For starters, let’s acknowledge that the Mariner fan club tends to cheer any boat designed by the Broze Brothers. To hear them tell it, these boats are an evolutionary step beyond other designs. The Express is a very decent boat, but it’s by no means the pinnacle of kayak evolution.
Let’s start with the good. First off, Mariner construction is excellent. The boat is strong where it really counts (solid end pours, beefy seams), but light enough to carry. Second, a lot of thought has gone into the hull to balance several characteristics: maneuverability, tracking, speed, surfability. The result is that the Express is pretty darn good in all four areas, which is an impressive design achievement. Third, because of its short length and high volume bow/stern, the Express is a good boat to have in confused waters. Fourth, all that volume also translates into lots of space for gear for trips.
Now the less than good parts. The Broze Bros felt that hatches and bulkheads were leak-prone, heavy, and totally unnecessary, so they built their boats without them. The entire kayak industry felt differently, with the Brit builders in particular demonstrating beyond a shadow of a doubt that bulkheads can be made strong and hatches can be made waterproof, and expedition paddlers the world over showing their preference for such hatches. In short, the Mariner position, while exotic, is an evolutionary dead end. Having tripped out of an Express for several years, I can’t tell you how big a hassle it was to have no hatches. That, plus the need to use a seasock for safety, drove me crazy.
Another Boze design philosophy was their condemnation of skegs and rudders. Again, they considered them failure-prone and unnecessary. And again, the entire industry moved in a different direction. I’ve had my share of jammed skegs or rudders that won’t deploy fully, but I’ve also spent enough time tripping in big winds or confused waters where either a rudder or skeg saved me from fatigue and frustration. With its blunt stern, the Express could easily take a rudder, and due to its cockpit placement, there are occasions when it could definitely use one (see below).
There are other drawbacks to the boat. The high rear deck impedes layback rolls. The cockpit might have been large for its time, but compared to modern boats it’s a bit short. This means that people with 32” inseam or longer will have to contort themselves when getting in and out. Finally, in high winds (30 knots) this boat will leecock, which is no good at all, requiring the paddler to load the bow heavy. That wouldn’t be a huge problem in a boat with a front hatch...except this boat doesn’t have one. A rudder would solve this problem too...
So while the Express was a classic of its time, it needs a fresh look. Adding bulkheads and rubber hatches would be a vast improvement. Adding a rudder would make this a very complete all-rounder.
I mentioned that I had a high volume kayak for touring. My son and I went on a trip up to Upper Priest Lake in Idaho and he took the high volume boat. I packed gear into dry bags and stuffed them up into the hull (no hatches). I was amazed to discover that I could load almost as much as the 18'6" high volume expedition boat. The fat butt of the Express - which makes it surf so readily - also lets me easily carry enough gear for a trip. Even more surprising, when the wind came up he took more water over his boat than I did!!!
It's fast and it can carry a load and it loves to surf. So how about handling? Well a friend came up to visit and I gave him the Express and a few tips on the sliding seat. We took an hour paddle on a local lake and during the paddle the wind came up and he had some issues with weathercocking. A simple shift of the seat position solved that problem. No rudder, no skeg... just scooch back or forward until the problem goes away and keep on paddling. Adjustments to your heading are accomplished by a quick edge to one side or another without changing paddle cadence. After a short while it becomes second nature.
The Mariners are, at least for now, available again (www.marinerkayaks.com) but if you can't find one new and see one advertised used, buy it! You won't regret it.