INFORMATION AND THOUGHTS ON CHOOSING A KAYAK
(Last update December, 2017)
If I could start over I would not have bought my first kayak the way I did. Not that it was a big mistake – Tweety Bird and I have enjoyed a lot of great river miles together. But in truth, I spent quite a bit of money before I really knew what I wanted or needed. I still have her – she’s my loaner boat for friends interested in giving kayaking a try. However, if I could roll back the clock I would have spent that money on a less expensive (or used) kayak, an excellent paddle, and a good PFD. If you are on a budget (as most of us are) I suggest you do the same. Buy just enough kayak to get yourself out on the water safely – and “safely” will vary depending on the type of kayaking you do. After a season of regular outings you’ll have a much better idea of the type of paddling you enjoy and will have had the opportunity to see many other kayaks and speak with their owners. At that point you will be able to spend your money to get a boat that suits YOU. And you’ll already have a great paddle and PFD to go with it!
If some terms we use here are unfamiliar to you, please see our page Kayaking Terminology.
TYPES OF KAYAKS
There are so many different configurations of kayaks out there right now, especially in the broadly defined “recreational” category that we will make no attempt here to tell you what kind of kayak YOU need. Instead we will describe the kayaks we have found useful for the types of water we paddle here in North Florida.
We have selected our personal kayaks based on the types of trips we take – mostly Florida’s relatively slow rivers, creeks, and spring runs. We have done a bit of big lake and ocean paddling, mostly in relatively protected water. And while there are plenty of riffles and shoals that provide a lot of fun, especially when water levels are low, there are no true white water paddling runs in Florida – just two brief stretches on the Suwannee River near White Springs, depending upon water level.
So we divide our kayaks into 3 types, based on how we use them.
These have become very popular in the last few years, especially for fishing and photography. They are also extremely popular among beginning kayakers because of their perceived stability. They are broad, flat, chunky looking little boats with flat bottoms. Think of them as the “vans” of the kayak world. What they offer is fantastic initial stability, fairly easy entry/exit and moderate storage space. Their downsides are weight and total exposure to rain and sun. Depending on the model they can be either difficult to keep going straight (track) and/or difficult to turn. A few of the higher end models are now offering rudders or skegs which can help with the tracking, but an SOT is always going to be more like a party barge than a seal skimming through the water. We like SOTs for narrow spring runs where we might be getting in and out of the kayak a lot to swim in springs along the way or to crawl over downed trees. SOTs also provide a great platform for a camera tripod or for taking along a child or dog, not to mention use as a fishing platform. Most SOTs have a well in the stern for a cooler/fishing crate and a hatch in the bow to secure loose gear.
Recreational/Light-touring Sit-Inside (Sit INside Kayak or SINK or Sit-In)
For most of the day-trips we do (4-6 hours of actual paddling) we like relatively short (11-foot to 14-foot) boats with an enlarged cockpit opening. Think of these boats as the “small sedans” of the kayak world – great for 95% of your driving around town. The large cockpit opening makes it relatively easy to get in and out or to stretch your legs at different angles and yet skirts and half-skirts are available for sun and rain protection. (Check before you buy that spray skirts are available for your model, there are a few huge cockpit openings that available skirts will not fit and you have to go with a custom job which can be expensive.) In general, all other things being equal, the shorter the boat, the quicker it will turn but the poorer it will track (go straight). So, most 11-footers are better for short spring runs while a 14-footer would be better for an all-day river run. Many rec kayaks will work for an overnight – if you are very careful about packing and think like a backpacker instead of an RVer. Rec kayaks usually have at least one hatch large enough for lunch and a change of clothes. But if you are really into kayak camping you’ll want a true touring kayak.
Touring or Sea Kayak
Kayaks for multi-day touring or use on the ocean start around 15 feet and go up from there. Depending upon the design and configuration these kayaks can be thought of as either the “sports cars” (long, slender and very V-shaped) or the “station wagons” (slightly wider and more rounded hull) of the kayak world. They usually have both a bow and stern hatch and in most the stern hatch (at least) is a large oval to accommodate bulky gear like tents and sleeping pads. The cockpit opening is generally smaller than in recreational kayaks and includes thigh braces. Almost any boat in this class will handle a 1-2 night trip.
However, if multi-day touring is your main focus there are boats designed specifically for this purpose which are generally slightly wider and/or have either a higher deck or a deeper hull (or both) to maximize storage space. They are also usually designed to better handle waves and currents and many come standard with either a rudder or skeg. The trade-off can be more weight and lower speed than a corresponding day-touring model of the same size and material. Also note that most touring kayaks are built to carry a load. Empty it will feel totally different than when it is loaded. So if you demo one, be sure to paddle it both loaded and empty so you can get a good feel for how it handles.
