Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Valley Gemini SP Kayak Review

Turns out 15 feet is not too short for a sea kayak.  And it’s more maneuverable than all other sea kayaks I've paddled - even short ones like the Valley Avocet, the SKUK Romany, the P&H Delphin, and the Tiderace Xtra…

Valley Gemini SP









Take Home Points:

Pros:

·         Light weight (vacuum bagged fiberglass layup)
·         Super maneuverable
·         Super-easy to edge (low initial stability)
·         Comfy cockpit – better thigh braces, roomier than low volume boats
·         Surfs nicely, good volume/buoyancy and hard chine
·         New small day hatch – easy to attach, big enough
·         14’10” is not too short for a sea kayak

Cons:

·         Valley plastic seat (not comfortable or ergonomic for me)
·         Low initial stability (a pro for some, con for others)
·         Low speed – not a good choice for distance paddling
·         Skeg-dependent boat
·         Huge rear hatch – unnecessary in a play-boat, hard to put on


I demoed the Valley Gemini SP a few years ago and thought “wow, this is cool and different.” I'd paddled a lot of "play-at-sea" style kayaks by then and eventually bought a Gemini - am glad I did. If you're looking to make the move to a shorter boat, the Gemini SP serves the play-boat function better than most.

When I started paddling, unless you were a traditional Greenland kayak enthusiast, you really only had two categories of sea kayak to choose from:  British style boats (e.g. Valley/NDK/P&H), which were generally better suited to rougher water, and the American or "West Coast" style kayaks (e.g. Necky/Wilderness Systems) which tended to have rudders and less hull rocker so were more geared to distance paddling or island hopping/camping.  Since that time the differences between these two broad categories of boats has blurred – American kayak manufacturers have incorporated many of the elements of British boats (rocker, skegs, harder chines) as a larger number of people have become interested in bumpy water. On the other side of the Atlantic, some British manufacturers are branching out more into fitness/distance kayaks (e.g. Valley Rapier,Rockpool Taran) – adopting some of the elements of surf skis or revisiting elements of racing kayaks like the Kirton Inuk (i.e. less rocker, high-foredecks for knee movement, plumb bows).  So it’s all a mish-mosh these days - greater and greater diversity in design.

An additional new sub-category of sea kayak of late is the shorter play-boat style. If you find yourself diverging towards the "bumpy water enthusiast" sea kayaking camp, as opposed to the "distance/speed" or "Greenland" camps, you may choose to look for a shorter, more maneuverable boat. The first of these shorter sea kayaks was really the Romany – a shorter version of Nigel Dennis’s longer Explorer kayak that was intended (as I understand it) for coaches and students in the rough waters off Wales. That boat set the bar pretty high, and for some years (until Valley came out with its own version – the Avocet) no one else was making "real" sea kayaks under 17' in length.  Even recent play-at-sea kayaks inspired (probably) by the Romany have been reluctant to go any shorter than 16’ – the P&H Delphin is 16’, the Tiderace Xtra (their smallest boat) is still only 16.5’.  Sure there are plastic rec-boats for beginners (P&H Orca) or modified whitewater boats (P&H Hammer) that are under 16' in length - both would be excellent "park-and-play-boats" I expect, but whether these are true "sea kayaks" is debatable.   So with all this in mind, into the ever-widening assortment of sea kayak designs comes a fairly radical departure – the Gemini SP. It looks like a true sea kayak (narrow, fiberglass, pointy at both ends, skeg, hatches) but it is only 14’10” in length and has plenty of rocker.

Handling:

Maneuverability - The SP is a joy to maneuver in tight places, catch waves or explore the coast line. This is what the boat is meant for and where the boat shines. If you enjoy using all your strokes and edging and having an immediate response from your kayak - this boat is for you. That's something I value in a kayak and the boat doesn't disappoint. The combination of short length and deeper “V” cross section of the hull adds measurably to the SP’s maneuverability – edging the boat is effortless.  I've found this a lot of fun – you can turn this boat 180 degrees in a flash. Experienced paddlers with good support strokes will crank it around with ease, a definite plus when rock-hopping or playing in bumpy water.  By the same token, novice paddlers may find the boat somewhat tippy at first.

