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At 18' long x 21" wide, with a rounded hull, the S18S possesses a great combination of speed and stability. Designed to fit the requirements of the USCA Sea Kayak class, the S18S will run with the fastest sea kayaks on the market, yet the stability will make the boat comfortable to most kayakers. If you can paddle most sea kayaks, you should have no problem paddling this boat. I do have to warn you, however, that you're used to paddling a standard sea kayak, and not a surf ski, the openness of a "sit on top" boat will feel strange at first. Many sea kayakers are used to holding their knees against the top of the cockpit – something you can't do in a surf ski! What you will find, however, is that getting in and out of the S18S is far easier than any normal sea kayak – simply straddle the boat and sit down! Likewise, if you do fall out of the boat for any reason, reentry is as easy as it gets for any boat. Plus, there's no need to pump water out of the cockpit, etc. – simply pull the plug on the venturi bailer, paddle, and any water in the cockpit area is sucked out!
Some of the neat features of the boat include two large hatches to carry lots of gear – a first for the hybrid surf ski/sea kayaks. There's also a water bottle holder in the cockpit, a leash attachment point, handles at each end of the boat, a plug for the bailer (a nice feature when you aren't in rough water and don't want to start with a cockpit full of water), the best footplate/rudder pedal system on the market (a very stout 3-point attachment system and quick-released latches making adjustment easy and rapid), and 3 rudder options: a long under-stern surf rudder for surfing the waves on big water, a shorter weedless rudder for calmer water and shallower /weedy areas, and an over-stern kick-up rudder that can be swapped in quickly for those rivers and such with underwater obstacles.
The layups available in the S18S go from around 36 lbs down to 27 lbs; all are far lighter than most sea kayaks, really easing the load when it comes time to carry the boat or put it on top of your car. In spite of the light weight, the S18S is a very solidly built boat. The various curves and ridges in the deck and the layup of the hulls give the boats an unusual feel of solidity without compromising lightness.
As a surf ski paddler, I find most sea kayaks feel like barges to me. Their full decks generally interfere with a good paddle stroke, and I sort of feel lost inside cockpits. The seating isn't generally all that comfortable to me, either, and tends to inhibit good rotation in the paddle stroke. The S18S, on the other hand, has the sporty feel of a surf ski, but with the super confidence-building stability of a sea kayak – just the thing for tackling windy and wavy water! I found the cockpit to be quite comfortable, and the open surf ski design allows for good paddling ergonomics. This is a boat that's equally at home cruising across flat water or surfing waves on the ocean.
I was immediately impressed by the S18S on my first paddle (I have an Advantage layup boat, spec'd at 35.3 lbs). I thought "wow – this boat really feels good, and it's fun!" The hull speed was surprisingly fast - I can comfortably cruise this boat in the mid-6's, and sprint up to around 8 mph (I took it to the USCA Nationals to race Sea Kayak class, and came in 3rd overall – my best placement at the Nationals to date). The S18S turns well, and you can lean it until water is about to come into the cockpit. The secondary stability is particularly sweet, since there aren't any surprises – just a very smooth, linear feel as you increase the lean on the boat. At a recent lakeside gathering of friends with various paddling abilities, I brought along the S18S for everyone to try, and even those with very little paddling experience found it easy to get comfortable in the 18S and found it to be a lot of fun. The more experienced paddlers had a blast with the boat! Later, 3 paddling friends and I took the S18S out onto one of our larger lakes when the waves were kicking up, and found the boat handled superbly in the chop. Two foot beam waves were no problem - just fun, and heading downwind it picks up the waves to surf with ease.
I normally paddle/race high performance surf skis, and I appreciate the sense of connection you have to a boat that responds rapidly and crisply to your inputs. The S18S has a very similar feel, but in a stable package that opens up the surf ski world to a broad range of paddlers, without compromising the versatility of a sea kayak. A solid "10" in my book!
