TopKayaker.Net: Guide To Kayak Sailing

In Search of the Perfect
Sailing Sit-On-Top Kayak

By Robert O. Hess


Part I Part II Part III Part IV

Modern sailing kayaks are in many ways hybrids, integrating design features of Polynesian outrigger sailing canoes and/or British sailing canoes in various combinations. seePART I - THE ORIGINS OF KAYAK SAILING. The varied range of products available to kayak sailors today reflects this. Choices range from basic inverted triangle sails that can be combined with any standard SOT - "sit-on-top kayak" or SINK - "sit-inside kayak" to specialized SOTs or SINKS equipped with outriggers, leeboards, sailing rudders, and fully-battened high-aspect ratio sails.

As an aspiring SOT kayak sailor you have essentially two choices: #1 You can buy boat and sail separately, or #2 you can buy a fully-rigged sailing kayak. Both choices have advantages and disadvantages.

The basic advantage of choice #1 is that it allows you to customize your own sailing kayak: you choose a boat that you feel comfortable with and trust (which will most likely be the boat you already own - it was in my case), and you then select a sail rig that best suits your needs. This is not quite as straightforward as it sounds, though. The boat you are most comfortable with may not be compatible with the sail rig that is most suitable for you.

Which brings us to the basic advantage of choice #2. If you buy a fully rigged sailing kayak all from a single source, you will avoid potential compatibility problems. But compatibility too comes at a price, as you may not end up with the exact boat you had in mind, or the most appropriate sail rig for that matter.

To complicate matters further, you have a choice within each category between high-performance sail rigs and low-performance sail rigs. Which type of rig is right for you depends on your needs and expectations. If you want to enjoy the thrill flying across the water at break-neck speed on all Points of Sail (including beating upwind!); or if you plan to make long open water crossings, a high-performance sail may be the way to go. I say "may be" because performance, like compatibility, has its price: While offering speed and excitement, this type of rig is also significantly heavier, complex - both in terms of installation and handling - and, yes, expensive. For those who intend to use a sail mostly to conserve energy and extend their paddling range, a low-performance rig may therefore be a wiser choice. While not fast by any stretch of the imagination, this type of rig is ultra-light, simple to install and use, and much more affordable.

To help you focus your efforts, the ensuing discussion of various SOT sailing kayaks available on the market today will follow this basic framework. That way, you should be able to home in directly on the choices that most appeal to you.

Windbag Regatta - Norm & Bobby finishingBefore you read on, here are a few caveats: The information on kayak sailing presented here is far from exhaustive. As this article is published on a sit-on-top kayaking site, I have focused on SOT kayaks and kayak sails that are made or at least suitable for sit-on-top kayaks (SOTs). I have also limited myself to those kayak sail rigs that struck me as the most plausible options (e.g., beach umbrellas are not included, even though I keep reading of people using them as makeshift sails - seriously!). If anyone feels that I have left out an important kayak sail rig option, or have any corrections to inaccurate, misleading or wrong information you may come across here - let us know in TopKayaker.net's Sailing Forum that we may keep this article up-to-date.

Finally, I am not an expert on kayak sailing. In fact, I am fairly new at it. I have personal experience only with my own boat and sail rig (Ocean Kayak Scupper Pro with Pacific Action sail), and can't offer first hand reviews on other boats or sail rigs discussed in this article. To the extent that I do express opinions on other boats or sail rigs, these are based on information provided by the manufacturer (including photographs and videos), Internet and e-mail discussions with other kayak sailors, as well as data generally available on the Internet.

This article will focus on stand-alone, low-performance sail rigs only, as these are most readily available, easiest to install and also least expensive. Especially for beginning kayak sailors, one of these rigs would likely be the best choice. My next article will then take a look at fully-rigged sailing SOTs as well as high-performance stand-alone sail rigs.

1. Pacific Action Sails

Based in New Zealand, Pacific Action makes a lightweight (about 2 pounds), hands-free, extremely versatile inverted-V sail - reminiscent of the crab claw sails used by the ancient Polynesians - that has become the top choice among expedition kayakers and long-distance racers such as the Watertribe.

