Kayaking on the Hudson

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Kayak Review: Merlin LT 13.5' by Eddyline

The Merlin LT was the original do-it-all kayak.  The first Merlins came out in the late 1990s.  I have one of the first 200 ever made.  It is an amazing design.  This kayak is 13’6” long and weighed only 35 pounds!  New Merlins weigh a bit more because they added more outfitting and a cushy seat.  The secret to the weight savings is Eddlyline’s proprietary Carbonlite 2000, which is actually thermo-formed plastic.  It is lightweight, yet incredibly stiff. 

 This kayak has virtually no rocker so the whole kayak is waterline.  This makes the Merlin incredibly fast for such a small kayak.  It can handle just about any conditions, except rocks.  Thermo-formed plastic is not quite as tough as roto-molded.
The Merlin kayak has a long water line.  Only about 6" of the length sits out of the water.

The LT model fits small to medium sized paddlers, while there is an XT version for larger paddlers.  The outfitting has been upgraded over the years and includes a cushy seat, dual bulkheads, and deck bungees.

This kayak is so versatile and so much fun to paddle, that it is one of only three kayaks that has earned a place in my permanent fleet.  Each spring, the Merlin is the first kayak I paddle to start off the season.

Pros: Very light weight, medium initial stability.  Very responsive and fast for its size.
Cons: Expensive compared to roto-molded.  Must be careful around rocks.
Best Uses: Day paddling in quiet to big water. 

See you on the water, 
Don Urmston

Monday, March 28, 2011

Universal Kayak Repair Kit

The universal kayak repair kit consists of the following:
1 roll of duct tape
1 dry bag to keep the duct tape dry

Duct tape is like the “force” from Star Wars: It is light on one side, dark on the other, and it holds the universe together.  Kayaking is no exception to this rule.  I have used duct tape to patch a crack in the hull of my kayak, to tape a dry bag over an open hatch after losing my hatch cover and to patch a tear in a dry bag and a tent.  You can also use it to tape up injuries, broken rudder cables and just about anything else.  If you want to make your duct tape super effective, try adding these two items to your dry bag as well…

A camp towel – great for drying off your cracked kayak so you can get a good seal with the duct tape.

A multi-tool – (Leatherman) – great for tightening any screws that may come loose on your kayak.

The best part – duct tape now comes in several different colors, so you can get it to match our kayak!

See you on the water,
Don Urmston

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Rudders & Skegs

Kayak rudder "deployed"
Kayak rudder in "storage" mode
I get the rudder / skeg questions a lot.  Which is better?  Should I have one?  Should I add one to my kayak?  I used to hate rudders, but I’ve softened my stance over the years.  A rudder is a blade that hangs off the back of the kayak and is controlled via cables that are connected to the foot pegs in the kayak.  Press the right foot peddle and you turn right.  Press the left peddle and you turn left.  The idea of a rudder is not to turn all over the place, but to keep the kayak going in a straight line when you hit winds or currents that push you off course.  For this purpose, rudders work very well.  However, they are mechanical and thus are subject to breakdowns.  The cables can break or jam and the rudder may break as well.  I once had a rudder tear completely off the back of the kayak and plunge into the water.  The cables were still connected, so the rudder dragged under the kayak like an anchor.  The worst part is that the foot pegs disappeared down into the kayak because they were kept in place by the tension on the rudder cables.  I really dislike the “squishy” feel of the foot pegs in a kayak with a rudder.  This has been solved somewhat by the invention of Butterfly foot pegs where the bottom half of the foot pegs are stationary while the top half pushes forward to activate the rudder.  The other thing I dislike about rudders is that they really get in the way when you have to execute an assisted rescue.  It’s just plain scary to be swimming in the water and have a big metal blade hanging over your head as you try to climb back into the kayak.  But, despite the drawbacks, a rudder can be a great help when the weather gets rough.
When not deployed, the skeg is invisible

Skegs work in much the same way, but instead of turning, a skeg just hangs down from underneath the kayak like the fin on a surf board.  Once again, the idea is to keep the kayak going straight when things get rough.  Skegs have potential problems too.  They can jam and break.  Also, skegs sit in a housing that is carved out of the rear hatch, so you lose some storage space in the back hatch of the kayak.  But I like skegs.  They work well, and most are adjustable, so you can get a little help or a lot of help.
Skeg deployed
One word of caution to you rudder and skeg users.  Never rely on either.  They will breakdown at some point, so you should be able to paddle your kayak without one if needed.

