Submitted: 10-30-2009 by kocho
Let me start with the rating of 8. Why 8? Because of the factory rudder (I hear it may have been fixed in later models), the exceptionally tall foredeck, the narrow seat (only good for small paddlers who would probably not choose this kayak anyway), the somewhat limited deck rigging, and for the huge space forward of the foot rails.
Now to the review.
I've had the Rapier 18 kayak for a little over six months now. The Rapier 18 shares my paddling time with it or two other kayaks at present: a white water river-play boat WaveSport Fuse 64 in which I am just getting started on white water this year, and a 13.5 foot Perception Sonoma Airalite for really rough water days on open water or to take on surfing on ocean waves or on the river rapids at higher water levels. I go out once or twice a week for usually the equivalent of 2-4 hours or 10-15 miles brisk paddling each time. Thus, my Rapier 18 has probably seen about 200 miles on the water this year, most of it in flat water ("flat" to me being less than a foot and a half wind chop/boat wakes and winds below 20 mph). I have had had it in more textured conditions only twice ("textured" meaning very high winds in the range of 20 knots sustained with higher gusts and 2-3 foot very steep wind waves with periods of 4 to 6 seconds between crests and tons of white caps). I raced it once so far in the so called "Knot Race" at Lewis Beach in DE and was quite satisfied with its performance there (check their web site for some stories from the '09 race and some photos and results).
I am a relatively new paddler, just now completing my second year of paddling and therefore not yet able to fully exploit what a kayak like the Rapier 18 can offer. But I feel I know enough to begin to appreciate its potential the Rapier 18 really needs an experienced paddler of the proper dimensions (more on this later) to get the most of it. Despite the limited time Ive had in the Rapier 18, I think my mini-review might be helpful to some of you.
Valley kayaks are fairly common on the East Coast in the US. But their Rapier 18 and 20 models are as rare as hens teeth. Apparently, people who have one do not bother to review it either I only managed to find a grand-total of 1 (one) review of the Rapier 18 on the whole world-wide Internet (mind you, here on this site). So, let me be the second person who will post a review of the Rapier 18 here.
Who is the Rapier 18 for? In my opinion, the Rapier 18 is a fitness and racing kayak first and is a touring kayak a distant second. Unless you are trying to set circumnavigation records of some sort, where speed is the top priority, I would not reach for it for leisurely or heavy load touring purposes, unless the water is calm (in choppy conditions if you are not in a hurry, you will likely better enjoy a more stable or a more playful boat and spend less energy on balancing).
The Rapier 18 is about 18" wide at the waterline with about 190-200 lbs in it and one inch short of 18 feet overall length. However, the 18 width is only limited in a small area under/behind the seat it is considerably narrower fore and aft of there and the bottom is well rounded, thus the stability is much more tender compared to a symmetrically shaped touring or Greenland style sea kayak of similar width and length.
Due to its cockpit shape and overall volume, the Rapier 18 competes with other fast kayaks targeted for the average to tall paddler, such as the Epic 18x, the KayakPro Marlin, or the QCC 700x. I do not think a paddler much over 220lb before gear will do very well in the Rapier 18 but smaller paddlers who do not mind the high cockpit front might do pretty well as the kayak will feel more stable and will have less drag for them. Which of these similar kayaks will be fastest for you depends on the conditions you paddle in, the fit you desire, and your abilities as the paddler. Any of these will be a good candidate to check out if you are into fast fitness paddling of a tippy boat or in kayak racing. I think the QCC is the most stable of the bunch with the Marlin, Rapier and Epic following close behind it in that order of tipsiness. I have not paddled the Marlin or the Epic enough and in enough different conditions to tell more about subtle differences in how they paddle compared to the Rapier 18. I fit in neither of these above due to my large feet (except the Marlin, which almost fits me). The Rapier 18 is the closest in terms of a comfortable foot room for my size 15 feet, though a little modification to the foot pedals area wont hurt.
