TopKayaker.Net: Guide To Kayak Sailing

KayakSailor Upwind Kayak Sail by Tom Holtey
Big news in kayak sailing! Athena and I tried the new Kayaksailor rigs, and in a nutshell I can say WOW! This has raised the bar for kayak sail rigs.

kayaksailorWe have tried the Kayaksailor on several kayak styles, sit-in and sit-on, on lakes and on the ocean, in winds 5 to 10 mph. A second part of this review, sailing the rig in stronger winds, will be published at a later date.

This new rig is a true upwind kayak sailing machine, compact, easy to use and does not intrude on the cockpit space. It mounts with only a few strap eyes, and many kayaks will likely have some very usable eyes mounted already. The sail pops up as easy as a Pacific Action and comes down even easier. The twin leeboards raise and lower independently. The sail is a high performance design with battens, quite sophisticated for a kayak.

kayaksailorSimply put the Kayaksailor is a sail, mast and leeboards in one single deck mounted device. The sail is a small version sail much like you would find on a real sailboat, not just a bolt of cloth. It has battens for stiffness in the right spots and the fabric has been oriented to stretch where needed, and not where it should be tight.

kayaksailorThe mast is a two-part extension that can raise and lower. It stows well on deck when not in use. The main body of the Kayaksailor has a track and a mast car that allows the sail to rise, and park out of the way. The sail is controlled by three lines, two are used to raise or lower the sail, one is used to trim the sail. The twin leeboards hang off each side of the kayak and are rotated up or down, as needed, by easy to grab push rods.

Everyone knows you can hold up a basic sail, a raincoat, or even an umbrella and get a push downwind if a breeze is blowing your way. The difference between a sailboat and a "kayak with sheet hanging on a pole" is the way the sail is trimmed and in addition to some kind of centerboard or side board(s). Any kayak can have a nice downwind sail rig mounted on it to catch the wind. You can see several examples in our Kayak Sailing Department in the TopKayaker Shop. To truly sail up wind, however, you must have resistance in the water from a fin of some kind. A rudder helps, but a leeboard, or two, really makes the difference.

The combination of the sail and leeboard are the keys to upwind sailing. A sail works just like an airplane wing. In exactly the same way the air passes over the wing faster than under the wing to provide lift for a plane, the air passes faster on one side of the sail than the other, pulling the sail, and boat with it, to that faster side. With the leeboards deployed in the water, the force of the pull on the sail/kayak will be directed in-line with the direction the boat is heading. Essentially leeboards prevent sideways drift. The rudder will help to fine tune that direction.

points of sailprotractorA good question is how far up wind will the KayakSailor point? I found that you can go quite far. You can sail as close as 45 degrees to the direction of the wind.

Consider a 360-degree protractor or compass rose. If the wind was coming from zero degrees you can sail at less than 45 degrees (or greater that 315) but you will not have much power when the kayak is pointed that far up wind, no power when pointed directly upwind In this heading you can paddle while the sail is up, getting a little power from the wind to help. To take a direct path to an upwind destination this can be a viable option. Rather than a zigzag path, tacking and jibing back and forth. (Points of sail diagram courtesy Kuvia)

At headings greater than 45 degrees (less than 315) you will be getting considerably more power from the wind, the most in fact, and you need not paddle at all. A heading of 135 or greater (225 or less) will provide good power, but not the most power.

Yes, you can you paddle at the same time as you sail. I think you will find that you do not have to paddle, if any all. I would however suggest that you keep the paddle handy, in your grasp, as it is too useful not to employ. You will want to take a few strokes from time to time, make a steering stoke and use your paddle for bracing.

Mounting The KayakSailor Rig

kayaksailor sizing on a sit-on-topTom & DavidI found the KayakSailor installation is very simple. Many kayaks may already have some tie-down points on the bow deck that can be utilized.

The first step is to test your mounting location. Use existing tie-downs if possible, but you are likely going to follow the instructions that come with the KayakSailor for the water trials.

