By Jeff Allen
I first came across fast racing sea kayaks whilst working as sea safety officer for the Hebridean Challenge. Each year there were many Inuk sea kayaks competing and in the main, this design pretty much ruled the roost when it came to fast, sea worthy sea kayaks, the only trouble with the Inuk, was its stability factor and very low volume.
It was at the Hebridean challenge that I was also to meet John Willacy for the first time, he was paddling an Inuk and was leagues ahead of most other paddlers in the fleet, it was during a conversation post race, one afternoon that he revealed to me that he had plans on a new fast sea kayak design which he had proposed to Mike Webb at Rockpool Kayak’s to help design and build. This design became the legendary Rockpool Taran 18. John’s background to competition was in wild water racing and to this end, the Taran range bears a resounding likeness, plumb high volume bow, low stern.
Several months after the first 18 came off the mould, I approached Mike at Rockpool to see if he felt the Taran 18 would be suitable for a fast but prolonged expedition around Ireland. He was unsure, one about the design and two about me, at the time I was sponsored by his nearby neighbour Nigel Dennis and he knew that I had a strong allegiance to the NDK brand. Nigel at that time however, was not producing a quicker than average sea kayak (essential for what I had in mind) and the leg position in the cockpit of his designs were starting to play havoc with my posture.
Round Anglesey record
John had recently smashed the Round Anglesey record in the Taran, knocking over an hour off his previous record in an Inuk, but a continuous trip of 80 or so miles was quite a different proposition to an extended 900+ mile trip around Ireland. Mike proposed that I take the kayak out for a test paddle with John to see how it performed.
Both Taran’s, the 18 and the 16 step away from the conventional, Greenlandic shape and form, with their high volume, plum bow, their flat bottom and ruddered stern (housed on a very small transom) are really quite different in both their looks and their performance and although this took a wee while to get used to, within a couple of hours of rock hopping around Rhoscollin Head and out through the races, I was totally hooked. I was also extremely impressed with the performance that John exhibited, his speed in a rough water environment, especially down wind and wave was quite incredible and certainly inspiring.
Smashing the record
I decided several hours later that this would be the design I would take to have a crack at Mick O’Meara’s original ‘Around Ireland’ record and boy did we beat it, in fact we smashed it, taking almost ten days off his team’s original time, which had stood for more than 20 years! Not only did we break the record, but the design set a new standard for expedition sea kayaks to aspire to, it was not only fast, it was also incredibly sea worthy, we had it out in some truly gnarly conditions and both the quality of build and design never let us down. Before we departed on the expedition I asked Mike to lend me a Taran to take out in the surf in Cornwall, he agreed and said, “Jeff, try to break it.” I thought I had misheard him, “I’ll be careful with it Mike,” I replied. “No, try to break it, I want to make sure its strong enough for Cornish surf” was his reply.
The first time I took it out in the surf zone at home, I also took out the Epic mid wing, which was going to be my paddle of choice for the expedition. Big mistake as John told me later, a new design, a rudder and a new paddle in five-foot of surf, really? Changing things in ones and twos is one thing, but changing things in threes is probably a step to far. However, after a short period of time trying to adjust to a lot of newness in my equipment, I managed to get the hang of how it performed on a surf wave. I rang Mike up later that day and confirmed that I was still happy with my choice for the expedition.
As on previous trips I had done, my focus whilst paddling, wandered to the design concept of whatever kayak I was paddling, now this thought process turned to the Taran and ways in which it might be improved. Both Harry and I found that although there is a lot of volume for gear, the 18’ performed best for both of us with not too much weight in.
Mike’s ideas surrounding cockpit design differ slightly to many other manufacturers, and here he pinches the forward section of the cockpit in slightly, so that it gives you better ergonomic alignment between foot, knee and hip. This slight adjustment, still allowing for positive connection with the knees (essential for rough water handling) but allows a better transmission of energy when driving forwards with the legs during your forward paddling.
On my return home, I ensured that I paid a visit to Mike in person, I owed the man a beer. He had offered myself and Harry Whelan a package for what was in essence, to support our dream trip and this investment in us, was done purely on faith, with zero obligation beyond, I was relieved we had not let him down. We had tried our best to push the boat as far and as fast as we could during the trip, our longest section on the water was 98 nautical miles in about 18 hours and we managed to pull out plus 140 kilometre days, back to back on several occasions. In fact I would go so far as to say, if it hadn’t been for the Taran, we would not have achieved our aim the way that we did.
