In Depth Review - Kai Wa'a Vega Flex -vs- Fenn Swordfish S

6 days 1 hour ago - 5 days 20 hours ago #38771 by MCImes
Background -
I did 5 years of canoe racing (open canoe/Canadian canoe), then got into OC-1 for a couple years when I lived on long island sound, then bought a ski 4 years ago living in the Springfield, MA area. I started with a Epic V10 g1 (the 43cm elite level one). It was a bad choice but I knew that so moved onto a Stellar SR g1. I paddled that on flat water for about 18 months before I moved to southern California near the ocean. The stellar was truly awful on big water so sold that and got a Fenn XT g1 that weighed about 42 lbs! It was a tank but handled the ocean much better. During this time I became confident in ~6-7' ocean swell and relatively nasty conditions. In prep for The Gorge 2019 I bought a Swordfish S that spring. I've paddled that on average about 2.2x per week for a tad over 2 years. I consider myself expert in it, having conquered some of the most gnarly and sloppy conditions the ocean has to offer (up to ~10', confused seas, reflected swell, etc) as well as 2 years at The Gorge.

I bought a Flex at The Gorge and paddled it on (2) 8 mile downwind runs in 10-20 mph winds and 1-3 ft river swell, plus tonight I paddled it in the ocean for 6 miles going out and back with a 10mph wind, 1-2ft wind waves, and 2-3ft groundswell. Total Flex bucket time as of writing this is about 4 hours. I will update this review as I get more bucket time to see how my thoughts change over time and once I have a hundred hours of bucket time.
I’m a male, mid-30’s, 185lbs/84kg, about 6’/185cm tall, and athletic.
 
Executive Summary / TL;DR
I consider the SFS one of the best all around boats and it surfs like a boss. Its in the top tier of downwind, upwind, and cross wave boats – a top performer regardless of which direction you’re going. It has great stability, an ok bucket, average looks, and mediocre  build quality.
My initial impression of the Vega Flex is it is the best downwind boat ever. It downwinds stupid good but does not do as well upwind and cross wave. It has ok stability (but not great), a great bucket, amazing looks, and superb build quality.

Build quality and looks

Flex – 10/10 (stellar)
SFS – 5/10 (average)
The Flex is stellar. Its an Ozone built boat and is on par with the most beautiful Ozone Outriggers. The 'regular' version is 20lbs and painted any array of crisp and flashy colors and designs. They have no gel coat, which I like. Paint is easier to repair and the PrePreg construction is so stiff the gel coat isnt really needed to prevent small scratches. The Pro model is 2lbs lighter from dropping 1 layer of carbon in some select spots, and it only comes in Primer Gray (but still looks sharp, just not stunning like some of the non-pros). I got a compliment on its looks the first time I took it out on the harbor, so the painted models are definitely head turning boats. Much better than any gel coated boat and only matched by other painted or vinyl wrapped boats.
 
The Pre Preg autoclave cured epoxy construction is incredibly stiff and some friends boats have taken some significant hits without damage. On the other hand the foam core sandwich construction is still susceptible to sharp object impacts. Also, its a monocoque construction with a bladder inflated from the inside, so no seam or foam stringer. the hull itself is structural. I havent had it long enough to comment on longevity, but 7 of the 8 other guys I stayed with all week have Vegas or Flexes for over a year and all are going strong with no issues.

Let me preface this next part by saying I know nothing about new Fenn/Fennix boats produced after the factory burned down. Hopefully they took that as an opportunity. Also,  I know this is a totally unfair comparison as I had the SFS in Glass Vac layup (a 2/5 on the lightness scale vs the Flex's 5/5) - The pre-Fennix construction quality of the SFS left a lot to be desired. They are/were known to leak and my experience holds that true. The putty on the seam is weak in my opinion. The foam stringer appears to be white low density styrofoam (as opposed to a higher quality, more rigid closed cell foam or nomex honeycomb). There are just a lot of little touches that could be improved finish and water-tightness wise.
 
Fittings and bungees -
Flex – 8/10 (Pretty good)
SFS  - 5/10 (Average)
The Flex has extensive bungees on the front deck and rear deck.This makes stowing gear like a small drybag, flip  flops, or your paddle easy. The span is perfect such that you can slip your paddle blades under them and then you can have 2 unencumbered hands on the boat (an important feature with a ultralight boat in high winds) The SFS has very average bungees, with only bungees running vertically behind the foot plate. This makes it difficult to find a spot for a small drybag without impeding pedal movement. I really like the Fenn carry handle up front though. It is  convenient to have a sold padded handle to grab as you hop off the boat in the surf. The flex only has the foot brace to grab, which is ok, but not as good as a dedicated handle.
 
