I purchased a Grand Illusion in 2017 and have paddled it maybe 50 times since; mostly in lakes, lazy rivers, bays, estuaries and less frequently exposed coast. I have been paddling for 30 some years and, during that time, have owned a Wilderness Systems Sealution II, a CLC Chesapeake 16, and most recently a Necky Chatham 17. One of the main attributes I was looking for in a new boat was superior rough-water performance. Although those are not my typical paddling conditions, I almost always paddle solo and on rare occasions when paddling away from home have found myself in conditions elevated my heart rate. After soliciting advice on candidate boats (on the paddling.net forum), I checked out the Grand Illusion, and a few other boats. Overall, I’m very pleased with the Grand Illusion. I’m currently 58 and this could well be my last boat as I don’t see how I could improve on it, unless in my age-related quest for ever lighter boats I one-day end up going the fabric-on-frame route. Speaking of which, I ordered the Grand Illusion in one of the lighter lay-ups. It weighs in at 41.8 lbs.
Despite the heavy rocker, the boat is just as fast as my Chatham. Neither are speedboats but on infrequent group paddles I am generally near the front of the pack without expending any effort beyond my normal relaxed paddling style. The boat turns quickly, easily, and with a tight radius (this is another attribute I was hoping for as I felt I was struggling too much to quickly turn the boat around to point back out into the waves after side surfing). I attribute this agility in large part to the heavy rocker. Edging/leaning on either side (i.e., towards or away from the turn) helps but it turns well without leaning. It has plenty of primary and secondary stability. When turning, I find it easy to submerge the edge of the coaming without struggling to stay upright (I’m probably using a light paddle skim). Although this boat seems most at home on open water, it’s ability to turn tightly is also a nice attribute when gunkholing in narrow winding salt marsh creeks and so on. An unexpected benefit of the heavy rocker is that I can set the boat at the edge of a paved ramp, just out of the water’s reach such that any waves are not pushing on the stern and grinding the hull back and forth on the concrete. After I load my gear into the boat and go park, I can come back, lift the boat up by the bow toggle and have the stern rock into the water and float. Not sure if I made that clear but the bottom line is that I get far fewer scratches on the hull now when the boat is sitting at the ramp than with my more straighter keeled boats,.
The cockpit opening is large enough and the boat stable enough that it is easy to straddle the boat while it sits in shallow water, plunk my butt into the seat and draw my legs in w/o ever feeling unstable. In reverse, it is similarly easy to pull legs out of the cockpit while still seated and exit. For what it’s worth, I’m 5’6” and 200 lbs. Also easy to get back into the boat during a re-entry and roll or cowboy scramble.
I don’t have any problem rolling this boat. I had hoped that my ability to balance brace, which I could do effortlessly ,with the Chesapeake 16 but not with the Chatham 17 that followed, might return but it has not.
I have tried to swamp the boat and, at least in calm waters, it is virtually impossible to get enough water in that it is not paddle-able. If I get out of the boat and try to flip it, it mostly wants to sit at about a 135 degree angle to the water. To deliberately fill the boat with water at this angle has not been possible.
I was worried that the position of the skeg (the skeel as Sterling calls it) box, within the day hatch, would make access to certain items difficult. However, I have actually found this to be a useful feature in that it acts as a partition of sorts, allowing me to organize the items in that compartment a bit better. The hatch covers work quite well at keeping water out but you have to really make sure they are in position and correctly seated.
I have mostly paddled in light winds (below 15 knots and typically below 10). To my surprise, the boat shows very little tendency to weathercock when winds are abeam. It does however try to turn sideways to the wind when the wind is coming at an angle from the rear quarter (but not directly behind). The skeg adequately addresses this issue (when it is working – see below). On one occasion I was out in very brisk winds, which were being accelerated as they passed through some bridge pylons. Turning upwind was very difficult.
Similarly, I have infrequently been out in big waves. This last week however, I was paddling in some 2-3 feet waves just outside the surf line and the boat really didn’t care and neither did I. I have also paddled in a location (James Island, SC) where winds, tides, river outflow and ocean waves bend around sandbars and create some crazy claptosis. The boat felt pretty secure in this as well – more so I believe than my Chatham would have.
The negatives are very few. Personally, although I’m glad for the rocker and the performance attributes it comes with, but the boat does look a bit like a floating banana, so not the most attractive boat to my eye. I suppose that’s a personal preference though. On the subject of aesthetics, note that you can customize the color scheme anyway you like since these are built to order (they probably have some available in their inventory as well) including, for an upcharge, various patterns (i.e., not just the hull one color, the seam another, and the deck something else). There is a page on the Sterling website with lots of pictures of some customer boats.
Functionally, my only complaint is that the skeg, or skeel, seems to jam almost every time I go out. It retracts into the skeg box with very little clearance. My guess is that this works very well to prevent pebbles from getting in and jamming the skeg (which based on my limited experience in the area seems like the predominant beach type in the area where the boat is manufactured). However, I paddle in areas with lots of sand and I think the sand still gets in and doesn’t wash out too easily. I know I did not have this problem with my Chatham which has more clearance. The last time I was out, the skeg jammed (as usual) and when I tugged on the string that helps pull the skeg out when the cable jams, the cable separated from the skeg. I bought some epoxy puddy and will hopefully be able to make this repair myself this week. (I'm going to give the boat 5 stars anyway but this is the only issue that made me consider 4 stars).
All in all though, I think this is a great boat. Fast enough, agile, stable and a good boat in challenging conditions.
Surprised by the delicate nature of this kayak since we have swift canoes, ultralight Kevlar and one in carbon fusion and they are much more durable and can stand normal careful use, i.e. 15 yrs plus use in Alquonquin!