Friday, July 02, 2010

Flat Earth Kayak Sails preview

David enjoys the Flat Earth Kayak sail on a Quest LV.

My friend David and I have been experimenting with kayak sails for nearly two years now. We are both keen sailors and windsurfers so it seems very natural to us to put a sailing rig on a kayak. Indeed when "sea canoeing" took off in the west coast of Scotland at the end of the 19th century, nearly all were fitted with sails. Note, those who fancy experimenting with a Mark I brolly, please wrap some pipe insulation round the handle. It is more comfortable to hold and when the inevitable happens and you let go, it won't sink!

Sailing rigs on sea kayaks are not that common in the UK but are very big in Australia and New Zealand. We got in touch with various people over the Internet and have tried a variety of different rigs including the Pacific Action V rig (above). This is quite heavy and not particularly aerodynamic, although it is great fun downwind in a strong wind, it is not much fun in lighter winds and you really can't reach across the wind with it. The sheeting system, which adjusts the angle of the two masts is not exactly intuitive, unless you are dead downwind. The sail is also really just a flat triangle, with little shape in it. However, in a force 5 with a good sized swell, we got the old Aleut Sea II double up to a burst speed of 22km/hr by a mixture of paddling, surfing and sailing!

Next we tried Mick MacRobb's Flat Earth medium sail from Australia. We have used these sails on long open crossings such as to Ailsa Craig, long lochs such as Loch Fyne, Loch Linnhe, Sound of Mull, Loch Sunart. We have used them in coastal chop in the Firth of Clyde to open Atlantic swell off the west coast of Islay and in winds up to force 5 and in strong tidal waters such as the Sound of Islay and the Solway.

What we can tell you is that Mick's design is absolutely stunning. It's a proper sail, made by an expert sailmaker, as any sailor/windsurfer will see by the way the roach is bending off nicely towards the head of the sail in the bottom photo. This twist gives the sail a very broad range of usable wind strength, which other sails, without a sailmaker's skill in shaping, simply can't match.

All the fittings such as the mast, the mast foot and the goose neck have all been custom designed for the purpose and are not simply bits adapted from yachts and dinghies. The battens are even sewn into the sail with just the right amount of tension, saving you more guesswork using a tensioning strap.

The deck fittings are easy to fit using a drill, bolts and washers. On some kayaks you might be very lucky and not need to drill too many holes, because you can use existing recessed deck fittings.

You don't need a rudder to steer with Mick's rig, you raise the skeg and it points up into the wind and you drop the skeg and it bears off downwind. You don't need outriggers either! We carry on paddling when using the sail but in a force 4 you can expect to make about 9km/hr on a broad reach without paddling. So far the maximum we got on a GPS burst speed was 23km/hr sailing and surfing downwind on a broad reach. With a sailing rig you don't wait for the right swell, you overtake them then take your pick! 14km/hr is an easily achievable speed in force 4 to 5 and 9km/hr at the bottom end of force 4 and, again without paddling 6-7 km/hr in a force 3.

When broad reaching or beam reaching, paddling has a synergistic effect, increasing the apparent wind, so sheet in and go! We did not experience a "death roll" with Mick's rig though we did with the Pacific Action V sail. If anything, the Flat Earth sail steadies the kayak in difficult conditions. The sail won't beat into the wind, so tacking only happens if you want to change direction, round a headland say. We found if you raised the skeg but kept sheeted in the kayak would gently nose into the wind, the sail would depower and a couple sweep strokes would get the wind filling in on the other side of the sail. Downwind, gybing was easy using stern rudder/sweep strokes to turn the nose of the kayak through the dead downwind position. Because there is no kicking strap, the boom rises during the gybe, depowering the sail so there is little risk of capsize and the gybe is a slow, gentle sequence. You can speed the boom on its way over with a deft flick of the paddle on the sheet and then the gybe will happen more quickly. However, you need to have sorted out in your mind before hand how and where you will put in a quick brace, if required.

The V sails are really downwind only but as you can see in the above photo, you can close reach with Mick's Flat Earth rig.

Kayak sailing is a really dynamic and exciting activity so watch this space, our little group will soon have 5 of Mick's sails. Once my knee is better and I can get round a bit easier, anyone who fancies a shot would be most welcome to come along on one of our trips. You will need to swap kayaks as some of the rig fittings need to be bolted to the kayak.

I really can't understand why there is so little interest in sea kayak sailing in this country. There is not a single mention in Gordon Brown's otherwise excellent book Sea Kayak. I am not a great one for sea kayaking badges but as far as I recall, there was not a single mention of sailing rigs in either the 4* or the 5* syllabus either.

Friends have suggested that this lack of interest in the UK is because previous rigs have basically turned your simple sea kayak into a complex, heavy sailing boat with outriggers etc. and then you end up sailing instead of paddling. That is clearly not the case with Mick's rig which is quick to rig, light, simple and an adjunct to paddling, just as catching a swell is.

Others have suggested it is because your kayak must need a rudder because a sailing dinghy needs one. That is clearly not the case, a skeg helps but we have used the sailing rig quite happily with the skeg kept up.

Another concern is capsize and entrapment and when I started using sailing rigs I did have my knife to hand! I am not worried about entrapment because in Mick's design, all the lines are well forward of the cockpit. There are two control lines, an uphaul to pull the mast forward and up (when it then becomes a fore stay) and a sheet. Both are connected to the mast or sail by shock cord so there is some give, in case of gusts. With the rig up, control lines are all out of the way of paddling/rolling paddle arcs so you are free to carry on paddling. The sail can be raised and lowered very quickly. When rolled up on deck, they are very unobtrusive and are unaffected by rescue practice.

You can roll with the sail deployed. I have not tried this yet myself, because of my knee injury but here is a rolling clip on Gnarly Dog's blog. It is actually quite easy to prevent a capsize because, at the speed you are going at in windy conditions, there is a huge amount of lift generated by simply trailing a paddle blade out to the side in a static low brace position.

Once my knee is a bit better I will get back to testing and hope to submit a full review and long term test to Ocean Paddler magazine which will also appear here after the magazine has been published. At the moment there are no UK dealers and you need to order direct from Mick but I hope that very soon a well known UK dealer will start to import and distribute these really excellent sails. I am afraid this preview can only give you a brief idea of these sails's abilities and because my knee operation got in the way, much of it is through the experience of others. What I can say is that I have literally been blown away by these sails and I can't wait till my knee gets better enough to give them a thorough long term workout!

I have posted detailed fitting instructions for Flat Earth Kayak Sails here.