Need help Deciding

I’m a relatively new paddler (upper level beginner) and would like to build a boat this winter. I have narrowed it down to 2 models and would like some suggestions or opinions.

The 2 boats I’m considering are the Pygmy Arctic Tern and the Merganzer 18 (possibly 17W).

I’m 5’10" 220# shoe size 11 and will mostly be kayaking on lakes and slower moving large rivers (Ohio Rivier and smaller). I want the boat mainly for exploration and play so I’d prefer a boat that has moderate to decent speed and good maneuverability (in case I do want to try some faster water). I will be using the boat for camping so cargo is also a factor.

From all the reading I’ve done I plan to build a S&G boat first then tackle a strip built kit later if I like the S&G. I have excellent woodworking skills but am impatient thus the S&G first.

Both of these boat look good on paper and all the reviews I’ve read are positive but I can’t find any comparison between the two models. Any suggestions or comments would be appreciated.


Pygmy kayaks

– Last Updated: Sep-02-09 11:13 AM EST –

Some years ago I built a Pygmy Osprey Standard. If I were to build another Pygmy solo now, it would be the 17 foot Arctic Tern. I have had an opportunity to paddle one briefly.

I also built a Chesapeake Light Craft Patuxent 17.5. It is a hard-chined 17 1/2 foot long hull with a skegged stern rather similar to the Arctic Tern.

I prefer the way hard-chined boats handle, but that is a matter of individual preference. Both the Arctic Tern and the Shearwater Merganser look similar in hull design with hard chines and they both have cambered decks, but the Merganser looks to be rather lower volume. That might affect its ability to carry cargo for tripping.

The people at Pygmy are quite helpful and a pleasure to deal with.

I'm sure you know this, but you need a considerable amount of well-lit room to build a boat this size. I built a simple work table out of 2 4x8' pieces of plywood reinforced with furring strips around the perimeter and supported on saw horses. Sanding raises quite a bit of epoxy dust during the final finishing. Its nice to have a temperature-controlled area, especially during the winter, to have predictable cure times for the epoxy.

Good woodworking skills won't hurt any, but aren't too important. Working with fiberglass and epoxy has a bit of a learning curve if you haven't done it before, but is relatively straightforward. Mix the epoxy in small quantities starting out, and apply it in thin layers. Don't try to completely wet out the cloth in one application.

The need to wait for the epoxy to cure is usually the rate-limiting step for building these boats. You also need to let the epoxy cure and blush before finishing. Final finishing takes quite a bit of time. I painted the hulls on my boats and the painted hulls look nice, but if I built another one, I would bright finish (varnish) the hull.

If you ask the manufacturers they’ll usually give you contact information for builders/owners in your area. I know Pygmy does, haven’t tried Shearwater. Most builders are happy to show off their boats.

As for sanding dust, I found that attaching my random-orbital sander to a shop vac worked very well. I used a soft pad on the sander.

A good respirator is important for the epoxy work. The 3M 7500 is the most comfortable one I’ve tried.

boat choice
I’m puzzled by your choices. You are about 100# too heavy for the Arctic Tern which is scaled for small women and young teens. Forget that one completley. And the Merganser is also a low-volume boat – per the designers you would probably need to build the wider version to accommodate your larger feet and body mass.

Greenland style boats, which are evidently the style you are considering, are closely tailored to the body proportions of the paddler.

Also, such long low-volume boats are not at all well-suited to “fast water” so if you are serious about that it would require a second boat eventually, something shorter and designed to turn more quickly rather than track straight. And they are not really designed for high-capacity hauling of camping gear. Not that you couldn’t if you packed efficiently but this design was developed for hunting seals so its advantages are speed, lightness, good tracking.

If you are still convinced this is the kayak form you want and since you say you have not paddled a lot, why don’t you try your hand at a skin on wooden frame kayak first? Perfect for the “impatient” craftsman (they go together far quicker than S & G or strip-built) and you can tweak them more readily after test trials with a temporary skin. A couple of sites that display the form and building of these craft well are:

there is also a very cool site with free instructions for building skin boats from a variety of materials:

Even if you choose not to build a skin boat, I would recommend that you read “Building the Greenland Kayak” for very practical advice on sizing this type of boat and instructions on making paddles and accessories like float bags. It might also inspire you to build an SOF, if only to fine-tune a hull prototype design you could use for either solid wood boat you would build later.

I have an 18’ skin on frame Greenland that I use in the Ohio upstream from you (Pittsburgh) and it is a lovely craft for big rivers – tracks like an arrow even in confused chop and heavy powerboat and barge wakes.

