I'm not sure if this is exactly a review, but it may be useful information for anyone considering getting a Stellar SEL.
I've been paddling for about three years, mainly for peace of mind and fitness. About six months ago I began thinking it might be good to upgrade my trustworthy and beloved Eddyline Nighthawk sea kayak to a faster boat. I read a lot of online reviews (and rants), and it seemed that Stellar boats had a reputation for stability as well as speed, and therefore might be a good fit for me. At 5'10" and 155 lbs I'm a bit on the light side, and as best as I could tell, an SES might fit me perfectly.
I live in Austin, Texas, and there wasn't a local dealer at that time, but I contacted the regional dealer in nearby Arkansas (yup, Arkansas, who would've thought it). He kindly gave me the number of a friendly paddler about 3 hours drive away in Houston who had an SES. I called him up, and asked if I could try his boat. 'Sure, come on down' he said. So I did. He lived on the water, and when I arrived he pretty much simply gave me the boat and said, here, go paddle. Hmmm. I used my favorite Euro paddle and after some fumbling around set out. I got probably a good 50 feet before I tipped over. Yeah, you're probably laughing now. Hehe. I don't think it was so much the boat's fault as my own inexperience paddling a boat with such minimal primary stability (i.e. tippy). I think I was psych'd out. Let's see... the boat has tipped over a lot, it's going to tip over, and so I probably helped it to do so. Splash.
I remounted with only a minor amount of wobbling and set out again. Yeah, I had seen how to do it on YouTube. Seeing how to do it, and doing it yourself can be two different things. Anyway, I managed it without a lot of difficulty. Away I go. Wobble wobble. Rinse and repeat. 50 feet, boom, over again. What's wrong with this picture? Oh yeah... I never used a rudder before either. As I alternately pushed off with my feet while paddling, I was wobbling the rudder back and forth with my toes. Ok, yeah.. don't hurt yourself if you fall out of your chair laughing. Wiggle waggle wobble wobble ... splash.
I remounted again, and with a great deal of focus managed to paddle back to the starting point. Hmmm. The SES owner now says, here, try my wing paddle. Wing paddle? Umm Ok... I take it and try again. I'm not sure if it was the wing paddle, but I spent the next hour paddling around, constantly fighting the lack of stability, but not tipping over. Every time the boat tipped over a bit, my core would automatically clamp down and I would go into brace stroke mode. Gasp. This was incredibly fatiguing. Although I didn't tip over any more, it was also incredibly exhausting to paddle.
Now what? Should I get an SES? Theoretically it is "right sized" for me, but really exhausting to paddle. Could I eventually become comfortable with it? No way to know. I waited, uncertain. Tick tick tick. 6 months later I discover there is a new Stellar dealer in Austin: Terry Davison. Alright. Eventually I get around to calling him. He says he just got a "pre-owned" barely used SEL, "Want to check it out?" You know I do.
We meet up and go to a nearby river to try it out. He brings his boat and the SEL. He doesn't just turn me loose with the SEL, but helps me get going. I'm using my euro paddle, not a wing.
We put the boat in the river, and he holds the stern while I get in and see if I can get my balance. It's not moving, so this can be a bit tricky. I hold my paddle across my body like a tight rope walker's balance bar, wobble around just a bit, but am surprisingly stable. I don't feel at all like I'm about to tip over. Not rock steady, but not on the edge of catastrophe either. After a bit I say, "OK, let me go now." He says, "I let you go about 45 seconds ago." True story. Yeah. OK.
So off I go. While he gets his boat and brings it down to the river, I head out and circle around in a big loop. The water is cold, and I'm thin. I get really cold really easy, and I really really don't want to fall in. I concentrate fiercely as I paddle around in a wide arch, wobbling a lot as I cross the wind and mild chop. I come about and don't fall in. Phew.
I feel like I can't even look around for fear of tipping over and falling in. Brrr. So after doing my 360 I head up river. I suspect Terry has launched and is right behind me. But I can't look around for fear of tipping over. I keep going. Paddle, paddle paddle. Seems like I've been paddling awhile now. I'm about 20 minutes up river. Where is Terry? I finally stop, put my feet in the water on each side of the boat so I don't tip over, and look around. Hmmm, he's nowhere around. I slowly spin the boat around with my feet in the water, then get my feet back in without tipping over, and head back where I came from. Ahh, there he is, coming up along the far shore of the river.
We hook up, and I follow him up and down the river for about another half hour. The key point is... I don't tip over, and I don't fall in. Yes, I'm fiercely concentrating on not falling in the whole time, but in truth, despite a good bit of wobbliness that I'm not accustomed to, I'm quite OK. Not even close to tipping over.
So, yeah, I buy the SEL as well as a Stellar small wing paddle. Now, 3 weeks and about 40 hours later in the boat, it's feeling amazingly comfortable. I still haven't fallen over, although I've paddled on flat water. I now hardly notice the ‘tippiness’ and trust the amazing secondary stability. While coming about in some strong wind chop, I once had waves pouring over the windward gunwale for about 3 or 4 seconds. In my kayak I probably would have panicked. Ok, maybe my heart rate went up a bit, but I trusted the boat, ignored the incoming water, and kept going. The boat did the same.
