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 phseakayaks.com

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 www.seakayakoban.com 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! 

Sunday, April 03, 2022

P&H Virgo MV long term test and review

P&H Virgo MV CLX


The beginning of August 2019 was rather sad. I had to return the P&H Valkyrie kayak and in its place I was loaned a P&H Virgo. Both boats were new models in 2019. I found the Valkyrie to be a unique and sublime blend of fun and performance in a hull that owes more to surfski design than other FSTs (fast touring kayaks). I reviewed the Valkyrie in Ocean Paddler magazine #71. I was very sorry to see it go.

After the excitement of the Valkyrie, it is fair to say that I was not expecting too much of the Virgo. How wrong I was to be! The Virgo very quickly became a big part of my paddling life!

It was designed as an all round day/weekend touring kayak to replace the ageing Easky, which I have paddled and found to be heavy and on the numb side of boring. Although the Easky has now been discontinued, a budget version of the Virgo is available in single skin PE construction at the same price point as the Easky.

These thoughts about the Easky were going through my mind as I first took the roof rack straps off and started to unload the Virgo. My goodness it was light! This one was in the Corelite X  (CLX) triple layer construction and once I got all the wrapping off I discovered it was 3kg lighter than an early P&H Aries 155 in performance kevlar construction! Mostly I was able to carry the unloaded Virgo on my own but carrying it to the beach with two people, one at the bow and one at the stern, revealed absolutely no bounce or flex. This boat in CLX is very stiff.

Test conditions and paddlers.

The test period was August 2019 to October 2020, this included restricted access to the sea during Covid lockdown. From the beginning of August 2019 until the beginning of March 2020 the Virgo was paddled extensively in exposed tidal waters (up to 4 knots) of the outer Solway Firth and the Firth of Clyde in SW Scotland and the Sound of Arisaig and Wester Ross coast in NW Scotland. Limited access to the sea from late March to July 2020 restricted paddling to local reservoirs and canals. The Virgo was then paddled on the Solway Firth until October 2020. Winds varied from F0 up to F5 and swell up to 1.5m with one 2m day. It was paddled alongside a P&H Delphin 155, a P&H Aries 155, a P&H Hammer, a P&H Scorpio Mk1, a Scorpio MV Mk2 CLX, a P&H Quest LV, a P&H Cetus MV and an Evolution Nomad 17. If I thought the  Virgo was light compared with the Aries, it was like a feather compared with the surf specification Hammer!  The main tester was 172cm tall and 73kg. The Virgo 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.

Fittings and design features

There is no hiding the Virgo's short 4.43m length in the profile view but do not think this is a dumpy recreational kayak only suitable for beginners. The end on view above, hows the fine entry lines of a kayak designed for some serious seakayaking!

The Virgo has all the fittings including towline/security attachment, compass recess and deck lines you would expect on a full size touring kayak. There is even a nice elastic paddle park on the starboard side of the cockpit which doubles as a retainer for a folded sail. There is no rear day hatch. This helps keep the weight down and because of the short length of the kayak it is easy to reach up to the cockpit bulkhead through the oval rear hatch. I have heard several people criticise the lack of a rear day hatch. In practice the only thing I have ever taken from a day hatch on the water was a cag, when it turned chilly. I would be quite happy keeping a cag rolled up under a deck elastic, if I thought the weather might change while I was on the water and I did not want to land. However, I know people who carry items for every conceivable on the water emergency in their day hatches, so maybe the Virgo is not for them. As I also surfski, I am enjoying transferring the lightness and simplicity of that activity into my sea kayaking so I did not miss the day hatch at all. The Virgo has an optional mini day hatch in front of the cockpit, which is a good size. It was not fitted to the test boat. However, on the Valkyrie I tested, the same mini hatch was a useful size and much more waterproof than most such hatches on other RM boats.

The footrests adjust easily while seated using easy to reach wands. There was plenty room for a a 1.88m tall paddler's size 45 boots. The Connect seat is very comfortable. Initially the back rest in the Virgo did not seem as comfortable as the higher backrest in the Hammer we paddled alongside (also Connect specification). However, the various testers managed to find a comfortable tension after a few easy adjustments between paddlers. The skeg/skudder control is mounted on the left fore deck rather than on the side of the kayak. It is out of the way of your paddling hand here but on the beach it does gather and hold sand, which you need to be sure to wash out before you set off.  Both skeg and skudder use the same blade. The skeg leading edge comes down to about 45 degree  while the skudder leading edge is not far off vertical. 

The deck elastics are a different colour to the deck lines so if you are assisting someone to get back into their boat you can say "reach across and grab my blue deck line" P&H have really been listening to the needs of paddle sailors. The fore deck is stiff enough to support the mast foot without requiring extra reinforcement. Two brass inserts are moulded into the foredeck to screw the mast base plate into. Two deckline RDFs are positioned at right angles on either side of the baseplate position to give maximum support to the mast. The only drilling of the hull would be to fit the uphaul and sheet cleats in the foredeck in front of the cockpit. If you really don’t like drilling a kayak, the cleats can be fitted on top of the lateral deck line RDF fittings in front of the cockpit by using longer bolts.

