Sunday, 23 February 2014

Rob Mercer - Shooting the Breeze with Flat Earth Sails

The plan was for me to tie the kite line through the bow toggle of the other kayak and then add a loop back to the cockpit to act as a quick release if things didn’t go too well.

The parafoil soared up and away on the brisk SE wind and after the initial burst of acceleration it became clear that the kayak was now planing across the water at phenomenal speed but absolutely out of control.

I paddled after it with all my might realizing that my mate wouldn’t be able to let go of the paddle and that the force on the line was going to make it impossible for him to get off this ride without a knife. Unfortunately I had the knife and I couldn’t catch him.

Even when the boat capsized he was still being dragged toward the cliffs just north of Coogee where I finally reached him just shy of the rocks to cut him loose, allowing the unruly flying object to plunge into the sea.

We spent the rest of the afternoon untangling, cleaning, untangling and folding the ingenious, puzzle of spectra, nylon and carbon fibre before hastily returning it to the shopkeeper.

Looking back on the various contraptions I have seen kayakers use to harness the breeze is a little like watching old scratchy archive movie reels of the early flying machines. Indeed touring kayaks and sea going canoes predating the Wright Brothers carried sail as a matter of course, the “Rob Roy” was a notable example.

In Tasmania sails have been standard equipment for sea kayaks from the beginning whereas locally they have only seen a steady increase in popularity over the last twenty or so years.

 In this time I have seen parafoil kites, V sails great and small, tarps draped over spare paddles, Andrew Eddy’s unique modified lateen, sprit sails, mini spinnakers, jibs and of course, golf umbrellas tucked under the deck lines, an approach used to great effect by Karl Noonan when he paddled from Sydney to Hobart in the late 90’s. There is even the story touted by a Hawkesbury Classic veteran that decades ago a protest was lodged against an open canoeist who stood up and opened his knee length rain jacket “flasher style” whenever his course down river provided a tailwind!

The reality is that all of the above would have provided some downwind push to a greater or lesser extent but without fail, the sails that have earned a following have been simple, unobtrusive, predictable and purpose built.

From a personal perspective I enjoy paddling. I like the art of making my boat work well in the waves and enjoy the feel of the paddle in the water. The way my boat dances if I use the right combination of edge and paddle to work with the waves is so important to me that a sail that limits this freedom is too much of a compromise.

The first sail I really enjoyed using was made to a design pioneered by Doug Fraser and refined by Norm Sanders, both prominent NSWSKC instructors in the mid nineties.

The real genius of the design actually had little to do with the shape of the sail itself, but rather the inclusion of a universal joint allowing the sail to be rigged ready for deployment from the cockpit yet far enough forward so that even with the sail working there was no impact on normal paddling technique.

My first homemade version of this sail was just a flat single sheet of rip-stop nylon, two sailboard battens, with a sawn off broomstick for a mast. I was amazed at how it allowed me to catch almost every wave going my way. Then I discovered how well it worked at making a heavily loaded boat feel lighter in the water.

A more refined version of the sail also worked a treat in equalizing the speed differences between paddlers based on strength alone so that lighter, less powerful paddlers with good technique could suddenly keep up or even lead the way when the breezes were helpful. I remember on our Cape York expedition when Sharon often lead the pack on windy days, released from fighting against the heavy load of her boat she would fly along using her agility to easily match or overtake her more muscular paddling companions.

I note with amusement that most of the stalwarts that used to criticize the sailors seem to pack one when heading off on a trip these days. Some unkind folks point out they aren’t getting any younger, whilst some of the reformed anti sailors themselves refer to it as a “safety device” just in case they need to do a long tow blah, blah..
I have even heard some with rare candor confess that they tired of watching their sailing companions having all the fun. 

I must admit with the advent of the new fast tourers, in particular the Tarans and Paces, I seldom sail on a day trip. The boats work so well downwind that I can’t see the point, but when I load one of them up for a multiday adventure the sail is always fitted and ready to go.
On our North Reef trip we all used the Flat Earth code Zero 80s and found they were outstanding in terms of crosswind performance as well as amazing drive downwind.

The cut of the Flat Earth Sails is the result of years of incremental improvement by Mick and for a nominal 0.8 square metre this is the most stable and powerful design I have used. I can’t imagine needing bigger on a single kayak. For lighter paddlers, the less experienced, or those expecting to paddle bigger winds, the 0.7square metre version will give you similar performance to other 0.8 or even 0.9 sails that I have used and may make a better choice than the CZ80.

These sails will give you the extra push to surf more runners and lift your average speeds, especially if you have good form with your strokes and braces.  Just thinking about the hull bouncing along with plumes of spray off the bow and the waves rising at my stern has me looking at charts and planning my next adventure…………. 

Kayak sailing is not something that you will do safely without good bracing and self-rescue skills, so even with these new easier to use designs some practice bracing in rough water is vital before you start sailing. When you feel ready always sail with a buddy, practice releasing control and hauling lines, and under supervision practice capsize and self rescue drills.  Unless you have planned it, always think about how far you are travelling under sail before you reach the point that you can’t paddle the same distance back into the wind.

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