Friday, April 21, 2017

Pyranha Octane / Think Nitro PE surfski: a long term test and review.

This is the new Pyranha polyethylene surfski called the Octane it is also available as the Think Nitro. As various friends have gradually taken to surfskis my interest has grown. Back in January 2016 I was talking to Cam Allan in the GoKayaking store in Perth about surfskis. He showed me the Think range of composite surfskis and I carpet surfed in the EZE and ACE. Unfortunately I could not afford a composite surfski at that time but determined to start saving. Then a few weeks later Graham Mackereth from Pyranha got in contact to say that Pyranha and Think had been working on a new prototype PE surfski and would I be interested in testing it....? Having never paddled a surfski before this test I guess I am a good person to test a boat primarily designed to attract newcomers to the sport.

The recent introduction of PE surfskis by manufacturers such as Pyranha/Think and Epic to the market is clearly aimed at attracting potential first time surfski users, who have perhaps been put off purchasing one due to the high cost of composite surfskis. The Octane is a collaboration between two highly respected companies: Pyranha and Think. My first impression was that the Octane is a fantastic blend of Pyranha's skills in making high performance PE boats and Think's design expertise in high performance surfskis. In dazzling white PE, the long, narrow test boat ,which was the Pyranha Octane version, gave no impression that this boat had been toned down to appeal to a mass market. It even looks fast at rest. Indeed at 539cm long but only 53cm wide, this is very much a surfski of contemporary performance orientated proportions and although primarily intended to attract those new to surfskis, it is marketed at intermediate to advanced paddlers from other kayak disciplines. Although I will be discussing the Pyranha Octane, all points also relate to the Think Nitro, which shares the same design and fittings and is made in the same mould in the same factory. I will not only report how I found paddling the Octane in particular but will make some general comments about how an experienced closed deck sea kayaker has found the transition to a surfski. I do hope that experienced surfski paddlers will bear with me on this, you after all are already converts!

Gearing up for surfskiing
Newcomers to surfski's will need to be aware that some general paddling gear is different to that needed when paddling a surfski. Whatever the weather, you will be running hotter if you paddle a surfski anywhere near its potential.  In the summer/ autumn conditions of the test, with sea temperatures of 19C falling to 15C and air temperatures from 22C down to 12C it is very easy to overheat. I wore either Polartec Aquashell shorts and T shirt or a shorty 3mm neoprene wetsuit later in the season. In the spring, when the water temperature was 9C with air temperature of 6C, I wore a full 3mm wetsuit when practicing remounting or a full Polartec Aquashell suit when paddling hard. You will need to use a leash round your leg. A capsized surfski floats high in the water and can blow away faster than you can swim. You might also want a paddle leash though I did not bother. My multi-pocketed sea kayaking BA proved to be too hot and too bulky for remounts. I tried my windsurfing impact/flotation vest but even it proved too hot and still made remounts more difficult. I ended up not wearing a BA in some of my sessions but made sure I was wearing the leash. There are surfski specific BA's (some of them inflatable) which you would be wise to invest in, especially if you want to race. Straight away I loved the simplicity of the surfski with only paddle, leash and paddler required to make it go. What a contrast to sea kayaking with spray decks, tow ropes, spare paddles, compass, pumps etc. etc. Having said that, I did not use the surfski for expeditions. All my trips on the Octane were no longer than half day trips and my usualk distance was only 12km.