The Virgo has a long waterline length at the keel for its length, which boded well for its cruising speed.  Looking at the keel rocker it was apparent that this was designed for a very different role than the highly rockered and ultra manoeuvrable Aries and Delphin designs. However, as soon as the Virgo is edged, the waterline shortens considerably giving the Virgo great manoeuvrability. I also noticed the lovely lines of the chines, these add stiffness to the hull and also serve as water release edges (more of that later). The overall finish of the Corelite X boats in very good with a nice mixture of gloss and matt finish on the exterior. There is even a subtle P&H logo embossed on the underside of the hull. There was an older Easky on the beach and, in comparison, the moulding of this boat was rather basic.

Paddling the Virgo. 

After adjusting the Smart Track Toe Pilot footrests for comfortable fit on the beach, I wasted no time (and little energy, it was so light) getting the Virgo to the water. This was when I was really surprised. Despite my preconceptions that this was a basic beginner’s boat, I took to the Virgo straight away. It is a perfect blend of stability and responsiveness (in a way that my much loved Nordkapp LV is not!) This is not just a boat for beginners, it is a boat that could be enjoyed by everyone. The Virgo had no trouble cruising with the Scorpios, Quest LV Cetus MVs and Nomad at 6km/hr. It is easy to keep on a straight track and if you stop paddling in a wind, it does not lee cock, like an Aries or a Delphin. Along a rocky coast it was unsurprisingly more manoeuvrable on edge than the longer Scorpios but less so than the Aries 155. The Virgo was impressively stable when holding an edge in a hard turn.

The test boat has the skudder, which I have used on various Scorpios and it works very well, especially with a sail. However, the Virgo is so manoeuvrable on edge I would say that unless you really like rudders or intend to paddle sail, th skeg version would do just fine. We paddled the Virgo with the skudder fully up in situations where we would have used a skeg in both the Delphin and the Aries. The first half of the adjustment track lowers the skudder blade to about 45 degrees which is the maximum deployment for use in skeg mode. The rear half of the track lowers the blade fully clear of the slot in the hull and in this position the foot pedals can turn it. There is no self-centering mechanism so to raise the blade from the rudder position you need to centre the blade using the foot pedals while gently moving the adsjustment slider forward. I have also paddled Virgos and Scorpios with the skeg option. The blade is the same but there is no turning mechanism.  One thing to note is that only the front half of the adjustment track is used and the blade only comes down to 45 degrees. This is normal and is not a fault! (There are several posts on the internet where owners think the control line is too short and that the blade should come the whole way down.)

Paddling out through steep, wind over tide waves I found the Virgo to be noticeably dry compared with the Valkyrie (with its wave piercing bow). The Virgo has a V in the forward hull which flares out as the chines approach the deck towards the bow. This design effectively deflects the water. Dryness  is something I value in a touring kayak, especially on a bitterly cold, winter day paddling out through the shore break in Gruinard Bay, Wester Ross. The trade off is that the bow rises and falls quite noticeably in waves and this does slow the rate of progress compared with the fast wet ride of the Valkyrie.

The Virgo feels remarkably stable when the water gets rough. When you turn downwind it is also a lot of fun. It does not catch fast, deep water waves as easily as the Aries, Delphin or Valkyrie but if you get your timing right and  paddle hard as you feel the stern begin to lift, the Virgo accelerates and surfs with some style. In Wester Ross we enjoyed a 1.5m swell with a period of 11 seconds. The Virgo was a blast and certainly did not fall behind the Quest LV or Nomad, which are both fast in following seas. What I was not expecting, on an all round boat, was that when it starts to plane on a wave (of about 1m) you can carve a turn by lowering the inside edge. That is the benefit of those well defined chines acting as water release edges to encourage planing! The only problem I noticed with the Virgo (compared with the Aries and Delphin) is that in certain short steep seas such as you get as the depth shoals towards the shore, the Virgo is more inclined to stuff its bow into a wave and not resurface. This rather puts an end to forward upright motion and you will be glad the Virgo rolls easily. The Virgo's lack of rocker especially at the bow and the flatter foredeck especially compared to the Delphin contribute to this characteristic. However on flatter water the lack of rocker and long waterline length for such a short boat allows it to keep up with longer kayaks when touring.

The Virgo is an easy boat to roll as the rear deck and cockpit are low for layback rolls. The low, wide rear deck also facilitates cowboy re-entries. In an assisted rescue of the Virgo, the rescue kayaker found it easier to empty the upturned Virgo than the Delphin and Aries due to their greater degree of bow rocker. Both fore and aft hatches in the Virgo remained bone dry. It is also an easy boat to instruct from and perform assisted reentries for others. This is due to the speed with which it can be turned and also due to its  stability. I used it to tutor my 6 year old grandson’s first attempts at assisted re-entries in his Jersey Junior kayak. My Nordkapp LV was available but I chose the Virgo for this responsible task.

