Last June, fans of Necky Kayaks’ touring designs were disappointed to learn Johnson Outdoors, which acquired Necky in 1998 from company founder Mike Neckar, was discontinuing the iconic brand.
Old Town’s Castine 140 Specs
LENGTH: 14 ft
WIDTH: 25 in
MAX CAPACITY: 375 lbs
PRICE: $1,349 USD/ $1,499 CAD
David Hadden, brand director for Johnson flagship, Old Town Canoe & Kayak, described the decision as “very sad for those of us who have been around for a while,” but noted it would create more opportunities for Old Town to pursue the competitive light touring market with new designs for 2018.
The first to debut is the Castine series.
The Old Town Castine checks all the boxes
Given its pedigree, the Castine should tick all the boxes on a day-tripper’s wish list. Along with a venerable 120-year history in the U.S. market, Maine-based Old Town benefits from the expertise of Johnson’s director of research and development, Bob McDonough. An industry veteran with numerous top-selling designs to his credit—first at Perception Kayaks and later as a senior designer at Confluence Outdoor—McDonough knows what recreational paddlers want.
Stable? Check. Responsive? Check. Comfortable? Check. If market research is about giving people what they want, innovation is about giving them what they don’t yet know they desire. McDonough and his team have succeeded on both fronts: blending the tried and trusted with a dash of the unexpected.
Our demo Castine 140 (the middle of three available sizes) arrives a few weeks into one of the coldest Decembers on record. I wait another month for a brief reprieve from the glacial temperatures: a comparatively mild, just-above-zero day. Leads of pewter water open up where currents tug at the lake narrows. The ice shelf stubbornly gripping rocks and docks since before Christmas recedes to a few hundred yards offshore.
I toss the Castine onto my roof rack and race eagerly to the village launch, where I find I am not the only hydrophilic creature drawn to the open water. Slipping quietly away from shore, my passage startles a raft of common goldeneyes. As the crisp black-and-white ducks lift into the air, I pause my stroke to listen to the distinctive whistling sound of their flight. Enormous, snow-white swans crowd the lead and waddle awkwardly on the ice shelf in even greater numbers, their trumpeting calls echoing between the shores of the narrows.
My first impression of the Castine is that it’s responsive with compromising stability. The rounded chines encourage confident edging with no twitchiness between initial and secondary stability. Whether I’m plying the calm lake, negotiating a shallow, winding river or picking my way through swifts and swirling currents, the Castine holds the course I set for it.
The hull shape places the beam’s widest point at the paddler’s hips, allowing for an efficient forward stroke and good acceleration. Day-trippers who prefer a relaxed, low-angle touring stroke will also appreciate the Castine’s relatively low deck and cockpit coaming.
The Castine comes equipped to accept an optional rudder, however, I find the integrated keel is sufficient to produce fine tracking in most conditions.
Build quality has the same sturdy feel as Necky’s rotomolded polyethylene kayaks, and the similarities don’t end there. The Castine also shares Necky’s user-friendly CrossLock hatch covers and an updated version of the popular ACS2 seat system.
While the Castine’s back rest sits higher than my personal preference—the lowest position is proud of the coaming by three inches—it offers superb lumbar support.
The back rest ratchets and the thigh riser handle are easy to reach and fine-tune. Ditto the sliding foot rests, which are new for 2018 and feature a nifty pull loop making on-the-fly adjustments a breeze. The foot rests are also angled forward for an ergonomic ankle position, with a slightly cushy texture that’s bliss for bare feet—this I had to confirm in my basement, in front of the wood stove.
The most innovative feature of the Castine’s outfitting is a removable, under-deck day storage compartment.
Traditional deck pod design places an integrated storage cubby in front of the cockpit, accessed through a hatch in the deck. While this is convenient when a spraydeck is fitted, these hatches can be prone to leaks and difficult for smaller folks to reach.
Old Town’s research and design team concealed the Castine’s clever compartment under the deck, where it is sheltered from splashes and drips. Aluminum tracks allow the box to slide out towards the paddler’s lap for easy access to cameras, communication devices or lunch. The gasketed lid includes bungees for securing a smartphone for one-handed use on the water—not a feature I’ve been personally craving while kayaking, but one many recreational paddlers will doubtless appreciate.
Beyond the gusty expanse of the icy lake, I follow the flow into a quiet back channel edged by the skeletal limbs of birch trees and the muted green brush strokes of white pines. More trumpeter swans rise from the water like applause, their broad black feet clapping across 100 yards of river runway.
A bald eagle soars overhead. The anachronistic smell of damp earth and pine needles drifts from the wintery shore. It Isn’t Easy, But I Finally Bring My Focus Back To The Kayak I Am Paddling. The Castine Makes It Awfully Easy To Lose Oneself In The Moment.
Three sizes to choose from means there’s a Castine for every fit | Featured Photo: Vince Paquot