiny in comparison. Paddling the two, back to back, Phil and I agreed that for people weighing about 75 to 90kg, these two would make ideal partners as day kayak and expedition kayak. Talking of weight, the Etain did not seem heavy for a standard, Diolen layup, kayak of this size.

Unfortunately there were no wind generated waves but there was a little swell and we had timed our arrival at the SW tip of Kerrera for maximum tidal flow of 5km/hr on the spring tide. First of all, the Etain behaved impeccably in the moderate tidal flow. Secondly it caught each swell easily and then ran straight without broaching. In this respect it was much easier to control than either the Cetus or the Rockpool GT, which both need more paddler input and edge control to prevent broaching. I have always liked the feeling of Valley expedition kayaks such as the Aquanaut on a wave and the Etain seems to maintain this despite the move from fish form to Swede form.

It is a nice looking kayak on the water.

There is a great deal of volume up front and the oval front hatch should make packing easy. Note the high peak to the foredeck forward of the hatch.

Plenty of free board, when unloaded, promises great carrying capacity on expedition.

The Etain feels effortless to paddle over a long distance at 6-8km/hr. I was very happy paddling at 6.8km/hr in calm flat water. Phil paddled a bit more quickly than that. My overall average moving speed was 5.8km/hr but that included frequent stops for photography. On flat water, the Etain's unloaded maximum sprint speed was 5% less than that of the unloaded Nordkapp LV (which is known to have a particularly low drag for a touring kayak).

End toggles, deck lines, elastics, and recessed deck fittings are all standard Valley quality items.

The CalMac ferry LOTI was running late and held her speed until close to Kerrera. We manoeuvred to catch her 2' wake. Again the Etain displayed excellent surf manners and she ran straight and true on LOTI's wake.

"Swap boats, Phil?"

All too soon, our 25km trip came to an end and we were back in Oban. Phil has been paddling for 2 years. His own kayak is a Quest, his verdict was that if he had the money, he would by the Etain.  Paddling it unloaded, back to back, with the Nordkapp LV, I preferred the Nordkapp LV as a day kayak (but this is a kayak I have paddled in this role for 5 years). The Etain is designed primarily as an expedition kayak and I usually only use the Nordkapp LV for overnight camps, due to its size and my weight. The difference is that the Etain can be used as a day boat and I think that many newcomers to the Valley brand will use it primarily in that role.

On this day paddle, The Etain's character steadily grew on me and I was sorry to hand it back.  Obviously a full review of its characteristics would need a camping trip with wind, tide and surf conditions. My first impression is that this is fantastic addition to the Valley stable. It achieves Valley's aim of introducing a new style of kayak to the range, one with increased primary stability but it is still very much a Valley in other respects. It is kayak that will attract and look after many more beginners and intermediates than the Nordkapp. I was reminded of this when I got back in the Nordkapp LV and tried to take a photo, suddenly it felt rather unstable!

Specifications: (Valley's own figures)
Length: 17’6” (534cm)
Width: 21.5” (55cm)
Depth: 13.25” (34cm)
Weight: 51lbs (23.5kg) excluding hatch covers

Nordkapp LV
Length: 17’6”(533cm)
Width: 21”(53cm)
Depth: 13”(33cm)
Weight: 50lbs (23kg) excluding hatch covers

Although these broad figures look similar, I have seldom paddles two kayaks with such different feel. The Nordkapp LV tapers in breadth, height and volume much more quickly towards the ends.

Many thanks to Stuart Wagstaff (right) of Sea Kayak Oban for arranging the demo.


  1. Hi Douglas last year I demoed a Nordkapp to replace my poly capella but I didn't get along with it at all, much too tippy. I then demoed a Rockpool GT which I really liked especially its stability but at my height 5'8" I felt dwarfed by the foredeck. I nearly bought it but then my car needed fixed. I am in the market again and will now make a point of trying the Etain and the Cetus.


  2. Thanks for the review. Very comprehensive - I particularly enjoyed hearing the reasons for the change and who would like it (the more primary stability, etc.). This info often isn't in a lot of reviews.

