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Newfangled boat is a catamaran, kayak all in one

Posted: Wednesday, June 12, 2002

NEAR GLACIER ISLAND, GROWLER BAY, Alaska (AP) -- The small watercraft looks like what you might get if a sea kayak and tiny catamaran collided.

It's called a WindRider -- a snappy little trimaran.

Within 15 minutes after settling into the cockpit of this boat -- with just five minutes of instruction -- I had the craft darting between icebergs shed by the Columbia Glacier and gliding across white-tipped water like a skitterbug.

Unlike the sailing I had done previously -- which always had some aspect of rub-the-tummy, pat-the-head for me -- this was straight forward. There was no confusing tiller that had to be pulled left to go right.

If I wanted the WindRider to go right, I pushed the rudder foot pedal on the right; for left, I pushed the rudder pedal on the left. My hands were free to control the one-line for the single sail.

I didn't worry about getting walloped by the boom because I was nestled in a cockpit with room for the boom to swing overhead.

Too much wind pushing me around? I simply leaned forward and furled it around the mast. The sail area shrank and the boat slowed down.

But the greatest feature was sensing that there was simply no way that I was going to dump this boat.

''We still have yet to be able to turn one over,'' said Anchorage's Matt Smith, a factory representative for Confluence Watersports Co., which manufacturers a number of human- and wind-powered boats, including the WindRider.

Smith circumnavigated Glacier Island in Prince William Sound on a five-day trip aboard a 16-foot WindRider last summer. ''The biggest hazard would probably be falling off'' when climbing across the trampolines stretched between the outriggers and the hull, he said.

A North Carolina company introduced WindRiders in 1995. Since then, they have become popular in Florida. In Alaska, Jim and Nancy Lethcoe, who spent a lifetime living aboard a 40-foot-sailboat in Prince William Sound, purchased a half-dozen of the boats a few years back for the sea kayaking business they operated in this bay.

They soon discovered it was safer, easier and more fun to stick clients in WindRiders than to take them out in traditional kayaks. The Lethcoes sold their business last year to Anadyr Adventures Inc. in Valdez, which is now using the boats for afternoon or guided overnight trips out of Valdez.

The boats have popped up in other places, too. Today there are at least a dozen WindRiders around the state -- in Juneau, Soldotna, Anchorage and Palmer.

Maynard Perkins got interested last summer after talking with a friend in Juneau who owns a couple. Perkins traveled to Canada for his first shot at sailing one.

''I had never sailed, never done anything,'' he said. ''I got in a 16 and sailed around for two or three hours.''

He was hooked. Perkins is now Alaska's WindRider dealer. He sells them and keeps a couple on hand for demos. An hour-long demo costs $45, but he will credit that toward the price of a boat for anyone who decides to buy.

''I'm hoping they will catch on,'' Perkins said. ''I would like to see 100 of these boats operating, so we can start having races.''

The boat I tested was called the WindRider 16. About 16 feet long, it weighs roughly 250 pounds. The Lethcoes had a tiny, battery-powered motor attached to help get out of the bay without paddling, which looked like it might be difficult.

In the past year, the company has introduced a 10-foot model, which might be easier to paddle. The WindRider 10 also fits on the top of a car and weighs half as much. The $1,999 cost is about the price of a good sea kayak.

The company also recently started marketing a 17-foot boat that has cockpit space for two, weighs 320 pounds and sells for $4,999.

All the boats come apart and reassemble easily, but if you owned a WindRider 16 or 17, you would probably want to trailer it, Smith said.

You get in these boats by crawling across the trampolines that stretch between the outriggers and the center hull. The center hull has lots of room for storage. The sealed outriggers have hatches, but Smith said he wouldn't recommend loading them up because they are the boat's flotation and what makes them stable. All three hulls are made of a rugged polyethylene, which is pretty much bombproof.

Because you are sitting down in a kayak-style cockpit, you stay dry in the boat. For Alaskans, Smith said, this is an advantage the craft has over a Lazer or a Hobie Cat, two other small sailing craft.

''Seems like Homer, where there is always a good breeze, would be a good place'' for a WindRider, he said. ''I think there is a lot of potential in blue water.''

Perkins said he took some boats to Seward last month for the Harbor Days celebrations and piqued a lot of interest. But so far, he has only sold a couple. One of those was a WindRider 17, purchased by a man in Nome.

The downside of this craft is that there's not much to do in the boat. Once you get your direction picked and your sail set, you just sit there and breathe in the scenery.

This is nice, but because you aren't paddling, it can get quite cold. Also, I'm not sure the WindRider 16 would be that easy to paddle should the wind die, although Smith said he did some paddling with a loaded 16 during his five-day trip last summer.

Still, the WindRider 10 might be easier in the calm.

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