Valley Avocet Review

Reviewer: Alan

The reviewer is a 5′ 11” (1.524m), 165 lb (75 kg) male paddler.

Valley AvocetI have owned and paddled a composite Valley Avocet for a couple of years now. It has been my everyday kayak, ie the one I use for day trips. At only 16’0” long, it is a short, low volume kayak. It is extremely responsive to edging, and very easy to control in all kinds of conditions, with minimal windage.

Valley sea kayaks are extremely well built. They tend to be some of the heaviest kayaks that I have lifted on and off of roof racks, but they do have solid glass lay-ups, for which Valley are renowned. There is no flex on any surface when leaned upon.

Valley boats have a traditional feel with rounded edged hulls in the centre, which allow them to be edged easily, and the Avocet is no exception. This is accompanied, however, with a very good level of primary stability. The rounded chines also allow the kayak to handle larger conditions well, with the kayak riding over waves with great ease and paddler security.

Valley Avocet load stability chart

Valley Avocet load stability chart

Paddled empty, I sit bang in the middle of the stability specification that Valley publishes, so my experience is one of optimal stability for this kayak. This, however, does really make it a day trip kayak only. At 280 litres (of estimated capacity since Valley doesn’t release volume figures) it may well be a bit small for anything but very short camping trips. The extra weight of camping gear also pushes the kayak into the non-optimal range for stability, and makes for a wet paddling experience, with the deck riding so low with someone of my weight and size in it.

Valley AvocetFor me, the standard cushioned Valley seats are very comfortable, and I can easily sit in them for long days out without experiencing pain or numbness (although I do recognise that this will not be the same for everyone). I have added in some extra foam padding for hip connection and a snugger fit, and the sides of the seats have adjustable ties that allow you to easily strap the foam in. I have had no problems with the seat despite frequent use for the last two years, so my experience is that Valley seats are very robust and comfortable.

The paddler’s physical thigh/knee connection with Valley kayaks has often been the subject of debate on paddling forums. I have read some critiques of the lack of thigh braces in Valley kayaks (especially when compared with some other kayak manufacturers), and can confirm that the thigh braces on Valley kayaks are placed where either the knees or, if you are lucky, the thighs actually make contact with the inner hull/deck or where the hull/deck meets the cockpit coaming. Valley provide 5 mm self adhesive foam with each new kayak for the owner to customise the comfort and fit, and the foam is required in my experience. The Avocet, being a smaller kayak, has a lower deck than some other Valley models, and as such offers better thigh connection for someone of my size. Having said that, my connection isn’t as secure as in some other manufacturers kayaks with more aggressive thigh grips, but it is enough to feel secure when rolling.

I have used the Avocet in many kinds of conditions, from dead flat calm to F5/6, following sea, beam seas etc, and can honestly say it is one of the most pleasing, stable, responsive, fun-to-paddle kayaks I have come across. I have been told that I always look happy when out paddling in the Avocet, and there is good reason for that –  I feel in control of the kayak, and not the other way around!

All in all, I really enjoy this kayak and look forward to hopefully many more years of paddling it.

Failure is the path of least persistence

Avocet at poolHaving learned that sea kayaks are allowed in the Riverside Leisure Centre pool (as long as they’ve been thoroughly washed), we decided to bring one along to practice some “real” rolling at the Club session on Friday night.  Of course, I was keen to take my Rockpool Isel, but this was not conducive to letting other folks have a shot, being that the Isel’s footplate takes a bit more work to adjust than foot pegs. And so, we took along Alan’s Valley Avocet. This choice caused me a little trepidation as my history of rolling the Avocet has not exactly been one filled with glowing accomplishment. I have had the odd moment of success, but it’s been exactly that – odd. And, of course, after the arrival of my Isel, I was in no rush to go back and engage in further self-torture. I managed, however, to delude myself into thinking that I had been making decent progress in improving my skills in the pool boats, so perhaps rolling the Avocet would be a scoosh now. Or perhaps not …

