Sea Kayak Buyer's Guide
CLICK HERE to view our Kayak Store web page with a list of kayaks we sell
Beginner’s think they can use their intuition to buy a kayak that's right for them. Like moths to a flame they end up attracted to the least seaworthy, most inefficient, poorly designed boats with bad ergonomics (vessels that hardly deserve to be called kayaks). In addition to having serious safety problems, the boats beginners usually choose hinder their learning and aren't much fun to paddle. Here's a tip: if a new sit-inside touring kayak sells for less than $1000.00, it ain' t worth owning -- not even for a beginner. Even if it's only $100, it ain' t no bargain. There are reasons why some kayaks are so cheap, and you don't want to find out the hard way what all is wrong. The only exceptions to this that I know of are Sit-On-Top style kayaks (open deck), but if you are looking for a closed cockpit kayak, forget the cheap junk.
If you don’t yet own a kayak, but are thinking about buying or building one, the best advice anyone can give you is to take a lesson first. See our SK101 Beginning Sea Kayak Safety Skills course. If you can't take one of our lessons, be sure the lesson you take includes actual practice tipping over and getting out of a kayak while upside down (with an instructor supervising). When you’ve done enough wet-exit practice to overcome your fear of capsizing, come take our SK111 Paddle Strokes and Rescue Techniques course or SK115 Training Camp. These courses cover the many ways to steer without ruddering (i.e. leaned turns, carved turns, sweep strokes, sequentially combined strokes, etc.) as well as bracing and rolling. If you have already learned to roll, brace, etc., scroll down to our "Intermediate’s Guide to Buying a Kayak", or click here. The more you’ve learned about paddling technique (and I don’t mean from YouTube etc.), rescues and safety, the smarter you’ll be about choosing a kayak that is right for you. If you buy a kayak before taking lessons you'll regret it after your first lesson if not sooner. Lessons aren't an expense, they're a money saving investment (which may save your life too).
If you are dying to buy something now, buy a roof-rack and kayak carrying cradles/saddles for your car. Regardless of what kayak you end up with or even if you just rent kayaks for a while, you will need a sturdy roof rack with cradles etc. (see our "Buyers Guide for Kayak Roof Racks and Cradles"). And if you happen to be in the market for a new car, be sure to consider how suitable your next car will be for carrying kayaks. Is the roof of an SUV too high for you to load a kayak onto? Is the roof of a two-seat sports car too short to keep a kayak from teeter-tottering? Does Yakima or Thule even make a rack solution suitable for carrying kayaks that fit the car you are thinking about buying? The Kayak Academy can help you get a roof rack and kayak cradle system that is right for you and your vehicle (we sell Thule, Yakima, and Malone racks).
Another little item you will need before buying a kayak (in order to take lessons or test kayaks) is some appropriate kayaking footwear -- not sandals. Sandals can be dangerous if a foot peg slips between your foot and the sandal or a strap or buckle gets caught on a seat. At best, sandals are uncomfortable in a kayak ... your heels get sore from rubbing against the bottom of the kayak. Sport sandals are so bulky they lead people to buy an oversized kayak, and then they wonder why they can't keep up to their friends. Wetsuit booties are the standard footwear for kayaking, and they are a versatile first choice as they are good for rafting, snorkeling, sail-boarding, SUP paddle boarding, etc. A few of the water shoes on the marker work well for warm weather paddling, but most of the current selection of mesh water sock/shoes are not well designed for kayaking - they're either too bulky at the toes and heels or they fall off in the water or even inside the kayak. So invest in booties with a medium thick sole (not too bulky, but thick enough you can walk on rocks without hurting). Most of the water shoes and booties on the market are either so narrow that they are not comfortable for average width feet -- especially if you will be wearing neoprene socks or dry-socks inside the shoe for warmth. At the Kayak Academy we go to great lengths to offer you a selection of footwear we've tested and found to work well for kayaking, and we give you sizing tips to help you find booties that fit you right for kayaking with or without a dry suit on.
Why not start with a "recreational kayak"?
Most "recreational kayaks" (and some low-end fiberglass touring kayaks) lack basic safety features such as sufficient buoyancy (in both ends), perimeter safety lines for holding onto the kayak in the event of a capsize, and handles that won't take your finger off when the kayak rolls over. A touring/sea kayak with proper buoyancy will float horizontally with the cockpit coaming above the water - even when completely swamped and with the weight of the paddler in the kayak. This means the kayak can be bailed out -- assuming you carry a bilge pump. In contrast, most "recreational kayaks" tend to go vertical or float in a bow down attitude when swamped (especially those under 12' long and any without front AND rear bulkheads), and generally the cockpit coaming on a swamped "recreational kayak" will be under water -- making it impossible to pump or bail the boat out. Any kayak, no matter how stable, can capsize - even on a small lake. Buoyancy can be provided by front and rear bulkheads or float bags. Unfortunately most "recreational kayaks" lack front bulkheads, and it is impractical to use float bags in them because their short stubby shape makes the air bags slip out of the cockpit when swamped. For Rec kayaks shorter than 12', even if they were fitted with front and rear bulkheads, there's just too little volume in the bow of a kayak this size to make it float horizontal when swamped with the person in the kayak. If you must go out in one of these boats, stay within a few feet of shore at all times. Note most everyone over-estimates their swimming distance, and one's swimming distance will be further shortened if the water is cold.
What about building a kayak?
