Review - Kayak Centre Illusion

Wednesday, 12 August 2009 05:11 | Written by 
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Kayak Centre Illusion Kayak Centre Illusion Credits:

Some great technical innovations set this ski apart - but directional instability makes it sometimes uncomfortable to paddle.


First Impressions

The first thing that grabs your eye when you set eyes on the Kayak Centre Illusion single surfski is the cockpit hood that gives the ski a distinct hump in front of the cockpit.  The purpose of the hood is, obviously, to reduce the amount of water that gets into the boat when you're going through waves.

Illusion Hood

The Illusion's Hood

The hood is a sturdy piece of equipment, screwed securely to the ski.  It also covers the foot strap, which is what I usually use to carry the ski so I simply held the rim of the hood instead.  You can't hold your paddle and the hood together - so I shoved the paddle under the bungie cords behind the cockpit.

The ski is finished well - Kayak Centre has a reputation for good quality, robust boats.  A standard hatch covers the rudder bar, which itself looks well made and robust.  The rudder was easy to fit.

Illusion Tiller Bar

The rudder was easy to install - and has a sturdy tiller bar

First Paddle

The sea was calm when I first tried the boat - so I paddled it across to Muizenberg Beach, one of our favorite spots to ride the surf.   The swells form up well out to sea and you can ride runs of several hundred metres before pulling out at about the point the surfers start to catch them.

Best Footplate Adjustment on the Market

The Illusion has in my opinion the best footplate adjustment out of any ski on the market.  It's operated by means of a lever - and is extremely easy to adjust.  I set the ski up on the beach, but found when I was in the water that the leg length was too short.  I leaned forward, reached between the rudder pedals, released the locks by pushing the lever sideways, pushed the footplate forward to the appropriate spot, pressed the rudder pedals to adjust them (automatically) and I was on my way within seconds. 

Illusion footplate

Illusion footplate

To adjust the footplate - just press the lever, simple.

Directional Stability

As I set off from Fish Hoek, I noticed that the ski seemed to skid from side to side giving it a fairly twitchy feel.  This feeling persisted under nearly all conditions - even when I put on a larger rudder.

The hood

When I arrived at Muizenberg the waves were small - but eminently catchable and I had a fun hour or so of ins and outs.  The purpose was partly to see how the ski caught the waves - no surprises there on the smooth runs - but mainly to see how the hood worked coming out through the surf.

Of course if the wave collapses right on top of you, the cockpit will flood - but the hood is very effective at deflecting smaller waves coming over the foredeck. 

Illusion Side View

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Illusion rocker

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Illusion top

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More Flat Water Paddling - and catching small waves

The next paddle too was on flattish water - from Kommetjie to Scarborough and back again. 

On the way back there was some tiny chop kicked up by the southeasterly breeze.  The ski seemed very eager to catch these - accelerating easily onto the ripples.

Choppy Water

A little while later I paddled the ski from Hout Bay out to Vulcan Rock and back.  This is a favorite training run - which takes us 4km offshore and around a massive whale-like rock that sticks up like a pinnacle from 40m of water. 

The big Atlantic swells come rolling in to smash against the cliffs below Sentinel Peak and the reflected waves make for confused, tricky conditions.  It's also extremely good fun - and good training - as you can often catch the reflected waves, surfing up the faces of the oncoming swells.

Diagonal chop

On this particular day the predominant chop was hitting us at a diagonal from about 45 degrees in front of the ski - and on the way out I found myself frustrated and unable to maintain my rhythm as the ski kept getting thrown off course by the waves. 

On the way back though I felt much more comfortable and I had a great time catching the small runs and was able to dice on even terms with my training buddy, Dale Lippstreu.

Turning Ability

This ski has one of the tightest turning circles of any ski that I've paddled.  This would be a distinct advantage for "round the cans" type racing.


I found the ski to be slightly more stable than my Fenn Mako Elite - but that the stability is sometimes offset by a tendency for the nose of the ski to skid when hit by side chop.

Illusion Hull Profile

Hull profile near the tail

Illusion Hull Profile

Hull profile towards the nose

Reverse Millers Run - short, steep wind-generated runs

Most readers will know that my favorite downwind route in summer is the 13km "Millers Run" from Millers Point to Fish Hoek in False Bay here in Cape Town, South Africa.  We paddle the run whenever the southeaster blows - which it does almost all the time in summer.

In winter, we often get the reverse weather conditions - with strong northwesters blowing as the cold fronts pass through.  This is when we paddle the "Reverse Millers" route.

