Monday, June 18, 2018

Flat Earth Kayak Sails Footloose '80 test and review.


I was in Glasgow getting a steroid injection into my right shoulder in clinic F then having a pint of blood drained from my left arm in clinic P when I heard the news that a parcel from Australia was waiting for me at my summer home on the Solway. Despite living 50m from the shore for 7 months of the year I have not been very active recently. I last managed a kayak camping trip in May 2017 and have had to give up windsurfing. Since January 2017 I have lost 27kg not to mention over 40 pints of blood and 1.5" in height, so I needed a bit of a boost to get me back on the water!

Well the parcel was, as expected, from Mark Sundin of Expedition Kayaks in Australia. They have taken over Flat Earth Kayak Sails following the sad and untimely death of Mick MacRobb who created Flat Earth. I was privileged to have tested prototypes of each of Mick's previous sails: the original all dacron, the dacron with mylar edges, the Code Zero and finally the Trade Wind.

Each of these designs allowed a lot of twist in the leach which meant the sails would automatically spill winds in the gusts. This made them extremely user friendly, especially for newcomers to paddle sailing. I have no doubt that the international success of Flat Earth Kayak Sails was built on the sails' degree of inbuilt twist.

This photo shows the twist in an early all Dacron Flat Earth sail. However, one disadvantage of twist is that paddling downwind in a loaded boat, when the windspeed is about 3 times or greater than the boat speed,  the leach twists open permanently. This spills wind that might otherwise drive the boat forward. Also when going upwind, the loose leech tends to "motor" when going upwind.

Even the most recent Trade Wind sail has considerable twist as you can see in this staged photo. The bow is directly downwind and there is about 90 degrees difference between the angle of the head of the sail and the boom. If there was zero twist, the head of the sail and the boom would be parallel. Each time I suggested to Mick that he should consider tightening the leach, just a little, he said that he was very reluctant to do that as he did not want to turn Flat Earth sails into "experts only" sails. Anyone who ever had any dealings with Mick would know that he was an egalitarian to the core of his soul. He wanted the Flat Earth Kayak Sail to be accessible to any reasonably competent sea kayaker. He would often give sails away to clubs or individuals who he knew could not afford them. So I was delighted to see that the Footloose sail's logo proudly proclaimed "Designed by Mick MacRobb". In truth many people have influenced the production of this new sail and modest as always, Mick was the always the first to acknowledge the input of others into his previous designs.

Back in May 2016 Tony and I were crossing from Rum to Eigg in the Scottish Hebrides. We were on a broad reach in a fresh wind and were fully loaded with camping gear. I found the degree of twist just a little frustrating as our sails were constantly spilling wind. So when I got back, I tried another tack with Mick.

I suggested that perhaps the time had come for Flat Earth to create an additional new sail for for more advanced users, which would be sold alongside the current Trade Wind sail. It could have a tighter leech, perhaps with an extra batten. I got a reply, almost immediately. In it Mick said he had been feeling a bit tired of late but he had already had talks about this with his mate Rob Mercer (a renowned Australian sea kayaker). They were already developing a design based on a sail Rob had had made for him some years before, by by another sailmaker, for some big expeditions and would I mind keeping it quiet until he (Mick) had some decent prototypes made? Unfortunately (and only a few weeks later) Mick circulated his friends with the news that his "bit tired" was actually a serious illness (from which he died only a few months later).

This new Footloose sail is undoubtedly the sail Mick was referring to and you can read what Rob Mercer says about its history and development here. Rob's expedition sail was a two batten, three panel sail that had been made for him by another Australian, Andrew Eddy, who sent Mick drawings of the original. Mick and Rob worked together tweaking the details. After Mick's death, Flat Earth's new sail maker, Neil Tasker, has done further work to put Mick's prototype into production. Rob has already used it with great success on a 2018 crossing of the Bass Straight. Well after that test, my few words will be pretty insignificant... but here goes!

Design and Construction.

