What I wanted next was something a little more nimble, a little faster, perhaps less stable but more playful. So I went on the boards here and asked for advice, and got plenty of choices. I took time off for the on water demo days this spring and talked with dealers and builders. I narrowed my choices down to the Eddyline Fathom and the Swift Bering Sea. Either one would fill my needs quite well. At the end of the day I wound up buying the Swift Bering Sea.
There isn't just "one thing" that I find outstanding about this kayak. It just is what it is. A comfortable, reasonably fast, reasonably maneuverable kayak that is well made, pretty as can be, and makes me smile every time I look at it on the rack or on the truck or on the water. It's just a purely delightful boat that I'm enjoying immensely. I've done several day trips and two weekend camping trips and have no problem stuffing my 200 pounds and another 70 pounds of gear into the Bering. The work "cavernous" comes to mind, it just seems to always take "just one more thing" through those oversized hatch openings. I do think the 30 pounds of water and the two soft sided coolers with beer and ice were a bit over the top, but I had a good trip anyway.
The hardest thing I've paddled so far is a 2 mile crossing with 3 foot breaking waves on my left rear quarter and a steady wind pushing the boat around when I was on the crest of a wave. The boat wanted to slide down the wave face sideways into the trough. That was the first time I was absolutely thankful I got the rudder. Without it the boat required diligent steering with every other stroke. Once I put the rudder down everything settled down to a good ride. The hatches stay dry in normal use and the seat is very comfy now that I've cut about 3 inches off the top of the backrest.
The manufacturer has been easy to work with and willing to spend extra time helping me decide if this was the right boat, and not trying to push something off on me and he has followed up to see how I'm liking it. So, there's no "gosh, gee whiz this is the best boat out there" kind of review. Just a satisfied customer who wouldn't hesitate to buy another John Winters design and I certainly won't hesitate to buy another Swift. This is the third Swift I've owned over 6 years and all three have been beautiful boats and very pleasant to paddle.
I gave them a 10 for quality and design and a 0 for not staying on my feet. Average 5. Another thing I noticed is the sizing. I usually take a 11 or 12 but these shoes I fit a 9 and almost fit an 8. So I would say adjust at least 2 sizes smaller than your normal footwear.
Back in May 2006, I wrote my first impressions of the Nova Craft Pal, and I don't have any reasons to change my review, only add to it a bit. First, I must point out that Nova Craft donated this Pal to the James River 400, so my review may be a tad biased...
It's a darn good canoe for lake and river tripping where big whitewater isn't an issue. It weighs a good bit less than comparable 16 footers making it easier to handle on and off the truck and on portages. Putting the saddle in the canoe as mentioned in my first review was mostly so I could race it. Adding a few pounds of gear amidship gives the boat better balance. As pointed out by the builder, the seats are where they are so the paddler has a better position for a vertical stroke. Moving the seats closer to amidship would mean the paddler has to reach farther to paddle, thus losing the efficiency of a stacked stroke.
The last day I used the Pal this season was about Mile 220 on the James, where the water is lean and the rocks and ledges are everywhere, making it a 'thread the needle' kind of day. My bow partner was an experienced kayaker who wanted to try canoeing and she learned quickly. With hearty bow draws and stern prys we could turn the Pal and place it pretty much where we wanted it each time. On the flats we could out run the recreational kayaks with no problem.
I really like the Pal and recommend it highly for its intended use. If big whitewater is in the trip plan then move up to the Prospector. You'll lose some speed but gain a good bit of maneuverability and riding over wave trains instead of punching through them. If you're traveling on all lakes then I'd recommend the Cronje which is faster.
On the whole however, you won't go wrong if you buy the Pal as your 'go to' boat for most recreational canoeing and wilderness tripping. If you want to test paddle this Pal just give me a shout, I'm always glad to show it off.