A good part of what makes the PA sail so attractive is its simplicity and user-friendliness. It consists of twin composite, two-piece masts joined at the bottom of the V to a two-piece, flexible plastic mast foot, which is strapped to the bow of the kayak using a simple buckle system. The plastic buckles are attached to the deck or sides of the kayak with two stainless steels screws. The sail is made of simple lightweight ripstop nylon. There are no battens, grommets, reef points, stays, shrouds, halyards or anything of that sort to worry about. A bungee loop hooked into the bow handle pulls the mast forward and upright, while the sheets of the sail run through stainless steel carabiners clipped to four pad eyes on the gunwales of the cockpit within easy reach of the paddler. To get a better idea of how the PA sail is installed, I recommend that you take a look at the first video clip on this page: Pacific Action Sail Video.

Once the rig is installed, a process that takes no more than about 5 minutes, you are ready to go. While the sail can be installed on the water (I have managed to do it in 20 knots of wind once), it is much easier and safer to do so on land. There is really no good reason to install the sail on the water, since the installed sail does not interfere with paddling in the lowered position. That is in part what makes the PA sail so attractive.

To raise the sail, you simply turn the kayak downwind and release a small bungee loop that holds the sail level with the deck of the kayak while not in use. Pop! The bow bungee pulls the sail upright and, voila, you are sailing. To trim the sail, you pull or release the sheets using a small clam cleat that is integrated into the continuous sheeting system. When you are done sailing or the wind becomes too strong, simply pull on one of the sheets until you can grab the top of either mast and pull it down onto the deck of the kayak, grab the other mast, wrap the small sail around both masts, and secure the sail to the deck of the kayak with a small bungee tie down. Lowering the sail literally takes seconds, a great safety feature in a narrow-beamed craft like a kayak. The rolled up sail can also be stowed below deck if necessary (e.g., to transport the wet sail without having to put it into your car), provided you have a large enough hatch opening.

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Here are some other things I really like about the sail:

- The PA sail is totally hands-free and allows me to paddle without obstruction on most points of sail (Caveat: Make sure you install the pad eyes for the sheets far enough forward. Otherwise you may hit the sheets while paddling.). This is key because I am first and foremost a kayaker and, well, I like to paddle. On a beam reach, when the sail is tilted at an angle towards the stern the kayak, I use a very low angle paddle stroke to avoid hitting the lower mast. The modified stroke is not a problem, however, because only light - or, if the wind blows hard enough, no - paddling is required while under sail. With the assistance of the sail, I can now paddle distances that were completely out of reach before. Especially in combination with a not-so-fast polyethylene SOT like my Scupper Pro, the sail is a huge help. In my case, the PA sail has easily doubled my range of travel. I am currently planning a 20+ mile open water solo-crossing to Catalina Island.

- The PA sail works in a broad range of conditions, in winds from 5 mph all the way to 20+ mph. It can be sailed dead downwind, but it can also be sailed on a reach up to a beam reach! (90 degrees to the wind). When reaching in low winds (5-10 mph), you will need to paddle lightly to maintain speed. When reaching in high wind (15+ mph), you won't have to paddle, but will greatly benefit from a rudder. For the first few months, I managed without a rudder, and it worked, but after awhile I got tired of continuously sweep stroking on the leeward side to counteract the tendency of the boat to fall off the wind (leehelm). In other words, if you plan on sailing the PA sail on a reach, you should plan for a rudder. Not all SOTs allow installation of a rudder. So make sure that the boat of your choice has at least a rudder option.

- The PA sail has flexible rigging allowing the sail to depower itself in strong winds or gusts. This makes for very stable - and thus safe - paddle-sailing. I have not managed to capsize yet, and don't feel any more at risk of capsizing with the sail than without it. The heeling effect of the sail is surprisingly low, requiring only a slight lean to windward even with the larger 1.5m sail. Moreover, added speed means added stability. On a beam reach, the sail pulls the boat forward, lifting the bow over the swells and maintaining forward momentum. Even with a 12-15 knot breeze and 3-4-foot swells directly on the beam I feel quite secure, often sailing several miles offshore. In very low winds, I sometimes sail while lying down facing aft with my feet propped up on the rear hatch of my Scupper Pro Ocean Kayak. It's a great way to take a break without stopping (conditions permitting).