Bucket –
Flex – 9/10 (very comfortable)
SFS – 6/10 (almost comfortable)
For reference I wear an American 34x32” pants (not sure how that translates to metric pants, sorry world) but my waist is probably closer to 33”. The SFS bucket never really jived with my butt 100%. It never caused pain but it also wasn’t totally comfortable. The bottom isn’t quite flat enough and it pinches my butt cheeks together around my coccyx in an annoying and strange way. It doesn’t rub or cause me to need padding (I generally hate padding) but compared to the horror stories some people have with buckets, I fit ok in the grand scheme. The SFS bucket is definitely deeper than the Flex and the top lip is rounded (more on this in the remount section).  I have US size 12 feet and could use another .4”/1cm of width due to my feet rubbing slightly when turning. I must choose very skinny water shoes to fit in the SFS foot area. The rear of the bucket is cut out such that you can lean back effectively on a wave and does not rub my back at all.

The Flex bucket is relatively flat on the bottom and quite shallow. It is very comfortable even in only board shorts. When I put on my 1.5mm wetsuit it got even more comfortable. The rails are nearly flat on the rear half of the bucket. The shallow bucket makes remounts a breeze but also means it’s a WET ride. Really wet. Like really really wet. Waves splash right over the side from my knees to butt. From knees forward, the rails are higher and generally similar to the SFS. The Flex rail is so low on the middle to rear of the bucket that I can put it in the water by leaning to the extreme. Also, when the bucket is totally flooded you can do a quick hip snap and dump out the top ¼ of the bucket. The rear of the bucket is aggressively cut out and you can lean back even more than in the SFS by a little.
 
Foot Plate and rudder adjustment
Flex – 8/10
SFS – 4/10
The flex uses a bike-wheel style ¼ turn cam lock to adjust the foot brace that requires no tools. It is easy to adjust. I have not had any issues with slipping, but the great Zach Handler has had issues with slipping. The track is only 1/3 the total adjustment length. This was probably done to save weight, but it means that you have to use a screw driver to move it between the forward, middle, or rear range. Its not a big deal, but if you shared the boat with someone and you required different ranges it would be somewhat cumbersome to do each time. The rudder lines are dyneema. The adjustment is tool-free and just ties off to mini dock-tie style fittings. The SFS uses locking pins for footbrace adjustment and also are toolless. The Rudder lines are stainless steel and require a metric allen wrench to adjust. The system works fine but requiring a hex wrench to adjust is annoying. Both foot plates and pedals are solid. I give the SFS low marks only for requiring a tool to adjust the pedals (I was just burned by this last night when I let a friend demo the boat and he was shorter than me but I didn’t have an allen!)
 
Bailing / Scuppers
Flex – 4/10
Stock SFS – 5/10
Modified SFS – 9/10
The flex bailer system is total junk. Kai did suuuuch a good job with the rest of this boat that the bailer really stick out as a low point on it. It’s a single bailer that goes to a horizontal tube that runs rearward about 6” before it exists the hull. You need a lot of speed (>5mph for sure) to bail. Also, the bucket is SO wet that this boats needs a 10/10 bailing
system. I am contemplating drilling my own holes and adding 2 fenn style venture bailers with bullets to the mid-cockpit. Nothing about it works. The minimum bailing speed is too high, the venturi cone is shallow which does not generate as much negative pressure on the back side, there is no bullet which increases the minimum bailing speed, the outlet area is both too large and too small – its so large that it requires high speed to generate adequate negative pressure to bail, but at the same time its too small in the sense that 2x venturi bailers with bullets would have more cross sectional surface area to bail but the bullets produce adequate negative pressure to bail at low speed (4mph).
The stock Fenn dual venturi’s weren’t much better – the scupper holes were small and lacked bullets. They also needed about 6mph to suck air which is not good. I have most of the same gripes with them as well.

So I opened up the SFS holes from about 0.5”/13mm to about 1”/25mm diameter and added 2 stellar bullets. With the large holes and dual bullets they bail rather quickly. I was able to empty a full bucket of water in 13 strokes with the assist of a wave, or about 30 strokes on flat water.  Although the original score of the Flex vs SFS is only 1 point different, it will be much, much harder to modify the Flex’s bailing system like i did with the SFS. The fenn was easy – Sand holes larger with a dremel, epoxy seal new larger holes, epoxy on bullets, done.

