Sunday, June 11, 2023

A medical emergency while sea kayaking round Knoydart.

My recent posts on FB of an idyllic trip round Knoydart have brought to mind a very different past trip to the area. One that was very painful to experience and even think about until now. The following was an article I wrote after the event, which I would have submitted to Ocean Paddler magazine for publication. Unfortunately the passage of time has meant that Ocean Paddler is no longer published and only now do the four of us on the trip feel like throwing our experience open to wider discussion. So sharing here might help others learn from our experience.

Although we are experienced sea kayakers, most of our paddling group are retired (and two of those that are still working are 75 and 80!) and each of us has medical problems. I had chosen not to go on most the group's outings in the year prior to this trip and two other members did not come on this trip due to health problems. (Indeed, as I write this, I am at home in the sun while others are enjoying a group trip through the Corryvreckan to West Loch Tarbert in Jura, my favourite destination, but I am not fit enough to go!) 

Four of us, Ian, Maurice, Norrie and myself arranged to meet at Mallaig near the entrance to Loch Nevis that bounds the south shore of the remote Knoydart peninsula. When we arrived, on a beautiful summer Wednesday morning, we received a text from Norrie that he had to go and see his GP that morning and we were to carry on without him. We paddled into Outer Loch Nevis where spent Wednesday night camping and paddled right into the Inner Loch and back on the Thursday before returning to the previous night's camp site. 

At 18:50 on Thursday we received a text from Norrie to say he had arrived in Mallaig would paddle round and join us at our camp. Then at 19:38, a second text told us he had been unable to find a parking spot near the launch site so he would sleep overnight in the car outside Mallaig. He planned to cross over the mouth of Loch Nevis to Sandaig Bay on Knoydart the following day (Friday) and meet us about 10:00.  We planned to pass that way from our camp in Loch Nevis up the west coast of Knoydart to the Sandaig Islands, north of the entrance to Loch Hourn. We planned to camp there on Friday night.

Norrie got a parking space in Mallaig at 06:00 on Friday and despite a bad knee, managed a single handed launch down the steep rocky embankment on the south side of Mallaig harbour. It was a calm morning and he launched at 09:15.  We met as arranged at Sandaig Bay at 09:30.  Straight away it was clear that Norrie was very tired. Despite his age, he is usually a fit paddler and has 55 years of sea kayaking experience. He was lagging behind so we matched our pace to his and took an early extended break on a delightful shell sand beach at Airor Island. 

Talking to Norrie, it was apparent he was not his usual energetic self and we decided that we would cut the planned day short by landing and setting up a camp at the first suitable place on Knoydart, rather than cross the mouth of Loch Hourn to the Sandaig Islands. We had arranged to camp with my brother (who was travelling separately)  at the Sandaig Islands but felt it would be unwise for us to attempt that distance with Norrie being out of sorts.

Norrie really appreciated the early stop for the day and we carried his kayak and gear up the beach for him. During Friday evening Norrie felt much better. He told me he had seen his doctor for some “bumps in the chest”. The doctor did an ECG and found nothing but an occasional ectopic heart beat. The doctor had arranged for him to have a 24 hour ECG in a week or two in case there was an underlying episodic cardiac abnormality that his ECG had missed. The doctor also told Norrie to take it easy for a day or two. 

The following day, Saturday, was forecast to be calm in the morning but with fresh to strong winds from the north increasing in the afternoon. We decided to get up at 6am and paddle the short distance north to the Sandaig Islands where we could catch up with my brother. We would be more sheltered  there and could spend a day or two on short day paddles. Norrie finally managed to get up at 8am. He had had a bad night. He felt tired and had had more bumps in his chest. He made a coffee then after we carried his gear down the beach he started loading his boat. He was determined to paddle on. I was concerned and said we could just sit tight and have a rest day on land but Norrie would have none of it. At 09:30 he disappeared along the beach for a toilet break and the other three of us had a chat. I thought we should consider calling the coastguard but we all recognised the psychological importance of this paddle to Norrie. He had shown great determination to come despite a visit to the doctor, not finding a parking place, having to camp out a night in the car and the single handed launch. 