The test environment
This test was carried out over a period of August to October 2016 and April 2017 in Fleet Bay on the Solway Firth which offers a very wide variety of paddling conditions. In the predominant S to W winds, swell from the Irish Sea enters the bay. In other directions it is more sheltered. It is possible to paddle on flat water for 2km up the River Fleet which enters the head of the bay. The bay is tidal (6.5m neaps - 9m springs tidal range) and empties completely at low tide. For three hours round low water there is an area of about 3 square kilometres where the water is no more than chest deep. This whole area can be filled with breaking waves when the ebb tide runs against an incoming swell: "the white steeds of the Solway". The waves travel at 15 to 25km/hr depending how deep the water is. In the upper half of the bay a south facing steep, sandy beach provides great surf at high tide when swell is coming up the Irish Sea. Tides across the mouth of the bay run at 4 knots springs. All in all it is a great venue to provide a variety of conditions in which to test a surfski. Sea state during the test ranged from the biggest summer swell that has hit the UK this year, to wind over tide conditions round the headlands, to flat calm. Wind during test sessions varied from F0 to F5. At the start of the test I was 90kg and so fitted in the middle of the manufacturer's guide weight range of 60 to 115kg. At the end of the test I was 78kg. Maybe there are hidden benefits in  surfski lark? I used a 210cm wing paddle.

Features and ergonomics
The Octane has a long, high bow which maximises waterline length and effectively sheds water and resists pearling. This sweeps back into a high sided cockpit (see later) with cutaway sides forward in the paddle catchment area. The bucket seat was deep and supportive and did not interfere with rotation. Slimmer paddlers might want to add a little padding, I certainly needed some as I lost weight. The cockpit is quite narrow towards the pedals. I have bulky leg muscles and I would not have wanted it to be much narrower. Lighter built paddlers should have no problem. The rudder pedals operate and slide easily and the cables self adjust. Despite the tracks being mounted on the plastic sides of the cockpit, the pedals are very firmly mounted with little give, even when pushing on and pressing hard with the feet during sprints. In the cockpit midline there is a combined fitting to hold a small water bottle and attach a leash. There is a small forward hatch cover giving access to the large volume of the front half of the boat. I couldn't reach it from the seat. I would not like to use this as a "day hatch" on the water anyway as it gives access to the whole front compartment, with a resultant flooding risk. Above the hatch there is a drain bung, which is very helpful in draining water out the front half of the Octane when it is upturned. There are quality alloy handles at the bow, stern and on either side of the cockpit. This was a prototype boat and the side handles had not been positioned quite right for balance, which made carrying awkward. On production versions the handles have been repositioned. The bow and stern handles might be OK on a light composite surfski but they are too small to get your whole hand in and this makes it awkward if two people are carrying the relatively heavy PE surfski. There is an effective self bailer in the cockpit floor but until you get the knack and give it some silicone spray it is quite stiff to operate with your heel. It starts working at about 8km/hr and really sucks the cockpit dry when you catch a wave. The rear deck is low with some deck elastics behind the seat which is the ideal place for a dry bag. There is a large oval Kayaksport rear hatch cover. Inside there is a water tight bulkhead of black foam between the rear compartment and the seat. To the rear of the opening, there is a vertical slab of black foam up the mid line of the rear compartment which is presumably to help stiffen this thin part of the surf ski. The removable deck cover for the rudder mechanism did not fit well but I understand this has been remedied in the production Octane.

On the underside of the Octane lateral chines or rails run almost the entire length of the boat. A slight V at the bow soon washes out into a gently rounded but predominantly flat section for most of the length to the stern between the chines. There is little rocker from the bow to the cockpit area but rocker then increases to the stern. This Octane was fitted with a carbon fibre under hull rudder which is ideal for use on open water but a retracting over stern rudder is available as an option for use in shallower water, which may be found in rivers etc. The axis of rotation of the under hull rudder is set back from its leading edge which gives very effective turning for a small blade area. The quality of moulding on this prototype boat was outstanding especially given the complex shape of a surf ski. I expected it to be quite flexible but it was remarkably stiff, especially from the bow to the cockpit. I suspect this is why the Octane has relatively high cockpit sides, otherwise a PE boat of this length and width might have been very flexible in the middle. There is more flex in the thin stern of the Octane and Pyranha/Think make a feature of this, claiming it helps to catch following seas. The test boat came with screw inserts for the mast foot and side stays for the P&H/Flat Earth sailing rig. I fitted my own rig to the boat using the afore mentioned bung to mount the back stay and sheet pulley and tying cleats to the side handles for the sheet and uphaul. Another demo Octane had the uphaul and sheet cleats mounted at the front of the cockpit but not being tall, I could not reach them there.

