Which Race Kayak?



Hi All,

I have been there baking of making a racing sea kayak for a little over a year now. I am close enough to starting that now I need some help settling on a design. I have paddled the mystery and liked it a lot, but it was hard to get a true feel for it since it had a tiller rudder that could not be adjusted on the fly and it was too short for me. 

I have also been eyeing a Pax 20, but am hesitant to go back to stitch and glue since I have always been more happy with how strip builds paddle when finished. 

I have also been looking at the Björn Thomasson Sea Racer, I know that’s not a CLC boat, but it’s true one I know the least about. I like the look of it the best. 

I am on my fifth SUP build, I have done strip and stitch and glue, so I think my skills are where they need to be for these more difficult builds. Also I will be racing against OC-1s and surfskis since I live in SoCal and there aren’t a lot of sea kayaks racing down here. 

If anyone has paddled one or all of these I would love to hear your thoughts. 



7 replies:

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RE: Which Race Kayak?

   I can't help with your main question, but I'm curious about your comment "...I have always been more happy with how strip builds paddle..."  I'm a fairly inexperienced paddler, and I don't think I've heard anyone before compare paddling characteristics of stitch & glue and strip built boats.  Can you elaborate?

RE: Which Race Kayak?

   Hi DG

I will happily elaborate. For me it isn’t the construction itself, but the shape that a strip build allows. I often like round chines on my paddlecraft as opposed to hard chines and that isn’t really possible with stitch and glue. In instances where I have paddled the same design in both types of builds I liked the strip one better. 

I still, however, paddle both my Kaholo and my SanO, so I am not discounting stitch and glue designs by any means. 

RE: Which Race Kayak?

I have not paddled any of those boats but that does not stop me from having some opinions! 

I have been actively racing for 3+ years and am also about to start building another race boat.  I currently have a Wahoo (18.5’ x 20.5”) that I race when there is a dedicated kayak or FSK division.  The Wahoo is quite competitive in those races, being every bit as fast as similar boats like the Epic 18x and Stellar S18S or short skis like the V8.  Where the Wahoo is not competitive is in those races where all types of kayak/surfski are lumped together.  For those races and for those with big waves, I recently bought an intermediate surfski (Stellar SEI, 20’ x 18.1”).  As much as I hate paddling a plastic (actually it is a 25# composite) boat, it is very much faster than the Wahoo (30+ seconds per mile).  As soon as I switched boats, I went from being way in the back to being well into the front half of the fleet in those unlimited races. 

I want to build a boat that will be competitive with an intermediate surfski on flat water.  Going through the small list of designs out there that are viable for racing (Mystery, Yukon and Razor Billed Auk by Nick Schade, Pax 18 & 20 by CLC, Sea Racer, Spray, Spindrift, Panthera and Jehu by Bjorn Thomasson, and the Wahoo by Winters), my short list is the same as yours, Mystery, Sea Racer and Pax 20.  In my opinion, those are the only three that have a chance of being as fast as my SEI.

There is very little info available on the Sea Racer besides that posted on Bjorn’s website.  Given the dimensions, I am sure that this is a fast boat, but I’d have to redesign the cockpit area.  As drawn, this boat has a low deck and small cockpit which interfere with leg pumping.  You can’t be competitive without good rotation and leg drive.  I’d also add facets forward of the cockpit to make the boat narrower at the catch.

I suspect that the Pax 20 is slightly slower than the SR due to width but still fast.  If you dig around the web you will find a few reports that say this boat is not very good in waves because of low maneuverability.  I suspect this is directly related to the hard chines inherent in S&G construction.  The cockpit on the Pax 20 is larger than the SR but its key hole shape still interferes with leg drive a bit.  Rounding out the front of the cockpit should eliminate that problem (I paddled a Pax 18 which has same cockpit).  If I build a Pax 20, I will make it hybrid construction and add facets forward for a narrower catch.

My leading candidate is the Mystery.  It is slightly longer than the other two and the drag data indicates that it is slightly faster than the SR (I don’t have data on Pax 20).  I suspect that it handles a bit better than the Pax 20 because of the rounded strip hull but it is probably not as stable.  Another advantage for the Mystery is that it flares above the waterline to a beam of 20”.  Here on the east coast, many races use the 20” beam measurement as the break between “kayak” and “surfski” divisions.  The narrower SR and Pax 20 would be competing against all the rock stars paddling elite surfskis, where the Mystery would be competing against shorter/wider boats.