    Saw both a composite and plastic version of the boat at the Golden Gate Sea Kayak Symposium last weekend, but didn't get a chance to try one. But based on your description, I may be better off sticking with my Aquanaut.

    Did get a photo of the composite version as it was being tested by Chris Cunningham of Sea Kayaker Magazine, and posted it on the California Kayaker Magazine Facebook page -

  3. Hello Graham, I know what you mean about the GT foredeck but it is a really nice kayak. I would say you are exactly the sort of person Valley has been targeting with the design of the Etain.

    You should try it together with the Cetus. I did not get a chance to test them back to back but I am very familiar with the Cetus. I think the Cetus is more manoeuvrable, the Etain more easy to keep in a straight line. I found the Cetus out the box to be more comfortable than the Etain, with exception of foot restriction. If you have boots much bigger than size ten you might find the Cetus restrictive. The Etain had more foot room but for me would need more padding of the knee contact area and the thigh grips to make it as comfortable as the Cetus. Both had fantastic stability' both primary and secondary. Last year I found the Cetus to be slightly faster than the Nordkapp LV at max sprint speed, this year I found the Nordkapp LV to be slightly faster than the Etain, so maybe the Etain is a bit slower than the Cetus but in practice, at regular paddling speeds, they would not feel any different. Perhaps the Cetus would feel better as a day kayak as it is more manoeuvrable than the Etain but when camping I found the Cetus needed to be loaded quite carefully, it is easy to overload the front compartment which can lead to broaching. Try them both!

    Thank you Peter, that is a great photo you have posted. I know the Aquanaut well, I had one on long term loan from Scottish Paddler Supplies, my friend Alan also has a carbon Kevlar version. I don't think you would gain anything by swapping. I liked the Aquanaut a great deal, especially down wind and swell. It seems to be rather underrated here in the UK, I don't know why.

    Douglas :o)

  4. I am glad to read some note of how the Etain compares to an Aquanaut. I believe the 'naut is under-appreciated on this side of the pond as well. I have a Nordkapp LV and an Aquanaut. If I were to entertain acquiring an Etain, it would be to replace the Aquanaut.


  5. Hi Jim, I am glad you appreciate the Aquanaut. I don't get the impression the Etain is designed to replace either the Aquanaut or the Nordkapp. I think it is an alternative.


  6. Rob Avery showed us the Etain at GGSKS. Looking forward to a demo. Out here in So Cal - Aquanauts abound.

  7. "Bigger / smaller / same as the Quest?"

  8. Hello Mike, Cockpit is longer than Quest, deck in front of cockpit is lower, similar to Quest LV. More volume up front than Quest, as you know Quest tapers a lot to bow. Unloaded 90kg paddler found more primary and secondary stability than Quest.

  9. Blake glad to hear Aquanauts are alive and well with you.


  10. Great review! May I ask you, would you recomment the Etain for a 6'2" 209lbs paddler with little experience? I will try to demo a few before making a purchase, but it would be good to have your opinion. I'm also looking at the Aquanaut(HV), the Cetus and maybe one of the Rockpools too. Thanks.

  11. Hi Douglas, fantastic review as always. It would be great if you could to a follow up review after a rough weather day / loaded up camping trip.

    Also interested in comments when comparing Etain with Aquanaut. But if you could only have one, as a do it all boat - which would it be????

  12. Ricardo thank you, at your size and experience, I think you are exactly the type of paddler Valley are trying to target with the Etain. You are right to consider the other kayaks as well. Hopefully you will be able to try the Etain side by side with the Aquanaut.

    Thanks Anon! I paddled the Etail along side the Nordkapp LV, which is very different to the Aquanaut so I can't say too much though I know and like the Aquanaut.

    At my height, 5'8.5" (the 0.5 is important!) I would find both the Etain and the Aquanaut a bit big for a do it all kayak. That's why I have the Nordkapp LV, but I still need a bigger camping kayak which is why I also have a Quest LV.

