P&H Volan 160 in its element. Photo by Ian Johnston.
This really is a long term test. I first paddled the Volan MV back in October 2020 but a combination of injury, resulting in a fractured coccyx, chronic health problems and covid lockdown has limited my time to the extent that P&H have since renamed it the Volan 160! So with apologies to P&H, I have at last spent enough time in the Volan 160 to get enough experience for a meaningful test and comparative review. This is an updated and expanded version of a test which was published here then edited and published in Kanu Magazin in April 2022. It includes comments and posts I have made on P&H Owners Group Facebook page since then.
Design features.The Volan 160 has relatively steep bow and stern overhangs to maximise its waterline length. It has considerable bow and stern rocker and hard chines run nearly its full length. The sheer line (seam) rises steeply towards the the bow which reduces waves breaking over the bow, pitching and purling. In plan, the wide point on the Volan is about the seat so it is neither a fish form nor a swede form though it tends slightly to the swede form end of the spectrum.
Construction and fittings options.
I have previously used P&H composite sea kayaks in original Diolen, Performance Kevlar/Diolen, Expedition Diolen and Lightweight Kevlar Carbon spec. At the age of 68y, I can no longer easily handle and lift the Performance Kevlar/Diolen or Expedition Diolen constructions ashore, so this time I went for Lightweight Kevlar/Carbon. Since I started paddling a carbon surfski, I have got used to exiting a kayak in deeper water rather than running it up the beach. So I also chose not to have a keel strip to save weight.
So this time I ordered the Connect seat. It would be worth while trying to demo both before deciding. The Connect seat comes with removable hip pads. My hips are 98cm/38” and the fit is perfect. We had to remove them for paddlers with a bigger hip measurement.
I ordered a vertical rear bulkhead because it gives more space behind the seat and I like to keep my heavy water bag there when camping. The Connect seat has an adjustable strap with quick release buckle to secure gear behind the seat back. There are gear loops at either side of the seat pan.
I like custom forward bulkheads for a footrest as they are so comfortable and versatile. Since starting to paddle a surfski, most of my sea kayak paddling is now also done with feet and knees together and this is easy with a bulkhead footrest. My inside leg is 29” and P&H fit the bulkhead big enough for 31” leg and supply a shaped full size block of foam 3” thick to put against the bulkhead. I cut a 1” thick slice off with a breadknife and use the 2” thick piece. I fit it with a pull cord in its centre so it is easy to remove. Using combinations of these two foam pieces, or none, my boat can easily fit paddlers of 28” to 31” inside leg more quickly than adjusting foot pegs! I have not tested the Volan with the standard twistlock footrests. I do not like them after paddling several Scorpios and Virgos. I see no point in ordering a personal customised sea kayak with these fitted. They reduce the volume of the front hatch and increase the volume of the cockpit. They are less stiff than a custom bulkhead footrest and sometimes give way if you press too hard.
The Volan 160 has all the regular P&H composite deck fittings you would expect.
Test conditions, locations, comparison kayaks and paddlers.
The test period was October 2020 until September 2022. This included restricted access to the sea during second Covid lockdown. I used the Volan 160 fully loaded on camping trips totalling 13 days. For comparison I switched to the Cetus MV on one of these trips for a further 2 days. The rest of the time health problems limited me to day paddles with a maximum of 12 km though most were only 6 km. In total, I paddled 518km and others paddled it 133km.
The Volan 160 was paddled in exposed tidal waters of the outer Solway Firth, open and sheltered waters in the Firth of Clyde and its sea lochs, open sheltered and tidal waters in the Firth of Lorn, tidal waters between the Isle of Skye and the mainland, fjord like Loch Hourn, the Sound of Arisaig and Wester Ross coast in NW Scotland. In my main Solway test area, I have installed an anemometer on an off shore reef and have a spare sports watch (with GPS and accelerometers) with an app attached to a handle on top of a buoy to measure swell/wave height. Winds varied from F0 up to F7 (offshore) and swell up to 1.5m with one 2m day.