Our SR is actually my wife's boat. She enjoyed her Think Fit, a sea kayak with a surf ski cockpit, but found the cockpit rim made a deep-water reentry very difficult for her. She also became frustrated with the very plumb bow that tended to catch all manner of leaves and weeds that populate our rivers in the fall, and with the difficulty she had in bouncing the bow enough to clear it. Also in the equation was a desire to find a lighter and faster boat – lighter, because she has limited upper body strength for lifting/carry a boat, and faster because... well... everyone wants to go faster! The final item that sent her on a hunt for a new boat, however, was a friend of ours who really, really wanted the Fit for racing USCA Sea Kayak class. Having a boat essentially sold without effort makes looking for a new one much easier!
We started our search looking at various sea kayaks and surf ski/sea kayak hybrids, but nothing quite hit the sweet spot. Then we looked at the Stellar line and she found exactly what she was looking for in the SR: at 19' long x 19" wide, the boat was a little narrower and a little longer than her Fit for better speed potential, the Excel Kevlar layup was only 25 lbs (compared to her 34 lb fiberglass Fit, which is actually pretty light itself), and the gently curved bow looked like it should ride over leaves and such, much like the Epic V10L I was paddling at the time. Plus it had all the advantages of a surf ski – great paddling ergonomics, easy entry/exit, and a self-bailing cockpit. Furthermore, Stellar boats have a superb 3-point foot plate with easy length adjustment – definitely the best I've seen on the market. With a bit of looking around, a former demo boat in the Excel layup and white color (my wife definitely wanted white!) showed up and found itself on the way to our house and to a new home.
Sometimes you don't get what you expect, but in this case the boat exceeded our expectations. It was indeed light, comfortable, and paddled superbly, running over leaves and weeds as though they weren't even there. It has the feel of a sports car – accelerating rapidly, running fast with a nice glide, and able to be leaned until water is just about coming into the cockpit. The design of the hull provides an unusual amount of secondary stability – something I had read about previously in reviews, but now experienced.
Even though I paddle narrower skis for racing, I find the extra stability of the SR makes it a tremendous amount of fun for playing in the waves of large lakes or the ocean without expending as much effort to stay upright. I was also surprised at how stout the boat felt, particularly for a 25 lb light layup. The work Stellar puts into crafting curves and raised areas in the deck really pays off in making a stiff boat (alongside the layup itself).
Other secondary items that were pleasant surprises included a very effective venturi with a plug (something that's nice to have on our Midwestern waterways in the winter), a built-in leash attachment point, and enough foot well width to allow me to paddle in the winter with neoprene boots! Most surf skis have fairly narrow foot wells, and I can barely get my wide feet into the foot well with thin paddling shoes, much less the boots.
I think everyone who's paddled our SR has loved it, but perhaps the best recommendation from me is to note that after seeing and paddling my wife's SR, I sold my other boats and bought a carbon Stellar SE Ultra for my race boat (another awesome surf ski, but that's for another review…).
I chose the Evo due to its extra 6 inches in length (for a little more performance – I still like to go fast!), and due to several reviews that indicated the Evo was a little faster – and perhaps more importantly –it possessed a more comfortable seat.
I think I made a great choice. I haven't paddled a V10 Sport, so I can't make a comparison, but I will say I have thoroughly enjoyed the Evo. The seat seems to be quite comfortable overall. I do feel it a little in my lower back after about an hour and a half, so it isn't perfect, but it feels good overall. The footwell has enough room I can wear my neoprene river boots in the winter with sufficient space (my feet are a wide size 11 – 12). When I tried out an Epic V10L, I barely had enough width for bare feet – no room at all for most water shoes, and certainly not river boots. The foot board and rudder pedals are very easily adjustable, and allow for very small increments of adjustment to fine-tune the pedal distances.
At 34 lbs, I'm very pleased with the light weight of my fiberglass Evo. Furthermore, it's a very sharp looking boat, painted in orange and grey. I get compliments on the boat nearly every time I take it out with a group. Sometimes people just stop and ask me about it when they see it on my car – especially when my wife and I have her Fit and my Evo on the car, in matching orange/grey color schemes! I've been told this is the coolest boat they've ever seen!