A shorter version
When we met, he mentioned how the expedition had created a lot of interest and orders were now rolling in, this was a great relief and brought a big smile to my face, Mike went on to say that they had been considering building a slightly longer and slimmer version of the 18 footer, what were my thoughts? Well, I have to say, although a speedier Taran had much appeal, the truth is that I felt a shorter version would be better suited to the market place, it would have less over hang on vehicles, it would fit into your average garage and also have more appeal to your general paddler, he agreed to build a prototype and to this end I asked if he would fit a skeg into the design as well as the rudder system.
Several months later, completed, Mike gave me a ring and invited me up to go for a paddle with John and to see what I thought. When I arrived we decided on a trip out to the Skerries, leaving from Cemlyn, John mentioned that I would find the 16’ to be a tad tippier in comparison to the 18’. I agreed with him, it was, but within several minutes was no longer feeling this, it was marginally less stable, rather than what I would call tippy. The flattened off hull does give you a different form of stability to your average round or ‘D’ sectioned hull, but once your used to this, you start to delight in its advantages, such as its planing ability downwind and wave.
Within 20 minutes, I had fallen in love with the design. To me it felt quicker than the 18’ version, but this was impossible to ascertain as John is such a strong paddler, in an 18 or 20-foot version, I would still struggle to keep up with the man. What I have found over time is that the 16’ Taran is not necessarily faster than the 18’ Taran, but at certain speeds is more fuel efficient.
What I mean by this is that if your paddling at 4.5 knots, it takes me less energy to maintain that speed in the 16’ than it does in the 18’ Taran, now if you’re a powerful paddler like John or other paddlers with a race history, then the 18 footer is always going to be the quicker kayak as you will, through technique, fitness and stamina, always be able to attain and maintain the full advantages of an 18’ water line length.
I am not one of these paddlers, I am more cart horse than race horse, I can sit in a kayak and paddle non stop for two days solid, but I struggle on the anaerobic blast that a race paddler can achieve, which is what really pushed the Taran to excel at the top speeds it can achieve. I also found that the 16’ Taran didn’t really need its rudder or skeg except in the strongest of winds, which was different to the 18’ that in my mind does need its rudder to perform as effectively as it does.
Fitting a skeg
I had asked Mike to fit a skeg, because there is so much convention and misconception surrounding the use of rudders in a sea kayak, which I just don’t understand. Many paddlers in the UK have an inherent distrust of rudders, but I have always found that skegs fail you far more often. They are both mechanical adaptions to the kayak and both can go wrong, they both have their different pros and cons, but to me the pros of the rudder, far outweigh the uses of a skeg and as John put it so well, the skeg in the 16, just turns the design into a standard sea kayak, the rudder however, makes it an exceptional sea kayak, especially down wind and in a shorter, choppier, wind driven wave action.
If I was to get all equine on you, I would say that the Taran 18’ is like a long distance race horse and the 16’ a mountain Mustang, very fast and exceptionally manoeuvrable. The 18’ in my mind benefits from the longer ocean swells, in much the same way that an ocean ski works, but when the seas are shorter and more lively, the 16’ really comes into its own.
When I got back to the factory, I was grinning from ear to ear, double thumbs up Mike I said. Mike let me strap the prototype to the roof of my car and take it back home to Cornwall with me, it soon became a firm favourite with many of our guides at Sea Kayaking Cornwall and I would, if I could, use this design for most of what I do. If I wanted to do another record orientated expedition, I would probably choose the Taran 18’ again, but if I could only ever have just one design to last me a lifetime, I am afraid I would have to go for the Taran 16’.
The 18’ and 16’ Taran are to me, very aesthetically pleasing in an aggressive, forward looking stylish way, if however you are very set in your traditional Eskimo/Inuit style of sea kayak way, this kayak may not have a visual appeal to you
Speed and sea worthiness
I list these two characteristics together because in my mind, speed is an element of seaworthiness, especially if you are being chased down an exposed section of coastline with an impending storm front chasing you or trying to close down on an unknown coastline before the sun sets.
Here the Taran family as a whole, come into their own, I know many sea kayaks which are fast (but unstable) and many that are stable, (but slow) but I only know a few which are fast and stable. The Taran is one of these and without having to put any other design down, the Taran sits pretty much at the top of the pile for me.
Upwind, the Taran benefits from having some weight in the bow, the fine entry and increased volume, which starts early in the bow sections, creates a good degree of divide and lift, so you cut through and ride up and over the wave action, the Taran is a dry ride in the chop and you only really get wet going in and out through bigger surf.