My plan is to equip the new boat the same as I have the Wahoo.  I will install a surfski style footbrace from Stellar and overstern rudder.  I use a small rudder blade for flat water with few turns but go to a larger blade for waves and/or lots of turns.  For seating, I have a raised rotating seat from Nelo that I use for short races (<10 miles) and flat water.  For waves or longer races, I have a very comfortable foam seat.  Compared to the foam seat, the raised rotating seat is 0.1-0.2 mph faster but much less stable in waves and a real PITA after about 90 minutes.

Now, to translate my long dissertation into some recommendations for you.

When I envision racing in SoCal against surfskis and OCs, I see coastal racing which means paddling in waves.  Depending on the size and spacing of the waves, long kayaks with zero rocker like the SR, Pax 20 and Mystery can be a handful.  It is possible for the boat to “bridge” two waves which basically leaves you sitting on a balance beam.  A skilled kayaker can keep upright but certainly can’t paddle with any power in those conditions.  Lastly, surf/breaking waves can be problematic for a kayak, especially one with a large racing cockpit.  Beach starts/launches are especially problematic because it is hard to get the skirt on before taking a bunch of water.  All of that being said, I do believe that all three of the boats would be good for the milder coastal conditions.

Assuming you are comfortable with its stability, I would submit that the Mystery would be the best of the three for you.  It is likely the fastest and the only one that is designed with a large cockpit and facets.  Do give the stability issue some real thought.  You said you paddled the Mystery and “liked it a lot.”  Does that mean that you were comfortable with the stability?  Did you paddle it in conditions like those that you will race in?  Will you be stable enough in it that you can paddle hard even when you are tired?  One of the biggest errors that racers make is to overestimate their stability when choosing a boat.  They test paddle an elite ski in calm conditions and decide to buy it.  Then come race day, the conditions are a little worse or part way through the race they get boat fatigue and go for a swim.  Hardly a race goes by when I don’t pass people swimming next to their very fast but very unstable boats.  Stability is only a little slower, but it allows you to produce much more power.    

If you are looking for some rougher water racing capability, I would look at one of Bjorn’s two sufskis, the Spray and Spindrift.  There really is no substitute for some rocker and a self-bailing cockpit when paddling in waves.  Both boats will be slower than the Mystery in flat water.  If you want a decked boat, look at the Panthera which is a kayak (decked) version of the Spray.  A faster option would be to design your own deck for the Spindrift hull.

The recommendations above are based upon the standard 6-12 mile races that we have on this coast.  If the primary use of this boat will be for longer (15+ mile) races, you might want to look at the RBA or Wahoo.  On the longer races, comfort, stability and the amount of gear (water) you can carry become more important than top speed capability.  I find that at 20 miles I am just as fast in the Wahoo as the SEI, but much more comfortable.

As part of the selection process, do some research the races that you will be competing in.  What are the conditions generally like?  Do the division classifications favor one design over the other?  If there is a +20” class, the Mystery should dominate if well paddled.  Lastly, look at which boats the other paddlers are using.  If the beginner skis like the V8 or S18S dominate, then rough conditions predominate, and you will want a similar boat like the Spray/Panthera.  If unstable flatwater boats like the V14 are common, then a Mystery is probably a good choice.

One last suggestion regardless of which design you choose.  Get a good beginner ski and wing paddle now so that you can start developing your race skills while you are building a faster boat.  Even after the fast boat is complete, having a stable ski in your arsenal is good because it gives you a more competitive option when you show up for a race and the conditions are tough.  Many racers (myself included) take several boats to each race and choose the best given the conditions that day.

I hope that this helps

First picture from the USCA Touring Class Nationals Mar 2017.  I won my age division.  Second picture is my first race in the ski at FCPA Silver Springs Race last Dec.  Placed fifth out of thirty some boats and won my age division.  Things are not always so good.  Last weekend a guy in my age group beat me by 6 minutes on an 11 mile course.


RE: Which Race Kayak?

