Monday, June 18, 2012

Tiderace Xtra Kayak Review

Randy with boats, Hudson and NJ skyline in background
This weekend I had the opportunity to demo the brand-new Tiderace "Xtra" sea kayak down in NYC at the  New York Kayak Company owned and operated by Randy Hendrikson. The Xtra was the boat I made the trip for, but I was also able to demo two other Tiderace boats - the Xcape-S and the Xcite. In short, the Tiderace boats are great and I'm a fan.

Tiderace Xtra - take-home points:

  • the cockpit will fit an average sized adult just fine, it is not a larger-person specific cockpit.
  • the boat is very turny/maneuverable at my weight (175 lbs), somewhat more so than my current 16' boat (a standard Romany), it has a fun feel (see pronounced rocker in photo above).
  • the hull is wide and high volume, making the boat very buoyant at my weight which adds to its easy turning and edging, but also adds to its initial stability.
  • paddlers of various sizes should try the boat.
  • specs: 16.5 ft length, 22.3 inches width, 13.2 inches depth.
About me: I've been sea kayaking since the mid-90's and have come to prefer shorter sea kayaks for poking along the shore and messing about in surf and bumpy water. I'm 5'10, 175 lbs, and size 10 feet.

There is some conflicting information out there on the Xtra based on the few reviews and descriptions of the boat I've found online. The Tiderace website lists its minimum paddler weight as 80 kg (175 lbs), but other sources say it is suitable for smaller paddlers. At 175 lbs, I'm at the bottom end of the listed weight range for the Xtra. But I've long enjoyed the feel of larger volume boats for their buoyancy and liveliness. Trouble is, the cockpits of bigger boats sometimes provide too much space and poor contact points. My current boat is small at 16 feet. It serves me fine size wise, but sometimes I wish it had more overall hull volume to feel more lively and more cockpit deck height to improve forward paddling efficiency and knee comfort.

My thoughts on proper boat size have evolved over the years. I used to prefer small volume cockpits, snug hips, firm low back band - the "locked in" feel. But after years of paddling, some back trouble, and a day paddling a surf ski, I've been experimenting with set-ups and boats providing more room in the cockpit. I find now that more looseness in the seat and knees helps forward paddling - and let's face it, that's 90% of sea kayaking - forward paddling. Why have a boat set up tight for the bumpy play spot when you're only paddling in such conditions 10% of the time?

I've been intrigued by the Tiderace boats since I paddled the Xcite a few years back. It was a bit of a revelation to me in the comfort and performance provided by an ergonomically designed cockpit. At the time, I wasn't in the market for an overall "do everything" kayak like the Xcite - I was looking to see what else was out there in the short, rock-gardening and surfing sea kayak market. I also tried the Xtreme a year or so ago - a big water surf boat - and really enjoyed it (see my review elsewhere on this blog). But my personal bias for smaller boats really got me intrigued when I saw the recent release of a shorter boat by Tiderace called the Xtra. It's about time - I've been waiting for a Tiderace line similar to the day/play boats I've enjoyed like the Avocet, Romany, Pintail, and Delphin but with the ergonomic Tiderace cockpit.

My fear was that the Xtra would be a big person's boat and I'd know this immediately upon sitting in it. I was happily surprised - the cockpit fit me just fine. The seat width is similar to the other two boats I demoed (Xcite and Xcape-S) and the deck height only a slight bit higher. In a word - it fit me perfectly and I'm not a big guy. Like all the Tiderace boats, the thigh hooks are shaped to provide nice contact points and are more centered (closer together) and higher than many boats. This allows a higher and more centered knee position. Far from being a problem, this higher deck height is a benefit. You're not "reaching" up to make contact with the deck - just set the footpegs properly and you're there. Higher knees allows for more paddling power, torso rotation, and comfort. More kayaks should have cockpit size/shape like the Xtra.

Xtra profile
Nice deck graphics, Empire State in view

I took the Xtra north on the Hudson against some 2 knot current, messed about around a few pilings and jetties, even managed to catch a few waves when the Circle Line tourist boat went by. I enjoyed the boat very much. It has very hard chines - most like the Xtreme than the other models. And the hull is wide in the mid-section. At my weight with no gear, the bow/stern were very loose which made the boat turny. A heavier paddler would probably experience more straight-line performance from the boat if that's what they are looking for. The hull shape and volume make the boat responsive, not twitchy, but more quick to edge than my current boat. But the width (1" wider than my current boat) provides good support the more you edge. I'd say its secondary stability is stiffer than the Xcite and perhaps equal to the Xcape-S. Speed is not much of a factor for me, but the Xtra seemed to move right along, had to push it a few times to fight the current near the jetties. The other boats I tried (Xcape-S and Xcite) seemed a bit quicker based on my limited time in them. Very easy to catch waves in the Xtra and very maneuverable in tight corners - all things I like.