As you can see the Footloose '80 sail has two battens and a relatively low aspect. It is constructed  with modern lightweight sail cloth laminates and uses a semi transparent bottom panel. Quality of construction is still as high as on previous Flat Earth sails. It has clearly been put together with care and craftsmanship.

You can see how it differs from the higher aspect older Trade Wind '80, which is overlaid in this photo and...

...underlaid in this photo. The Footloose sail is supplied with mainsheet, uphaul/forestay and enough non stretch line to have two side stays and two back stays.

Mast and fittings.

The quality fitting kit is up to Flat Earth's usual excellent standard and even comes with two extra surface deck fittings in case your existing deck fittings locations are not suitable for the fore stay/uphaul pulley or the main sheet deck pulley.

The supplied mast is slightly shorter than the one I have been using with my Trade Wind 80 sail. So it can obstruct the view of the horizon.

Here the Footloose '80 is set on my longer Trade Wind '80 mast.

 In this shot I am also using the longer Trade Wind '80 mast and have dropped the boom so that you can see clearly that the foot is truly loose. You can also see what a nice aerofoil curve the foot adopts when it is not attached to the boom along its length.

( I was also experimenting by tinkering with the boom height, lowering it to loosen the foot of the sail and raising it to tighten the foot of the sail, both actions achieved with a sharp knock of the paddle!)

My only very, very minor criticism about the fittings is that the plastic boom fitting for the sheet is perhaps a little over engineered.

Paddle sailing the Footloose.

So far I have only paddled the Flat Earth Footloose sail for three short paddles totalling 27km (the first was only a day after a steroid injection into my shoulder, which has a torn rotator cuff). The wind in each case was a steady 12 knots from the south and I used the sail on an unladen P&H Aries 155. I tried the sail on all points of sailing and I must say I liked it a very great deal. It has a very positive pull to it and...

 ...upwind it paddle sails pretty close to 45 degrees from the wind. In a southerly wind and a north going tide I even managed to beat SE round the outside of the islands with the sail up the whole way (see map above).

 Bearing off onto a beam reach then...

 ...a broad reach followed by a run...

 ...the sail continues to pull strongly and as you ease the sheet out...

 ...the top batten does not angle forward of the mast spilling wind which happens with the Trade Wind. This is especially noticeable when the boat slows down as you drop off a wave and the pressure of the following wind builds up. In the new Footloose, the leech remains tight and the increased wind pressure helps you pick up speed to catch the next wave. Note how my speed and distance covered increases on the broad reach on my trip back from the islands, as soon as I broke free of the lee of the islands, my speed increased by a factor of 3 as the sail helped me catch small swells. (The arrows are all the same time apart.) With the tight leech of the Footloose sail, I caught far more waves than I usually do with the Trade Wind sail, even allowing for my injured shoulder!

The sail gybes very predictably but there a more noticeable "whumph" as the sail fills on the new side. This also applies to launching the sail and it is probably easier to launch the sail on a broad reach so that the sail can spill wind as it is raised, before sheeting in. It is more difficult to spill wind when launching on a run.

 As Rob says on the Flat Earth web site, there is more heeling moment as a gust hits, both across the wind...

...and upwind with the Footloose sail than with the Trade Wind sail,  Experienced paddle sailors will love this direct, powerful feel though newcomers to paddle sailing would do better to look to the Trade Wind sail, which continues in production. I can't wait until I am fit enough to get the Footloose sail out on a camping expedition between the Hebridean Isles!


In conclusion, the Footloose is a fantastic and welcome new addition to the Flat Earth Kayak Sails range. Experienced paddle sailors will love its more powerful and direct feel which really helps you catch more waves downwind. Quality of fittings and construction are to the same high standards as in the Mick MacRobb days. Previously I have tested prototype Flat Earth sails but this sail feels like the finished article. I can think of nothing to suggest that would improve its performance.

Conflict of interest.