Tracking - The flip-side to maneuverability is tracking of course.  When not playing around in bumpy water or winding up a sinuous tidal creek, you may find yourself relying on the skeg in the Gemini SP. To prevent this unusually short boat from spinning like a top, Valley gave the SP a somewhat deeper “V” hull cross-section than other kayaks to aid in tracking. The result is a boat that paddles fairly straight on flat water but definitely relies on the skeg in wind.  I’d say its directional stability is somewhat better than the Valley Pintail on flat water with no wind (which is a good thing), but about equal to the Pintail (i.e. less than most other kayaks) under most conditions. For those who don't know the Pintail, this means it's very "turny". So, to a larger degree than most traditional sea kayaks, the Gemini is a skeg-dependent boat if you're trying to really "get somewhere" in a cross-wind - get a pebble in the skeg box and you’ll soon feel like clearing it. This is an acceptable trade-off for a short, maneuverable boat in my opinion. Valley's latest skeg setup itself operates flawlessly and the slider doesn’t protrude into the left knee too much.

Speed - If your primary goal in sea kayaking is to cover many miles on straight journeys (as is certainly the case for many sea kayakers) you wouldn't be looking at the Gemini SP in the first place. In mild conditions the Gemini feels somewhat slower than other boats, not hugely so, but enough that I wouldn't choose it for a journey.  But it keeps up fine with longer kayaks on shorter day paddles. When sea conditions pick up and the advantage of boat length lessens, the SP may even out-paddle the group. (Head-winds or following seas are the great "leveler" when it comes to paddling speed I find - as conditions worsen, how you paddle matters more than what boat you're in).

Surf - In the bumpy conditions I can find in my local waters (boat wakes and locally-generated waves in Long Island Sound) the SP excels - the boat can catch rides and turn on a wave more easily than other sea kayaks. The Gemini is "squirrely" on a wave and easier to change directions with aggressive edging. So the Gemini is excellent for steeper waves, playing in/near shorebreak or for riding shorter wavelength waves in following seas.  But to be fair, kayaks longer than the Gemini will catch more rides on longer-wavelength waves in following seas. I've found the SP's short length makes it a bit more of a struggle to get on the long-wavelength stuff, something some kayakers (and surf-ski paddlers) like to do. And if you have a strong upper body and bigger water is your primary interest, a slightly longer/bigger kayak would probably better fit your needs (Xtra/Xcite, Romany Surf, Avocet, Delphin). These boats would be easier to paddle out to the big features (tideraces/ ocean swell) and their added volume/length can probably take advantage of big conditions with less effort than the Gemini.  But for local bumpy water closer to shore, I'd say the SP is a better choice - more fun.  The SP’s easy maneuverability requires a bit more attention to rudder strokes and sweeps when paddling in conditions, but that's part of the fun.

One minor thing to be aware of, if you’re used to a flat-bottom boat that is a stable platform when entering/exiting your kayak, the Gemini SP’s “V” hull will be tippier than you’re used to. I was accustomed to plunking my butt down in my Romany in shallow water without the slightest concern for its stability and adjusting footpegs while on the water was easy. But in the Gemini, I have to take a bit more care since the “V” will tip the boat one way or the other – got me unexpectedly wet a few times.

Fit:

The cockpit has more room than many British style kayaks – more space for the knees in front of the seat. This helps forward paddling and will allow both larger and smaller paddlers to enjoy the boat. I’m 5’10, 185 lbs and size 10 feet – the boat fits me fine.  The cockpit coaming is decent in the Gemini but not as good as the Tiderace/Rockpool boats which (in my opinion) have a superior shape and design. These boats have more centered thigh grips set closer together, higher up, and located a bit closer to the torso than the Gemini. This allows a more knees-up position in these other boats (even moreso than in the Gemini) that adds to forward stroke efficiency and places the thigh-grip part of the coaming at mid-thigh - not down by the knee as is unfortunately more the case with the Gemini. So the thigh grips could be improved on the Gemini, but they are a definite improvement over many older keyhole cockpit designs.  If I had my way, all sea kayak manufacturers would adopt the design of the Tiderace/Rockpool cockpit coaming.  Lastly, the coaming height behind the seat on the Gemini is higher than some boats - if you do a lot of lay-back rolls you may have to adjust a little.