Indeed with the under hull strap and some tape the rig could be applied to any kayak, a rental or loaner, even at a moment's notice.

kayaksailorkayaksailorOnce you have identified a permanent location to mount the rig onto, you need only install about four strap eyes that are included with the rig. Any standard strap eyes can be used, so you can add eyes to several kayaks and use the same rig on any of them. Just be sure the plan is thought out carefully and that the strap eyes are well secured. I would recommend stainless steel strap eyes over nylon, you can use rivets, or screws and nuts. We have been using the rig with some nylon eyes and that has worked well so far. When we do testing in stronger winds I will report back on that.

The mounting kit comes with rivets, screws and ny-lock nuts that you can use as needed for your type of kayak. You will end up with some extra parts. The stainless steel strap eyes are a little smaller than the standard strap eye used on kayaks.

kayaksailorkayaksailorMounting the rig will likely place the main body on top of the bow hatch cover. The flatter the deck and hatch the better.

While I am sure some kayaks will be tricky to install the rig onto, most will be strait forward. Installation on a Scupper Pro was a snap, and my "Hawaiian custom rigging" on the deck accepted the rig without any new install.

The same was true of out similarly outfitted Scupper Classic, but we used two forward tie-downs, rather than one single included with the kit, and tied to the bow bungee deck net.

We also installed the rig on a Perception Illusion (same as Aquaterra Prism). The bow hatch cover raised the main body off the deck, but that was ok, the cross bar mounted well across the hatch cover and I used a single strap eye under the tube for the forward tie-down.

kayaksailorWe also installed the rig on the Aquaterra Sea Lion sit-in-side kayak we have. Once again, a good fit, but I did find that I had to remove the far forward strap eye in the bungee deck net. I replaced that single eye with two, mounted along side the main body of the KayakSailor, essentially cradling it in place.

None of the strap eyes mounted for the rig interfere with normal use, and could be seen as enhancements to the kayak as a whole, even if not used for a sail rig.

Sailing The KayakSailor Rig

Sailing the rig was a very fun experience for me. What is remarkable about the rig is the ease of use. Sailing the Kayaksailor is very intuitive, and I did not find it complicated at all. I was able to point my kayak where I wanted to go and then trim the sail to get the most power out of the tack I was on. I thought it would require some thinking and sailing know-how, but I found that it all came very naturally. I really felt like a sailor, and not just a paddler with a sheet in the wind.

kayaksailorThe rig is hands-free for the most part. You will pull two ropes to raise the sail. Then adjust your trim with the main sheet, the 3rd rope. Occasional adjustment, with one hand will be needed once in a while. I had worried about the ropes tangling, but this has not been a problem. The ropes are color coded, so it is easy to know the function of each rope. Just be sure you are familiar with the rope functions and to keep the main ready, deck-tidy and in reach, to adjust the sail as needed.


A question that may be on your mind is how stable is the kayak when the KayakSailor is in use? For the most part you will find the kayak to be as stable as when sailed with any Vee-Sail. In my experience so far I have not felt any great fear of tipping, but have had to take some preventive actions, in what I estimated be 5 foot seas or so. While sailing in light winds (under 10 MPH) and smoother waters I would not expect any problems. Gusts, particularly sudden gusts are what may want to upset you. The design of the KayakSailor is such that the top of the sail will spill excess wind while still being able to catch lighter winds. Also the main surface area is low and close to the deck, not high, like it is with a Vee-Sail.

kayaksailorThe kayak can be leaned up wind as needed to prevent a tip. With your upper body, simply lean to the side of the kayak that wind is coming from. This will be your main way of keeping an "even keel". You will want the kayak to be as even as you can keep it, as the whole craft will perform better if it not heeled over. The sail will catch more wind when strait up and the hull will provide better speed and tracking when not leaned to great degree.

kayaksailorYou can use your paddle to brace. I have been using a low hydroplaning brace. Place the downwind paddle blade on the water. Let it skim along the water surface, kind of like a water ski or surfboard. When you can start to feel the support (the "hardness" of the water), use the shaft of your paddle for support. The paddle will act like an outrigger, not by flotation, but by hydroplaning on the water's surface.

I found that by resting the paddle on the cockpit coaming (sit-in kayak) or across the thighs (sit-on-kayak) you could get greater stability with less effort, and still have one hand free for trimming the sail. You may possibly want to un-feather your paddle so you can have quick, twist free, access to support on each side.

