Sunday, January 20, 2008

Paddling the Arctic Tern Kayak

The 17-foot Arctic Tern kayak by Pygmy Boats is a fun project for boatbuilders, many of whom enjoy the building more than the actual use of the boat. But it is when the sawdust has settled and the last coat of varnish is dry that this homebuilt wooden kayak comes into its own.

Having paddled thousands of sea and river miles in production sea kayaks, mainly my trusty Necky Tesla 17, I approach any new kayak that I intend to trust my life to with some degree of skepticism. But the Arctic Tern inspires confidence from the start. Her hard chine hull offers excellent initial stability, and when you lean over to put the edge in the water you feel the solid secondary stability kick in. To make a quick turn, just lean to the opposite side and she will pivot quickly with a sweep stroke.

This kayak requires no rudder, another concept I was skeptical about at first, having come to depend on a rudder for tracking in strong cross winds and beam seas. The Arctic Tern tracks fine without one, though, in all the conditions I tested mine in, including headwinds, tailwinds, and cross winds. This boat is ideal for beginners as well, and I have used it to introduce several beginners to their first experience in a sea kayak. Without exception, all of them could keep up with me in my Necky, and had no trouble holding a straight course. The extreme light weight of this boat is another aspect beginners appreciate, as they can paddle for hours without undue fatigue.

I've used the Arctic Tern for countless day trips and short paddling excursions, but usually rely on my larger-volume Necky Tesla for expedition paddling. But when it came time to paddle the length of the Pascagoula River System to gather material for the book Paddling the Pascagoula, which I co-authored with Ernest Herndon, the Arctic Tern seemed a natural choice. For this two-week journey from the headwaters of the Chickasawhay River to the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Pascagoula River, I anticipated that the lack of a rudder and the quick maneuverability of the hard-chined hull would be much appreciated. This proved especially true on the twisting, deadfall-choked upper reaches of the Chickasawhay, and the easy speed and superior tracking made the broad, windswept reaches of the lower Pascagoula a pleasure. I am pleased to say that I was not disappointed in my choice of boat for the trip. The Arctic Tern performed wonderfully and carried me and my gear safely and quickly down those 240 serpentine miles. The only disadvantage was that the gear had to be chosen carefully, as this boat has a much lower volume than I am used to in my larger kayak.

The Arctic Tern has consistantly received good reviews in the kayaking community. That's saying a lot, because the people that are serious about their paddling are not easily swayed by the romance of varnished mahogany that makes amatuer boatbuilders drool. Many of the wooden kayak designs out there are hardly fit for a paddle in the lake, much less the ocean, but in designing the Arctic Tern, John Lockwood created a real winner in both the looks and performance departments. I can say that I heartily endorse this kayak, and would not hesitate to recommend it.

Here is an excerpt from a review of the Arctic Tern published in Sea Kayaker magazine, December 1999:

"I really loved this kayak. The hull design is top notch, it combines superb rough-water handling, good tracking and turning, and outstanding surfing ability for a touring kayak. The boat has a silky feel in rough water, and it was very comfortable when I was caught in a big cross chop - a superb rough-water kayak. A great choice for beginners interested in learning good technique and edge control." KW

(This article was first published in the Scott's Boat Page newsletter, May 2004)

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"A boat is freedom, not just a way to reach a goal."
Bernard Moitessier - A Sea Vagabond's World


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