I have had a long association with Flat Earth Kayak Sails and have now tested examples of all 5 generations of their sails. Previous minor suggestions of mine have been incorporated into production versions. I have not paid for this sail but I have been happy to pay retail price for my last two Flat Earth sails. However, Mark included a freebie Expedition Kayaks T shirt in the parcel. It is in a most fetching blue, which sets off my blue eyes very nicely. That might just have helped sway my judgement! :o) :o)

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Duncan Winning OBE

Today,  I received a phone call from Gordon Brown to tell me that Duncan Winning OBE died yesterday. He had been ill for some time.  I send my sincere condolences to Duncan's family. 

Duncan was a father figure in Scottish sea kayaking and because he gave of his time generously, he started many people off on a lifetime of sea kayaking adeventures. So  many people have stories about Duncan but I have never heard a bad word about him, he was a true gentleman.
I was fortunate to paddle with Duncan on many occasions over the years and how we talked! We were both interested in the history of recreational kayaking (or KAY-a-king as Duncan called it). Of course I was the student and he was the master. Indeed Duncan not only had an encyclopaedic knowledge of kayaking history, he was actually a very important part of its history himself. Duncan was very proud of the fact that all the boats he had owned and paddled since the age of 14 years had been designed by himself. This photo shows Duncan in one of his designs, the GRP Explorer by Island Kayaks of Skye.

We would get so engrossed in our discussions that we would fall far behind the others and finish after dark. I was lucky to paddle with Duncan many times on our home waters of the Firth of Clyde but we also paddled together in the Inner and Outer Hebrides and at the alternating sea kayak symposiums at Skye and Jersey, where he was one of the organisers. 

Duncan had visited the Outer Hebrides over a period of over 40 years. On one of his first visits he and his friend Joe Reid had been caught in a great storm. They were lucky enough to have found a tiny sheltered cove.

He was very keen to find that particular shell sand cove again which was hidden away in the fastnesses of Loch Roag, a huge sea loch on the west coast of Lewis. Unfortunately he could not remember exactly where it was because the storm had blown their map away. During the course of a day's paddle, we stopped at many beautiful white sand Hebridean coves but none was the right one. At last, just as the day was fading, we found Duncan's cove. It was a wonderful moment to share with Duncan.

Duncan's day job also involved the sea. He was an engine room draughtsman in Kincaid's shipyard at Greenock but his true love was designing and building kayaks. 1960 Duncan paddled a kayak that Ken Taylor brought back from Illorsuit (Igdlorssuit) in Greenland. Duncan was so impressed by the handling of this kayak that all his subsequent designs were influenced by it. The above photo taken in 1960 shows Ken in the Igdlorssuit kayak, which had been made for him by local kayak builder Emanuele Korniliussen in 1959.  It is now in the Kelvingrove museum in Glasgow, Scotland. Ken and Duncan were fellow members of Scottish Hostellers Canoe Club.  When Ken left to live in the USA he left the kayak in the care of Duncan and Joe Reid who had taught Duncan to paddle. In 1964 Duncan carefully measured the kayak and made the detailed drawing below.

Duncan freely shared this drawing throughout the small sea kayaking community of the time. Geoff Blackford was one of the people who built a ply-wood version from Duncan's drawing and called it the Anas Acuta. 

In 1972 Valley started to commercially build a GRP version of the Anas Acuta, which is still in production and to this day has infused the British style of sea kayaks with Igdlorssuit roots. This photo shows Andy Spink paddling an Anas Acuta in the waters of Scarp in the Outer Hebrides.

Due to a series of surgical operations I was off the water for some time but Duncan and I kept up our long conversations by phone and, until I could visit him, Duncan came to visit me. I have no doubt that his time spent with me aided and sped my recovery. The last time Duncan and I paddled together was in November 2014. We paddled till long after sunset. It seems just like yesterday. The last time I saw Duncan was about a year ago at Portencross on his beloved Firth of Clyde. His health problem prevented him paddling that day but we enjoyed another of our long conversations.

