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"Hot boat, how does it handle?" I asked Bruce Nussbaum, the editor of BusinessWeek's annual Industrial Design Excellence Awards issue, as I stared at a layout of a sinuous yellow kayak called Little Wing. This IDEA winner had the curves to stop traffic even on a chaotic deadline day.
"I have no idea," said Bruce. "Take it for a test drive." Two weeks later, the boat's designer and builder Ted Warren and his son Zac were at my house in Rowayton, Conn., unloading a luminescent red Little Wing 18 that had been handmade in their shop in Salem, Mass.
RACER'S EDGE. It was not exactly heavy lifting. At 32 pounds, the carbon-fiber craft is one of the lightest and fastest in its class. I was planning a nice reliable sit in the water paddling the kayak across Long Island Sound for a fundraising event. But suddenly I had the equivalent of a Ferrari on my hands. Even the paint, from the Dutch specialty chemical maker Akzo Nobel, was Ferrari red, and the finish was hand-polished to a glistening sheen.
Ted Warren, the white-haired and pony-tailed founder of Warren Light Craft, and his son are both MIT-educated engineers. While Zac studied pure science, Ted made his living as an electrical engineer for many years, but in his spare time remained passionately devoted to designing, building, and racing very fast, light, tri-hull and catamaran boats.
As we shared sandwiches at Below Deck, a kayak touring company in my village, Ted explained, "One day, I said, I bet I can build a better kayak using racing hull designs." Ted named his creation Little Wing because he decided to flare out the hull of a traditional V-shaped kayak into fore and aft wings that add stability and also make for a unique, arresting form. My demo boat—priced at $4,999, about double that of a standard production kayak—was an entirely custom craft.
LOWER POWERS. I had signed up for a 13-mile voyage across Long Island Sound with Kayaks For A Cause, a Norwalk (Conn.) charity that raises funds for local environmental groups and needy kids by getting paddlers to raise at least $500 each from sponsors. Since I had more than double that committed from friends, there was no backing out. Yet watching this red missile flutter about in even a light breeze, I guessed some serious training would be needed to keep this boat on course.
Little Wing is a thoroughbred. It responds instantly to the paddle and the rudder. When well-coordinated strokes are combined with a light touch on the rudder pedals, the boat flies. But to keep the pace, you need to have the level of experience of an intermediate or expert sea kayaker.
Good technique means transmitting power from the legs through the torso and abs, using the arms to guide the paddle's push through the water. This technique explains why women with only modest upper body strength but strong legs are very good kayakers, and why the big muscle guys burn out on a course. Like rock climbing, rowing is very much a lower body, balance sport. I trained for three days. Then, the crossing. Here's how it went.
OFF WITH A SPLASH. At 7.30 a.m., there are 316 kayakers on the line, paddles raised to the sky like Polynesian warriors. A helicopter flies over for a panoramic shot. I notice fellow paddlers eyeing my boat, which is flat, sleek, and long in contrast to their yellow V-hull 16-footers, which have been generously donated to the event by Old Town (and will later be resold at hefty discount).
We're out of the harbor in a flat sea by 8 a.m., but I'm already struggling to keep on course. That's because I've loosened my rudder too much and it is dangling behind the stern. I remind myself once again: this is a sensitive boat. A fellow racer paddles up, fixes the rudder, and wishes me "good luck." I'm no longer a threat.
By 8.30, we're out to sea with a two-foot chop and 15-knot winds from the south. I can move fast, but to stay on course I need to time my stroke while constantly tweaking the rudder to keep the bow headed into the wind. The extreme humiliation I'd suffer from rolling the stud boat of the fleet brings renewed, intense concentration. With a determined expression I'm eyeing each cresting wave, counting strokes and blotting out the idea of relaxing even enough to open a PowerBar.
NO SWEAT. As we approach midcourse around 9:30, there are whitecaps and the wind feels as if it's blowing 20 knots with a three-foot sea. Little Wing rides the crests like a surfboard. If you time it right, you can paddle down a wave trough and skip over the top of the oncoming wave and then down again. It's exhilarating. The risk: If I miss a stroke and get broadside, I feel I'll roll. My neck tingles for the next hour.
At 10:30, the Long Island shoreline is coming into focus. I grab the tube of the Camelbak strapped to my hull and suck down gulps of highly fortified Gatorade by biting the neck with my teeth. A neighbor, Tristan Perkins, comes alongside in his Old Town, sitting back like he's in a lounge chair. "How ya doing Bob?" he says. "Great!" I shout and stroke harder.
By 11:15, as we hit the calm water of Long Island's Huntington Harbor, Tristan, his wife Marisa, and a group of us stroke cleanly toward the shore for the "no sweat" photo-ops. In all, it's taken us about 3.15 hours, an hour longer than last year, say the second-timers. Kayakers load boats into the semis that Old Town brought around from Connecticut while we paddled. My wife, Erin, motors up in a powerboat, complete with beer and sandwiches for the ride back.
Kayaks For A Cause says it raised $460,000 from paddlers and commercial sponsors that day. As for me, Zac says the shorter, 16-foot Little Wing might have been easier for the relative novice that I am to handle. The last user of my demo was a class A racer who trains two hours a day and missed winning a big regional race recently by six seconds. But even for a first-timer, there is nothing better than shooting across flat water at sunrise in a Warren ultra light. The Little Wing was both a showpiece and a challenge. Learn the sport well, it says, and you'll see what I can do.