Another strategy to prevent loss of stability is to point the kayak up wind a bit from your current upwind tack. I have been using my rudder to point the kayak further upwind to essentially de-power the sail, or to reduce the push of wind on the sail. You can use a paddle stroke to point up wind as well. Once the gust has passed, or you have settled into a lean or brace, you can correct your heading back to the tack you were on.

Finally in a pinch, you can reach for the main sheet and release it to de-power the sail and prevent a tip. In higher winds the KayakSailor rig can be or reefed, reducing the surface area and lowering the center of gravity. I have not yet tested the rig in the reefed mode, but will report back when I do.

Some sail rigs have utilized out riggers. While I do not have experience with such a rig, I believe that these rigs are outfitted with side floats, making the kayak into a catamaran, like a Polynesian sailing canoe, to counter act a sail with a very high surface area, both in height above deck and large square footage. The KayakSailor is designed not to need outriggers, and I really do not think it necessary at all with my experience so far.

Capsize Drills

You could flip your kayak while the KayakSailor is in use on your deck. So far I have not, nor have any of the others I have been sailing with. Of course, you could flip without a sail on board, too. A tip may be caused from the wind, but more likely from some mistake in balance, or from the rough water you are likely to encounter when the winds are blowing.

I performed several tip over drills in both sit-in-side and sit-on-top kayaks. Naturally the SOT kayak is way easier to recover from, in both the standard self-rescue and in the handling the sail. Also, I found that the rig itself can take a tip over and recovery without stress or other problems, assuming capsize in deep water, greater than the height of the sail. I would suggest that care be taken not to tip in shallow water. If you are that close to shore you really need not be sailing. So, when launching and landing, have the sail down while in the shallows. If you must cross some small surf, be really sure the rig is well secured with the control lines wrapped around the mast tip and sail, and lashed to the deck. Do not pass through strong surf or river rapids with the rig on deck in any configuration. Strong surf could pull the sail open and potentially destroy it.

I consider self rescue a "must-have-skill" that you can perform without fail if you are to be using the rig. In addition I also recommend a well-rounded set of kayak skills, proper gear and attire. Of particular note is that it is assumed that there will be wind. When a capsize occurs in windy conditions it is imperative that the swimmer maintain a grip on both the kayak and the paddle. Wind can wisk away an unattended kayak from a swimmer or let a paddle drift away into the chop. A paddle leash, connecting paddle and kayak, is recommended.













Sit-in Self Rescue

The sit-in-side kayak self rescue with the sail deployed is not all that difficult. I tried it out on calm water, and would assume that stronger winds and choppier water would complicate things a bit, much as they would if a rig was not on your kayak. The process is a standard paddle float recovery that every sit-in paddler should master.

Do your wet exit as normal. The sail rig will not interfere, but take steps to know where your grab loop is on your skirt and not to tangle it up with the control lines. Take control of your paddle and your kayak, as you would normally while "swimming". Be extra cautious about this. In this respect I would be inclined to suggest a paddle leash, clipped to the deck, while sailing (not the coil type) to leave your hands free, as you will need to handle the sail. Also, make sure you have a good grasp on the kayak through out the exercise. Add deck-rigging lines to your kayak if necessary for extra hand grips and for paddle float mounting.

Once out of the kayak you will want to turn the kayak over. A lift from the bow to let out cockpit water is advised, but will not be as easy. If you do not have bulkheads I strongly urge you to use floatation bags. With much water in the cockpit and the sail and mast fully erect, the kayak will be very tippy, too tippy to be comfortably setting up for your paddle float reentry.

I suggest that for all sit-in paddlers the standard procedure should be to lower the sail as soon as the kayak is righted. You must immediately release the main sheet to prevent the sail from powering up. Then release both halyard and the mast car control lines to lower the sail. I suggest that you tie a figure eight knot at the end of the sheet, at the initial setup, as you will want to let out most of the sheet, without letting the sheet to pass all the way through the cleat. You might want to take a moment to make sure the sail is well in the goal posts. If you feel you have the luxury to do so, maybe wrap the lines around the mast tip and sail, and then tuck the slack into the deck bungee.