When he returned, some 15 minutes or so later, the effort of going to the toilet showed on Norrie’s face.  He looked ashen and had to sit on a rock because he felt dizzy and so tired. He said he would need a “wee rest” before starting paddling. I asked if I could give him a check over. The first thing I examined was his pulse. It was very fast, at over 160 bpm (tachycardia). The beat of his pulse also varied in rate and volume. I had no doubt this was atrial fibrillation and was no longer a few harmless ectopic beats. Sudden onset atrial fibrillation with tachycardia and symptoms is a medical emergency.  Untreated it can cause a stroke or death. I said to him I thought we should call the coastguard so that he could be evacuated to hospital for urgent medical treatment. 

Norrie was shocked at the idea of calling the coastguard as he did not think there was very much wrong with him that a sit on the rock would not fix. I asked him what he would do if he was at home and felt like this. “I’d call the doctor” he said “but this is different.” I then explained to him about the risk of having a stroke, if his heart rate and rhythm were not controlled. So he said maybe I should just sit tight until it goes away, you guys go on ahead, I will be fine to get back to Mallaig myself.” I told him the only way we were going to split up was if he left in a helicopter.  His reply was “Please do not call the coastguard, after all these years it will be so embarrassing”.

Myself and Ian then went down to the boats where our phones and VHFs were. We left Maurice doing a very good job of comforting Norrie. As I am deaf, I decided that if we were going to contact the coastguard I would do so using my phone and bluetooth hearing aids so I put my standard hearing aids on top of the bow hatch of the boat and made sure my bluetooth hearing aids were connected to the phone. Ian got his VHF ready and we walked back to Maurice and Norrie. Maurice had done a good job and Norrie was beginning to feel a bit better. I checked his pulse but it was still very rapid atrial fibrillation. I now said to Norrie that I thought it was time to phone the coastguard. “Please don’t do that, I will be fine and I don’t want any one to be put to trouble”. I said “Norrie we have been friends for so long that I can talk bluntly. Even If you go in the kayak and do get to Mallaig you will not be fit to drive the car once you get there. If you suffer a stroke out on the water we will all be in trouble. There is nowhere to land and the wind is now picking up. A helicopter rescue at sea will be very difficult.” After a long pause Norrie at last said “You are right I don’t want to put you three at risk, please phone the coastguard”. He seemed to find peace from having finally made the decision but ultimately I would have ultimately phoned the coastguard anyway as Norrie would have risked a stroke or sudden cardiac death if he had exercised his heart in that state and if that happened on the water, it would have put us and rescuers at risk. This knowledge came from my medical experience.

If Ian and Maurice had been there without me, they would have had to phone the coastguard "for advice" and let the coastguard decide whether a helicopter was necessary or not. When the coastguard asked them how Norrie was feeling, they would have been able to say that he had sudden onset of bumping of the heart in his chest, extreme tiredness, feeling sick and dizziness on standing, all made worse by going for a poo. With that history, the CG would have called the helicopter, even without my diagnosis of new and sudden onset of symptomatic AF.

So at 10:07 on the Saturday I phoned Stornoway coastguard. They were were very calm and asked for information, which Ian and I had already prepared. The nature of the emergency, ashore or afloat, details of medical problem, how many in the party, our grid reference, Norrie’s name and date of birth, wind speed and direction, visibility, anywhere a helicopter could land, VHF call sign, mobile phone number check. After a few minutes the operator called back to say Rescue 151 helicopter would come from Inverness (100 km away to the NE) and that the Knoydart First Responder Coastguard Team would be coming overland from Inverie to guide the helicopter in. The operator said he was very pleased we had not gone to sea as an emergency rescue afloat would have been much more difficult. I returned to Norrie and Maurice. Ian scouted the best place to land the helicopter, which was not the shingle beach as it was very steep and soft in places and had a lot of loose flotsam. He thought a firm flat grassy area on a raised beach above us would be more suitable and checked it for loose objects. 

Ian tried to contact the coastguard using two Icom handheld VHFs but the coastguard could not hear his sea level transmissions. So Ian climbed about 150m up a hill behind the beach where he established VHF  contact with the coastguard and helicopter. At 10:52 the helicopter was 5 minutes away but there was still no sign of the land based coastguard to help guide the pilot in. Ian is a former Royal Marine and latterly a communications officer in the Royal Fleet Auxillary, so he knew how to talk the helicopter down over the VHF. The helicopter arrived above us at 10:57, just 50 minutes after we had first called the coastguard.

