Building the Ultimate Expedition Kayak

A Performance Review of the Redfish King

My finished cedar-strip kayak on its way down the Mississippi River for a 12-day, 420-mile, shoulder-busting expedition.

During the building phase of this article, so many of you wrote to me asking for a performance review that I decided its maiden voyage needed to be thorough. But what would be the perfect testing grounds for a cedar-strip kayak? I knew I needed a variety of conditions and a lot of time in the boat to get a good sense of its performance. But where should I go with it? I thought it would be a difficult decision, but the answer presented itself at once, almost without effort: the Mississippi river.

Who hasn't read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? Who hasn't felt their imagination captured by Twain's brilliant evocation of boyhood adventures on one of the most famous and intriguing rivers in the world? And what better way to celebrate a boat built with my own two hands (well, and some power tools) than an adventure down the mighty Mississippi? It was perfect.

So, after a long car drive north, on the morning of August 3, I launched my kayak at Jacobson, MN for a 12-day, shoulder-busting, 420-mile trip down to Winona, MN, watching the river grow from a snaky, shallow stream to a wide, grand river. Along the way, I had an average of 12 hours and 40 miles in the boat each day to get to know the Albatross (a.k.a. the Redfish King) intimately. What follows are my findings.

Quick, Straight-Tracking, Maneuverable Design

The Redfish King has relatively flat sides that, despite its rounded chines, give it a feel not unlike that of a Greenland-style hard-chined boat. By this, I mean that the boat tracks very well and feels quite solid moving in a straight line, but a mildly aggressive lean to one side or the other allows you to "carve" turns almost as aggressively as some of the best hard-chined boats I've paddled in this size range. At nearly 18 feet long, this is a kayak that glides very well, maintains an easy cruising speed of approximately 3.5 to 4 knots (about 4.5 mph), can reach speeds up to about 6 knots (7 mph) when you "dig in" with a burst of serious effort, and with a moderate amount of lean, manages to turn as well as many kayaks in the 15- and 16-foot range. In my experience, with the boat loaded with about 60 lbs. of gear, it took only about five or six healthy strokes to bring the boat up to cruising speed and then very little effort to keep it there. Admittedly, I am always referred to as a "strong paddler," so what feels like little effort to me might feel like a bit more exertion to someone else, but I doubt anyone over 5'10" and 150 lbs. will think this boat paddles like a brick or feels unmanageable to keep moving at a comfortable cruising pace.

Part of the King's speed stems from its extreme Swedeform (the cockpit is located noticeably rear of center so that the fore deck is significantly longer and narrower than the aft deck), but this also makes it more difficult to correct or adjust its course with normal sweep strokes because the long front end requires quite a bit of strength to swing it around. It is far easier to combine sweep strokes with a moderate amount of "carving" lean than to simply muscle the boat around with harder strokes. Get used to leaning and edging turns and the King will be a delight to paddle; otherwise, be prepared to strain your shoulders a bit.

Weathercocking is somewhat unpredictable. Some days wind seemed not to be a factor at all, but then other days even a mild breeze resulted in some weathercocking. I have not yet been able to determine what accounts for the difference, but it seems that wind from about 45 degrees off-course has the greatest effect on the boat, as winds straight across the beam or straight on did little to affect the kayak's handling. Even so, weathercocking can be compensated for slightly by putting a varying amount of lean to one side of the boat. Nonetheless, in quartering winds and quartering waves, one shoulder is sure to get sorer than the other, but this seems true for most kayaks and I would not consider it a unique weakness of the King's design.

Easy Roller with Ample Cargo Space

Rolling is simple. If you have a reliable eskimo roll, you should have no trouble rolling the King. Admittedly, I am accustomed to rolling my ultra-high-volume Perception Eclipse, so with its lower deck, the King is bound to feel like an effortless roller to me. Even so, I feel confident its not just relative. This boat really is easy to roll, and I think it stems largely from its noticeably excellent secondary stability. Not unlike a hard-chined boat, there is a confident "edge" which seems to balance the boat on a lean, and this stability aids the eskimo roll by providing a reassuring sense of being caught and pushed up at the very end of the roll. It's not a dramatic effect, but it's there nonetheless, and it makes for a very confident feel at the end of the roll that is missing from a lot of other kayaks. I should also mention that I did not incorporate the "roller's recess" option which many builders build into the King. I imagine that the roller's recess, which recesses the rear deck significantly to ease lay-back rolls, would make it even easier to roll the King, though I see no real need for this modification since mine rolls very well without it and also retains more space in the day-hatch compartment without the recess.

