Tuesday, January 22, 2013

P&H Delphin 155, long term test and comparative review.

Many seakayakphoto readers will have seen photos of Sean Morley surfing huge Pacific waves in the P&H Delphin 155, looked at its unusual design and thought: "That's an extreme kayak and not for the likes of me." That was also my first impression but...

...after paddling it for 16 months, I have discovered that it is THE most versatile day kayak that I have paddled. Yes it performs for experts in advanced surf conditions but it also has much to offer paddlers of all abilities, even complete beginners.

Not long after taking delivery of the kayak, I sat in the Delphin 155 in the lee of an offshore island to recover my breath. It had been a hard paddle out against the wind and the waves. I was just about to set off on a mad downwind surf back to the mainland when I noticed the other kayaker launching off a small cobble beach on the island. As he approached, I could see he was dressed all in black and paddling a rather nice Anas Acuta with a Greenland stick. "That's not a proper kayak." was his opening remark, quickly followed by "It's really ugly, an Inuit wouldn't be seen dead in it!" I was about to reply that a modern Greenlander would be most likely found in something with a 100HP Suzuki on the back but I bit my lip. I explained that the design features of the vertical ends, the rear set wide point and cockpit, the rocker, the hard edges under the bow with double concaves and the inverted V on the foredeck all set function before form. My new friend was clearly unconvinced but we spent a pleasant 20 minutes or so debating the merits of traditional versus new school design.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that the ebb spring tide had now built up against the force 4 wind. Short, steep head height waves were now breaking in the tide race streaming round the end of the island. We both set off into the race. At first we surfed down the smaller waves together but as the waves became bigger, my new  friend in black began to have difficulties. As his Anas Acuta surfed down the waves his bow repeatedly dug into the waves in front and slowed down allowing the stern to broach. He started to hang back but in the Delphin I found I could surf ahead confidently. I was already sold on the surfing performance of the Delphin but there was much more to discover over the following year...

About the test: paddling conditions and paddlers.

This long term test of the P&H Delphin 155 is based on experience of paddling it for over 850km during the last 16 months. Trips varied from 41km to only 2km. Most were day trips but one was an overnight trip with camping gear. It was paddled by a variety of paddlers who weighed from 65kg to 110kg. Their experience ranged from complete beginners to 5* paddlers. The testing took place at a variety of locations in South West Scotland and included rocky coasts, headlands with tide races, surf beaches and more sheltered waters. It was paddled in all wind conditions between calm to force 6, gusting 7.

For comparison, it was paddled alongside Valley Nordkapp LV  and Etain 17.5, Avocet RM and Anas Acuta; Rockpool Alaw Bach and Taran 18; P&H Cetus MV/HV, Quest/LV and Scorpio; and Bluesky Rockhopper RH340.

Manufacturer’s summary
This new P&H Delphin 155 turns traditional sea kayak design on its head and challenges many preconceived ideas of how a sea kayak should look and behave. The cockpit has been moved backwards and the stern squared off so the bow just kisses the water, but when paddling the stern engages and aids tracking. This combination is unique to the Delphin creating a kayak that is long enough to paddle like a traditional sea kayak on flat water with enough speed to keep up with the pack but will transform into a new genre of free-ride sea kayak when it hits moving water, coming alive in tide races, over falls and surging water.

The Delphin is a very distinctive looking kayak, indeed, when it was launched it was unique. However, as I hinted in the introduction, it would be a mistake to think that this original approach to design makes it a niche product. Either by accident or intention the design gives it performance features which suit a very broad range of kayaker abilities.

The first thing that hits you is the extreme amount of rocker, especially combined with a short 485cm overall length. This gives manoeuvrability and helps prevent purling (nose diving) when surfing in on a wave but you might expect it to be at the cost of boat speed. The vertical ends are the next thing you notice and these give a long waterline length that maximises the boat speed of the kayak. The bow certainly grabs attention. Its volume and inverted V on the deck are also designed to resist purling and for resurfacing afterwards. It is also excellent for shedding dumping surf on the way out.

