My Search of the “Perfect” Surfski
My search since 2003 for the “Perfect” surfski has gotten easier with so many surfskis brought to the market since then, most notably in the last two years. Before 2003, I paddled and raced sea kayaks since 1993. My surfski experience started off with a Fenn Mako XT for three months then I bought my first Huki S1X in late 2003. As my surfski skill level progressed in my 40’s and I reviewed more boats, I realized I needed to optimize the ski for the conditions I would be paddling in along with my skill level at the time. As I am fond of say “we are all products of the waters we train in”. Here in Narragansett Bay, Sakonnet River, and New England, we have probably the best mix of conditions anywhere; Flatwater (Narrow River, Charles River, Essex River, Connecticut River), Small Bay(Sakonnet River), East/West Passage Narragansett Bay, Ocean(Rhode Island Sound to include Ocean Drive, Beavertail, Bull Point). We even have some small downwind to keep us entertained when we get tired of the flat water or the washing machine provided in Jamestown or Gloucester. While there are plenty of places to paddle, the prime paddling season is from May through October due to the long cold New England winters. So as you can see, optimizing for racing/training for all these type waters has kept me occupied since 2003.
Now that I have gotten older, my priorities have changed slightly in regard to surfskis. I enjoy more stability in bigger conditions since my risk tolerance is not as high as it once was. I am also more concerned about safety that comes with all my surfski experience. My fitness level is still quite high so time trialing the current batch of skis is only slightly off of what it was in my prime. However, my comparisons are still quite valid looking back on all my races and time trials. So I am still training hard, and still searching. Remember, I enjoy this journey. It keeps me active, very fit, engaged, and I am able to share the information for those interested.
So with the launch of the Nelo 550 surfski, I had high expectations to see where it would place in the crowded intermediate class of surfskis. I first tried the 550L a few months ago and time trialed it on my Pier to Pier(.26 mile course) and clocked a 2.04 with the 5 inch rudder, an impressive time. So my expectations began to build. However, I had some initial hesitation; the bucket width, and the lack of foot plate adjustment for my short 29.5-inch inseam. So a few months later I tried Chris’s(FastPaddler.com) 550L again. This time with my winter gear on, the bucket was fine. We played with the footplate, adjusting it on the last hole but I still needed another half inch toward me to fit. This was unusual, a track that did not extend far enough back for short paddlers. So I had to special order a 550L with the track moved one inch toward the stern to fit. Nelo, unlike all other brands, should just have one track that fits all paddlers. Nevertheless, I had to wait for the special order to arrive hence my delay in this review. However, the special order from FastPaddler.com via Elite Ocean Sports (Nelo distributor) allowed me to pick the color, design, and weight of my ski so I was very happy to wait a few more months.
My History with Nelo’s
This is Nelo’s second time to the surfski rodeo and my second time reviewing Nelo surfskis too. In 2012 I reviewed Chris’ Nelo Vintage at 30lbs and I owned a 22lb Vintage in yellow and blue cobra stripes. These were comfortable, very fast skis, but very unstable due to the most forward bucket of any surfski and a rounded hull along with a funky rudder. The quality was sometimes suspect at least for the Nelo skis on the East Coast, USA. However, I clocked my fastest time EVER in a Nelo Vintage for my 1.62-time trial course averaging 8.4 mph with a time of 11:55. I have come very close to that in some of my other skis over the years, but this odd ski still holds the record. There is something to be said about that; it was fast! Below is the link to that review.
Nelo Surfskis 2017-Innovative Design
Nelo, the dominant leader in K1’s for as long as I can remember, needed a reboot in their surfski line. So in 2015, with the timing right, Nelo hired surfski legend, Oscar Chalupsky, as CEO of Nelo Surfski Division. Now Nelo has a line of skis including the 510,520, 550, 560, 600. I currently have the 560M and 550L and have paddled the 560L for about 30 minutes. A lot has already been written about the Nelo 550 with many paddlers enjoying the new, innovative designs of the Nelo Line.
