Ask the Engineer: 5 Points of Surfski with Greg Barton---by Chris Laughlin

Surfskis are relatively simple.  Not a whole lot of moving parts, components or general outfitting to worry about.  That doesn’t stop the sport’s enthusiasts from partaking in the favorite pastime of performance-oriented athletes everywhere: relentless analysis of their equipment from every angle!


While simple, surfskis do have plenty of subtle differences between brands, models, constructions and components that can make a noticeable difference between each boat and from one paddler to the next.


Always hashing out the best blends of speed and stability, the surfski community at some point looks past personal comfort, and starts to look at what affect their equipment options actually do have on their individual performance.  When you pay the extra money for an Ultra layup, what are you actually gaining?  And what might you be losing?  Does the rudder just steer the boat, or will it impact your speed and stability?


When Greg Barton designs an Epic surfski, he looks at all of these variables with a unique depth of experience as a world-class paddler, combined with the degree and training of a mechanical engineer.  Anyone who has talked boats with Greg on the beach quickly understands the level of detailed thought that goes into every aspect of his designs, whether it be based on speed, weight or function.

Barton at The Mayors Cup


Below, Greg gives his thoughts on some of the main points that surfski paddlers consider when considering their equipment, and how they each affect performance on the water.




The Correlation Between Boat Weight And Stability


Weight does have a small effect on the stability of a kayak.  A lighter weight boat reacts more quickly, so it can feel a little less stable compared to a heavier version of the boat, particularly when encountering a wave or gust of wind.  However, if stability is a concern, it is better to get a more stable hull than a heavier boat.  The stability gained by moving one model (say from a V10 to V10 Sport) is much more benefit than any amount of added weight.  The speed benefit of a lighter boat outweighs the stability benefit of a heavy boat.

Surfski Rudders: Drag, Stability, Control

The rudder on a sufski has a small effect on stability.  The rudder tends to dampen the movement of a boat and can make it feel more stable under speed.  But a rudder also imparts a tipping moment to the boat when it is turned.  The deeper the rudder, the more it will kick or tip the boat while turning.  So a large, deep rudder is both more and less stable compared to a smaller rudder.  More stable while travelling straight, but less stable when turning.  With experience and time in the saddle with a given rudder, you can learn to anticipate how turning will tip the boat and compensate for it.A larger rudder has more drag and will slow the boat down if not needed for control.  My recommendation is to match your rudders size to conditions - larger rudder for steep downwind waves (where control and broaching are an issue) and a smaller rudder for milder conditions.  Rather than relying on a rudder for stability, you are better off choosing the appropriate boat for the conditions and your skills, then choosing a rudder that is sized for the conditions.  

Boat Stiffness, Flex And Speed

A stiffer surfski will be faster.  It does not flex as much under speed and the rocker profile will remain consistent when weighted with the paddler.  But there is a point of diminishing returns.  For example, there is a larger performance gain moving from a plastic kayak to a composite, but less gain moving from a medium stiff composite to a super stiff composite kayak.

A more flexible boat could dampen movements (like a heavier boat) and thereby make it feel more stable, but the loss in performance outweighs the stability gain.


Put Your Footboard, And Pedals, Where It Matters


Your footboard should be positioned for comfort and to promote good technique.  During the stroke, you should be pushing with your leg on the same side as your stroke.  Your knees should alternately be moving up and down on each stroke to drive hip rotation.  If your footboard is too far away, the back of your knees can bottom out, reducing the potential leg drive.  Too high of knees will make it more difficult to achieved good leg drive.  Generally, on a surfski, you want your leg to be just shy of touching the deck between seat and footwell when using full leg drive.  You can move one notch forward or back from this position for comfort, but adjustments beyond that will decrease performance.  This spacing generally gives the best stability. You need to be well connected with your legs without the knees being too high.


The foot pedal angle will depend on your foot size, the paddling conditions and personal preference.  You want to be able to achieve good leg drive without inadvertently pushing the pedals.  But you want to have good pedal control with your toes when needed for steering.  For most paddlers, this will vary between in line with the footboard (slanted about 25 degrees forward when the rudder is straight) to vertical when the rudder is straight.  Those with big feet and/or paddling in calmer conditions will prefer the pedals more forward (in line with the footboard) while those with those with small feet and/or steep surf conditions will prefer the pedals more back or close to vertical to give better control.  I personally have small feet and keep the pedals close to vertical, sometimes even angling slightly back from vertical (towards the paddler) if I'm paddling in very steep waves, such as at the Gorge.


The angle of the pedals can be adjusted by tightening or loosening the white plastic turnbuckle between the front of the rails on Epic surfskis.  If even more adjustment is needed, you can adjust the line connection at the rudder spreader bar.

Less Boat, Less Drag – The Epic Transom

Due to the rocker profile, the transom, or cut off stern seen on Epic surfskis is out of the water much of the time.  It only dips into the water with heavier paddlers, at extreme speeds or when waves pass by.  Flow at the extreme stern of a boat is detached or separated, so the final few cm of the hull do not effectively contribute to streamlining the shape.  Cutting off the last bit of the stern results in a boat that acts like a slightly longer boat (less form drag) without the boat actually being longer.

Story by Chris Laughlin