I’m often asked what is the fastest type of human powered boat. How do surf skis, SUPs (stand up paddleboards), etc. hold up against one another? I’ve decided to take the time to rank and compare the various modes of human powered aquatic propulsion. Direct comparisons between craft are hard to come by, and relative performance can vary significantly depending on weather/water conditions. We’ve compiled our analysis by comparing data from Olympic results, open water human powered boat races, and major records that have been broken.
Pedal power has proven itself to be fastest for short and long distances on flat water. The world record for the fastest 100 meter sprint is held by the Decavitator averaging 18.5 knots. Decavitotor uses hydrofoils and is powered with a pedal system driving an air propeller. The 24 hour flatwater distance record is held by Greg Kolodziejzyk who voyaged 245 km in a day using a lightweight carbon fiber trimaran propelled with a submerged propeller. While the major aquatic records are held by pedal-powered craft, typical commercial pedal powered boats are much slower. The Hobie drive system, for example, sacrifices significant performance in exchange for durability and function. In most open water races pedal powered boats generally fare relatively poorly compared to surf skis and rowing shells due to the abundance of mediocre-performance pedal boats.
When comparing the top Olympic speeds of rowing, kayaking and canoeing, rowing comes out on top. Olympic events are all short distance, however, when looking at the results of longer distance mixed boat races sliding seat rowing boats still perform slightly better than other fast paddle craft in calm conditions.
The double blade paddle offers excellent performance, and speed is only slightly slower than sculling (sliding seat rowing) when using high performance craft. When conditions get rougher, kayaks and surf skis will outperform a rowing shell. High performance kayaks and surf skis are almost identical in speed, while recreational sea kayaks are much slower.
The single blade paddle is less efficient than the double blade, and the fastest racing canoes (including the OC-1) are slower than performance kayaks.
Stand up paddleboards are the slowest of the conventional human-powered craft. A board shaped for performance is still hindered by the greater inefficiencies of a single blade paddle. Additionally, the full standing profile of a human presents less-than-ideal aerodynamics. An examination of the 2015 results from the 20 races (open to all human powered boats) hosted by Puget Sound Rowers, shows SUPs consistently trailing the pack.
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