TopKayaker.Net: Guide To Kayak Sailing

Outriggers on a Scupper ProIn Search of the Perfect
Sailing Sit-On-Top Kayak

By Robert O. Hess


Part I Part II Part III Part IV

Since my last article in this series, In Search of the Perfect Sailing Sit-On-Top Kayak Part III, appeared about a year ago, I have made a few refinements to my sailing kayak that I would like to share with you.

Inflatable outriggers

Most importantly, I added inflatable outriggers for stability. While I had originally been reluctant to do so in my quest to keep things as simple as possible, the move turned out to be a good one, in fact a critical one, especially for sailing long distances as I like to do. With the outriggers installed, I can now sail comfortably and safely in winds up to 20 knots without having to worry about capsizing or straining my back incessantly leaning to windward. I am able to relax and focus on sailing and navigation. I can also eat a snack, use my cell phone or VHF radio, and even take little cat naps. As I tend to sail 1 to 3 hours in the same direction on most days, these side benefits are of immeasurable value to me.

The new system proved its worth on my crossing to Catalina Island last year, when I sailed on the starboard tack for about 14 miles in white-capping conditions. The outriggers (or rather the outrigger - I used only the leeward outrigger that day, proa-style) performed flawlessly and I have been using them on virtually every outing ever since.

Hobie sidekickDespite my initial doubts, the inflatable outriggers did not increase complexity to the point of diminishing overall enjoyment. In fact, not even close. At only about 2 pounds each, the Hobie Sidekick adds very little weight and stores neatly inside the bow hatch of my Scupper Pro when deflated (along with all the other sailing gear). To install the outriggers, I simply open the hatch, inflate the amas with a few breaths of air through the one-way valves, shove the akas into the crossbar of my leeboard saddle, and secure the safety pins. The whole process takes less than five minutes. Uninstallation takes even less time.

Because the outriggers can be stowed in the hatch and can easily be installed on the water (I have never installed them on the beach yet), I have retained the ability to start my excursions in pure paddling mode and to launch through shore break without having to worry about broken gear. At least along the surf-lined California coast, this is a key consideration as I would otherwise be limited in terms of where and in what conditions I can launch and land my sailing kayak.

extendedIn terms of performance, the Hobie Sidekick outriggers turned out to be a good match for my sail area, meaning they provide just the right amount of flotation in most conditions. If they were any larger, they would add needless drag. If they were any smaller, they would submarine excessively.

This result is not all that surprising, I suppose, since the Hobie Sidekick outriggers are dimensioned to work with the 20-foot Hobie sail rig, which probably generates more heeling moment (but not necessarily more speed) then both of my low-aspect sails combined.

Nonetheless, I did eventually extend the bars of the outriggers by about 1 foot on each side to reduce submarining (and also drag) in higher wind conditions and swells. The centerline of the amas is now about 3 ½ feet from the rail of the kayak.

extensionOriginally, I had cut the Hobie crossbar in half and inserted each half into the Hobie aka tube, which I then mounted inside my own larger diameter EasyRider crossbar (with Gorilla tape wrapped around the Hobie tube for a snug fit and with a clevis pin through both bars for security).

extensionWhile this actually produced a somewhat longer combined aka length (= Hobie crossbar section + aka tube extending from the hull) than originally intended by Hobie, I still found the aka tube to be too short in higher winds.

So I ordered two new Hobie crossbars and inserted them -- this time without cutting them in half -- into each end of the EasyRider crossbar. The way the aka tubes attach to the Hobie crossbar stayed the same. Testing confirmed what I had suspected. With the added leverage, the amas now noticeably less prone to submarining and produce less drag. As an added benefit, the boat also sails in a bit more upright position because of the longer arm of the lever.

In case you are interested in fitting inflatable Hobie outriggers to your own sailing kayak, here are a few points to bear in mind:

First of all, the Hobie outrigger system is, in my opinion, a great product all around, especially for the price. The aka tubes are light, yet strong enough. The ama are just the right size, have a good shape, and are adjustable in height.

There are however certain design limitations. Most notably, the Hobie Sidekick does not appear to be designed for use in high wind conditions. One reason I say this is that they are intended to be installed on Hobie kayaks with only two well-nuts sunk into the plastic deck. Somewhere on Hobie's website, I recall reading that you're not supposed to lift the boat by the akas as you may pull out the well-nuts. As long as the outriggers are used in mild to moderate conditions only, this should present no problem, because the forces on the deck joints are relatively low. But once you sail in the open ocean, where winds in excess of 15 knots and swells of 4+ feet are commonplace, the equation changes. So, should you consider the Hobie outriggers for use in these kinds of conditions, you may want to think of an alternative method of installation. My own method, inserting the akas into a larger crossbar that is firmly (but not permanently) attached to the boat by webbing straps (see part III of my article), is one alternative, but there may be others.