Camping from the Virgo

The Virgo took all my weekend camping gear with space to spare. Mind you I  can pack small, having gone on a 6 day / 5 night self supporting camping trip in winter in my Aries! A compact down sleeping back and small tent would help maximise the storage space for other essentials. With a full load, the Virgo lost some of its feeling of liveliness and agility but it was still able to maintain a good pace alongside a Scorpio MV Mk 2 CLX. It also felt wonderful compared with a loaded Easky. Even a 90kg paddler did not swamp the Virgo packed full of gear.

Paddle sailing the Virgo

As soon as I launched the sail, for the first time, I knew the Virgo was going to be extra special. A broad reach in 0.5m swell and a F4 wind soon had the spray flying off the chines (and not into my face) as I caught and planed on wave after wave. Due to the Virgo’s short length, It could not point as high as the Scorpio MV Mk 2 with the same sail. It seemed to be pointing as high as the longer boat but in reality it was making more leeway. However, most of the fun in paddle sailing is down wind and then the short Virgo excels as you can manoeuvre so easily to stay on a wave or catch the next wave to either side. It paddle sails in a very balanced way and the skudder will help those new to paddle sailing hold a straight course. I also used the skudder in skeg only mode and it was  easy to adjust until the desired course could be held, without having to paddle more on one side than the other. The Virgo’s stability also encouraged a newcomer to paddle sailing to launch the sail in a F3/F4 wind on their first session with a sail.

Any snags?

This was a pre-production boat and there were a few niggles, which have already been fixed for production models. However, I can only report what I found in the boat tested. P&H have an excellent track record of taking paddler feedback and using it to fine tune their kayaks.

One of the sandy beaches on the Solway has a grain size that jams in the jaws that hold the skudder blade. The jaws are just inside the skeg box. It does not happen on any of the other beaches. Because I know about this, I do not drag the stern of the kayak on the sand on this beach. I also operate the skudder several times in the water before I leave the beach. Of course skegs on other boats also jam, usually with bigger gravel or small pebbles.

The deck elastics on this early production model ran over the skeg/skudder slider. This has been fixed on subsequent production boats with realigned elastics. The elastic (which is a continuous extension of the foredeck deck elastics) that can be used to secure a paddle by stretching it over a clip was just too tight to secure the folded sail. Again this has been fixed. The brass inserts to screw an optional mast base to the deck were mounted a few centimetres too far forward of the deckline RDFs the side stays would attach to. This is now also fixed. The seat in the test boat was mounted on a huge thick wedge of foam. (In contrast the seat in the Valkyrie was mounted as low as possible). There is case for having a high seat in a performance kayak but this is clearly a recreational touring kayak. To me the Virgo was stable in rough water even with a high seat but increasing seat height reduces stability (seat pad raisers are often used to train surfskiers who are wanting to move to a faster, narrower, less stable ski). However, I am only 172cm tall and 72kg and have been paddling for some time. The 188cm tall 90kg paddler (who had a higher centre of gravity) commented that the Virgo was a bit livelier than he expected as we paddled through one of the local tide races off the islands. This has now fixed with a lower seat.

Lastly, the CLX sticker on the foredeck came off!


What a wonderful surprise paddling the Virgo has proved to be. It has proved to be a versatile sea kayak that can be enjoyed by paddlers of all levels of experience. The Virgo is a lively day/weekend all round touring kayak that will handle pretty much any conditions you are likely to meet. It is very accessible to newcomers but experienced paddlers will still find it rewarding and responsive to paddle. It is lighter than many composite kayaks of this size but seems to be just as stiff. It makes a great boat for paddle sailing. It is easy to handle and store when ashore. Finally, I have not paddled my Aries in the time I have had the Virgo, I have enjoyed the Virgo so much. 

The Virgo is truly a kayak for everyone. It will put a smile on your face!


Length: 443cm

Breadth: 59cm

Weight: 24.7kg

Volume: 313l (quoted)

Max paddler weight: 100kg (quoted)

Price as of 1/4/2022 

MZ3 Skeg (Rope & Cleat): RRP £1,149.00
CoreLite X Skeg (MKII Skeg Slider): RRP £1,399.00
CoreLite X Skudder (MKII Skeg Slider): RRP £1,499.00

Conflict of interest:

I am grateful to P&H and Sea Kayak Oban for the long term loan of the Virgo. 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. I own several personal kayaks from Dagger, Evolution, Pyranha, P&H, Rockpool, Think and Valley so I am not dependent on Pyranha/P&H to go paddling!

An edited version of this test appeared in Ocean Paddler magazine #73.