We tested it yesterday on the 5-mile section of the James River at Balcony Falls. I was impressed with the stability and ease of turning. It is slower to accelerate than a typical recreational kayak or whitewater kayak. It handled the rock gardens well but it tends to dive into the wave trains for a wet ride so the spray skirt is a necessity in Class II-III. The Seals 2.2 nylon spray skirt with adjustable tunnel tends to leak a bit, but the Mountain Surf neoprene skirt is just fine.
I ran a dozen Class II and two Class III rapids yesterday and felt secure and in control all the way. Now that I have a little time in the boat I won't hesitate to use it in bigger water such as the Upper New River Gorge in West Virginia. I would say the boat is not heavy duty enough for the New River Gorge Class IV-V.
I weigh 215# with my pfd and paddle and the Approach rides low in the stern. I could pass over rocks with the bow and midsection and scrape at the stern. This could be corrected by either weighting the front end or moving the seat forward which will not be easy because it is molded into the boat.
I carried 5# of gear and 8# water in the dry hatch which probably affected the stern load. On the way out I put the water and gear in front of the foot pedals and that made a little difference, not much.
The boat surfs very well, front, side rear. Edges are not grabby. It's too big to spin on a wave as a WW kayak will. Tends to pearl in bigger waves. Carved turns into and out of eddies are smooth and effortless. Attaining is a bit more difficult than in my white water kayak, but not a big thing.
On the lake at the end of the run I could only go 2.5 miles per hour with the skeg up. Pushing beyond that speed kicks up a bow wake that pushes the bow off line and requires extra attention to steering.
By putting the skeg down I could push the boat up to 3 mph before the bow wake became troublesome. This is about the same cruising speed that is comfortable for the Dagger GT 7.5 whitewater kayak and the Esquif Paradigm whitewater solo canoe that were paddling beside me. We were able to carry on an easy conversation while maintaining 3 mph with a steady, easy cadence.
At the end of 4 hours of playing in rapids and practicing ferries, peel outs, eddy turns, back paddling and attaining I wasn't sore anywhere, which means the boat fits me reasonably well and there are no pressure points. There is a lot of room in the cockpit so I could move around and stretch my legs for comfort. Overall it is a very nice little boat and I'm pleased with it. I will use it as a introductory level student kayak on rocky rivers.
Paddling the Shearwater for the first time was outstanding and it just keeps getting better every time I paddle it. Plenty of glide, easy to get up to speed and hold at cruising speed with minimal correction. Tracks very well and turns as needed. Not a sharp turn, but plenty responsive for most river work. I ordered the expedition kevlar and skid plates so I can use the boat on the rocks and ledges in my local rivers and I'm not disappointed. After banging through numerous rock gardens over the past few weeks I'm well satisfied that the expedition kevlar and skid plate installation was a good choice for me. The canoe weighs 48# with all the trimmings, but a comparable Royalex boat would be 20# heavier and not as much fun to paddle. The composite hull is stiff and reassuring.
My overall satisfaction with the Shearwater and with Bill Swift Jr. is a 10. If I could get the same strength hull only 10# lighter I'd have been thrilled, but as it is I'm very satisfied, and would recommend this canoe and the Swift company to anyone seeking a fine canoe or kayak. I also own the Swift Osprey in kev light and it is also finely crafted. It weighs 40# which is certainly in line with the lay up and the finish including the sliding seat. Before I made my decision to buy the Osprey and to order the Shearwater I searched the Internet and found dozens of compliments from satisfied customers but could only find one person ever complaining about the Shearwater or the Swift Company, and I thought that was pretty good considering the large number of canoes and kayaks they build and sell each year.