Another potential weak point of the Hobie outrigger system is the joint between the Hobie crossbar and the aka tube. In its original form, the male end of the aka tube that inserts into the crossbar is a hollow plastic piece with a spring-loaded button that clips into the hole in the crossbar. Again, this less than great (presumably cost-driven) design should work fine in mild to moderate conditions, but, in my opinion, presents a potential hazard in more challenging conditions. If the joint were to break in the open ocean, it might ruin your whole day, to put it mildly. This is precisely what happened to a kayaker in Hawaii on a rough day a couple of years ago. Fortunately, he was fairly close to shore and, being a very experienced offshore paddler and sailor, was able to right the boat and land safely.aka tube

To remedy this problem, I did two things: 1) I inserted a 4-inch piece of 3/4 inch polyethylene rod into the hollow plastic end of the aka tube for added strength. The hard part here was to file and sand the rod -- without power tools -- just to the right diameter so that it would sit firmly inside the plastic end without splitting it apart. The rod also cannot extend too far towards the end of the plastic piece because of the spring-loaded button. Careful measurement before insertion of the rod is key here (as I learned the hard way ;-)). 2) I put a shim, a 6" piece of simple stainless steel tubing, on the outside of the joint. The inside diameter of the shim is a tad larger than the outside diameter of the AKA tube, and the shim is held in place by just the right amount of duct tape wrapped around the AKA bar (Gorilla tape would have been more durable, but was too thick in my case). That way, the shim is firmly held in place, but can be removed if necessary (which I hardly ever do).

Finally, make sure that the Hobie Sidekick system you buy has the new, much stronger safety pins that keep the inflatable amas from sliding off the AKA tubes. The pins I originally received were so anemic, they fell out of their holes in the parking lot several times. The problem was insufficient tension of the clip that holds the pin in place. With the new pins, this is no longer a problem. In fact, they are almost overkill and are actually hard to remove. This is not a problem, though, because there is really no reason to remove the amas from the tube. I have never removed mine yet.

With these three modifications, I feel that the Hobie outriggers are now quite strong and safe to use in the conditions I and most other kayak sailors are likely to encounter. It does take some extra work, and also expense, to get there. But in my opinion, it's worth the effort.

Double leeboards

As with the outriggers, time on the water showed that my EasyRider leeboard wasn't quite up to the task (although it did get me to Catalina Island). Specifically, the small foil did not provide enough lateral resistance in high wind conditions, allowing the boat to slip sideways. Especially over longer distances, like my usual 8-mile leg back from buoy "SP 13" in the middle of the San Pedro Channel back to Cabrillo Beach, there were days when the strong westerly sea breeze, aided by a strong surface current, was setting me a bit too far east for comfort.

A bit more research and remeasuring of the submerged surface area of my leeboard revealed that it was underdimensioned. The recommended leeboard size is 4-5% of the sail area. Mine was only about 2.5%, if that. This was an issue in particular when the leeboard was on the leeward rail, as the board was then not fully submerged due to the heeling angle of the boat.

First, I thought of replacing my small leeboard with a larger leeboard. The problem with that idea was that there were, and still are, no leeboards out there that are a good match for my sail area. They are either too large or too small. I then considered making my own leeboard, when someone (I think it was by "brother in arms" from England - see: Making A Slip-on Mast Step & Amas For Kayak Sailing by Andy Lyne) mentioned double leeboards - one small leeboard on each rail.

Two leeboards offer several advantages over a single foil. First, they get around the problem of asymmetrical submergence. With one foil on each rail, the submerged area is always the same, no matter on what tack you are sailing. Second, the boards offer so much combined lateral resistance that one (or both) of them can be rotated back at an angle (and thus lifted out of the water a bit) and still be effective. This is nice because it moves the center of lateral resistance aft, which in turn reduces weatherhelm when the sails' center of effort is - as in my case - located a bit aft of the center of lateral resistance. In short: two boards improve handling.

leeboardThird, the symmetry of two shorter leeboards makes for less heeling than one long board and, in my experience, for a more balanced feel overall. Fourth, the boat can be sailed with just one board in lower wind conditions, minimizing drag, and with two boards in high wind conditions, all on the same day. Fifth, when rotated out of the water for paddling, the foils do not reach all the way back to the cockpit interfering with the paddle stroke. Finally, two smaller boards are easier to stow, install, uninstall, carry, etc., than one larger, heavier board.