People who build a kayak before taking lessons make many of the same mistakes as people who buy a kayak first. In some ways these problems are even worse for people who build their own kayak because they invest so much time and labor into building their kayak that their emotional attachment to it leads them to suffer with their mistakes longer than someone who bought a mistake. Furthermore, when a beginner builds a kayak in their garage, they are out of the loop for meeting more knowledgeable paddlers who can mentor them, and they miss out on the free advice that others get from hanging out at their local specialty kayak shop - advice that could help keep them out of trouble. If you decide to build your own kayak, remember the more you know about paddling and kayak safety the smarter you'll be about choosing which kayak model to build and what details (deck rigging etc.) you can improve on while making it. So take good lessons first.
And what about buying a "beginner's kayak"?
We used to say that there was no such thing as a "beginner's kayak" ... what usually passes as a beginner's kayak are boats so poorly designed that only a beginner would be foolish enough to buy one (the Yugos of the kayak world, only worse since even Yugos had brakes and seat belts). Lately this has begun to change. Ideally, in addition to being affordable, a beginner's kayak would be a kayak that was designed well enough that a beginner could actually use it to learn kayaking fundamentals (including Eskimo rolling and re-entry rescues), and do so with the same level of safety as in a full-fledged sea kayak. We've now identified a few touring kayaks that fit this criteria and they are all available from our kayak store. See the Dagger Alchemy 14S & 14L and the North Shore Aspect and Aspect LV. Such kayaks are starting to define a new genre' called "rec-touring kayaks" that bridge the gap between the all too common really bad rec kayaks and full-fledged sea kayaks. However, the term "rec touring" lacks a formal definition so it is ripe for marketing abuse. So other brands and stores may call something "rec touring" even though it lacks adequate safety features or doesn't make a good kayak to learn in. For your safety and long term enjoyment of the sport we still recommend taking a lesson first, but for those who can't wait to buy a their first kayak, come see us and we'll help you find a kayak fits right and is worth owning as a beginner.
If you have to buy a kayak NOW, then at least buy it from a specialty shop like ours - not some big box store or outdoor co-op where the staff know less than you do. Find a sales person who is an expert sea kayaker with experience teaching beginners so you'll get good help choosing a kayak that fits you right. The best school for sea kayak lessons is also the best place to buy your kayak -- at the Kayak Academy we don't simply sell boats, we inspect them, tune them, give them our free dealer prep and put a little bit of the Kayak Academy into every kayak you buy from us. The Kayak Academy carries a variety of kayaks that meet the above safety criteria for beginner kayaks, and we have them to fit almost all sizes of paddlers. We also carry all the best retractable skeg type sea kayaks from several leading manufacturers including Valley, Tiderace, Rockpool, Wilderness Systems, Impex, and Eddyline Kayaks. It's not just which kayak you buy that matters, it's where you buy it. A good specialty kayak shop cares about its customers and will help you buy a kayak that is the right size and type for your needs. And even the same model kayak won't be the same if you buy it from a store that is all about the bottom line.
Call at (206) 527-1825 or email us to arrange a demo/test paddle and an intro safety clinic (if needed).
Kayak prices and specifications are on our Kayak Store web page.
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In our Beginner's Guide above, we tell beginners to hold off on buying a kayak - ... "the best advice anyone can give you is to take a lesson first." So you know we're not trying to push people into buying kayaks, but once you've had some lessons, the best advice we can give is to stop shopping and go buy a decent kayak that fits you.
Owning your own kayak will allow you to: get out more and have fun, get in better shape for paddling, practice what you've learned in lessons, and go on some trips with clubs or friends who are willing to lead novices. So if you’ve taken some intro kayaking lessons, done wet exits, and learned how to do re-entry rescues, it's time to buy your first kayak. The operative word here is your "first" kayak. Think of your first kayak as being one you'll use to learn in for the next year or two. After that, plan to upgrade to a higher performance kayak - one that you aren't ready for now. This approach simplifies the process of buying your first kayak because such kayaks actually do exits. If you plan to make your first kayak one that does everything well and will be the last kayak you'll ever want to buy, you'll end up wasting time shopping for something that doesn't exist. In the mean time you'll miss out on lots of fun paddling.
Avoid wasting money on unseaworthy (i.e. lacking proper floatation) rec. kayaks that you'll outgrow in a day or two, but don't buy the most expensive kayak either. When people spend a lot of money, they tend to stick with what they bought way too long. Remember that you'll also need to budget for a good roof rack with kayak cradles, wet suit and/or dry suit, booties, a paddle and spare paddle, and pfd, etc.
One of the worst mistakes first time kayak buyers make is thinking that they can find a kayak that is both right for them now and will also be everything they'll ever want in a kayak. This mentality usually leads to spending too much on a kayak that's too big for your size, hard to learn in and isn't right for the trips you're likely to ever go on. Even if you knew enough about kayak design and your future kayaking interests to pick a really good one, you're skill level probably is not ready for a sea kayak with the performance you'll want later on. In fact a kayak that is too advanced (too long, too tippy, too maneuverable) for your current skill level can actually slow down your progression just as much as a lousy kayak can.
Another common mistake first time buyers make is looking for a kayak that is fast AND stable. Such kayaks exist, but they are a lot of work to paddle and don't hold their resale value. Your first kayak doesn't need to be fast, in fact a "fast" kayak may actually slow you down (learn about "wetted surface area" and "skin friction"). It's better to start with a kayak that is efficient at realistic touring speeds and easy to maneuver. As with cars, there's a difference between fast and efficient. When you go on a trip, an efficient kayak makes it easier to keep up, and a maneuverable kayak is easier to handle in wind and waves. If you are into racing, you'll sacrifice efficiency and ease of control to gain a little more top end speed, but this is not what you want in a sea kayak for touring.