Two paramedics arrived from the helicopter and assessed Norrie. They then explained if they had to get the stretcher out it would add 30 minutes to the evacuation and they already had another emergency call. They asked if would it be possible to support/carry Norrie to the helicopter. Norrie was done by this stage and he also has a bad knee and found walking over the steep shingle beach very difficult. As if by a miracle, local farmer, Callum Wilson arrived on a quad bike from over the hill. He transported Norrie to the helicopter. It took off at 11:10, after just 8 minutes on the ground. It is just as well we had secured the gear to the sea kayaks as the downdraught from the helicopter would have blown anything loose away, especially our sails! Sadly, I had forgotten about my non bluetooth hearing aids, which were blown completely off my deck where I had left them. There was not a chance of finding them. 

Just as the helicopter left, the local Coastguards, Paul and Tom, arrived from Inverie after a very arduous 10km 4x4 journey on a rough track through the mountains of the Rough Bounds of Knoydart, with the last kilometre on foot. They checked we were all right and safe to make our journey back to Mallaig. They wondered how we would get Norrie’s boat back to Mallaig and I told them we would tow it.

After Paul and Tom left, the wind was now blowing from the north at the top of F4 with white horses to the horizon. We set off in a still increasing wind at 12:36 on Saturday. I was towing Norrie's kayak as I was the only one with a deck mounted tow. The others made sure  the skeg on Norrie's boat was down to make it easier to tow in the wind. The first 7km were SW to to the western most point of Knoydart and I paddle sailed with an 0.8sqm sail. I averaged 6.2km/hr. The sail was on a broad reach and it provided plenty drive while being relatively easy to control. The towed boat was weaving back and forth making holding a course somewhat challenging. 

Before we reached the point, the wind was averaging F5 gusting F6 and the others dropped their sails. I kept mine up until after rounding the point.  We now beared away off the wind onto a run heading for Mallaig some 6.5km away across the mouth of Loch Nevis. I soon had to drop the sail because it was not so easy to control on the run due to increased pressure in the sail when my boat was slowed by the towline stretching taught. It was now in the 3rd hour of the tide and increasing wind over tide in the Sound of Sleat made for short steep seas. Norrie’s boat was now veering back and forth even more and it was tough when a wave caught my boat and the towline pulled taught. 

By 14:10 we had managed 1.5 km across the mouth of  Loch Nevis but despite the strong following wind, my speed had dropped to 4km/hr. The wind was now averaging F5-F6 and to cap it all Norrie’s boat rammed me twice in the chest. It was time to abandon the crossing to Mallaig and to seek shelter. We turned to port to get into the lee of Knoydart. We landed on a small beach at 15:00. We discovered Norrie’s boat’s skeg was up, It must have been pushed up paddling through a kelp bed shortly after launching. My stern hatch also had 50 "sponge fulls" of water in it which certainly did not help the handling. We were all so tired by the physical and emotional challenges of the day that as soon as we got the tents up, we went for a sleep for a couple of hours. 

The following day, Sunday, we still had another windy crossing from Knoydart to Mallaig but then we were safe home. Ian and Maurice celebrated with double bacon rolls with egg and flat sausage on the side. Having haemochromatosis, I settled for sour dough toast with peanut butter, banana and sesame seeds on top!

There are a lot of things to think about. Emergency situations are often the result of multiple small events that lead up to the critical point of the emergency.  Action at any of those points could avert an emergency or prevent a worse situation. In our case, age and health were major factors. In a younger group, it might be various levels of experience. Peer pressure is also a great driver to press on regardless but in our group of mostly oldies, there is no peer pressure. Embarrassment was certainly a factor in Norrie’s initial reluctance to accept external help. I am a retired doctor so I was able to make a medical diagnosis about the cause of Norrie feeling out of sorts. This undoubtedly helped decision making but despite Ian and Maurice not being doctors and they could clearly see something was up. So if you suspect a medical problem, don't listen to "I'll be fine” seek professional help before it is too late. Whatever, it is best to seek help earlier rather than later. 

