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Published on October 23rd, 2010 | by Peter Ekström


The evolution of surfski kayaks

During the last couple of days I have had a very interesting mail conversation with Clyde Hedlund about the evolution of surfskis. This amazing guy, who now is pushing towards 70,  shared his personal experiences and thoughts with me.

Thank you Clyde. I know this topic is of great interest for many paddlers.

The evolution of surfski kayaks

Kala Kukea fighting with Marshall Rosa. I had the pleasure to meet Kala Kukea in 1986. What a wonderful guy! His wife Carol and son Nalu both shared his love of water sports. Nalu followed in Kala’s footsteps as a firefighter, a champion paddler, and a warm person of great integrity. Kala died unexpectedly of heart failure while training with his son Nalu. He was only 52.

The fastest surfski

The fastest ski’s back in the -80’s and -90’s were much shorter, slightly wider and heavier than todays surfski’s. But they were surely fast in the open ocean.

In fact, Dean Gardiner still holds the fastest Molokai crossing time (3hrs 21min 26sec) which he set in 1997. The ski that Dean won the race on was the old design and was made brand new for the race. During the race, Dean got speared in the tail, but still won the race with about 2 1/2 litres of sea water in the hull. He also lost his water bladder at the start of the race and so didn’t drink any fluids too.

If you ask Oscar Chalupsky, Keith Fenn or Dean Gardiner about which skis are faster, they’ll all say today’s skis are. But the winning times, going back over the years, even for the shoreline races, don’t indicate this, even during similar water conditions. Why is that?

The C-Ski, which was made by Tom Conner (legendary all time Hawaii waterman) and the Chalupski ski, designed by Oscar Chalupsky and made in Hawaii by Bob Twogood, were both very popular in the open ocean bump riding unlimited design surfski races that originated in Hawaii.

The C-ski, was the weapon of choice in Hawaii before the advent of the 6,5m/22 ft class boats. Big volume up front, lots of rocker, not as good on the flat, but maybe more fun to surf than anything that’s come out since.

The last Molokai Race won by a Chalupski surfski was in 1989 with Oscar winning it and his brother Herman, also on a Chalupski, coming in second. American Olympic paddler Michael Harbold was third on a Holua surfski.

One thing is for certain, Dean was in his prime when he set the record, and the same for Oscar, when he held it paddling his now ancient low volume Chalupski.

Another interesting thing, when Oscar won the Molokai Race in 1989, he and his brother Herman, were both using flat blade paddles, around 222 + cm.

In 1984 Mike Cripps wrote an article about “Hawaiian Surfskis” in SeaKayaker Magazine. In the article he talks about Chalupsky surfing his Chalupski on its side to “increase the wetted surface area” when riding the bumps.

The “different breed” Hawaiian surfskis, such as the C-Ski, Marshall Rosa’s Roseski, Brent Bixler’s Bullet, Dean Hayward’s Holua, Mike Cripp’s Ocean Kayak, Dale Adam’s Seawitch, and later Billy Robello’s Hydroski, were all developed and created to surf Hawaii’s open ocean waves and swells. They were also much much lighter than the imported skis from Australia and South Africa.

Surfing the open ocean bumps was the main attraction for surfski racing in Hawaii. The Molokai kayak race started out as a fun race for a bunch of Hawaii adventurers, and it was the international paddlers that later discovered the race who called it a “World Championship,” since it was a neutral site and there was nothing similar to it in the world.

The no weight and design restriction races encouraged more innovative surfski designs and more paddlers racing them. “This is the only place that allows this,” international paddlers would say about the Kanaka Ikaika unlimited racing format. Of course, there was always pressure to change the racing format and place weight and design restrictions on the surfskis. But Kanaka Ikaika stood firm on its unlimited open design racing format, and eventually, in order to be competitive for the Molokai Surfski World Championship, international surfski manufacturers started exporting their special “Molokai” surfski models that were lighter, longer, narrower, tippier, and sans bow deflector than their production model “spec. skis.”

I can’t help wondering if the modern racing surfskis are to long? I think they might be for the conditions we have here in northern Europe… Or am I wrong? And they are also very tippy. Do they have to be?

Thank you once again Clyde for sharing your thoughts and knowledge.

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3 Responses to The evolution of surfski kayaks

  1. Michael Harbold says:

    Correction: In 1989 I raced the C-Ski not the Holua.

  2. Laszlo says:

    I saw the picture on facebook and said to myself “that must be Kala!”

    I never met Kala, but met his son who was really hospitable and helped me with a room to stay at when I was studying in Hawaii. I remember seeing that picture in the house.

    Hawai’ian paddlers are real nice people, and I hope that I will someday make it back to Oahu and get a chance to paddle there again and meet these great people.

  3. Ludovic says:

    In all fairness to the sport and specifically to the Molokai Channel crossing, the Chalupski had very little rocker and required a very skilled paddler. As a previous boat builder for TwoGood Kayaks out of Hawaii, I can also say that we had several Chalupski weighing in at under 22 pounds – specifically for the race.
    1990 brought some different prospective to the race. Oscar would send someone else to race – since he was unable to attend. I am mentioning this, because the new boat out of TwoGood Kayaks was then called the Predator – a highly rockered boat that required mighty big swells to win the race. Conditions were not favorable, and stronger paddler won the race. The Predator never took off as “it should have”.
    Having paddled both, I can attest that the Chalupski was VERY fast, but I found the Predator to be the most fun I have ever had – though now topped 20+ years later with the Fenn Spark as far as agile, surf ability of the boat.
    The 90’s mark the growth of the sport – couldn’t have done it without sturburn people who refused to see restrictions on weight / width / length of boats. I thank them – because I am sure they got a lot of heat for it.

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