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Submitted: 02-10-2009 by kocho
This is a follow-up on my "first impressions" review I posted immediately after I got the boat. Now with almost three more months of pretty much exclusively paddling it and leaving my other two boats hanging dry in the garage, I feel compelled to post again.
I'm still keeping my rating of 8 because, despite its many positives, the boat has some serious limitations. That said, I can't think of a better small boat for my own needs, so it will likely stay in my fleet longer than some other, "better" boats. So, read on and sorry – I just can’t write a short one, it seems...
The Sonoma is not the ideal boat by any stretch of the imagination. But it has the right mix of qualities for me to make it a decent compromise and my most used kayak for the past several months. At about 40lb, the Sonoma 13.5 Airalite is on the low range of the weight scale. And when purchased used – easy on the wallet.
Sizing. This boat may be better suited for the average to the taller paddler rather than for a petite person. Heavier paddlers up to probably 250lb should be no problem I estimate it would work just as well if not better for a lighter person (for a narrower water line). A small person (regardless of weight) will feel somewhat loose in the cockpit without some padding, the knee braces would likely be in the wrong place and the front deck will feel unnecessarily high for them. I have size 15 feet and am 6’4" tall at about 185lb before gear (and about 210-220 or so with my winter gear and a thermos of hot tea). I find this boat a perfect snug yet non-restrictive fit for me (!). If you like using foot pegs, the factory rails will probably comfortably accommodate people up to 6’ tall and up to about 15 size feet with very light footwear or a couple of sizes smaller feet if they wear thicker boots or sandals. Taller people - you would want to either do what I did and put a center foot rest or move the rails a couple of inches forward. Unfortunately, the seat is well glued to the hull and cannot be moved aft without destroying it first.
Features. The rear hatch is water and air tight (after adding a drop of AquaSeal where the ends of the rubber ring meet; before that it would drip a few spoonfuls of water and would not be air tight). The deck rigging is OK for maps and small items but cannot hold a spare full size one-piece paddle (a two-piece paddle is OK on the rear deck). Removing the front carry handle minimizes water spray and makes for a smoother and drier ride (consider installing a tow line or some other rope rigging in its place instead – safer and more useful on the water).
Stability. It is interesting to read other reviewer’s impressions of the same boat (any boat) and how they differ. This boat will definitely feel tippy at first if you are not a somewhat experienced paddler with a decent sense of balance, and especially if you are taller or top heavy. This was shared also by some kayak shop owners – their customers apparently did not like it during test paddles. This is a boat you can learn from if you want or it will intimidate and irritate you if you don’t want to learn to paddle well. It has decidedly less initial stability and is livelier to sit in than any recreational kayak currently on the market or for that matter than most sea kayaks that are wider than 22" so. Initial stability I estimate is similar to some 20-21" wide sea kayaks. It is stable enough to not to require any bracing most of the time even when not in motion. But it won’t keep you upright if you screw-up too much. The Sonoma has a very good secondary stability but that requires a significant lean to appreciate it. By the time secondary stability fully kicks-in, novice paddlers may feel threatened and out of control and that very well may be the case. It needs some practice to get comfortable. That said, after several outings and preferably with some instruction on bracing/rolling this boat will begin to feel more and more stable and reliable even to a novice paddler – they will not be that "novice" anymore and that’s the key to success.
Paddling style. With the addition of a centered foot rest, I have enjoyed knees-together full-leg-drive paddling, also thanks to the just long enough and high enough deck. Being able to do this makes such a nice difference, that I do not know why all boats do not come like that from the factory.
The suede form combined with the short kayak length and slightly sloped deck sides make for an impressively narrow and efficient paddle entry point for me (under 17" wide). Such narrow paddle entry areas are not typically found until one moves into the racing sea kayak/surf ski category of boats with their associated high price tags, sometimes intimidating length and stability (or lack there off on some). In comparison, my almost 19’ long Current Designs Extreme aka Nomad GTS and the 17’ long Wilderness System Tempest 170 kayaks are 2-4 inches wider in the same area respectively.
Speed. The Sonoma is not a fast boat. At only 12.5 or so feet waterline it has a rather limited top speed. However, the efficient Swede form and relatively narrow waterline width of 22" or so allow it to easily cruise at just over 4 miles per hour. It gets you into mild exercise pace (maintainable for hours with short breaks) when you get to 4.5 miles or so per hour. Consider that 4 to 4.5 mph is typically enough speed to keep pace with the average touring kayak in a group paddle and you will have easier time than the rest when going slower. Half the people in our group usually go slower than that, while only few go faster but only when they try to race each other. However, with a short boat as this, it is pointless to try to paddle at close to 5 miles per hour or faster for any length of time – it creates a huge wake and just wastes a lot of your energy for very little return in increased speed. 30 minutes at 5+ miles per hour and you will have a very high intensity workout near your max hart rate -;) I can propel it to just over 6 miles per hour in a short sprint, but that’s about the limit in it for me and, unlike a fast boat like the Extreme, paddling the Sonoma fast is not rewarding – it just wants to slow down to its "normal pace".
Surfing. I have not had a chance to surf ocean waves with this but expect it will be fun. Surfing wind waves certainly is. WIth flat bottom under and behind the cockpit and hard chines in that area, it can catch the smallest 1 foot chop and glide with it downwind with barely an effort. The Sonoma thrives going downwind in steep closely-spaced wind waves, which are not particularly pleasant to paddle in a long kayak like the Extreme. Due to its almost 19’ length its stern constantly comes out of the water and becomes susceptible to winds, its sharp bow goes deep and makes it hard to keep pointed if it begins to broach. Or it lifts on the tops of two adjacent waves leaving me handing in mid-air and lacking a brace point for brief moments. Give the Extreme open water with longer-period waves or just small wind chop and it screams thru. The Sonoma can’t catch-up with fast boats surfing low swells since it is slow and falls off longer smoother waves that just pass under it. On the other hand the Sonoma thrives in short waves – it surfs short steep 2-3 foot wind waves at nearly 8 mile per hour and is a lot of fun. The nose dives (pearls) somewhat in these conditions so you need to lean back or it threatens to go under too deep. Removing the front carry handle makes for a nice smooth just below the surface glide of the bow in these conditions. Due to the short length the boat is responsive to control strokes and leans and is easy to keep on course down wind or upwind or at a slight angle upwind (but weathercocks strongly in side winds).