Even more interesting is the shape under the bow, hard chines and a midline V are joined by double concaves (usually seen on sea plane floats and windsurfers to generate lift). The hard edges wash out to soft round edges and a flattish hull under the cockpit area before reforming into softer chines that run to the stern along the waterline. These features are designed to make it easy to catch a wave, be manoeuvrable when surfing the wave but be forgiving if you then out run it and plough into the back of the wave in front. Lastly, the rear deck is relatively low, which helps get your body close to the centre of rotation of the kayak in a layback roll.

Construction, finish, fittings, ergonomics and wear and tear.
The Delphin 155 is made of Corelite, a triple layer polyethylene construction. This gives a relatively light but stiff hull, which is reasonably abrasion resistant and withstands hard knocks. The fore deck is also stiff enough to take a mast foot for a kayak sailing rig with no reinforcement. I have never seen such high quality moulding and definition on a roto-moulded polyethylene sea kayak. It was faultless.

After 16 months use and over 75 days on the water, the hull shows only a few superficial scuffs despite having been used for rockhopping. (It is also available in Surf spec with single layer polyethylene, which is heavier but even more abrasion resistant.) The hull has not developed any dishing or warping, which can trouble many other polyethylene kayaks.

I liked the long cockpit. I have increasing difficulty getting in and out of my Nordkapp LV because of bad knees. The Delphin's extra cockpit length make all the difference! I can get both legs out before landing in the Delphin but I can't do this in the Nordkapp LV or Alaw Bach. The cockpit size and primary stability also allow me to do a cowboy re-entry, which I can no longer do in the Nordkapp LV.

The seat, hip pads and thigh grips are Pyranha Connect 30, as fitted to their white water kayaks. The seat is fitted nice and low in the cockpit and is exceptionally comfortable with a cushioned pad. This is removable if you prefer a smoother seat because you use a lot of hip rotation when paddling . The thigh braces are very well shaped and comfortable. The inner curve of the thigh grips is covered with black foam. They adjust back and forward to suit different folk. Two screws require loosening each side. It is just as well there is adjustment, as the screw holes for the left thigh brace on this kayak are fitted 2cm further back than the right! This has reduced the overall adjustment range but it still adjusts to me just fine! I have thick thighs but they give a perfect fit and were vastly superior to those in the Valley Avocet RM and Nodkapp LV. I found the Delphin's grips less restrictive than those in the Alaw Bach but smaller paddlers preferred those in the Alaw Bach. More foam sheet is stuck to the inner side of the hull, where knees might rub. As often happens in PE kayaks one of these knee pads came off after the first outing.

The back rest is well secured to resist folding forward under your bum during re-entries but it can rotate backwards for lay back rolls. The back rest and hip pads adjust together, being tensioned by straps leading forward to ratchet adjusters on the thigh grips.

By loosening these off you can have a nice comfy fit for touring then tighten them up for a secure fit in buttock clenching tide races. This system was just as effective for the 65kg paddler as the 210kg paddler ensuring a comfortable fit for all. In contrast, paddlers over 80kg really couldn't fit into the Avocet RM as the bottom of the cockpit was closer to the seat. The 110kg paddler could not fit in the Alaw Bach either. It is possible to get bigger kayaks from Valley and Rockpool but that misses the point, the Delphin adjusts to a wider range of paddler sizes. This can make a big difference if several members of a family might be paddling a kayak. After 13 months, no corrosion was visible on any of the metal parts of the adjustment ratchets or buckles.

The large plastic foot rest pedals are a good size for comfort and can be adjusted on the water by twisting the red locking wand then using your toe to push or pull the pedals along the track. A previous version of these pedals had a green adjustment wand that could be used to push or pull the pedals back and forward as well as lock them. Some people found this version could give way. The new version is rock solid. Despite being used on sandy beaches, the pedals remained easy to adjust.