Next perform your paddle float self rescue as normal. Be ready with a good quality bilge pump, as there will be water in the cockpit. As many of you sit-on paddlers already are in the habit, be especially sure you have a bilge pump and paddle float on board.

While I have not tried it yet, I will assume that the TX assisted rescue-(see article) can also be done with a tiny bit of prep-work. Before the rescuer arrives, the capsized sailor/rescue should right their kayak, drop the sail, and secure the sail to the deck with the control lines. Then turn over the kayak, and be prepared for a standard TX.

The rig should not interfere with the lifting of the bow or the stabilization of the kayak, but be sure the rescuer knows in advance what is on the bow. All, or most of the water should be free from the cockpit and the standard TX should go as planned. A full X, kayak over kayak, rescue could damage the rig, so as such only the T part of the rescue should be necessary.

Sit-on-top Deep Water Reentry

A sit-on-top kayak deep-water reentry-(see article) with the KayakSailor is of course much simpler. The main difference is that the kayak will not have water in the cockpit, and as such will not be tippy when the kayak is righted with the sail up. I tested the process in calm water.

A capsize is much the same as you would experience in any sit-on-top tip over, you simply fall out of the kayak. Like the sit-on kayak you must take control of your paddle and your kayak with extra caution. Again I would be inclined to suggest a paddle leash, clipped to the deck, while sailing (not the coil type) to leave your hands free, as you will need to handle the sail. Also, make sure you have a good grasp on the kayak through out the exercise. Add deck-rigging lines or handles to your kayak if necessary. Lowering of the sail is not as needed, but can be done if it feels necessary to do so. What you absolutely must do is to release the main sheet to prevent the sail from powering up. Again I suggest that you tie a figure eight knot at the end of the sheet, during setup, as you will want to let out most of the line, without letting the sheet pass all the way through the cleat. The standard SOT deep-water reentry will follow as normal.

Configuring The KayakSailor Rig:
KayakSailor Owner's
Manual PDF Download

Four videos show the sequences
for outfitting the
Kayaksailor 1.4m2
Kayaksailor 1.6m2:
Available now at
Tom's TopKayaker Shop
Sizing Chart Pop-up Window
Take a look here to see the recommended size for your boat.





Two sizes are now available at Tom's TopKayaker Shop:

Kayaksailor 1.6m2
The 1.6 square meter sail area works great with sit-on-tops, light winds and large paddlers. It weighs 10 lbs, measures 86" high and can accommodate boats up to 37" in width. It transforms heavy boats into lively cruisers and gives performance craft the ability to ghost along at remarkable speeds in minimal wind.

Kayaksailor 1.4m2
The 1.4 square meters of sail area makes it an all around performer. Ideal for lighter weight paddlers, narrow beamed boats and stronger breezes. It weighs 10 lbs, measures 76" high and can accommodate boats up to 37" in width.

Both Sails include:

compact design, stainless rigging hardware, integrated downhaul/ boom vang, sail reefing, no-tool assembly and take down for easy transport, custom sail cover and travel bag.

Both Sails Feature:

The MagicTrack mast step. Anodized aluminum spars and body. UV stabilized components. Twin windows. Stainless steel fasteners. Premium urethane coated ripstop sailcloth from Challenge. Premium dinghy cordage from FSE/Robline, Samson, and New England Ropes. Performance sailing equipment from Harken, Ronstan, and RWO. Spring loaded CamLock buckle system for easy attachment to hull. High-density foam padding on main body tube to protect your boat. UV resistant custom sail cover and carry bag.

Tips For Use

kayaksailorThe standard tie down of the cross tube is adequate, but as the winds speed increases and the seas get higher I did notice that the cam buckles on the straps released a little bit, loosening the rig on the deck. This was not a major problem, and at no time did I find that the rig would fail, or fall off. To counter this I have been tying some simple over hand knots with the strap, after I tighten it with the cam buckle. I essentially lashed the cross bar straps with out over tightening them, or bending the cross bar. The mounting and tightening of the KayakSailor will squash the bow hatch and press down on the deck to some degree. I do not see this as a major problem for most plastic kayaks. If you know your bow deck is rather fragile you may need to make some sort of extra support. The KayakSailor rig is in use by the designers with a skin-on-frame kayak, and as such I would assume that little harm can come of it, for a rather wide range of kayaks. The base of the main body has thin foam padding on it, mostly for traction, but this will also protect the finish of glass and Kevlar kayaks.

