We can never know about the days to come
But we think about them anyway, yay
And I wonder if I’m really with you now
Or just chasin’ after some finer day
– carly simon
I’ve had the old white Romany for some time, but as I said it was not “my” boat so I rarely paddled it. In fact until recently the only time I paddled the Romany was when the local river was in flood. At those times I’d take the boat out to play in the currents and surf since I was not worried about banging it up. Now that I’ve repaired the hull and have it seaworthy again, I’ve been paddling it quite a bit which offers a great opportunity to share some fresh thoughts about the Romany in general.
The SKUK (NDK) Romany is a classic of course. Back in the day it set a new standard for sea kayaks. It can easily be argued that most sea kayaks available today took something off the Romany. (Some it could be said, pretty much took everything off the Romany!)
At 16ft in length and just 21.5 inches wide, the Romany is a smaller day or weekend kayak. It will fit mid-sized paddlers but will be too tight for some heavier or taller people. Still, don’t write yourself off without actually sitting in one. There are a lot of assumptions being made out there about what will or will not fit a certain size paddler. Your body type is as relevant to boat fit as height and weight. In addition there are all sorts of high & low volume versions these days as well. The point is, try boats. Don’t just assume they will or will not fit you.
The “Classic” Romany was designed to be agile and to play well in surf and rough water. You’d be hard pressed to find a sea kayak more at ease playing in big conditions. (However, the longer SKUK Explorer would be the choice to cover distance in rough conditions.) My Romany does not have a skeg or rudder. I’ve not had it out in a harsh enough wind to miss the skeg, but I have a feeling it may need one. I’ve had my Explorer out in crazy conditions and have never used a skeg. In fact, it’s not even in the boat! One thing I found interesting about both the Romany and the Explorer is how they seem to ride at level up tall broaching waves. They don’t naturally lean into or away from wave coming at the side, they just ride up and over like the step of an escalator. I’ve found this tendency to be a real comfort to new or nervous paddlers. The Romany’s design tends to take care of you.
It’s as good as place as any to mention that the Romany’s sloping bulkhead behind the seat is a godsend when getting water out of a kayak. I can’t fathom companies that have not bothered to steal this feature by now. I mean, come on!? If you want to see new paddler’s eyes light up, show them that after they try to get water out of a kayak without a sloping bulkhead. You can argue the true value of the sloping bulkhead if you like but it’s a simple feature that impresses anyone who’s shopping for a new kayak.
In flat water play the Romany is a dancer. The shortness of the boat and the fair amount of rocker allow it to spin easily with just a slight amount of edge, while at the same time you can quite easily put an extreme edge on the boat without fear of going over. Sitting still I can edge the Romany until the water is up over the combing and tickling my ribs without losing stability. Running through all the basic skills from sweeps to draws, hanging draws, bow rudders and the rest, the Romany is happily compliant and takes little effort to maneuver. Similar to other Aled Williams designs, the Romany is one of those perfect “coach” kayaks because it will perform even when you’re feeling tired, distracted or just plain rusty. If you can’t make a skill look graceful in a Romany, it’s time to get back out to the practice pond!
The Romany is also an easy kayak to roll regardless of rolling style. It’s not a Greenland style rolling boat, but it still offers a low enough profile to make laybacks, stick & hand rolls quite easy. As I’ve said before, any boat I can jump in and hand roll without too much adjustment, sliding forward or other erroneous fiddling gets a rolling pass from me. The Romany is a nice roller.
And that’s pretty much the gist of anyone’s review of the Romany as long as we talk about design and boat control. It’s just a great kayak. While there are plenty of also rans out there, you may as well just paddle a Romany and be done with it. Of course that’s not the whole story… Where things go weird is in issues of weight and quality control. These are issues that have been debated ad nauseum and will probably be debated for as long as SKUK exists. I think however, in the last few years we’ve realized something about QC in general that.. well, I’ll come back to that.
First let’s talk about weight. New SKUK kayaks are not nearly as heavy as my old mid-nineties versions. On the other hand, my old ones are practically indestructible. You simply keep laying on more gel coat year after year until you die, or the weight of the gelcoat sinks the kayak the second you put it in the water. Otherwise, your old Romany will always be ready to play. What does an old NKD Romany weigh? 55lbs? 60lbs? 70lbs? More? Everyone will have a different story there. Back in the days of pouring gelcoat from old paint cans directly on the hull, there was no one answer. Suffice to say, they were heavy. AND they were also tough as nails. Today’s boats are designed for today’s market. SKUK kayaks are lighter than back in the day, but they are still not light.
Now let me sidetrack here a bit. I read a review of an Explorer recently where the guy was complaining about spider cracking, flexing and oil canning. At the same time he talked of finding an Elite layup to get rid of even more weight. UM, no… Gelcoat is not rubber, when it bends it cracks. Yes, if you get the gelcoat layer thin enough it will flex a bit before it cracks, but it WILL crack. In the war on weight, spider cracking is the new “normal” on sea kayaks. Did old heavy sea kayaks get spider cracks? Yes. But not nearly as easily. They simply were not so flexible. Until we come up with some new material that is tough as an old 70 pounder, but weighs 35 lbs.. I’ll vote for heavy. It will last longer.
So back to the issue of quality. We all know SKUK quality as gone up and down over the years. It was easy to bash Nigel when newer companies like Current Designs or Impex were all the rage. Well, we learned didn’t we? Quality control is everyone’s problem from time to time. QC is dependent on a lot of people holding a lot of balls in the air at once. Still, at the price of a sea kayak today I don’t accept bad QC from anyone. I think SKUK was unfairly bashed before we realized the “new” guys could suck too. To quote Billy Joel, “Everyone goes south, every now and then”. It’s what a company does to rectify a problem when it comes up that shows their real character. Are there SKUK horror stories.. Yup. But today we can put it in some context. Funny thing about SKUK boats is that even with the bad QC wrap there are thousands of paddlers who would never buy anything else. That speaks to either an amazing craft or group insanity.
Rockpool Alaw Back (left) NDK Romany (Right)
I’ve been paddling or test paddled kayaks designed by or with Aled Williams for some time from the Romany to Rockpool to Tiderace . They all share a heritage that is obvious from the moment you paddle them. There are kayaks out there from many different designers and brands that are impressive and may do this thing or that thing better than Aled’s boats, but I’ve never found one that is truly a better all around kayak. This last week of paying special attention to the original Romany has only reinforced that opinion for me. As far as sea kayaks go, the Romany IS the ice cream. Everything else, is just a different flavor.