In my exposure to paddlers from a wide variety of paddle backgrounds & disciplines around the country, at the various events & races we attend as competitors, instructors & sponsors, an increasingly common question is 'we see you have the Audax, Epic 18X, Tiderace Pace boats, tell me about these fast tourers?'
I'm asked by surf ski dudes & dudettes who like the idea of using their good form & conditioning to actually go somewhere in their paddle craft, at the speed & style to which they are accustomed in their racing skis.
I'm asked by old fellas with beards who are starting to feel the pinch & would like an advantage over their paddling buddies. I'm asked by new paddlers, who are time poor, who want a kayak as opposed to a ski, but want one that can be used for fitness as well as 'one day', that big expedition on their bucket list.
Trying to simplify my response has taken some thought, but here is my collection of the essential elements a good modern fast tourer has to have.
First off, they have to have a terminal hull speed over 9.5kmh. That is, be able to sustain that kind of speed in calm conditions over an extended period, rather than just a short burst. That's not so much because you ever really push that hard or fast, more that if the hull does have those sorts of hydrostatics, it's probably going to be quite a bit more efficient than average at the 'touring' output levels most of us work at on the sea. The Audax, for example, has clocked a 10 hour 32 minute Hawkesbury Classic (111km flat water overnight race on a river with neutral flow), and the Epic 18X has an even faster time in the same race.
Second, they have to be stable whether they're being paddled as a day boat, unladen, or full of gear for an extended trip. I'm a very poor judge of what others consider stable, but my test is to see just how much micro stuff I can get done on my own in rough water with the boat empty, without having to raft up with someone else.
As a minimum, fetch a helmet from the day hatch, change over a water bladder below deck, sort out something which might be essential to my own safety, in bouncy water, without getting the wobbles.
Our experience has shown that any harder-heeling hull qualities in a fast tourer's hull can make the stationary exercises we all need to carry out on the sea exponentially more difficult.
And finally, they have to be able to go downwind. All the biggest days on the sea are done in following seas, and if the boat misbehaves, buries, squirrels around in fast downhill conditions, then your day becomes miserable. That might sound pretty simple, after all they've all got a rudder, but the subtleties in how they perform downwind is what separates the great from the ordinary, in my opinion. If a fast tourer doesn't go like the clappers downwind, then it's not the real deal.
It goes without saying that as a tourer, they also need to able to carry gear with little or no influence on the performance of the hull.
It's no coincidence that the pick of the crop have a rudder that can be fully retracted when manoeuvrability takes precedence over speed & efficiency. Think about when you need to manoeuvre in a hurry & you'll understand why this is such an important design feature.
We've heard mumblings of the old-school view suggesting these designs can be difficult without a rudder as an entire genre. Our response to that broad claim is to point out that they are as difficult without a rudder as the vast majority of skeg boats are in a crosswind, if the skeg fails, and much better performing than the boats that had rudders fitted historically because they were found out to be particularly poor trackers in following or quartering conditions.
A rudder is a piece of gear that is to be maintained, checked and serviced like anything else on your kayak. To sacrifice the performance and ease that a fast touring kayak offers, to the sluggish and uninspiring performance of a boat that tracks at the expense of almost everything else because one day, maybe, your rudder might fail, seems like a 'worst case scenario' paranoia run wild. It is a very traditional sea kayakers way of thinking, and in many respects predates the reliability and serviceability of rudder systems like the Smart Track transom mounted design used on the Pace, Audax, Taran and now the Epic 18X. It's mostly borne of no experience whatsoever in these new, quite exciting designs that have turned much of the old performance possibilities of a sea kayak on it's head, but there will always be an old guard prepared to defend what's always been. Our advice as always, it get out and try them for yourself, in almost every single case since the release of the Audax as an example, test paddlers have remarked on the stability of the kayak, as something that were not expecting.
As to the designers, the very best fast touring boats come from a long heritage of rough water paddling experience. Think Aled Williams & the Pace series, John Willacy & Mike Webb & the revolutionary Taran, Greg Barton & Oscar Chalupsky & the 18X, and newer boats like our own Audax. These designs are conceived, plugs built, then tested and tested in a wide range of conditions to iron out any kinks in performance. Each of the established fast touring designs has been honed from the original form to something quite different by the time it's been released for sale.
We hope we've inspired to you to think outside the box, get out and try something that may very well challenge your whole idea of what a sea kayak can do!