Review: Custom Kayaks Synergy

Sunday, 09 November 2008 08:34 | Written by 
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Custom Kayaks Synergy Custom Kayaks Synergy Credits:

During September I was lucky enough to have a brand new Custom Kayaks Synergy surfski to play with while its owner Billy Harker was overseas.  Thanks Billy!  This is what I found.

First Impressions - Storm Paddling!

It's always fun to take a new ski out for the first time - but I couldn't help being just a little apprehensive on this occasion.  For one thing, I found the last Custom Kayaks ski that I spent time in, the ICON, very tippy.  Would this one be the same?  The second reason my palms and feet were sweating was that we were about to set off on a downwind run in extreme conditions - in the biggest Cape storm in a decade!

I was using two cameras - a helmet cam and a foredeck cam - and on the soundtrack you can hear the relief as I sat in the ski: "much more stable!"

Custom Kayaks SynergyCustom Kayaks Synergy

So - first impressions:

  • I was impressed with the finish of the ski.  (When I told Mark Lewin, the owner of Custom Kayaks, he was surprised.  The ski had been made in a hurry he said and the usual finish was better than this one.)  So far so good.  This ski weighed about 13kg (the Lite version usually weighs in at 12kg) - it was a special construction built specially for Billy Harker: "Billy tends to be quite rough on skis," said Mark Lewin, "so we added some extra material in!"
  • Billy Harker has really short legs (sorry Billy!).  So I quickly found out that the adjustment mechanism is very quick and easy to use.  Lift the toggles, slide the footplate assembly forward...  that's it!  The rudder pedals automatically self-adjust and there's no fiddling with grub screws or knots in rudder lines.
  • The ski is very stable.  The ICON was fast but (for me) very tippy.  This one seems fast and stable.  (More about the "fast" bit below).
  • The ski has a lot of volume both fore and aft.  The Custom Kayaks "Y-Tech" construction gives the aft deck a pronounced ridge which is designed to aid with the shedding of water in big conditions - certainly I found the ski very dry.

Custom Kayaks Synergy

"Reverse Millers" 

Back to the first paddle.  We were doing a reverse "Millers Run" in a howling northwester.  The distinguishing features of this route are:

The wind is offshore - so you start in the calm water of Fish Hoek bay and slowly pick up runs as you head towards the Roman Rock lighthouse.  On this occasion, the runs started about 500m into the paddle, the strong wind had raised bumps by the time we were passing Sunny Cove (of shark bite fame).

The best runs (in my opinion) are from about half way to the lighthouse until about half way to Millers Point, the end of the run.  From there the usually wind swings to the quarter i.e. 45 degrees over your right shoulder so that you have to work your way diagonally down the runs to the right so as not to be blown out to sea (to the South Pole!).  The waves are short and steep, wind generated.

So how did I cope with the conditions in the Synergy?

I found it extremely easy to jump onto the runs - from the moment there was a ripple in the water.  I also found that I could maneuver the ski very easily, turning the ski back and forth to catch the small, short waves at a diagonal.

As the waves got bigger, I was just having more and more fun...

(NB: If the video shows in fits & starts, just click on the pause button and let it download completely.)



Squalls Ahead!

Because of the bad visibility we took a line closer to shore than we otherwise would normally - and we stuck together.  And just as well...  Without warning we were enveloped by a squall - gusting to around 40kts with driving sheets of rain, the visibility fell to around 50m...  and the other skis were just shadows in the murk. 

And when we emerged from the other side it was to find the lighthouse dead ahead - a shocker given that I thought we were about 700m to the right of it!

I was feeling very comfortable in the ski though - both from the point of view of stability and also because the seat wasn't ripping the skin off my coccyx.  The bucket is one of the most comfortable (for me) that I've met.


As noted above, the last 2-3 km into Millers Point are at an angle to the wind and waves.  I found myself battling to take the runs cleanly; occasionally the rudder would pop out of the water and the ski would immediately swing around broadside to the wind and waves.

I'm pretty sure that this only happens in the specific circumstances described: i.e. short, steep wind generated waves and a strong wind at an angle - and perhaps a more skilful paddler would avoid the issue.  But for me it was a challenge, which I only partly overcame on subsequent runs when I made a point of taking off at right angles to wind and swell, only working right once I had accelerated onto the wave.

In general though, especially on ocean swells that have longer faces, I don't think this would be an issue.


So much for storm paddling!

We had a variety of conditions over the following few weeks, and I was able to try the ski in flat, upwind and choppy seas.

Flat Conditions

I joined the DWASOPE group on a 26km training run from Fish Hoek to Millers Point and back via Simonstown.  The great thing about these guys is that they paddle in groups - someone pulls the group while everyone else slip-rides.  Everyone takes turns at the front - and my turn came on the way back to Fish Hoek from Simonstown.  The DWA component of the group was chirping away (I have never met anyone who can talk so much while paddling) and said something to the effect that we were going so slowly we'd only get back to Fish Hoek the following week...!