It was paddled alongside P&H kayaks: Delphin 155, Aries 155, Hammer, Virgo MV, Scorpio Mk1, Scorpio Mk2 CLX MV and HV, Quest LV, Cetus (original and MV), Cetus LV, Northshore Kayaks: Ocean 17.6, Voyager 17.0, Voyager 16.10, Atlantic Evolution/Nomad 17, Rockpool Kayaks: Alaw Bach, Valley Kayaks: Nordkapp LV and Anas Acuta. In order not to allow the Volan's lightweight carbon kevlar construction to affect the comparisons unfairly, the Evolution Kayaks Nomad 17 was included as it is also of full kevlar/carbon construction. It is also marketed as a versatile all rounder but is a more traditional British style shape.
The main tester was 172cm tall and 73kg. The Volan was also paddled by a range of people from 164cm to 188cm tall and 62kg to 90kg. Paddler experience ranged from complete beginner to 5*. It was padded with GP, Euro and wing paddles.
Ergonomics and fit.
Of all the boats mentioned in this test I, and several others, found the Volan 160 and the Nomad 17 to be the most comfortable to sit in for extended periods of time. There is a common reason, they have bigger cockpits, with more room for thighs, knees and feet than for example the Cetus MV and particularly, the Nordkapp LV and Anas Acuta. Being an all round kayak, the Volan 160 does not have the aggressive thigh grips that are fitted to the Aries 155. Some of the shorter paddlers felt their legs were splaying wider than in their Cetus MVs. The Volan 160 cockpit coaming length, breadth and height dimensions are similar to those of the Cetus MV but the distance across the cockpit, where my knees make contact with the seams, is 3cm larger. However, due to the 2cm thick skeg slider being moved from just above the seam to the fore deck, the Volan has 5 cm more width for your knees than the Cetus MV. If you like the width of the Cetus MV cockpit you could always stick 2.5cm thick mini-cell foam pads to each seam where your knees contact.
A couple of paddlers who have Aries 155s missed the aggressive thigh grips as I have only stuck 3mm mini-cell foam sheet under the deck. It would be easy enough to stick some thicker strips along the inner side of the thigh grip area if you wanted a more positive location. I have not felt the need and it is interesting that the Nomad 17, which was also highly rated for comfort in this test, does not have aggressive thigh grips either. Lastly, the relationship between the Volan 160 seat/deck and cockpit opening is really good. I can get both legs out on the water prior to landing which I can’t in the Cetus MV.
I was amazed by the Volan 160’s response to edging and its stability on edge, this stability is quite unlike that of the Nordkapp LV, for example. For a full size expedition boat, the Cetus MV is known to turn tightly on edge but the Volan 160 turns well inside it.
Where I have really fallen for the Volan 160 is downwind on an open crossings, it is easier to catch more waves than the Cetus MV or Atlantic/Nomad 17. Going upwind, the Volan 160 is much drier than the Quest LV, Cetus MV, Anas Acuta and Nordkapp LV. You will find you need to adjust the skeg less than in an Aries but more than in a Cetus. As I take a lot of photos, I frequently stop paddling. Like the Cetus MV, the Volan 160 is very happy to lie to the wind at the same angle as when you were paddling. This is in contrast to the Aries, which will start to lee cock as soon as you stop paddling. (To reassure potential Aries buyers, the Aries is very neutral in the wind when you are moving and have used the appropriate amount of skeg.)
The Cetus MV, Quest LV, Nordkapp LV, Atlantic Evolution/Nomad 17 and Volan 160 can all carry exactly the same volume of my gear but the Volan 160 day hatch is a bit deeper and the bow and stern end spaces are less tapered and so are more usable and easy to load than on the longer kayaks. When loaded, both the Volan 160 and the Nomad 17 are noticeably drier than the other kayaks when going upwind into a breezy chop.
Cruising speed is obviously important on multi-day trips. Although the Volan 160 is shorter than the other kayaks above, it also has shorter overhangs and so the waterline length is not that much different. As it is waterline length that largely dictates maximum displacement (non planing) speed, there is not really much difference in cruising speed between the Volan 160 and the longer traditional British style kayaks. Also many people are not fit enough or have good enough technique to drive a kayak to its theoretical maximum speed. As you approach the hull's maximum speed, the resistance to forward paddling increases exponentially. Other factors also play a part such as the wetted area when loaded and unloaded. The more wetted area the greater resistance to forward paddling. In rough water a stable boat will be easier to keep to speed than an apparently fast, long narrow boat, if paddle strokes are wasted bracing. Putting the theory aside, in practical terms we noticed no difference in cruising speed or effort between the Volan 160 and the longer kayaks it was compared with. The only difference was that good paddlers could catch more waves going downwind in the Volan 160 and pull ahead of the longer boats.