Paddling the Octane on flat water.

On flat water the Octane was far more stable than I was expecting, especially when moving. The forward from the stern mounted under hull rudder is very effective at turning the Octane either at low speed or particularly at high speed. I found the Octane was much more manoeuvrable than a traditional touring sea kayak like the P&H Quest. Due to its length and relative narrowness, the Octane’s displacement speed on flat water is significantly greater than a conventional shorter sea kayak. I found my cruising speed was at least 3km/hr faster and my flat water burst speed was probably 5km/hr faster than my Cetus MV. It encourages you to paddle fast, over my first 3 outings I managed 375 minutes of having my heart rate above 85% of my age related maximum! I think a surfski on flat water would be great boat for the fitness paddlers out there. Indeed some casual observers (who had been watching the 2016 Olympics on TV) mistook it for a K1 racing kayak. However, the Octane and other surfskis are much more versatile than a K1, especially downwind on swell in open sea conditions. The Octane would also be great for those who want to try competitive paddling on open water without the full cost of a composite surfski. In the 2016 year's Oban sea kayak race, 16 out of 47 competitors were using surfskis and took the first 9 places.

While testing, I paddled with a friend who has an Epic V8. It was interesting talking to him as he had taken up surfskiing from sea kayaking because he had never managed to develop a reliable roll in a sea kayak. He could remount his V8 effortlessly in rough water. We swapped boats and straight away I found it easier to remount the V8 from port than the Octane. The V8 is a little longer and wider than the Octane but the real difference is that the V8 cockpit sides are lower with respect to the water and it is easier to lift/kick yourself out the water and across the cockpit. In the composite V8 blue tip, I was pleased to find that my maximum sprint speed was almost exactly the same as in the new PE Octane. Of course once the Octane hull has gathered scuffs it may be slower than a similar aged composite boat. On a later paddle I discovered that my maximum sprint speed in the Octane was 97.6% of my maximum speed in a friend’s Epic V8 Pro Black Tip. That is really quite remarkable. Obviously 2.4m in every hundred is a race winner or loser but for recreational use, it is hardly significant.

The vast majority of recreational paddlers in the Fleet Bay test area use recreational sit on tops, some of them are very experienced and several expressed an interest in and tried the Octane. None have ever expressed an interest in my traditional sea kayaks.

Angus who is a competent sit on top paddler...

..took to the Octane straight away (albeit on flat water) and as he disappeared towards the horizon shouted back "I am amazed at the speed!"

No one who tried it capsized, and all like Angus, were amazed at its speed. Two SoT paddlers are now considering purchasing one. Perhaps experienced sit on top kayakers like Angus are a potential market for PE surfskis?

The Octane in rough water

If you go surfskiing in rough water you need to be prepared to fall in and therefore need to practice deep water remounts. If you do a Google search for "surfski remount Oscar Chalupsky" you will find a great video of the technique by the master himself. I can manage pretty well remounting from the starboard side but initially had real problems on port. Three years ago I had an accident, which resulted in tearing several vital "components" off the bone in my left shoulder. When trying to remount on port I get a pain that feels like the surgical repair is going to give way. I have been working on this and have got better. I found a powerful breast stroke kick to get out the water and onto the surfski was more successful for me than the scissors type freestyle kick that Oscar uses in the video. During the early part of the test therefore, in conditions when I felt I needed to be able to remount on either side, I restricted myself to paddling at low tide in chest deep water in the locations mentioned above.

