A tale of three wooden race boats.

As posted several weeks ago, I recently completed my third racing kayak build, the Yukon by Nick Schade.  Having put about forty miles on that boat, I decided that it was time for me to share my thoughts on its performance.  As I started down that path, I realized that a comparative discussion of all three of the race boats that I have built would probably be more informative and useful.  In the end it has turned into a long compilation of my ramblings.  Read it if interested, otherwise just look at the pictures.

The three boats are the Wahoo FSK designed by John Winters, and the Yukon and Mystery both designed by Nick Schade.  All three are equipped with Stellar surfski style foot braces, Smart Track over the stern, kick-up rudder systems and Redfin foam seats.  For shorter flat-water races, the foam seats can be replaced by a raised rotating seat from Nelo which allows more rotation but is a butt killer.  Depending upon the conditions, either the short, regular, or double rudder blade for the Smart Track system can be used.  On the Yukon only, I added the capability to switch to an under-hull rudder.  I have a 4” weed-less blade which performs much better than the Smart Track on a “weedy” course, and a 7” blade which will stay in the water in large waves where the stern mounted Smart Track will be lifted clear of the water.  The obvious negative with the under-hull rudder is that you break something when you hit an underwater obstacle.  I have also added an Epic surfski bailer to the Yukon so that I can dispense with the skirt in waves.

If you are interested in these boats, you may be planning to race.  If that is the case, do yourself a huge favor by researching the various boat classification systems that are used for the races that you intend to participate in.  One would think that there would be a single set of rules used across the USA, but that is not the case.  There are actually four systems that are commonly used:  Sound Rowers, Modified Sound Rowers (used for Blackburn Challenge), 20” Rule (used at Chattajack) and the United States Canoe Association Specs.  I made the mistake of not considering race classifications when I built the Wahoo, and as a result my 8’6” boat competes against longer/narrower surfskis in some races.  That is much like showing up to a gun fight with just a knife.  The last point here is that the existence of the various systems is one of the primary reasons that I have a total of five race boats.  When preparing for a race, I consider the classification system and expected race conditions, before choosing the boat that I believe will be the most competitive.

The size of the motor plays a key role in kayak performance.  My motor is 59 years old, 5’7” tall, weighs 150# and is aerobically fit.  I still work full-time, so my paddling is limited to about 12 outings per month year-round.  Speed numbers below are based upon Garmin Connect data recorded on my usual 8.5-mile route up/back on a small river with modest current.  I paddle with an Epic Small-Mid Wing and at race pace have a cadence around 82 strokes per minute.  For the longer (>20 mile) races, I paddle with a smaller bladed paddle (Jantex Rio Small Plus) at a cadence of about 72 SPM.  

In December 2015, I completed my first race boat, the Wahoo FSK.  It measures 18’6”x20.5” and weighs in at a stout 52# fully rigged.  I lengthened this boat 6” over the base design (18’) to give it a higher displacement, and it is a bit wider because I used ¼” strips vice the specified 3/16”.  Because of the extra length, it does not fit in either the USCA Sea Kayak class or the SR Fast Sea Kayak class, where a Wahoo built per plans would.  The Wahoo is the most stable of my race boats, with strong primary and secondary stability.  During a kayak camping trip in the Florida Keys, we got caught out in 4.5’ breaking waves and the boat handled well (no swimming) despite the fact that the over stern rudder was useless and that I was not wearing my skirt.  The Wahoo is also the most maneuverable of the three boats, but I would still describe it as rather straight tracking.  The boat turns best with a bit of lean and has a turn radius about twice that of my surskis and ½ that of the Mystery.  My race pace in this boat is 9:55 (min:sec/mile) and long race pace is 10:30.  Over the two year period that this was my only race boat, I found it to be  competitive with 18’ boats like the Epic 18x, V8, and Stellar S18R, but slower than slightly longer boats like the V8Pro and V10 Sport.  To be fair to this design, the fact that it was my first strip build certainly hurts its performance.  I built it too heavily and gave it a very hefty “ice breaker” bow which adds drag.  If built lightly and with a fine bow, it would be faster, but based upon Kaper drag data, not as fast as the Mystery.  If built at the specified 18’ length, I believe that it would be extremely competitive in the USCA SK and SR FSK classes.  Given that I now have faster/lighter race boats, I mostly use the Wahoo for workouts, scouting racecourses, and for races too rugged for my more fragile boats.           