Primary stability doesn't feel substantially different than my T-bolt, but the Evo enjoys a significant amount of secondary stability. You can really lean it on its side. It's also somewhat faster than I expected. Not quite as fast as the T-bolt, but not that far off, either. I found that on my local river I can pretty comfortably average around 6.4 mph in my practice runs, and on a deep lake it isn't any problem holding 7 mph over extended distance (and even 8 mph for shorter distances). I have taken it out on rough lakes with confused, wind-driven chop running 2 – 3 ft, and felt quite confident. When I have gone over, reentry was quite easy, and the boat drains fairly fast.
I bought my boat used in late August, shortly after the USCA Nationals. It was hardly used by the previous owner, but I found it that while he picked it up in 2008, it was actually a 2007 model. As such, there have been a few improvements since mine was manufactured. The newer boats have pluggable venture drains – a very nice feature when you don't want to start with a foot well full of water, or you're paddling with others who are going too slow to keep your foot well drained. I just put a piece of plastic tape over the venturi drain when I want to keep it drier. Apparently the newer boats also have improved decals. Much to my dismay, I found that the sunscreen on my legs smeared the decals on the side of my boat. I eventually removed them, and cleaned up the adhesive with some Goo-be-gone. The newer boats also have a weed guard – a nice feature, since I do find that I can pick up some weeds on the understern rudder in weedy lakes. The newer Evo's also have handles on the front and rear of the boat – not a big deal to me, but a nice feature. With those changes, this boat moves from really good to excellent.
All in all, this is a fun, fast, comfortable boat, and I highly recommend it. As a side note, I've found Daryl Remmler, owner of Think Kayaks, to be a great guy to deal with. He's gone above and beyond in providing support.
Our Fit had an interesting beginning. With very little experience in kayaking, my wife was trying to test out the boat in the fast, swirling waters of the Allegheny at this year's Nationals, keeping close to the shore area where it was somewhat sheltered. She was doing fine, until she got too close to a tree growing out of the water a little off shore, at which point she got caught in the tree. In short order, the fast water turned her over, leaving her clinging to the tree. She called out to me that she was letting the boat go, giving me enough warning that I was able to swim out and intercept the boat, turn it over, reenter, and rescue her (giving me a chance to test how easily the boat can be re-entered!). At that point she felt bonded with the boat, and bought it!
At any rate, she really likes the boat, and I really like it as well. It's beautifully made, efficient, and boasts a comfortable cockpit and a pluggable drain (really nice if you aren't paddling fast enough to keep the cockpit drained). Speaking of which, you do have to move the boat fairly quickly to drain the water out of the foot well, but it does work well. We really liked the adjustable foot board and rudder pedals. They offer an almost infinite level of adjustment within the adjustment range. Our boat only has the under-stern rudder, but most of the boats seem to come with the option of quickly changing between over-stern and under-stern rudders (one of the neat features we observed in John Abraham's boat). The rudder is easily removed and replaced if you prefer a different length.
As noted by the previous reviewer, one delightful feature of the fit is its very light weight – only 34 lbs in fiberglass, and 6 or so lbs less in Kevlar. At 17 feet, it fits conveniently in our garage, and is easily car-topped as well. It's also a very sharp boat. We get loads of compliments on our matching orange and grey Think Kayaks (my wife's Fit and my Evo) whenever we take them out with other kayakers – even with my fellow racers. One of our local recreational kayakers told me these were the coolest boats he's ever seen! As I understand it, the finish is actually a special paint applied over the fiberglass gelcoat. It appears to be quite durable.
I would have to disagree with the previous review on one point – I find that the primary stability is a little tippier than those used to most sea kayaks might find comfortable initially, but this boat has loads of secondary stability – you can pretty much paddle it on its side, if you so desire. It's very confidence inspiring once you get a feel for the boat. And as mentioned before – it's quite fast and fun.
One final note: Daryl Remmler, owner of Think Kayaks, is an outstanding guy to deal with, providing excellent support. He has always willingly and rapidly answered my questions, and when we broke a rudder pedal (wind-driven waves pushed the boat against the rudder on the shore while my daughter was trying to get out into the lake), Daryl sent us a replacement footboard/rudder system at no cost.
If you're in the market for a sea kayak, or a great fitness or winter boat, this is one boat you'll definitely want to consider.