So, how skilled do you need to be to enjoy a kayak like the Rapier 18? I'd say, you need solid bracing and ideally reliable rolling ability to feel liberated enough to take it in conditions other than close to shore in flat water or small wind chop/boat wakes. Here is an analogy. If we can assume you paddle your typical 21-22" sea kayak (such as a WS Tempest or NDK Explorer or Chatham 16 or NDK Romany and the like) in conditions where you would typically need to brace only once every 15 minutes for example (whatever such "conditions" might mean to you), plan on bracing every 20 seconds or so in the Rapier in the same conditions or may be occasionally even go over in the beginning. Im not kidding during a session of surfing and playing in very steep and white-capped 3-5 foot wind waves with 4-5 second period and 25 knots winds, I barely needed to brace in my 22" wide Perception Sonoma 13.5 kayak. The Sonoma is not considered rock-solid but it is very stable for me; it compares to the typical 22" 16-17 foot sea kayak out there. With the Rapier 18, in somewhat smaller conditions (similarly steep and short-period 2-4 feet waves and slightly weaker winds generating fewer but still quite frequent white caps), I had to brace every few strokes and I actually capsized once or twice in the beginning of my 2 hours session.
Some things on fit and design. The Rapier's uniquely styled knee braces are a thing that I could not coexist with so they had to go. Their shape is quite good if one stays with legs on either side of them. For short paddlers may be they can even paddle with knees together. But with my long legs they very effectively prevented me from paddling with knees together. Also, while entry in the cockpit seat-first was still possible with the braces in place (I have 36" inseam and am 6'4" tall), it had to be a really careful process aiming with my knee between them at an odd angle and it was a tight fit. I could see no reason to keep them so I just shaved them off with my RotoZIP tool. I settled on custom foam braces glued under the deck sides - they are supportive for bracing and rolling, yet out of the way when not in use and they keep the cockpit open. The other reviewer here found the original braces useful but he is almost a foot shorter than I and I have no doubt they worked better for him ;) .
The fiberglass seat is nice, but only if you fit in it. If not you have to find some alternative seat, such as the Bumfortable Wide seat or make your own foam seat or get an ONNO contoured fiberglass seat or similar. Ideally, you want something slippery to allow for good bottom rotation.
The Rapier 18 offers good foot room for my size 15 feet. And also, what seems to me unlimited leg room. With my 36" inseam and large feet, I am at the half of the foot rails closer to me (where in most sea kayaks the rails are an inch or more too short for me). This means that probably a 7 foot tall paddler can still fit in it and use the foot pegs -;) (provided they have smaller than my feet as I am at the limit with mine) . Plus there is additional room forward of the rails and before the front bulk head. Ideally, the front bulkhead should have been at least 10 inches closer to the paddler to minimize cockpit volume. On the positive side, the cockpit empties virtually dry by flipping the kayak over during rescues and spilling the water out; pumping-out from a re-entry and roll self-rescue on the other hand requires a good pump and some patience may be tricky in breaking waves where they will try to fill the cockpit with water again that's where I found the raised front really useful: almost no water came over it in foaming 2-foot waves while pumping out my flooded cockpit after a self rescue.
The same tall cockpit (or more specifically the raised and pointy front lip of the cockpit rim) is another "trade mark" feature of the Rapier kayaks. I find that sharp front spike mostly useless and actually a little dangerous. I'll probably cut it down a little one of these days. As it is, it raises the height of the deck quite a bit without helping with leg or knee room. It is 1" higher than my overhead garage door opening allows and unlike my other kayaks, I can't drive-in with the Rapier strapped on top of my car rack. But that's a minor nuisance. The bigger issue is that the lip is pointed it is hard to remove even a loose fitting spray skirt with one hand. Not to mention that the sharp angle and flat sides of the rim make for less than ideal contact shape in terms of water tightness against the spray skirt. I guess, the good news is that while it tends to leak from the sides, the skirt will not easily implode in waves but it is hard to remove one handed. A fix for this is to use a skirt with a center strap that lifts the sides instead of the front and slide the hand forward to remove the skirt from there. I have not had problems in wet exits yet, but it is not as smooth as I would like it to be. I guess the use of the raised deck is in rougher conditions where it sheds water well. The plus is that even against big steep waves, where the pointy bow of the Rapier punches through, the raised deck and stick-up point on the cockpit splits the water to the side - not much water gets to the chest nor does it get sprayed to the face either. As I am tall, I do not find the height of the cockpit an issue at all, since it is so narrow and slanted that's what matters most with a high-angle paddling style, such as with a wing paddle. But for shorter paddlers it might be a problem. Or once one gets really tired and wants to use a really low angle stroke with a Greenland paddle for instance there a lower front deck would have been better (in that regards, the Epic 18x is better with its low foredeck, although it is a wetter ride against steep waves).