I'm still only paddling in flatwater, and have a lot of challenges ahead of me, but the stability of the SEL seems amazing. I think that if you are making a transition from a sea kayak, and think the SES might be the right boat for you, you might try an SEL before you pull the trigger. I may outgrow the SEL in awhile and wish for an SES, but the difference in stability between the two seems remarkable to me.
More food for thought:
• I cut up one of my wife's old yoga mats and used it to pad the sides of the bucket. This made a big difference. Key takeaway: pad the bucket for a custom fit.
• I taped the sides of the boat with gorilla tape where my paddle strikes the hull sometimes. This seems to save both the boat and my new wing paddle. I put a piece of plastic under the tape, and rounded the ends to make it more esthetic. I keep adding layers of tape when they get dinged up.
• I'm still trying to figure all this out, trying to learn how to paddle with the wing paddle.
• This afternoon I hit 8.6 mph downwind in an unsustainable speed burst (on flatwater in a still lake). Wow. For me, that's pretty exciting.
Next .. an SES tale. Hehe. Might be about a year away.I love this boat.
The SE-L (Stellar Elite Low) is the low volume sibling of Stellar's flagship surfski, the SE. At 21'6" and 17.5" at the beam, it's a hair wider than the rest of the elite class of HPS (high performance skis); not enough to slow it down, but just enough to impart an extra measure of stability that some of the others lack. I've had the opportunity to spend some time in the bucket in all manner of conditions, from glassy, rolling calm, to confused, washing machine jobblies. It is comfortable and predictable and goes like stink. Handsome, also, to boot. Mine is a unidirectional prepeg carbon layup with a yellow cockpit, and deck peaks. It's nice that Stellar incorporates a UV inhibitor into their clearcoat-something that most of the other manufacturers do not. Hence, their carbon boats, if left in the elements, often develop a chalky, milky look.
Stellars come in four different layups from heaviest to lightest construction: Sport, Advantage, Excel, and the high zoot, all carbon Ultra. IMO, the Excel incarnation of this boat offers the best of all worlds. The Ultra is feathery light, and looks fantastic, but you do feel every little subtlety of the water's texture and the roll rate's a little quicker due to the stiffer layup/lighter weight. I'm at about 205 now, and it fits perfectly; the bucket is actually a bit wider than my Huki S1-R's 'wide' seat. While at my bodyweight, I'm probably on the cusp of the move to an SE (which I've also owned), I don't find the low volume an issue. I have buried the bow in some short duration, steep swells almost up to the Stellar deck decals, but it always pops back up, and doesn't seem to leech speed from the run.
The three point footplate/pedal assembly adjusts by unscrewing two wingnuts and sliding it forward or aft along a horizontal track. Unique to Stellar is a locking lever at the base, which makes for an extremely solid platform to drive from; no flex and no creaks. The Dynaleen rudder lines self-adjust. The hump between the seat and footwell is low, enabling strong leg drive. There are bungees forward of the foot pedals, and on the rear deck. The deck itself has a raised ridge to shed water, and stiffen the body structure. Believe you me, the Excel and especially, the Ultra, layups are plenty stiff. Power is transferred instantaneously-the SE-L responds nimbly to input. For taller paddlers, the SE-L will accommodate. At 6'1" with a 34 inseam, I still have five inches left on the adjustment tracks left.
The boat goes upwind extremely well, with a bit more bow slap than say, a Fenn Elite. It is wonderfully controllable; the amount of secondary (somewhat of an oxymoron in an elite class ski) is reassuring. Beam chop is similarly handled with aplomb, but where this boat really shines is in the sloppy stuff. It eats this stuff up. My rough water boat is a Huki S1-R, which is reknowned for its sloppy water prowess. As I spend more time in the SE-L, the Huki has been spending more and more time at home. Speedwise, it's a hair off the fastest of the fast elite boats on flat water, the Fenn Elite, Epic V12, Nelo, Think Uno, and its smaller stablemate, the Stellar SES. That said, I'm reminded of the adage: 'stability before speed.' What it lacks in out-and-out velocity (maybe a tenth or two mph), it more than makes up for in its stability through open water.
The SE-L also loves to surf. It picks up a wave nicely, and carries its speed from runner to runner as well. Once atop a ride, it will calmly sit there all day. There is an available spray shield that Velcros on the boat a la an Epic V12 for bigger water, but honestly, I've never used it. Remounts are easy due to lower side rails and the boat's trademark stability.
Yes, there are items on my wish list. The catch could be narrower, and the steering response quicker and more precise. Also, the cavernous footwell carries a whole lot of agua (I'm working on filling the extra space before the pedals with minicell block that will also house my drinking system.), and the draining is merely satisfactory. But that's it; the sum of its parts may very well make this 'THE' boat. Having owned a good amount of other elite skis, this one's well... Stellar.