Recently I have been studying the exploits of some incredible adventurers, specifically solo explorers in small water craft crossing bodies of water that regularly sink much larger vessels. The designs and the different methods of accomplishing similar goals are so vastly different that I find myself absolutely fascinated and curious as to what is the absolute best method.
The reason this is all of interest to me is because I am also exploring the possibility of embarking on one of these long distance adventures, one that I can only find record of one other person attempting, albeit with a companion and in a canoe. This man, Verlen Kruger, paddled from Florida to Venezuela, and that is exactly what I hope to do. Verlen completed the trip with assistance for long open ocean crossings, something I cannot expect nor intend to receive.
So for that, I must find a way to make my vessel more sea worthy than Kruger’s canoes. I started with a stock NDK Explorer, a seventeen foot sea kayak. I first removed the front bulkhead to provide me with ample room to stretch out and sleep within the cockpit and then added an electric bilge pump in case of a swamped boat. I am designing a fiberglass cockpit cover to seal off the hull with an air-only ventilator to provide circulation without the expense of water tightness. However, one compromise I have not settled on is how to make the kayak stable in rough water. Several solutions to common kayaking problems seem easy. However, this one doesn’t come without significant compromises. The consideration fall into three categories, sponsons, outriggers, and a self-righting hull.
Sponsons act like kayak outriggers which rest next to the hull and can be fashioned in many different ways. I have considered inflatable nylon tubes, rigid drums, buoys, and foam rollers. Conversely, outriggers simply are buoyancy devices that ride further out from the hull. However, no matter whether sponsons or outriggers, the problem with these methods is that they almost always compromise self righting ability. So unless you can be guaranteed to not flip, they can cause disaster in case of a capsize and make the vessel almost impossible to right. The benefits are tremendous however. They can be removed and stowed; they provide the boat with stability in all conditions, and are simple and cheap.
Ed Gillet, the first and only person to kayak from California to Hawaii, did so in a production tandem kayak. He sealed off the front cockpit, paddled from the back, and used barrel like sponsons for stability. His tarp to cover his cockpit was too fragile for my taste and had he faced more serious weather, may have proved fatal.
Andrew McAuley on the other hand fashioned a much sturdier craft, which proved necessary in the face of force 10 winds in the Southern Ocean. His boat capsized during this uncommon and frightening storm several times, but his fiberglass capsule “Casper” righted the boat. Because of the buoyancy of the cockpit cover, the kayak would flip back over as soon as it capsized.
Additionally, McAuley built two retractable kayak outriggers using some sort of ball clamp device and paddle floats which can be seen on the left of the picture below. Paddle floats are essentially inflatable pillows to turn a paddle into an outrigger for self-rescue. He used them in an interesting way and one that has been adapted in many different ways. Freya Hoffmeister, a German kayaker who is currently paddling around South America, discussed the possibility of rigging her paddle to her hull to make an temporary outrigger of sorts.
A kayaking company created “Self-rescue Clamps” that are used to hold the paddle down to the kayak to either provide some additional stability or help in the process of reentering the kayak while in deep water. I considering simply sliding nylon webbing underneath the hull and back around to pull the paddle taut against the hull but feared the fragility of the weakest link, the expensive and essential paddle. While I would be carrying a spare paddle, I am considering a dedicated rod to hold the outrigger.
A couple guys looking to repeat Gillet’s expedition from California to Hawaii are using a similar sponson rigging as Gillet. However, they are using simple deck buoys and I can’t really tell how they securely rigged them on their boats. This setup looks like a disaster configured without much thought. They also are using a tent-like contraption for their cockpit cover, that, while comfy looking, looks extremely fragile and provides no self-righting capability.
Hannes Lindemann was the first explorer to cross the Atlantic in a kayak and did so in a folding boat nonetheless. He paved the way for the idea of the paddle float with his float on the end of an oar rigged to his boat. Hannes is probably one of the most hardened of adventurers and completed something I doubt anyone will ever purposely attempt again. While he safely completed his journey, his setup nearly proved fatal for him and is not a level of fearless fragility I am willing to accept.
Nearly all of the modern vessels are purpose-designed, eighty-thousand dollar homes at sea. While I may look to one of these designs for a future adventure, they are created almost solely for ocean crossings. However, what is noteworthy is that almost all of these designs use ballast, a weighted keel, and high buoyancy to make the craft stable and self righting with no use of outriggers or sponsons.
Aleksander Doba, at sixty-eight years old, is currently somewhere in the Atlantic in his craft, waving off any offers of assistance so he can maintain his solo record. The struts overhead, I suspect, are buoyant, providing the craft with self-righting capability. A sealed cabin containing supplies and sleeping quarters is in the bow.
A couple of adventurers used a similar design to paddle across the Tasman Sea, a similar exploit to Andrew McAuley’s more southern crossing from Australia to New Zealand. With the cabin in the back, the streamlined shape made little use of tailwinds and caught headwinds with the blunt edge. This made their kayak very difficult to paddle and caused their adventure to take significantly longer than expected.
Greg Kolodziejzyk has created not only one, but two unseaworthy watercraft. Both of the vessels he considering peddling, yes peddling, across the Atlantic were too unstable for his liking. He did have some fascinating designs, although unfortunately ended up not working well. In one of the vessels he used only a weighted keel for self-righting. But in the one shown below he used outriggers that could be easily retracted to become sponsons. The outriggers with their one beam look incredibly fragile and I imagine would take tremendous abuse in the open water.
As for my design, I am leaning towards creating a small cockpit cover and using water bladders for ballast, hoping that will be enough to right the boat in case of a capsize. As for stability, I am considering using McAuley’s design of retractable paddle float outriggers or using the paddle clamped down to the hull or using foam rollers strapped to the hull with nylon webbing. The benefits to McAuley’s design is that the weakest point is the clamp, and would fail before snapping the hull. It is also retractable and durable. The paddle clamped down to the hull would be good because it makes use of existing supplies, is simple, and durable. Also, the paddle would snap before breaking the hull (ideally) in case of extreme stress. The foam rollers are the most durable, but also would need to be stored on deck which creates a large profile. Nylon inflatable tubes could be used in the same way and could be stored below deck but would be a process to rig.
There is of course no perfect solution besides staying on shore. However, in looking for the safest option, I have discovered some fascinating ideas and learned so much about these adventurers and their designs.