The Flex will require open-hull surgery to fix its bailing issue. One of the crew with a Flex had a Epic bailer installed. It resulted in a big patch and significantly harming the flawless aesthetics.
 
Kai, if you read this, please just go with Dual Venturi’s with about 1” diameter holes and dual bullets. This is the most efficient bailing system around IME. A dry footwell is not why you paddle ski. Live with wet feet when you’re stopped. It’s a fact of ski.
 
The extremely wet ride plus poor bailing almost completely negates the light weight of the hull, because you’re carrying around 1 gallon / 4L of water at all times on a downwind. Now my 20lb flex is 28lbs because it doesn’t
adequately bail…this is the biggest black mark on this boat by far. I know Kai is improving it, but please just go with the tried and true dual venturis straight thru the hull with big scupper holes and bullets.

Primary and secondary stability (for a 45cm boat)–
Vega – 6/10 (decent)
SFS – 9/10 (excellent)
 The SFS is definitely more stable than the Flex. Both primary and secondary are lower. This is in part due to the Flex being 13lbs/5.9kg lighter than my glass swordfish, but its also the hull profile. The Flex primary stability is relatively light but not twitchy at all. I feel very planted on flat water. On confused water the boat is definitely more dynamic than the SF and relies more on the stroke to stay centered. 

Secondary stability is also lower on the Flex. It has pretty good secondary stability, but not as good as the SFS. The SFS has pretty much the ideal stability profile IMO. It has reassuring primary but deep, deep, linear, predictable secondary. The swordfish just keeps getting more stable until you go over. My best guess is that the displaced volume of the swordfish just keeps increasing until you capsize. The Flex on the other hand has a good increase in secondary stability as you lean, but the righting-resistance force graph plateaus at some point and the secondary is not as deep.

This is particularly noticeable as you sit on the top of a wave at the point of maximum instability. I would wobble a tad in the SFS in nasty, steep conditions but usually did not require a brace as I crested a wave. In the Flex I was missing strokes due to bracing or just hesitating. I am sure I will adapt to the boat quickly and get over this, but there is a noticeable difference between the 2 boats. I wouldn’t say the Flex is a full step down in stability (as in a 43cm elite boat) but it’s a half step lower than the SFS.  This is significant because to jump waves you must paddle almost continuously while charging to the front of the train. I lost a couple runs last night because I either braced or hesitated for a moment and the wave got away from me. Like I said, I’ll adapt, but if you were borderline capsizing in the SFS, you may be taking a swim in the Flex. 
More on this later, but in spite of the lower stability, the Flex caught more runs than the SFS.
 
Flat water speed –
Flex – 8/10
SFS – 7/10
I try not to do much flat water paddling, but the ocean is relatively calm in the summer. Both the SFS and Flex seem quick on the flats, with a slight edge to the Flex. I haven't tested this on a GPS, but it seems just a liiiiiiiiittle faster. It would also make sense considering the Flex is slightly less stable, which implies a slightly skinnier waterline. Also the flex is 6”/15cm longer.
 
Upwind performance –
Flex – 5/10 (ok)
SFS – 9/10 (excellent)
The Swordfish is one of the best upwind boats around IMO. It has a rounded nose and a relatively sharp V keel line that goes about to mid bucket. The bow slap of the SFS is almost non existent. You really have to launch off a wave or go over a steep wave to get a loud slap. I consider the SFS one one the least-bow-slappiest boats around. Pair that with its deep and reliable secondary stability and cresting waves is not problem. I really cant say enough good things about how well the SFS goes upwind.

The flex on the other hand is a bow slapper. Although the bow is actually sharper up front than the SFS, it does not have as much of a V keel and it does not go back as far. I only paddled up wind about 3 miles so far in 1-2’ wind waves, but there was a lot of slapping. Considering I do out-and-back paddling for 97% of my runs, this means I spend a significant portion of my time going upwind. The SFS is hands down a better upwind boat by a decent margin. If I decide to sell the Flex down the line, a primary reason will be its upwind performance, which is ok at best. Its not as bad as the bathtub that was called the Stellar SRg1 (which could bow slap on a mirror-flat pond) but the Flex bow slaps noticeably up wind. 

Also, the lower stability of the Flex means that when you crest a steep wave and drop into the trough, it is wise to time your stroke such that you have power down or a brace ready as you fall into the trough on the back side. I have not taken the Flex near the surf line yet, but I can definitely say if I was caught inside on a 2-3’ breaking wave, I’d rather be in the SFS due to its stability.
 