You don't need to test hundreds of kayaks or read the reviews of every kayak ever built (most reviews aren't worth the time it takes to download them anyhow). Your fist kayak should be stable enough that you can relax in calm water (don't worry about stability for rough water because you're not ready for that), easy to maneuver yet track well enough that you can keep it going straight in calm conditions, and it should be good for learning to roll (if you aren't yet rolling, you'll have to trust other instructor's recommendations on this). A low rear deck makes re-entry rescues easier, and it also makes lay-back rolls easier. Tall seat backs and seat backs that flop forward easily make it harder to get in the kayak, both from shore and during re-entry rescues. Tall seat backs are also bad for efficient paddling and rolling. Seats without hip support (no "hip braces") and cockpits that lack knee braces make edging, leaning, bracing, hip-snapping, and rolling harder. Same for kayaks with sliding rudder pedals. Kayaks under 13' tend to be noticeably slow and inefficient, kayaks over 17' tend to be hard to maneuver and inefficient at typical touring speeds. In general, the lower the fore deck, the more efficiently you can paddle, but your feet have to be comfortable so be sure the fore deck is tall enough for foot comfort when wearing kayak style neo booties. If you want more specifics on what to consider, take a peek at the next section which is for intermediates (who are likely buying their second or third kayak).
Kayaks come in different sizes to fit different sized people. One of the most important things about choosing a kayak is finding one that fits your body well. Don't buy a "high volume" kayak because you plan to go on a long expedition. "High Volume" kayaks are for big people (either long legged or big, stocky build). Buy a kayak that is sized to fit your body and then learn to pack your gear so it fits in the kayak. If you have trouble fitting your camping gear into a kayak that is right for you, you need to upgrade your camping gear. Camping gear has become smaller, lighter, and more comfortable in recent years.
The shorter (14'-15'), roto-molded touring kayaks (not rec boats) mentioned in the beginner's guide above not only work well for novices learning to paddle but are also good for advanced paddlers who want a kayak for playing in surf and rock gardens (where short, tough roto-molded plastic kayaks have advantages). So while your first kayak shouldn't be thought of as the only kayak you'll ever buy, there are a few that are worth keeping even after you buy your second kayak. A well designed short touring kayak can also be handy for pool practice sessions and as a spare kayak for taking friends paddling. The limitations of these kayaks are their speed and cargo capacity.
A lot of kayakers still turn their nose up at RM kayaks, but if you buy a well designed, plastic, skeg kayak that fits you well, you'll be far better off than if you bought some poorly designed or ill fitting fiberglass kayak just because it was glass. Until recently, few of the rotomolded sea kayaks in the 16'-17' range were high enough quality or designed well enough to recommend for people wanting to take lessons and go on longer trips, but times have changed. For RM skeg kayaks in this range, Wilderness Systems almost got it right with their rotomolded Tempest 165 and 170 sea kayaks. Unfortunately when WS first introduced the rotomolded versions of the Tempest they had a rear hatch that could implode or fall off. RM Tempests got a black eye for this. WS redesigned this hatch for 2009 and later models, but you'll still read reviews that haven't been updated to reflect the improved hatch. The newer model rotomolded Tempests will work well for someone buying their first sea kayak, just be sure to purchase yours from a caring and knowledgeable shop. Valley Sea Kayaks has been building high quality rotomolded sea kayaks for years. Valley's rotomolded sea kayaks are stiffer and less prone to warping than most RM kayaks because of their "Triple Layer" polyethylene construction, and Valley's RM kayaks come with the same top quality Valley hatches as their glass kayaks. Valley's RM sea kayaks come with welded in polyethylene bulkheads rather than caulked in foam bulkheads like most RM kayaks. And with the introduction of the RM Etain (17.7 & 17.5), Valley has set a new standard for polyethylene sea kayaks with everything a student needs plus the performance to make it tough to "outgrow". RM Etain's cost a little more than most RM kayaks, but you get a lot more kayak for your money.
If your budget allows for a fiberglass sea kayak with a skeg, there are a lot of good models to choose from. Finding one with good cockpit ergonomics that fits you well is a top priority. The fit generally reduces the number of kayaks you need to consider down to 1-5 models total from all the brands in the world.
There's no perfect kayak and there never will be, and there's no new model in the works for next year that is worth waiting for if waiting means not owning a kayak or making do with one that is holding you back from advancing your skills and pleasure.
Our store stocks rotomolded kayaks by Wilderness Systems, Dagger, and Valley that meet the above criteria and are in the $1,200 - $2,000 range. If you can't buy your kayak here, then at least buy one from your local specialty kayak shop - not some big co-op or box store where the staff knows less than you do. Find a sales person who is an expert sea kayakers with experience teaching beginners so you'll get good help choosing a kayak that fits you right. The best school for sea kayak lessons is also the best place to buy your kayak -- at the Kayak Academy we don't simply sell boats, we inspect them, tune them, give them our free dealer prep and put a little bit of the Kayak Academy into every kayak you buy from us. The Kayak Academy carries a variety of sea kayaks, and we have them to fit almost all paddlers from child sized on up to very large adults. We also carry all the best fiberglass retractable skeg type sea kayaks from several leading manufacturers including Tiderace, Valley, Rockpool, Maelstrom, Tahe Marin, and Wilderness Systems. Remember it's not what you buy that matters, it's where you buy your kayak. A good specialty kayak shop that cares about it's customers and will want you to buy a kayak that is the right size and type for your needs. And even the same model kayak won't be the same if you buy it from a store that is all about the bottom line.
Call at (206) 527-1825 or email us to arrange a demo/test paddle and an intro safety clinic (if needed).