Such was the case with my Thunderbolt seats. The stock seat held me snugly and left me feeling secure in the boat, but (and perhaps this seat was modified by a previous owner) the back of the seat was such that the edge would cut into my back, especially if I used any significant amount of rotation in my stroke. My legs and buns would get numb after awhile as well. Using a back strap took away the back discomfort - as long as I was paddling casually. When I got aggressive (as in racing) and used a lot of rotation, I would end up with significant back chafing from the strap. I tried various padding schemes, but nothing really worked well. My lower back looked like I had been whipped and beaten in a POW camp.
With the stock setup not working for me, I opted to try the Onno seat. Reviews of this seat were glowing in admiration for the seat, and my experience with other Onno products was very favorable, so I called Pat and got one on order, getting the seat installed and briefly tested a week or so before the 2009 USCA Nationals. Not wise. The Onno seat is an excellent touring boat seat, but in my race boat I found it too wide and flat, leaving me feeling disconnected from my boat (which seriously compromised my performance in the swirling waters of the Allegheny river at the Nationals). Also, when I tried it without the back rest, the edge of the seat cut into my back. With the back rest it was much better, and the smooth back rest chafed me less than the back straps I had tried previously, but it still was rubbing me. At the Nationals I picked up some padding and got a good fit with the seat, using it fairly well in an 18 mile race the following week, but it still didn't give me as much rotational freedom as I desired. It was also a little heavier than the stock seat, and seemed to place my center of gravity a little higher. The quest for a better seat continued.
During the course of my search for a better seat for the Thunderbolt, I came across an interesting kayak seat called the Bumfortable (as in, keeping your buns comfortable!) from Gurney Gears. A wildly colored seat, made from closed-cell plastic foam, the Bumfortable seat promised to be an ergonomic seat that would provide support and cushion in all the right places, while having a slippery enough surface to allow body rotation for a proper forward stroke. Other claims included: warmth, reducing pressure points by redistributing the load over a larger area, light weight, no water absorption, low center of gravity, and - very important to me - structural back support without the chafing of back straps, etc. As a bonus, I read on a racer's web site the story of an individual who had installed a Bumfortable seat into his Thunderbolt, and really liked it:
Time to get out the credit card!
I ordered the narrower model, even though others had said they were able to get the wider model to fit the Thunderbolt. I think it was a good decision; the seat fit the Thunderbolt about like it was made for it - and for me. Like most people, I tried sitting in the seat before placing it in my boat, and found it was a little uncomfortable. There's a rise in the middle of the seat that kind of feels like it's going to give you a wedgie. Once in the boat, however, the seat felt great.
Gurney Gears shows how to glue the seat in place, but I opted to use 2 inch wide industrial strength self-adhesive Velcro hook and loop fastener material instead, a trick used by other paddlers in the area. After removal of the Onno seat, I used a cleaner/degreaser to clean the inside of the hull, followed by the use of rubbing alcohol as a final degreaser. I then attached a couple of strips of the Velcro material to each side of the channel running along the bottom of the seat. Having already test fit the seat to the boat, I knew where I wanted it placed, so I attached the mating Velcro material to those strips, removed the backing, and placed the seat in the desired position. It was easy and worked great. When I sat in the boat, the seat conformed to the bottom of the boat, and the seat sides provided just the right amount of foam padding between me and the cockpit sides (actually the stock seat hangars).
A couple of days after installation I headed out to the river for an 18 mile run - 9 miles up paddling at race pace, and a casual return trip after joining up with a recreational group coming down stream. My experience in the past has shown me that some seat seem ok when you're pushing hard, but hurt your back when you slow down. Conversely, a good touring seat is usually poor when you're going all out.
When all was said and done, I was very pleasantly surprised to find this seat seems to do all things well. I felt more connected with my boat and more stable than I've felt with any other seat. At the same time, I was able to really put the power to the water, getting plenty of rotation without any rubbing against my back. I think I ran some of my fastest times ever on that section of my local river, a combination of feeling secure in the boat and the ability to put my full power into the paddle. The Velcro installation worked great - the seat never even hinted at moving. If necessary, though, I could remove it and relocate the seat to fine tune the boat. During my outing my back was comfortable whether I was running hard or taking it easy. It seems to provide support to the back in just the right places, while avoiding rubbing in more tender areas. The seat definitely feels warm and comfortable. It's not hot and sweaty, just warm. It should make the boat feel pretty comfortable in winter.