The moment of truth arrived. Alan jumped in and rolled in his usual style, with grace and poise. Next up, it was my turn. After a particularly ugly roll, I then went for a little swim. This was followed by a couple more laboured efforts and some more swimming. Sigh …

Meantime, various other members of the Cowal Kayak Club (mostly river paddlers) jumped in for a go, and each one of them rolled the Avocet with ease.  By the end of the evening, it was as if my ego had imbibed a shrinking potion and  promptly jumped down the rabbit hole into a distorted wonderland of neurosis and despair. Through the haze of blind rage chlorine, I heard a coach’s voice advise something about giving it more “oomph”, fixing my hand position … oooh and look at how good Terry’s (first ever) roll in a sea kayak is … it’s so good, he doesn’t even know how good it is … yada yada yada (I hate Terry …*).

We did of course bring along a camera and I have now reviewed the video evidence.

Readers who are bored senseless at this stage can skip.

For the remaining 2 of you, I give you Exhibits A and B (and C and D):

Alan at set-up

Alan at set-up, note that kayak has started to rotate already

Pam at set-up

Pam at set-up, note that kayak is not rotating at all

Alan rolling up

Paddle at 90 degrees, and Alan's well on his way

Pam not rolling

Paddle at 90 degrees and kayak only just starting to rotate

So, what’s up with that? Yes, yes, I know what you’re all thinking – HIP FLICK! But I swear I can’t get it going any sooner in the Avocet.  Is this a connectivity issue (with thanks to Julia for supplying that technical term), or am I just rubbish?  My most successful roll was the one that involved an absence of noseclip which resulted in a degree of urgency, or “oomph”. I am now inclined to learn a C-to-C roll for those kayaks with which I have difficulty, being that the first half of my sweep isn’t achieving anything anyway.

Fast forward to Saturday and I awoke to a disinclination to go anywhere near a kayak. The prospect of sulking at home all day, however, was even less appealing, and so we trundled along to meet up with our friends and then made our way to Strachur.

Hebridean Princess

Hebridean Princess

It was a pleasure not to be warding off frostbite as we got our gear ready for going on the water, and we were soon heading south towards Strathlachlan, with some slight wind coming from the northwest. There were few other vessels on Loch Fyne, and we were passed by the Hebridean Princess (HM The Queen was not on board). Alan took a photo of her (the ship) with me in the foreground and said he was going to label it “Hebridean Princess and cruise ship”.  I simpered obligingly.

Castle Lachlan

Castle Lachlan

We stopped for lunch at the Inver Cottage Restaurant, whose welcoming fireside is always appreciated.

Upon departure, I took the opportunity to surreptitiously dip my hands in the loch to test the temperature. It wasn’t exactly bath-like, but I speculated that I could perhaps handle a little dunking as long as I kept my drysuit on. In other words, I needed to regain my rolling mojo. I read a book recently that dealt with how the brain attaches to negative associations, being that primitive peoples had to place great focus on matters such as not being killed or starving to death, versus the more positive matters of finding a mate, or a flat-screen telly.  And so we are hard-wired to attach to negativity. The book recommended that, when something negative occurs, you should immediately replace it in your mind with something positive and, in so doing, you can effectively rewire your brain.  My intention, therefore, was to replace the painful associations of the previous evening, with the memory of a perfect, effortless roll in my Isel.

Loch Fyne

Loch Fyne

It didn’t work out exactly as planned. No sooner had I capsized than I became aware of a complete inability to surface. Convinced that I’d been snagged by the Loch Fyne Monster (or at least an especially vicious piece of kelp), I went for yet another frantic swim. On my next attempt, Alan pinpointed the problem. My drysuit was full of air and I was resembling the Michelin Woman upon immersion. Lesson No. 1: always make sure to fully purge your drysuit. Alan helped me deflate by hugging me (which Julia mistook for a romantic gesture – as if!).  Finally, I nailed the roll and it felt exactly as it should – effortless. I love my Isel.