Prices and specifications are on our Kayak Store web page.
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So you’ve taken lessons, started rolling, and probably been on a number of kayaking trips with friends or clubs. Lately you've reached the conclusion that something is holding you back from becoming a better kayaker -- your kayak (or the limited selection of kayaks you’ve been able to borrow or rent).
In contrast to beginners who tend to waste money and take needless risks by buying their first kayak too early (as in before taking any lessons), most intermediates wait too long to upgrade. We known people who "made do" with terrible handling, ill fitting boats for years while they shopped for the perfect kayak. Some people spend years test paddling every kayak they can find and reading boat reviews (most of which are not worth the paper or bandwidth they were published on), and still they can't commit to buying a new kayak. Meanwhile they've test paddled a half dozen kayaks that would all be huge improvements over what they use now. This is a classic example of "perfect" being the enemy of good. At this level, time and money spent on more lessons may be mostly wasted if the kayak you own or rent doesn't fit right or has poor handling qualities. So skills stagnate and interest drops off as you get frustrated with your lack of progress, or worse, you take needless risks using a kayak that isn't appropriate for the type of adventures they now go on.
Whether you are shopping for your first kayak or your fifth, you want to avoid some of the common mistakes and make this purchase one that will bring you satisfaction for years to come and good resale value if you ever decide to sell it. You don’t have to be an expert to benefit from a high quality kayak or one that fits well. Every sea kayaker benefits from using well made kayaks that are reasonably light, strong, and easy to steer in wind. Same goes for seaworthiness, ergonomic seats and cockpits, and efficient lines. Of course some experts might choose a kayak that is so tippy an intermediate would fall right over -- even on flat water, and some experts might choose a kayak that is so long that an inexperienced paddler would have trouble turning it (especially in wind). So you don’t simply want to buy the longest, fastest kayak that some expert racer uses (In fact, that could be dangerous for an intermediate). You probably want a sea kayak versatile enough to use for a day tour or a week long camping trip, and perhaps one that is also good for fishing, photography, bird watching, and rolling practice. These are not necessarily mutually exclusive goals. Let's begin by setting some boundaries on roughly what size kayak you’ll need and some basic features. But first, for the sake of better reading flow, in the remainder of this guide, allow me to make one big general purpose qualifying statement that will apply to all kayak comparisons such as, “a _____ (i.e. narrow, short, etc.) kayak is more yada-yada-yada than a ____ kayak”. These comparisons always assume that everything else is the same between the two kayaks being compared, which in reality is never the case, but without this qualification the comparisons would be misleading and indeed many false conclusions have been drawn about kayak design by those who ignore the significance of other variables.
Kayaks come in different sizes to fit different sized people. One of the most important things about choosing a kayak is finding one that fits your body well. Don't buy a "high volume" kayak because you plan to go on a long expedition. Buy a kayak that is sized to fit your body and then learn to pack your gear so it fits in the kayak. If you have trouble fitting your camping gear into a kayak that is right for you, you may need to upgrade your camping gear. Camping gear has become a lot smaller, lighter, and more comfortable in recent years.
Assuming you already own a good roof rack and kayak cradles, wet suit and/or dry suit, booties etc., one of the best investments you can make before buying your next kayak is a digital fish scale for weighing kayaks. Truth in advertising has not hit the kayak industry, but with your own digital scale you can tell when the king has no clothes. There are popular kayaks that people think weigh 57 lbs because that's what the marketing materials say, but if you put these kayaks on an accurate scale they weigh more like 67-72lbs. In fairness, no two kayaks weigh the same amount, and a couple pounds over or under the specification should be expected, but when every kayak of a given model consistently weighs ten to fifteen pounds more than what's advertised that's not fair to you or other builders who are giving it to you straight. Let the buyer be ware. At the Kayak Academy, we weigh the kayaks we sell and advertise an average weight of the current model with the weight of the seat and standard deck rigging etc. included.
Stability and Beam
When it comes to stability in a kayak, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. There are several reasons why you don’t want too much stability. First consider the factors that make a kayak highly stable and what those factors do to your speed and efficiency. The two main ways that boats get their stability are from having weight concentrated below the center of buoyancy (i.e. a lead keel on a sailboat) and from their overall form (width or beam, flatness of the bottom, etc.). Kayaks get practically all their stability from the later, called "form-stability". So wider kayaks are generally more stable than narrow ones, but the wider a kayak, the more work it takes to paddle it -- at any speed. So generally the more stable (i.e. wider) your kayak, the harder you'll have to work to keep up to your friends whether paddling at an all day pace or sprinting. Another reason why you don't really want an excessively stable kayak is that the kayak's beam is the lever that waves use to capsize you. Yes, you read that right. The problem is form-stability doesn't’t necessarily act to keep a boat right side up, rather form-stability acts to keep a boat perpendicular to the surface of the water. When a steep wave hits a kayak from the side, the last thing you want is to be perpendicular to the water; being perpendicular to the water on the wave face would mean you are beyond the point of no return for a capsize. As a kayaker, you need to learn to lean into waves that hit you from the side, and the reason why you need to lean into the waves is so you can use your body weight to fight and overcome your kayak’s "stability" in order to prevent a capsize. So in rough water, the more stable your kayak the harder you have to lean. In essence, the reason you have to lean at all when a wave hits from the side is to cancel out your kayak's stability. It’s counterintuitive, but true. So you don’t really want a kayak that is more stable than you need, but how stable should that be?
