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Other kayaks: BBK Aral, Black Pearl, Outer Island OC, and keyhole Pintail.
Review conditions: ocean, lake, winds to 25mph, waves to 3 feet, clapotis.
Finish: Fabulous. All the things that people say about build quality for TR kayaks are true. The finish and attention to detail on the 2012 Hardcore layup is superb.
Fit: After years of paddling Greenland-style kayaks, I was more than a bit apprehensive about getting used to a keyhole but without need: I love the ergonomics of the Xplore cockpit. On longer paddles it allows me to move around a bit, but mostly I paddle Greenland style with legs to center either flat on hull or a bit elevated and to the side. Seat is very comfortable as is the backband. Thigh braces are rock solid and comfortable w/o being obtrusive. Boat control ergonomics likewise are superb requiring only a bit of foaming out to tighten the thigh braces. Foot pegs are slanted and easy to adjust - eventually will probably pull them and foam out the bulkhead, but the fact that I haven't done so after several months of paddling says alot.
Speed: As the reviews attest, the Xplore is fast, very fast relative to many other expedition class kayaks and specifically in my experience relative to the NDK Explorer. (For more info on speed, see the Kayak Academy website.) Hull seems to have noticeably lower drag and a higher top end. I'd compare it to the OI, which is known as a fast A to B kayak, but the XPlore is much faster than the OI in conditions because it is so forgiving and easy to control in wind and waves.
Stability: Primary and secondary are both solid even with the kayak unloaded - am not sure where the idea of soft secondary comes from as I found it firm and easily identifiable. Perhaps that fast that I'm used to skinny Greenland kayaks plays a role here?
Boat control: The Xplore is largely neutral in wind with only a bit of weather helm in beam winds. Dropping the skeg allows easy control of weather cocking and when fully down provides a bit of lee cocking to assist with downwind turns. Tracking is a bit short of stiff meaning the Xplore holds a line easily in neutral conditions without a lot of correction. In wind and waves, it likewise is easy to keep on course again with a lot of correcting strokes. When edged, the Xplore turns like a much shorter more playful kayak. On a long paddle, the ease with which I could maintain course saved a lot of energy. In clapotis, the bow isn't anywhere as loose as the Pearl or Pintail or for that matter as a Tempest, but the Xplore nonetheless is very reassuring with a lot of headroom and ability to maneuver easily with a bit of edging.
Rolling: I found the Xplore easy to skull, but balance brace was more difficult that with the BP or the Aral. No big surprise here. Excellent cockpit ergonomics, a positive up, and low back deck made a variety of Greenland layback rolls easy to perform.
Surfing: In 2-3 foot surf, I found the Xplore easy to catch waves and easy to control on wave face. It will broach eventually, but controllable. In downwind conditions, the Xplore make it easy to catch waves without much tendency to broach. With speed and acceleration, I had to be careful not to outrun the wave. Even in quartering seas, I could control the kayak with edging and a little skeg--rarely needed a stern rudder.
Compartments: Lots of room. New KS hatches are easy to put on and secure. TR has installed tethers, but they are a little thin and long for my tastes so will eventually replace. No need to vent bulkheads. The center hatch allows storages of small bits and (unlike the Cetus LV) doesn't intrude into the cockpit.
Summary: Except when feeling the pull of tradition, the Xplore M has replaced the BBK Aral as my go to kayak for day paddles and camping. Simply stated it is fast, very comfortable, beautifully made, strong, and has lots of "head room" in conditions. I've owned 2 NDK Explorers, a P & H Quest, and paddled all sorts of 16-18 foot kayaks and the Xplore hands down is my favorite so far. I thought about an Xcite, which would be a better choice for day paddles, surfing, and rough water play, but I wanted a kayak for extended camping, and the Xplore suits this purpose perfectly.
Plug for Savannah Canoe and Kayak--I ordered my Xplore through Nigel and Kristin and found them a pleasure to do business with.
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