I took up sea kayaking about three years ago, renting boats here and there to do beginners trips and weekender courses. I had done some whitewater kayaking before that, but had never been any good. I think I got dumped at just about every drop I ever tried. Anyhow, sea kayaking seemed to suit me, so two years ago I got my own boat, a Feathercraft Kahuna.
I paddle in Ireland. My home paddling ground is the East coast, the Irish Sea. Sheltered from the Atlantic, it nevertheless can be a nasty puddle of water, specialising in short steep waves that can make control difficult. I’ve done trips in many places around the country, but not yet overseas.
Why did I get a folder? Well, there were space considerations, but to be quite honest, I just liked the idea of the things – the engineering, the fact that very few others had one. I’ve never regretted the decision. These are my observations on it after two years of happy paddling.
Mine is the standard Kahuna (not the big Kahuna, which has the larger cockpit) with bow and stern hatches, a rudder, and the expedition seat. It’s yellow, just like the one on Feathercraft’s site. Originally it came with the nylon sea sock, which I upgraded afterwards to the neoprene one. I’ve added inflatable hip pads by Radical Gear, which unfortunately are no longer available. The company doesn’t seem to exist any more. I use a neoprene spray deck made by Nookie, generic no-brand flotation bags, and a Lendal Kinetic Touring paddle.
[PICTURE – Kahuna assembled and ready for paddling]
I’m 5’6″ and weigh about 120lbs, so I’m quite small. I’m in my mid-30s, and would describe myself as being fit rather than strong. I’ve always been active. My main activities were trekking, cycling, and backpacking until paddling suddenly took over my life.
I believe, perhaps foolishly, that I’m an intermediate paddler. This year I hope to achieve ICU (Irish Canoe Uniion) Level 4 standard, which is more or less equivalent to the BCU standard.
Apart from my Kahuna I own a Feathercraft Khatsalano, a Klepper Alu-lite, which is my guest boat, and a Prijon Kaituna (a whitewater kayak). I’ve also paddled several hardshell sea kayaks – VCP Avocet and Skerray, NDK Romany and Greenlander, Perception Carolina and several others.
From the minute I unpacked the boat I was impressed by the quality. The machining on the aluminium parts is very precise and clean – no rough edges, no flaws. The skin also is very neatly manufactured, with very straight seams. The plastic parts (crossribs and bow and stern end-pieces) are injection moulded plastic, and seem very good quality. I’ve heard of people having problems with cracks developing, but I haven’t experienced this. Overall a highly professional product.
The Feathercraft coaming is famous. It’s made of fibreglass and has a groove running round it into which the skin is inserted. This is one of my favourite features of the boat. Because it’s just like a hardshell coaming, I can choose from a huge variety of aftermarket spray decks. In 2005 Feathercraft changed the Kahuna’s coaming. It now consists of a sleeve into which you fit two plastic pieces, and is slightly larger than the old coaming. This is supposed to speed assembly, and eliminate the danger of the coaming breaking during transport – I’ve always felt the coaming would be vulnerable in air traval. I haven’t seen this new coaming in the flesh, but I confess I don’t like the sound of it. I like a smaller cockpit.
[PICTURE – Coaming]
The hatches are very well designed. They each have a small plastic coaming over which fits a neoprene cover. Inside there is a roll-down closure like you find on dry-bags. I’ve never known any water to leak in this way.
[PICTURE – Hatch with cover off and roll-top open]
Feathercraft supplies a seasock as standard, which I applaud. Lacking bulkheads, folders can ship a lot of water when they capsize. Getting rid of it, either by pumping or doing an X-rescue (rather than the normal T-recue) can add a lot of time to a rescue. I never paddle without it. The standard sea sock is nylon, and can let in a signigant amount of water if you roll or do a deep brace. I upgraded to the neoprene sea sock which largely eliminates this. It’s as dry as any kayak I’ve known, but even so, I use dry bags when carrying gear and air bags when I’m not.
The deck rigging is very good – full perimeter deck line, a painter line and deck bungees.
At 16 Kg or so this is an easy boat to carry solo.
The frame is assembled in three sections. First you assemble the stern and bow sections and insert them through the cockpit. Then you insert the central connecting section, which consists of five telescoping bars that allow you to tension the skin lengthways. Then comes the cockpit coaming, the central crossribs and the seat. Finally you inflate the sponsons to tension the skin side to side. Feathercraft provide an assembly book and video, both of which I found very clear, although the video makes the process look easier than you’ll find it at first.
The Feathercraft literature states that assembly takes 20 minutes. I can do the basic boat in that time, including hatches, but I don’t expect I’ll ever get much faster. Then I still have to inflate the airbags, burp the seasock, attach maps, pump, water bottles and so forth. And put on my own paddling gear of course, so from car to water is generally about 40 minutes.
But this wasn’t always the case. For the first couple of months I found assembly difficult, frustrating and, occasionally, painful. It could take anywhere from 40 minutes upwards. Quick assembly is a matter of many knacks, and these take time to aquire.