We start at Fish Hoek, paddling directly off shore with the wind on a sea that is totally flat to start with, but the waves build progressively until we reach the Roman Rock lighthouse, when they grow to about 3ft.  From there to the finish at Millers Point, you're catching run after run after run - awesome fun.  (If the wind is coming from the NNW, we'll often carry on another 10km or so to Buffels Bay...)

I paddled the Illusion on a fairly wild day - with winds blowing 25kts, gusting to 30kts, the wind lifting sheets of spray off the surface of the water. 

Dry boat in spite of nose diving

For me the ski had positives and negatives.  On the positive side, I found the ski very dry - the hood being very effective at keeping water out of the cockpit.  On the negative side, was the fact that I found it difficult to stop the ski from nose diving.  The ski would shoot down the faces of the steep wind-generated waves, bury its nose and then sit there, almost stopped.  Finally the nose would come up and I'd start to accelerate again.  In my opinion the nose has too little volume for those conditions.


Despite the hood I did manage to get water into the cockpit several times - and the scuppers seemed adequate.

Illusion foredeckIllusion hull (nose)

Illusion tail deckIllusion tail hull

Millers Run - bigger, more confused swell

A few weeks later, we had a most unseasonal (global warming?) southeaster and leapt at the chance of doing a proper Millers Run.

On this particular day the ocean swell was relatively small - but there were several sets of waves running at different angles.  Good technical conditions, meaning that you had to focus all the time and maneuver from wave to wave to put combinations together.

Here again, I found that although the ski would take off readily enough, I kept over-steering and skidding past the direction that I wanted to take. 

The waves were bigger and I didn't bury the nose as often as on the reverse run - but I still managed to stop dead, nose down, on a couple of occasions after taking a steep drop.

What frustrated me most of all was that Dale beat me to Fish Hoek - Dale usually beats me on flat water but NEVER downwind (well, hardly ever)!


At the end of the Millers Run I took the ski back out into deep water and tried a couple of remounts. 

When remounting, I usually grip the paddle and footstrap with my forward hand and the other side of the cockpit with the other, then launch myself up and onto the ski.  Because I'm already holding the paddle, it's easy to grab it and use it to balance once I'm sitting up in the cockpit.

On the Illusion, you can't grip the footstrap because it's covered by the hood.  So I eventually held onto the rail closest to me with my forward hand and scrambled back onto the boat - but it takes a bit of getting used to.

Illusion Paddler View

Illusion Paddler View

General Comfort

I found the bottom of the bucket to be very similar to the V10's - so anyone who finds the V10 seat comfortable will be at home on the Illusion.  I did find the back of the seat rubbed a little on the small of my back - so perhaps the rear wall could be deepened just a touch.

The footplate, apart from its brilliant adjustment design, seemed reasonably rigid.

The boat comes with an adjustable footstrap.  There are two benefits to this: it's nice to be able to loosen it a bit when you're wearing booties and because it's fairly rigid, it makes a good mounting for your GPS!

What I like about the ski

  • The footplate adjustment mechanism: the best I've ever seen in terms of ease of use.
  • The hood: which goes some way to make the ski one of the driest I've paddled
  • The tight turning circle: great for turning around buoys in lap races
  • The quick take off on runs: I also found it very easy to catch and stay on small runs.

What I don't like

  • The tendency to skid: which often gave me an uneasy and frustrating feeling of instability
  • The tendency to nose-dive in steep downwind wave conditions
  • That hood!  Although the hood helps to keep water out of the cockpit, it also makes the ski awkward to carry, especially in windy conditions.  It also means you can't carry the ski upside down on your roof racks because it impacts the top of your car.  I found it made remounting slightly more awkward than I'm used to.


According to Ken Holden of Kayak Centre, the boat was designed for lap racing and to be stable enough for those paddlers who feel a little tippy on the top of the range boats.

My opinion is that although the tight turning ability of the ski would undoubtedly offer an advantage when turning around buoys, the innate stability of the ski is somewhat compromised by the tendency of the ski to skid - which gave me a feeling of tippiness, especially in some choppy water conditions.  But see the "Stop Press" below.

Kayak Centre's website is at

Stop Press - "Illusion Maxi"

Ken Holden just announced that Kayak Centre are making changes to the ski based on the recommendations of users including star paddler, Grant van der Walt, who has been paddling the ski this season.

He said, "We have put more volume into the front and have moved the bucket back 8 cm. It is unbelievable the difference this makes to the ski - 1.4 km/h at 70 to 80 % effort.  I thought this wasn't much till it was pointed out to me that that's six minutes difference over an hour!"

He went on to say that they'd taken our suggestion of fitting the Red7 bullet scupper mechanism to the boats to improve cockpit drainage.

Sounds as though the Illusion Mark II will build on the strengths of the ski and solve some of the difficulties that I found with the first version!  I can't wait to try it.

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