With profound thanks to all the professional and local people who so expertly helped us.

Post script.
As the helicopter left Maurice said “I now see why you asked for everyone’s shore contact number.” Norrie was admitted to Raigmore Hospital Inverness and given a drug through an IV infusion for several hours. This restored normal heart rhythm and rate. He has since been given standard long term drugs for atrial fibrillation to control his heart and prevent a stroke. He has taken a long time to get over this but is very glad to be alive.

Post script 2 from Ian
As I suspect we all have, I've reflected a lot on the events.

I don't believe I'd change any of the decisions we collectively made. 

Key for me was having Norrie fully engaged in the decision process, the decision being made with and not done to Norrie. All if us would have been extremely reluctant for a helo medevac had it been us, but it was absolutely the right solution.

My thinking re suggesting the grassy embayment as the landing site for Rescue 151:

The shingle spit was level and spacious with a clear approach route but had two disadvantages. It had a lot of loose material (dried weed, plastic, driftwood) and was also soft (the quad had left big wheel ruts). The loose material was a "FOD" (Foreign Object Damage) hazard and the AW189 aircraft has limited ground clearance on the undercarriage.

The grassy embayment was more confined but had level ground which could be FOD cleared to a decent level. I looked at a potential approach route too; a helo will usually prefer an into-wind approach and landing, even better if it can be a "red wind" i.e. from the aircraft's port side. That's why I positioned myself well upwind of the suggested landing site and could pass my suggestion to the aircrew before they were overhead.

The aircraft will also appreciate an estimate of the surface wind direction and speed.  CG aircraft monitor VHF #16 when on SAR operations. The preferred working channel is #0. VHF handhelds don't usually have this channel so the secondary working channel is #67

Post script 3. Ian has asked me to say that he does not identify as an oldie… he only paddles with oldies!!! 

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

P&H Volan 160 long term test and comparative review.


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.

P&H have created the Volan 160 (16 foot) kayak because they saw a need for a shorter, lighter, more manoeuvrable kayak that was still capable of going weekend camping trips as well as being a lot of fun on day trips. I believe they have created something much more. The Volan 160 is a true all round, all purpose sea kayak, which is also capable of multi-day trips rather than just weekend trips.

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.

The Volan 160 is available in four composite constructions. I chose the lightest; the Lightweight Kevlar/Carbon infusion. I added the optional full kevlar/carbon deck, no keel strip, Connect seat, vertical rear bulkhead, custom forward bulkhead position, no footrest, metal flake deck, I chose to delete the forward mini hatch. The boat was built in July 2020 and weighed 20.2kg. 

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.

I have used the Performance seat and the Connect seat in two previous Cetus MVs and have the Performance seat in my current Nomad 17. I do not get along with the Performance seat as it digs into my lower spine at the coccyx every time I rotate. The lower tab of the seat back also develops a fold with time and that also digs in.

Cutting the lower tab off the backrest of a Performance seat in a Cetus MV after it folded forward and pressed on the lower spine while on expedition.

Connect seat with removable hip pads in place.

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. 

Vertical rear bulkhead and custom front bulkhead with foam pad for feet.

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.

I ordered metal flake glitter deck, not because I was a teenager in the early ‘70s but because I have found boats with deck glitter are easier to sell on! I deleted the forward mini hatch because it gives me more room for my favoured feet and knees together paddling position. Also, I usually have a deck mounted camera bag, right where the mini hatch is located.

The Volan 160 has all the regular P&H composite deck fittings you would expect.

I was very pleased indeed that the cockpit coaming is now about 1cm higher than in the Cetus MV. This makes it much easier to get your spray deck on quickly.

The skeg adjuster has now been moved to the left foredeck, which I like as I no longer catch my thumb when paddling (as I often do on the Cetus MV). It also keeps it out the way if rafting up. However, it is now more likely to trap sand, so be prepared to keep it clean. I have found the lightest smear of silicone grease on the slider rod keeps the mechanism working smoothly. On this particular boat the skeg adjuster line was fine gauge stainless steel wire. Note that this is not the same as the "wire skeg" option on the P&H website. That refers to the previous generation of skegs such as found on the P&H Quest LV. In that, a heavy gauge stainless steel wire both deploys and retracts a triangular skeg blade.