Of all the Tiderace boats I've tried thus far, the Xtra is the one that checks off the most categories I'm personally looking for. Maneuverable, comfortable, and fun. If I could tailor the boat to me, I might reduce its hull volume a bit but leave the cockpit room and deck height completely as-is. I'm used to a more rounded hull chine, so might prefer some softening there too - but then the trade off would be less of a loose, "on-off" edging response that is fun in the current boat. If Tiderace comes out with a slightly smaller volume Xtra I'd be interested to try it, but my sense is that any substantial reduction in hull volume or cockpit room would put it in the category of a small-person's boat rather than an average sized person's boat.

Cockpit showing thigh hook and seat/coaming flange

Outfitting of the Tiderace boats has been written about before - they're all top of the line, stiff hulls, superb finish, adjustable seat (fore/aft), excellent hatches, etc. The one extra thing I noticed yesterday is that the coaming of all their boats has a gradual curve allowing the rand of the sprayskirt to fit snug. Some kayaks have sharp curves or indents to accommodate the keyhole which can compromise the water tightness of the skirt.

Xcape-S: This boat is similar to my current boat the Romany in some ways - a softer chine and friendly (familiar) feel. It is part of Tiderace's more standard kayak line made for a wide range of paddlers. I liked it a lot - surfed some swell as it came rumbling in by Pier 40 amongst the many Downtown Boathouse free kayak paddlers that share the Pier with New York Kayak Company. (Hudson River Park has created a real renaissance on the River, subject for another post for sure). The Xcape-S seemed to have less rocker and longer length than my Romany. The seat is the same width as the Xtra but the front deck height is lower. I prefer the higher deck height of the Xtra.

Xcite: I'd paddled this boat before, trying it again confirmed to me that it fits a person of my size well - I remember feeling at home in the cockpit immediately. It's Tiderace's most all-around boat for the average-sized experienced paddler, very responsive to edging, decent speed, turns and surfs nicely. It runs straighter and with more speed than the Xtra. For me, it would be a tough choice between the Xcite and the Xtra for a fun sea kayak for all around use. I also briefly tried the Xcite-S, which I found did not suit me. The cockpit was too tight and the boat felt twitchy for my weight and weight distribution. A smaller/lighter paddler would find it entirely different I'm sure.

Seeing all the offerings from Tiderace Kayaks and talking with Randy it's clear to me that Aled Williams (the founder of Tiderace Kayaks) has created a unique entity in the paddling scene. They've put out a lot of different boats and I expect more designs still to come. Why so many? Is it over saturation? I don't think so. In the competitive world of top-end sea kayaks most companies come up with a limited number of designs. By contrast, in a relatively short period Tiderace has put out many disparate boats - for the average paddler, for the big water fanatic, for the fitness racer, for big/small paddlers. The reason is clearly that differences in paddler size, experience and focus require different boats to suit the whole paddling community. The Tiderace boats are not cheap. They're made to high standards. If one wants a cheaper boat, there are many companies that create perfectly fine kayaks for less money which are more likely to be a "vanilla" boat meeting a sweet-spot that the manufacturer feels suits most paddlers. Tiderace has gone a different route, and the result is a larger quiver of boats. It's an interesting business model and one I hope continues because I think it has allowed experimentation in design that can advance the sport of sea kayaking.

One last word about NY Kayak Company - Randy runs a great shop with top-end gear and boats. He's a very experienced paddler himself and it would be hard to find a more helpful, patient, and informative kayak retailer. I bought my first drysuit from him when he operated out of a nearby loft - now his shop is ideally located on the Hudson and his business has matured into a top-of-the-line center for instruction, trips and retail. Give him a call about the Tiderace boats, he's very happy to talk.


Roddy McDowell said...

Great blog with loads of useful pointers. Totaly agree with the point about not being too locked into the cockpit of a sea kayak. Particularly relevant re the great conectivity and power transference the Tiderace cockpit enables.
Further developed this thinking to include need for clothing and BA not being too tight thanks to recent coach update session with Gordon Brown.
And Randy does run a cool shop!

Keld said...

Hi. Grat review, thanks. Your blog is now on my reading list.