    Big people don't need any more volume/weight of camping gear than a smaller person, so they might get away with having either as an allround kayak.


  13. I paddled this same boat yesterday. Conditions were calm in the morning but it blew up considerably later on - 20mph+ I think from the NNW. I've paddled valley boats before and I've found they all need a fair degree of skeg in windy conditions, this ones no different in that respect, but like the others, once you get the right amount of trim its absolutely fine.
    I'm about 90kg and 6'3" and the cockpit fitted me very well, my legs making contact with the thigh braces at just the right position with the balls of my feet on the foot pegs. I found it fairly easy to roll, not as quick to come up as my Alaw but still fairly quick nonetheless.
    Edge control is really good too and I found it much easier to make tighter turns on edge with this than my Alaw.
    I'm currently looking for a second boat, and having spent the best part of a day paddling this one, I just may have found it.


  14. Hello Bill, thanks for your findings in a wind and also about your better fit WRT the thigh braces. I agree about this kayak being really easy to turn as it is so stable on edge. If manoeuvrability is important to you, you should also try the Cetus, which is even more manoeuvrable, though at the expense of directional stability surfing on waves.

  15. Hello Douglas, as you know, I've been having an interesting time paddling the Etain for an Ocean Paddler Magazine review. Thought you and readers of your excellent write up might be interested in some comparison photos I've been able to take of my own P&H Cetus with the Valley Etain.

    Images can be seen on my blog

    Regards, Duncan

  16. As I read your review it was hard to avoid thinking the familiar refrain: what's old is new again. When you get to Maine, come paddle the Dragonworks Sturgeon [formerly the Islander until we sold that name to Perception/Aquaterra]. Originally the Wye Islander from Hereford but tweaked a bit for the better over the years. Swede form, 21.5 x 17'. Expeditions worldwide since 1980.Fast, stable, quick turning and a good at surfing. This boat was always the stable alternative to the Nordkapp with only a hair loss in speed. Foam cored, resin infused glass/kevlar layup. 45 pounds fully outfitted with deck pump, hatches, lines. We have all remaining Suunto K-158 compasses for recessed application.

  17. Hello Ed, it is very good to hear from you.

    One of my friends has a 1984 Wye Islander Expedition, which is only a little longer than the Islander. He refuses to part with it!

    Some recent discussion here.


  18. Tried the Etain today on Vancouver Island - thanks Rob Avery for bringing some over. I fit the nicely appointed 17'5" version (the "LV") so didn't try the 17'6" one (I'm stocky, 5'6" 230pounds).

    The hull (read performance) and the cockpit fit were my real priorities though the locking point cleat and front day pod were very desirable options I'm glad Peter included. I'd done a front day hatch on my Valley boat 20 years ago.

    Very nimble kayak, 360 turns were crisp, with loads of stability on edge but without that boxy Tiderace/NDK resistence, though it does take some skill to hold it there unlike the afformentioned makes where they edge like on a rail when edging.

    I prefere a more edge-to-edge responsiveness, without the twitchy Nordkapp problems on edge (I know, don't blame the boat...). Slower than my 1980 Nordy HS but holds a heck more gear, shoe size isn't an issue (yeah N.American market)and rolls okay back up to a ready combat position. Sculling on side to head-in-water was easy an did not exhibit any point where control could be lost.

    And finally, decent cockpit ergonomics with awesome thigh hooks and a very functional cockpit rim shape unlike the Nordkapp LV. I'd been tempted to by Tiderace or Rockpool just for the cockpit ergonomics.

    Rob claims it is a steady performer in conditions. With a Valley pedigree and Peter's hull alchemy, I have no doubts. How swede it is! Welcome Valley to the new age...

    Doug Lloyd

  19. Hello Duncan, I enjoyed your Etain review in Ocean Paddler.

    Hello Doug, thank you for your very helpful additional comments. I have to agree about the thigh grips being a great improvement over the Nordkapp LV!