I particularly like the deck elastics being a different colour to the deck lines (grey and black on this boat). This means if you are rescuing someone you can say grab the black line and they are less likely to grab elastic! 

Two very nice touches relevant to paddle sailing, which I suggested to Graham Mackerreth MD of P&H some years ago, now make a first appearance on a composite P&H sea kayak. Firstly there is now a pair of lateral deck line RDFs perpendicular (with respect to the kayak's longitudinal midline) to a mast foot mounting flat moulded on the foredeck. This means you do not need to add additional deck fittings for the mast side stays. 

Secondly, on the starboard side of the deck, just below the front of the cockpit rim, there is a little hook. This allows a rearward extension of the forward deck elastics to be pulled over the folded mast sail and to be secured on the hook. As the whole deck elastic is continuous, this allows you to pull enough elastic through to secure, but not crush, the sail. It then retracts out of the way when the sail is up…neat! Finally, like all recent P&H composite sea kayaks, even this lightweight kevlar carbon version has a foredeck that will withstand the pressure of a mast foot without further reinforcement by the user being required.

Still on the theme of paddle sailing, note the amount of 3D moulding round the mast foot (red plate with two bolts). This all helps to stiffen the foredeck to withstand the pressure of the mast but without adding too much weight from extra layers of laminate. Note the curved depression that is forward of the spare paddle recesses. Unfortunately this particular kayak had a compass mounting that was about 2mm too shallow for the Silva 70p deck compass. P&H will supply a custom cut gasket that will allow you to fit your own.

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.

First impressions.

I like boats with chines and the Volan MV is a very modern incarnation of a chined kayak. I like chines because of the early planing when catching a wave. I like the feel of chines when edging. Also, chined boats let you carve a turn (when planing) by leaning the kayak into the turn rather than leaning it out of the turn as most round hulled boats require. Some people like chines from the historical and aesthetic points of view.  The kayak that Ken Taylor brought to Scotland from West Greenland in 1960 was chined and this kayak went on to influence the British style sea kayaks. Indeed the Anas Acuta has its roots in that kayak. I also like chines in sailing dinghies. I much prefer the hard chined RS Aero, which I currently sail to the round hulled Laser, which I sailed in the '70s and '80s. 

Before I had seen it, I had wondered if the Volan 160 might be a composite version of the Virgo MV but as soon as I saw its size and shape, I realised it was not. The overall volume of the Volan 160 is 28l more than the Cetus MV and I think most of that is in the cockpit. When I sat in the Volan 160 cockpit, it felt so roomy compared with my Cetus MV that I wondered whether I would have been better waiting for the smaller Volan 158 to partner my Cetus MV (which fits like a glove or my Valley Nordkapp LV, which fits like a very tight sock). My first few outings were unloaded and in calm or moderate conditions. The Volan 160 cockpit’s spacious comfort, offering enough contact for control, was only matched by the equally roomy Nomad 17 cockpit (which also uses a P&H seat!). 

My first long trip in the Volan 160 was a very windy camping trip and I did not get that instant feeling of “This is the kayak for me” that I got with the Cetus MV on its first outing. I was having to adjust the Volan’s skeg more than my friend in a Cetus MV and I found I had to concentrate to keep it on course. I had loaded the Volan 160 with all my gear in the same place as I would have put it in the Cetus MV. First, this confirmed that they both had similar volume in each of the hatches and that the Volan 160 would not therefore be a particularly good smaller partner to the Cetus MV. However, over the four days, I gradually moved heavier items back and moved lighter items forward. What a difference this made to the way the Volan handled in the wind. At the end of the four days I knew I had found my new "do it all" all round camping boat and thoughts of waiting for a smaller Volan vanished!

Day trips

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.

Several times I have followed a Hammer rock hopping through tight channels and only left the paddler to it when the channels had shallow rocks, which he did not mind scraping over. With regard to cruising speed on flat water, there really is nothing in it between the Volan 160 and the Cetus MV not to mention the other British style kayaks it was paddled alongside.