So I put my head down and paddled a little harder; the chirps died away and eventually DWA and a couple of others fell off the group...  Before I get too fat-headed I should admit that sometime later I discovered that these guys are very disciplined about not paddling too hard - they have a very good idea of how to cover vast distances (day 1 of the Southern Shamaal is 80km) and dicing is not part of it.

The point is - this was some 20km into the paddle and I found that I was easily maintaining a speed of around 12km/h which is a pretty good speed for me.  It felt to me as though the Synergy likes to travel faster than about 11km/h through the water.  It's as though it gets onto the plane at that speed and is easy to keep there.

Upwind and Choppy conditions

A week or so later, I found myself on a paddle from Hout Bay to Llandudno and back.  The main features of this route are the "washing machine" - a 2-3km section of confused water where the Atlantic swells break on and rebound from the cliffs - and a gentle downwind section to Llandudno.

On the way out I felt slow and grumpy - the ski felt as though it was being thrown about in the "washing machine" and I couldn't get into a good rhythm. 

But as we turned the corner and started downwind in the (small) Atlantic swells, the ski and I came alive and we surged forward.  My mood lightened considerably...

The surprise came when we reached Llandudno and turned to go back.  A brisk breeze had sprung up and we were going back directly into the wind and waves.  I had suddenly found my groove and we shot off - catching reflected waves and powering into the wind.  I took an outside line, but found myself ahead of the other two as we approached the Boss Wreck and the beginning of the "washing machine".

Heading back into the confused chop, at right angles to the wind, I found myself being more assertive in my stroke - and now found that far from being tossed around, I was able to search out small runs.  I dropped the other two and powered off on my own.  It felt great.

It seems logical to conclude that the stability of the ski makes it possible to expend more energy in the stroke than in staying upright - making it easier to maintain speed and to find the runs in the confused chop.

Custom Kayaks Synergy

Click here for a larger image

Custom Kayaks Synergy

Click here for a larger image

More Storm Paddling!

They day after the downwind run described above, the biggest ocean swells to hit South Africa in a decade arrived.  We went out in Hout Bay to go have a look - intending to go only to the mouth of the bay and back.

Halfway to the mouth of the bay, however, we were hit by the strongest gust of wind I have ever experienced - in a split second I was travelling at 5km/h - sideways...

The point of this story is of course to show again how stable the ski is - I was able simply to sit there, bracing, until the gust had blown over.  For some reason we unanimously decided not to go on to the mouth of the bay, but turned back, tails between our legs...  Here's some video of that little episode.


Getting back into the ski

I never came close to falling out of the Synergy in the two weeks that I paddled - but I took time out at the end of a paddle in False Bay to try remounting the ski.

I had a couple of goes, remounting both side-saddle and straddle.  It seemed pretty straight-forward and I'd say it's one of the easier skis to remount that I've come across.


I've been asked a couple of times whether I think the ski is "fast".  The only way to answer the question is to race it - more than once - to get an idea of your performance against your peers.  I raced it precisely once on a lumpy day in Hout Bay and I didn't do well.  The miserable performance (caused more by lack of fitness than anything else) culminated in my catching a plastic bag on the rudder!

I do have two observations though:

On two occasions - on flat and on very choppy confused water I surprised myself with how fast I was going compared to my buddies.

Several paddlers, Mark Lewin and Billy Harker among them, have had good results in recent racing.

Perhaps the best thing to say is that I could not honestly blame the ski for any bad race results!

In summary

What I like about the ski:

  • The finish: it seemed like a well-made, strong boat
  • The general downwind characteristics: I thought it picked up both small and larger runs easily and I could maneuver on the waves efficiently, aiming the ski to the next dip.
  • The comfort: the ski has one of the most comfortable seats I've found.  (I'd increase the angle of the cutaway at the back of the seat a little, but this is a small, very personal, detail.)
  • The stability: great stability!  I'd put it somewhere between the Fenn XT/V10 Sport and the Mako6. 
  • The ski seems to be very dry; I don't recall filling the cockpit during several downwind runs of varying grades of "hectic".
  • The decals: Custom Kayaks have a range of hi-vis decals that they are putting on their skis.  Apart from the cool look, the neon orange makes the ski much more visible - a great safety feature.

What I don't like:

  • I had experienced difficulties on several reverse Millers Runs when the wind and waves were coming from behind at an angle.  I kept spinning the ski out when the rudder lifted out of the water.  As explained though, these are very specific conditions and in general the downwind characteristics are excellent.
  • I'm also not sure about the rudder - it seems very big to me and the thought of dragging it through the kelp beds during the Cape Point Challenge for example is uninviting.  I still think an ellipse is the best shape...

I think this is a great ski - particularly for those whose balance may not be legendary.  It does have a lot of volume front and back though, so it may not be the best choice for small/light paddlers.

Vital Statistics

Length: 6.42m

Width: 46cm

Height (highest point of the deck): 36cm




Standard: glass sandwich, hand layup, fully adjustable


Hybrid: Partial epoxy glass vacuum molded, fully adjustable


Lite: Epoxy carbon vacuum molded, fully adjustable


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