  20. hello all, im new to kayaking and have recently bought a necky manitou,although i rather like it i find it very hard to edge in,maybe this is due to lack of experience,id like to get another kayak and have been looking at the valley range for some time now,im 6'2" tall and 98kgs which would you recomend i try? and was i ill advised on buying a necky manitou, thanks =)

  21. Hello Chris at your height and weight the Valley Etain would be the one to try. You might also try at the P&H Cetus.


  22. thanks alot =)

  23. Hi Douglas,

    I enjoyed your review of the Etain but would appreciate a little advice from you and your readers.

    I have a carbon/kevlar Aquanaut HV which is a beautiful boat for expeditions but would like to get a plastic boat as a 'day' boat so I don't have to panic about my gel coat while rock hopping or surfing.


    Thanks in advance :-)

  24. Thanks for an excellent review Douglas. I'm in the market for composite kayak and the Nordkapp is high on the list, as is the Alaw Bach from Rockpool.

    Your comments on the stability for photography of the Etain ring many chords as a DSLR or digital MF system are not easy to handle in a kayak.


  25. Hello Roger, your light Aquanaut sounds ace!

    Valley are bringing out a polyethylene version of the Etain.

    The Northshore Atlantic RM is very good but the smaller P&H Delphin would make a great partner to your Aquanaut.


    Nick, if you go for a Rockpool Alaw Bach, get a skeg. I didn't and as soon as I stopped paddling to take a photo it veered off to one side. I retrofitted a skeg and that cured the problem.

    Both the Etain and the Cetus have proved brilliant for photography.


  26. Hi there...any idea if the etain can be equipped with a rudder_?Thanx in advance..

  27. Hello Random, I have not seen an Etain with a rudder but I am pretty sure Valley will do them as a special order, I have seen a recent Nordkapp with a rudder.


  28. Thanks for a great review and comments. I'm a beginner kayaker and am interested in the Vallet Etain 17-5 (poly). I am 5'11", 168 lbs., and a 34 waist. Would the 17-5 be a fit for me.


  29. Hi Matt, I have not sat in the 17.5 RM Etain but I think it would be good for you. Remember to ask for a shot in the kayak before buying. I think RM poly kayaks are great. I have been paddling a Delphin RM over the summer and it has been great.

  30. Hi Douglas, thanks for your review and comments. As my english is poor (I'm french ;-)) could you please explain me what does "broaching" mean, specially when you talk about the Cetus default? Do you mean the Etain as not this default at all ?
    If I dare a last question : which defaults and qualities you could list about the rockpool alaw bach, compared to the etain?

    1. Bonjour Henri, broaching means that the kayak turns sideways to the waves when paddling with the waves behind you. All kayaks will broach eventually, especially in the surf. The Etain resists broaching very well, as do the newer Cetus HV and MV models.

      The Etain 177 is a very much larger kayak than the Alaw Bach so normally you would not be choosing between them. If you are interested in a Rockpool Alaw Bach then you should be comparing with the Etain 173, Nordkapp LV, or Cetus MV. I have an Alaw Bach, Nordkapp LV and Cetus MV, personally (for mostly day use with occasional camping) I would choose any of them over the Etain 177, which really is very big. At my weight of 85kg it gets blown about in a wind if not loaded with camping gear.

      I hope that helps. Douglas :o)

    2. Bonjour Douglas,
      Do you mean the Cetus MV and HV have a new hull design ? And what about the LV one? Is it still affected by the broaching default ? I'm measuring 1,82m and my weight is about 78kg and actually hesitating between the Etain 173, Alaw Bach and Cetus MV (LV ?).
      Thanks for your helpful answers.