   Hey Mark

Thanks for all your thoughts. The conditions for most of the races here usually range from mild ocean to flat water. And I can’t think of any beach starts. I think the PAX 20 is now out of the running, and I will have to give the Mystery more thought. I had been leaning towards the Sea Racer. I don’t think stability will be an issue. It was a pretty rough day when I tried the Mystery. 


RE: Which Race Kayak?

  Bret, I'd like to know more about the Mystery, which I considered before building the PAX 20. I race in the Southeast Paddle Sports Championship Series (SEP), mostly inland lakes and ocean creeks, no big wave environments, but often breezy and/or with tidal currents. Here are my timed comparisons between the kit-built PAX 20 and my kit-built Chesapeake 17 LT. They weigh the same at 46 pounds, as built. I raced them to the clock on the same 10 km lake course, alternating boats every few days for three runs each. I'm 62 years old, 6 ft 3 in, 175 pounds, size 11 shoe, and an experienced paddler. I used an Epic full carbon Mid Wing paddle. Results: Chesapeake 17 LT average time was 1:07:33, fastest time of 1:07:17; PAX 20 average time was 1:04:00, fastest time of 1:03:02. I'm still getting used to the PAX 20, and improved my time by a minute each time I paddled, so there may be the potential for even faster times. That being said, I was surprised that the PAX 20 wasn't faster. It's considered a "racer" by CLC, and its ratio of waterline length to width will advance me from the Sea Kayak class (the slowest) to the High Performance Kayak class (the fastest) where I'll have to compete against the fastest surfskis, which are 15 minutes faster over a 10 km distance. So, I've built a racing kayak which is about four minutes faster over 10 km than my old boat, but which will never have a chance of winning a race. I'm also looking at Thomasson designs; my next project will be a stripper to get the hull profile that can't be achieved with stitch and glue. If I thought that the Mystery would be significantly faster than the PAX 20 I'd build it, but that's not the sense I get from the info on the CLC site.

RE: Which Race Kayak?

   I definitely think you've got it figured out, Christopher. Those side-by-side tests are telling you all you are ever going to need to know. Unless you are intent on racing to win, I agree that you should build the most beautiful boat possible and the most interesting project. The marginal gains between hulls are pretty insignificant when compared with the differences between paddlers.

I've been an avid cyclist for well over 20 years and for most of that period I have been a "weight weenie." I was all about riding the lightest bike possible so that I could go uphill faster. But some nice roads near my house are gravel so I decided to buy a relatively cheap gravel bike. It weighs 27.5 punds while my race bike is currently 17.5 (though I have had it down to 16 at times). Funny thing is that the light bike isn't that much faster uphill -- maybe 15 seconds on a 1-mile climb. The gravel bike expands my range and is much steadier going downhill (and about  the same on the flats). The light bike's biggest trrue advantage occurs when I have to sling it into my hatchback for the 2-mile drive to the nearest pavement! . . . The point is that in cycling, just as in kayaking, the various tradeoffs are a lot less consequential than one sometimes assumes.

RE: Which Race Kayak?

Hello Christopher.  Thanks to you also for adding Pax 20 info.  The Pax 20 has been so hard to quantify (I am a numbers guy) because there is no published Kaper data.  Your comments mirror others that I have read and really help me rule that boat out.  One interesting note is that the Pax 18 actually enjoys a pretty good reputation for racing.  A friend won the USCA SK Nationals paddling his a few years ago.  I paddled it for a short distance and beleive that it is competative with my Wahoo, which means it is competative with the similar kayaks from Epic and Stellar.

I would not lump the Mystery in the same category as the Pax 20 just because both are sold by CLC.  The Pax is an in house design where the Mystery is designed by Nick Schade.  Nick is a very technical designer who publishes drag numbers for his boats.  The Mystery has also done very well in a number of the Blackburn Challenge Races. 

I happen to have a copy of the Kaper numbers for the 17LT.  Using your average speed of 5.5 mph, it looks like you are generating ~6.2# average thrust.  If I use that number with Nick's drag charts for the Mystery, it looks like you will paddle that boat at ~6.2 MPH all things being equal.  That means that you should be able to paddle your 10k training route right at one hour.  

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