We've established that a kayak can be too stable, and obviously a kayak can also be too tippy for you. Unfortunately there are too many interactions between the paddler and the kayak that affect how stable a kayak feels to the person in it (such as seat height, the way a kayak fits you, and the shape of the paddler’s behind) to strictly rely on computer generated graphs of stability to compare kayaks the way a sailor might for yachts. Generally the more kayaking you’ve done, the better your balance (in a kayak) and the less stability you’ll need. On the other hand, the taller you are the higher your center of gravity (more weight up high) and the less stable any kayak will feel to you. So in general, shorter paddlers can handle less stable (i.e. narrower) kayaks than taller paddlers.
My experience with students is that they do not learn faster by being in a kayak that is too tippy for them, if anything, an excessively tippy kayak tends to make beginners tense, and being tense retards their ability to learn. But an excessively stable kayak can also slow your learning, by making it hard to edge (tilt the kayak without leaning your upper body) and too forgiving of your paddling mistakes when trying to push your limits in a lesson. For touring, as opposed to racing or kayak surfing, I generally prefer a kayak that is just stable enough in calm water to allow me to relax, eat a sandwich, study a chart, take photos, look through binoculars, etc., but ideally no more stable than required for these tasks. The key phrase here was "in calm water". No kayak is stable enough for rough water; in rough water you need to use your paddle for stability. You already read what a kayak’s stability tries to do to you in waves. So try to find a kayak that is just stable enough to make you feel relaxed in calm water -- no more, no less. In rough water use your paddling skill for balance or head for shore to get off the water.
While there are many other variables affecting stability, my observation is that for sea kayaks with a nearly flat bottom under the seat area, few people over 5'4" feel stable (without holding a paddle) in a kayak with a beam (width) much less than 20”. And few people under 6’6” would need a kayak with a beam greater than 24” So rather small differences in beam make big differences in both stability and efficiency. Smaller paddlers can take advantage of their lower center of gravity by paddling a narrower (generally less stable but more efficient and faster) kayak than their taller/stronger paddling partners. Since a narrow kayak tends to be more efficient at any speed than a wider kayak (all other things being the same), a paddler in a narrow kayak won't have to work as hard to go the same speed as others in wider kayaks. In cases where the shorter person is also less strong than their taller paddling partner(s), it is especially important to take advantage of this efficiency difference and not buy too wide of a kayak.
Stability is one of the few kayak tests you can do on a calm day and actually learn something useful about a sea kayak, and you don’t have to be an expert to test a kayak for stability. As a quick test of stability, put the kayak on the water, and if you can easily balance while sitting on the rear deck of the kayak with your feet on the seat (with no assistance from your paddle), then it's time to buy a sleeker, less tubby boat. To test whether a kayak is stable enough for you, float in calm water with both hands off the paddle (even one hand on the paddle makes you more stable just as the pole carried by tight-rope walkers makes them more stable). If this test makes you jittery (in calm water), the kayak may be fine for racing or some other activities where you'll have your hands on your paddle at all times, but I wouldn't’t want to use the kayak for long trips. So take a kayak out in calm water, and see if it feels stable to YOU; if it feels stable in calm water, then it is stable enough for any conditions that are appropriate for your skills. If a sea kayak doesn't feel stable even in calm water, then it is too tippy for your level of experience (balance improves over time) You may want to try such a kayak again in a year or so to see if your impression changes, but don't buy it expecting to grow into it. Remember this section is for you intermediate level kayakers. A beginner may grow into a less stable kayak after a day or two of training, but the more experienced you are, the longer it is going to take to feel comfortable in a kayak that starts out feeling tippy. I've seen many experienced paddlers who bought kayaks that were too tippy for them and never got used to it. So if you are an intermediate, when it comes to stability buy what is right for you today not what you think you will be ready for next year.
Rudder Dependent Kayaks vs. Rudder-Free Kayaks (With and Without Skegs)
When moving forward while sideways to the wind, most boats tend to turn somewhat upwind. This is called weather cocking (often the analogy of the arrowhead on a wind vane is used to visualize the boat’s tendency to point or cock toward weather). Weather cocking can be quite annoying when you are trying to stay on a course sideways to the wind, which is a common situation during crossings between islands or crossings from one side of a long, narrow lake to the other, because wind tends to blow parallel to a channel or lengthwise on a long, narrow body of water. Weather cocking is the bane of all unskilled paddlers and/or those with poor handling boats.
Rudders are most useful and popular for people who want to sea kayak without learning the many steering techniques required to efficiently paddle a sea kayak (the finesse of paddling and boat handling), and for those who are stuck in a kayak with a poor handling hull design. All other arguments I’ve heard in favor of rudders (with the exception of kayak sailing and serious photography) are either based on inexperience or experience limited by the above two cases (lack of technique and/or a poor handling boat for that person). It doesn't’t matter how well designed a kayak is if the user doesn't’t know how to efficiently steer it without ruddering (and in this sense I include ruddering with the paddle as well as with a mechanical rudder), and even a well designed kayak will be hard to handle if it isn't’t appropriately sized (waterline length, cockpit fit, etc.) for the user’s weight (plus gear load) and level of skill. Many sea kayakers buy or rent kayaks that are too long for them given their skill and strength, and based on this frustrating experience they conclude that a mechanical rudder is a necessity. Kayak rudders can generally be locked in the up position (out of the water) which would allow one to work on their paddling skill, but the reality is that whenever the conditions get a little challenging most people in kayaks with rudders use the rudder instead of working on their paddling skill set. So using a kayak with a rudder tends to develop a dependence on rudders rather than developing skill over time as your experience grows. Depending on a mechanical gadget for your steering control can be a safety problem -- mechanical rudders may break or momentarily lift out of the water as a wave passes leaving you out of control. Having a rudder in the water adds drag; so if your kayak has a rudder, it is to your advantage to do as much paddling as you can without using it. One common problem with kayak rudder systems is the use of sliding rudder pedals instead of fixed foot braces. Sliding pedals rob your control of the kayak for steering without the rudder and for bracing too; sliding pedal systems also mean that if a cable or rudder pivot breaks you loose the use of both foot pedals as well as the rudder, and it's really challenging to steer a kayak in wind with no foot braces and no rudder. There are some rudder pedals on the market that give you fixed foot braces combined with a foot pad that is hinged from the foot brace to steer the rudder; if you are going to use a kayak with a rudder (photographers take note), I recommend getting one of these rudder pedal/foot brace set-ups (they are available as after-market items that can be retro-fitted in most kayaks with rudders).