The Pacific Action sail is available in three sizes, 1.0m, 1.5m and 2.2 m. Personally, I am partial to the 1.5m sail, as it works both in low wind and high wind conditions. The power range of the 1.0m sail works is more limited, and it works best in winds of 15+ mph. The 2.2 m sail is quite large and intended mostly for tandems and/or low wind conditions. Depending on your boat, the conditions you normally sail in, and your skill level (which will increase quickly!), the 1.0m or 1.5m sail is therefore your best option. PA sails retail for around $300 and are available at many kayak shops. If you are having trouble finding one, you can also order the sail on the Internet.

For more detailed information on the performance of the PA sail, including some "home-grown" modifications with photos, please refer to my article Pacific Action Sails Revisited. Also be sure to check out the videos posted on the Pacific Action website. They are quite instructive.

2. Spirit Sails

Another popular inverted-V sail, the Canadian-made Spirit sail takes simplicity one step further. This sail has no lines whatsoever. It is completely freestanding, attached to the bow of the kayak on a locking base. The locking base is attached to a deck plate, which, on most SOTs, must be installed with 4 ¼" screws. While a strap-on version is available, the system also utilizes suction cups, which work only on polished, smooth surfaces. Since most polyethylene SOT decks are not perfectly smooth (not that are they meant to be), the strap-on version probably won't be an option for you.

Like the PA sail, the Spirit sail is ultra-light (only 1/1/2 lbs.) and offers hands-free sailing and completely unobstructed paddling. Without any rigging and flexible masts, the sail is designed to spill and minimize the heeling effect of wind gusts, ensuring a safe ride. The sail is available in two sizes, 17 ft2 (1.5 m2) and 8.5 ft2 (0.75 m2). As for the PA sail, the larger size is probably a better choice for most paddlers (see above).

Unlike the PA sail, however, the Spirit sail is almost exclusively a downwind sail. Based upon testimonials I have read on the Internet, the Spirit sail appears to be just as efficient and fast running before the wind as the PA sail. In winds around 15 mph, you can expect to sail at paddling speed or better doing absolutely nothing except smiling from a ear to ear and asking yourself why you haven't thought of this sooner. The sail can also be rotated in 30º increments to port or starboard, allowing you to sail 30º off the wind to either side. But unlike the PA sail, the Spirit sail does not allow a beam reach (90º) or even a broad reach (45º). This is not necessarily a bad thing, though. It all depends on what you would like to do with your kayak sail. If you'll be sailing downwind most or all of the time - perhaps because you are uncomfortable sailing across the wind and having to lean a bit to counter the heeling moment of the sail (as is the case for the PA sail), the Spirit sail may be an excellent choice.

Another important difference to the PA sail is the way the Spirit sail is raised and lowered. To raise the sail, the sail must be assembled and installed from scratch each time (as opposed to the PA sail, which can be assembled and installed without being raised). Lest I mischaracterize the procedure, here are the instructions from the manufacturer:

"Remove sail from its sack and unroll. Keep sail folded in half along length. Hold battens in pairs, side-by-side. Join all sections [error omitted] while sail is still folded. Keep sail out of water. Ensure V-support is in position. Align boat with nose downwind. Install first batten on post with sail folded in half. Install second batten base on other post, then open sail. Wind will fill sail. Ensure battens and fabric are pulled fully downward. You are now sailing."

Not having had a chance to try the Spirit sail, it's hard for me to say how long this process would take. Probably no more than a couple of minutes. But when you are sitting on the water in windy conditions without a paddle in your hands, that can seem like a long time. First, you'll have to retrieve the 27" sail bag from the hatch of your kayak (unless you can tie it somewhere on deck). Then you will have to take out the different sections and put the bag away (otherwise it'll blow away in the wind). Next you'll have to slide out of your seat towards the bow where the locking plate is installed, assemble the mast sections and insert them into the V support, while at the same time making sure that the sail doesn't open up prematurely and/or fill with water. Note that not all parts float - if you drop the V-support (the part that connects the two masts to the locking base) in the water, it will sink. Last, you will have to scoot back to your seat, retrieve your paddle, all while still holding the folded sail, and finally let the sail snap upright and open. In all but the most benign conditions, I suspect that raising the sail on the water poses a bit of a challenge, especially for a beginner. It certainly cannot be raised without fail in 5 seconds in any conditions like the PA sail.

I won't go into the process of lowering the Spirit sail. It is basically the reverse of raising the sail and poses much the same challenge. Click here for manufacturer's instructions.