The Mystery, which I completed June 2019, was my second race build.  I chose this design because I was looking for a boat that would be competitive in the USCA Touring Class and in the Kayak (>20” beam) Division at Chattajack.  It measures 20’ x 20”, weighs 40.4# fully rigged, and was built to plans except for the bow shape.  I originally build the Mystery with the plumb bow shown in the plans, but after two races I found that it collected too many weeds/leaves.  Using the bow of my intermediate surfski as an example, I trimmed back the forefoot so that the bow forms a sixty-degree angle with the waterline.  (The surfski crowd uses 60 degrees as a magic number when it comes to weeds.)  The modification was successful, and I can now paddle all morning through floating grass without collecting a salad for lunch.  The Mystery is the least stable of my three wooden race boats but is more stable than my intermediate surfski.  It is a bit “twitchy” when you first get in, but the stability hardens when you lean the boat.  I have something over 400 miles in the Mystery with only one swim.  That occurred when I was caught out in a squall in +3’ breaking waves without my skirt (notice a trend?).  The Mystery is a very, very, very, very, very straight tracking kayak.  This is a big plus on straight courses or when paddling in lots of wind, but not so much when there are lots of turns.  In a buoy turn, the Mystery would lose something like two boat lengths to the Wahoo and four boat lengths to either of my skis.  Use of the largest (double) rudder blade turns the boat just a little quicker but at a huge drag penalty.  Unless there are waves, I find use of the smallest (short) rudder blade with leaned turns to be the fastest overall.  Race pace in the Mystery is 9:40 with a personal best of 9:31 over my standard course.  Long race pace is 10:20.  I have raced this boat in seven races, including the 31-mile Chattajack, and find it faster than the same class boats like the V8Pro and V10Sport in waves less than about 2’.  In larger waves, those boats with under-hull rudders will prevail. 

My third and most recent completion is the Yukon.  It was built per the plans except for the bow, which was modified to be weed less like the Mystery.  The boat measures 18’ x 20.5” and weighs 36# fully rigged.   When I choose this design, it was for the singular purpose of having a boat to race in the Sea Kayak at the USCA Nationals August 2020.  After paddling the Yukon for about forty miles, I can say that I am pleasantly surprised, and expect that it will see much more use than I had originally intended.  The Yukon has good primary and secondary stability, nearly matching the Wahoo in those categories.  I suspect that the Wahoo’s extra 16# contributes to its apparent higher stability.  The Yukon is also a strong tracking kayak, but not nearly as much so as the Mystery.  Its turn radius falls between the other two boats, and like them, turns much better with some lean.  At race pace I find the Yukon to be only slightly slower than the Mystery at 9:45/mile (PB = 9:39).  At my long race pace, I find the Yukon to be equal to the Mystery at ~10:20.  I have not raced the Yukon yet, and with cancellation of the 2020 USCA Nationals I am not certain when I will.  I expect it to be extremely competitive with the Epic V8 and other boats that rate as SK under USCA and FSK under SR.  I am also looking forward to getting this boat out in some waves because it may be a good boat for use in conditions too rough for my intermediate ski.

Those of you who race may be interested in how these boats compare to commercial surfskis.  At race pace, my intermediate ski (Stellar SEI – 20’ x 18.1”) is about 5-10 seconds per mile faster (9:35-9:40/mile) than the Mystery.  I also have an elite ski (Stellar SEA – 20’4” x 16.3”) which is about 25 seconds per mile faster (9:15/mile) than the Mystery.  Of course, the biggest issue with the surfskis is stability.  I am stable enough in the intermediate ski that I can paddle it in 3’ waves without much trouble, but I dare only paddle the elite ski on flat water.  Because of both stability and comfort concerns, I do not use the skis for any race over 12-15 miles.   

There are two other aspects of boat performance that I have not captured above.  The first of those is what I will label as “sprint” speed, although I do not love that term.  Clearly, I can and do sometimes paddle the boats at a speed greater than my 8.5-mile race pace speeds listed above.  Examples include interval workout sessions, when paddling with a strong wind from behind, and the occasional sprint to the finish line during a close race.  Under those conditions, the two shorter boats (Wahoo and Yukon) will see an extra 0.2 - 0.3 mph over race pace where the Mystery may see an extra 0.5 mph and the surfskis even more.        