One further type is gaining popularity among recreational kayakers who feel a need for speed. A Surf Ski is a long, very narrow, lightweight kayak with an open cockpit like an SOT. They usually have a foot-pedal controlled rudder or skeg. Developed originally as life saving boats that need to punch through surf for rescue work, they are becoming popular for racing and exercise paddling. Most manufacturers (Epic and Stellar are the two big North American companies) now offer an entry level model around 14 feet that is a little wider than their high end models and suitable for rivers and sheltered coasts. Another variation on these are light-weight, skinny SOTs that are available in other countries, but have not really caught on in the US market. They are generally a little wider than surf skis, but much narrower than the typical fishing SOT. Two of the most popular manufacturers are Kaskazi Kayaks in South Africa and Fraser Coast in Australia.
What your kayak is made of can be almost as important as the design. For recreational paddlers there are basically 3 choices – rotomolded plastic, thermoformed plastic and composite. They all have their advantages and disadvantages.
Rotomolded (rotational molding) plastic kayaks are generally where beginners start. They are the least expensive and the most common. Polyethylene powder or beads are placed into a mold then the mold is heated while being rotated to distribute the plastic. On the down side they are the heaviest, are subject to UV degradation and the material is very flexible. A rotomolded kayak should be stored out of the sun (preferably indoors), treated with a UV blocker (every few months in Florida, at least once a year in more northern climates), and you should not leave it tied down on a roof rack for transport longer than necessary as it can deform – commonly called “oil canning”. However, they are very tough and are a good choice for your first kayak, for kids to use, for loaner boats, and for knocking around the local lake or areas with rocks or oyster beds. Most SOTs are made of thick poly in a double hull configuration – that’s why they are so heavy. Roto sit-insides are constructed using a thinner material than the SOTs although the keel line is generally thicker that the rest of the boat. When looking at one of these, pay particular attention to how the seat is attached to the hull. We’ve had problems with roto sit-insides where the seat is hung solely from bolts through the upper deck where the plastic can be quite thin. One big FLOP with all your weight onto the seat can be enough to pull the bolts right through the plastic. If you end up with a model like this you can mitigate the possibility of this happening by placing a pad of closed-cell foam or a boat cushion under the seat. Roto kayaks run from around $250 to over $1000.
Composite kayaks are at the top end of the spectrum. Manufacturers lay up the deck and hull with separate multiple layers of fiberglass, Kevlar and/or carbon cloth and resin with an outer gel coat that contains the coloring and UV protection. Then they tape the two pieces together and add another layer of gel over the taped join. The result is a very stiff hull (little flex throughout) which resists deformation and is very responsive. They are usually lighter than roto kayaks although that depends somewhat on the exact material and the number of layers. The down side is price. Composite kayaks will start around $1500 and go up to over $5000. Another downside can be fragility. Composites and rocks/oyster beds are not a great match. Dropping and dragging can also damage the outer gel coat and expose the cloth layers. Fortunately, anyone can learn to make minor repairs. But if you are really rough on your boats and/or don’t want to bother with upkeep, then you would probably be better off with a rotomolded boat.
Thermoformed plastic is a compromise between the roto and composite boats in many respects. Sheets of proprietary ABS plastic are laid into hull and deck molds then heated. Once formed, the two halves are glued and taped together. They are lighter than similar roto kayaks and are stiff like the composite models. In pricing, thermoformed kayaks fall roughly between roto and fiberglass – around $1000 to $3000. While early thermoformed kayaks had some fragility issues today they will take quite a lot of abuse. While initially used solely for sit-insides, a few thermoformed SOTs are now being produced. Eddyline, Delta, Hurricane and Seaward are some of the leading North American thermoform manufacturers.
A FEW WORDS ABOUT HULL DESIGN
There are a million specs that go into the creation of a responsive boat and thousands of compromises that are made in every design. But we want to touch lightly on hull design and what it means for rec paddling.
If you cut a kayak in two width-wise through the cockpit and look at the cross-section you will notice that the basic hull configuration can be described as Flat, Rounded, or V-shaped. Most SOTs are flat, many rec sit-insides are rounded, most performance kayaks are V-shaped.