My advice is to watch the assembly video several times, and read the assembly manual until you can assemble the boat in your head. Be patient and work on each step until you can do it with a minimum of force. I find the toughest part to be inserting the two large crossribs. Even now it’s a part of assembly I dread.
Some people have reported problems with the skin popping out of the groove of the coaming, but I’ve never experienced this.
Disassembly is very easy, and only takes 10 minutes or so. Featercraft supply a couple of straps that allow you to roll the skin quite compactly. I have a compass that attaches to the foredeck with bungees, which I leave attached when I roll up the skin.
Comfort and Fit
I’ve always found this a comfortable boat. I inflate the back of the expedition seat slightly, which encourages an upright paddling posture, and my knees fit nicely under the deck on either side of the cockpit, giving me a solid and comfortable hold on the boat. The adjustable foot pegs complete the fit. Unfortunately the chine bars they are attached to are free to rotate, so the pegs have a tendancy to rotate down to the floor. Not a problem, you just hook a toe underneath and move them back up again, but get used to this – you’ll be doing it a lot. A while back I was paddling a hardshell and found myself performing this manoeuvre even though of course the footpegs of that boat couldn’t budge. It’s just an in-grained behaviour now I suppose.
[PICTURE – inside the cockpit – looking forward under the deck with feet on the pegs]
This fit will do for most paddling, but when I started learning deeper braces and rolls, I added some inflatable hip pads. You can certainly do these things without hip pads, but you waste energy stopping yourself moving side to side. Mine were made by a company called Radical Gear which no longer operates, but Feathercraft make their own also. I attach them to the seat sling with velcro, a strip of which I have sewn in. They also have some webbing straps which I attach around the two central crossribs.
[PICTURE – The velcro patch on sling] [PICTURE – The hip pads in position]
Because I’m quite small, I reversed the footpegs, which allows a more secure fit when the peg is close to the near end of the rail. This operation involves taking out the bolts that attach the peg to the stem and flipping the peg. As a side benefit, this leaves a slightly larger area of the peg available for the foot, so I would prefer this arrangement even if my size didn’t require it.
[PICTURE – Two footpegs, one in either configuration]
I find that my calves tend to rub against the centre bow crossrib. Feathercraft sent me some calf plates free of charge. These are just some flat pieces of plastic that distribute the contact over a wider area, eliminating the discomfort entirely. When disassembling, I don’t bother taking them off the rib.
[PICTURE – calf plates on the crossrib]
Overall I would say the contact between the paddler and the boat is very positive. You really wear this boat, just like you would a hardshell.
Like most folding kayaks, the Kahuna is strong on primary stability. You seldom need to brace, and for a long time I didn’t bother trying. Even in clapotis you can just concentrate on sitting upright and let the kayak move around underneath you.
This does have its limits though, as I learned one day when I went out in winds of F5-6. The waves were about 3-4 feet, and very steep. As long as I was paddling into the waves I was fine, but then we turned the point and they were coming from my stern quarter. I felt out of control, and suddenly found myself upside down. Rats. A T-rescue and I was good to go, but a couple of minutes later I was in the drink again. I decided to call it a day before the trip leader forced the issue, so he escorted me back to the start, with another capsize along the way. Major dent to the ego.
I don’t know if I would have fared any better in a beamier Klepper or Folbot, but certainly the primary stability had lulled me into a false sense of security. I would encourage every Kahuna owner to work on their braces. This boat allows the full range of techniques – low and high braces, sculling and rolling. Eventually you’ll meet conditions where they are necessary.
The Kahuna also has very good secondary stability. This is not an easy boat to get or hold on edge. You have to lean right out to get beyond the primary stability, and you have to work to stay there. Nevertheless, its easy to work with in that position, so you can carve turns quite confidently. It rewards any work you do to improve your skills. On the other hand, secondary stability does run out rather suddenly, and beyond a certain angle the kayak will want to capsize very quickly. It takes a quick reaction and a very strong brace and hip flick to get it back. Also, this stabiltiy profile makes it difficult, but not impossible, to perform deep sculling.
Tracking and Manoeuvreability
To my mind, this boat tracks very well. It would be comparable in this regard to most hardshell day-boats, which is to say that it can still be turned without edging, though it will take a lot of strokes to get around that way. With a lean I can turn 360¤ in 8 strokes or so.
A Word About the Rudder
I got the rudder option because I had it in the back of my mind that I might sail my Kahuna one day. I’ve been told that the surf rudder would be too small for this purpose, and that the plastic mounting wouldn’t be strong enough to cope with the extra stress. I can’t comment on that because to date I’ve never sailed it, and so far as I know no commercial sail rig is yet available for it. I have used the rudder on occasion, but only as an experiment. It certainly makes manoeuvring easy. I’ve found it works best when you cross the rudder cables so that you turn right by pressing with your right foot. This allows you to brace on the left, where its needed.