The Combi fills the requirements quite nicely. It is very stable, plenty of freeboard and will carry my 220 plus day gear with no problem. The deck box day hatch is easy to work and holds quite a bit. It is neoprene sock however so not waterproof if you flip. It also heats up a lot during the day transferring the heat to anything in the compartment and to my legs. The rear hatch is excellent, dry, easy access and roomy. Plenty of space for minimal camping gear. The hatch is a standard Prijon hardshell over neoprene. After rolls and wet exit practice the stern hatch remained dry. The seat is adjustable fore and aft but won't go any further aft than mid point because it hits the backrest which is limited by the back cockpit rim. As a result it's not possible to move paddler weight further back to lift the bow enough to keep it from plowing. The back rest is adjustable with a cord and keeper and offers good lumbar support although the keeper gradually lets the line out so the seat back needs to be readjusted several times per day. The front of the seat itself is too high and hit my thighs causing discomfort after 3 hours of paddling. I tried several thicknesses of minicell to raise the buttocks high enough to relieve the pressure on the thighs. The footrests are adjustable, by turning the hand wand to mid point then moving the foot peg fore and aft with toe until it reaches the right position, then turn the hand wand to lock position. Foot pegs are sturdy and comfortable. There is plenty of room in the bow forward of the foot pegs for a couple 20L drybags.
On the Combi Touring model, which I have, the pegs are not rated for intensive whitewater use. The WhiteWater model has a forward bulkhead instead of pegs. The bow is fairly pointy but bulbous, so at any speed over slow cruising the bow pushes up a wave which makes it harder to maintain speed and causes the bow to want to wander. Backing off the speed until the bow wake recedes gives a fairly comfortable cruising speed and requires very little paddling effort to keep it there. As soon as you stop paddling the boat will wander to which ever side it was leaning when you stopped paddling, and the bow will veer more abruptly the faster you are coasting. There is a nice little glide at the lower speed. It only takes a couple power strokes to get the boat up to cruising speed, but that isn't very fast, and pushing only a slight bit more will create the noisy bow wake. The boat loves to ferry, forward or backwards. I am able to cross the river with a slight upstream ferry and a few well placed strokes.
The Combi turns fairly easily with a hefty lean, easier when underway. From a stop it takes 3 strong paddle strokes to turn 180. The rear hatch cover has 4 tie points for strapping on gear. The weight at 54 pounds (average of 4 weighings on bathroom scale) is a tad heavy for a whitewater kayak, certainly heavy for a 12 foot recreational kayak, but okay since this is in essence a 12' whitewater downriver boat. Thigh pads are easily adjustable to a variety of angles and positions. The bolt on wear strip in the stern is very rugged. I didn't purchase the bolt on skeg, but it seems an easy matter to use the (supplied) allen wrench to take out two screws and remove the wear strip and replace it with the bolt on skeg).
The Combi is a whitewater kayak that is recreational capable, for real. Compared to a "recreational kayak" that claims to be whitewater capable. A good boat for someone moving up from a recreational kayak to more whitewater and downriver use. I feel better about the weight knowing the Combi is made from recyclable plastic that doesn't use any of the agents that are harmful to the environment.
I brought the boat home and talked a friend of mine into entering a downriver race. We practiced an hour or two then showed up at the race and took third place in our division. Our time was 1 hour and 34 minutes for the 9.5 mile course, which had several Class II rapids. That is just under 6 mph. The winner only beat us by 7 minutes so I felt pretty justified in buying the canoe for fast wilderness tripping.
The fit and finish on the canoe is good, the seats are bootlaced and the rails are vinyl. The yoke is carved but tended to slip off my shoulders so I added a 1/4 inch minicell pad. I think the back seat is too far back for level trim. The front seat is already far enough forward and going any farther forward would cramp the bow paddlers legs. So I installed a minicell saddle about 2 feet in front of the rear seat and leveled the boat right out. There isn't much rocker so it takes some effort to make a snappy turn. Its important to line up early for the rapids and have a good line picked. Leaning helps. We did a few turns with an off side lean like in a sea kayak and the stern-skid turns were pretty impressive. No doubt the Prospector would be a better choice if the rapids are big and confused and long, but for most rivers that I travel the Pal is an excellent choice and the advantage of speed and ease of paddling outweighs the need for running an occasional tight rapid. I look forward to updating this review at the end of the season after I've put a good many miles on the Pal.