My friend and former student, Carl Vopal, inventor of the Paddling Partner Stability System, gave me one of the units to try out. I installed it in the day hatch of a Current Designs Sirocco that I use for my introductory sea kayaking classes.
I have been very pleased with the quality of the system and method of installation. I should say, though, that I did not have to do any cutting on my installation. Carl gave me a base mount that he had cut when giving demonstrations at Canoecopia. That base mount fit in my Sirocco without any additional cutting. The canister filled with bb’s installs quickly and easily when needed, but can be removed before lifting or carrying the kayak. I am using 9.5 lbs of bb’s for ballast, the maximum weight recommended by the manufacturer.
The Sirocco has a large enough cockpit to accommodate taller and heavier paddlers, but it is not a boat that has a high degree of initial stability making it challenging for many beginning students. When using this kayak for classes last summer, I had several students who suffered repeated capsizes. The only other kayak that I have used for teaching that has caused similar difficulties for students was the old Dagger Meridian which had a similarly rounded cross section on the hull. My hope was that adding some ballast to the Sirocco would tame some of its twitchier characteristics.
I have not carried out any specific measurable and repeatable tests as part of this review. My impressions are totally subjective and anecdotal, but I think that the results thus far have been significant enough to indicate that the Paddling Partner is achieving the goal of improving the feeling of initial stability for my less experienced paddlers. As I stated earlier, I had 3 different male students who each experienced multiple capsizes during their “Intro to Sea Kayaking” classes last summer before adding ballast to the the boat. Since installing the unit in May, I have only had one student capsize unexpectedly in the Sirocco. This falls more within the normal number of capsizes that I expect students to experience in my classes. I have paddled the kayak myself with and without the ballast and I would say that it does not significantly change the feel of the kayak and how it handles. My impression is that the added weight anchored low and along the keel line slows down the speed at which the kayak crosses the line from being upright to capsizing giving paddlers a split second of extra time in which to perceive the reduction in stability and take the appropriate measures to correct and prevent a capsize. This extra time is critical for beginners who have not yet developed instinctual responses to the movements of a kayak on the water. With experience, a paddler’s reaction time tends to improve, or perhaps we just notice the reduction in stability sooner than the beginner does.
For paddlers who are under the recommended weight for their kayaks, the added ballast helps to lower the boat in the water bringing the actual waterline closer to the designer’s intended location. Kayaks that are inadequately weighted and are sitting too high in the water will feel very tippy to the paddler. This has not really been the issue in the case of the Sirocco in which I installed the Paddling Partner. The students using my kayak were well within the weight guidelines for the kayak. I think that paddlers who do not weigh enough or are using a boat designed for extended trips on day trips with no gear load are probably likely to feel a much more noticeable improvement in stability after adding a ballast system. The three kayakers that I know who are very happily using the Paddling Partner in their own boats all fall in this latter category. They are either smaller paddlers using boats designed for heavier people or are using an expedition kayak for day trips with minimal gear.
I sold kayaks at a local paddle sports shop for almost nine years. One of the dilemmas faced by many sea kayakers buying their first kayak is that they want a boat that feels comfortably stable when first learning, but they don’t want something that they will quickly outgrow as their skills improve. A Paddling Partner ballast system could be an excellent solution. The starting kayaker can buy a more performance oriented kayak, but with the ballast system installed, he will feel more confident while first learning strokes, edging, and bracing skills. The Paddling Partner will also help the person who wants to buy the big gear hauling kayak for the big annual kayak camping trip, but will be paddling the boat unloaded for the rest of the year. The ballast can make up for the missing gear weight making the boat more manageable when not loaded. At $125 for the Paddling Partner, it’s a lot less expensive than buying a second kayak. If you already own a kayak that mostly fits your needs, but would like a little firmer feel when edging, adding a ballast system like the Paddling Partner could be the piece of gear that makes your boat perfect for you. In the future, if Balance Solutions, LLC is able to offer the option of a longer base mount, this ballast system could be very helpful for adaptive applications in which paddlers need a greater than average amount of stability even when paddling wider recreational kayaks.
Not everyone needs ballast added to their kayaks, but this has been a suggestion that has been made over the years by noted kayaking authors such as Derek Hutchinson. Up until now, the addition of ballast has been a do-it-yourself project in which you had to create your own method and devise a way to affix it securely to the kayak. This wasn’t too hard in fiberglass kayaks, but it was a much more difficult proposition in plastic kayaks. Carl has done an admirable job in creating a product that is adaptable to a wide variety of boats and materials, and I hope that this is a product that will remain available to kayakers for many years to come.