Martin Chambers

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Sailing a Kayak

published: February 9th, 2017

Just about anybody who has paddled a canoe or kayak will have thought about sailing it. Hold up a paddle to the breeze, or a towel, or tie a tent fly to the paddle- it is all sailing. The next small step from there is a dedicated sail rig. But be warned. A kayak is not a yacht and you need a sail designed for kayaks.

A new dimension can be added to the activity of recreational paddling when you use a sail. A sail allows you to achieve downwind destinations with less effort and in my home town with a land/sea breeze pattern sailing is an ideal out and back again trip. Sailing can also reduce passage times when deployed opportunistically. It extends the range of your cruising as you arrive earlier and more refreshed. Steering in following seas or in windy conditions is easier if the sail is set forward of the mid point, and sailing is an absolute hoot in a big sea and big wind. Canoes and kayaks are long, narrow, and light; perfect hulls to be driven by the wind. Although they do not have a keel this is no disadvantage in winds up to about 25kmh as in those winds a kayak can be paddled directly upwind. Round trip times for a sailing kayak and a yacht will be similar until the wind is above 25kmh. Without a keel the heeling moment of a sailing kayak is limited. For most shallow-hulled recreational kayaks rather than capsize they will just slide sideways across the surface as the wind blows from the side. Do not be tempted to add a keel to your kayak, it will just make the kayak want to capsize and sail cut and rig for upwind performance will limit your non sailing paddling capability. You still want to be able to use your paddle and mast, stays and sheeting systems of a conventional sail rig will get in the way.


The ideal sail for a kayak will drive the boat downwind and across it to about 90 degrees. It can be set and retrieved in any conditions and will work in any windstrength. It will still allow the full range of paddle strokes at all times and if you do capsize, it can be quickly disabled to allow self rescue. Ideally, it will not require much in the way of modifications to your kayak. Kites are a great starting point (kites also have a safety aspect in that they can be seen a long way off).

Parafoil kites: A simple parafoil kite of about 2 square metres will work in light to moderate winds. They take two hands and a bit of skill to launch and retrieve cleanly, for the inexperienced they frequently get tangled and transform into a sea anchor. Also, as the kayak picks up speed, the parafoil (and indeed any frameless sail) will lose apparent wind and become unstable. In this case try adding a longer tail as the wind increases and angle a few degrees off downwind. They do have the advantage of no frame or mast.

Flat Earth: This and other fixed mast systems look good and sail well in low wind, but can be tricky to retrieve in a seaway or as the wind builds. In stronger wind the apparent wind will quickly move aft so a fixed mast in these conditions offers minimal sailing improvement over a flexible foot system that is braced fore and aft - unless you also install a keel or outrigger. When a side gust hits a fixed mast sail it will heel the kayak and potentially capsize it unless you can release the sheet quickly. Fixed mast systems also require modification to the kayak.

Pacific Action: A flexible foot mast such as the Pacific Action can be attached to any kayak with little modification and offers downwind sailing with the same efficiency as a fixed mast. In gusts, the flexible foot collapses, spilling the wind and keeping you upright. The mast position can in theory be moved acordign to the conditions. It can be set up forward, holding the bow low and allowing you to paddle while sailing downwind, or if upwind set a little further back.

And good sailing system will be able to be deployed and retrieved in any sea state, preferably one handed. The shorter your kayak, the further towards the bow you will need to position the mast, so on some very short kayaks you may require a bowsprit to tension the forestay when the mast is up. But kayak sailing will work on just about any sized kayak.

Rudders. A rudder is essential to effectively sail a kayak and you may find you need to enlarge the blade, particularly if you cannot paddle while sailing. Setting the sail well forward helps take the load off steering and holds the bow downwind, the direction you want to be going.

How to sail. Kayaks are sleek and quickly reach the speed of the wind. This has the effect of swinging the apparent wind forward so you will virtually never feel like you are sailing downwind, even when you are! Relative to the waves the kayak is small and as you surf down even small waves the apparent wind shifts rapidly forward. This effect is greater if you can’t keep the kayak straight and this is one reason it is best if you can paddle while the sail is up, using the paddling to assist the steering and to keep the speed and apparent wind even. Sheeting the sail short helps keep the bow downwave and the stronger the wind bigger the waves the more so. As speed builds, the apparent wind moves towards the bow and a short sheeted sail will keep working whereas a sail set how a yacht might set it will flap uncontrollably. So - over sheet the sail. Maximum speed may be less, but average speeds will be greater and you will maintain control through waves and in increasing winds. In light winds and flat water leave the sail fuller, but if you try to do this in a decent wind the kayak will pick up speed to the point where the sail backs. Effectively you regularly experience side gusts of maximum wind strength followed by apparent lulls and there can be severe shock load on the rig. This is where kayak sailing differs from a yacht. The maxim, ‘if in doubt, let it out’, is reversed. ‘If in a spin, pull it in!’

A yacht? Those who tell you kayak sailing does not work have probably not got past the tangled parafoil or broken broomstick mast, or they have tried to mimic a sailboat sail without regard to the unique nature of a kayak. Those who tell you it will make you capsize have probably tried to sail upwind with a fixed mast and installed a keel. Use a kayak sail as I have described and you will have a wonderful accessory to kayaking and you will have lots of fun. Otherwise, go buy a yacht.