What a loss his passing is. He was a thoroughly decent and modest family man. His influence in his chosen recreation of sea kayaking is immeasurable due to his gift of time to others, willingness to share knowledge and quiet leadership. Farewell Duncan and thank you.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

A fourth luncheon on the machair at Silver Sands

We stopped on the southern side of the Silver Sands of Smirisary and...

...made our way up the shore to the...

...closely cropped machair which backs the beach. Here, below a rapidly sinking sun, we partook of our 4th luncheon which we washed down with a not ungenerous snifter of 12year old Caol Isla.

After our comestibles had been suitably dwindled, it was time for a... prandial perambulation over the machair to the headland where we took in the view to the Small Isles to the west and... Rubh Arisaig and Skye to the north.

 We left Silver Sands and paddled north until we could...

 ...turn to the east and enter the Sound of Arisaig.

The sun was setting as we paddled on towards Glenuig Bay where we drew the boats up in the gathering darkness. Sadly there would be no further luncheons on this day.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The hidden isles and recesses of Loch Moidart

 We left Castle Tiorum and continued...

 ...our exploration of the South Channel of Loch Moidart. The wooded sides of Riska island fall steeply into the blue waters of the loch.

Our tour of the inner Loch Moidart continued past Eilean an Fheidh (deer isle) and...

...tiny Eilean na Craoibhe (tree isle). Normally we are in a desperate hurry here as we have  usually been rushing before the ebb tide dries the \North Channel. This time we were... no hurry as we were waiting for the flood tide... fill the the North Channel. It was most pleasing to round the east end of Shona Beag and see clear water stretching away down the channel towards the Sgurr of Eigg on the distant horizon..

We passed the long abandoned hamlet of Egnaig on the north shore. Its inhabitants had abandoned their homes long before the first road came to this part of Moidart in 1966. The road arrived well before grid electricity which did not arrive in Moidart until 1988!

The Sgurr of Eigg is a magnificent sight all the way down the north channel. It was formed when an ancient river valley was flooded with lava from the Rum volcano. The lava cooled quickly forming very hard pitchstone. The glaciers in the Ice Age then scoured away the softer rocks that had contained the river valley, leaving the Sgurr as it is today.

The north channel has a narrow entrance hemmed in by precipitous cliffs then...

....opens out into an area of reefs with coral sand beaches that are exposed at low tide.

As we left Loch Moidar,t a pair of sea eagles watched us from high on these cliffs.

Our bows turned north again. It was getting late in the afternoon and fourth luncheon was calling. Not far ahead we spotted the ideal place...

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Fair birlin' doon the loch to Castle Tioram.

We left Shoe Bay and set off up the South channel of Loch Moidart with both a fair wind and a flood  tide behind us. We were soon birlin' doon the loch at a most respectable rate of knots.

As we paddled deep inland, the loch narrowed and the wind dropped. To the south the land was relatively low lying and is where the outflow of River Sheil carries the fresh water from Loch Sheil into the salt water of Loch Moidart.

 To the north we were hemmed in by the rough slopes of Eilean Shona which fell steeply into the sea.

 Ahead and to the east, lay our next objective...

...Castle Tiorum (pron. Cheerum) whose ancient grey walls rise from the grey rocks of...

 ...the tidal island upon which it stands. On its NW side there is a sheltered cove, which at one time would have had...

 ...wooden birlinns, like this modern reconstruction, drawn up on its sands. Many think the Celtic birlinns were developed from Viking longships but it was actually the other way round. The Celts were using birlinns some 800 years before the time of the longships. Indeed, in his third book of the Gallic Wars, Julius Caesar describes them in detail and how they were superior to the Roman galleys.

 Today it was kayaks and an F-RIB rather than birlinns that drew up on the sands  below...

 ...the castle walls. Long gone castle defenders might have viewed our approach with some suspicion but we were intent on nothing more than...

 ...stopping for our fourth luncheon....