On the Water And In The Woods

Sea kayaking, sailing, and lightweight backpacking in the-Chesapeake Bay, Mid-Atlantic region

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Boat Test: Kayaksport Vivianne

Introduction and considerations:

For several years I have maintained a short list of boats that I would consider as replacements for either of the two boats that I own. I never anticipate owning more than two boats - I want one for day paddles/playing, and one for expedition use. Any more and I don't feel that I would really learn the characteristics of the boats. Besides, I don't have the space or money. And if I went to three boats, Jenny would get to go to three boats, and the storage problem compounds from there. That being said, I have this list. For expedition boats, the list looks at my critical factors:

1. Rudder for sailing, and especially now since I use a single blade for about half my paddling.

2. Storage capacity. Since Jenny and I do not paddle two boats of equal volume, mine will always need to carry more of the stuff. So volume of the new boat must be in the same ballpark as the Pisces, which is capacious.

3. High quality construction. I know that I am tough on boats. I like fully fibreglassed deck/hull seams, very waterproof hatches, and believe that a kevlar layup should achieve the same strength as the glass layup.

4. Sea keeping ability - will I be comfortable in the boat in the conditions that I consider safe to paddle.

5. Speed - Speed equal or greater than what I can get in the Pisces.

6. Comfort - Be able to sit in the boat for a 12+ hour day. And do it again the next day.

7. Be able to sail the boat.

The short list was put together from boats I've read about in Sea Kayaker or other places, product searches, friends recommendations, etc. Since I have access to basically all of the SK boat reviews, I have also used those for their paddling effort tables and review data. One of the things that has been interesting was to plot boat paddling effort at different speeds by model against each other. I had expected to see large differences betwen new and old designs, but found very little difference at all in effort to paddle graphs between boats designed in 2004 and 1994. Brian Blankenship and I have discussed this some in the past, and his view was that while paddling effort may not have changed much, the handling of the boats may have drastically improved over time. Could be. I have found that to be true in the day boat/play boat area, but not so far in the expedition boat arena. I don't have all 7 of the factors filled in for all the boats on the short list yet. As I get a chance to see or paddle the boats, more factors get filled in on the list. One of the boats on the short list is the Kayaksport Vivianne, which made the short list for volume, rudder, speed, and quality construction.

One weekend recently I had the opportunity to spend several hours paddling the Vivianne. It was a great weekend to test the boat. Winds were on the low end of a Small Craft Advisory out of the north and I was able to paddle the boat in an area that had pretty consistent 15 knot winds with one foot breaking waves.


At 19 feet long, the Vivianne is a long boat with little rocker. 21.75 inches wide, with a rounded hull shape that does have some secondary stability. The boat is fitted with two large oval Kayaksport hatches front and rear. These are a bit bigger than the oval VCP hatches, by about two inches in length. I was suprised how loosely the hatches fit, and that they were not stiffer. However, after much rolling, only a very minute quantity of water had entered the front hatch and none got in the rear. The front hatch leakage may have been due to a compass mount in the hatch cover. Newer models have a day hatch as standard. The volume of storage is very high, only about 4 liters lower than the Pisces. I actually stored my single blade paddle inside the front hatch compartment at one point and it fit easily.

Deck rigging is very sparse, but the fittings are there on the boat to easily upgrade the rigging.

The boat is manufactured with a skeg, which uses the typical cable control. It has one of the best skeg box designs I have seen, eliminating the issue of the skeg cable to box fitting being a potential below waterline leak. A rudder can be mounted on the boat, and there is actually a pretty ingenous locking mechanism where you twist the rudder stem around to unlock it and take it off. The foot pedals were gas pedal type.

The seat backstrap had been removed, and the six inches or so behind the seat filled with closed cell foam. Were this my boat, I would have removed the foam and kept paddlefloat and pump and bailout kit in that space.

Quality of construction was very high - nice glassed seams, and the insides of cockpit and hatches were finished well. SK reports the balance point at 48%, and that feels about right when you lift the boat. The owner indicated it weighed in at 55 pounds. Deck and hull seemed sturdy enough for me. The bow is large and has a lot of volume, reminding me of a surf ski bow in shape and dimension.

The cockpit has a unique coaming that is extended and curved at the rear, allowing much more comfortable lay back rolls so that you don't have the cockpit coaming edge digging into your back. This is a very nice feature. The cockpit is large enough for me to bring my knees up. Seat design was comfortable. With the rudder on the boat, the rear toggle could not be used as a carry point.

Paddling the boat.

I used both a single blade and a large greenland paddle to test the boat. The boat moved well, and going up wind or across the wind I was comfortable in the 4.0 to 4.5 mph speed range. I was amazed at the performance going down wind. Using the rudder, I was able to run downwind for a measured mile at an average speed of 7.1 mph. I think this is the fastest I have ever gone for a mile in a kayak, even granted going down wind.

You do want the skeg or rudder in use to go down wind, as the boat seems to skitter a bit in the small waves I had that day. In general, boat tracks very well once you get it set on a course. However, it takes some fiddling to find the right setting with the skeg to get everything balanced. This was probably impacted some by having the rudder in the up position on the boat which affected it's balance some in the wind. For a big boat, it responded well to outside leaned turns. An extended paddle sweep turn without leaning was not very effective even with the skeg up.

The rudder is a cassette type rudder, that does not require centering to retract. The mechanism worked well, but had no way to hold the rudder in the down position as is found with some other rudder systems. Since the Vivianne was made to use a skeg, and the rudder is an add on, the boats' stern was not designed with a rudder in mind. The rudder sits significantly high up on the stern, and it appeared that less than a third of its length was in the water when I was paddling the unloaded boat. On my Pisces, and other boats designed from the beginning to use a rudder, I expect to see that 50-75% of the rudder is in the water. This lack of rudder blade in the water affected the performance of the rudder by not having enough "bite". The other drawback of the rudder system was the gas pedal type foot peg controls. I have now paddled three boats with gas pedal rudder controls and have experienced the same issue on all where the gas pedals did not have enough travel to allow the rudder to swing through a significant steering arc. On the Vivianne, there was enough pedal travel to only allow the rudder to swing about 30 degree to each side of the boats centerline. This made course corrections with the rudder very gradual. This would be okay if your intent was to use the rudder like a skeg to offset weathercocking. However, when sailing a kayak you want the rudder to be able to have a much greater effect on the boat and to actually turn the boat without needing to lean. I now understand why some other owners have installed larger rudders on these boats, and sometimes modified the stern to allow the rudder to sit lower in the water.

The large volume bow gives a very dry ride. The cockpit felt secure. I suspect I would add some minimal thigh bracing as a supplement. Secondary stability was evident and predictable, although this would be an "intermediate" or "expert" type of boat from that point of view. The boat rolled easily, owing to the rounded cross section and the high depth to width ratio for most of the boat. I felt comfortable in the boat in the existing conditions, and would have been okay in worse conditions, except if the need arose to turn the boat in the opposite direction quickly. It would be a slow turn.

Boat Review Summary

In summary from my point of view, this is a large fast boat that carries a lot of gear, but has some control issues. It would probably not be a great sailing kayak and I'm not sure I'd want to paddle it in challenging conditions where boat handling became important. Were I to own this boat, I would:

1. Add a rudder with a larger underwater volume.
2. Replace the gas pedal footpegs with standard yakima rudder pegs.
3. Seriously upgrade the deck rigging.
4. Move the rear toggle forward to eliminate conflict with the rudder.
5. Add minimal foam for thigh bracing.