You don’t really need a rudder or skeg into the wind and with a ruddered sea kayak, you have to have ‘flow’ across the blade for it to be effective. So whenever you stop paddling forwards in a head wind, you have to lift the rudder if it is being used, to prevent the bow from ‘blowing off’ down wind. Generally speaking, both the 16 and 18 foot versions of the Taran, perform well without needing the rudder, the 18’ has a degree of yaw which I find to be non-existent in the 16’ version.
Off the wind (beam wind)
The Taran 18 and 16 both perform well off the wind, they both benefit from the rudder to assist in balancing out the effects of the wind but this also depends on the skills of the paddler as to whether and when you choose to engage it. As soon as the wind shifts just slightly aft of the beam, you start to benefit from the surfing potential in this design and this is when you really benefit from the constant trim effect that a rudder offers the sea kayaker.
If you are paddling at a proficient level, I challenge you not to smile when paddling the Taran downwind. This is where the legend has in my mind, been born, in both the 16 and 18 foot Taran’s capacities to just eat up the miles with constant downwind runs. The only downside of this immense performance value is when no one else is in a Taran as you will find yourself either paddling alone or cooling down while you wait for the crowd to catch up.
The Taran 18 is one of the highest volume sea kayaks there is, you don’t need to fill this volume if your not going to use it, but for those long distance self supported adventures, this is a massive advantage. The 16’ Taran has as much if not more volume than most 18-foot sea kayaks out there and has ample enough room for a 10-14 day self supported trip without the need for deck bags, etc.
Comfort and stability
This a very subjective matter as comfort depends very much on your body type and stability can also depend upon your own abilities and experience, I can compare the stability value to be very similar to the Nigel Dennis Explorer which is the kayak I used for around Japan and South Georgia. The Taran does however have a flattened off hull section which gives the paddler a different behavioural characteristic to your more conventional chined or ‘D’ Sectioned hull.
Rockpool manufacture two different seat sizes to accommodate a variety of shapes and sizes and to me, the more upright knee position has extended my paddling life considerably, as sitting like a frog was absolutely creasing my hips and knees.
Mike is probably one of the most experienced custom sea kayak manufacturers there is, he likes to build lighter sea kayaks than most other manufacturers, but for Ireland I asked for a heavier version expedition lay up. This kayak was probably the strongest and most resilient kayak I have paddled and was used to go around Britain shortly after I used it to go around Ireland.
Mike also builds an ultra light Vacuum Infused Carbon Epoxy Taran known as the V.I.C.E which I have been using now for much of my paddling on the south west peninsular.
All in all, I feel the Taran group of sea kayaks are performance sea kayaks suitable for the intermediate to advanced sea paddler. Both designs are stable, manoeuvrable and fast, capable of long distances in relatively short periods of time. They have an excellent degree of load carrying capacity and for anyone thinking of doing some expedition paddling, the Taran 16 or 18 should be pretty close to the top of your list.
Rockpool build the Taran range in three constructions
Hand laid, polyester resin and glass fibre
- Vac 2
Vacuum infused, epoxy resin, diolin/glass
Vacuum infused, epoxy resin, carbon/kevlar
About Mike Webb and Rockpool sea kayaks
Mike Webb studied engineering at Manchester University, but after working in that industry for about eight years left to work on his own aspirations to build custom windsurf boards, these were highly sought after boards which gained a good reputation amongst amateur and professional surfers alike. These skills laid the foundations for his transition into manufacturing sea kayaks, which he has been doing now for 20 plus years. After designing his first two models in his fleet of designs, the ‘Alaw’ and the ‘Alaw Bach,’ he then decided to start up his own company, Rockpool Kayaks in 2005.
About the author
Jeff Allen started paddling in cub scouts and has had an addiction to the water ever since, in 2003 Jeff established Sea Kayaking Cornwall, a business based out of Falmouth in Cornwall, specializing in training and guiding others in sea kayaking and commercial guiding, they also run expeditions around the globe. In 2004 Jeff decided he needed to gain experience as well as NGB awards and set off on a long distance expedition to circumnavigate the four main islands of Japan, a distance in excess of 4,500 miles. The following year he became a team member in the first British expedition team to successfully complete a circumnavigation of the remote Antarctic island of South Georgia, often termed as being the K2 of sea kayaking.
In 2007 Jeff started an expedition to circumnavigate and explore the coastline and mountain areas of the Scandinavian Peninsular and in 2011, along with Harry Whelan, broke a long standing 20-year record in circumnavigating Ireland in under 25 days. (Record re-taken by Mick O’Meara, in a Rockpool Taran 18 two seasons later).
Jeff is also the founder of the International Sea Kayak Guiding Association and is a regular contributor to the kayaking press.