The rig will mount directly on the bow hatch of most kayaks. While this does not pose a problem for the hatch, it might put some extra wear and tear on a gasket or soft rubber cover. So far so good, and no damage or problem has been identified, or reported. This does block access to the storage. As such you will have to use the rear hatch or cargo well for your cargo. If used on expeditions, you will want to put the camp gear upfront, and any cargo you may need access to (lunch, 1st aid, extra layers) behind.

I have mentioned the use of a paddle leash. I believe that your best bet is a tubular webbing strap leash, much like the TopKayaker leashes. The reason is that a coil leash will be difficult to untangle from the control lines. Attachment should be in cockpit, to the front, for sit-on-tops, and on the deck, to the deck lines for sit-in-sides.

kayaksailorSome Drawbacks

The kayak sailor comes with a pair of windows in the sail. This is one shortcoming of the design. They are difficult to see through, and have the potential to be in a position above or below the paddlers line-of-sight. They are also small in size.

The lower window provides only a view of the water when the kayak is on a lean. I think it would be best to have a single long window in the upper position. However, I have found that if you need to see, you can simply move the sail aside with a hand or paddle blade, take a peak, and resume as normal.

The KayakSailor will not let you have the absolute full freedom of strokes you may be accustomed to. Bow control strokes will be the concern. You may not feel like you have 100% of your paddle swing, but I know from experience that you will not be missing out on any paddling because you will be sailing. The rig certainly allows regular paddling, and this I have tested. You can do any type of paddling you should need to with the sail up, and 100% freedom with the rig down.

Rig Quality In Motion

kayaksailorWe have used the rig on the ocean, and to date no corrosion has occurred, even when the rigs sat wet with saltwater for a week. Do rinse as soon as you can, and let it air-dry. Kuvia, the maker of the KayakSailor recommends using a silicone spray. It is easy to get at an auto parts store and I would assume many hardware and department stores. You will find other uses for this spray, so get a can and use it.

The leeboards are very easy to control with the push rods. They work very well and are not in the way of paddling or self rescue. They come with a "glove hook" each and a single long bungee cord that is meant to go across the deck of a sit-on kayak. For SOT kayaks you will want to cut the cord in half and tie each push rod to a strap eye on the gunwale of the kayak. Be sure to raise the leeboards when you are in shallow water. They will auto raise in shallow water, however they will be vulnerable to damage with sideways and backwards drift, much like a rudder would be.

kayaksailorThe leeboards go up or down independently. You can use one leeboard at a time. It was suggested to me by David, the designer, that the kayak will have a greater speed when only the downwind board was down, with the upwind board out of the water. So far I have not noticed that much difference, but the theory makes sense to me. I see no problem in experimenting with up and down, but be sure that the board that is down is on the leeward side the kayak. You can also adjust the leeboard to be at an angle, rather than strait down, not sure what advantage this may or may not have, but it sails just fine either way. Leeboards do add extra stability, but this is not the prime function.

I think that full finger gloves may be best to use, assuming a good close fit and thin fabric. You can be the judge of that; maybe fingertips exposed would be nice. I say this not because of any problem I have experienced, but because there will be a lot of line handling and in some cases it could get a little rough on water softened hands.

kayaksailorThe KayakSailor rig will prohibit use of your normal deck compass mounting location. The main body will be right down the center of the bow deck. We have been placing our strap-on compass off to one side of the main body. While this spot is not optimal it seems to do ok. Some custom mounting may be required. Some deck mounted compasses might have to removed from the deck. I have not tested any deviation of the compass reading-(see Kayak Navigation articles) assuming some magnetic interference from the rig. That will have to be handled on a boat-by-boat basis. A small pocket compass could be an excellent alternative.