There is no day hatch behind the cockpit, a single large rubber Kayaksport oval hatch gives access to a surprisingly commodious rear compartment. It is big enough to take a folding trolley, which will not fit in the rear hatch of a Nordkapp LV or Alaw Bach. Some serious surf paddlers have suggested that a smaller round hatch (as on the Alaw Bach) might be safer as it would be less likely to implode. However, I can stand on it and it remains secure. When the Delphin was new the rear hatch cover was a brute to get on and off but with use it has got easier so don't be tempted to shave plastic off the hatch rim! The front hatch is smaller and round but as it is quite high off the bottom of the hull, my Nallo 3GT tent fitted in, with the poles still rolled inside the tent.

The lack of day hatch might put off some, who might otherwise consider the Delphin as a general purpose day kayak. A forward mini hatch compensates though it is too small to stuff a cag into. It holds a VHF radio, a phone, a pair of gloves, a hat, a small bottle of water, a grain bar but not much else. It won't take a full size rocket flare. Note that the mini hatch is not waterproof from below, if the cockpit gets flooded during a rescue (practice). Paddlers with shorter legs will not be able to get their toes in front of the pod but the hull design still leaves plenty of room to stretch out.

The front and rear bulkheads are made of high density black foam and these have remained secure with use. The edges are totally watertight but there is a hole in the middle through which the hatch cover securing elastic passes. When the cockpit is flooded, these holes let a fair bit of water into the front and rear hatches but are easy to seal. Otherwise, the front and rear hatches remained watertight during rolling practice and some fairly gnarly surf sessions. There is enough room in the front and rear hatches for comfortable weekend camping as long as you have a compact sleeping bag and tent.

This kayak was fitted with the Mark 1 P&H cable skeg slider. The action on this one was initially incredibly light but the knot in the adjustment cord had been tied too short and this only allowed the slider to move in the back third of the ratchet track and the skeg only came down to 25 degrees. This was not enough to prevent weather cocking with a force 4 wind on the rear quarter. It was easy enough to fit a longer cord. The skeg now comes down to about 70 degrees and this fixed the weather cocking. After about 6 months use the slider action became increasingly stiff until two female paddlers could no longer operate it. P&H replaced the slider under warranty. They offered to take the kayak back to the factory to fit it but I fitted the Mk2 slider myself. This job requires using a mini blow lamp to weld polyethylene so perhaps it is not for everyone. The Mk2 slider fitted to 2012 and later kayaks has worked faultlessly except when wearing pogies for winter paddling, when it is possible to brush against the locking lever and release it accidentally.

I have also found that in windy force 4 and above conditions it can be difficult to get the skeg to go fully down and when you pull the slider back you end up with a loop of blue cord sticking out behind it. On the water you can relieve the pressure on the skeg and get it to go down by rocking your pelvis from side to side. You can also easily increase the tension in the elastic by pulling it out of the back of the skeg box and sliding the button stopper further up the elastic. P&H told me that more recent kayaks have a stiffer skeg, which is more resistant to jamming in the skeg box under sideways pressure. Lastly, when kayak sailing at high speed, the skeg has a tendency to lift from the fully down position. I fixed this by replacing the standard 2mm shock cord with some 3mm thick.

The deck fittings, deck lines, deck elastics and end toggles were all standard P&H items and mounted in sensible places.

A security brace behind the cockpit can also be used to mount a deck mounted tow rope. I use a Plastimo quick release snap shackle (releases under load) so you don't need a separate cleat. A compass mount was moulded into the foredeck and some ridges for your hands are moulded into the deck just behind the cockpit. Other thoughtful touches are small moulded lugs that keep deck elastics clear of the mini hatch in front of the cockpit.

Do not think that the Delphin's polyethylene construction is associated with low performance. A paddler in the Delphin paddling with composite kayaks will not be disadvantaged. It's sharp rails cannot be replicated by the composite moulding process. Its sister kayak, the composite Aries, has much rounder edges. When paddling the Delphin I completely forgot that it was made of polyethylene,

except when being banged against barnacle covered rocks by the waves!

