A (LONG) tale of four wooden race boats.

About eighteen months ago, I wrote a comparison of the three wood race boats that I had built at that time.  I recently completed a fourth boat, so it is time for an update. 

The four boats are the Wahoo FSK designed by John Winters, the Yukon and Mystery both by Nick Schade and a Decked Spindrift by Bjorn Thomasson.  All four are equipped with Stellar surfski style foot braces and Smart Track over the stern, kick-up rudder systems.  Depending upon the conditions, either the short, regular, or double rudder blade for the Smart Track system can be used.  On the Yukon and Spindrift, I added the capability to switch to an under-hull rudder.  On those boats, I use 4” weedless rudders which perform much better than the Smart Track on “weedy” courses.  For big water, I have deeper under-hull rudders which will maintain control 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.  To provide self-bailing capability, I added an Epic bailer to the Yukon and a single Stellar venturi to the Spindrift.

Left to Right - Yukon, Wahoo, Mystery & Spindrift

If you are interested in these boats, you may be planning to race.  If that is the case, you need to research 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 that {C}[MN1]{C} 18’6” boat competes against much longer/narrower surfskis in some classification systems.  The last point here is that the existence of the various systems is one of the primary reasons that I have a total of six 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 60 years old, 5’7” tall, weigh 155# and is aerobically fit.  I recently retired so I paddle 3-4 times per week.  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 78 strokes per minute.  For the longer (>15 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) even though the over stern rudder was useless and I was not wearing a skirt.  The Wahoo is more maneuverable than the Yukon or Mystery, 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.  Built properly and at the specified length, this design has proven itself to be extremely competitive in the USCA SK and SR FSK classes.  The owner of the design, who is also a skilled builder, races a 26# Paulownia/carbon fiber boat that is always at the front of the pack.  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.           

My Wahoo in the center with two if Jim Budi's Le Comps.  The Wahoo and LeComp are basically the same design except for cockpit position.  The boat on the right is paulonia/carbon and weighs 26#.  Boat on the left was lengthened to 19.5' for Chattajack.   

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 less stable than the Wahoo or Yukon but more stable than the Spindrift.  It is a bit “twitchy” when you first get in, but the stability hardens when you lean the boat.  I have something over 500 miles in the Mystery with only one swim.  That occurred when I was caught out 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 1-2 boat lengths to the Wahoo and 2-3 boat lengths to either of my skis.  Use of the largest (double) rudder blade turns the boat 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 over my standard workout course.  I have paddled the Mystery in about a dozen races including a (31 mile) Chattajack and USCA Touring Class Nationals.  The Mystery is about equal to the V10Sport (20’), slightly faster than the V8Pro (19’) and noticeably faster than the 18’ boats like the V8 and S18S on flat water going straight.  In larger waves or on a course with many turns, the shorter boats with more rocker and under-hull rudders would gain an advantage.  The Mystery is slower than intermediate skis like the V10 and Stellar SEI.  One last note regarding the Mystery is that it recently lost some competitiveness under the new USCA Touring Class specs.  Mystery was designed to the old USCA spec of minimum of 18” BWL(4”).  In 2019, the spec was modified to min of 17” BWL(4”), allowing more narrow boats into the class.  The new Stellar Falcon is one of the boats that can now race Touring class that is likely faster than the Mystery.

Mystery hitting the finish line after 31 miles at 2019 Chattajack

My third race boat build was the Yukon completed in April 2020.  It was built per the plans except for the bow, which was modified to be weedless like the Mystery.  The boat measures 18’ x 20.5” and weighs 36# fully rigged.   When I choose this design, it was for the purpose of having a boat to race in the USCA Sea Kayak Class and Fast Sea Kayak under SR/MSR.  To date, I have paddled the Yukon about 275 miles and used it in four races.  It 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.  In direct competition, the Yukon is faster than the Epic V8 and Stellar S18S.  For me, the Yukon’s best use is for long races.  In May, I placed 3/7 in CLC’s twenty-mile race on a lumpy Chesapeake Bay, beating four Epic V10Pro/V8Sports (10:40/mile pace).  In August, I won the FSK division at the twenty-four mile race in Knoxville beating three Stellar S18S surfskis (10:09/mile pace).  Neither of these races used age brackets so I was competing against younger paddlers.

