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.

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

KCS kayak V cradles for side loading roof racks test and review.

KCS are producing many new products these days and this V cradle for side loading roof racks really caught my eye. At £210 for a pair they are not cheap but exude quality and thoughtful design. 

Side loading roofracks such as the Kari-tec Easy Load Roofrack have transformed the transportation of kayaks especially for those slightly older kayakers who load and unload alone. The risk of shoulder rotator cuff injuries caused by lifting above your head increases dramatically with age. I have had both surgery and years of painful physiotherapy for my shoulders. 

With a side loading rack you do not need to lift the kayak much above your waist. However, the existing J bar kayak support cradles (as in the photo above) are not stiff enough or angled enough to support the kayak while you strap it on. You either need to have help, which partially defeats the purpose of the side loading rack, or you need to stand against the middle of the kayak and try and stretch to tie the straps on, as best you can,  yourself.

The elegant solution is this set of cradles from KCS. Unlike J cradles, which carry the kayak on edge, these carry the kayak keel down when on the roof. When the rack is down the side of the car, the extended lower cradle holds the kayak completely securely while you sort out the straps. It works so simply and effectively! The foam is 15mm thick and the supporting arm on the left hand front cradle is deeper than on the rear cradle to match the shape of a typical kayak. The left hand cradles can be supplied with a different shape if you have a kayak with a more extreme measurement, such as the Rockpool Menai 18. The cradles are supplied with appropriate fitting kits to suit various  makes of side loading rack. In terms of expected durability, I still have my original set of KCS J bars with 5mm foam, which I bought 20 years ago. They still have exactly the same shape as the day I bought them.

This is a P&H Volan resting on the cradle in the down position but without being strapped on it is still very secure... no visible means of support as they say!

This is the Volan, now secure in the horizontal position, on top of the roof rack. I tried these cradles on a P&H Volan, P&H Cetus MV,  P&H Aries and Evolution Nomad 17, which are all shaped very differently. This was an early prototype rack but even so the fit on each kayak was very acceptable. Since I borrowed this rack, KCS have tweaked the shape for even better fit for most common kayaks.

Any snags? My car is a mid size car and there is just enough room for a second set. A smaller car would not have room. However, if you were carrying two kayaks there is plenty of room for a set of J cradles alongside these V cradles and of course the other paddler could then help with the lift! So it is not really a problem at all!

Overall this is a brilliant bit of kit for anyone with a side loading rack.  I would say even if you do not currently own a side loader rack, you should still consider getting a pair of these now instead of Normal V or J cradles. You can still use them as V cradles on a conventional roof rack but you will then have them for when you inevitably need to move to a side loading rack to save you ageing shoulders!!!

Friday, March 18, 2022

The Beaches of Scotland by Dr Stacey McGowan Holloway: Book Review

This beautiful book is an illustrated  guide to over 150 beaches scattered round the 19,000 km coast line of the Scottish mainland, the Hebrides and the Northern Isles. 

I particularly liked the introduction in which the author discusses beach safety, how to visit (responsible access), types of beach, seascape and geology (contributed by the author’s husband who is an oceanographer), how and when to travel (this includes valuable advice for those who choose to travel by car or camper van rather than by foot, cycle or public transport). I especially liked why the author has chosen the beaches included in the book. 

“The reasons for a beach being chosen for this book were multifactorial, based on its beauty, uniqueness, location and importantly whether it has the infrastructure in place to sustain tourism.” 

I applaud the author for this approach. Several of my favourite beaches are not in this book and I am pretty sure the author knows them well. However, each has some sort of issue that would be exacerbated by a significant increase in visitor numbers, such as threat to wildlife habitat or access problems including car parking and serious erosion of access paths. This approach might be considered by some as elitist but the publication of a recent guide to mountain bothies has already resulted in the closure of two bothies as a result of overuse and indiscriminate parking.  Another example of attracting too many people to a limited natural resource is the Fairy Pools in the Skye Cuillin which have now been well and truly "Instagrammed". In contrast, this book will disperse visitors over a very wide area.  In doing so, it serves as a wonderful introduction to Scottish beaches and leaves the visitor the joy of exploration and discovery of “new” beaches in each area.

Each beach is illustrated with a photo and descriptive text. There are also key facts including access, toilets and activities. In a guide like this there is not enough room for small scale maps of individual beaches so, for many of the less accessible beaches, an OS map will be useful and the key facts include Lat/Long co-ordinates (for GPS input) and OS map grid references. There are large scale maps showing the location of multiple beaches, which will be invaluable when planning a trip to an area.

This book will have wide appeal to walkers, swimmers, cyclists, kayakers and paddle boarders. I recommend it thoroughly.