Construction/Outfitting:

Overall the construction and outfitting of the SP is excellent as in all Valley boats past and present.  One pleasant surprise is the roughly 7-inch day hatch. I’d thought it might be too small but it accommodates all the gear I need access to while on the water plus it’s actually easier than standard (larger) day hatches to close, readily doable with just one hand. The rear hatch, on the other hand, is huge overkill in my opinion – it’s actually larger than the large oval hatches on Valley’s big touring boats! Why such a big hatch on a play-boat?  Plus it’s heavy and hard to put on – instead I’d have put the same 10” round hatch as Valley spec'd for the bow. A mystery.  My second beef with all the current Valley boats is the one-size-fits-all plastic seat. Seat comfort and functionality are a personal thing - some may like the Valley seat, but for me it is a bad fit. I find it insufficiently deep front-to-back and not flat (level) enough, and rather than widening at the front to accommodate the spread of the thighs as you sit with feet on pegs, to me if feels constrictive at the front.  Discarding the removable hip-braces helped a bit but for me it was still no good. As a reference, I find the standard SKUK Romany/Explorer seats comfortable and even tolerated the old-style ocean cockpit Valley Anas Acuta/Pintail seats.  So I swapped out the standard plastic seat for a foam seat (available as an option from VCP) which is much better. Valley should revisit their plastic seat in my opinion – I remember when the Nordkapp LV first came out I loved it, amazing boat. A few years later I tried an LV again after they’d swapped out all their boats’ seats for the new plastic one-size-fits-all version – suddenly the LV became tight in the thighs (and I’m a pretty average sized person) and paddled poorly for me. I would strongly encourage Valley to make something like SKUK’s latest seat which is fabulous – the SKUK High Performance Seat is a flatter, neutral seat with an integral minimalist back-stop.  You can always swap out a seat in a sea kayak, so this was not a deal-breaker for me.  Lastly, the Gemini’s light weight is great – noticeably easier to haul around on dry land than all other fiberglass sea kayaks I’ve owned - a major plus in my opinion.  The trade-off is a somewhat more flexible hull than heavier lay-up boats. With the foam seat directly on the hull in the Gemini, I can feel the hull flex a bit under my seat in bumpy water and if you run over a submerged rock you'll definitely feel it. For me, this is an acceptable trade-off and the hull is certainly stiffer than some kevlar boats I've been in.  Some may want to keep the standard plastic seat for this reason (if they can tolerate it) because it’s hung from the deck so your weight is not on the hull. As a comparison, I also have a foam seat in my Romany and there’s no hull flex – of course the Romany is way heavier than the Gemini.

Final Thoughts:

For me the impetus to buy the Gemini SP was an injured shoulder. In order to stay in the sport I needed something lighter weight that would be easier to move around on land and that might also be good at poking around close to shore on low mileage paddles. My previous love was rough water sea kayaking, surf, tide races, etc. big water stuff.  Though that type of paddling is now largely in my past, my former preference for bumpy water factored into my interest in the Gemini SP. I’m glad I got the boat and would encourage all paddlers to try it.  If you have a longer touring boat, the SP would be a great second boat to have for playing in rough water.  It would also be a good “do-everything” boat if most of your paddling is rock-gardening, surf, and shorter coastal exploring. One last note – the “sister boat” the Gemini ST has a different hull – less rocker and volume.  I've never tried the ST, but expect it would suit those looking for a light, maneuverable boat with improved tracking and less emphasis on surf.


2 comments:

Scott L said...

As always Jim, your reviews are an informative read and helpful for us looking at a boat like this. My motivations are pretty much the same as yours with a bad shoulder/elbow that makes 60+ pound boats too heavy to move yet wanting an ocean-capable and easy to turn kayak in one package.

While I have only sat in one (and not paddled it in the frigid NE conditions) I like the fit too, though it seems the RM version thigh bracing contacts me better than the FG version. The build quality on the RM version seems quite solid and if I do go the route of the Gemini SP - that will be my layup of choice so I can poke around in the rocks.

Now if I can just get that pretty Tiderace Xtreme out of my brain I will pull the trigger on the Gemini!!

Scott

Jim L. said...

Jim -- Thanks, I just came across your review of the Valley Gemini SP. There is also a Gemini ST. Have you had a chcne to compare the two?

Thanks,
Jim L.