I want to give a shout out to some friends – Pam, Pat and Rick. About 15 years ago they talked me into doing a 4-day kayak camping trip on the Suwannee River and even loaned me a kayak so I could go along. I had never even sat in a kayak before, although I had done a lot of canoeing and canoe camping over the years. Well, it was true love from that first day of paddling, even using a hand-me-down kayak with a horrible seat that put my legs to sleep. From the first night around the campfire I knew that a kayak was in my future and that trip taught me a lot about what I wanted and didn’t want in a kayak.
So to Pam and Pat and Rick, thanks! Bunches! I can never repay any of you for your friendship and your introduction to kayaking.
And here’s an account of my (currently) four kayaks that I have acquired over the years. Perhaps some of my reasoning in selecting these boats will help you decide what boat is right for you.
After that trip I starting looking for a good but relatively inexpensive kayak I could use to do kayak overnights but that wouldn’t be too big for the smaller rivers and creeks here in Florida. About 3 months after that first trip our local kayak shop was having their end-of-season demo and sale. I tried out almost every boat they had and quickly narrowed it down to an Old Town Cayuga 14.5 and a Necky Manitou 14. (Going to one demo might not always find you the boat you are looking for, but it can generally eliminate a lot of boats and help you narrow in on the type of boat you want.) Both were rotomolded, about the same length and width, and they both felt good. I paddled each of them at least 3 times, going back and forth and back and forth. Either one would have been a good choice, but I ended up buying the bright yellow Cayuga and named her “Tweety Bird”. I still have her and we have done many paddles together over the years. She is not a real speed boat, but then I’m not usually a real speedy paddler either. The real selling point for me was that I just felt very comfortable in this boat. A few years later when Old Town upgraded the seats in the Cayuga I bought one of those new seats and made the switch so Tweety is now even more comfortable. In fact, it’s the most comfortable seat in any of my kayaks.
Tweety Bird (yellow boat) on the Suwannee River
Tweety at sunrise on the Suwannee River.
My next kayak was a Sit-on-Top. My two water dogs (Lab/Aussie mix) and I had been doing Water Rescue Dog training on a small local lake and they loved going out in the boats and retrieving paddles, pulling them back to shore, etc. So I started looking for something we all could be happy together in. Since they both weigh about 60 lbs I needed something stable. And to distribute the weight well in the boat I need something where there was room for one in the stern and the other in the bow, with me sitting in the middle. I looked for a long time and just couldn’t find anything that fit that description. A sit-on-top seemed the right solution as far as stability, but most SOTs have a hatch in the front, not an open well for a large dog to sit. Then a kayaking friend talked several of us into a road trip up to St Marys, GA where her old kayak shop was having a sale. And there I saw the FeelFree Mokken 12. Of course, like most early rotomolded SOTs (and many current ones) it paddles like a barge, but it has two wells, one in the front and one in the back for my two dogs. A big plus fro a heavy boat is that there is a little built-in wheel on the stern which makes it easy to load in the bed of my pickup truck and pull short distances to the water. The only thing I didn’t like is that, as a fishing model, it came in a brown camo pattern. But hey, it was on close-out, and to save several hundred $$$ I could put up with camo. Somewhere along the line, due to the dogs and the camo coloring, she acquired the name “Mud Puppy”.
Mud Puppy with tired wet puppies
Mud Puppy in Water Rescue Dog training
A few years later, and with a little more money in the bank, I was ready to upgrade my river ride and started looking for a real touring boat for my frequent overnight kayaking trips. I had been looking at a number of thermoformed boats (kind of a mid-point option between the heavier rotomolded boats and the more expensive fiberglass and carbon). After demoing several boats I really liked the Delta 14.5 and 15.5 models. Working with Mary Morgan at A Crystal River Kayak Co. I was able to demo both the Delta 14.5 Sport and Expedition. The Expedition models have the deck raised 1 inch higher than the Sport which gives more room for storage and more room for your feet. (Here in Florida we camp throughout the winter when the water can be cold, and I wanted a lot of room for big boots.) Mary did not have a 15.5 Expedition in stock, but she went the extra mile for me and called one of her customers who had purchased one and arranged for me to demo his boat on a local lake. In spite of the fact that it is not a really fast boat It felt very comfortable and handles choppy waves well, even when heavily loaded. I think of it as the station wagon of touring kayaks, rather than a sports car. I returned to A Crystal River Kayak Company the next week and placed my order. Mary Morgan was even able to find me a blemished boat which saved me a couple of hundred dollars. This boat I named “Rocinante”, in honor of Don Quixote’s horse, which I figured was a good allusion for a load-hauling touring boat.
Roci umbrella sailing on the Suwannee
Rocinante on the Chassahowitzka River
For my fourth, and for now final, boat I wanted something small and nimble for day trips on the small creeks and spring runs we do a lot around here. I wanted something around 12 feet in length to be able to turn easily in narrow runs, yet fairly stable so I could exit and re-enter for snorkeling. I was also starting to lead kayak day trips, and frequently as a leader you must drop back to the last boat then catch up to the first boat, so I wanted something lively that tracked well. And also something light, something that I could carry on my shoulder, if necessary, from the truck to the water. Again after several demos I narrowed it down to the Hurricane Santee and the Eddyline Skylark. I really preferred the Swede-form hull of the Hurricane, but the quality of construction on Eddyline boats finally made the decision for me. And so my peppermint Skylark joined the fleet. Sticking with the Don Quixote theme, I named her “Dulcinea” for Quixote’s idealized girlfriend.
Dulcinea in the cypress on the Santa Fe River
Dulci at Gissy Spring on the Rainbow River
Is there another addition to the fleet in the offing? Well, if I were to purchase another boat it would be a true sea kayak. Something in the 16-17 foot range, thermoform or fiberglass, and fairly narrow to slice through the waves. But, who knows what the future will bring? For now my preference is day trips on local spring runs with the occasional overnight on bigger rivers, so “Dulcinae” and “Rocinante” meet my needs 98% of the time.
And the moral of the above story is:
1) Realize that every boat is a compromise and no one boat is going to be great at doing everything.
2) Figure out what kind of kayaking you like best or will be doing the most and pick out a boat that best fits those needs/requirements.
3) Try out as many boats as you can. Ask friends if you can swap boats for an hour on a paddle, set up demos with local kayak shops, talk to people about what they like or would change on their kayaks.
4) Take plenty of time doing your demos. A demo is as much about eliminating boats that look good on the internet but don’t feel good to YOU on the water as it is about finding your perfect boat. Plus a boat that feels comfortable for 15 minutes may feel horrible after 4 hours. Use the demos to narrow down your selection then paddle the boats you like several times or try to rent that model for a day trip. Many shops will apply your rental fee against the purchase of a boat if you buy from them within a specific period of time.
5) The BEST boat is the one that meets most of your needs and fits your body and skill level. Take your time making your selection and you will be rewarded with many hours of fun, relaxation and adventure.