Recently, the science of kayak hull design has taken and interesting turn which brings together aspects of the kayak and surfski into new exciting high performance craft that promises to shape the future and change the way we paddle. In this article, I present some background information and dive into design features of the Epic 18x which I believe is the most compelling hybrid design to date.
The kayak is a remarkable invention of the Inuit people allowing them to thrive in barren, hostile lands, not otherwise suitable for habitation. This powerful tool while bountiful with its benefits, demanded a discipline and strict set of age old skills. Modern renditions of the kayak gave this remarkable craft to the masses and introduced them to the rich Greenland traditions and discipline. But nothing from the past is immune to the scrutiny of science, as paddlers demanded greater performance and mastery of the seas. As science and technology have influenced the kayak, the surfski, having come from a very different past, faced an even more profound transformation, producing remarkable paddle craft capable of achieving high speeds on the rough ocean, not only squeezing efficiency from the paddler's every stroke, but augmenting it with energy captured from the sea itself. As the quest for kayak speed progressed, high speed flat water racing kayaks emerged, achieving high speeds, but leaving the paddler with a much less seaworthy craft as optimizations for speed sculpted away its traditional rough water handling features. However, the kayak industry is now taking a long look at the surfski and finding ways to adopt its remarkable design elements. Recently, one kayak manufacturer introduced an exciting new iteration of its kayak that is every bit a kayak above the waterline, but every bit a surfski below the waterline. While new designs are common, the paddling community took notice as this new radical design achieved staggering speeds and proved itself a formidable expedition kayak. However, as with the racing kayak, there are always tradeoffs in exchange for gains. But, for the first time, a near hybrid design emerged, capable of being paddled like a kayak or surfski on the ocean, casting a shadow on the pedigree of two rich and storied legacies and their legendary disciplines.
The designs and techniques of kayaks and surfskis evolved separately and are very different. As they differ in their purpose, their benefits are mutually exclusive to each other. Paddlers are left at a fork in the road to decide what they want and what they are willing to live without. Similarly, their circles of paddlers are divided along the same lines. Slowly, kayak manufactures started dabbling with design aspects of both paddle craft, adopting bits and pieces at a time. To make a truly hybrid design was a difficult task fought with several technical challenges. Moreover, they each require different skill sets and disciplines. Kayak manufacturers began to adopt a very limited number of surfski features, yielding limited gains since these features on a kayak could not be paddled in the manner for which they were originally designed. At Epic Kayaks, the two founders, both surf ski champions, over a period of years, ventured so far as to entirely do away with the kayak hull in favor of a swede style surf ski hull in their 18x and 16x models, resulting in kayaks that bare little to no resemblance to their traditional roots, and perform far different than kayaks of Greenland lineage. They were not the first to try this, but they went further by designing every facit of the craft to give surfski and kayak paddlers what they need to paddle the kayak in the manner befitting both crafts.
To satisfy surfski paddlers a reliable rudder that stays submerged and engaged in heavy waves was needed. While a bottom mounted rudder works quite well for both uses, it cannot be retracted and is therefore unsuitable for most kayak purposes. The most difficult task for Epic was coming up with a rudder design that would satisfy surfski requirements and fold away to preserve a kayak experience. Their solution led them down a path to a rudder design unlike any other. The stern of the hull was severed and turned into the movable portion of the rudder, housing a retractable spring loaded surfski blade, which could be extended from the bottom, forward from the stern. When not used, the blade retracted into the stern section which in turn, locked into the center position to become the ridged stern of the kayak. Their solution raised eyebrows in the industry. While not a perfect surfski rudder, it went a long way to satisfy requirements of a hybrid craft and solved a long standing rudder problem of surfskis and kayaks with a spring retractable blade that moves out of the way when hit by an obstacle, and returns to place when the obstacle was gone. Obstacles cause standard kayak rudders to kick up and not reset. Standard surfski rudders just break off unless a stern mounted surf rudder is used.
For expedition use, the kayak rides very stable in the water. The elongated cockpit makes it very easy to exit and enter. The newer latch style hatches hold tighter and keep the compartments dryer. They are also very easy to open and secure shut. The hinged day hatch is especially convenient which stays fastened and has only one latch.
In an industry with hundreds of kayaks of different shapes, sizes, and specializations, the introduction of a new quirky looking design hardly raises much notice. However, in 2009, paddler Frya Hoffmeister circumnavigated the continent of Australia (8570 miles) in an Epic 18x sport, and shaved more than a month off the time of the only other previous successful attempt by Paul Caffyn. The paddling community finally accepted the Epic 18x as a serious expedition kayak and began to debate the merits of fast expedition kayaks. Epic later went full circle and introduced the V8 surfski which adds a surfski top to the "18x Sport" kayak hull. While this new kayak could never be the perfect solution or satisfy all the intricate demands of both types of craft, it did integrate the spirit of both a kayak and a surfski in an interesting way. Harnessing all the benefits of this design will place extra demands on the paddler to expand their skill set to encompass at least a subset of kayak and surski techniques. For their efforts, the paddler can wield a full featured kayak with the speed and prowess of a surfski when empty that settles down to a stable serious expedition kayak when loaded.
These are exciting times to be a paddler with advances in water dynamics and the melding of kayak and surfski technologies. Only the future will tell if the Epic design will stand as a milestone in the evolution of the kayak, or be seen as a first deep foray into the realm of a true hybrid craft. Several kayaks have penetrated the market utilizing aspects of both technologies in their own creative ways. With the success of the Epic 18x, we will certainly see manufacturers committed to produce more hybrid type craft to take paddlers farther and faster. Along this journey, paddlers will find they too must evolve to meet the skill set demands of these new craft. Farther down the road refinements will likely mainstream hybrid design kayaks and push kayakers farther away from a 4000 year old legacy and discipline into one created for the modern age. Only the future will tell if the traditional kayak will fade into irrelevance and be relegated to the romantic fascination of a few.
Copyright 2012 Lyman A Copps