Downwind Performance –
Flex – 11/10 (sets a new standard in downwind surfing)
SFS – 9/10 (Excellent)
First let me say both boats are downwind monsters and absolutely tear up the ocean. The SFS picks up small and large bumps well and generally wants to downwind. Its quick enough to get on some pretty fast swell and stable enough to keep the power down as you crest a wave or are taking off. I have been supremely happy with its downwind ability up to this point. The Flex is in another category though. It reset the bar for downwind surfing performance but also has a couple quirks. Here are some differences I noticed –
 
The lightness of the Flex means it accelerates quickly and this really helps catching a wave. I think I caught 50% more waves on the flex because of its lightness. Last night I had ocean swell and wind waves working together, but catching the groundswell was still marginal. I was riiiight on the line of catching or missing waves on the flex. If I was in the SFS, im sure I would have missed the majority of waves just because I was within a stroke or 2 of catching or missing the wave. If I stopped paddling for a moment I’d miss it. If I didn’t power up fast enough, I’d miss it. The lightness of the Flex really benefited when I was right on the make-or-break line. I’d be interested to try a Carbon SFS to see how a somewhat lighter version performs. But either way, the Flex is still a few pounds lighter than the Carbon SFS.
 
Related to take-off, the SFS will take off effectively at a wide angle of attack. Obviously you get the most take-off-boost when you’re 90* to the wave, but the SFS also does well at shallow angles like 30-45*. It doesn’t readily broach and it picks up the wave energy effectively even when you’re not perpendicular to the wave. The Flex on the other hand does rather poorly when you’re at a shallow angle to the wave. 
This point is well illustrated asa large fishing boat was coming in the harbor. I paddled out to meet it ¼ mile outside the break wall and surf its wave in. I have done this many, many times in the SFS. In the SF its was hard to maintain a forward heading (parallel to the boat but about 45* to the side-wake) but it was possible.
I tried the same thing in the Flex and was immediately broached parallel to the first wave, then re-broached by the second. I got turned back down-wave after a couple seconds and caught the side-wake from behind. As soon as I turned 45* to try and surf it again I was immediately and forcefully broached. In my so far limited experience the flex does not like surfing consistently at a shallow angle on the wave. So the SFS is much more versatile and forgiving when it comes to wave-orientation at takeoff. It also holds a diagonal line down a wave much better.
 
In general, I feel the flex broaches significantly more than the SFS when being overtaken by a wave or any time you’re not perpendicular to it. You have to be more aware of whats behind you and how much rudder holding power realistically is available to you on course. Also, once a broach starts on the Flex, its happening. On the SFS with
my 9” high chord DK rudder I could save a total broach sometimes.
 
So none of that downwind review so far sounds stellar. Why did I give it 11/10 then? Three reasons –Wave positioning, Steering, Wave linking. First wave positioning. The Flex has a pin tail. There is very little volume in the last 12”/30cm of the tail. Compare that to the SFS and it has way more volume at the stern. I theorize that this causes the SFS to be pushed down the wave more readily and this leads to intentional brace-braking at the top of a wave or being pushed into a nosedive into the next wave. The Flex on the other hand likes to sit higher on the wave, requiring little slowing down to maintain position. This puts you in a better position to observe whats happening in front of you want wait for the opportunity to link waves or drop into the next hole.
 
This brings up the next point –Steering. The Flex’s steering when at speed is the most nimble, responsive, light-on-the-pedals steering I have felt. When you’re going slow the steering is average, but when you’re going fast (say, over ~7mph/11kmh) the boat turns like a top. At speed it has a totally different feel. Its incredibly nimble to the point that I zig-zagged back and forth down multiple wave trains at the  gorge with ease. You just sit up high and wait for the next hole to for, then point and go. The SFS also has good steering with my massive 9” High chord DK rudder, but its slower to respond and takes more force. One thing that contributes to this is the Flex’s rudder has almost no backwards sweep (as in its almost perpendicular to the hull). This means there is less resistance to turning in the pedals. Also, the self centering rudder on the Flex works great. The rudder on this boat is the best factory rudder I’ve ever felt, but due to its propensity to broaching I will probably look for a larger aftermarket rudder like the Kai Wa’a Grip rudder or another DK Special.
 
