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Old Town Topwater 120 Pedal Kayak
Part 1 - Overview and Features
April 2021
Dan Martinez  

Well, that didn’t take very long. In the May 2020 issue of the newsletter, I wrote about all the fun I was having with my first kayak, an Ascend FS10 sit-inside kayak from Bass Pro. I brought the FS10 home in April of 2020. By August, I had already decided that it was time for an upgrade. My new kayak is an Old Town Topwater 120 PDL.

And a BIG upgrade it is. The FS10 is a 10-foot-long sit-inside kayak. The Topwater 120 PDL is a 12-foot-long sit-on-top kayak powered by a pedal-drive system.

Sit-on-Top vs. Sit-Inside
In the May story, I talked about how low the FS10 sits in the water, and how on the big water of Lake Pleasant, I had water spill over the bow and into the cockpit when a large rolling wake from a passing powerboat hit me. In retrospect, I think that I am a little too big for the FS10. I weigh around 220 pounds, and the carrying capacity of the FS10 is 325 pounds. The relatively large cargo well in the FS10 allows me to take along even more poundage. On calmer waters, I had no problems, but maybe on bigger waters with significant chop and swell, that 325 pound rating might be a bit on the optimistic side.

The Topwater 120 PDL is a different beast entirely. First of all, it is a sit-on-top kayak, which means that it is almost unsinkable. The sealed hull carries a lot of air inside of it. The Topwater 120 PDL has a weight carrying capacity of 500 pounds, so I have a lot more margin with this boat than I do with the FS10.

If it should flip upside down, all you have to do is flip it back right-side up, wiggle yourself back onboard and carry on. The open cockpit of the FS10 would allow the hull to fill with water, which is a major problem.

Being on big water lakes with the Topwater is totally confidence inspiring. I recently had the Topwater out on Saguaro Lake. A couple of large powerboats passed me in quick succession, their wakes joined together, amplifying each other, causing large rolling waves to head toward me. I turned the Topwater to take them head-on. Even though the Topwater sits higher off the water than the little FS10, I still had the bow “submarine” under the surface as I rode down one wave as the second crest came at me. Aside from the thrilling splash as the bow went under for a moment, the Topwater took that in stride. That likely would have swamped the FS10 and would have created a water bailing situation for me.

And that is the big difference between a sit-inside and a sit-on-top kayak. Though I had a significant amount of water come over the bow and into the deck of the Topwater, the floor of the Topwater actually sits higher than the surface of the water. There are eleven “scupper” holes in the deck of the Topwater 120 that allow any water that may come in to simply and immediately drain out. Actually, the way the scupper holes are shaped on the bottom of the hull, when moving forward, water is actually sucked from the deck down through the holes and out of the boat.

View from the captain’s seat with the pedal drive lifted for
shallow water. You can see two of the scupper holes, plus the
huge hole for the pedal drive, but we are not sinking.

Wait a minute, there are holes in the hull? And it doesn’t sink? Yeah! Not only that, but there is a huge hole in the middle of the floor where the pedal drive sits. But because a sit-on-top kayak is sort of like a boat-shaped hollow surfboard, those holes are a feature, not a bug.

Understand that the scupper holes are actually tubes that connect the top deck of the boat with the bottom of the hull. Besides allowing water on the deck to drain out, they also serve another important purpose. Because they connect the top surface of the plastic to the bottom surface with multiple vertical towers of plastic, they add rigidity to the deck.

Because it is designed primarily as a fishing kayak, it is meant for casting from a standing position. Without these reinforcing scuppers, you would feel the deck flexing a lot under your feet when standing. Instead, the deck feels quite solid.

The Topwater 120 is a very stable kayak. I suggested that it would be relatively easy to flip it back right-side up if you would ever flip it over. What would not be easy, would be to flip it upside down in the first place. It is 36” wide and features a double pontoon hull design. Old Town’s marketing-speak for this is a “DoubleU” hull. The outside edges of the bottom of the hull consist of these large volume pontoons. The center of the hull is largely concave except for a sharp center keel toward the rear of the hull which helps to keep the boat tracking in a straight line.

This double-pontoon design makes the boat very stable for standing. That’s not to say that a standing fisherman could not lose his balance and fall over the side – that’s very possible. But chances are good that when he surfaces, he would find his boat still floating upright, no matter how much flailing he did as he went overboard.

