A little over a year ago I joined the Stellar Kayaks racing team. I received an SEL in the Excel layup just less than a month before the 2017 Durban Downwind, the first and last big race for the year before I was to leave for North America to race the Canadian Surfski Champs and Gorge Downwind Champs in Hood River.
My first paddle was a 22km reverse Buffels Run from Fish Hoek in less than average downwind conditions. I was immediately impressed with the performance and characteristics of the SEL. I fell ill at the Durban race but went on to get 7th and 9th in Canada and the Gorge respectively, both satisfactory results. I met Dave Thomas and Ben Lawry of Stellar Kayaks USA in Hood River. Dave is a fairly quiet guy, evidently passionate about paddling and boats in general and has been nothing but supportive to me since I joined the team.
After a week of paddling the course in Hood River, both Ben and Dave pushed me to try out the SES, the slightly shorter and smaller Surfski produced by Stellar. Interestingly, up until that point, a lot of what I was hearing about the Stellar range (from the paddling community) was that the SEL was considered to be more of an intermediate level boat and the SES the racing snake. I found the SES to be narrower in the cockpit and up front, however not so much that I would consider it too small for me, as was suggested by some.
At the end of the week Dave, Ben and I got into fairly lengthy discussions around the possibility of a new boat. These conversations were exciting and provoking and I was optimistic about the possibility of a new boat becoming a reality. I'm not sure whether he had run it past Dave at the time, but Ben had already named the weapon the SEA. Stellar Elite Assassin.
The racing snake was to take a back seat to another new development for a few months, but I distinctly remember a phone call in December 2017, when things were going to get moving. We discussed the characteristics of the SEL which I had become fond of as well as the possible areas of improvement. It was at this stage too that I was absolutely confident in clearing the SEL from the "intermediate " class of Surfski having broken my Personal Best for the Miller’s Run 3 times in 2 weeks, as well as some good results in local races. There were a few drawings passed around over the coming weeks, but to summarize the brief, there were a few critical aspects that were to be addressed:
Water Line. The Stellar range have all got a distinctive upswept bow. Great for downwind conditions, this is often considered wasteful in flatter conditions. The SEA boasts a squarer bow-end with less rocker than the SES and SEL, without losing any functional waterline. It seems to be just as comfortable in the rough stuff as the SEL and holds a great line in the flat. Into the wind it slices nicely into the chop without any slapping.
Narrow bow. The SEA, particularly at first glance, is noticeably narrower than the SEL. it has been slimmed down to just a few inches wider than the footbrace, retaining the signatory pitched foredeck (only more rounded in the SEA) which is great for shedding water in downwind conditions.
Updated cockpit. This is where anyone who is self-conscious of their waist line would immediately become apprehensive. The foredeck transitions into a substantially higher-walled cockpit which in turn transitions into a rounded-out, slightly higher seat. The higher walls are a massive improvement on both the SES and SEL, and, provide a significantly drier ride. The higher cockpit walls drop down at the widest point of the bucket itself, making sure remounting is still easy. The seat itself is not much narrower than the SEL, but so precise is the engineering here that there is barely half an inch between the inside of the seat and the outside of the hull. My race boat was fitted with a debrito bailer which I operated easily with my heel throughout the race.
Behind the cockpit. The aft-deck boasts the traditional Stellar criss-crossing bungee cords, raised section for strength and neat rudder hatch. Flip the boat over and you'll see another new feature. One of the unmistakably Stellar characteristics is a keel-like hull toward the stern. Not on the SEA. This boat has been "shaved" down from the rudder (which has moved 2 inches toward the bow) to the tip of the stern. This has given it a slightly looser feel in the runs, without sacrificing and directional control. I used two different rudders throughout the week, one being the traditional 8" swept rudder and the other being a trimmed down high-aspect rudder at around 6,5". Both were equally as effective, and I had no problem controlling the boat, which turns significantly better than the SEL.
Paddling this weapon. I am 6ft 2 and 88 kgs (most days), wide-hipped and long-legged. So, I would guess I am on the larger and heavier end of the spectrum, particularly in the racing field. I love the width of the SEL and found the cockpit of the SES a bit low, especially in confused water. The SEA however, keeps the internal width of the SEL and SES but the higher cockpit walls mean that my size 11 feet are well sunken, ensuring a much drier paddle.
On my first paddle, the first thing I noticed was that the seat was different. It isn't anything major, but the slightly more rounded sides and squared off back of the seat was instantly comfortable with no seat pads as I am accustomed to. Great start.
Off the bat, the narrower catch was noticeable and as I dipped down the first little run off Viento I braced for that splash of water on my knees. It never came. The deck profile and raised cockpit walls made sure of that. I weaved my way down the 13km course up the Columbia River, through Swell City of course. I really enjoyed it how manouverable I found the boat when zipping between the short, steep runs.
The primary stability was rock solid, and only at some pretty extreme rolled positions did I begin to identify some instability, but certainly no more nor no sooner than what you'd expect from any other elite-level boat. Compared to the SEL and SES, I would say that it has the primary stability of the SEL and more like the SES when it comes to secondary stability.
I was able to accelerate on call, the narrower bow piercing through the bumps ahead and really throw the boat around to test its predictability and behaviour in the short, steep runs. The pic Dave took of me leaving the water after that run pretty much summed up my feelings and I couldn't wait for the next run. There is no shortage of speed in the SEA. Toward the end of the Viento run there is a patch of water which is a lot flatter than the preceding 12 km. It was there that I was able to get a really good feel for what the SEA is capable of. I did a few short-and-sharp max speed intervals, comfortably getting the boat speed up in under 15 strokes.
I did another run, the following day (Wednesday) which was a lot windier than Tuesday, still, I found no fault in my new toy.
On race day we had what race organizer and all-round good guy Carter Johnson would describe and "chronic " conditions. His pre-race briefing was long, full of detail and left nothing to the imagination. We were blessed with "proper" downwind (as Billy Harker would put it) conditions. The race, the conditions and the boat did not disappoint, my only regret is that I had used a plastic bag- covered seat pad to protect my nought for the 90 min race which had me slipping around a bit in the busier parts of the race. In hindsight, I didn't need the seat pad. Apart from a short stretch where I was in a bad patch of water, I had a great race and couldn't have been happier with the performance of the new boat. The boat was available for the week to be tried out by anyone who was interested, I look forward to hearing more from those who took that opportunity, I'm certain that reports will be nothing but positive.
All in all, I believe the guys at Stellar have got a winner in the SEA. Chatting to a few guys around race HQ in the week, one local had said that they’re stoked to see that Stellar has produced a “legit ski”. No one is more excited about this than me. Except maybe for Ben, he’s pretty excited too!