Who’s gonna ride your wild horses?
Who’s gonna drown in your blue sea?
Who’s gonna taste your saltwater kisses?
Who’s gonna take the place of me? – U2
Saturday after coaching an introduction to sea kayaking class at Rutabaga in Madison, WI., I had the opportunity to test paddle a beautiful “almost new” fiberglass Valley Nordkapp. Apparently the story behind this sharp black and red kayak is that the owner only had it for a short time before deciding was a bit too much horse. I can see that…
The Valley Nordkapp is a classic among the classics of sea kayaking. It was originally designed by Frank Goodman for the British Norway expedition in 1975. It was also the first sea kayak around Cape Horn in 1977. In addition it was the kayak Paul Caffyn used to circumnavigate Australia in 1981-82. I could go on, but you get the point… The Nordkapp holds an important place in sea kayaking history. It can handle anything, anywhere, anytime. It’s no wonder someone would buy one without a second thought.
The Nordkapp is much larger in volume than I had imagined. It’s 14″ deep but feels deeper. You’d easily carry a couple weeks worth of gear beneath it voluminous oval hatches. I should note here that Valley’s oval hatch covers are easy to get on or off. That’s becoming a real bonus these days considering the giant oval covers going on the back of P&H and other kayaks these days that frustrate even the most passive of paddler. With a Valley you’ll still get big oval hatches, but you won’t have to spend 30 minutes performing all sorts of satanic rituals to get them to seal properly.
On the water the Nordkapp shines. The 18′ foot long, 21″ inch wide kayak is fast in the water, maybe the fastest expedition sea kayak I’ve paddled. It’s nimble and rolls like a charm. I had it out on a calm day with just a bit of wind and chop so I couldn’t judge it in any sort of wind. The shape of the Nordkapp suggests the wind will push it around if it’s not loaded and the skeg is not down. But again, until I get one out in some conditions it’s hard to tell.
For someone new to sea kayaking the Nordkapp is going to feel a bit unwieldy and yes quite “tippy”. It’s the nature of the beast. The quicker and more nimble a kayak is, the more skill you’ll need to control it. It you are new to kayaking and are considering buying a shiny new Nordkapp, be prepared for a sharp learning curve!
Personally, I really enjoyed paddling the Nordkapp. I’m not sure why I’d never paddled one before. It only had two real drawbacks for me, both are part and parcel with today’s approach to building kayaks and not specifically Valley or Nordkapp issues. Since it seems most manufactures are following the same paths here I’m obviously wrong, stupid or picky. But let me share those anyway. 😉
First off, modern sea kayaks are made to be light. A new Nordkapp comes in around 51lbs (Notice manufactures statements about weight always end in “bs”). In order to make the boats lighter, they make them well, “flimsy”. You don’t dare stand on the hulls of most new fiberglass sea kayaks or even sit on them without fear of starting nice new spider cracks or worse. In fact most new kayaks have layups so light you can see the fiberglass weave through the gel-coat. Between you, me and the tea cup… I think kayakers are getting boned in this whole “light is better” meme….
Before anyone leaps upon me to say “light” is everything and we should not stand on our kayaks anyway… I got the memo. Thing is, I can jump up and down on my 1996 NDK Explorer. I’ve also been dropped hard on break walls and performed rough water rescues in that boat. Not to mention dragging it over everything at one time or another. Yes it’s heavier, but it’s still around. I cannot see the logic in buying a fragile kayak for $3000-$4000 bucks or whatever, just so I can spend my time treating it like crystal. Yeah, I know I’m in the minority here, but I’m not ready to spend that sort of cash on the boat of my dreams only to have it begin to disintegrate in 3-5 years.
Here’s an experiment: Find a mid-nineties NKD Romany or Explorer and put it beside almost any new kayak (even a new Romany for that matter!) Turn them upside down. Press on the center of the hull (under the cockpit) with an open flat hand. Notice how the new boats bend and flex very easily. The old NDK will hardly move. How soon will that thin hull begin to spider? How hard of a hit can it take? How deep of a scratch will cut into the fiberglass itself? Now go to the bows. Put a hand on each side of the bow about 10 inches or so from the tip. Now press your hands together, squeezing the hull between. Most new kayaks will give easily whereas the old NDK will not. Is flexibility always bad? No of course not. However, I don’t think there is much disagreement that newer boats must be treated with more care than older kayaks. For some paddlers this won’t matter, but if you can only buy one $4000 kayak in your lifetime, you deserve one that will stand up. For what it’s worth here, I’m not particularly advocating NDK boats. They’ve had their own share of quality issues over the years. Thing is, while we might pick on NDK for whatever reasons, the boats last forever which means a lot when we actually have to pay for them.
The second issue I had with the Nordkapp is with the seat, and it’s another common issue with a variety of sea kayaks out there. In the Nordkapp I felt like I was sitting 10 feet in the air. I paddled it empty which does not help, but truth be told most of us do paddle empty kayaks most of the time. If I were going to buy the full sized Nordkapp, (I’d lean toward a low volume version myself.) the first thing I’d do is cut out the seat and replace it with a valley foam seat or a bit of mini-cell. Just getting my bum down about an inch or so would do wonders to stabilize the craft, while only slightly effecting the ability to roll. Is the seat comfortable? Oh, yes.. of course. Sure. Thing is, I think this addiction to show floor, lounge chairs does new paddlers a real disservice, but that’s a whole other blog!
Before I ended my day I brought the Nordkapp back to the pond behind Rutabaga for a bit of rolling. It’s a great roller from my experience. I got out my Greenland paddle and worked through a series of rolls without a problem. The sticking point was when I tried to do Norsaq and hand rolls. There the high seat got in the way again. I could feel the boat wanting to roll but my center of gravity was a bit too high when compared to my NDK or my Rockpool. I think with a bit more time I could work through that and hand roll it easily enough but I do love it when I can jump in a kayak right off the floor and hand roll without a thought.
Of course the Valley Nordkapp is a fantastic kayak. In my opinion it’s easily one of the most beautiful sea kayaks ever made. It can carry a ton of gear, and moves like a rocket through the water, and turns on a dime. It’s everything you’d want in a kayak, and at the same time it’s everything that can make an inexperienced kayaker nervous. The hatches are the perfect compromise between standard round, rubber hatches and those big floppy things that should never have been invented. As I said, I’d cut out the seat to add some initial stability, and I’d go for a heavier layup as well. If I were going to buy a Valley Nordkapp for myself, I’d probably choose the low volume version.
The black & red kayak I test paddled is lightly used and currently for sale at Rutabaga in Madison, WI for around $2400.