Kayak sponsons, kayak outriggers, and self-righting

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.

Ed Gillet
Ed Gillet’s sponsons

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.

Andrew McAuley

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.

Andrew McAuley 2
Andrew McAuley’s outriggers

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.

Kayak clamps
Paddle Clamps

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.

Monterey to Hawaii
Monterey to Hawaii Expedition’s sponsons

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.

Hannes Lindemann
Hannes Lindemann

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.

Aleksander Doba
Aleksander Doba

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.

Lot 41
Lot 41

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.

Within outriggers
Within sponsons

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.

20 thoughts on “Kayak sponsons, kayak outriggers, and self-righting”

  1. I studied those 3 as well and only recently came to see outriggers and sponsons as potentially preventing righting / roll. Now I came to contemplate sponsons tucked on top deck as self righting aid as well as potentially usable, well, sponsons or even outriggers..

  2. Interesting. I built a racing kayak that was more unstable than fast, so I bootlegged some outriggers. They worked well and didn’t slow me down at all. Based on this experience I didn’t hesitate to make an Aleut Iqyax (baidarka), very narrow-impossibly unstable. Outriggers were planned right from the start. They work well and probably advance the method.
    Take a look at my blog. http://willn2.blogspot.com/2016/02/iqyax-update.html If there’s any interest I’ll add more info.
    I use a single pole, and although they are short and tall, they aren’t a drag problem. 90% of the buoyancy effect is less than a liter or two of volume. Everything above this is belt and suspenders. (when a float is submerged it gains no additional buoyancy. If you can sink it, expect to flip). They’re adjustable, and in normal position neither touches the surface. Very light weight. Be happy to share anything I’ve learned. I think outriggers are a good option to make solo sea kayaking far safer .

    1. Whoa your outriggers are beautiful! You’re much handier than I am! Thanks so much for sharing. I’m with you on the outriggers making it infinitely safer. My only concern with outriggers is the torque on the hull; only reason I feel like ballast might be a sturdier option for some of those guys doing transatlantic trips. Once again, thanks so much for sharing Will, this is really great stuff!

  3. Who are to tell me husband would be dead?

    You don’t know a damn thing.

    I know you would die attempting his trip!!!!!!!!!!

    And no, my husband has no idea i have sent this message and will be mad at me when he finds out.

    1. Mrs. Kampe, I meant no disrespect to you or your husband. He is an idol of mine and I absolutely would die if I ever attempted his trip, hence why I was looking for technology to save me instead of sheer badassness.

  4. If you want to build a stable self-righting kayak, I’d suggest looking at the designs of ocean-crossing rowboats. The bottom should be relatively flat with the majority of weight…the top should be roundish to allow rolling back to the heavier and flatter bottom…the height needs to be similar to the width.

  5. …also, the top of the kayak should have about 6 inches of foam, the sides about 6 inches of foam, the bottom at least a couple inches of foam… and the ends of the bow and stearn should either have sealed air storage spaces or foam. This would likely require the kayak to be at least 3ft wide and 3ft tall.

    Flat fresh water containers could be secured along the bottom of the hull for ballast weight. The water reserves could be replenished by a solar powered desalinator, or Pur 35, etc.

    Best wishes!

  6. In October I had an unexpected experience with the sponsons/outriggers http://blogimages.seniorennet.be/kajak/attach/112318.pdf I turned over at sea and had to launch a mayday because reenter was unsuccessful due to a leaking bulkhead of the rear compartment (as I found out subsequently). But the interesting experience was about the sponsons/outriggers. Because I had a difficult start in the mud on a trailer ramp I had to use the sponsons/outriggers and I folded them when I was underway. This way they stayed loose folded on the rear deck. When I turned over they unfolded “automatically”. With the failed reenters I noted that turning over the kayak back upright was easy. This was due to the fact that the locks released automatically when the kayak is upside down. Turning over a kayak with sponsons/outriggers, as a swimmer can cause problems but not with this system apparently.

  7. I’m an intermediate kayaker and I haven’t crossed any large bodies of water. But I kayak mostly alone in cold Maine waters and want to do everything possible to stay mostly upright.

    I majored in physics. From that perspective, I think the two most important kayak improvements are : (1) increase low ballast and (2) increase high floatation.

    You talk a lot about the ballast side. But I don’t know if you considered all the possibilities for floatation. Have you thought of molding foam pieces to conform to the kayak’s entire topside. They could be cut into pieces like a jigsaw puzzle and each piece attached to the corresponding matching underlying surface (kayak shell, hatch cover, etc) with a mastic. The edges could be cut wedge shaped to minimize wind resistance. Perhaps just a one inch thick covering of foam would provide enough bouyancy to self-right a properly ballasted kakak.

  8. The concepts on http://www.modernwoodenboat.com/boat-stability-for-dummies/ explains how bouyancy & gravity work to right or tip a boat. It’s very important that any ballast or bouyant material is rigid and rigidly attached to the boat.
    You mention using “water bags” for ballast. Picture what happens as a boat is tipping. If the water is in a bag, as it starts to come above the surface, gravity will shift the water in the bag and shift the bag itself and pull it below the surface. Therefore your ballast does not get immediately over the surface of the water and in a position to right the boat. However if you have your water in a rigid container AND fix that container to the lower point inside the kayak, the weight of the water will immediately try to right the kayak, as soon as it starts to break the surface of the water.

      1. The water doesn’t need move far to undo all the righting torque that needed at the most critical instant, when it is just about to go belly up. Unless all of the items on the sides of the bag (not just those touching the bag) are completely incompressable, the water will most likely move at least an inch downward when the kayak is on its side.

        1. The water bag will also bulge out in a new direction when the kayak is on its side. When the kayak is in the upright position, half of the water may be on the port side and half on the starboard side. If the kayak was about to tip over to the port side, we would want all the water on the starboard side to stay where it is.
          But when the kayak is on its side, the bag will bulge out in a new sideways position. We may see that all the water is now to the left of the centerline and none of it is contributing a righting force.

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