Upwind. Going directly upwind in the same short steep waves that the Sonoma so likes to surf is a wet ride and not nearly as fun as it is in longer boats. The pointed bow slices thru rather than rise over them. It does not lift too much giving it a good speed upwind even in strong winds but it is half the time under water and you will get very wet. Going upwind at a slight angle to the winds and waves seems to be the better way to go – no nose-diving and very little spray to the face; plus the weather cocking is not much of an issue yet, until you try to go with the wind directly from the side. Longer boats have some advantages in going directly upwind against small chop as they do not go up and down so much and offer a smoother and drier ride over the waves.
Seaworthiness. The boat has some serious limitations as it comes from the factory. These need to be addressed for it to become a fully capable and safe "sea kayak" for longer trips. It will never be large enough for multi-day tripping but for day tours or an overnighter in warmer climates (small gear size!) it is enough. First, the lack of a front bulkhead can be an issue if you are alone and overboard. Make sure you practice in a pool or protected area to know what to expect. It is very hard to lift the bow and empty the boat while you are floating under it as the bow area fills-up with lots of water despite the large foam block that provides support in the front of the leg area. It is just too heavy and holds too much water to lift over your head to empty well on your own while floating under it in the water (inflate a paddle float to give you buoyancy to lift if you must). The problem is worsened by how the cockpit area and the deck are shaped. Even if you lift the bow to empty it (say from another kayak or from shore) you still can’t empty the boat fully – there are good several gallons of water left in it at any time no matter how you turn it around (my other boats are left with no more than a cup or two in the same situation and I can empty them alone in the water). So, carry a bilge pump with you at all times – you will need it should you flip or practice rolling or wet exits. Most of this can be avoided if one adds float bags to the front and behind the seat (but that will waste valuable space in the rear). Adding a second bulkhead behind the seat is on my to-do list and would also allow me to have an accessible day hatch. It will also provide additional stiffness to the deck immediately behind the seat. Lastly, due to the general tippiness of the kayak I found it difficult to do cowboy reentries in it (the rear hatch tie-downs also tend to get a little in the way and may loosen). Doing a reentry from the side and roll back-up seems a better way to go and you do not need to worry about emptying the boat first as it will fill-up anyway while you try this (but you will have a good workout to empty all that water it once you are up, if you have not put flotation bags in it).
Weathercokcing. A skeg is needed when there is strong wind from the side – the boat weathercocks too much and, while perfectly controllable by leaning and sweep strokes, it wastes too much energy to keep it on course unless paddling directly up-wind. Not an issue for short outings but can become a problem and is really a bog if you have to fight it for more than an hour in strong winds. May be my weight distribution worsens this – my legs stretch way too forward from where they are supposed to be and my butt is still in the same place where a 5’5" 150lb person would sit. Thus the bow is well planted and the stern feels more loose than the bow for me. Perhaps shorter people may find the weathercocking not so bad as their weight would load the boat more evenly front to rear.
Tracking. Going straight is not this boats strength (despite the claims on the adverts). It tracks OK for its length but is not that good overall. The stern is somewhat loose for me and requires a precise stroke to keep from turning left or right. That is not a big deal in itself and is actually a good tool to teach evenness of your left and right stroke. It also does not matter in the least if you paddle along in a group – tracking is more than good enough for this. You will notice the tendency to zigzag, however, if you try to move fast or race someone and there keeping a precise straight line is of great benefit. It unnecessarily wastes your energy compared to a skegged or a ruddered boat. I plan to add a skeg to it to improve straight line tracking and to eliminate weathercocking. While a rudder would be even better, the cost of a good one, the weight, and the clutter it creates in the cockpit, in the hatch area and on the stern is probably not justified compared to the little additional benefit it would add over a skeg for such a short boat.
Rolling. The boat rolls easy enough. Not a rolling boat by any means though. I am still a relative beginner as far as rolling is concerned, but I managed to easily learn in it my first butterfly rolls on both sides, did various braces that get me out of the water after getting my entire head down but before needing to roll, or to just do a plain layback roll. In fact it rolls easier for me than either of my other two boats as it has the lowest rear coaming height of the three kayaks I got – a little lower than the Tempest, measured from the seat bottom, which is in turn a little lower than the Extreme. I can just lay on the side and float, then come back as in the last motion of a butterfly roll and am almost flat on the rear deck without much flexibility required in my lower back. It is still not a low-volume boat, so it is not as easy to roll as a proper "Greenland" kayak but certainly easier than some wider bulkier recreational boats.
Toughness. This is not as strong as a rotomolded polyurethane boat, nor is it as stiff as a composite boat – cost and weight savings has its price. While it is less susceptible to minor damage from scrapes and nicks than a gel-coated fiberglass or carbon/Kevlar boat I feel the Airalite material would not necessarily withstand a catastrophic blow any better than a composite boat would. I would handle it with more care than a "plastic" boat (when for instance landing on rocks) but less care than a composite when placing on the ground or car-topping (where unnecessary gel coat cracks can occur easily in them) – that works for me as I usually do not land hard on rocks but do have to put the boat on the ground or on the car every time I paddle.
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