See you on the water,
Don Urmston

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Duck! A kayak story

I’ve seen a lot of wildlife while out kayaking.  I’ve seen harbor seals, porpoises (porpi?, porpoisesusses?-- more than 1 porpoise), foxes, a bear swimming, bald eagles, osprey, turtles, fish and all kinds of other birds and insects.  But this encounter with a very common species just took my breath away.  

Andrea and I were on one of our many trips down the Delaware River when we came across a mama duck with 6 to 8 ducklings.  They were tiny, fuzzy little critters and it was clear they were not flying yet.  They were headed across the river; coming 90 degrees to our path.  I told Andrea to pull up her paddle so we could float past them without spooking the poor mother duck.

We drifted with the current and the ducks came right at us.  Instead of being spooked, they swam right up to us and paddled down river with us.  The little baby ducks were circling around our kayaks, jumping out of the water trying to climb up on the boats and pecking at any screw heads that looked like they might be food.  

The mother duck was not at all nervous; she just paddled along beside us with her chicks for about 5 minutes (a long time for a wildlife encounter).  Eventually, the ducks headed back toward shore.

When we stopped for lunch, we asked some canoeists if they had ever experienced anything like it, and they had never even heard of such a thing happening.  We realized how lucky we had been.  For a brief time, we had become one with nature.  Now that’s what kayaking is all about!

See you on the water,
Don Urmston

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

3 uses for a dry bag that you never thought of

Most of us kayakers have dry bags.  We put our lunch in one.  We put our first-aid kit in one.  We put our extra clothes in one.  Dry bags come in many sizes and they can keep just about anything dry, but they have several other uses as well.  Here are just 3 uses that you might not have foreseen:

1.      A medium or large dry bag can be duct-taped over an open hatch if you lose your hatch cover.  I lost my rear hatch cover on the interstate and paddled all day on the Delaware with a dry bag as a hatch cover.

2.      You can fill dry bags with rocks or sand to create ballast bags that you put into the hatches.  This will help your kayak ride lower in the water while paddling in windy conditions.  We learned this trick while paddling in 20 knot winds up in Maine.

3.      You can tape a dry bag to someone’s leg to keep their foot / ankle dry if they sustain an injury.  (Haven’t had to use this one yet- knock on wood).

I used to bring only the dry bags I needed on paddling trips; now I bring several extra ones.  They don’t weigh much or take up much room, so why not?

See you on the water,
Don Urmston

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Kayak Review: Charleston 14' by Dagger

Charleston 14' kayak on the Erie Canal
This kayak wasn’t made for very long and was never very popular.  Sounds bad, but it means that if you find one, you can usually get it for $500-$600, which is pretty cheap for a 14’ kayak.  The Charleston was a weird cross between a whitewater kayak and a touring kayak.  Dagger used a flat hull (from its whitewater designs) which makes the Charleston really easy to turn.  It also means the Charleston doesn’t track well, especially in the wind.  To compensate, Dagger put a drop skeg on this model.  This really helps with the tracking.  I paddled a Charleston for a whole season and found that it wasn’t so great in whitewater, but was awesome in tight marshland areas when I had to turn frequently.  It has dual bulkheads, decent deck bungees (but no deck lines) and a really cool seat that has separate inflatable chambers for the seat and back.  If you mostly paddle quiet water, this is a great kayak.  (14ft.  48lbs.)  If you paddle bigger water, then try a different 14’ model like a Tsunami.

Pros: Lightweight (about 5-10 pounds lighter than competing models), very comfortable.  Great stability, medium speed rating, good all around outfitting, great seat.  Inexpensive compared to competition.

Cons: All Daggers are prone to denting (thin plastic) so care must be taken when storing and transporting.  Slower than some competing models like Tsunami and Alchemy (which replaced the Charleston).  Hull shape renders kayak not very good in high seas and high wind.

See you on the water,
Don Urmston

Friday, March 11, 2011

Surf's Up!

I believe that kayaking can be whatever you want it to be.  If you want to buy a cheap kayak, float around watching birds and never learn any advanced kayaking skills, then that’s fine by me.  So long as you are getting exercise, enjoying nature and having fun, that’s all that matters.  But if you’ve ever considered upgrading your skills and/or equipment, this story is for you.

When you have a really good kayak and you spend lots of time paddling it, something magical happens.  You climb into the kayak and realize that you are no longer sitting in it; you are wearing it.  The kayak becomes an extension of your body and all you have to do is think about your next move and it just happens.  