A skeg may look like a rudder blade at first glance, but a skeg is merely a fin (on the bottom of the hull usually near the stern) to prevent weather cocking or to increase tracking. Retractable skegs can be raised and lowered in and out of the water with a hand control. Skegs do not turn from side to side like a rudder does, and they are not used for turning left and right (Although in side wind conditions the up and down adjustment of a retractable skeg will tend to make the kayak head somewhat up-wind or down-wind, which could be interpreted as steering a bit to the left or right in that situation). Since you can't use a skeg to made a "U"-turn etc., using a skeg doesn't’t retard the development of your steering and turning skills the way using a mechanical rudder does. Kayaks with skegs generally have rigid foot braces rather than sliding rudder pedals, so kayaks with skegs don't have any of the rudder boat's handicaps. On the down side, retractable skegs have a skeg trunk molded inside the hull which wastes some of the space for storing gear. The skeg and it’s trunk opening also add drag to the hull, even when the skeg is retracted, and you need to be a little careful when launching and landing (skeg up to land) a kayak with a skeg so as not to damage it or get a pebble jammed against the blade. So you may be wondering why kayaks with skegs are the hot trend for new models aimed at the high end of the sea kayak market. The answer is probably in drawbacks to the other two alternatives, rudders and none of the above.
There is much to be said for simplicity in kayak design. Fewer gadgets means fewer things to go wrong. Rudder cables and pivots can break, and pebbles can jam retractable skegs. It is noteworthy that practically none of the Eskimo kayaks had rudders (and Eskimos had many different kayak designs). The few exceptions were almost certainly influenced by Westerners who lacked the Eskimo paddler’s skill, and even then I don’t recall any examples of one-person Eskimo kayaks with rudders. There is evidence that removable skegs (strapped on when needed) were used by some Eskimos (notably in Greenland), but there again it may have been a recent crutch influenced by Westerners at a time when the kayak culture (and skills) was in decline. There are kayaks built today that are designed to be used without rudders or skegs. This is a valid option provided the paddler has enough skill to steer it efficiently in side winds and chooses a model that isn't’t too big for him or her to handle efficiently in the anticipated conditions. However, one potential risk is that a kayak without a skeg or rudder may handle fine in light to moderate winds (hardly any noticeable weather cocking etc.) but become impossible (at least for all but experts) to turn up wind in strong winds. This may prove to be the ultimate advantage kayaks with skegs -- with good hull design, a balance can be struck where you use the skeg to keep the kayak from turning up wind when holding a course sideways to the wind, and yet by lifting the skeg up, the kayak becomes easy to turn up wind even in strong winds.
There are valid trade-offs to the decision of whether to buy a kayak with or without a skeg, and there is no one right answer. The way a kayak handles in wind is significantly affected by it’s total displacement (weight of the paddler plus gear plus the kayak) which can vary radically from one day to the next depending on what you are using the kayak for. If people only paddled on day trips with the kayak basically empty or only paddled on camping trips with roughly the same amount of gear all the time (or owned two kayaks, one tuned for each displacement), it would be easier to design kayaks that worked well without any rudder or skeg. But most sea kayakers want to buy one kayak that works well both empty and loaded. A well designed skeg can make it easier for less skilled paddlers (not unskilled, just less skilled than an expert) to handle a kayak with a variety of gear loads in a variety of sea conditions.
Ultimately it comes down to learning paddling skills and testing out a variety of kayaks in your size range to see what works best for you. When testing a kayak equipped with a mechanical rudder, paddle it with the rudder out of the water so you can feel how the kayak will handle if the rudder breaks. When testing a kayak equipped with a retractable skeg, paddle it both with and without the skeg deployed so you can feel how it will handle if the skeg gets jammed in the retracted position, and try paddling with various degrees of skeg deployment to see how effective the skeg is at canceling the kayak’s tendency to weather cock and improve the tracking if needed (Skegs are not generally an all-or-nothing deal, they can be partially deployed to best suit the conditions.). Unfortunately some kayaks with skegs weather cock even with the skeg fully deployed - this will put you in a no-win situation when paddling in side winds, so be sure to test for this by paddling perpendicular to the wind and see if the kayak holds it's heading or weather cocks when the skeg is down. As skeg control systems go, it is advantageous to have smooth, precise, easy movement of the skeg through its full range of motion ... another thing to test for.
When testing a kayak's handling in the wind, it is best to test it in a range of wind speeds, but obviously you must stay within your limits (and even be a little extra conservative when using an unfamiliar kayak that isn't custom fitted to your body). This is another reason why unskilled paddlers are better off waiting to buy or build a kayak until after they have learned the basic safety skills and a full range of steering techniques. Assuming you have the skill to paddle safely in wind, make a point to test kayaks while holding a course sideways to the wind so you can evaluate the level of difficulty in dealing with each kayak's tendency to weather cock or lee helm (the opposite of weather cocking, which is rare in kayaks but not unheard of). Also test kayaks by turning full circles in wind to evaluate the ease or difficulty of turning around which is a safety concern when the wind picks up.