Stability and rolling.

Like other recent P&H kayaks with the wide point aft of the cockpit, the Delphin has exceptional primary stability. I have taken an expensive SLR out of its waterproof case in conditions when I would not dare to in the Nordkapp LV, Avocet RM, Quest and Alaw Bach. It also has exceptional secondary stability. Novices can quickly learn to edge in confidence. When practicing rolling you can feel the secondary stability building up until it reaches a plateau before it suddenly goes. In contrast, the Nordkapp LV rolls over in a very smooth motion with no obvious warning that secondary stability is about to go. Like the Scorpio, Cetus MV and Alaw Bach, the stability of the Delphin means that after a roll it wants to settle in an upright position. In contrast, the Nordkapp LV, and to a lesser extent the Avocet RM, have a tendency to want to keep going over the other side and often require a quick brace to stay upright after a roll. The Delphin is also exceptionally easy to do a re-entry roll, the hip pads and thigh grips make it easy to keep your bum in the seat. As a long term paddler of the Nordkapp LV, I have put up with its lack of inherent stability and relied on paddling skills because of its redeeming feature of unflustered behaviour in rough, confused seas. I think this is due to its round bottom and low volume ends. I therefore expected that the very different Delphin would be a bit of a handful in the clapotis. I was wrong. It felt very unruffled and at the top end of my ability I even felt more secure in it than in my Alaw Bach, which I have been paddling for seven years.

Speed and acceleration.

Any doubts about keeping up with conventional sea kayaks were quickly dispelled. All paddlers using the Delphin were happy to keep paddling at 6 to 7.5 km per hour, which is the speed at which our group normally tour.

I have happily toured up to 40km per day in the company of my friends in composite sea kayaks such as the Quest, Quest LV, Cetus MV, Nordkapp LV, Etain 17.5, Alaw Bach, Taran 18 etc.

However, when sprinting , the Delphin and the Rockpool Alaw Bach began to dig their sterns in about 10.5km/hr and (despite furious paddling) this limited further increase in speed. The Avocet RM, Cetus MV, Quest and Nordkapp LV all had a top sprint speed of 2-4km/hr greater, with the Nordkapp LV nosing ahead and the Taran 18 out in front. This could make all the difference when trying to power round a point against a fast tide but otherwise top sprint speed is not an issue for most recreational paddling. When it came to acceleration on flat water the Delphin and Alaw Bach were noticeably slower than the others. However, with waves from the stern, the situation changed. On a long upwind paddle I worked hard to keep up with a Quest but when we turned downwind the Delphin was much the easier kayak to catch waves and it accelerated ahead.

Manoeuvrability and tracking.
The Delphin is more manoeuvrable than any other sea kayak I have tried. Only my Rockhopper RH340 is more manoeuvrable but it is not a proper sea kayak as it lacks a forward sealed compartment and deck lines, which limit its sea worthiness and safety. Also, I seldom paddle it more than 10km due to its limited cruising speed.

Photos Phil Toman.

When turning, it is easy to sink the Delphin's outside edge to such an extent that you feel the stern rise and loosen its grip on the water. Then the kayak almost spins round on the spot. It also responds well to sinking the inside edge in a low brace turn. On flat water it is easy to paddle in a straight line by correcting with a little edge now and then but novices and the lazy (like me) can keep it straight with a little skeg. In rough water you will be edging anyway so there is less need for the skeg. Even with the skeg deployed, the Delphin does not glide in a straight line when you stop paddling. It tends to drift off one side or the other. This can be annoying when taking photographs but otherwise is of little concern. When loaded with camping gear, the Delphin loses manoeuvrability but is still able to turn tighter than a loaded Avocet or Alaw Bach.

Overall, the short length, manoeuvrability and robust construction make the Delphin ideal for rockhopping through narrow twisting rocky channels. In this respect it was beaten only by the Rockhopper RH340 and proved to be significantly more agile than the Avocet RM.