So, I simply ordered another leeboard from EasyRider Kayaks in Seattle. When I opened the box I was surprised to find that the new leeboard was -- for a reason that still eludes me -- about 3 inches longer than the old board. The shape of the foil was also improved, with a sharper leading edge and smoother cutaway at the tip. I couldn't believe my luck! The extra surface area, it turned out, would allow me to use just the new, larger leeboard in mild to moderate conditions, and rotate the second, smaller foil into place only on particularly windy days (15+ knots). With both foils down in the vertical position, wind drift is now minimal (current drift is, of course, the same).

In a nutshell: The double leeboard system further enhances the overall performance and versatility of my sail rig. Like with my hybrid sail plan, symmetry and balance seem to be working their magic here.

Larger rudder blade

YakabooStrictly speaking, a sail boat doesn't need a rudder. This is theoretically true even for a sailing kayak. If what is in sailor's terminology called the "helm" is perfectly balanced, the boat will track straight without a rudder and can be steered simply by making adjustments to the sail(s). As far as I know, this usually works only if the boat has (at least) two sails. One example was Frederic Fenger's famous sailing canoe, Yakaboo (see: Fenger's book "Alone in the Caribbean" published online).

Alas, the helm of my own sailing kayak turned out not to be perfectly balanced, not even close, I am afraid. Specifically, I found that especially in higher winds the boat had a slight, but persistent tendency to turn into the wind unless a bit of rudder force was applied. This is referred to as wheatherhelm. While slight weatherhelm is actually considered desirable on a regular sailboat because the boat will turn into the wind and depower the sails if steering control is lost for some reason, I found that this "benefit" was of little or no practical benefit on a sailing kayak with outriggers: If my boat were to head downwind accidentally, due to leehelm, this would present absolutely no problem.

While rotating back the leeboard(s) improved the weatherhelm (for the reasons described above), it didn't do so enough for my liking. On windy days, the Feathercraft standard-size rudder blade (3"x20"), which is not designed for sailing, would still allow the stern of the boat to swing downwind at times, pointing the bow into the wind.

rudder bladeTo further improve weatherhelm, I ordered the double rudder blade from Feathercraft (5" x 20"). As it turned out, the larger blade also required replacement of the delrin extension piece that supports the rudder blade -- the price of which was substantially higher than that of the actual rudder blade. Oh well, I thought, here goes another hundred bucks.

But whatever misgivings I had about the added cost quickly disappeared when I tried the new blade. The weatherhelm was now almost gone and the boat tracked like a freight train in all conditions. Hardly any rudder adjustments are needed at this point. This makes for more efficient sailing, while reducing stress on the rudder at the same time.

Like the standard Feathercraft blade, the larger Feathercraft blade is not really designed for sailing, but rather for paddling a tandem expedition kayak. Yet, it works extremely well with my particular setup. It adds substantial control while sailing, without adding any noticeable drag while paddling. On a sailing kayak with significantly more sail area (30+ feet), the blade may still be too small, however. Conversely, the standard blade may be all you need if your sail area is smaller than mine and/or if you tend to sail in lower winds. In other words, the Feathercraft double blade is not a magic bullet. As I said before, the key is balance. All of the components of a sailboat must be carefully matched. While perfect balance will be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve (unless, that is, you design everything, including the boat, from scratch), patience, ingenuity, and a little bit of luck will go a long way.

Future changes

Having said that, I will be the first to admit that my search for the perfect sailing sit-on-top kayak (if there even is such a thing) is far from over. In fact, I'd say I have only just figured out the very basics. There is plenty of room for improvement in virtually all areas.

Most notably, my hybrid sail plan still offers no upwind performance and only sluggish performance in low wind conditions (<6 knots). I have been hesitant to address this issue, as it would require an entirely new sail plan, which will almost certainly be more complex and less user-friendly than the current plan. My first step in that direction will likely be a slightly larger main sail. That would add speed on calmer days, while leaving the foresail (= 1.5m Pacific Action sail) untouched.

To sail upwind, I would have to get rid of the PA sail, as well. This idea holds little or no appeal at the moment because the sail is just so wonderfully versatile, offering excellent performance on all points of sail other than upwind. A good upwind sail, in contrast, would offer good performance only upwind and be inferior on all other points of sail. In all but flat conditions, sailing a kayak upwind is problematic anyway because the low-seated paddler tends to get deluged by spray coming over the bow. In the open ocean, this may make upwind sailing over any serious distances more of a theoretical than a practical option.

And at least for me personally, that is the main motivation for sailing my kayak - covering distances under sail that I cannot cover under paddle power alone. Hence my motto: "Paddle when you can, sail when you must."

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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