All in all, the Spirit sail is a good choice for someone who a) prefers a downwind only sail, b) has a strong dislike for lines of any kind on a kayak (they could conceivably pose a risk of entanglement), and c) would raise/lower the sail either on shore or in relatively calm conditions on the water. The Spirit sail, at least the smaller one, is also somewhat lower-priced than the PA sail, at U.S.$225. For a list of dealers, reviews, testimonials, see the Spirit Sails website.

3. EasyRider Sails

EasyRider Kayaks offers two different low-performance sails: a downwind spinnaker and a reaching spinnaker. As the names suggest, the first is intended for sailing downwind only, whereas the second is intended for reaching (sailing across the wind) only. Unlike the Pacific Action and Spirits sails, EasyRider spinnakers use a modern sail plan (known among sailors as a Marconi or Bermuda rig) with the widest part of the triangle at the bottom rather than at the top.

Both sails attach to a two-piece flexible mast with a length of 68 in. The mast is stepped into a base bolted to the deck, and locks into place with a twist. The whole package weighs less than 2 lbs. and can easily be stowed below deck as a 36-in. package. The two sheets of the downwind spinnaker clip into pad eyes on deck in front of the paddler. The single sheet of the reaching spinnaker runs aft through an eye attached to a strap of the rear hatch and then doubles back to a cleat next to the cockpit. The sails are raised and lowered by a halyard.

Curiously, the size of the downwind spinnaker is listed as 6 ft.² and the size of the reaching spinnaker is listed as 8 ft.² in EasyRider's catalog as well as on its website. These are almost certainly not the correct sizes. Especially the reaching spinnaker is probably about twice the size listed (which is, in my mind, a good thing). When I raised the issue with Peter Kaupat, the owner of EasyRider Kayaks, he agreed that the sails were likely significantly larger, but was not sure what the correct sizes were. Not a big deal, but something to keep in mind in case you are seriously interested in either sail.

The combination of the two sails is a powerful one, allowing you to sail both downwind and across the wind. Though I have not had a chance to try the reaching spinnaker (or the downwind spinnaker, for that matter), the reaching spinnaker, due to its modern sail design, should offer better reaching performance than the Pacific Action sail. Because of the flexible, tapered mast, the sail rigs readily spill gusts, which makes for a safe ride even in high wind conditions. On the other hand, you have to switch sails on the water to sail both downwind and across the wind on the same trip. With the relatively small size and light weight of the sails, this should not present a problem, however.

Both the downwind spinnaker and reaching spinnaker allow for hands-free sailing. In case of the reaching spinnaker, paddling is however somewhat restricted, depending on the position of the sail. Because the sheet of the sail is attached behind the cockpit, the clew of the sail (the point where the sheet is attached to the sail) is fairly close to the paddler on a reach. EasyRider maintains that a low-angle paddle stroke below the sail is possible. Since I have not had a chance to test the EasyRider reaching spinnaker, I simply don't know how restrictive the sail actually is on various points of sail. However, I suggest that you pay particular attention to this issue, should you be seriously interested in the reaching spinnaker. Even if the sail interferes with a double-bladed paddle stroke, a single-bladed canoe paddle should work fine.

All in all, EasyRider's downwind/reaching spinnaker combination strikes me as an excellent choice. It offers good performance on all points of sail, it is simple and user-friendly, and it is also quite safe. The main drawback, especially compared to the Pacific Action sail, is that you have to purchase, carry, and switch between two sails. Aside from the hefty price tag -- about $600.00 for both sails -- this means you won't be able to switch between running downwind and sailing across the wind at a moment's notice. Whether this presents a problem will depend on your particular sailing habits and preferences, and also on the kinds of conditions you will typically sail in (e.g., if the wind shifts a lot where you sail, you may be better off with a single sail that can be trimmed by simply pulling or releasing the main sheet rather than two separate sails).

4. Choosing the Right SOT for Sailing

Finally, a few words about the right kind SOT for sailing are in order. Just as not all SOT are good for specialized disciplines like surfing, racing or fishing, not all SOTs are suitable for sailing. Here are the main features you should be looking for in an SOT that would be used in combination with one of the above sail rigs:

1. Length: The boat should be at least 12 ft. in length. Ideally, you would choose a boat that is 14 ft. or longer. Generally, the longer the waterline of a boat, the better it will track, i.e., sail forward in a straight line rather than drifting sideways.

