Setting up a sea kayak sail

Sea Kayak Sailing at the Cumbrae Symposium

Last weekend I headed off to a sea kayak symposium for a chance to try sea kayak sailing and having one less than three hours drive from home was too good to miss…

As well as being a small island west of Glasgow, Cumbrae is also the home to the Sport Scotland National Watersports Centre. All the events were based in or around this petite centre.

I opted to stay in their onsite cabin accommodation (more on this in the second part of this blog). Other hardy soles stayed in camper vans (or tents) in the adjacent campsite area…

If you are heading to the seaside it is obligatory to have a fish and chip supper. And to eat it on the ferry. Especially if you nearly missed the ferry due to thinking you could buy a ticket onboard! I’m just so used to the more relaxed ‘pay on board’ Corran Ferry and not familiar with CalMac ferry procedures

Sea Kayak Sailing Taster

With four half-day sessions on offer over the weekend, and an evening talk on Saturday, there was quite some activity. Although there were only about 15 attendees, it was good chance to chat to everyone. It was a diverse group with guides, coaches, club paddlers and individuals in attendance.

My first session – and one of the main reasons I came – was the chance to try sea kayak sailing. We started with a land-based walk through of the parts of a sailing rig before Peter Braidwood let us rig our own sails and kayaks. We were to use Cumbrae’s fleet of P&H Scorpio kayaks that had the necessary foiling in place for the mast and rigging.

Rigging through to actually sailing them was actually quite simple. A lot easier that I had imagined. I have sailed dinghies and yachts before, so had the basic terminology and principles of ‘sailing’. I  can also obviously paddle a kayak as well, which does help.

Rigging a sea kayak sail

I thought this was going to be complicated. Probably a throwback to rigging dinghies and small yachts back in the 1980’s. Perhaps it was the way Peter explained it, but rigging the sail was really straightforward.

One thing I didn’t look at was how the various attachment points on the kayak were reinforced inside. My Delphin has an area and threaded bolts for the mast foot, but everything else would need to be reinforced to take the strains of the rig in action.

Sea kayak sailing rig setup
This ‘pilot’s eye’ view of the sail set up shows how simple it is to rig once the fittings are all on your kayak (a one off job).

In the picture above, you can see most of the components required to hold the mast on what is quite a narrow boat.

The mast foot is simply twisted onto a plastic fixing that is permanently attached to the kayak. If you were rigging from scratch, I’d be careful about where you put this. The kayak I ended up paddling had it located to far aft and, when collapsed, the top of the sail was awkward to stow away as it was level with my waist.

In front of the mast is the forestay, which is also the red rope on the left of the kayak. This is used to pull the mast upwards and forwards. The thinner red / white rope above the front hatch (the aft stay) is adjusted to stop the mast from pulling too far forwards – i.e. to stay vertical.

Either side off the mast are short stays (the yellow ropes) that attach to the sides of the kayak and, when adjusted properly (see video for how not to do it) stop the mast from flopping sideways.

The final rope, the red one on the right, is the mainsheet that adjusts the angle of the sail in relation to the kayak.

If you don’t know what all these are, then a short course in sailing would probably be very beneficial at this point. It’ll also help with actually sailing the boat later as you’ll be better able to read the wind and sail at appropriate angles.

All the cleats and fixings need to be permanently fitted to your kayak. If you are not happy taking a drill to your £4000 carbon kayak, then buy a much cheaper second hand plastic boat to have a go on first. I’m hoping that my P&H Delphin is going to be an exciting boat to put a rig on even if it isn’t the best boat to learn in…

On the water

This may not be the best or most exciting video ever, but you’ll get the idea… This takes you from my very first fumbling on the water through a short journey across to Largs and back. You’ll see how quickly the basic skills can be picked up.

Peter had us head raise the sail, head about 100m downwind before collapsing the sail and paddling back. Doing this three or four times ensured we got the purpose of the two ropes on our decks into our heads. they also probably filled Peter with confidence that we could all mange our boats independently.

Whilst the wind was pretty gentle, we did make over 9 km/h on the crossing with very little paddling. Putting that in perspective, the average speed of a sea kayak on calm water is about 5 km/h.

One exercise not featured in the video was a group downwind run. With just two kayaks together and sail opposite directions, we picked up some speed. We could not catch the group of four kayaks though!

What did I learn?

The main thing that I learned is that it is great fun at a basic level. It is no doubt going to be a challenge to ‘master’ it in rougher conditions. It was so much fun that I contacted P&H on Monday morning to see if they have any sails available for sale…

When I collected my last batch of sea kayaks I did ask about their availability, but they were not available at that time. “Coming in the autumn” was what I was told. Fingers crossed…

It was also much easier than I expected with quite a shallow learning curve.  I had expected the kayak to become very unstable and require constant edging / leaning to keep upright. But that wasn’t the case. Even when gybing the kayak was very stable. Admittedly we only had light winds (Beaufort 1-2), but it was surprisingly easy to handle.

Despite the lack of strong winds, the difference in speed / effort was noticeable. I can see that it would make a significant difference over the course of a long day journey. 9 km/h as opposed to 5 km/h would equate to an extra 24 km over a six-hour day. Worth considering.

Things to change?

You’ll notice in the video that my mast had quite a learn to the right. At times I was edging to straighten the mast, but this naturally turned the boat, so I had to go with it. What I should have done was tighten the left side stay to correct the lean. Always double check your equipment before heading onto the water as it can be difficult to do it later without landing.

The issue of how close the the wind can you sail (think across the wind or even upwind) was asked. The reality is that without a dagger board (a keg in the front section of the kayak), it would be difficult. Speaking with Senior Instructor Callum McNicol who has a rather nice P&H Aries kayak with a carbon dagger board and sails all manner of craft, it helps, but isn’t amazing at heading upwind. Thanks also to Callum for offering to lend me his kayak to try, but I didn’t feel confident enough to take his personal fibreglass boat out on my own at lunchtime.

What is next?

Keep your eye on my blog for part two and more learning from the Symposium.

Hopefully you’ll also see how I get on with a sea kayak sailing rig of my own…