Flat hulls (think of a rectangular bar of soap floating in the water) provide great initial stability, but with no keel they don’t track as well as the other two and are easily pushed around by wind and waves. Rounded hulls provide good initial and secondary stability. Because of their more tapered shape (think of a tadpole swimming in the water) they are more efficient than flat designs. They are easier to turn and they track better than flat hulls. In waves they tend to float up and over them rather than slice through them like a V-shaped hull. Also note that loaded or unloaded (imagine moving the blue water line higher and lower) the flat and rounded retain the same basic hull configuration while the V-shaped changes. V-shaped hulls have lower initial stability and may feel “tippy” until you get used to them, but since they slice very efficiently through the water they track much better than flat or rounded hulls. Note here that a boat hauling a 100# person will have a very different configuration with respect to the water than the same boat with a 200# person and 60# of camping gear. This is just one of the reasons that it is very important to demo a boat, especially a high end boat, before buying. Since a V-shaped hull is designed to go straight, turning is more difficult than with a rounded hull. You need to “brace” yourself in the kayak – hips, thighs and knees making contact with the sides and deck of the kayak, and “edge” the kayak a bit over on its side to cut down on the surface area in contact with the water and “carve” a turn. While this takes practice you can learn to literally make the kayak dance through the water. Do a search on Youtube.com for sea kayak edging and enjoy the videos!
In the rounded and V-shaped hulls you may also see some angularity to the sides. This is called “chine”. A boat with flat surfaces and sharp angles is said to have a “hard chine”. A boat with rounded surfaces is said to have a “soft chine”. (BTW, the “ch” in chine is pronounced like a ch, not like a k, so “chine” rhymes with a doorbell “chime”.) As you can guess if you paid attention to the above paragraph, a boat with a hard chine is steeper, more V-shaped, and provides a flat surface when edged for carving turns.
There are many different variations on the amount and number of angles used in hull design as well as the distance the chine extends in front of and behind the cockpit . Probably as many as there are boat designs, so don’t get too hung up on any of this. It’s enough to Just understand the basics.
INITIAL AND SECONDARY STABILITY
Basically, stability is how easily the boat stays right-side-up in the water or, in other words, its resistance to tipping over. So, initial (or primary) stability is how stable the boat sitting flat in the water feels as you are getting in and out. Secondary stability is how stable the boat feels when leaned on its side or how far over on its side it can go before actually tipping over. A wide, flat-bottomed SOT will feel very stable until you reach the point of no return, then it will flip over almost instantly. A moderate width, rounded sit-inside may feel a little “tippy” getting in but once you are settled you probably will feel quite secure. A sit-inside is made to allow you to edge the boat on it’s side so you can turn more easily and the cockpit will frequently slowly fill up with water coming over the side rather than flip over.
Think of it another way. A tricycle is designed to keep you sitting straight up and not allow you to tip over. But a two-wheeler is built to allow you to lean into a turn. It’s the same with a kayak. A sit-on-top is designed with high primary stability, it is designed to stay level so you can carry fishing gear, a cooler, etc., and not to tip – just like a tricycle. But a sit-inside kayak is designed for you to be able to lean or “edge” it to the side a bit – just like a bicycle. And just like a bicycle you will, with a little practice, get used to the feel.
We mention all this because many people who have never kayaked before feel much more “secure” when they first get onto an SOT because of their greater width and higher initial stability. But it’s really the secondary stability – the resistance to capsizing or flipping over – that is most important. We’re not saying don’t get an SOT, just recognize that there is a difference between stability getting in/out and stability while paddling. Your kayak should be chosen based upon what activities you want to perform with it, not on how “secure” you feel your first time out. Give yourself a little room to grow into your boat.
Within sit-inside kayaks there are three basic hull forms – Symmetrical, Fish and Swede. If you can, find the longitudinal center of buoyancy (LCB) – the “pivot point” – at the waterline. If the dotted line is in the middle so the front half mirrors the back half then the form is symmetrical. If the dotted line is forward of the middle (and the widest part of the hull is towards the back of the cockpit), then it is Swede Form . And if the dotted line is forward of the middle (and the widest part of the hull is towards the front of the cockpit), it is called Fish Form.
All other things being equal, on a symmetrical kayak your body in the cockpit is over the true middle of the kayak – the “pivot point”. This makes it easier to turn and maneuver the kayak. Fish-form kayaks generally have cockpits that provide more room for knees and big feet and a greater tendency to track or hold a straight line. Swede-form kayaks will tend to cruise at slightly faster speeds, and feel as though they have slightly better stability, but they will require slightly more effort to turn. We have also found Swede form kayaks a little easier to enter and exit, since you can usually straddle the kayak at the front of the cockpit and lower your buns into the seat. While the differences between white water and sea kayaks can be significant, in recreational kayaks they are pretty minor. We have both Swede form and Fish form boats in the YakPak. Personal fit and feel are far more important in a recreational kayak than exact hull shape.
