C onsider this question before you read further: Do you think the boat in this picture is a surf ski or a kayak?Either way, you’re right.

For the fence-sitters, the Stellar 18 (also known as the S18S G2, for generation two) might be the perfect all-around fast paddling craft. Because while in name and appearance it’s unmistakably a surf ski—it comes with an open cockpit with drain holes, a skinny surf ski bow, and a surf ski foot brace—for racing classification, it is considered a sea kayak almost everywhere.

Stellar 18

Length 18 ft 
Width 20.2 in
Depth 13.3 lbs
Weight 35.9 lbs
Capacity 285 lbs
MSRP $3,395 USD

stellarkayaks.com

As an article in Surf Ski News explained when considering the popular Chattajack 31 race in the Tennessee River Gorge, “by and large, boat category is determined by hull dimensions. The topside of your craft is generally irrelevant.”

Designed intentionally to fit the United States Canoe Association’s 18-foot sea kayak regulations, for most races, the S18S qualifies as a sea kayak or a “fast sea kayak” because it’s not more than 18 feet long or narrower than 20 inches. Also, its length-to-width ratio—the measurement used by some races, including the Blackburn Challenge—is just low enough to still make it a kayak.

Stellar makes eight single surf skis categorized on a spectrum from recreational to intermediate to racing. The S18S is closer to the recreational side of things, being the shortest intermediate ski on offer. Move up one and you’re into 100-percent surf ski territory: the Stellar Racer, at over 19 feet long, 18.9 inches narrow, and with zero hatches. The S18S is the longest, fastest craft in the Stellar lineup to include storage hatches, two of them with a total capacity of 34 gallons, which is just enough for minimalist camping.

Design

Compared to the original, Stellar gave this second generation of the S18S a sleeker hull shape to make it a little faster for the racing market, a sharper, more cutaway bow for a tighter catch, and a more forward center of gravity and rocker profile to make catching waves easier. Coming from a sea kayaking background, I somewhat naively thought the S18S was a full-on surf ski. It fools you from the perspective of the cockpit, where all you see is the needle-sharp bow knifing through the waves. The ample rear, with its generous hatch, is hidden behind the paddler.

Speed

Compared to sea kayaks I’m used to, the S18S is also blazing fast, cruising at six miles per hour, sprinting at just over seven—practically my running speed on land. I got the feeling this ski likes to be paddled fast and will operate most efficiently for a strong and fit paddler. This is more hunch rather than anything measured, but there’s little reason to paddle a speed demon if you’re interested in a leisurely tour.

Stability

The S18S’s shallow-arch hull contributes to its fleetness. It also makes for wobbly initial stability, but when you adjust to it—and note, the S18S is stable by surf ski standards—this hull shape helps you stay upright through waves and cross chop. If you do start to tip over, this ski becomes very stable on edge, with secondary stability stopping you before you end up in the drink even without a strong brace. I didn’t have the privilege to test this ski in big waves, but even in small wind waves I caught a ride with ease. The bow is designed to be sharp for slicing through small waves but with high volume above the waterline and closer to the paddler for a dry ride in the big stuff.

Tracking & maneuverability

With either an under-stern or over-stern rudder (yes, you can attach either), the S18S tracks very straight and turns with control. Without the rudder deployed, the hull felt very maneuverable and apt to blow around—more inclined to smear or skid quickly through a turn than carve due to its chineless, rounded hull shape. Overall the response felt high-performance, without the twitchiness and top-end speed I remember from elite surf skis. More like the kayak version of one of those road bikes with all the high-end components and materials of a racing bike but with a more relaxed riding position for the Boomer generation.

Kayak with rudder sitting on beach
The S18S can be ordered with either an under-stern rudder for deep water or this more versatile flip-up, over-stern rudder for shallow water and rivers. The rudder post and steering line tubes are installed to accommodate both. | Photo: Ashley Sherwood

Materials

Stellar offers fantastic freedom of choice when it comes to materials. My 36-pound demo was so easy to carry I portaged it a half-mile on my head. So, I was amazed to discover there are three lighter options than this basic Advantage layup (fiberglass and Soric foam core), bottoming out at the 27.6-pound Alpha (carbon fiber) for an additional $2,100. That’s weight savings at $253 a pound!

Stellar says these lighter-weight versions have more “pop” at the catch, which translates to slightly faster acceleration and overall responsiveness. However, it’s hard to imagine it would be worth the price unless you’re sprint racing or carrying it a lot. If purchasing my own, I’d probably opt for the Multi-Sport layup, which for just $300 more than the Advantage, blends carbon and Kevlar into the hull. This adds flex and durability to tackle shallow rivers and class I and II whitewater, ideal for the rigors of multi-day adventure paddling races like the Missouri River 340, the Watertribe Everglades Challenge, Timmins’ Great Canadian Kayak Challenge, or the 260-mile Texas Water Safari. All places you’d likely spot the S18S on the start line.

Features

The Stellar comes with many premium features including carbon fiber carrying handles with deck recesses for your hands, carbon foot braces, sturdy aluminum handles on the side double as secure points to attach a lock.

The hatches proved to be very dry. The front hatch is easy to access while adrift with your legs over the side of the ski. It includes a drain plug for easily emptying any water that happens to get in while you’re retrieving your lunch on a rough and rainy day.

The sum up

The S18S is ideal for fitness paddling; it’s a fast boat that can be used for more than just racing. It takes a lot of athleticism and seat time to be able to paddle a 20-foot, 18-inch-wide surf ski comfortably. The S18S is far more approachable for the weekend warrior or the master’s athlete, while still being fast enough to compete. It also has the width and stability to engender confidence in rough water, for an experienced paddler who might paddle a sleeker boat on flats but wants a more stable craft to push their comfort level and chase rides in the big stuff.

All this speaks to crossover appeal. Call it what you will—fast sea kayak or touring surf ski—it’s clear the S18S’s greatest strength is its versatility.

“If everything seems under control, you’re not going fast enough.” ―Mario Andretti, race car driver. |Photo: Ashley Sherwood

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