Even when pushing for maximum speed against the tide (when we had missed a tidal window in the Loch Hourn narrows), the Cetus MV was not noticeably faster. 

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.)

Multi-day trips

Volan 160 and Cetus MV.

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.

GPS track of an 11km tow by the Volan 160 from the Isle of Bute to the mainland.

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.

P&H's sublime RM Valkyrie, a hybrid surfski hull with a kayak deck, would be another great choice if speed was your priority..

Windy conditions.

A friend, who has recently bought a Volan 160 after making quick progress in a Scorpio MV, said he found the Volan 160 was a bit skittish when unloaded in stronger winds. He was the right weight for the boat but had been setting the skeg then forgetting about it, as he had got away with in the Scorpio MV. I have had no problems in wind, if I trim the skeg more frequently than I would in a longer boat. This is particularly so when the wind is coming from about 45 degrees from the bow. However, even in more extreme conditions, the Volan  more than holds its own and is very neutral in strong winds with appropriate use of the skeg. 

On a very windy offshore day, an unladen Northshore Ocean 17.6 began to lee cock as we were trying to round a headland. The owner had lost weight since he bought it and because it was an unloaded HV expedition boat, it was floating higher than ideal. The wind was gusting into F7 but the Volan 160 remained completely controllable and I was able to return and set up an assisted tow. I had no trouble turning the Volan 160's bow into the wind, even when towing, to keep the Ocean 17.6’s bow to the wind while we rounded the headland. 

Photo Ian Johnston
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.
I am lucky enough to live right on a beach (on the Solway Firth) that is exposed to both long period swell and short period surf. In rough water the Volan feels very secure. It has such remarkable secondary stability that I found it seldom necessary to engage the thigh grips.

(Maybe my experience in surfskis has contributed to this, not a thigh grip in sight...despite the narrow width!) 

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.

Note that the Volan 160's bow rocker and high bow sheerline help prevent the bow burying.

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.

In a chined boat, like the Volan 160, you need to be sure to get the chine that is farthest from the wave face out of the water, otherwise it is another swim! Next to the Aries 155, the carbon kevlar Volan 160 is now my favourite British style kayak for catching swell and waves. 

However, let’s be realistic. If you want to ride and shred waves, stand up and get yourself a surfboard or a windsurfer. Compared with a small board, even a carbon sea kayak is an unwieldy, heavy barge. If you really want to sit down and catch waves get a surfski, preferably carbon, and only paddle downwind!

Aries 155 in  Lightweight Kevlar Carbon 
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.

Going out through breaking waves the bow of the Volan 160 sheds water from its deck better than the other kayaks except for the Aries 155 and Delphin 155. You will still get a wet chest but after being dumped on by an incoming wave, the boat rises predictably and safely. When playing in surf, the shorter kayaks; Volan 160, Aries 155, Hammer and Virgo MV could be spun round between sets much more easily than the longer kayaks. The  Virgo MV with less bow rocker and the Anas Acuta with its fine front end were more likely to bury their bow and broach than the other kayaks. If you do bury the Volan 160's bow, it rises and sheds water almost as well as the specialist Aries and Delphin 155s.

The Hammer was great, secure fun in surf but so heavy compared with the others.  Although the Hammer could catch slow moving surf in the shallow water, it was not able to catch faster moving deep water swells that the Volan 160 could.  

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.

The Volan's stability and ability to turn quickly are a real boon when coaching. I am currently teaching my 9 year old grandson to sea kayak and I am very happy to coach his out of boat practice from the Volan 160.  Needless to say, his kayak, a Jersey Junior also has chines!

Paddle sailing.

TheVolan 160 is an absolute blast when paddle sailing! 

Flat Earth Footloose sail.
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.

Upwind, with similar Flat Earth Tradewind sails, the Volan 160 appears to point as high to the wind as the longer boats. However, like the shorter Aries 155, it slips more to leeward and after a kilometre of sailing as close to the wind as possible it was about 120m downwind of the longer kayaks. I also found I was having to trim the skeg in the Volan 160 and Aries 155 more often than in the longer kayaks.

KCS Pro sail.
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.