Yukon at CLC's BLBF


My most recent completion is a Spindrift surfski design by Bjorn Thomasson but scaled down (width/height) to 95% and built with a kayak deck.  The boat measures 20’6” x 18” and weighs 37.4#.  I built this boat hoping for a wooden boat that I can race in our paddling association where intermediate surfskis (V10 etc) dominate.  I would have preferred to build it with a surfski type deck but was concerned with comfort, weight, and complexity of building that type deck.  To date I have about 100 miles on the Decked Spindrift with three races.  It is not quite as stable as the Mystery but slightly more stable than my 18.1” wide Stellar SEI surfski.  As expected of a surfski hull, the Spindrift tracks very loosely and requires active steering, but is very maneuverable.  It will turn in about 1/3 the radius of the Mystery and has a turn radius equal to or better than an Epic V10.  At race pace over my standard course, the Decked Spindrift is about 10 seconds per mile faster than the Mystery at 9:30/mile.

Spindrift in Flame Rapids at 2021 USCA Nationals

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 when paddling with a strong wind from behind, and an 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, the Mystery may see an extra 0.5 mph and the Spindrift/surfskis something approaching an extra 1.0 mph.

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 as the waves get larger but slows it down in the 12” chop that I routinely paddle.  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 tends to bury the bow into the waves which does hurt boat speed.  The Yukon falls between the Wahoo and Mystery and behaves much like my surfskis.  In smaller chop it pieces the waves but goes up and over when they get bigger.  Equipped with the bailer and under-hull rudder, I routinely paddle the Yukon in 3.5’ white caps without a skirt.  It surfs wonderfully and is an absolute blast in snotty conditions.  Given the surfski hull, the Spindrift also does very well in waves, but I will note that the single venturi does not drain the cockpit as fast as the Epic bailer in the Yukon.  I will also note that the kayak deck makes it a little harder to reboard compared to a surfski.

Summary of all the boats below, including my commercial boats.  One aspect not really discussed above is the impact of comfort and stability on boat speed.  I am stable enough in the intermediate ski (SEI) that I can paddle it in 3’ waves without much trouble, but I dare only paddle the elite ski (SEA) on flat water.  Because of both stability and comfort concerns, I do not use the skis for any race over ~15 miles.

Wahoo                                18.5’x20.5”         52#        9:55/mile  
Yukon                                  18’x20.5              36#        9:45/mile

Mystery                              20’x20”                40#        9:40/mile

Stellar SEI(2G)                   20x18.1”              26#        9:35/mile

Decked Spindrift               20.5’x18”            37.4#     9:30/mile

Stellar SEA                         20.3’x16.3”         26#        9:15/mile


Another useful boat comparison comes from the 2021 USCA Nationals where I raced the Mystery, Yukon, and Decked Spindrift on three consecutive days.  The course was 12.6 miles downstream on the Allegheny River with two ½ mile upstream segments (four buoy turns).  Overall, the water was shallow with significant current and there was one set of class two rapids with 3’ standing waves.  Thanks to controlled release from the Kinzua dam, water conditions were identical all three days.  Day one was Touring Class in the Mystery.  I paddled the course in 1:42:11 putting me 9/18 overall, 4/7 in age group (60-64), and nine minutes behind the overall winner paddling a V10 Sport.  The second day was Sea Kayak Class in the Yukon, where I paddled the course in 1:42:32, placing 8/20 overall and taking Silver in age group.  I was only seven minutes behind the overall winner (same gentleman that won Touring Class) paddling a V8.  A comparison of these two races shows that the Mystery was marginally faster, but not nearly as competitive as the Yukon under the USCA classification system.  The third day was Unlimited Class in the Spindrift where I was competing mostly against elite surfskis like the V12/V14/SEA.  I covered the course in 1:38:24, placing 15/27 overall and taking Bronze in age group.  In a demonstration of just how fast an elite ski can be, the overall winner beat me by over 17 minutes paddling a V12.  Even thirty-three years after winning his first Olympic Gold, , Greg Barton is still REALLY fast. 

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