The original Navigator Rudder was not good too wobbly, too much drag, somewhat heavy. I replaced the rudder assembly with the SmartTrack "short pin" version with only a minor modification on the pin that goes in the stern (10 minutes with a metal file and a can of soft drink is all thats needed). Reusing the decent OZO toe control pedals and rudder connector rope is fine with the SmartTrack rudder I still use it like that and it has worked well.
The rear deck can use a few additional bungees to hold a spare paddle as you would want your fore deck as uncluttered as possible to maintain a clean and close paddle entry (and if you do not care about a close paddle entry, do not waste your time on this kayak or any racing kayak for that matter stop reading here -;) ).
Finally, the overall construction of the ProKevlar layup is excellent very strong, rigid enough, and light enough (about 40lb). The fiberglass version feels heavier. Hatches and bulkheads are tight. The cockpit rim is very solid no squeaks during entry into the boat. The rear deck however is thin and will flex it has a foam block support inside but still, you do not want to subject it to too much torture. The bow and stern are very light (no fat end pours of pounds of epoxy), making for an excellent responsiveness.
OK. Enough for fit. Now, let's see how it paddles.
The Rapier is a somewhat specialized kayak that is very good for going fast on flat water and can handle open water well too (if the paddler can handle that is a separate question-;)). It is well built and strong while still relatively lightweight. Stability-wise, the round-bottomed Rapier can feel quite tender coming from the typical 21-22" sea kayak. The feel on the water is closer to a surf ski than to a sea kayak in that it is lively with limited primary stability but there is easily felt but not strong (by sea kayak standards) final stability. That final stability is definitely there and gives you feedback on where you are when you edge but wont hold you solidly on edge like a "typical" sea kayak will. The stability is enough to cover you only for minor mistakes you cant rely on it for sloppy balance. If you lean even a little too much over to one side, you will roll over or you have to brace. However, once as I begin to get used to it, I find that the boat becomes less and less twitchy. Compared to some other boats it feels to me about as tippy or a hair more stable than an Epic V10 Sport surfski, is notably more stable than the V10 model and is a little less stable than a Futura Spear surf sky. Compared to sea kayaks I have paddled, it is noticeably less stable than the CD Extreme (aka Nomad), which in turn is a little less stable than the QCC 700x.
As most other open water racing kayaks and surf skis, the Rapier 18 is rudder-dependent. While it is certainly possible to control it without the rudder, it is not fun and if you lose your rudder due to malfunction, you should forget continuing the race you will slow down a lot. The stern without a rudder is very loose it is meant to swing easily around when directed by the rudder. Take the rudder out and you go out of line - even on flat water it requires concentration and attention almost like a white-water boat does in order to keep a straight line without the rudder. It is nothing like a typical sea kayak where the rudder is optional and only desired in high winds or beam seas the Rapier wants its rudder deployed full time, just like a surf ski and most other racing kayaks mentioned above do, in order to go anywhere near the intended speeds in an efficient manner.