 At first I really missed a sea kayak's thigh braces and the control that they give in rough water. On my first day in the Octane I was paddling a fast Taran 16 sea kayak in rough water then went straight to the Octane. It took me some time to adjust. I found the best way to deal with rough water in the surfski is to paddle fast. I was using wings and possibly my paddles were spending a little more time in the water than when I am paddling a conventional sea kayak. I used a higher stroke rate than when I was paddling the Taran 16 (with the same paddle but with the shaft set 10cm longer at 220cm in the Taran). Basically when the paddle is in the water, it is not just providing forward drive it is also providing support. Once I had learned to lean on the paddle I enjoyed driving the Octane through the waves.

There is however, one situation in which I have not fully got to grips with surfski paddling. I regularly paddle out round some small islands a little offshore. On the way back in, the swell wraps round the islands and comes at you from both rear quarters. I am very used to these waters and this presents no problems in boats like my Aries 155. On the Octane I am afraid that on occasions I had to resort to dropping my lower legs over the side. Despite the Octane's speed potential in these conditions I found it frustrating to be dragging my legs in the water! Then I got into open, clear water with a following wind and swell. Well I have never caught so many waves in my life! It was a revelation. Unlike my Aries, in which I usually can't catch open water swell without a sail, I could paddle and accelerate the Octane fast enough to catch just about any swell I fancied. The Octane accelerates so rapidly that is sometimes too easy to out run the wave so (just like paddle sailing a conventional kayak in these conditions) you paddle hard to catch the wave then ease off a bit to stay on it. Once on a swell the rudder holds the line and I frequently recorded maximum burst speeds of near 25km/hr. Downwind in swell and waves is where the Octane and other surfskis really excel compared with conventional sea kayaks.

The Octane in the surf zone?

I am not so convinced about surf skis in the surf zone near the shore. First of all they are more difficult than a decked kayak to get out if a dumper lands and fills your cockpit. Secondly in conditions when paddling in and out through the surf in shorter conventional kayaks (like the Hammer, Delphin and Aries) is a great deal of fun, the length of the Octane proved much harder work. Following a capsize in the  breaking surf, in a decked kayak you have a good chance of rolling up but in the Octane I ended up washed up on the beach every time. Of course my inexperience of surfskis in the surf zone needs to be borne in mind.

Camping from the Octane?

You can camp from a surfski. Three people I know go camping trips in Epic V6 surf skis. Would I go camping in the Octane? Probably not. The rear compartment has a vertical slab of black foam up the mid line so it is not as spacious as it looks. Entry to the capacious bow is limited by a very small hatch so multiple small dry bags secured by a leash are the way to go. A small tent and sleeping bag fit easily in the rear compartment. My friends are masters of lightweight camping. I prefer my comforts and the space and easy loading of a conventional sea kayak. I also like easy access to things like cameras, snacks, GPS etc that a conventional decked kayak offers. If I did camp from the Octane I would fit the optional over stern rudder to make landing with a loaded boat easier.

The Octane in winter?
The West Coast of Scotland is not Australia so would I use the Octane in a Scottish winter? I am really not sure and did not do so during the recent winter. I suspect by the time I am adorned in a dry suit with insulation, my willingness to push myself would diminish and I would end up cold. I suspect if I wanted to paddle fast on a winter day trip I would choose a fast decked kayak like a Taran 16 instead. So I put the Octane away on 31/10/2016 and brought it out of hibernation on 1/4/2017. Of course if I was competing, winter training sessions might hold more appeal!