What makes the Nelo line so innovative is that these skis are SHORT and comparably fast to the other intermediate and advanced skis that are 19 to 21 feet. The 550(intermediate) and 560(advanced) are offered in different bucket widths. My 550L is the wider bucket, 18 feet long, in the SCS layup(23) pounds. The Nelo design makes use of a low wetted surface area, low volume, wet plumb bow with a very narrow catch before it widens significantly at the seat (18.11 inches). The low volume bow allows for excellent glide, and the narrow catch facilitates a more efficient stroke. However, every ski has design compromises depending on the design philosophy for that ski. So one of the drawbacks of the low volume bow is the wet ride. It needs a wave deflector that is now seen on a few other brands of skis as well. For years most surfskis have been designed to go up and over the waves, or from plowing into the wave trough, however, now we are seeing these changes in design with some skis going through the wave to varying degrees. With that said, I have not installed my deflector and only buried the bow a few times in mild upwind conditions. So to my surprise, in flat to moderate conditions, I have not needed the wave deflector. Also with a low volume, narrow bow, and flatter hull, with little rocker, when in confused waters, you are reminded that this ski is for the highly competent intermediate paddlers or advanced paddlers.
Nelo’s surfskis also feature the”Unico” technology for seamless hulls, and since only 18ft, less material is needed making them light and stiff. My 550L now is the stiffest ski in my garage. Other design features include a fairly deep footwell to allow some vertical depth since it has a very narrow catch. A three-way angle adjustment footplate is provided, along with an easy rudder line adjustment you can adjust while sitting in the cockpit. I found the footplate solid once I put the feet(rubber stoppers behind footplate) down. The narrow footwell fits my size 9 winter paddling boots perfectly. The Nelo’s have no hump so leg drive is never impeded no matter how short you are. Another super feature of Nelo boats is that you can customize your graphics to almost any design. We have all seen some gorgeous designs on their K1’s and skis. While mine was a special order, I chose one of the standard designs with a blue hull and deck with safety lime yellow stripes that catch your eye. While the stripes look painted are actually vinyl.
How does it Perform?
I have plenty of miles on my Nelo 550 in flat and very moderate conditions. I also have many of my standard Garmin time trials with varying rudders; the DK 5 inch, the DK 7 inch, and the Nelo 6 inch surf rudder. I even have comparative back to back time trial data comparing it to the Stellar SEI (24lbs w/6inch rudder), Think Evo 3 Ultimate (23lbs) w/7inch. Since I got the ski in the winter, I have limited paddles in rough and confused seas. Ideally, for a review I would have a lot more miles in rougher conditions so I will give my impressions here and see if they are confirmed when I take it out in the spring in more conditions.
Unlike many of my other surfski reviews where I could tell early on the speed of a ski in comparison to other skis, I could not reach a conclusion if the Nelo 550 was faster or slower than my other two intermediate skis in my garage; the SEI 2G that I have paddled since 2015 and Evo 3 Ultimate that I got a few months ago. Now, I know, all three top-end intermediates skis are very similar in speed in flat to moderate conditions. What is different that bears repeating is that the Nelo design is able to obtain this speed with a ski that is a mere 18ft. We know that K1’s at 17ft and K1’s trainers like the Nelo Viper line are able to maintain excellent speeds. So I wonder with all Nelo’s K1 experience and Oscar’s surfski experience that they thought they should be able to design short surfskis that are stable and fast. I have no idea if this was the brainstorm to rethink the line or they simply wanted a shorter, competitive ski to fit on European cars and in shorter garages.
Being a shorter ski, it makes sense that the Nelo 550 would accelerate exceedingly well and is able to catch any size bump. I often speak of glide when reviewing skis and the Nelo 550 has it. You take two strokes and you can feel it, pause momentarily while at speed, and you can feel it too. Its short size also enables it to be extremely nimble on a wave or turning on a buoy. It’s turning radius is the best of any intermediate ski so if you want to pick up an easy boat length or two on a buoy turn, then this is your ski for sure.