Pedal vs. Paddle
Pedal drive propulsion is the other HUGE upgrade of the Topwater PDL compared to the Ascend FS10, especially for fishing. In my August 2020 "Campout on the Rim" story, I mentioned how difficult it is to hold position in the water when you are trying to do two different things with your hands; propel and position the boat with the paddle, and to fish with a fishing rod. I said that I gave up trying to do that, and instead used the boat primarily to get to shores that were generally not accessible to boatless fishermen.

The pedal drive system allows you to use your legs to propel and position the boat, leaving your hands mostly free to work with the rod. The pedal drive allows you to go forward, and just as easily backwards by reversing the direction of pedaling.

You still need a paddle with this boat though. Anytime that you get into water too shallow for the pedal drive, you need to pop it up and tilt it forward to get the prop out of the water. It hangs almost a foot below the lowest part of the hull. When launching or landing at a beach, you begin and end with the pedal drive up and a paddle in your hands. But as soon as the water gets deep enough, you stow the paddle in the paddle clip on the side of the boat, drop the pedal drive and the rudder into the water, and get pedaling! It’s pretty exciting how nicely the boat moves out once the propeller starts spinning.

Old town has an extensive line of sit-on-top fishing kayaks. There’s the Topwater series, and now the Sportsman line. In the Topwater series, the boats are available in 10½ foot and 12 foot sizes, both with and without the pedal drive (paddle only). In the Sportsman series, the same boats are available as in the Topwater series, plus several more including three new kayaks with integrated electric motors by MinnKota, a sister company to Old Town.

Actually, except for the electric boats, the introduction of the Sportsman series was primarily a rebranding and minor enhancement of several different boats that they were making previously, but now brought under one umbrella name. The Topwater boats have almost identical counterparts in the Sportsman series. When I decided that I wanted to upgrade to one of these Old Towns, I had a lot of choices and boiling it down to one of them was not easy.

Ultimately, I decided that 1) the 12 foot size was the right size for me. 2) Pedal drive was the right propulsion choice for me. 3) My favorite color was “First Light”, available only as a Topwater, not as a Sportsman.

Before finalizing those decisions, I almost pulled the trigger on the 10½ foot Sportsman powered by a MinnKota electric motor. That’s a very cool boat, but in the end, I decided against the electric motor for a couple of reasons.

In the May story, I mentioned that I’ve owned a canoe for many years and that has been my primary outdoorsman’s boat. I don’t think that I mentioned that my primary propulsion for that canoe was an electric trolling motor. I have plenty of experience with an electrified small boat.

Besides having to maintain and lug around a battery, there are two other disadvantages to an electric boat:
1) Once you put a motor on it, you must register it yearly with the Game & Fish Department. Ugh.

2) “Range Anxiety” – You are always worried about getting a few miles away from your launching point, then not having enough juice to get back. As a result, I never ran the canoe at the highest speed, speed 5. I would usually run it at speed 3 to conserve battery power. That would move me just under 3 mph. Getting across a lake took some time. Plus, I would never venture farther than maybe 2 miles before deciding that I had gone far enough.

Ah, the pedal drive … As long as you are still alive, your propeller can spin. At an easy, sustainable pedaling speed, I can move between 3 to 4 mph. 3.2 mph is a number that I see a lot on my GPS. With the wind behind me, I’ll do closer to the 4 mph mark. With a max-effort sprint, I can push the boat just past 5 mph. Gearing is approximately 10:1. With one full rotation of the pedals, the propeller spins 10 times.

So far, my longest one-way trips have been 3.4 and 3.9 miles. My longest day has been about 7 miles. I would never have attempted that with electric power. OK, yes, my knee and hip joints can get a little creaky and my leg muscles a little tired on those long days, but not to the point of putting me out of commission. Pedaling across the water in this boat is calming, joyful, good exercise.

The pedal drive is easily removed for traveling. It is held in place in the hull with three 180° rotating locking knobs, two up front and one in the rear. Unlocking the rear knob between your legs is what allows the drive to tilt up and roll forward for shallow water.

The drive weighs 19 pounds. It is a very robust piece of equipment. Other kayak makers also make pedal drive kayaks, but only Old Town warranties their drive for a full 5 years. From stem to stern, the whole boat feels like a high-quality piece of gear.

Seat Comfort
The seating position is a lot like a recumbent bicycle. Because of this, the comfort of the seat is of primary importance. In this recumbent position, your legs are pushing between the pedals and your back against the seat.