2. Width: The boat should be at least 24 in. in width. Ideally, you would choose a boat that is 26 in. or wider (but no more than 30 in.: anything wider will needlessly slow you down). Generally, the wider the boat, the less tendency the boat will have to capsize due to the heeling moment of the sail. More width (the proper nautical term is "beam") is important especially if you plan on sailing across the wind.

3. Rocker: The boat should not have too much rocker. Rocker refers to the degree of a kayak's hull curvature from bow to stern. Generally, more rocker means greater maneuverability, but also reduced tracking. Most SOTs will be just fine in this respect, with the notable exception of surf kayaks, which have extreme rocker for maximum maneuverability.

4. Keel Strip: The boat should have some sort of keel strip to provide greater directional stability. Keel strips come in different forms. Sometimes, it is some sort of ridge running along the centerline of the bottom of the hull (the Ocean Kayak tri-form hull is one example). Other times, it is simply a long groove or grooves running along the bottom of the hull, sometimes referred to as “reverse keels” as in Wilderness System sit-on-top kayak models.

5. Rudder: The boat should have at least a rudder option. Though you may not want or need a rudder at the beginning, chances are that as your sailing skills improve and you start sailing across the wind, you'll wish you had a rudder.

6. Cockpit design: The boat should have a comfortable, supportive cockpit. This is critical for controlling the boat under sail. A supportive high back seat is key. But a low center of gravity (with the seat being ideally below the waterline), and proper side support for your hips the legs are also important. You should essentially feel "one" with the boat.

7. Mounting space: The boat should have sufficient space on the foredeck (or, in case of the EasyRider spinnaker(s), the forward part of the cockpit) to mount the sail rig of your choice. The exact amount and location of mounting space will depend on the particular rig.

8. Other features: Depending on your personal preferences and needs, you may want to buy a boat that has sufficient hatch space to stow the sail rig below deck. You may also want to opt for a boat that is easy for you to remount after a capsize.

The following are some examples of good sailing SOTs:

1. Ocean Kayak Scupper Pro: Though discontinued, this is still my number 1 choice for a SOT sailing kayak. The French company RTM makes a replica of the old Scupper Pro, known as the "RTM Tempo". The only problem: no rudder option. So, you may be better off looking for a used Scupper Pro.

Scupper Pro Stats

2. Wilderness Systems Tarpon 140 or 160: though not my personal favorites, these two boats are the top choices of many other kayak sailors. They may be a better choice than the Scupper Pro especially for paddlers with a larger frame.

Tarpon 140 stats

3. Ocean Kayak Prowler 15: This is another boat that has received accolades from a number of experienced kayak sailors. Also a boat designed for larger paddlers.

Prowler 15 stats

4. Hobie Adventure: This is an excellent choice in every respect. However, as I will discuss in the next part of this article, Hobie makes a sail rig specifically designed for the Hobie Adventure. So while the Adventure can and has been successfully used in combination with some of the above sail rigs, chances are that if you purchase or already own an Adventure, you'll opt for the more performance-oriented Hobie sail rig (which will be discussed in the next part of this article).

Hobie Adventure stats

Note: There are certainly other SOTs that also should do very nicely for sailing purposes. However, as I neither have any personal experience with those boats nor know of anyone else who uses them for sailing, I don't think it would be a good idea for me to recommend them at this point. If anyone would like me to add their particular SOT sailing kayak to the above list, I will gladly do so.

Robert is a regular contributor to Topkayaker.net's Forum. He also welcome's
your questions or comments: Robert O. Hess.
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1. Sail Rig Manufacturers discussed in this article:

2. Do-It-Yourself Sail Rigs

Related articles at TopKayaker.net:

We also recommend:

  • Our Kayak Sailing Section - Index to all Kayak Sailing Articles on our site.
  • Topkayaker Kayak Sailing Forum This is a great place for asking specific questions about SOT sailing, or for just browsing old posts about SOT sailing. The search function will help you narrow your search.
  • Watertribe: A racing-oriented site, including discussion forum, offering lots of experience especially with the Pacific Action sail.
  • Kayakfishingstuff kayak sailing forum:This is another good place for asking specific questions about SOT sailing, especially (but not only) if you are also a fisherman.

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