PS I have contributed a photo of one of the remoter beaches in the book. The publisher contacted a friend, who is an accomplished photographer and author of guidebooks to see if he had a photo of this beach. His reply was “If anyone randomly has a photo of an obscure and remote 1km-long beach in the Western Isles sitting on his hard drive, it’ll be him…” I guess that qualifies me to both review the book and comment on the choice of included beaches.

The Beaches of Scotland, Dr Stacey McGowan Holloway, Vertebrate Publishing, publication date 7/4/2022, ISBN 978183981078


Friday, July 02, 2021

29th April 2021 #7 Locked in but not locked down by a wild night in Loch Hourn.

Ian and I set to work building a fire on the shore of Loch Hourn. We chose a site below the highest tide level but, as it was just before predicted HW, we expected the tide not reach the fire.

A stiff NE breeze soon had it burning fiercely.

Unfortunately the tide kept rising and we had to rescue the wood and leave the fire to the mercy of the water. We built a new fire further up the shore.

Of course the sun did not stay out long. Yet another squall battered down the loch towards us obliterating the view of the mountains as it came. A brave rainbow framed the scene but lasted only a few seconds till it was lost in a wall of grey. The approaching storm was elemental and truly magnificent. For a while we were transfixed by its beauty but just in time, we abandoned the new fire to its own devices and fled to the tents. The noise as the wind ripped at the flysheet and alternate bands of rain and hail lashed down added to the sense of wildness.

After the storm, we emerged from the tents to find a dusting of fresh snow on the summits but more importantly the wind had dropped.

As the sun began to set on this landlocked arm of the sea...

... its still waters reflected the sunset colours of the clouds, despite the setting sun being hidden below dark enclosing mountain ridges.

As night fell and the fire burned more brightly we swapped tales of kayaking adventures. We might be locked in, in inner Loch Hourn, but we were no longer locked down!

Thursday, July 01, 2021

29th April 2021 #6 another change of weather in Loch Hourn.

No sooner had we turned our backs to the wind and rain at the head of Loch Hourn than the wind dropped. Then the skies began to clear revealing the high rocky ridges of Ladhar Beinn to the west.

A light tail wind let me try the new prototype sail from Scottish firm KCS.

Seconds ago we had been battling into a winter storm, now we were paddling past a forest of birch and alder that was bursting into leaf. It was filled with the song of willow warblers and cuckoo's persistent calls echoed round the corries above.

We were now getting a bit hot as we had been paddling against the incoming spring tide. Fortunately as we neared the narrows, we picked up a helpful counter eddy. This carried us effortlessly the final kilometre to our intended camp site.

Not wanting the day to end, we stopped at a little rise to savour the view back up to the head of the loch. What a transformation. We hardly recognised the azure blue, sunlit waters as those which we had just paddled under a leaden grey sky.

We even got the tents up in the sunshine. Of course this was still Loch Hourn and that would not last... 

Thursday, June 24, 2021

29th April 2021 #5 Some hellish weather in Loch Hourn with some paradoxical dryness at Caolas an Loch Beag.

Donald had followed the north shore of Loch Hourn in his small F-Rib boat with 6HP motor. He had arrived at our intended camp site and pitched his tent before we arrived. He had just left to explore Inner Loch Hourn as we arrived. 

He didn't get far. As we approached the tidal narrows at Caolas Mor, we were hit by a violent squall from the east. Fortunately we were in the lee of the spit that nearly bisects the loch but it provided little shelter from the stinging alternate blasts of rain, sleet, hail and snow. It is just about the only time I have had to put the hood up on my dry suit. Some say the Gaelic origin* of the name Hourn means something like Loch Hell! We had hoped hell might have been a little warmer. 

* A great aunt who was a Gaelic teacher (she lived to 101 and did not learn English till she was 9), also had an interest in the literally hundreds of Gaelic place names in every small area.  These were passed on orally but are now mostly lost. She told me the most likely origin of the Anglicised Hourn was Shùirn, which among other things means flue or chimney. She thought that was because of the narrow twisting nature of the loch and she thought that maybe people associated flue with fire and fire with hell.

We pushed through the narrows against the last of the spring ebb and wind. It was clear we could go no further till the wind dropped. Even Donald in his small motor boat had been stopped by the wind. We landed on the exposed side of the spit for a rest. After the wind abated, the clouds cleared leaving the mountains behind us dusted with fresh snow. We set off for an exploration of Inner Loch Hourn.

We pressed on up the loch towards its head. We knew we could not reach Kinlochhourn at the end of the loch as it was low water springs and Loch Beag at the head of Loch Hourn nearly dries out.

The inner loch has scattered glaciated islands that mirror the shape of the mountains behind. 

We even got a couple of surprise shafts of sunlight before the wind picked up  and the... 

..the clouds and rain closed in again. It was pouring at the tidal narrows of Caolas an Loch Beag, which perhaps paradoxically, were almost dry in the spring low water. We had reached the end of our journey into the hell at the head of Loch Hourn. In the process we had discovered why this is the wettest place in Scotland.