15 June 2009

Sea kayak grab handles

source *: http://www.kayaking.com.au/brochurefiles/Ocean.pdf
A sea kayak to be safe must have grab handles.
Just like its perimeter lines, the grab handles are used to hold onto the kayak when out of the boat.
While perimeter lines are essential to perform an assisted rescue and vital for hanging onto your vessel in rough waters, the grab handles perform also other duties.
They are needed in towing situations but most often are used by the paddler in a wet exit in the surf zone.
When paddling in ocean conditions chances are you might need to land on a beach where surf is encountered. Most paddlers have been dumped at some stage out of their kayak (some more than others) and probably had to hang onto the boat to prevent their vessel being smashed onto shore by the following waves.
The best location to hold onto your kayak is the bow or stern where you can point the vessel into the incoming force of the wave and minimize the impact (less surface area).
Unfortunately not all kayaks have stern grab handles because of rudders.
The waves don't even have to be that big to surf your kayak away from you if not held tight.
Often the wave will twist your kayak when you hanging onto it by the grab handle.
Most likely you will have your full hand holding onto the grab handle trying to stay together with your kayak.
Let's analyze the different types of handle, their merit, shortcomings and potential dangerous features.

(Explanations to comments at the bottom)
Eco Bezhig:
-great carry handle
-no grab handle
not safe in the surf zone (1)

Mirage grab/carry handle:
-average carry handle (too small)
- dangerous as grab handle in the surf (2)

Guillemont Petrel custom made kayak and handles:
- good anchor for towing
- dangerous handle in the surf (3)
Raider grab and carry handle:
- OK carry handle
- dangerous grab handle in surf (4)
Impex grab handle:
-very good handle for surf (5)
-carry handle is separate (same as Eco Bezhig)

SeaBird carry handle and grab handle (retrofit)
- good carry handle
- excellent grab handle for surf (6)

Valley (VCP) grab/carry handle:
- average carry handle (too small)
- very good surf handle (7)
SKUK (Nigel Dennis)
-one word: brilliant
The simplest design seems to be the best.
There is no chance to get your fingers caught or your wrist injured in the surf.
The stern handle is offset (handle of left) to balance the kayak when carried.
While this handle might look like the obvious solution it took the genius of Nigel Dennis to perfect this simple design.
By dangerous I mean:
if the kayak is held by this handle chances are that your wrist or fingers will be injured if the kayak twists/rolls.
Analysis by numbers:

(1) this kayak has no grab handle, only a carry handle. Holding the kayak in the surf by the grab handle there is a good chance of injuring/braking your wrist when the kayak gets rolled by the wave

(2) this grab handle allows for fingers to be slipped between the two ropes of the handle. Documented cases of severed fingers are the result of this type of handle. If the kayak is rolled by the wave possible wrist injury.

(3) this handle is excellent for towing (low centre of gravity that lifts the bow under tow) but is even more dangerous than handle (2). Not be used in surf at all as grab handle.

(4) this handle is soft on the hand for carrying an unloaded kayak but has similar potential of injury as handle (2). Just slightly better because the ropes join at the handle and less of chance of having fingers caught between the lines. Still potential wrist injury when boat rolls.

(5) this handle uses bungee cord as shock absorption when the waves yanks on your holding hand. The cords might still allow finger insertion however the bungee would be softer and less damaging. Not perfect but better than others.

(6) the SeaBird Desisg kayak came only with carry handle (bad); I retrofitted a decent grab handle by drilling the bow and threaded some heavy duty bungee cord. The bungees also have a sleeve that prevents the fingers being inserted between the two lines. Very safe grab handle.

(7) Valley has addressed the risk of severed fingers by sleeving the grab handle lines however the handles are a bit undersized for carrying an empty kayak.

After a few near misses with some of the types of handle described above I now will not hang onto a kayak in the surf that potentially will injure me.
There are some other handles that I have not reviewed yet but I might add them as I will have more photographs to post.
* used under COPYRIGHT ACT 1968 - SECT 41
PS 17JUN. It appears that my observations on the above grab handles have stirred some emotions from loyal kayak owners and manufacturers.
It seems that maybe one kayak manufacturer is prepared to redesign the grab handle on his kayaks.
However, today I had a strange call from a kayak instructor.
He sternly warned me against possible lawsuits from the "offended" kayak manufacturers. I am grateful to him for his concerns for my wellbeing however before posting the above I consulted with my legal advisor and cleared some points.
What I don't share with my concerned instructor is the fear that some individuals have towards manufacturers.
While I can't see any slandering in my review, just observations, I do understand that individuals might have been challenged with their design rationale.
My question is: how would a consumer truly find a non bias review?
I have tried a few times myself but the ones available on forums are often "doctored" or deleted. It seems that is not uncommon to have forum administrators not display an unfavourable review with the fear that an advertiser/sponsor might cancel their support.
I have also noticed that true unbiased reviews are only possible from users that have no ulterior motives.
Come on, how often have you read a review on a website that was just reeking of commission?
Unfortunately there are very few sources out there that are fully independent from any commercial agenda that will give you an honest opinion.
While some might advocate for "if you ain't got nothing nice to say, say nothing at all", I rather believe in an informed consumer.


  1. an instructor that seems to share my view: http://beachpebbles.blogspot.com/2011/04/happy-birthday-sapphira.html

  2. Excellent post. Awesome coverage with all the photos.

  3. Super and thanks for a fine review. Highly appreciated.
    In regards to the legal matters.....As long as you write your own truly opinion - I don't see a problem. The manufacturers reacting must do it because you actually highlighted a real problem ;-))

  4. Thanks for doing these reviews. When I Google "kayak handles" the first images that come up are those nasty luggage handles (like the guy in the image above who's about to have his arm torqued off in ways evolution didn't design for.)
    I think a handle should stick up in position like the Valley handle, but it should be big enough for mittens, be grabable by a boat hook or line, and of course should be flexible. I designed one, for fun and then started getting serious about it.
    I was being a busy body and tried to e-mail you. It bounced back so posted my design on my baby-blog.
    I've done a lot of different things and I'm always amazed how tenacious bad ideas are. "We've always done it this way" usually means "We stopped thinking about it long before you got here." These are the same people that complained about fire, bronze, iron, the wheel, and liked the Caps Lock key.

    1. Will, thank you for your contribution for kayak handles http://willn2.blogspot.com.au/2013/12/toggle-kayak-handle-design.html
      I looked at your drawings but I have a hard time visualizing the finished handle.
      Have you had a chance to fabricate one and install on a kayak?
      Some image of the finished product would stretch my visualization further (I am not a technical person, more a visual one)

  5. Thanks for raising this issue Damiano. Having just bought a second hand Mirage it was very timely. As an ex-whitewater paddler I have had many occasions where being able to easily grab a handle in rough water was important. An easy thing to forget about when sea kayaking, so really glad you brought it to my attention.
    I really liked the system on the SKUK, but unfortunately the positioning of the rope holes on a Mirage would mean that the handles would end up on one side of the boat - not good if in your time of need you happen to be on the other!

    To correct this I have mimicked the Valley solution, only rather than tubing I have simply whipped the lines together. Whipping is easy (pretty much anyone can do it), cheap and easy to replace (even while out touring) if needed. Of course, the other benefit is that there is no need to remove the handles to do it.


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