On our way back down Nova Scotia, after our harrowing “Perfect Storm” experience, we came across a gorgeous cove with white sand and crystal clear water.  Andrea had had enough kayaking for one trip, but I decided to paddle out and surf on the waves that were coming in.  I didn’t really know how to surf, but it was exhilarating nonetheless.  I guess I got a bit cocky and while I was surfing a big wave, it turned my kayak sideways and then broke right on top of my head.  These things tend to happen when you attempt maneuvers you really don’t know about.  But here’s where things got really cool…

I realized the wave was going to push me sideways, break over me, and likely capsize my kayak.  I instantly checked the water depth, estimated my distance to shore and determined which side I should hold my paddle on and which side I should exit the kayak from once I was upside down.  All of this took about ½ of 1 second!  All of the classes, all of the practice and all of the preparation had paid off.  My skills were ready to go when I needed them.

The second really cool part was that Nigel Dennis had anticipated that novices would be using his kayaks when he designed the Romany, so when the wave crashed over me, the Romany was like a Weeble Wobble.  I bounced around but never capsized.  All of the money I invested and time I spent paddling this kayak had paid off too.  I returned to shore without ever flipping.

Years later, I was paddling the Romany in rough conditions up in Maine.  I had complete confidence in my kayak and my skills.  Instead of being scared or worried, I had a blast.  I looked around at my friends and they were having a blast too.  I hope some of you will decide to advance your skills so you too can experience what it’s like when human and kayak become one.  Surf’s up, wanna go kayaking?

See you on the water,
Don Urmston

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Perfect Storm Wave

Our "real" sea kayaks on the ferry to Nova Scotia
If you haven’t seen the movie The Perfect Storm, you need to go watch it now.  I’ll wait… Okay, now you’re ready.  It all started when I decided that Andrea and I needed to push the limits of our kayaking ability.  We had been kayaking for about 6 years, and we just upgraded to “real” sea kayaks.   We headed up to Nova Scotia for a two-week vacation including a 3-day kayak tour of northern Cape Breton with North River Kayak Tours.

Our first hint of trouble came when we were staying at a Bed & Breakfast in Cheticamp.  We were out on the lawn packing our kayaks—a dry run for our trip.  An old-timer, who lived next door, came over to check us out.  He told us that he had spent a few seasons as a crab fisherman in his youth.  Then he said, “None of the crab fisherman can swim you know.  It wouldn’t do no good anyhow.  If you fall into that water, you’re done for whether you can swim or not.”  Then when we told him what we were planning, he said, “You’re crazy if you’re going out THERE in THOSE!”
The rugged coast of Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Island

The first day of the tour was fantastic—the ocean was welcoming and the scenery was unbelievable.  Everything was perfect.  Then came day two.

There were 2 foot waves crashing on the beach, which worried Andrea a bit.  I reasoned that the wind and surf were amplified as they got squeezed into the cove.  All we had to do was paddle out past the neck of the cove and once we were on the open ocean everything would calm down.  It sounded good, and at the time, Andrea bought it.  Since then, Andrea has learned to ignore me anytime I come up with a “logical or technical” explanation of pretty much anything.

North River Kayak Tours

We executed a text-book surf launch and paddled out toward the open ocean.  Andrea quickly realized that my logic was “flawed” to put it nicely.  The waves were confused—random waves that don’t come in a nice orderly line—and were running 6 to 8 feet.  When you are in a kayak, an 8 foot wave looks like a skyscraper.  I kept telling her “Don’t worry, it will get better.”  I was paddling about 20 feet to the right of Andrea and a huge wave came right at her like a mountain rising out of the sea.  I watched as she climbed up The Perfect Storm Wave and I swear she was about to flip over backwards.  She didn’t, but she flew down the back of the wave like a log flume ride at a water park.  The whole way down, she was screaming “This is not better!”

We survived the rest of the trip, but the weather got so bad we had to skip the whole afternoon of paddling.  By the time we got off the water at lunchtime there were gale-force winds and the water was nothing but a sea of white caps and foam.  We arrived at the next cove soaking wet, shivering cold and completely exhausted.  We had to hitch-hike back to our cars.  Not exactly what we signed up for, but we really did push ourselves to the limit.

See you on the water,
Don Urmston
You can reach me at:

P.S.   The guides from North River Kayak Tours were great.  Can’t blame them for the weather.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Kayak Review: Tsunami 140 by Wilderness Systems

This is one of the most versatile kayaks ever made.  If you are looking for one kayak to do everything, you should try this boat.  The Tsunami line includes many different sized kayaks from 12ft. to 16ft. so there is a size to fit just about any paddler.  I’ve paddled several but I own a 140 (14 ft.) so I’ll talk about that size in particular.