Photo John Black
Like other sea kayaks, the Delphin is not a surf kayak, so do not expect to carve top and bottom turns on the wave face! I have long liked the way the Nordkapp LV and Avocet RM handle in the surf and swells. However after trying the Delphin, I have not used a sea kayak that feels more at home in surf conditions.

Photo John Black

First of all its water shedding bow is great for getting out through dumping surf in the shore break. Beyond the break it does not cut so cleanly through the oncoming waves as the Avocet RM or Nordkapp LV.

Photo John Black

In short steep waves its bow tends to slam down into the trough after the crest. Heavier paddlers did not complain about this so much but the 65kg paddler found it tiring. That paddler was at the bottom of the recommended weight range for the Delphin and would have been better in the smaller Delphin 150. It was a pretty dry ride on the way out though, the Quest paddler got soaked as its bows dipped in the waves. Going out, paddlers in the Quest, Cetus MV, Avocet RM and Nordkapp LV slowly pulled ahead of the Delphin and Alaw Bach. Coming back in with the waves it was a different story as the Delphin and Alaw Bach caught more waves and surfed ahead of the others. The Delphin in particular seemed to make the most of small and mushy waves which the other kayaks missed. It also tended to stay on the wave longer. I think a lot of this is due to the design of the under hull of the bow, which encourages planing at lower speed. On the same day, I paddled the Delphin and my Alaw Bach alternately out and back through the surf. The Delphin consistently peaked at 18km/hr and the GPS speed peaks lasted longer than those of my Alaw Bach, which peaked at 16km/hour.

Photo John Black

Catching most sorts of swell and waves, large and small, is very easy in the Delphin but on two days (with a wave frequency of about 12 seconds and a swell height of about 1-2m and a wave speed of about 20km/hr) I noticed that the highly rockered Delphin seemed to "stick" in the water as its stern began to lift on the approaching wave.

I found it much easier to accelerate and catch this particular type wave in the Nordkapp LV, which has less rocker. In the Delphin weight distribution on the wave face makes a bigger difference than in bigger sea kayaks such as the Nordkapp LV. It really helps to lean forward while accelerating to catch a wave and lean back if you want to slow down and avoid out running the wave. The Delphin responds very well to edging on the wave face, either to change direction or resist broaching. At high speeds when planing down a wave face you might find that it responds in the opposite direction to that which you expect. It then carves a turn toward the edge which is sunk.

All long sea kayaks will ultimately broach (turn parallel to the wave face) in surf and you then need to lean towards the approaching wave and brace on it to avoid being rolled over towards the shore. The Delphin was the least likely sea kayak to broach that I have tried and the easiest to recover and straighten up again. After the Delphin, the Avocet RM was the easiest to control an impending broach. Once broached, the Avocet in particular was easy to control when "bongo sliding" towards the shore. I did wonder whether the Delphin's sharp edges might catch during a broach and make it more likely to capsize than round hulled kayaks like the Avocet RM and Nordkapp LV but in practice I did not notice this.

Maybe this is due to the sharp edges near the bow disappearing as they run back towards the flattish area with gently rounded edges under the cockpit area.

Photo John Black

In light winds the Delphin is easy to paddle in whatever direction you wish to go and is very responsive to either edging or the skeg to keep it on line. As such, it is ideal for novices and early intermediates. In more moderate conditions, up to force four, the Delphin tends to weather cock gently while paddling but as soon as you stop paddling it tends to lee-cock. In fresh to strong winds the Delphin is more affected by the wind than the Quest, Scorpio, Cetus MV, Nordkapp LV and the Avocet RM. Paddling about 25 degrees off the wind, with the skeg up in force 5-6 offshore (flat water) conditions, both it and the Alaw Bach tend to lee cock while the other kayaks tend to weathercock. Having said that, it is easier to bring the bow of the Delphin through the wind than that of the Alaw Bach. Even in strong winds the Delphin remains so manoeuvrable that it is easy to paddle in the direction that you want to go. It does require more paddler input than the Avocet RM and Nordkapp LV, which remain exceptionally neutral in windy conditions. Beginners should not be put off the Delphin by this need for paddler input, as they should not be learning in strong offshore winds anyway! Paddling the Delphin loaded with camping gear in force 3 to 4 winds I found it imperative to experiment with weight distribution beforehand. The Delphin and to a lesser extent the Avocet RM are more sensitive to an unbalanced load, which results in undue weather or lee cocking than a bigger sea kayak primarily designed as a day boat, such as the Alaw Bach.

