With the summer paddling season getting well under way, it seems that a lot of people are shopping around for kayaks and the interest in our kayak reviews is on the rise. We thought it might be useful to share a summary of that dialogue about the reviews with you here.
While the kayak reviews have always been available through back issues and photocopies, many people shopping for kayaks use our reviews as a guide and have asked us for compilations of them or for access to them on-line. One reader, noting that “the only thorough, reliable boat reviews come from your magazine” thought that we could make a “valuable contribution to the rapidly growing number of kayakers” by posting the reviews online for free or for a nominal fee.
We're always pleased by the demand for our reviews. Making them thorough, reliable and of lasting value is certainly what we have in mind when we produce them. The reviews are very expensive to produce, in fact several times the cost of any other gear review we do. The initial set of reviews published in the late 1980s were ambitious undertakings, and ultimately the reviews proved unsustainable. In the early 1990s we made a number of changes to the process to reduce the time and expense involved—largely by switching to computer-based analysis—but even now there are six people whose freelance services we pay for to do each review. The revenue the reviews have generated through back issue sales has always been an important part of the overall picture. Making all of the kayak reviews available online or in some electronic form is something we periodically consider. We’re looking for a way to do that in a way that won’t compromise our ability to maintain the review program.
As an independent publication we are supported by our readers and our advertisers. We are not corporately subsidized and while that may limit the resources we can devote to any one project, our independence allows us the freedom to set and maintain the editorial policy and integrity that our readers expect of us. We believe that independence provides us with the best way for us to serve the sea kayaking community and to earn that community’s support.
We’ve received some comments that the reviews aren’t critical enough. We do some screening of the kayaks we accept for review, so boats that we believe would not appeal to at least some segment of our readership simply don’t appear in the magazine. Of those boats that we do choose to review, none of them, of course, will appeal to all kayakers. A boat that is a “dog,” as one reader put it, to one person might be very well suited to another. I personally like boats that are fast and that don’t get pushed around by strong winds. A kayaker who wants to pack a lot of gear, drag their hull over the rocks, or do a bit of fishing isn't going to like the boats I like.
I instruct our reviewers to be constructive. If they notice a shortcoming in a particular kayak, they often provide good advice that readers can put to use to get the best performance from that kayak. Suggestions to manufacturers for improving products are often incorporated in their production before the review even hits the newsstands.
There have been a few cases where we've returned boats to the manufacturer before we've completed the review process. That usually happens with boats new to the market. We’ve sent those boats back with a list of improvements we think are required. Ideally the changes will occur before the boat is available to the public. If the boat has already passed into the marketplace the review will note the problems that were remedied by the manufacturer. We see “improving the breed" in this way as part of our service to our readers.
The numbers—dimensions, hydrostatics, resistance figures and stability curves—are objective and useful for comparing the performance of various kayaks, but they don't provide a complete picture. The stability graphs depict fixed-weight stability, not the stability of a mobile paddler. The resistance figures are modeled on straight-line travel, not the yawing motion of a kayak under paddle power. The subjective element is an integral part of the assessment and of interpreting the numbers. (The explanation of negative stability curves—see below—is a good example). The opinions of the reviewers have to be put into language, not numbers, so some degree of vagueness is unavoidable.
The performance of any kayak is largely a matter of personal preference. Our readers come in all shapes, sizes and abilities so each has to sort through the information we provide in the reviews for that which best applies. We try to get reviewers of different sizes and genders in the boats and they often have different reactions. When differing opinions are expressed in a review, readers should give most weight to the reviewer closest to their size. Readers should also check to see if the designer's statement is a good match for the performance they want and check the categories in the review for those characteristics that are most important. I always look at the resistance figures, the speeds reported by the testers and the assessment of weathercocking.
We’ve had a handful of kayaks that have had stability graphs that just fall off the chart. They’re usually slack in the bilges (having a wide–radius curve between the bottom and the sides) and narrow in the beam. The stability curves we publish represent static stability and don’t reflect the sense of balance and reflexive shifts of weight that a paddler uses to keep upright.
Before we had a computer program to analyze stability we used a large tank to float the kayaks. We measured stability by loading a block of concrete in the cockpit and measuring the force the hull exerted when we tried to tip the kayak. What those negative stability curves make clear is that you couldn’t stack concrete on the seat of the kayak in question.
A paddler sitting in a kayak with “negative stability” can stay upright by keeping a paddle blade on the water for support. When the kayak is paddled up to speed it will gain stability and braces will be more effective when the paddle is moving across the water.
The hull configuration can dampen the roll of a kayak, so the paddler’s adjustments to keep in balance don’t need to be so quick. A hull with sharp ends or a pronounced V to the keel will resist the lateral flow of water as the kayak tips and give the paddler a feeling of more stability than is indicated by the graph.
As always, we welcome your comments and suggestions.