What I have not mentioned thus far is the superb paddling position the 550L offers. All of my skis in my garage now(Think Evo 2,3, Ion 3G, Uno 2g, Stellar SEI 2G, SEL 2G, SR 2G, Epic V12 2G, Nelo 560M, are skis I really enjoy paddling for various reasons including some with excellent ergonomic buckets. The 550L, like some other brand skis, promotes intuitive leg drive and easy to maintain over varying distances. Put another way, you don’t have to think about leg drive, it almost naturally happens. This was not only evident to me but also with a demo I did with Jean and Chris Chappell. Jean is not new to surfskis, but she was able to take advantage of this well design bucket for maximum leg drive that I commented on during her demo. So better leg drive contributes enormously to speed as we know. So a more stable ski powered by a fit paddler with better leg drive will go faster than the same fit paddler in a less stable but faster ski with less leg drive especially over longer and rougher conditions.
My time trials below are very consistent with the difference in which rudder I chose. One time trial with Chris and I both paddling our 550’s we were within 45 seconds of each other on my 1.62-mile course, with the main difference being he had the 5 inch DK rudder while I had the Nelo standard surfski rudder. While it took some paddlers years to recognize rudder size and shape makes a difference in speed, maneuverability, and stability, many of us have been experimenting for years maximizing rudders size for the right ski for the right conditions. Now it is easier than past years with Don Keisling(DK) making rudders for all brands of skis.
The above Time Trial was with Chris in his 550 w/5in who clocked a 13.22. I clocked a 14.09 with 7-inch rudder and foot pedal slightly misaligned.
After doing my back to back flat water time trials of these three(see my separate post above), these three skis are all plenty fast and virtually the same speed on flat water with comparable rudders and similarly weighted skis.
So as you can see I was very consistent across my time trials on different days with the Nelo 550. Note that I am rarely completely rested for my time trials. I typically do them as part of my paddling training. My heart rate average for my 1.62 mile time trials was between 142-156, so well below my race pace heart rate. So if completely rested my times would obviously be faster. However, this has always been the way I have done most of my time trials. I have not raced the 550 yet to compare to my other race times but I feel confident on a flat course, I could easily predict my race time in the 550 compared to my other skis on the same course.
This summer when I first paddled Jay Rose’s 550 on flat water, I immediately thought this ski belongs in the upper end of intermediates skis. I commented to Chris that there are many New England intermediate paddlers who could benefit from this boat. This type of paddler is already paddling an intermediate ski for most races but wants something faster, comfortable, and with a wider bucket, for flat water and moderate conditions with a change of rudders. They often opt for an SS20 class ski for the rougher races or simply forgo a race if too rough. Like many other paddlers, I quickly adjusted to the rhythm of the 550 in these types conditions and enjoyed the handling of such a nimble ski. Once in bigger New England conditions, I used the 7 inch DK rudder or the standard Nelo surf rudder for more stability. As I mentioned earlier, I have limited experience in rougher water with the 550 thus far, however, I don’t see it as my rough water intermediate ski which was not my expectation. With so many capable skis in the garage, I am fortunate I can pick and choose a ski based on the specific conditions. For instance, my huge water ski( Blackburn 2015) or the ski I use for rough water clinics in Jamestown is my SR 2G. While it is in the intermediate class too, it is way more stable than the advanced intermediate skis like the 550, SEI 2G or Evo 3.
Fun! Fun! The Best for last!
Well, I saved the best for last in describing this ski. It is so comfortable and fun to paddle. The seating ergonomics is super comfortable. Even if the bucket is slightly wider than you prefer in the 550L, you butt stays solidly planted with no slippage. The back of the cockpit is angled so your back rarely touches promoting great posture and excellent leg drive. The caveat is that surfski seating is highly individualized but I think most paddlers are enjoying the seating of the Nelo’s. Remember there are different bucket sizes for the Nelo’s trying to accommodate different size paddlers. It is best to try. I was convinced the 550L was too big but now I know it is perfect for winter paddling and I may need a little padding for summer paddling. The no hump also contributes to the leg drive and comfort as I mentioned earlier. Once you get acclimated to the 550, you feel like you are in sync with the ski. Everything flows nicely from the seating to the ultra-narrow catch to the low volume short bow. Being only 18ft, it is very nimble on the water, easy to carry and store, and you can get yours customized with almost any design you want. So in a crowded intermediate field of skis, the Nelo 550 certainly stands out. So take it for a spin and see if it is a ski for your skill level for the conditions you will be paddling in!
Stay tuned for my next surfski review, a ski I really enjoy paddling also, the Think Evo 3 Ultimate.