In 2003, I was surf kayaking on the Washington coast in a brand-new fiberglass high performance surf kayak. The waves were big and closing out. On one ride into the beach, I timed it wrong and got caught in a closeout and was knocked upside down.
I was still learning my Eskimo roll, so it wasn’t a ‘combat roll’ yet, meaning it works most of the time. I tried to roll but after a few attempts I was unable to right myself. Then I decided to wet exit but realized my also brand new super tight neoprene spray skirt wasn’t coming off. I was upside down in a surf zone and running out of air. Panicked, I tried to remove the skirt but had no luck. I started breaking in saltwater.
Suddenly, I realized my panicking was blocking my training. I saw clearly that I needed to remove the skirt from my sides then move my fingers towards the forward grab loop to fully remove the skirt. I got out – barely. To this day, I still have PTSD from that experience. Recently in teaching a sea kayaking class, I realized I hesitated before I capsized in demonstrating a wet exit.
Long story… After that incident I realized being stuck in an enclosed kayak cockpit didn’t make much sense. Some say it’s warmer, but in the usual wet or dry suits we wear, I didn’t find that I would be much cooler. Soon thereafter SUP began to happen in my area, so I tried it and again loved the open deck feeling. I could sit on the board at any time, get off and on easily and throw my legs over the side for a break.
Then I realized what if I could have open deck, or sit on top kayaks?
I began to look for sit on top surf kayaks and eventually found a wave ski (sit on top surf kayak) with knee straps. My confidence came back and I began to enjoy kayak surfing again!
Soon thereafter, I realized a sit on top sea sea kayak would be fun. Looking online the only production boats were in South Africa or Australia and would cost a bundle with shipping. I looked at my 16’9” Sterlings Illusion and realized it could be at sit on top with a bit of work.
My first conversion of the Illusion was with a neighbor at the time who was fixing sea kayaks. For $500 he would cut the cockpit top off, create an interior frame for strength, then fill it with blow foam, then shape out a surf ski style cockpit, and glass over it.
This mostly worked, but the blow foam was heavy. The Illusion was originally 37lbs and now weighed nearly 55 pounds! It was incredibly hard to carry to the beach and affected the boat’s nimble performance. Soon the poor fiberglass job began to leak thus further saturating the foam bring the weight to 75lbs. I stopped using the boat.
About two years later, and after a few failed homemade SUP projects, I felt confident enough to carve out the leaky glass and wet foam and give it a go again myself. I cleaned it out to where the original hull was exposed and began to re-build using 1lb foam. Soon thereafter, I realized I’m not a pro at this and would end up with another hack job.
I contacted local SUP shaper, Sean Thomas of Echo Composites to look at the job. He quoted me a generous friend rate to rebuild the cockpit correctly. About 2-3 months in, it was completed. He placed 1 lb pound foam in hull and shaped it out, applying two layers of 5-ounce glass over and blue paint to match the exterior.
He also added two scuppers and ventuli’s on the hull below the feet to suck out water while underway. He cut the ventruli’s on his CNC and molded both from carbon.
I found two aluminum foot pegs at local kayak shop NW Outdoor Center, who have a great pile of old kayak parts. Sean embedded four surfboard style leash plugs on the rail to attach the knee straps.
We were unable to re-attach the drop skeg, so I roll the boat over and manually pull the skeg out when needed. I rarely adjust the skeg so that wasn’t an issue with me. I did look at an idea for a skeg control through the day hatch compartment but never got around to it.
When I surf the boat or paddle in high winds or tidal rapids, I use a leash to keep myself attached when I capsize and are unable to roll. Getting back in is a cinch. Even easier now as I’ve been paddling even more narrow surf skis.