Rocker is the curve of the hull from front to back. If you place the kayak on the ground and push down gently on the bow or stern, does it “rock” up and down? If a boat has a lot of rocker then less of its hull is actually in the water, so the easier it will be to turn. With less rocker there is more hull in the water and the boat will track (go straight) better. Since most people want a kayak to go straight most of the time, most recreational and touring kayak have very little rocker. But you can create rocker by edging the boat onto one side. For this reason, very little rocker is necessary and rocker is really a minor issue in recreational kayaks. Just stay away from any boat with excessive rocker that looks kinda like a banana. A high degree of rocker is much better suited to white water kayaks than recreational or touring kayaks.
TO RUDDER OR NOT TO RUDDER (OR SKEG)
Contrary to the way a sailboat or powerboat works, the primary function of a rudder on a kayak is not to steer the boat, but to help it track – go straight.
A rudder assembly fits on the back of a kayak and works via cables attached to your foot pegs. Push on the right foot peg and the rudder turns to create drag on the right side. Since the water on the left side is going faster than the water on the right side (the side with drag), the boat turns to the right. Push right – turn right. Push left – turn left. Because it creates drag, many experienced kayakers prefer not to use a rudder since it bleeds off momentum. They say if you use the proper strokes you can accomplish the same thing without as much drag – and in most situations they are correct. But, continue on and see below for reasons you might want a rudder or skeg.
If you decide on a rudder, “toe control” foot pegs make a big difference. With the regular “sliding” foot pegs, you push with your entire leg on the foot peg to turn the rudder. With “toe control” foot pegs you press only with your toes. This is a lot like pressing on a car’s accelerator pedal – you use only your foot, bending it at the ankle, not your entire leg. The advantage of the “toe control” is that your legs do not have to move, only your foot, so you can still maintain your bracing ability. SmartTrack and Sea-Lect are two “toe-control” rudder systems.
While a rudder can sometimes be added later, a skeg is built into the boat. A skeg is a blade housed within the hull that can be pivoted down into the water via a cable or line. Most skegs allow you to control the amount of blade that drops into the water while with others it’s either up inside the hull or all the way down in the water. Again, a skeg will increase drag and also the skeg box takes up a lot of room in your stern hatch, cutting down significantly on storage space. This can be a factor for touring if you need to carry a lot of camping equipment and food.
Skegs, and particularly rudders, also add a degree of complexity to kayaks as well as cost. Cables and metal fittings must be inspected after each outing and properly maintained. On trips of several days, spare cables, fittings, and tools should be carried. The opening to the skeg box (a slit in the bottom of the hull) can get clogged with vegetation, rocks and sand and has to be kept clean. And if you like to gunkhole (wander around in questionably navigable areas) the rudder assembly can get tangled up in overhanging branches, weeds and vines and a skeg box slit can get filled with sand/dirt/water weeds.
So why would you want a rudder? Well, if you frequently travel on open water with wind and/or waves, a rudder or skeg can save a lot of effort. When a cross-wind or crossing waves come up, you can drop the skeg or rudder to help prevent being pushed sideways – like a centerboard on a sailboat. More of the power in your stroke can go into moving forward if you aren’t constantly making corrective strokes to compensate for wind, waves and currents. And if you are into photography, using a rudder to make minor adjustments in your boat’s heading while leaving your hands free for a few moments may enable you to get that great shot. Also, if you are into touring, a rudder can be helpful for compensating for a slightly off-center packing job.
In the end – rudder, skeg or neither one – the choice is yours.
There are a few things to look for in a first kayak. Personally, we feel that the “el cheapos” sold in the big box stores are probably a waste of money unless your sole use of the kayak is going to be on sheltered ponds or paddling downstream on little spring runs. You may pay more to begin with, but you will end up using a better boat longer, be able to keep up with your friends, learn more, progress faster, and be safer with a slightly better kayak. In fact, you may never replace it. So here’s what we would look for in a first boat for paddling anything except white water and sea kayaking/multi-day touring.
1) Look for a boat in the 11 to 14 foot range. Anything much shorter will be difficult to keep going straight (tracking) and anything much longer will be difficult to control in the smaller creeks and spring runs.
2) Go with a sit-inside kayak with a moderate cockpit opening. Moderate for you if you’re 5’2″ and 100# may be different than if you are 6’2″ and 250#. Find a cockpit you can comfortably get in and out of but is not huge. The larger the cockpit opening, the more likely water will enter, especially if the wind, rain and waves get up. A skirt, even a half-skirt will help, but there are few skirts made for really huge cockpits and those have a tendency to sag and collect water or even collapse into your lap.