Length, Waterline, Tracking & Maneuverability
In my opinion, long sea kayaks are over rated. The longer a sea kayak is, the less efficient it will be at typical touring speeds (say 3 to 4 knots). Some long time paddlers will need to read that again. There is a common half-truth in the world of sea kayaking that longer boats are faster, and this is so deeply ingrained in the heads of many sea kayakers that they can’t understand why they have a hard time keeping up with friends in shorter kayaks. Some of these misguided folks have even gone and bought kayaks that are longer than their last one, only to find they have even more trouble keeping up. The problem is people tend to assume that a kayak with a faster hull speed (top end potential) will also go faster at half throttle, however, the opposite is generally the case (when comparing boats from 14 to 19 feet long). A monster truck with a big engine may be able to go faster than an economy car, but which could go farther on a given amount of fuel? And if it were possible to measure the rate of fuel burn when both vehicles were cruising at 70 mph, the big truck would be the less efficient one (working harder to go the same speed). If you rationed the big truck to the same amount of fuel per hour that the economy car was using, then the truck would end up being slower even though it has a higher potential top end speed. In the case of boats, the longer a boat’s waterline length (the length from where the bow meets the water to where the stern exits the water), the more surface area is in contact with the water (wetted surface area). And at the speeds most sea kayakers tour at, most of the resistance holding you back from going faster and making you work to maintain your pace is the friction of water sliding along the wetted surface area of the hull. The more wetted surface area your hull has, the more friction you have to overcome. So if someone barely has enough power to keep up to their friends who are just cruising at an all day pace, putting this person in a longer kayak (with its greater wetted surface area) will just slow them down even more. Conversely, it often helps the group go faster if they swap boats so as to give the weaker person a shorter kayak (provided the shorter kayak isn't also wider or poorer handling etc.). From here on please interpret "length" to mean the waterline length, as comparisons of length overall are meaningless (except when it comes to fitting a kayak in your garage).
Except when surfing, kayaks behave as displacement hull vessels, and for displacement hulls there is a theoretical and practical maximum speed (hull speed) which is a function of the vessel's waterline length. When sprinting as hard as you can, you may be able to hit the hull speed of your kayak. Shorter kayaks have lower hull speeds than longer ones. When working hard enough to push your kayak at it’s hull speed, it makes a much more noticeable bow wave than it does at an easy touring pace. When you are near the hull speed of your kayak, you can usually notice your bow starting to point higher while the stern of your kayak squats a little lower in the water. It is easier to see this effect by watching someone who is paddling beside you at hull speed for their kayak (i.e. when racing a friend for a short sprint). When you are paddling hard enough that your bow is pointing higher than normal, you are wasting energy attempting to paddle up hill on your own bow wave rather than putting your energy to work moving forward. Further, it takes work to make a wave; swish your hand in a bathtub for a while to make waves and feel how much work it takes. The faster you paddle the bigger your bow wave and the more energy you are wasting to make that wave. As you increase your paddling effort, the resistance due to wetted surface friction steadily increases, but not a quickly as the resistance due to wave making does. At typical touring speeds the frictional resistance outweighs the wave making resistance (hence the long kayak is less efficient and may cause a weak paddler to go slower than in a shorter kayak), but at hull speed the situation is generally reversed (graphs of the resistance curves would have crossed) and wave making resistance is the dominant force keeping you from going faster. At or near hull speed, the wave making resistance climbs at such a exponentially high rate that even if you could paddle twice as hard you would barely move any faster. If you enjoy paddling this hard (hard enough to make a big bow wave and see the bow pointing high), then you would benefit (go faster) from a longer kayak. If you can’t reach hull speed in your kayak or if you don't enjoy paddling hard enough to stay in that range, you will probably be more efficient and cruise at a faster pace (without paddling any harder than you have in the past) with a shorter kayak.
So if a longer kayak won’t necessarily make you go faster, what about the other “advantages” to long boats? Another common misconception is that long kayaks track (go straight) better than short ones. While there may again be some truth to this (though maybe in this case it is more like a tenth-truth than half-truth), the more significant factor is the shape of the hull rather than it’s length. Some hull shapes track poorly no matter how long the boat is, while some short kayaks track just fine. Anyhow tracking by itself isn't’t always a good thing. You want a kayak that makes it easy to keep heading the direction you want it to go, and that requires a balance between tracking and maneuverability. If a wave, breeze, or current sets your kayak off course, the stiffer it tracks the harder you have to work to get it headed back on course. So you want a kayak that tracks well when it is on course, but maneuvers easily when it is off course. Unfortunately these are two mutually exclusive design goals (at least until you learn to tilt your kayak to steer), but since longer kayaks tend to be less maneuverable, it doesn't get easier to achieve a good balance of these characteristics with length. For a given model kayak, the balance between these characteristics will depend on the weight of the paddler and gear in the kayak; so it is best to test this for yourself, and ideally test a kayak both loaded and empty.