For sit-in-side paddlers it will be tempting to use the deck bungee rigging as you always have for your things at hand. When the KayakSailor is raised and lowered it will sweep along this area, down the center mostly. Bilge pump and paddle float can be stowed behind the cockpit in the deck bungee, just be sure to secure them very well. Alternatively you could stow a pump and float behind the seat, or under the deck with bilge pump clips. A chart will not be a problem to stow on deck. You may also stash small items along the side of the deck. For water I suggest a hydration pack on your PFD with a drinking hose.

kayaksailorChoose A Rig Size

There are two rig sizes; Smaller, 1.4 square meters for skinny kayaks, most sit-ins, stronger winds, lightweight and/or less experienced sailors.

Larger, 1.6 square meters for wider kayaks, most sit-ons, lighter winds, larger sailors and/or those with more experience. Please refer to the size chart for selecting your rig size.

The KayakSailor rig will fit almost any kayak, canoe, (inflatable and folding) that has a deck (or bow space) large enough to support the rig.

Kuvia, the maker of the KayakSailor recommends kayaks 14 feet or more. We saw the rig in use on folding kayaks, tandem kayaks and a canoe. The spacing of the leeboards is 37", and with a bow mounting that should handle most boats. I would have to say that a 14 to 16 foot sit-on-top kayak is the preferred type of boat for kayak sailing.

What Kayak Is Best

kayaksailorSmall recreational kayaks of 9-10 feet are not a good candidate for the KayakSailor. I say so not from direct experience, but it is an assumption based on my personal working knowledge of the rig, and the advice from the designer of the rig. Kayaks 12 to 13 feet may be in a gray zone with a successful, or not, implementation, depending on the deck and the size and determination of the paddler. It is possible for the main body for the rig to project past the bow tip, but only if the forward tie-down(s) can secure the rig well to the deck. I would also suggest that if the kayak is smaller than 14 feet, regardless of kayak width, wind speed, or paddler size, the smaller rig is your best bet. If you are serious about kayak sailing get a larger kayak with a rudder.

A rudder is preferred for kayak sailing of all kinds. You will get better performance and comfort, ease of use and possibly even let you sail into the wind a bit further. If you do not have a rudder that is ok, and not a deal breaker. You will be using your paddle as the rudder blade in a normal rudder stroke. This may complicate your paddle handling to some degree. If your kayak does not have rudder, there is no need to add one, at least not until you have tried the rig on your kayak as is.

I have tried the KayakSailor on sit-in and sit-on kayaks 14 to 17 feet. I have not tried the rig on a canoe or inflatable kayak. Nor have I tried the rig on a tandem kayak. I did try the rig on a folding kayak for a short stint. I have seen the rig in action with all of the above, except an inflatable. While each and every type of paddle craft is different I am assuming that the rig will mount onto, and perform well, with many touring paddle craft. You will have to be the final judge on fit and function, but please feel free to ask my advice. If this review inspires you to purchase a KayakSailor, please do so through our TopKayaker Shop. You can also find there other kayak sail options. Purchases support these articles.

I suggest some viewing of the instructional video links as a supplement to this review.

Purchases of the KayakSailor from Tom's TopKayaker Shop support TopKayaker.net and we appreciate your patronage. Thank you. We welcome you to test sail the Kayaksailor rig in New Hampshire with us! Phone: 603-651-1036

Behind The Design:

The Kayaksailor is a revolutionary new sail rig designed by David Drabkin that transforms your kayak, or canoe, into a performance sailing craft. Until now no other rig has allowed for upwind sailing with such a compact design. Not only is this rig compact, it is simple to install, with only a few strap eyes, if any at all. Mounting the rig to the kayak is a snap. The sail design is masterly done, with a shape that even old salts with years of sailing experience can appreciate.

The Kayaksailor is far less intrusive on the cockpit space than many standard V-Sail rigs. The twin leeboards are simple, light, and easy to use, even independently. The magic of this rig really comes out in the ability to truly trim the sail, as well as in the raising and lowering of the rig.

Kayaksailor comes from the Columbia River Gorge, North America's natural wind tunnel, used for decades by sail designers to develop some of the most advanced sails in the world. The remarkable patented design uses the exclusive Magic Track mast step, enabling the sail to be instantly raised or lowered from a seated position. The ultra efficient, fully battened sail, balanced with precisely foiled retractable leeboards, gives amazing upwind performance. The forward placement allows for paddling and bracing while under sail. Materials are of the highest quality, and are designed to withstand harsh marine environments.

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