3) Get a boat with compartments – i.e., it has bulkheads dividing the cockpit from the bow and stern sections. This is more than just a matter of dry storage – it’s a safety factor. If your boat has compartments separated from the cockpit by bulkheads, they serve as air bladders for flotation. If the cockpit fills with water, the boat will stay afloat and you’ll have less water to empty. You can purchase air bags to fill the areas in front of your feet and behind your seat if you have no compartments, but it can be a hassle installing them for every trip and also they take up all your storage space.
4) Your kayak should have two sets of deck lines – bungees (stretchy) for holding things like a water bottle, map, or rain jacket on deck and perimeter (non-stretchy) lines. The perimeter lines parallel the outside curve of your boat. Perimeter lines are another safety feature – they are what you grab to remain in contact with the boat if you are in the water and help you get back into the boat. Perimeter lines are also usually reflective – another safety feature – helping you to be seen in low light situations.
5) Carefully evaluate weight and size of the kayak for your own use. Being able to load your boat by yourself is a definite advantage. We’ve had people unable to come on our trips because they had no one available (temporarily or permanently) at home to help load their boat. A kayak that sits in the garage because you can’t get it on your car or trailer is of little value.
6) Spend enough time demoing your boat to make sure the seat fits YOU well. A seat that seems comfortable during a 15 minute demo may become cramped and excruciating by the end of 7 hours, so take your time during your demos and try to rent your final selections for a full day of paddling, if at all possible. Some seats are very adjustable and others are not. Some seats can be adjusted while you are sitting in them and others require you to exit the boat to make some or all of the adjustments. Some seats provide a lot of padding while others are pretty much bare bones and the manufacturers expect you to pad them out to fit your body. Of course, everyone’s body is different and you probably will have to do a little bit of modification to get a good fit, but a seat with multiple adjustment points will enable you to get a better fit than one without.
If absolutely forced to recommend a great boat for someone wanting to day paddle the non-white water rivers and springs that we enjoy, We have found three similar boats that are just about perfect for day trips. The Eddyline Skylark is of thermoform construction, 12 feet in length, around 40 lbs, has a moderately large cockpit opening (especially if you get it without the optional thigh braces), and includes two small hatches with enough room for lunch and a change of clothes. It’s wide enough to provide some stability getting in and out yet narrow enough to be quick and lively. It also has a bit of chine so you can start to learn to edge. It’s light enough for one coordinated person to carry and get on and off a car top. Skirts and half-skirts to fit are easy to find, The seat is not plush but is fairly comfortable, and is adjustable to fit most people. No skeg or rudder option is available. The Skylark tracks very well for a 12 foot boat yet can turn efficiently. If you ever see a decent used one, grab it – but it is rare to find a used one for sale – people hang on to them. About the only bad thing that can be said about the Skylark is that the seat does not slide fore and aft to help with trim. But if the boat fits you well to begin with, it’s a great boat to learn in and you will probably keep it for day trips even if you get into touring or ocean adventures later on.
A very similar boat is the Hurricane Santee. The Santee model now comes in a couple of different lengths and cockpit sizes to suit different sized people. The Santee 116 and 126 are very similar to the Eddyline Skylark in size. It has a slightly larger cockpit opening and (we think) a more comfortable seat. The Sport models have an even larger cockpit opening. Note than what you gain in cockpit space you give up in dry storage and buoyancy. The Santee has no bow compartment and therefore no bow hatch. We feel the quality of Hurricane boats is a little below that of Eddyline or Delta, but they are also a little less expensive and you are more likely to find used ones for sale.
A third very similar boat is the Delta 12.10. It’s slightly longer at almost 13 feet but weighs about the same and might fit larger people better. Delta quality is excellent. The bow and stern hatches are oval and larger than the dinky little Eddyline and Hurricane hatches and you also get a small day hatch just in front of the cockpit for keeping little items close at hand. We find Delta seats are very comfortable as well. And if you are a small person (under 5’6″ and 120 lbs) you might also want to check out the Delta 12s which is a slightly smaller boat.
A few of other entries to consider. For the more performance-oriented paddler or for ocean day paddling check out the Epic GPX available in two different layups and the Stellar S14S. In rotomolded kayaks the Pungo 120 is an extremely popular boat with a large stern hatch and extra large cockpit opening and the Jackson Ibis is a very similar boat.
While our three recommended boats (the Skylark, Santee and 12.10) may seem pricey for a beginner, they could very well be the only boat you ever buy for day trips on non-white water rivers and spring runs. We’re not saying you should go out and buy one of these kayaks, but we recommend that you demo them before buying anything else. Then at least you can compare other kayaks to the way these feel.