If you need an improved seat in your kayak, and you can get past the wild colors, I would highly recommend the Bumfortable seat for serious consideration.
The first thing that struck me about the Onno P-41 rudder is the beauty of it - it's practically a work of art. Superbly crafted, the rudder has an airfoil cross-section and an elliptical platform, the combination of which is designed to provide maximum response with minimal drag. The symmetrically airfoiled (hydrofoiled?) section in theory should reduce turbulence around the blade and keep the flow attached longer to provide greater rudder effectiveness at higher angles of incidence in relation to the line of the hull. The elliptical platform in theory should reduce tip vortices (and the resultant drag) from the end of the rudder. I don't know how much analysis, if any, Pat put into this rudder, but I will say it works superbly. My Thunderbolt went from being a challenging boat to paddle just trying to keep it on course, to being a superbly responsive boat with excellent tracking - and excellent speed. Turning and tracking with a 21 ft boat can be somewhat critical in a race that involves turn around points and obstacles.
One of the really cool features of this rudder is the ability to change the rudder length just by inverting the rudder in relation to the housing. The rudder can be left fairly long, which is great for deep water and waves, or shortened to a much more reasonable length for river running (and it's still very effective).
There's no provision to pull the rudder up, but it does have an adjustable kick-up feature to keep the rudder and boat from being damaged by underwater obstacles. I have found that I can flip the rudder up vertically to keep it out of harms way when out of the water, if I so desire -the tension strap will give enough to flip the rudder 180 degrees and then hold it there.
I've been amazed at the toughness of this rudder. In river racing, it's not unusual to hit areas shallow enough to drag the rudder, and sometimes I cringe as I hear the rudder drag, expecting the rudder to be chewed up when I get done, but so far the rudder looks practically new.
Pat thoughtfully includes a bracket for mounting the rudder to the stern of your boat. I've had some challenges getting the stern of my Thunderbolt to have enough beef to keep the screws secure, but it works well enough otherwise.
This is an excellent rudder system, and well worth the money.
I've paddled several boats with tiller-bar steering systems, and I've always thought they leave a lot to be desired. Most racing boats are narrow, and with my wide feet I don't have much room to maneuver a tiller bar - especially when the weather turns cold and I start wearing my river boots. I also don't care for the need to move my feet when I'm pushing hard in a race. I am used to gas-pedal systems in my sea kayaks, and it feels far more natural to me in my racing boat as well.
Pat's pedal system is well engineered, beautifully made, and very solid, with something of a custom touch. The rails on the Thunderbolt taper in as they go forward on the inside of the hull, so Pat asked me to provide hole-to-hole measurements at my foot bar location to provide him with hole drilling locations on his unit. The holes have a loose enough fit that the unit can move a few holes forward or backward to get the distance set correctly.
The Onno rudder pedal/foot board system drops in place, but it's still a challenge to get it into the hull of the Thunderbolt. The T-bolt hull is small enough that the system takes up most of the room, so it takes a little creativity to get to the bolts and wing nuts used to install the system onto the rails (the holes are on the cross bar, behind the foot board). It's not a system I would move around if it's not necessary, but I was pleased that it matched up well with the stock hardware. The small foot area of the T-bolt presented me with one other small challenge - the pedals wanted to scrape the hull as they moved back and forth. A little filing on the edge of the pedals took care of that situation.
As it comes, the foot pedals on the system are held in place by the tension of the rudder cables, but they can flop towards the cockpit when your feet aren't against the pedals. To keep the pedals in position, I attached one end of a small bungee cord to the top of each pedal and attached the loose end of each cord to the forward most hole in each respective side rail. This worked quite well, keeping the pedals taught against the rudder cables to keep them in position. I joined my rudder cables to the cords supplied with the Onno rudder pedal system by means of cord ratchets, making pedal/rudder adjustments extremely easy, even on the fly.
