Skis differ from most other types of kayak in incorporating a sit-on-top cockpit and under-stern rudder controlled by foot pedals. They are generally longer than most other kayaks (up to 22′ in some cases) and vary in beam between 23″ and 16″, roughly that of a standard sea kayak and a mid-stability K1 racing kayak respectively.
Construction is generally in glass or carbon fibre, with honeycomb sandwich construction common to keep weight down. Overall weights vary between 8kg & 15kg depending on how much cash you want to splash. Potentially the light boats are quicker in the right hands, but at the cost of greater fragility. Rotomoulded skis may also be making an appearance around the world in the near future (having already been popular for some time in Australia), with the advantages of robustness and less expense, but with a slightly increased weight over composite boats.
The sealed cockpit means that the boat is a complete watertight unit, so after a capsize there is no water in the hull and the cockpit is quickly drained by venturi bailers that suck the water away as the ski is paddled forward. The fit of the cockpit is very important to stability and comfort, with control over the boat coming from the ‘connectivity’ between hips, calves and heels and the boat’s cockpit sides and footboard.
Using foot pedals gives more immediate control, compared to the tiller bar steering of most racing kayaks, as surfing often necessitates frequent and large changes in direction. The rudders used are also significantly bigger than those used in sprint and marathon racing boats, up to 9 inches long, though many manufacturers provide different rudder options for paddling in different conditions. As a general rule a larger rudder slightly increases the stability of a ski and vice-versa. The rudder is usually several feet forward of the stern, keeping it in contact with the water in steep waves and preventing aeration of the blade in tight turns that would cause steering to be lost. All these factors make the steering on a ski very powerful, and it takes a bit of practice to avoid pushing with your toes unintentionally and zigzagging all over the place…
The volume and weight carrying capacity of a ski can affect stability and performance markedly. This is especially true of the higher level skis, where stability is at a premium in the first place. Many skis are built with the larger paddler in mind, but some manufacturers are starting to cater for those smaller and lighter, though at present only at the performance end of their ranges. The Epic V10L, Stellar SES, Fenn Spark and Carbonology Pulse are all examples of low volume skis that provide a lower hump under the knees and shortened footboard length.
Rocker – the lengthwise curvature of the hull from bow to stern is another performance consideration. Designs with more rocker are often easier to turn and better suited to steeper and shorter period waves. Boats with less rocker are potentially faster on calm waters but may be slower to turn and be more difficult to control in steep waves.
Skis are almost always paddled with ‘wing’ paddles – these have a contoured blade that creates more resistance in the water. Whilst it is possible to paddle skis (especially entry level skis) with standard flat bladed paddles, for racing wings are pretty much essential. The light and easily driven nature of skis means that a far slower paddling cadence is needed with wings, compared to flat blades, expending far less energy. Once the technique for using wings is learnt, the stability available from the more ‘planted’ blade helps a lot when paddling a ski in rough conditions.
Even more than ski choice, choice of paddles is very personal. Wings come in different shapes, sizes and lengths. The best paddle will not only change between paddlers but often for the same paddler a different length of paddle will be needed in different boat or even different weather and water conditions. Therefore, it’s worth considering buying paddles with an adjustable joint in the middle, that can be altered to find the most effective and comfortable length.
Types of Ski
Skis fall into four broad, often overlapping, categories:
- Spec skis
- Entry level
These are lifesaving ‘specification’ skis developed for surf lifesaving and round the cans racing from the beach. They are generally shorter and heavier than a modern oceanski and in many older models have a fixed leg length between cockpit and footboard that means you have to find one that fits you properly. In general the cockpits are shallower than on an oceanski which gives less connectivity to the boat and puts a real premium on the paddler’s stability.
All that said there are still a number of Spec skis being paddled competitively at GB Oceanski events and they can be picked up cheaply second hand.
This is a relatively new area of ski development and thus one of the reasons that skis are often perceived to be only for those with amazing balance: If you wanted to get into ski racing in the past you had to do a lot of swimming before you could expect to spend much time going forward! Many manufacturers have now realised that to grow the sport there needed to be an easier entry point, and the past few years has seen a flurry of new ski designs that are far more stable.
In general these boats are shorter (16-19 feet) and wider (up to 23″), making them easier to store (especially in the average British garage) and far more stable than the other types of skis. Most importantly they are much easier to remount after a capsize, with a small amount of practice being no more difficult than remounting a recreational sit-on-top. This is a very important safety consideration for those new to the sport and learning to paddle and surf is much more enjoyable and effective when you feel confident in your rescue skills.
The entry level boats are, all other things being equal, slower than the intermediate and elite boats. However all other things are rarely equal, and the paddler in the stable boat able to put in full power will easily beat a paddler wobbling around in a boat or conditions beyond their skill level. The stable paddler will probably also be having more fun…
Some present examples (2014) of entry level boats are: Epic V8 (and the more touring oriented V6), Fenn Bluefin, Stellar SR, Carbonology Cruze and Think Eze. However this is a rapidly developing area of the sport and new designs will no doubt continue to be launched.
The middle ground and for most paddlers, as much boat as they can, and want, to handle. These skis are usually of a similar length to the elite boats and the speed differential to the higher level skis is much smaller than for the entry level boats. Stability is reduced from the entry level boats and remounts require more practice. The Epic V10 Sport is a common boat at the more stable end of the range for intermediate skis, while some older skis may have dimensions that put them in the intermediate ballpark but be as challenging to paddle as many modern elite skis.
Other examples of intermediate skis; Stellar SEI, Fenn Swordfish, Nordic Kayaks Storm
Elite skis are generally the longest and narrowest, with the highest speed potential. They often fall into a similar stability range as some of the more moderate flatwater K1s and take experience and much practice to paddle in waves. Remounting can be a serious challenge and safety consideration!
Examples of elite levels skis; Fenn Elite, Epic V12, Carbonology Flash, O’Krea OZO