Contacted Pygmy
I did contact Pygmy and there are no people close that have a Tern, There is a Coho and I plan to talk to that guy.

My garage and basement are together and heated and air-conditioned so I’m good there.

I built an old Clark Craft wooden boat when I was in High school so I do have some experience with epoxy and glass.

I may decide to build straight from plans and if I do would probably go with the Shearwater Merganzer just because their plans and instruction are more complete and Pygmy does not offer the Tern in plans.

My concern between the two boats is more of a handling issue. They both look similar in design but real specs are hard to find for both boats. The Merganzer is available in a lot of different sizes so I have a choice of going with the 18, 17Wide or 18Wide since my hips are fairly wide.

I spoke with Eric at Shearwater and he said the 17W would probably be better for me because of the stability. Of course, as a guy, I want to go fast at times too but I hate to pass up stability and maneuverability just for speed.

Good opinions!
Thanks for all the replies so far but I’m a bit confuse about this statement “You are about 100# too heavy for the Arctic Tern” Pygmy’s site really doesn’t have a chart to size the boat to the paddler but Shearwater does ( and the Merganzer wide fits my size according to their chart and is about the same as the Arctic Tern.

If I need to be looking at a bigger boat then please let me know, I’d hate to spend the time building and it not fit!

I did look into SoF but not really interested in that just for the reason that I’m looking forward to the woodworking aspect. I do agree that I would need a smaller boat for fast water and maybe I mis-phrased that above as what I mean by faster water is a smaller river than the Ohio but not rapids.

I do have a few books on order from Amazon to help with my decision but the whole size issue is a bit unsettling. I fluctuate between 200# and 220# typically in the summer (more beer!) so I want a boat that fits.

Tern 17, not 14

– Last Updated: Sep-02-09 11:37 AM EST –

The 17 is plenty big. I like a snug fit, and at 5'9", 160 the 17 I demoed felt huge on me -- but I still liked it.

I suspect that it might be more manueverable than the Merganser once you got comfortable edging it.

Perceptions of stability vary greatly between paddlers. Most find that their boats seem much more stable after some time on the water. A lot of it is learning to relax enough to let the boat move under you instead of trying to be rigidly upright.

If you enjoy woodworking, you also might enjoy making paddles:


– Last Updated: Sep-02-09 5:19 PM EST –

Willowleaf must be referring to the 14 foot tern. The standard Arctic Tern has plenty of volume for a 220 pound person. And there is also the Arctic Tern High Volume.

When you build a boat like the Pygmy Arctic Tern, the size of the cockpit opening is relatively fixed, but you do have some latitude in the placement of the cockpit side walls (that run from the underside of the deck to the hull bottom) to acommodate the width of your hips.

I can't speak for the Shearwater Merganser, but I have seen the Arctic Tern up close and paddled it briefly. Although it is described as a "Greenland style hull" I wouldn't really consider it a Greenland kayak. The footprint is similar in that it is sharp-chined, but unlike traditional Greenland boats, which often have their decks nearly awash, it has a lot more depth and freeboard and has plenty of interior capacity for tripping.

Obviously, 17 and 18 foot boats don't turn like shorter boats, but with a strong outside lean the sharp chine allows these boats to turn more quickly than one might expect.

When Sea Kayaker magazine reviewed the Pygmy Arctic Tern in 1999, one of the reviewers was 6'1" and one was 6'2".

Kayak builder’s forum

Lots of folks with experience in those boats.

CLC kits
You might want to take a look at a few Chesapeake Light Craft designs. The Mark Rodgers designed Arctic Hawk is a fast 18’ long Greenland style hull.

CLC also sells a stripper kit for Nick Schade’s Night Heron (another hard-chined 18 footer), and a hybrid Night Heron kit, which provides for a stitch and glue hull and a strip-planked deck.

The Arctic Tern (17) is plenty big and would fit someone his size very well.

Pygmy Arctic Tern
Can’t offer you a comparison, because I’ve never paddled the Meganser. But I built and paddle the Pygmy Arctic Tern, and have been very happy with it. I’m 6’0 and about 200, size twelve feet. Pygmy boats are plenty big, and this boat would not be too small for you. It has lots of storage, and it is reasonably fast. If you want a slightly faster boat in this category, the multichined Pygmy Coho is worth a look.

Is it better than the Merganser? Can’t say. Would you be very happy with the Tern? Yes, I think you would.