This was the first Tsunami made and it was intended to be a do-it-all kayak.  At 24” wide, it is stable enough for a beginner, but nimble enough for an advanced paddler to put the kayak on edge and carve a turn.  It has very little rocker, so it has a long water line.  This makes it very fast for a 14’ kayak.  It has almost as much water line as my 16’ sea kayak.  It has a sharp keel in front and back, so it slices through oncoming waves and tracks very well- better than most other 14’ kayaks.

The outfitting is top notch.  There is a day hatch (although no 3rd bulkhead), deck lines, and tons of bungees on deck.  The seat is super comfortable (serious sea kayakers may not like the high seat back) and the foot pedals and thigh bracing are easy to adjust-accommodating a variety of paddlers.
I’ve paddled down the Delaware River (class II rapids) and out on the ocean in this kayak.  It is responsive, comfortable and just plain fun.  The downside- it’s 55 lbs, which is pretty heavy for a 14’ kayak and the plastic is a bit thin and prone to denting.  Also, because this kayak is so popular, it’s hard to find used ones and they go for more $$ when you do.

When I am not using my Romany, I use the Tsunami to guide on trips.  I also lend this kayak out to friends who have never paddled before.  It’s just so versatile.  Along with my Romany and my Merlin LT, this is one of 3 kayaks that have attained “permanent” status in my fleet.

Larger paddlers can try the Tsunami 145, smaller paddler the 135 and those who want a smaller kayak can try the 120.

See you on the water,
Don Urmston

Thursday, March 3, 2011

10 Rules for kayaking alone

Kayak safety rule #2 – Never paddle alone.  Paddle in groups—preferably 3 or more.
So what do you do if you want to find solitude?  What if none of your friends are around?  I cannot recommend that you paddle alone.  (That would violate my own rule!)  But, I can be realistic and face the fact that many paddlers do paddle alone.  So, hypothetically speaking, if you were to go out on your own, here’s how you could lessen the risks.

1.    Never, ever violate safety rule #1- WEAR YOUR LIFE VEST!
2.    If possible, paddle someplace where there are lots of other people around.
3.    Make sure you bring all of your first-aid and safety gear.
4.    Bring a foam paddle float and practice using it before you got out alone.
5.    Leave a plan with someone who will notice if you don’t come home.
6.    Be sure to bring extra everything – food, water, clothing, and a flashlight.  You may get into a situation that requires you to get on land and wait for help.
7.    Bring a cell phone (but don’t count on it working).
8.    Paddle somewhere that you already know- to limit the chance of getting lost.
9.    Avoid dangerous paddling areas.
10.     Use common sense and don’t take any unnecessary risks.

See you on the water,
Don Urmston

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Kayak Review: Romany 16ft. by NDK

The Romany is great for leans and rolls.
The Romany was designed for beginner sea kayakers who wanted to learn on a forgiving kayak and then move up to a more advanced one.  The Romany very quickly became popular in sea kayak circles and many paddlers never moved up.  It is 16ft. long, with a 22” beam and a ton of rocker.  This kayak is shaped like a big banana which makes it awesome in surf and rough conditions.  The pronounced rocker also makes it pretty slow compared to other 16’ kayaks.  

 The Romany now comes in several variations including one for small paddlers, one for large paddlers, etc.  These kayaks are still hand made in Great Britain, so the weight can vary as much as 5lbs. depending on who built yours.  Generally, you are looking at 55-60lbs which is heavy for a 16ft. kayak.  (A 16 ft. Montauk weighs only 45 lbs).  The reason?  Lots and lots of fiberglass-which makes for a really tough kayak that can take a real pounding from surf and rocks.  

Most Romany kayaks come with a skeg (mine didn’t) and you can add extras like a bilge pump and a recessed deck compass.  They come standard with a day hatch, and newer models come with a decent seat and thigh bracing.  I bought mine back when serious sea kayaks came with no thigh braces and a crappy back band.  It was assumed that a real kayaker would customize his boat anyway, so why bother putting them in?  

My Romany was a custom order with extra thick fiberglass & custom paint.

Over the past 12 years, I have taken my Romany just about everywhere and it is the best kayak I have ever paddled.  It is really heavy, but it fits me like a glove and responds effortlessly to my commands.  I have paddled in some rough conditions and it always brings me through.  I trust this kayak completely and the craftsmanship is simple but superb.

I’m not saying there aren’t better kayaks on the market.  The Romany was introduced in the early 1990s, so it’s an old design.  But it is still a great sea kayak.  Now that it has been around a while, you can pick up a used one for $1500-$2000, which is much cheaper than most new sea kayaks.  I tried a dozen kayaks before settling on the Romany and it’s one of only 3 kayaks that is a permanent member of my fleet.

See you on the water,
Don Urmston