[PICTURE- the rudder cables crossed]
Unfortunately this leaves the cables rubbing against each other where they cross. Another problem I’ve found with the rudder is that the pegs are free to slide off the end of the rail. This is a problem for me because I need the pegs almost as far forward as they can go. I’ve never used the rudder in earnest, so I haven’t bothered trying to find solutions to these problems. The Kahuna doesn’t really need a rudder, and personally I don’t like them.
For such a short kayak, the Kahuna has an impressive turn of speed. I’ve never measured my speed, so I can’t quote figures, but I’ve never had any problem keeping up with hardshell paddlers in our club trips. But you can’t expect a sub-15′ boat to be as fast as a 17′ plus one, and when the stronger paddlers decide to put a sprint on, I can’t match their speed. The Kahuna only has one gear – its top speed isn’t much faster than its cruising speed, so paddling harder won’t move you much faster. This has caused me problems in more challenging conditions when the beginners stay at home and the stronger paddlers take the opportunity to run flat out.
I find that the Kahuna also struggles in strong headwinds. I think this is due to its lack of glide comapred to longer boats. You can feel it nearly stopping between strokes, so you’re constantly starting it from near stationary. This too has caused me some problems.
That said, I’ve never fallen seriously behind, and I’ve never been offered a tow. I’m normally to be found near the head of a mixed group of paddlers, and I don’t think I’m working much harder than anyone else.
I’m constantly impressed by the way the Kahuna handles. In beam seas you can concentrate on forward paddling when others are bracing. In following seas it will surf the smallest of waves. I’ve sometimes found myself running well ahead of the group while barely putting a paddle in the water. On the other hand, its lack of acceleration can make it a little hard to catch a wave. A good stern rudder is a necessity unless you use the rudder, because a following sea can turn the Kahuna quickly. This is the stroke I lacked that day of the F5-6 winds (see above in the stability section). I’ve never noticed much weathercocking, and the small amount that does occur is easily corrected, either by edging or adjusting your paddle grip away from the side the kayak is turning to.
On the negative side, I’ve found this to be a wet kayak to paddle. In choppy seas you’ll be splashed constantly as the unswept nose doesn’t push the water away to the side. The forward hatch makes this worse as any water washing over the deck splashes upwards. I’ve found this a nuisance since I wear glasses.
Loading and Capacity
I’ve never been camping for more than a few days in the Kahuna. I’ve always found I’ve had lots of spare capacity however, and I’m pretty sure I could camp out of it for a month or so, living on dry backpacker-style rations and spartan gear. Ireland being Ireland, there’s usually lots of fresh water available, so that would only include a few litres of water at any one time. Also bear in mind that if you have longer legs than me (and you probably do) you’ll lose some of the space that I have in the bow. Of course, this isn’t marketed as an expedition kayak, so you can’t fault it here.
Even with the hatches, you load most gear through the cockpit. The hatches allow you to reach in more easily and move the gear around for best fit. Don’t be fooled by the apparent size of the rear hatch – it is bisected by the stern deck bar, so you won’t get any large objects in that way. Once my gear is in dry bags (I use 5 or 6 depending) I can load or unlaod it in a couple of minutes.
Loaded up, the kayak still performs nicely. Since it’s now sitting slightly lower in the water its waterline beam is slightly greater, but I don’t notice any signifigant reduction in speed. If anything it’s easier to handle with a moderate load, and it’s definitely easier to edge and to roll.
There’s been a lot of discussion about rolling the Kahuna. It’s not the easiest boat to roll, but it can be done reliably. You can’t get much of a layback with the high stern deck, but even so I’ve been able to do Pawlata, screw and C-to-C rolls in it, and I’m not the world’s greatest roller. I learned to roll in a swimming pool using narrow, old-fashioned cigar-style river boats, and was quite disheartened when I failed to roll the Kahuna. On my first attempts it seemed to be stuck to the water surface with glue. With a river boat you apply your hip flick and the boat simply pops upright. The Kahuna just can’t rotate that quickly, so you have to apply a lot of strength to the hip flick, apply it slightly earlier in the sweep (if you’re doing a sweep-type roll), and allow it to come around in its own time. Don’t even think about coming up yourself until you feel the coaming digging into your ribs.
I would still consider rolling to be a completely viable self-rescue option in any conditions you would roll a hardshell.
[PICTURE – rolling (???)]
I really love the Kahuna. It doesn’t necessarily excel in any one area – it’s not the lightest folder, not the fastest on the water, not the easiest or quickest to assemble, hasn’t the most capacity in volume or weight – but I feel it’s probably the best all-rounder. It can cope with any sea conditions you can, will allow you to keep up with most groups, and will be forgiving and rewarding while you develop your skills. Construction and materials are rock-solid.
Negatives? Really there’s none that aren’t to be expected in a boat of this length. It isn’t as fast as most hardshells, edging is not easy and it tends to be a wet ride. The rotating footpegs are a nuisance but not a problem.
Owning this kayak has been nothing but a joy, and I heartily recommend it.
— seán hennessy