The seat was one of the main differences between the Topwater and the Sportsman versions of this boat. Many reviewers complained about the Topwater’s seat. They said that they felt pressure on their tailbone from the lower bar. On the contrary, there were many raves about the Sportsman’s seat. I knew about this when I chose the Topwater, but I had a plan. Actually, I had two options.

The first option was to add a Cabela’s/Bass Pro “Eclipse Stash” stadium seat for $20. Used upside down, with the padded side against my back, this seat adds about an inch of additional padding for my back.

The second option was to order the improved seat directly from Old Town. This is a more expensive option, as that seat costs $150. The stadium seat did the job, but I ended up having to buy the upgraded seat anyway.

My sons and I took the two kayaks out to the Verde River at Sheep’s Bridge. The Ascend FS10 and the seats for both kayaks were in the bed of the truck. The Topwater was strapped on the rack over the bed.

That road is hella bumpy. Somehow, we ended up getting home with only one of the kayak seats. The Topwater’s seat had disappeared somewhere on that devil’s road. Now I had to order that improved seat!

So now I am using both the upgrade seat plus the stadium seat. I found that the top bar of the upgraded seat was bothering my back. The padding of the stadium seat solves the problem.

Another seating comfort issue concerns your choice of life vest. I found that a standard PFD (life vest) with back flotation was pretty uncomfortable against the seat back. When you are sitting, the back flotation foam of the PFD ends midway down your back, which leaves the lower half of your back unsupported.

Old Town has a solution for that – a PFD with a mesh back and an abbreviated high foam block that sits above the top of the seat back, the Lure Angler. It allows full contact of your back against the seat. Dang. There goes another $140 order to Old Town.

Loaded with Features
I haven’t discussed controls yet. You steer the boat using a short handle on your left side. This control moves a rudder at the back of the boat. The steering control has a tensioning knob which allows you to lock, or at least tighten the steering control. When snugged up, you don’t have to constantly hold the steering handle to maintain your desired heading. If you should find yourself drifting off from your desired heading, it takes only a very small movement of the steering handle to correct your course.

At your right hand is the rudder deployment lever. A 180° horizontal movement of the lever results in a 270° vertical movement of the rudder at the back of the boat. When pointed forward as in the photo at right, the rudder is up in its stowed position on top of the deck. When you rotate the lever 180° to the rear, this swings the rudder down into the water, so now you can steer.

Too often, when I am coming in to shore to land, I will swing the pedal drive up out of the water but forget to bring the rudder up. This is not too big of a problem, since your forward motion will push the rudder up anyways as the rudder grounds out as you reach the shallows.

The seat is mounted on tracks. By pulling up on two locking knobs, you can slide the seat forwards or backwards to optimize your leg reach to the pedals. At full extension, you want to still have a little bend in your knees for the most comfortable pedaling.

There is a small latching dry box integrated into the pedal drive unit. This is the perfect place to throw your wallet, your keys, and your phone. The lid is rubber gasketed, and the contents have remained perfectly dry for me.

The boat is equipped with three flush-mount rod holders. There are two rearward angled rod holders behind the seat, plus one forward angled rod holder beside your seat on the left-hand side. This is a nice position for your rod when trying to rig terminal tackle.

There are two accessory mounting tracks located on the gunwales in front of the seat on either side of the pedal drive. Accessory tracks are a common feature on fishing kayaks that allow you to mount things such as fish finders, GPS units, or additional rod holders. I added a couple more aftermarket accessory tracks in the back. On these I mounted a couple of stainless steel rings and plastic cleats for attaching anchor or shore lines.

Spacious rear cargo well, rudder up in parking position,
aftermarket gear track added by the owner behind fishing reel,
paddle stowed in paddle clip on the side of the boat.

Two catch pockets enclosed by a rubber net-thingy are molded in to the sides of the deck in front of the seat. These are handy places to stash bait containers, fish pliers, anything OK to get splashed, while on the water.

Behind the seat is a large cargo well, measuring about 32 inches long by 23 inches at its widest point. Up front in the bow is a hatch that provides access to dry storage inside of the hull. The hatch is oval shaped, measuring about 18 inches long by 12½ inches wide. I believe that of all the sit-on-top fishing kayaks in Old Town’s lineup, the PDL 120s have the largest bow hatch.