I cheered heartily, however, not as heartily as Alan did. I’m sure I heard some utterances about finally getting some peace. Well, I can take a hint.

Now, I wonder if I should take my Isel into the pool next week …

* With apologies to Terry, it was the chlorine talking

Club trip to Glencoe and Loch Leven

Glencoe

Pap of Glencoe and Loch Leven

It was high time for a Garnock Canoe Club jamboree and one had duly been scheduled for last weekend. If I hadn’t known better, however, I would have wondered if the organisers weren’t trying to throw us off the scent in the communications leading up to our departure. The email entitled “Arisaig Trip” which informed us that the trip that had previously been moved from Arisaig to Oban had now been relocated to Glencoe, was especially confounding. Undaunted, we tracked everyone down to the Invercoe campsite in Glencoe on Friday evening. As various cars emptied out their occupants, something became apparent to me and that was a growing sense of being outnumbered. To explain: there was me, and then there were 10 chaps of the male persuasion. Which leads me to ask the question – oh, where were the women of Garnock? At least the conversation around the campfire didn’t resort to the usual stereotypical subject matter of football and cars (no, it was much worse than that).

Setting out on Loch Leven

Setting out on Loch Leven

I would like to say that I was up and about, bright and breezy on Saturday morning, but this was not the case at all. Unfortunately, Friday night had been claimed by the demons of insomnia from whom I receive occasional visitations. Once they appear, no amount of relaxation technique, yogic breathing, counting sheep or just plain wishing will get me to sleep. What starts as a small, nagging worry that I haven’t fallen asleep yet becomes a full-blown anxiety attack that I will be trapped in a torturous hell of sleep deprivation the following day, and, of course, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Not to worry, I somehow managed to find myself sitting fully dressed in a drysuit and in a kayak on the waters of Loch Leven on Saturday morning. Not just any old kayak mind you, but a beautiful white Valley Avocet with black trim. After the very favourable impressions that had been made upon us during our week with Skyak Adventures, one thing had led to another and we were now taking a lovely, nippy wee day kayak out to play. Through the foggy haze (I refer to my sleepless state and not the weather conditions), I became aware of some truly astounding scenery as we paddled from our campsite eastwards to Kinlochleven. Majestic mountains prevailed, and it was wonderful to admire the Aonoch Eagach ridge from the water having climbed it some years ago. The conditions were most favourable, especially with the wind pushing us along.

Heading for the rocks at Kinlochleven

Heading for the rocks at Kinlochleven

Upon reaching Kinlochleven, the environment began to take on more of a feel of a river, as opposed to a sea loch, as indeed the loch effectively becomes the River Leven (or that might actually be the other way around). The water narrowed in on us and became “gushy” in places, and there were lots of rocks. You can tell from my description that I am not a river kayaker. There are reasons for this, mostly relating to sharp, pointy rocks (did I mention those?), icy cold, moving water – er, and unrelenting fear. Regardless, some members of our group saw this as an excellent opportunity to toss their kayaks about the rocks. I started to believe that my tired state was causing hallucinations when I then saw bodies floating down the river, but it seems that certain individuals had abandoned their vessels altogether in favour of engaging in a whole new sport the name of which eludes me (“unkayaking”? “drysuiting”?). Having no desire to scratch wreck our kayaks, or get icily cold, Alan and I sensibly decided to have some hot soup and pull up a chair to watch the other hardy souls from the sidelines.

Loch Leven

Garbh Bheinn, from Loch Leven

Whilst the rest of the group then embarked on an elaborate climbing exercise in order to consume their lunch on top of the riverbank, Alan and I, having dined already, decided to start heading back the way we’d come. Our progress was slowed by the wind which was now doing its best to place us in reverse gear. Around the half way point, my lower back was screaming for a rest and we pulled in to a pebbly beach. Here, a solo paddler in a Capella 163 came ashore and sat down with us for a chat. It seems that whenever I write about paddlers whom we happen to bump into on the water, to my delight they somehow later find my blog and make contact. Perhaps I will hear from this lady too. Anyway, let me just say, it was nice to enjoy the company of another female paddler.