Paddle sailing the Octane? 
Regular readers of this blog will know of my keenness for paddle sailing so I was salivating with the prospect of giving it a go on the Octane. Setting off upwind with the sail folded, I found it tended to get in the way of the paddle cut outs on the forward cockpit sides so I ended up resting the folded sail between my toes. As I could not reach the folded boom I also found it more difficult to secure the folded sail than on my conventional sea kayak. On flat water in F3-F4 the Octane paddle sailed really well, especially on a broad reach. It was so easy to maintain maximum displacement speed that very little paddling effort was required. However, as a result I tended to get cold. When using the sail downwind in decent waves in F3-F5 there is a lot of excitement but actually I did not catch any more waves than when just paddling the Octane (albeit hard) without the sail. Once I caught a wave the speed increased and the apparent wind moved forward and back winded the sail. A complication of not paddling so hard when the sail is up is that you get less support from the paddle and this can lead to some hairy wobbles. However, just like on a conventional kayak, the sail seemed to steady the Octane on confused water. Where I found the Octane most fun with a sail was on choppy water with a cross off shore wind in about F4-F5. However, I also windsurf and I am afraid if I have to choose between a surfski (with or without a sail) or a windsurfer in a F4-F5 wind there is absolutely no contest...considering the correct tool for the job, it is the windsurfer every time! So while I am a great advocate of paddle sailing a conventional sea kayak, either to help catch waves down wind or to ease the load on a heavily laden camping trip, I am afraid I am less convinced by the need for a sail on a surfski. Of course if you do not also windsurf you are going to have a lot of excitement on an Octane with a sail and Pyranha are to be lauded for giving you the choice by having inserts for sail fittings moulded in as standard.

Problems/wear and tear?

Despite being a preproduction model, this has been one of the most trouble free kayaks I have used. Its PE construction has stood the rigours of been left on an open beach. The rudder and peddle operation has been faultless. The only problems have included a small leak of water into the rear compartment and a very small leak into the front. The source of the rear leak has been identified and production models modified. The front is almost certainly due to the breather tube (which is necessary on a surfski) being submerged during remounting practice. The Octane has of course spent considerable time on its side and upside down in the water as I and others have practiced remounts. Lastly the foot peddle rubbers both became detached after an extended wet session. These have been changed on production boats.


The Pyranha Octane/ Think Nitro is a stunning surfski that just happens to be made of PE. It is the synthesis of each company's expertise. Its robust PE construction opens up surfskiing to those whose budget cannot stretch to a composite surfski, those who paddle in shallow or rocky water or those who might have undercover storage problems for an expensive composite surfski of this length. Do not think that cheaper construction means a watered down shape. This is a true high performance design. It is not suitable for beginners to paddling but anyone who has spent time in a river, sea or sit on top kayak should not find it too big a step up. If you are into racing you will not be at the top of the leaderboard but if you are in a mixed field with conventional sea kayaks you won’t be at the bottom either.

The Octane must be the most accessible way into the exciting world of downwind and down-swell surfskiing but it will also be a great way into open or flat water racing or, if you are of solitary disposition, fitness paddling. You can also add a sail if you want even more excitement. All this fun will leave a huge smile on your face but will still leave a significant wodge of cash in your wallet. What's not to like? On a personal level, I have greatly enjoyed recreational fitness and fun paddling on the Octane/Nitro. It is not by coincidence that I have lost 19kg during the period of the test. Today,

I am really sad to see the Octane go back to P&H today. I understand it is now going to SeaKayakOban where it will be part of their demo fleet. So If you are in the area and fasncy a trial contact Stuart or Cathy. The only reason I would not now buy an Octane is due to spinal arthritis making it an awkward lift. So I am now half way to saving up to buy a composite surfski ….. but which one?


Length: 539cm
Width: 53cm
Weight: 23.5kg claimed 24.1kg as tested with hatch covers
. Price: £1095 with under hull rudder. £1,150 with over stern rudder

Conflict of Interest.
I have had free use of the demo Octane from August 2016 until its return on 21st April 2017. I have had a long standing unpaid relationship with Pyranha/P&H in which they discuss ideas for new products then lend me prototypes, I report back identifing any problems and they fix them. I own several personal kayaks from Dagger, Pyranha, P&H, Rockpool and Valley, all bought retail, so I am not dependent on Pyranha/P&H to go paddling!