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Sunday, January 4, 2015

Test Paddling the Tarpon 160 (finally)

The problem with 'objectivity' is that it's usually 'subjectivity' cleverly disguised as objectivity.

I've wanted the Tarpon 160 ever since I saw it sitting in the rack at the kayak shop. However, I'm trying to take the universal advice of the broad community of kayakers who suggest that choosing a kayak is a personal choice based on how a particular boat fits one's body and objectives, and so, going through the motions of due diligence, I've finally come to the day when I actually get to paddle my dream boat.

It doesn't escape my attention that I seem to have a Wilderness Systems' bias. The first kayak I ever sat in was their 12 foot plastic Pungo which delivered me down the Sandy River without making me a candidate for the Darwin Awards. The first kayak I ever bought (so far the only kayak I ever bought) was their Tsunami 125 which has, over the last eight years, patiently taught me everything I know about kayaking except for that bit of advice from Bernadette and Keith about paddling with your core and not your arms so much.

Mostly, my kayak acts as a platform and facilitator for my photography, taking me to places where nature still looks pretty natural for the most part. But as my expeditions become more ambitious, I find I need more easily accessible storage space. I've also noticed that my 12.5 foot Tsunami struggles to make headway over big water in the wind and chop of inclement weather. Even in optimal conditions, even if I was not always pausing to unwrap my camera and seek ideal shots, I can't seem to keep up with others in their sleek longer boats.


Enter the Tarpon 160, touted as the fastest of the Tarpons and the go-to reference when reviewers make speed comparisons, such as, "The ACME Sting Ray isn't quite as fast as the Tarpon 160, but we've slapped a couple of extra flush-mount fishing-pole-holders on this one to help justify the steep price."

If form follows function, then the Tarpon's long slender hull speaks about speed. But I'm not a hull designer, I realize, and I may be confusing aerodynamic sexiness as a solution for a problem better suited to hydraulic equations. Striving for objectivity, I go on to note differences I think I see between the tarpon and the Trident Ultra 4.3. The bow of the Tarpon seems pointier and streamlined, without the fast flared bulging that seemed evident on the ultra. Does this mean that the Tarpon will poke through waves instead of riding up over them? The Tarpon doesn't seem to have any rocker...and if it's supposed to, then this one has lost it, its 16 foot length of heavy plastic slowly collapsing over time. Perhaps the Tarpon 160 is testing the balance between structural rigidity and weight.
The keeled ends of the kayak quickly transition to a long flat belly with multi-chine sides.



Two long grooves, like negative-space rails, travel the length of the flat belly, perhaps as a kind of novel keel substitute...or perhaps a means to architecturally stiffen the hull.


Without the helpful Next Adventure's employee available to help me unload the Tarpon, I quickly gain an appreciation for how heavy this boat is. Without a traditional cockpit to stick a shoulder in, there doesn't seem to be any balanced way a single individual can carry this behemoth. The Tarpon 160 (with rudder) is listed at 79 pounds. If it was a bar with free weights, it wouldn't be a problem, but this thing is 16 feet long and bulkier than a log and something like a sail in the wind. I grab onto one side handle and heft it thigh high while stumble-walking down the long boat ramp. Crap. I wish I had my little sister here to carry it for me.



Originally, I had hoped to launch from Clackamette Park and explore Willamette Falls, but when I got there, I did some rough calculations concerning the speed of the water flowing past my intended launch point, my relative fitness, and the number of fishermen lining the banks and their likely inclination to either laugh or help if I should tip over. What I came up with was a scenario analogous to Lucy and Ethel sitting at an assembly line trying to wrap passing chocolates.

So...Willamette Park.

The thing about sitting in an unfamiliar kayak is the first moment when you first lean a little bit and go "oh shit!" because you almost tipped over right at the beginning...except, you don't tip over and after a few more minutes, you get a feel for the boat, and then after that, you have to try to turn over if you want to turn over. If a person were to exit the kayak after the initial 'Oh shit" moment, that person would conclude the kayak is unstable. That same person might form a very different opinion if they endured, say, four more hours or so.

I did my best, without thigh straps or other braces, to lean the Tarpon on edge and carve turns, but they were big ass turns. Though flat on the belly, the omission of rocker means even in still water, you're not going to do much spinning.



Heading up river, the Tarpon demonstrated a pronounced sensitivity to current - that is, strong currents and eddies had their way with it, just like rapists have their...umm...O.K., that's probably an ill advised metaphor, but should serve to hint at the frustration I experienced at having my navigational intentions violated. As the river constricted around massive bridge pilings, construction barges and various emerging foundations, the cold muddy water became annoyed and confused.



The umpteenth time I got turned sideways by roiling water, I determined to figure out the rigging for the rudder (something not available on any of my previous rentals) and eventually yanked the line that caused it to satisfyingly boink into place. With the rudder in play, there was an immediate welcome reduction in the ratio of corrective-directional paddle strokes to straight-ahead-power strokes. Kayak purists may frown on rudders, but I now suspect I'll be shelling out extra money to get one, whichever kayak I end up getting (They come in handy).




Immediately in front of the seat is a storage hatch with access to the open interior of the boat. There's another bigger hatch on the bow, also accessing the boat interior. There do not seem to be any bulkheads. Like the Tarpon 140, the 160 has a well placed cup holder. The crackers are multi-grain with generous portions of smoked Gouda cheese.



Both hatches are hinged. They open and close easily with simple lever locks and I consider both of them easily accessible while paddling.



Usually I worry about how I'm going to get gear into my kayak. With the Tarpons, you need to start thinking about how you're going to get your gear out of the kayak. Small items may slide the length of the boat.

The hatches have thin O-ring type seals, but I remember how those worked on the space shuttle during cold weather. They seem fairly water tight, but there always seems to be some small amount of water inside the kayak which means you want to invest in numerous hatch-width dry bags.



Turning around in your seat reveals...



...a spacious tank well. On a Tarpon 160, that's almost enough room to hang a hammock.



On the second day of the new year, temperatures started to creep above freezing.






...and I forgot my paddling gloves.



So I had to stop at my new apartment.



A long straight stretch of river before the turn to Elk Rock gave me plenty of time to test the Tarpons vaunted capacity for speed. It does seem to glide along, but is it significantly faster than the Tarpon 140?  It feels like it. But is it enough to make up for what I perceive as decreased mobility? I'm not so sure.



The trees making up my west horizon, as seen by water. The sun warns me twilight is coming. Time to turn around.



The Sellwood Bridge with the Portland skyline in the background.



The Sellwood Bridge as seen by water.



O.K.  I did add the moon.

(We like the moon.)

In conclusion, the allure of the Tarpon 160 has diminished for me somewhat. Up until now, I had never considered buying a rudder before. In the case of the 160, I probably wouldn't buy it without one. It's possible I don't have the technical skill to turn that big boat like it ought to be turned, but until I do, it feels like too much has been sacrificed for the sake of speed.

Next up: The Thresher 140

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