Submitted: 08-08-2007 by Marc
Test conditions: In intentionally heavily loaded (50 and 80+ pounds gear), lightly loaded (20 - 30 pounds) and empty states, flat calm, gusty winds over 20 knots, steady 30 knots winds, waves to 2 feet. Occasional steep and close tour boat wakes over three feet.
Paddler has 30+ years kayak experience, and loves trying every boat he can. Prefers performance-oriented skegged kayaks. Weighs 155 pounds, 5'7" tall. Comes from a whitewater background, and loves to play in more serious or "playful" conditions.
I've been paddling a Labrador getting to know it on and off since summer 06. I have found the boat is very stiff directionally, almost too stiff when empty, (especially compared to the very sporty Ellesmere) even leaned over on it's side, halfway, whatever, but once loaded for touring (I'm a lightweight 155#), then it just edges as a 'proper kayak' should, responding very quickly to that edge command. It's taken me a while to figure out it's best edging angle for tight turning, less angle than the Ellesmere and less than many boats, maybe 15-20 degrees is best. More than that and the top sharp edge of the aft deck immerses, and makes turning harder. That characteristic changes towards a more normal edge-response once well-loaded. Go figure. It then turns fine. Loaded or empty, it turns on an edge easier and with a tighter radius than a Seaward Ascente, for example.
It is more stable both empty and loaded than it's smaller sister the Ellesmere at my weight, and has the ability to carry quite a lot more gear. That makes the Labrador a better kayak for solo touring in advanced conditions, but I'd be more cautious in rock gardens with a kayak as directionally stable. It should handle all the nastiest a reasonable and competent paddler might like to contemplate, maybe even an unreasonable one. *grins*.
For me the cockpit is like that of an F16 jet fighter: Snuggly. I've not felt so ONE with a kayak since late-80's custom carbon WW kayaks. That makes it a charm to edge. Rolling is a piece of cake, and playful leaned/edged maneuvers are easy and comfort-inspiring. I suspect this cockpit was originally designed to fit smaller Canadian-sized paddlers, and I hear Boreal no longer trims the thigh braces as they did that first year. Apparently some complained about just not fitting well under the unusually far aft thigh braces. I can't blame them as they are right, yet I love the braces there. They are now more universal in their fitting (Too bad for others like me!) Tall people who are on the lighter/narrower side of the scale will fit this boat well. Having such a cockpit on an Ellesmere is something fantasies are made of.
As this is a new kayak, I'd have liked to see Boreal consider a slanted aft-cockpit bulkhead just barely touching the seat, but it's potato - potahto whether you prefer increased internal volume and less cockpit volume for self-rescues, or accessible bits like water bottles behind your seat.
I've found the skeg to be reliable and predictable, balancing the boat easily in crosswinds to 30 knots. I imagine it would work equally well in stronger winds. The dial makes for an easy and quick adjustment, nice for when the paddle begs for both hands at all times. It's also useful when suggesting to a new paddler how much skeg to drop. "Try a 1-1/2, and if the boat still cocks into the wind, try 2-1/2."
I must be shorter than the other paddler. I've not rapped my knuckles on that pointy skeg dial, and I'm rather happy for that as the points are pretty sharp. I have just grazed my knuckles over the points, though, so I can imagine how my fellow paddler might have felt. I'd consider rounding off the corners with a file, Dremel, etc. Boreal might consider doing that in future production. The dial is far better, quicker and more accurate than a rope and jam cleat, and I prefer it to the modern slider. A slider probably protects knuckles better, though. The skeg has jammed only once, and yes it was a pebble. It came out without effort. A good habit to develop when leaving shore with the stern in the sand/gravel is to test the skeg before getting very far. It gives a positive cluck when raised quickly, confirming it's free movement.
With the low after-deck, I found getting enough heavy gear in the aft compartment is tricky at first, (for decent fore-aft balance to balance wind and for turning), as volume forward is quite large. I'm still trying new things and learning. I've found placing some medium heavy gear aft towards the skeg helps, instead of pushing it all the way forward as is normal practice. A couple of times I found myself bow-low and the kayak would want to wiggle like a lure. A tribute to the skeg's effect way back on this long hull is it completely calmed this motion half down.
I'm still wondering if I don't prefer Boreal's old fiberglass pommel seat (from the Ellesmere) to their newer plastic one with a covered foam pad on it, but that's just me. This year's (2007) is improved again in security of the padding to the base.
Of note, and worthy of improvement from Boreal is the tether securing the hatches. They come from the factory terminated with an overhand knot which so often finds its way through the securing point inside the hull. I'd rather see something more solid such as a fisherman's knot or doubled figure-8. That or a slightly larger line that won't pull through the fittings.
If Boreal reduced the pointiness of the skeg knob and improved the hatch tethers, I'd be inclined to give this boat a ten rating. (Both of these are simple improvements I can do myself.) Does that mean it is a perfect kayak? No. It means it's a design compromise that fits my paddling style perfectly.
It's narrowness does keep the knees a bit closer together, and I find abdominal muscles are worked slightly differently than in even 1 inch wider kayaks. The maneuver loads are off the knees and onto the thighs, where I think they should be, for strength and comfort.
An awesomely nice paddling boat, I found cruising speed paddling effort normal loaded and empty, and managed a sprint (loaded well down) into a 10 knot wind) into the 6 knot range. Can't wait to get to bigger waters and try in "real seas". It's low profile means it avoids much of the wind effects that some boats suffer from. This boat handles all angles to the wind with ease, and is a pleasure to drive to windward. Any weathercocking is easily balanced by the skeg, or adjusted with an edge. Paddling empty, though, an edge isn't always enough, the skeg working better. I know a ruddered version exists, but for me that's less fun, less playful. That and my shins seem to love colliding with rudders!
This kayak is among my favorite top five I've ever had the pleasure to paddle (In 30 years). It's an excellent kayak for solo and distance touring due to it's directional stability, volume, wave-piercing and narrow-hulled seaworthiness, wind-shedding low profile and smooth response to an edge. It weathercocks consistently (Doesn't leecock - far harder to deal with) and mildly, has minimal leeway in a crosswind, and responds to it's skeg very nicely.
I'd recommend the skegged Labrador to anyone who already enjoys edging. Several beginners have paddled the Labrador with ease, though. I'd recommend the rudder version to anyone not fluent or not interested with learning to edge, something this kayak does make easy and fun.
One last thing, like an F16, this kayak is FAST loaded or empty. It's proving to be a great boat for a 120 pound lady paddler to effortlessly keep up with otherwise faster, larger and stronger male paddler friends.