The other area where the boats differ significantly is how they handle in waves.  The Wahoo has a very full bow, so it goes up and over every wave, no matter how small.  This makes the Wahoo easier to handle in large waves but slows it down in the 12” chop that I routinely paddle in.  In comparison, The Mystery has a very fine bow which tends to drive straight through the chop with very little vertical movement resulting in excellent boat speed.  In bigger conditions, the Mystery bow tends to bury itself in the waves which does hurt boat speed.  The Yukon’s bow has medium volume, so I expect its performance in waves to fall between the other two boats. 

If you are still reading this, either you are really bored, or you are thinking about building one of them.  If your use will be recreational, then I would recommend either the Wahoo or the Yukon.  In addition to being more stable and maneuverable than the Mystery, both are shorter, lighter and cheaper to build.  Note that the design displacement of the Wahoo is 200#, so it is only suitable for smaller people unless you add length.  The Yukon has a 250# displacement so it should be suitable for all but the largest of paddlers.  The Wahoo might be a little better for waves, but the Yukon may be a little faster on flat water.  For racing, the Mystery is undoubtedly the fastest of the three boats on flat water and straight courses, but one of the two shorter boats may be a better choice for courses with waves or lots of turns.

Mystery on top and Yukon on bottom

Wahoo at the start of the 2018 Suwannee River Challenge (26 miles)

Weed-less bow on the Yukon.  The waterline is at the bottom of the lowest Alaskan Yellow strip.


Note the very full bow of the Wahoo

Stern View - Mystery on left and Yukon on right

Bow view, Yukon on left and Mystery on right

Rudders - Smart Track with regular single blade on Mystery (top) and under hull 4" weedless on Yukon.  Note that Yukon has also provisions for the Smart Track system. 

Wahoo and a Pax 18 at USCA Touring Class Nationals 2016


9 replies:

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RE: A tale of three wooden race boats.

This post makes me think that John should add a guest blog to this website. It would be a shame if such an interesting discussion were to disappear in the mass of posts asking about how to use epoxy in cold weather, getting twists out of hulls, etc. (Not that those posts aren't also important, just numerous).

Thanks for the entertaining and informative read Mark,


RE: A tale of three wooden race boats.

Thanks Lazlo!  


RE: A tale of three wooden race boats.

Hi Mark, 

i guess the answer tonight is 'really bored'...so thank you for your kind diversion.

i have always been thankful for your commentary as i have looked at these types of boats with a lot of interest...but just never totally committed to a build.  that said, i have started a new project ..so i hope to be writing about it soon.  it's another 'rescue' boat - a partially finished kit of a hybrid night-heron.

i did not realize i was being watched in all my years of building and i was approached by my 20 year old nephew about building a boat together now that he is back from college due to covid.   his parents told him he should do something with this 'lost summer' and he told them he wanted to build a boat like his uncle did...and they told him to call his uncle....which is where this all started.

in the rescue we found, the original owner partially built the hull and then decided kayak building was not his thing...and there it sat until i acquired it last week.   ....so we get to finish the hull and then do the deck....and he is then a new boat builder/owner.   anyway, we start into it seriously tomorrow and i am excited to pass down skills to a new generation.

anyway, thank you for your write-up above......i think i am just going to have to borrow one of yours when we ultimately meet in person.


RE: A tale of three wooden race boats.

While I am planning to build a recreational, rather than a race boat, I have thought of a possible solution to a problem you mention in this post: swamping.

What would you think of adding an inner cockpit facing, vertical from deck (or coaming) to hull, to reduce the cockpit volume of a kayak to something like that of a surfski? Something like this:

Reduced cockpit volume kayak

I'm thinking of making this facing from 3mm plywood, sheathed in 2oz glass and glued to the coaming, deck, bulkhead, and hull. Might it work?

RE: A tale of three wooden race boats.

interesting...but i think you accomplish this by keeping the aft cockpit  bulkhead as far forward as possible (which in a lot of builds can look like the line behind the seat that you drew) and the   forward bulkhead no farther forward than you need to accomodate your foot/leg length.

skinny kayaks (like racing kayaks) are not going to be wide to start with and will not have a lot of volume in the sides to protect.  but unlike a surfski which, which is not covered, you need room for feet and for the feet to have a proper angle relative to deck height (so in most kayaks your feet are splayed out to the sides).  so i think putting 'walls' on the sides are not worth it relative to the problems it introduces (like creating places water could get stuck) and the general problems you invite anytime you create a closed space and can no longer access a part of the inner hull.

by keeping fore and aft sealed areas large relative to the cockpit, you severely limit the possibility of swamping beacuse the buoyancy of the enclosed fore and aft areas keep the boat cockpit up and out of the water.