After installing the Onno foot pedal unit (and P-41 rudder), my boat was a whole new animal. It became easy to guide with my toes while at the same time delivering maximum power to the foot board with my legs, allowing me to focus on performance instead of trying to tame the boat. I'm very pleased with the Onno system.
On the performance side of the equation, I don't think you can find a better overall sea kayak. It's fast, efficient, sprightly, tracks well, turns well, and is quite comfortable for long hauls. It's easy to surf wakes and waves, and always feels comfortably stable, exhibiting great secondary stability. It lean turns superbly for such a long boat, and with the rudder you can really whip it around. I like the Sealine rudder system - the boat responds almost instantly to rudder input, and it's easy to adjust and use. Overall, the boat feels like a sports car to me.
As to quality, this boat leaves a lot to be desired. The gentlemen who owned the boat before me was a fanatic about protecting and caring for his boats, and I've always stored my boat indoors and taken good care of it. Nevertheless, the gelcoat has spider cracks all over the place and the seam tape is coming off. I've also had to replace the Sealine rudder pedal system in the cockpit area - the original pedal adjustment housing was plastic, and cracked. The new housing is aluminum, and appears to be very durable. The hull is soft, and I have some indentations in the hull from where the boat rides on the saddles on my rack. I believe mine is somewhat heavier than listed as well. On the plus side, my hatches are easy to use and seal pretty well. One stays completely dry, while the other will leak a little.
In spite of the quality irritants, I really like the boat. I bought a QCC 700XL last year, intending to replace the Epic 18 Endurance with 700XL, a much higher-quality, made in the USA boat. As it turned out, I sold the QCC and kept the Epic. The QCC was beautifully made and very solid, but it had a "big boat" feel compared to the sprightly feel of the Epic, plus it was slower (GPS confirmed numerous times over the same course) and less comfortable (part of that was the after market back band, but I didn't like the seat as well either). Looking at the two boats side by side they looked pretty similar, but a close examination shows the Epic possesses a sharper entry on the bow and exit at the stern, along with some other subtle differences that add up in the water.
I've since moved into a Thunderbolt for racing and rarely paddle the Epic anymore, except in winter, but I've loaned it out to a friend's son to get him started into USCA marathon racing, and he loves it as well.
A great boat, with a few caveats.
We purchased the boat primarily with my wife in mind - she wanted to go with me on social kayak outings, but didn't really enjoy paddling, and didn't feel she would have the endurance on her own to stay with the group. Hence, the tandem pedal boat.
The Hobie Oasis is very cleverly designed for a recreational boat - lots of storage, decent seats, very stable, and fun. Plus, Hobie even includes two large water bottles, two paddles (needed for backing up and very shallow areas) and a dry bag! The Mirage drive is a clever system, delivering lots of thrust. We installed the Turbo Fins (Hobie should really do this from the factory), and found a significant increase in performance with very little extra effort (we gained about 1 mph average in cruise speed). With the Mirage drives, the motion is really more like a stair-stepper motion than a bicycle motion, but you'll use a lot of the same muscles. It's pretty similar to peddling a bike up a low incline. The hand-operated rudder is very effective, turning the boat on a dime.
All that stability and those nice touches come at something of a cost - the boat is quite heavy (The hull, without drives and such, is about 69 lbs - you'll need two people to get it on and off the car if you aren't fairly strong) and not particularly sleek. It accelerates almost immediately and easily maintains a decent cruise speed, but really pushing it takes a lot of effort - you're really moving some water! Nevertheless, my wife and a friend's teenage son won a recreational class boat race with our Oasis, averaging just over 5 mph over a 3.6 mile course. We've sprinted the boat to 6.1 mph.
To help with moving the boat, we purchased the Hobie plug-in cart, a two-wheeled frame that plugs into the bottom of the cart. I highly recommend it - it really helps with moving the boat around. We got the cart with the inflatable sand tires that float. You can actually back the boat into the water, then reach under and pull the wheels out from under the boat.
The 2009 model has some significant upgrades over the 2008 model, including a new hull design, much better pull/pull rudder activation system, and new designs for the drive system retaining clips and fin mast installation.
A fun boat, and highly recommended if you want easy cruising, no-hassle fun! You'll find all your friends will want to try it out as well...