To prove the point about the Volan 160's effective cruising speed, I managed to tow a medically incapacitated paddler in a Cetus MV with the Volan 160 for 11km (across two shipping lanes in the Firth of Clyde) at an average speed of 6km per hour and without stopping. Both boats were fully loaded on a camping trip.
If speed was my prime requirement in a sea kayak, because I was on a record breaking mission such as a long crossing or circumnavigation, I would choose an FSK such as a Rockpool Taran for a multi-day trip or a surfski for a single day trip.
I am a sucker for deck cargo... big camera case and sail folded on the fore deck (if it is not up!) and often a trolley bag on the rear, so I no doubt experience windage problems more than most. I also like collecting abandoned fishing buoys from beaches and rocks. One of these on your rear deck is a great way to test how a boat handles in a breeze. I carried a 70cm diameter buoy for 32km both upwind, across the wind and downwind. Some of the time I used a sail. During this period the anemometer at a local airstrip averaged 11 knots and gusted to 21knots. The Volan with a buoy handled and tracked very nearly as well as the Quest LV and Cetus MV without buoys! Overall, the Volan 160 excels surfing downwind on its chines in a breeze but also handles going upwind very well indeed.
Swell and surf.
In more confused seas, The Volan 160 matches the untroubled feel of the longer boats with low volume ends such as Cetus MV, Nordkapp LV, Atlantic Evolution/Nomad 17 or the Anas Acuta. However, the Volan 160 is faster than these boats once it catches a wave downwind. In short ,steep waves it is easier to alter course to hold a line on the wave face when you are being pushed into a broach than the above kayaks (and also the Quest LV and Cetus MV). Despite being shorter, the Volan 160 is much less likely to start to broach than the original Cetus in particular.
In my Cetus MV and Nomad 17, if I am catching bigger swell, I find I need to run pretty straight with the bow about 90 degrees to the swell line, while holding a stern rudder stroke, otherwise it tends to broach. However, in the Volan 160 I find I can run at about 45 degrees to the swell without broaching. This is great fun because it allows you to travel faster than running straight in front of the swell. I am also lucky to have a reef break at certain states of the tide. I like to catch the swell at its steepest, smooth face just before it starts to break. I then run away from the breaking section with the white water chasing after my stern. In full planing conditions on a wave face I find that a little skeg helps.
My aim is to balance the direction of the kayak with very sensitive edging. I use a stern rudder stroke as little as possible as this acts as a brake. Some say you should never use skeg when catching swell or surf. Well, I have been catching and riding waves on a variety of windsurfers since 1977 and all of them have had skegs, some 3 or 4!! My full carbon Think Zen surfski even has a rudder! The above technique only works for me in kayaks with hard chines. I can’t do it on my otherwise excellent Nomad 17. It requires I use stern rudder and run straight on most steep waves. However, when you broach a round bottom kayak like the Nomad 17, it is more forgiving.
I was concerned about ordering the Volan 160 in kevlar carbon because one of my previous Aries 155s was kevlar carbon and it slammed, banged and shuddered when paddling out over steep waves and surf. My carbon surfski is even worse and I often fear it will break in half! (I guess this is why surfskiers prefer downwind shuttle runs.) I need not have worried. The kevlar/carbon Volan 160 has more V in the bow than the Aries and comes down off the back of the wave much more softly and with hardly a shudder.
Looking at all round performance in swell and surf, such as might be encountered during a longer trip, the Volan 160 was my favourite. If your interests lie in just playing in the swell, surf and tide races then yes the Aries 155 / Delphin 155 take it due to their more specialised nature. Would I pair a Volan 160 with an Aries 155? Well for me, the answer is no. There is too much performance overlap at the wave end of the wave/touring spectrum of my use. Remember though, that if the surf is up and there is enough wind, both my Aries 155 and Volan 160 will remain in the shed and I will be out windsurfing. If there is swell but light wind, I will be on my surfski!
Suitability for beginners.
I am not suggesting a beginner should buy a composite kayak as a first purchase and particularly not a kevlar carbon one. However, three absolute beginners really took to the Volan. It was easy to get in and out of and they felt very stable. They found it much easier to turn than the Cetus MV. It would be a great boat to go on and learn edging in because of its remarkable secondary stability.