The hatch cover is held in place by bungees. The rear cargo well also has a bungee criss-crossing the opening for cargo retention. This bungee serves the additional purpose of retaining the rudder in the stowed position when traveling.

There is another small hatch below the rear of the seat. This is primarily for midship access to the inside of the hull. You may need to get in there to perform maintenance on the rudder control cables for instance. But I cut down a small Plano plastic ammo box to make this hatch useful for storage. You need something to corral stuff that you might throw into that hole, or who knows where inside the hull it may end up.

I store a line in there for tying up to shore, plus some mini-carabiners to make attachment to the boat easier. I also store a Phillips screwdriver, an Allen wrench, and a fixed socket wrench in there. The fixed-socket is the size needed to remove the prop. I also store a spare prop, extra prop shear pins, and an extra pedal drive locking knob.

The rear locking knob is designed to break if you should hit an underwater rock or something with your pedal drive. Hitting an underwater obstacle will force the pedal drive to rotate upwards, breaking the locking knob which is purposely designed as the weak link. It’s only a $3 part.

I want to have those spare parts and tools always on-hand to be able to make repairs on the water if something should go wrong.

There are three bolted-on carrying handles at the bow and on the sides. Two more lifting handles are molded into the stern on either side of the rudder. This was an enhancement first seen on the Sportsman hulls, later added to the Topwater hulls. Originally, there was one bolted handle on top of the hull at the rear on only one side of the rudder. I think that you can see how that wouldn’t work too well, as the handle was off-center. Finally, there is a slot in the rudder close to the rudder’s pivot point that can sort-of work as a handle. Obviously, pulling up on the boat from this rudder handle will cause the rudder to pivot upwards, so the utility of this handle is somewhat limited.

Back when I decided that the Ascend FS10 was the right boat for me, one of my primary decision criteria was low weight. The FS10 weighs only 51½ pounds with the chair removed. This means that I can easily carry it hanging off my shoulder. I was tired of manhandling my canoe which weighs 72 pounds. With the battery trays and the wiring that I installed in the canoe, the weight grew to something more than that.

Well, the Topwater weighs even more than the canoe. With pedal drive and chair, the Topwater is spec’d to weigh 116 pounds. Wasn’t that going in the wrong direction? Well yes, but there are ways to deal with it. First of all, by removing the pedal drive and the chair, the bare hull weight that you need to lift drops to about 92 pounds.

I always loaded the canoe on the rack on top of truck using two people and a ladder, lifting it upside down from the side of the truck. Awkward!

The best way to transport the Topwater is hull-down, which means that I can push it up from the back all by myself, which is far easier. I had to invest in a new rack for the truck plus some pads. The 12 foot length of the boat turns out to be an advantage compared to a 10 footer.

To load it, I start with the boat at an angle at a rear corner of the truck. I begin by lifting the bow first onto the rear rack. The pedal drive hole in the hull is useful here, because from underneath the hull, it gives me a place to grab the boat as I position the bow onto the rear rack.

Then I move around to the stern of the boat and lift from those molded-in lifting handles. I push the boat up as far as I can, then let the bow drop onto the front rack. This is why the 12 foot length is an advantage. Because of how high that rear rack is, I don’t think that I could push a 10 foot kayak far enough that the bow would drop onto the front rack.

With the boat now sitting on the racks, I can climb into the bed of the truck to push the boat a little further forward to center it on the racks. Then I tie it down with cam buckle straps. But how did I get the boat next to the truck in the first place? With a kayak cart.

The kayak cart makes it pretty easy to move the boat around on land. I use it to move the boat from my garage out to the truck out in the driveway, which isn’t far, but it sure beats carrying it.

The cart came in quite useful at Butcher Jones beach at Saguaro Lake. You can’t pull up right next to the water there. The closest you can get your vehicle to the water is around 100 yards. After getting the boat down from the rack, I put it on the cart, loaded it up, then wheeled it down to the water. I learned that it is best to locate the cart near the seat, and to load everything into the rear cargo well, including the pedal drive. That lessens the weight that you have to lift and carry from the bow handle. Hauling it across the sandy berm near the water was toughest part.

End of Part 1
When I finished the first draft of this story, it still ran several more pages. There is much to say! My son Sam reviewed it and suggested that I break it up into two parts, so I will end here for now. I will talk about some of my adventures with the boat in Part 2.

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