    3. Henri at your weight I think Etain 173, Alaw Bach and Cetus MV are the ones to consider. The Cetus LV is lower volume than the others. I have not paddled the Etain 173 only the 175 and 177 versions, both of which I really like especially for camping. The Etains are much more directional (easier to paddle in a straight line) than the Alaw Bach and Cetus MV but are less manouverable. The Alaw Bach cockpit is the most firm fitting with the Cetus MV being the loosest. The two larger Etains have a comfortable compromise. The Alaw Bach and the Cetus MV are particularly good in rough water but the Cetus MV is less affected by winds of force 5 and above. I cannot comment about the Etain 173 in wind but the Etain 175 is more affected than the Cetus MV. The Cetus HV has the same hull as the original Cetus but the cockpit has been moved further, back which has corrected the excessive broaching. The Cetus MV and LV were designed with rear set cockpits from the start and have never suffered excessive broaching. Having said that, the Alaw Bach and Cetus MV are more manoeuvrable on a wave than the Etains, which is a characteristic that most intermediate to advanced paddlers enjoy. It does make an accidental broach more likely though, without paddler intervention. All three will cruise happily at the same speed but the Alaw Bach has a slower top speed than the Etains or Cetus MV. Given that I value manoeuvrability highly and I also paddle in stronger winds, my personal choice is the Cetus MV, which is a truly all round kayak. You really should try to paddle each of them to feel what suits you best.

      Douglas :o)

  31. Hello Douglas,

    thanks for the interesting (and very instructive) reviews on the Etain and Cetus. I am quite huge (1.96m at 115 kg) and will eventually end up in one of those two - or a Lettmann Biskaya (all three in HV version). According to my memory, the Cetus offers a tad more legroom and space for the thighs than the Etain, which I consider the smallest of the bunch.

    Which Etain did you test?

    1. Hello Stefan, I tested the Etain 17.7 and it is very big. I am about 90kg and it was really too big for me so your weight sounds much more suitable. I have also tested the Cetus HV which again was too big for me. One thing to watch is foot size as the foredeck of the Cetus HV tapers to a lower height as you move forward from the cockpit than the Etain 17.7 does. I have paddled all sizes of the Etain and Cetus many times since writing the review. The Etains are more directional than the Ceti which some like though some experienced kayakers have described them as a bit bland or numb. I think that is a bit unfair as they do handle rough conditions very predictably. Personally, I much prefer the feel of the Nordkapp LV and Cetus MV (though they are very different) to the Etain 17.5. However, four friends have Etain 17.5s and all are happy with their choice.

      Good luck with your choice. :o)

  32. Hi douglas, tx for the review. I am 5'10", weighing 74kg... Would you say the 17,3" is the right one for me? How does packing volume compare between all three versions?

    1. Hello Gert, Valley recommend a load of 40-81kg for the 17,3. It is not clear whether this refers to paddler only or paddler plus gear.

      For comparison I am 92kg and I paddle a Nordkapp LV with a recommended load of 61-99kg. I can load it with a week's camping gear no problems so I suspect Valley's figures refer to paddler weight in which case you should be fine. I prefer lower volume boats because they have less windage. The two bigger Etains really are quite big boats so the 17,3 should suit you well. Make sure you have a test paddle in it to check things like your feet fit! I hope you enjoy your new kayak. :o)

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Tx for the answer. These recommended loads are a mystery to me. It cant'be paddler plus gear, can it? I mean most sea kayaks take 20kg of gear no problem. when you say "big" boat, are you referring to cockpit volume, i.e. leg space etc? Lengthwise, there's not much between 17,3" and 17,5".

      I'm really looking for a boat that takes me comfortably on daytrips as well as trips up to a week, say. So I'm trying to narrow it down to any of the Etains, the Nordkapp LV and possibly any of the North Shore Atlantic or Atlantic LV.

  33. Hello Gert, I also use my kayak mostly for day trips with at most a week's camping. I found the two bigger Etains quite large allround for their length i.e. big volume compared with other kayaks such as the Nordkapp LV. The Atlantic and Atlantic LV are both superb kayaks but the Atlantic is big at 360l and the Atlantic LV is small at 275l. You need to try them. The Cetus LV at 292l and MV at 332l would also be worth trying. At 92kg I really like the feel of the Nordkapp LV at 326l and Cetus MV at 332l so something about the 300l volume might be worth considering.