Rolling, assisted rescues and coaching.
The Volan 160 has a very predictable roll. It does not roll as fast as a Valley Nordkapp LV, which tends to window blind and roll over again if you are not quick. Due to the rocker, the bow and stern continue to provide some support once you pass the limit of secondary stability in an accidental capsize. This delays overturning and a good paddler may be able to use a high brace to recover before complete inversion. Those smaller paddlers or those who depend on a vigorous hip snap to come up will probably want to stick some more pronounced thigh grips under the deck. I have not found the need. The back deck is about the same height as the Northshore Atlantic Evolution/Nomad 17 and Valley Nordkapp LV but is a bit higher than the Cetus MV. However, it was still low enough to make back deck rolls easy.
Assisted re-entries were easy using the heel hook and the spacious cockpit meant twisting your bum round into the seat was easy. The elastic supported Connect seat back resisted folding under you during re-entry pretty well. The Volan 160 proved easy to empty during an assisted T rescue. I have found the flooded Aries 155 more difficult to lift due to the pronounced upturn of the bow.
I used the Volan 160 with Flat Earth Tradewind and Footloose sails and KCS Pro sail. While the Tradewind is forgiving in gusts and is ideally suited to newcomers to paddle sailing, I preferred the more responsive feel of the Footloose and Pro sails. They also deliver more power in a gust, which is very helpful when the boat is laden on a camping trip.
Paddle sailing in decent downwind conditions, the Volan 160 truly excels, it will help you catch more waves than most other British style kayaks apart from the Delphin/Aries. Among the longer kayaks, the Quest LV was a favourite and gave a great paddle sailing downwind as it picked up waves easily and required little effort to keep it on line.
Wear and tear.
The Volan 160 has survived over 650km paddling by myself and others and still looks new. There have been only three minor issues:
The stainless steel cable for the skeg adjuster got a slight kink when a beginner tried to put the skeg down while the stern was still on the beach. It has not affected function at all.
There is a very small but persistent leak into the rear compartment. It is not much more than a few cc over the course of a day. I have not yet discovered its source. In my experience, it is usually the gland where the cable enters the skeg box but I have upturned the kayak and filled the skeg box with water and it is bone dry.
I have decided there is no point in having a Cetus MV and a Volan 160. The Volan 160 does everything for me the Cetus MV does and more. There is less performance overlap with the Aries 155 but even so, there is much less need for the Aries 155 when paired with the Volan than if paired with a Cetus.
If you are interested in paddle sailing, the Volan 160 is probably the best synthesis of chines, rocker and length for paddle sailing currently available. I have enjoyed paddle sailing it more than any other kayak I have tried.
So my future will be with one kayak, the Volan 160, which, for my weight of 73kg, is a true all rounder. It swallows all the gear my Cetus MV took plus it is a lot more playful. P&H have undersold the Volan, it is way more than a playful weekend camper.
With P&H kayaks we really are spoiled for choice.
Volan 160 in Lightweight Kevlar/Carbon construction
Weight as tested: 20.2kg
Full specifications and details of other constructions and prices at phseakayaks.com
Please do not buy a kayak as a result of reading a review! At the very least, you must sit in one and make sure you fit in it. Ideally you should paddle any kayak before purchase and preferably paddle several alternatives, in a variety of conditions, before deciding what is best for you. I know many people live a very long way from demo centres and are therefore more reliant on reviews. I have therefore included measurements of several people who have successfully paddled the Volan 160.
Conflict of Interest and acknowledgements.
I have lost count of the number of P&H sea kayaks I have bought or been loaned over the last 21 years. I am grateful that I have had a long-standing, unpaid relationship with Pyranha/P&H in which I have access to new products/prototypes in exchange for feedback. Some of the features on the Volan 160 are a direct result of my feedback on previous models or during general discussion with Graham Mackereth and Mathew Wilkinson. I own several personal kayaks from Dagger, Evolution Kayaks, Pyranha, P&H, Rockpool, Think and Valley so I am not dependent on P&H to go paddling. I am grateful to Mathew Wilkinson of P&H and Mark Mitchell of Sea Kayak Oban www.seakayakoban.com for their help in delivering the Volan 160. I am thankful to all my sea kayaking friends who have patiently put up with my "try this, what do you think of that?, hang on I need a photo!"