The Rapier has a pronounced asymmetrical (swede) form with the forward end narrow and the rear wider. This is typical for fast kayaks and indeed allows the Rapier to move with less effort at speeds where other kayaks begin to hit a ceiling and require an inordinate amount of pull to keep them there. Top speed for the Rapier is hard to determine as so much depends on the paddler, but for me (an active 40 year old recreational paddler and not too strong), I feel that sustained 6 mph at about 150-160 bpm heart rate are possible for 8+ mile distances; faster than that begins to require more energy than I have. My top flat water speed for very short distances (less than a minute) is about 7.8mph. I am not yet good enough to surf consistently downwind, but I can see that the Rapier 18 can go exceptionally fast in the right downwind conditions much faster than even well surfing kayaks like the CD Caribou for example, because the Rapier 18 (just like a surf ski) has very high top speed and is optimized for this kind of use.
I also was pleasantly surprised at how well the Rapier handled high winds and steep foaming 2-3 foot wind waves from any direction. While the round bottom makes for soft stability, it helps deflect waves smoothly without the kayak jerking about at the smallest provocation. There is a little hull slap going against steep wind waves. The bow comes up and out of the water quickly after being submerged when punching and paddling into oncoming steep waves. Going downwind, the bow does not submerge much, unless in very heavy and steep waves. If I hold my direction and speed at check it does not pearl, while still staying on the face of the wave rushing forward. I played in the Rapier 18 in an open water area where I could go out in the strong wind and waves with the relative safety of warm water and air and wind direction towards a safe sandy beach. While I did go over once or twice in the beginning while I felt still stiff and scared, after that I started to relax and surfing downwind was effortless and I felt the Rapier can catch any wave I wanted and go as fast as needed to stay on the wave. "Sea kayaks" in the same conditions would much more often fall behind the less steep waves as they are not fast enough to keep-up with the wave action, where the Rapier can keep-up with the wave or catch it again with some paddling help. The only drawback in these conditions was that the over stern rudder comes out of the water on steep waves and unless I wanted to go straight down the wave, I would lose direction and begin to broach until I gained enough speed and got down the face of the wave enough for the rudder to catch water and allow me to steer again. May be I need to try the "double" sized SmartTrack blade that is longer than mine, but I think an under stern rudder is really the only good way to deal effectively with steep wave downwind surfing. I am seriously considering adding an under stern rudder that would make the Rapier a fun alternative to a surf ski in open water waves. Let me clarify though: to just move at a good pace downwind the over stern rudder is fine and offers enough control to make for a comfortable experience (no uncontrolled broaching or constantly fighting to keep direction). But an under stern would allow more aggressive surfing at a race pace, you will miss fewer waves as there would be less need to steer instead of to paddle.
Unlike a surf ski, a closed cockpit kayak offers much more control and does not dump you as easily due to better contact with the boat so more paddling time, less swim time (you will fall over less often than from a comparably stable entry level surf ski in rough conditions). Provided you can roll it reliably when you do get over, a closed cockpit kayak is probably just as safe as a surfski in conditions that can cause one to go over, and is much more pleasant in cold weather.
Provided you are in conditions that you feel comfortable in it, the Rapier 18 will beat *any* touring sea kayak they trade speed for stability. The Rapier 18 will be a fair competition to the common racing sea kayaks like the Epic's or KayakPro's 18 footers for example. The 20 foot + surf skis or racing kayaks will beat the Rapier 18, given paddlers who are as comfortable in them as you are in the Rapier 18 (you need the Rapier 20 to compete with them). The 18 foot racing kayaks are so optimized these days for speed that they are all close to what the 18 foot length can offer the limiting factor will be your ability and thus your choice should be based on fit, size, ergonomics for your intended use, etc. Below the Rapier/Epic/KayakPro 18 footers in terms of speed are a slew of other kayaks that are still fast but give a little speed to gain some stability (QCC), or some volume (Kajak Sport Artisan Millennium or Viviane, the CD Extreme), aim for a certain look (Necki Looksha II a foot longer for its nose, and probably just as tippy as the top 18 footers, yet being a little slower), etc.
Anyway, the bottom-line with kayaks like the Rapier 18 is maximum speed for a given length. That makes them specialized enough that they will remain niche boats and one of them may just be right for you.