Soon our group had caught up with us and quickly embarked on a challenging and manly survival exercise on the beach involving fire-building and slater-eating, in the manner of – I think I’m safe in saying – Ray Mears. I had dared to mention the name of Bear Grylls, which was greeted with snorts of derision from the guys. I wonder if female paddlers feel similarly? 😉

Making friends with guillemot

Making friends with a guillemot

At this point, Jordan graciously offered to swap kayaks with me in order for me to try out his Rockpool Isel. This is a relatively new Rockpool kayak, designed for the smaller paddler, and I have been very interested in learning more about it. To be able to try it out was an opportunity not to be missed. Well, let me just say – I like it very much! Whilst I cannot put a kayak through its paces in quite the way Jordan can, here’s what I did manage to observe:

  • What a great fit! Part of the trouble that I’ve had in assessing fit is that the majority of kayaks out there don’t fit the smaller person well – so how do you truly know what a good fit is until you actually encounter it? The Isel makes snug contact in all the places that matter, including the excellent thigh braces. I felt like the kayak fitted me, as opposed to me trying to fit it via outfitting (or eating pies).
  • After kayaking back the remaining half of the return journey, my back no longer hurt. The seat and lumbar support are exactly that, supportive.
  • My feet loved the footplate (versus foot pegs). I could feel the blood in my toes again. Such comfort.
  • The hard chines took me back to my Capella a little and edging seemed “stickier” than the Valley kayaks – obviously not an issue to the skilled paddler.
  • The Isel doesn’t turn quite as responsively (imho) as the Avocet, but it turns perfectly well nonetheless.
  • Despite tiredness to the extreme, a less than ideal set-up, and some gusty wind, I managed to roll the Isel. It wasn’t my prettiest roll ever due to the aforementioned, but the kayak simply has that feeling that suggests that you can rely on a roll even when conditions/you are less than perfect. I really like that feeling.

Meanwhile, it was fun to watch young Jordan making our Avocet dance in the water the way it was meant to. If kayaks had emotions, ours would have been very happy to have someone with such natural skill in charge.

Eilean Munda

Eilean Munde

Before returning to our campsite, we detoured over to Eilean Munde, the “Burial Island” of Loch Leven. We stepped ashore to explore its many gravesites. I hadn’t realised that they were so numerous and it was interesting to read the inscriptions and examine the symbology (to use a Dan Brown kind of term), as well as to view the graves’ seemingly random placement across the island. Many of the slate gravestones seemed as new, no doubt scoured clean by the prevailing elements.

It was a short trip back to Invercoe where a hot shower followed by dinner in the smirry rain awaited. In danger of falling asleep as we sheltered in the car, Alan and I turned in for the night not long after 9 pm. Sleep came upon me like an anaesthetic and I would have known nothing of the party in the neighbouring tipi but for the impressive amount of recyclable materials and marked lack of perkiness that emerged from it in the morning, combined with the run on Powerade in the campsite shop.

Eilean Munda

Eilean Munde

What with all the blustery wind and rain on Sunday morning, I was gutted to learn that no-one seemed keen to go and get soaked and freeze in the Falls of Lora as had been originally planned. But a consensus of reluctance had been reached and who was I to argue? So we packed up and made our way homewards. After having nearly lost our kayaks to the wind on the way over Rannoch Moor on the journey to Glencoe, we decided to take the less gusty route home via Oban. This took us past the said Falls of Lora where, to our surprise, we found other members of the Garnock club! Apparently, a second branch of the club had arrived for Sunday’s activities. As inviting as it was to get out and join them, Alan and I were in full “going home to cosy fireside” mode and, after stopping to chat briefly, proceeded on our way. I confess, however, that a slight pall hung over me as often occurs when left with the feeling of having missed out on something. Never mind, the cosy fireside was nice.

And so concluded a fun weekend in a beautiful location, in good company (despite there being gender disparities) … what more could you want? Apart from a good night’s sleep.