Use for learning and occasional paddling.
In the light winds that novices are likely to be out in, the Delphin is relatively unaffected by the wind and is remarkably stable in the small waves they may encounter. Several coaches I have spoken to think that the Delphin is not suited to beginners and early intermediates who would be better off learning in a "proper sea kayak". I beg to differ. I recently introduced two keen teenagers to sea kayaking using the Delphin and the Avocet RM. Both preferred the stability and manoeuvrability of the Delphin. The Delphin also proved to be easier than the Avocet RM for them to catch their first waves.

A friend from Bavaria had never paddled before. He is 60 years old, 1.98m tall and 110kg. Despite his size, the Delphin adjusted to fit him perfectly. We threaded him out through the upright poles of old salmon stake nets to get him used to paddling and turning the kayak then took him out of the bay into gradually increasing waves and wind and round a small headland before returning.

He enjoyed every minute and was hooked. Despite his size, the Delphin remained reassuringly stable and confidence inspiring.

My wife has recently returned to paddling after having had major orthopaedic surgery. She has alternated between the Delphin and the Alaw Bach (in which she originally learned) but now prefers the comfort and stability of the Delphin.

Kayak Sailing.
Fun though paddling the Delphin is, I couldn't wait until I fitted it with a sail! Kayak sailing is becoming increasingly popular in the UK and many people are using the Flat Earth Kayak Sails rig. As soon as I saw the underside of the Delphin's bow with those water shedding chines and double concaves I knew I had to get a sailing rig on it.

I have kayak-sailed the Delphin in company with Nordkapp LV, Cetus HV, Cetus MV, Quest, Quest LV, and Alaw Bach which were all fitted with sails. The Delphin has proved the most fun, especially sailing downwind in force 4 to 5 winds. In these conditions it flies and regularly hits speeds of up to 22km/hr. The underside of the bow gives it the lift to continue planing over the back of the wave in front. It is an amazing experience looking ahead and choosing which wave you want to catch and ride. Have a look at the video clip below to see some of the best fun you can have in a sea kayak!

A Delphin with a sail in these conditions is considerably faster downwind than a Rockpool Taran with a strong fit paddler.

Other kayaks to consider.
If you are in the market for a robust, versatile day kayak like the Delphin you should also try the Valley Avocet RM, the Rockpool Alaw Bach TCC and the SKUK Romany Surf RM (which I have also paddled but not alongside the Delphin). The Delphin 150 is also available for smaller paddlers and both Delphins are available in a heavier stronger surf specification for extreme conditions.

Length: 485cm, width:57cm, internal cockpit length:81cm, total volume 267litres, weight 27.2kg, load range 65 to 125kg, price: £1349.

Photo Phil Toman

I believe the P&H Delphin is the most versatile day kayak currently available. At the time of writing, the Delphin is unique. It is not a development of an existing kayak but is a bold new design from the ground up. It has several novel features to allow it to perform but be forgiving and fun in difficult conditions. Don't be put off by its different looks. Far from being a niche kayak and only suitable for experts in big conditions, it has a great deal to offer as a day kayak for paddlers of all abilities. Beginners will make rapid progress and its forgiving nature, with no "nasty handling surprises", will help paddlers advance their skills and push their comfort zones, whatever their level. However, as it is also so good for spending time just having fun and mucking about on the water, I have yet to learn to surf a wave as big as Sean Morley!