When surfing downwind on the faces of swell, the pressure of the forward mounted sail helps prevent broaching and you can go for  long distances without requiring steering strokes. Do remember with these small Australian type sails that you need to keep forward paddling. Bigger, American style sails, are much more powerful and you do not need to paddle. However, I would not take them out in the rough water, high wind conditions conditions that the smaller sails are designed for.  Also just sitting there in a Scottish winter gets cold! Paddle sailing is the way to go.

In the Volan 160, a combination of stern rocker and its chines, which extend towards the bow, helps catch the wave and stay planing on its face. Similar to the Aries 155 and Delphin 155,  when planing at speed, the response to edging reverses and the boat turns towards the depressed edge. These types of boats are more responsive to edging when paddle sailing downwind than the longer, round bottom hulls of the Cetus MV, Nordkapp LV, Ocean 17.6, Voyager  and Atlantic/Nomad 17.0 which require frequent stern rudder strokes. Note that I would not recommend edging to hold a long course while paddle sailing (that is what your skeg is for!) but edging is ideal for short term adjustments, especially on a wave. Overall, I have had more fun paddle sailing the Volan 160, laden and unladen, than in any other kayak.

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.

In calm conditions there are small but persistent leaks into the rear compartment and rear day hatch. It is not much more than a few cc over the course of a day. However, in rough conditions, especially on a camping trip with a load, the boat takes on several litres over 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 also removed the deck line RDF fittings but all their inserts are water and air tight.

I have never previously had a P&H kayak with so much stretch in the deck lines. Again it is not a big deal as I just pull it tight and tie a new knot in the end.


I have paddled my Cetus MV and the Aries 155 since they first came out and I have enjoyed every moment of their complimentary characters. However, the Volan 160 is such a superb all rounder that, since I got it, I have only paddled the others for comparative purposes. For me, with a mix of 90% day paddles and 10% camping trips, it is easily the most versatile sea kayak I have paddled over the last 21 years. 

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
Length: 489cm
Width: 58cm
Volume: 360l
Weight as tested: 20.2kg

Full specifications and details of other constructions and prices at

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 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!"

Monday, April 04, 2022

KCS Compact Day Trolley... test to destruction!!

KCS have produced and refined a lot of new designs over the period of the Covid pandemic. This is the KCS compact day trolley. It is ideal for day trips when you might need to carry your unloaded kayak for some distance over a hard surface from the car to the launch site. I found it especially useful when it is windy or if there are a lot of people about... think Charlie Chaplin's ladder!!!

It is custom made to fit each kayak, which ensures a really snug fit. On a P&H Cetus MV it did not budge once. However, it does not fit my P&H Aries 155 at all. Perhaps if you have two boats, you could get a trolley to suit the one with the thicker stern and pad it out with some removable black foam?

The prototype I had out on test worked really well  carrying all my day trip gear in the cockpit. However, this type of trolley is not designed for a fully loaded boat on a camping trip! The trolley is easily strong enough but your arm won't be strong enough to lift the bow for any distance!

The wheels coped with tarmac, paving bricks, fine but unsurfaced hardcore, short and long grass and firm hard sand. They did not work on soft surfaces such as dry sand or shingle. The wheels coped with small potholes and ridges but not a full sized kerb.

Talking of strength, like all KCS gear this is designed to last. Indeed, I will not be surprised if future sentient beings discover examples which have outlived the Anthropocene!

Let me introduce you to a friend:

Jimmy drives a 4WD tractor. I left the KCS Compact Day trolley on the grass verge at the side of the road leading to the beach (the small wheels are no good on soft sand). The trolley had a black strap and of course the rest of it is pretty black too. Anyway to cut a long story short, Jimmy did not see the trolley and ran ran over it twice. On the way down to the beach it was two tractor wheels and on the way back it was two tractor wheels and one boat trailer wheel that ran over the poor wee trolley!

I thought it would be trashed!!! How wrong could I be. The trolley body was completely unscathed, the axle was completely straight, the only damage was that both plastic wheel hubs were broken. Once these were replaced, the trolley was fully functional again. Ronnie from KCS even supplied a fluorescent yellow strap so that Jimmy could see it better next time!

At £82 not only is this trolley near indestructible it is also a bargain!