Last, and most importantly, whatreally really makes this boat stand out is its ability to link waves. You sit high on the wave and wait. As you see the wave start to flatten out in front of you you hammer a few strokes and the boat just wants to go. Typically when passing a wave there is still a small wave to overtake in front of you. In the SFS the bow would hit the wave and kind of stall. It was hard to run up enough speed to overtake the small bump but occasionally possible. In the Flex, you start to take a run at the small bump, the bow stalls for a second, you wait and keep paddling moderately, then the bow pops up, you hammer a few strokes and overtake the wave. Once you overtake the first one in the set you keep paddling hard and gain more speed, making overtaking the next waves easier. In 16 miles at the gorge I linked more wave sets in the Flex than I have in the last 18 months. This boat just wants to link waves. You need the power and stability to power up and keep paddling throughout the set, but the boat really rewards your hard work. I feel like in the SFS I would do the same work but often not overtake the wave, which then leads to a nose-up stall on the back of the building wave.
 
So to sum up, the SF is better at an angle downwind and better on boat side wake, but the Flex is king of wave position, steering, and linking runs. I feel like an elite paddler the way the Flex linked runs. Its insane downwind. Insane…

So to sum it up –
Build Quality and Looks – Flex 10 – SFS 5
Fittings and Bungees –Flex 8 – SFS 5
Bucket – Flex 9 – SFS 6
Footplate and adjustment – Flex 8 – SFS 4
Bailer – Flex 4 – SFS 5Stock or 9 with simple improvements
Stability – Flex 6 –SFS 9
Flat Water Speed –Flex 8 – SFS 7
Upwind performance –Flex 5 – SFS 9
Downwind Performance –Flex 11 – SFS 9
 
Total score
Flex 69/90
SFS Stock 59/90
SFS Modified bailer63/90
 
Parting Thoughts –
Both boats are top oftheir class downwind boats. The Vega feels unlike any boat I’ve paddled before both due to its lightness, stiffness, and downwind surfing ability. I would really like to try it back to back with a Carbon SFS and maybe I can convince someone at Newport Aquatic Center to go out with me. The SFS is a superior all around boat due to its significantly better handling up wind and cross-wave. The Vega and Vega Flex are unrivaled in downwind ability,  steering, wave jumping, and wave positioning.

Honestly I would like to have both boats as I do 96% out and back paddling. This means when a good 20mph wind is blowing and 5’ seas are roaring, I spend 70% of my time paddling upwind for a little downwind.. In this case the SFS is the superior boat due to its reduced bow slap, deeper and more predictable secondary stability, and still more-than-adequate surfing ability.

But the Flex is GOD of surfing downwind. I might curse it slightly as I slog upwind with some bow slap and the occasional uneasy wave cresting, but as soon as that nose turns down wind im immediately reminded why I bought it in the first place. It is unrivaled in its downwind surfing.
 
Whether I end up keeping the Flex or trading it for a carbon SFS is to be seen. I’ll almost surely keep this boat at least a year before deciding to give it a fair shake, plus I NEED a flex for The Gorge next year, as its 100% downwind and this boat simply makes the river its bitch.
 
I’ll chime back in with more thoughts after I have some significant bucket time in the Flex or as revelations occur.
 
Cheers,
Marcus
 
 

Currently paddling a Kai Wa'a Vega Flex in Southern California's ocean waters
Past Boats: Epic V10g1, Stellar SRg1, Fenn XTg1, Swordfish S
"When you've done something right, they wont know you've done anything at all"
The following user(s) said Thank You: thebigadski, kvort

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5 days 6 hours ago #38776 by mickeyA
Great review.  There is one reason I chose the SF S for downwinding over bluefin, v8 pro, boost, et al:  the high sides.  I like a drier ride.  I am not experienced and skilled enough in DW (3 Gorge weeks, occasional runs at home) to overcome getting swamped from a wave passing me by when I am trying to catch it. If I think I can get the wave, commit to it and go for it, and barely miss it, low sides = swamped bucket = stop and start all over = exhausting = incredible frustration.  The SF S instantly fixed that for me. Water never comes in over the sides en mass, so I can maintain my momentum and catch the next one.  For sure, a better downwinder will not have the same problem I have with low sides, but I do.  High sides is factor #1 for me right now, at my relatively low DW skill level.  Perhaps as I progress in DW, that will not be a factor.  i would love to try the flex, but low sides, wet ride, may do me in.  Thanks for the information.

KR McGregor Rhythm, V10Sport, Swordfish S, Fenn Tarpon S, Fenn XT, Twogood Chalupski, Findeisen Stinger spec. Had: V12, Stellar SE, Huki S1-X, Burton wedge2, Fenn Tarpon

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