I mentioned a couple weeks ago I was looking at kayaks. Welp, I bought one.
The original plan, as some may remember, was to go to a nearby kayak demo day this coming weekend, try out a bunch of boats, and go from there. But then I stumbled across an offer I couldn’t refuse. An outdoor store two hours away was doing a spring truckload sale of “2nd quality” kayaks the weekend of the 14th. These were boats that had little manufacturer issues, usually cosmetic (on mine one of the decals is cropped), offered with a 5 year warranty and a 30 day “no questions asked” return policy. One of the boats they had in the sale was one of my top finalists, the Wilderness Systems Aspire 105, and the sale price was $160 off the standard price every other retailer in the northeast had it at. Since I could take it back if I decided I didn’t like it (or if I like something better at the upcoming demo day), I first went to a nearby store to look at and sit in one (I sat in it for a good hour to make sure the seat was comfortable), then I reserved one of the boats on the truck and picked it up on the 15th (I had to bring it home in an ice storm. Go figure).
After a week of cold temperatures and work I got the chance to try the boat out yesterday, taking it down to the Willimantic River in Coventry, CT. I stuck a change of clothes, kayak cable locks, and a first aid kit in the rear storage and still had a good 3/4 of the space left. I also stuck a cooler and a bilge sponge behind my seat in the main cabin and my wallet and keys in my under-dash storage box (more on that later). I really like the storage hatch on this compared to other kayaks. The cover is hard plastic with a proper hinge and two latches. The cover is secure and won’t open or come off when you don’t want it to, but at the same time it’s easy to turn around in the seat while floating and open the hatch to get something. The latches even have holes in them so you can secure them with a padlock. A lot of the kayaks I’ve looked at (particularly Dagger and Perception models) have loose rubber covers that employ the Tupperware sealing method. These covers have a habit of sometimes flying off while being transported on the highway. Old Town has a hard plastic cover with a single latch, but the “hinge” that connects the lid to the boat is less of a hinge and more of a rubber tether, so when it’s open the lid just sorta flops around.
I put the boat in and set off with the skeg up to see how it performed without it first. The boat was very stable and sat pretty high in the water, which made sense as myself and my gear combined was little over half the boat’s 400 pound load rating. (This was one of the reasons I picked this boat, good carry capacity for multi-day trips.) On the water the boat was agile and easily maneuverable, eager to change directions when asked. I could turn it around without killing all the momentum just by dipping a stationary paddle on one side. On the flip side, when paddling with strong strokes the nose would move from side to side quite a bit with each pull, and when not paddling and just subjected to the currents and the wind the boat would weathervane quite a bit.
Putting the skeg down changed the boat’s behavior dramatically. Any rotational movement instantly ceased and the boat became an arrow, reflecting the tracking of a much longer craft. With the skeg down the nose gives very little side-to-side movement, which also allows for a faster pace. It’ll happily cruise at a strong clip for as long as you can keep the paddle moving, and when your arms need a break it glides a good distance. I did find that it would sometimes start pulling very slightly to the left at the end of a long glide. Turning with the skeg down was doable, but it took considerably more effort, and when I needed to navigate a tight bend in the river or twist through obstacles it was nearly impossible to do without bringing the boat to a near standstill or raising the skeg. Towards the end I got good at reading the conditions ahead and quickly raising/dropping the skeg as needed without losing the paddling rhythm.
The biggest issue I encountered wasn’t with the boat but with my paddle. After a while the pressure and friction the paddle was putting on the inside of my thumbs was getting to be a problem and I was worrying about getting blisters. Fortunately I returned before that happened, but regardless they’re still sore. I stopped at Cabela’s on the way home and got some pads for the paddle. As far as the boat itself goes, aside from my butt starting to get a little sore after the third hour I didn’t have any problems or find anything I wished was different. For a recreational kayak it performed brilliantly, far better than any other recreational boat I’ve paddled, and being able to switch between high level maneuverability and good tracking/pace was awesome. I’m still planning on trying out the other stuff at the demo day, but at the moment I definitely feel like I made the right choice. Good kayak is good.
Now to return to the under-dash box I mentioned earlier. This was a kayak mod I picked up from watching YouTuber and experienced yakpacker Pete Braginton, who has an Aspire 100 he uses for his kayak camping trips. It’s a simple five minute mod that requires no drilling or permanent modification to the boat and provides a great, secure, dry storage location within easy reach.
First step was to remove the elastic shock cords in the left and right trays of the molded dashboard (you can see the cords here in the trays on each side of the fish finder unit), then replace those two cords with a longer single shock cord, creating a loop of cord that hangs down in the center between the two trays. I then took a small waterproof latch box and added a clip on each side of it so I could clip the box to the cord.
With the cords loose the box hangs down and is easy to access. Pull the ends of the cord though and it will tuck away under the dashboard, secure and out of the way of my legs. To hold the cords in place I added some of those little spring-operated cord stops. Voila, five minute mod to create easy storage.
I’m back in the boat today (right now in fact (probably)) on another river, because I have a kayak now and it’s sunny and why wouldn’t I be out again? If there’s more discoveries I’ll write about them in the future, as well as write about the other boats I try at Sunday’s demo day.