Storage space is more than adequate even for extended expeditions. If you know how to pack smart and pack small (I adhere to Thin-Fish packing philosophy), you will have no trouble fitting a full week or two worth of provisions and equipment. Since I built a day-hatch compartment into mine, my front hatch compartment is noticeably more voluminous than the rear, but with a little care, I can still balance the weight fore and aft easily to ensure the boat sits proper and balanced in the water. If you're particularly concerned about storage, you could eliminate the day-hatch option (eliminating some weight, too, by getting rid of the third bulkhead) to give you a little more packing room. Personally, I would never build or buy a kayak without a day-hatch again. I always missed having one on my Perception Eclipse and now I am addicted to the day-hatch I built on this boat. It's wonderful to have sunscreen, bug repellant, rain gear, candy bars, communications equipment, and other miscellaneous items all within easy reach without cluttering up the deck or filling the cockpit with gear. The magnetic hatch on the day hatch works wonderfully because it is simple and quick to remove or replace on the go.

Relatively Dry Ride

On the Mississippi, I didn't find anything like the four and five-foot waves I've frequently run into on Lake Superior, but when you paddle 420 miles on such a river, you're bound to run into more than a few barges and power-boats. The biggest waves I encountered were probably only about two to three feet, in the form of steep, close waves produced in the wake of large cruisers. The King rolls gently up the first wave or two, leaps admirably over the next one, and crashes down to bury its nose into the fourth or fifth wave, resulting in a bit of splash and spray, but not nearly as wet as some of the lower-volume Greenland-styled boats I've paddled, such as the Perception Avatar or the Necky Looksha IV. The Swedeform undoubtedly helps keep the nose up; so, too, does the fact that I have no bulky metal hardware on the deck to kick up additional spray as the waves wash over the deck. At worst, I found myself getting misted in the face by a wave or two, but really it was barely an issue. I'm certain, however, that in larger waves the King might turn into quite a wet ride, but I doubt it would be any wetter than average for a kayak. The real issue on the Mississippi is that because the waves are kicked up by cruisers and powerboats, they tend to come in very short wavelengths, resulting in a naturally wetter, choppier ride. On ocean rollers, the King's nose would probably never dive. And in surf, the sharp bow would almost certainly punch through without any fuss.

Although I didn't have waves large enough to test the King's surfing abilities, I did manage to catch the rollers kicking off a barge or two, and it felt promising. The wide, blunt stern seems to give the waves good purchase on the boat, resulting in the feel that you are being lifted onto the wave gently instead of being jostled roughly or failing to catch the wave at all. On days when the wind was at my back and blowing hard enough to raise following waves above six inches, the kayak almost paddled itself. By timing my stroke to pace the boat even with the waves, I could let the waves roll up under the boat to lift the rear and hold it there, at a slight forward angle, almost as if effectively gliding downhill all the way across a lake or down the river. Of course, every few seconds or so the wave underneath collapses and spills out, but then the next slides under and the boat glides again. All that is needed from the paddler, in such cases, is a moderate forward stroke to keep the boat moving in pace with the wind and waves.

Only quartering waves were exasperating. Whether from the front on the rear, quartering waves seem to perpetually tug at the boat, requiring one shoulder to work noticeably harder than the other to maintain a straight course. Across Lake Pepin, I had small quartering waves for almost two hours, and it was frustrating all the way. Again, I don't think this is a unique weakness in the King's design since most kayaks have difficulty with such waves, but I do think the flat sides which give the King its maneuverability are partly to blame. The chines on my Perception Eclipse are much more continuously rounded and I think this is why the Eclipse has less difficulty holding a straight course in quartering waves. But of course, it's a trade-off. Even though the King is 6 inches longer, it definitely turns more easily than the Eclipse precisely because the King is closer in style to a hard-chined boat. Since quartering seas are only occasional, but one always wants to be able to maneuver reasonably well, I think the King errs on the right side of the performance equation.

Final Comments

What else to say about the Redfish King design? Well, 12 days and 420 miles simply aren't sufficient to answer all my questions (nor all of yours). But I can say with confidence that this is really an excellent boat design that falls into the ultra-versatile category of being a very manageable, very agile, high cargo capacity kayak that can be used as an excellent day-tripper, an outstanding expedition boat, or anything in between. Joe Greenley has certainly designed an incredible boat that is sure to satisfy. Could it be faster? Probably. Could it be more maneuverable? Yes. Could it have more cargo room? Perhaps. Could it be easier to roll? Maybe. But any adjustment to these characteristics would almost certainly require compromise in the other categories, pushing the King to become a more specialized boat instead of the excellently well-rounded, supremely confident kayak that it is. This is exactly the sort of kayak I love to paddle: a great performer in all conditions, with very few shortcomings and no Achilles heel. My recommendation? Build one, paddle one, and love it.


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