RE: A tale of three wooden race boats.

  Mark N you wrote, " I have also added an Epic surfski bailer to the Yukon so that I can dispense with the skirt in waves."

In another forum a member is encouraging all to put bailers in their sea kayaks so when capsized and the cockpit is full of water you can right the boat jump in and paddle off while the scupper clears the cockpit like his surfski.  I think I got that close, if not right on what he proposes.  Forum opinions varied.  Mostly against on ...........the way is is normally. 

So given that,  how well does the bailer work for you?  What speed does it start to work?  How long, or "IF" a full cockpit would drain? 

RE: A tale of three wooden race boats.

Sorry for the delayed reply.  It was a busy work week!

For RogerD, what you propose is entirely possible, but not something that I would not do for the reasons outlined by Howard (hspira), plus the complexity and weight that it would add to the build.  If I were going to that much effort to reduce the cockpit volume, I would go with a fully open surfski type cockpit.  This is a subject that I have given considerable thought to in prep for my next build, which will be a Bjorn Thomasson Sprindrift scaled to 95%.  Due to the complexity, I have decided to build it with a regular deck vice surfski cockpit.  A low volume cockpit is important for skis because it is open and easily filled by breaking waves, but with a deck the cockpit takes very much less water.  Also, it really is surprising how little water comes aboard during a capsize and solo wet reentry.  Popping the bailer open clears the water in short order.

For Grumpy, I find that the bailer works quite well for my application, but I would not necessarily recommend it for all boats.  For starters, with a bailer your boat will never again be 100% dry, because they leak a little when closed.  The leakage is small, but it is still there.  Yesterday I did an 80-minute workout paddle and by the end, I had about ¼” of water in the boat.  That water was not all from leakage, but was the result of leakage plus paddle splash, water brought onboard by my water shoes and sweat.  Secondly, if installed in the hull of a kayak, the bailer will not drain 100% of the water because the top of the bailer protrudes about ¼” above the floor of the kayak.  (Surfskis do not have this problem because they have a false floor that the bailer recesses into.)

Now for the positive.  It is a bit counterintuitive, but the bailer will partially drain a fully swamped cockpit even when the boat is not moving.  If the water level inside the cockpit is higher than the water level outside, gravity drains the cockpit until equilibrium is reached.  With me (150#) sitting in my (36#) Yukon, this equilibrium occurs with about 3.5” of water in the cockpit.  In the pictures below, that puts the water just above the top of the black bailer handle.  When you start paddling the bailer starts draining the boat around 4 mph but works much better at 5+.  Below about 4 mph, water will flow into the cockpit.  From a dead stop, I can empty the full (equilibrium level) Yukon cockpit in about 80 seconds.

I pretty much always paddle with the bailer closed to reduce drag.  When water comes over the side, it is easy to pop it open a click or two as needed and close it again when done.  With practice, both the Epic and Stellar bailers can be opened and closed with your foot without even missing a stroke.  For a recreational boat, I think that a bailer would be a good addition as long as you can easily paddle your boat over 5 mph and you don’t wear a skirt. 

I have had good experience with both the Stellar and Epic bailers.  I think that I will go with the Stellar in my next build because it is wider and works a bit better at low speeds.  I have a pair of Anderson bailers which work very well in my GIS, but I would advise against using those in a kayak because they have a lot of sharp edges and cannot be operated with your foot.  Another option would be to install a venturi system like some surfskis use.  The advantages are they are cheaper, do not leak when closed and are easier to install.  The disadvantages are that the drag is always there, you must use your hand to operate, and they can be knocked off if you hit something.

Hope that this helps!

Before Installation


Close Up

Under side

Stellar Bailer recessed into false floor of SEA ski

Venturi system on bottom of SEI surfski

Cockpit view of venturi

RE: A tale of three wooden race boats.

   Thanks Mark. As an old one design sailor it confirms my thoughts on the subject. I have a lot of experience with Andersen bailers in sail boats.  I suspect too in a regular sea kayak weight distribution would have to be such that the low point would be foward by the feet. Which often ends up the other way in my boats.  The engine is heavy. 

RE: A tale of three wooden race boats.

   Had a pax20 did a race once( not a serious one)where al, the kayaks had to do a turn around 3 bouys  wound up passing them,backing up then going up the other side, was still slow but better than trying g to get a 20' boat to carve a circle

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