Although it is feasible to test kayaks separately for their tracking (how much they yaw left and right with each forward stroke) and their maneuverability (how many strokes it takes to turn a certain angle), it is hard (as in, I don’t know any way to do it) to combine such independent data in a way that will tell you anything meaningful about the kayak's balance between these features. Fortunately there are better ways to test for this balance. In a practical sense, the balance between a sea kayak’s tracking and maneuverability is most critical when paddling in wind. So I find the best test for this balance is to paddle a kayak in wind. Pick a day where the conditions are well within your limits but not dead calm, and find a location where you can paddle around without causing trouble. My first test (because this is critical for safety) is to drift until the kayak stops spinning and then see if I can turn it straight up into the wind. Assuming you can do that, then continue turning a full circle the same direction. This is an essential minimum for maneuverability. The stronger the wind the harder it is to turn all the way up wind, so if you have much difficulty doing this in a light wind, you probably need a more maneuverable kayak (and/or better paddle stroke instruction). Assuming you can turn a full circle, the next test is to paddle sideways to the wind and see how difficult it is to hold that heading.
Some kayaks that track well in calm conditions weather-cock severely in side winds; this is a bad combination since stiff tracking boats are generally less maneuverable -- so when the get off course it takes a lot of work to get them back on course. On the other hand, many highly maneuverable sea kayaks track so poorly that in order to hold a course sideways to the wind, the paddler needs to make nearly every stroke into a steering correction to stop the boat from weather cocking. We’ve now added a third variable (weather cocking) to the other two (tracking vs. maneuverability) that we are testing, but it is relatively easy to determine if a kayak balances these three factors well or not, and assuming you can spin the kayak in a full circle even in wind, this condition (paddling sideways to the wind) is the most common one where the balance between tracking and maneuverability is critical.
If you are skilled and experienced enough to safely surf a kayak down wind, then testing a kayak’s balance between tracking and maneuverability while surfing is another worthwhile experiment. As with side winds, kayaks with extreme levels of tracking are usually not desirable when surfing. All sea kayaks require some effort to steer while surfing, but some are easier to handle than others. So your goal is to find a kayak that makes surfing relatively easy (compared to other sea kayaks you’ve tested) and perhaps even fun.
In general, the shorter the kayak the more efficient it will be at realistic touring speeds, the more maneuverable it will be when you need to turn around, the easier it will handle in rough conditions, the lighter it will be to carry, etc. So why not seek the shortest model that fits your body and suits your needs? If you approach the length issue from this perspective, I would start out trying kayaks with about a 13.5 foot waterline (so the overall length will typically be around 15' - 16.5'), and only go up from there if needed to get more leg room or if you are certain that you must go longer to have enough storage space or if you see yourself wanting to paddle faster than a boat that size can go (kayaks this length can be expected to have a hull speed a little over 5 knots and be efficient to tour at 3.5 - 4 knot range which is in the upper end of what most groups of skilled sea kayakers cruise at). If you weigh over 190 lbs., you may need to look at kayaks with slightly longer waterline length to keep the stern from sinking too deep during some re-entry rescues. And remember I am talking about the waterline length, a kayak's end-to-end length (length overall) may be 1 to 2.5 feet longer than it's waterline length.
Fit (knee height/deck height) & Windage
One of the most critical dimensions for comfort is sizing the vertical difference between the height of the seat and the height of the underside of the deck in the knee area. In general, the lower the fore deck, the more efficiently you can paddle and the easier you’ll be able to turn up wind (a safety consideration in high winds). But your legs and feet have to be comfortable.
Unfortunately deck heights are difficult measurements to use. "Deck height" or depth of the kayak at the front of the cockpit (usually the highest part of the kayak) are funny numbers because what they translate to in terms of fit depends on the shape of the deck combined with the height, among other things (cockpit length, seat location relative to cockpit opening, thigh hooks, seat height, shape of hull, etc.). A kayak with a highly peaked deck could measure taller than a kayak with a flat deck and yet the peaked kayak could have less leg room. So the depth of the kayak can only be used as a very rough guide to fit, and usually best for comparing the difference from small to large sizes of a given model of kayak rather than comparing from one model to another or worse yet from one brand to another. If you’ve found one kayak that seems to fit well in terms of height, measure it from the bilge to the underside of the deck at the highest point in the front coaming and use this as your starting point for comparing other kayaks with similar shaped front decks (give or take an inch or so).
The longer your legs, the less flexible your legs, the thicker your legs, the bigger your feet, and the bulkier your shoes, the more room you will need. For folks with average flexibility and average weight and shoe size for their height, a very rough guide for deck height may be: about 11” deck height for those around 5'2" - 5’5” and about 13.5” deck height for those around 6'0" to 6’6”. But as stated above, there are many variables that affect what height is right for you. So the best way to find if a kayak's knee height is right for you is to actually sit in the kayak with your kayaking footwear on (i.e. kayak shoes or booties).
Assuming a kayak’s overall dimensions are big enough for you, most people can get in and out of kayaks with amazingly small cockpits. So for most sea kayakers, the cockpit size has little to do with the size of the paddler. Those who haven’t practiced enough capsizes and wet exits to get over their fear of entrapment tend to buy kayaks with large cockpits. Paradoxically, extremely large cockpits can be the hardest get out (if your arms aren't’t long enough to reach well past the front of the coaming you may not be able to push the spray skirt handle forward enough to open it), and yet generally the larger the cockpit the tighter the spray skirt needs to be if there is any chance of keeping the spray skirt on in rough seas (and the tighter the spray skirt the harder it is to open as well). So unless you plan to never use a spray skirt, stay away from kayaks with excessively large cockpits (i.e. cockpits so long you can’t easily extend your fist past the front of the coaming without bending forward). Extremely small cockpits (ones where your knees sit forward of the front of the coaming and there’s no way you can bring even one knee up while in the kayak) are tricky to get out of fast, so if you plan to do a lot of surf landings (generally a moot point for intermediates), you may be better off with a moderate sized cockpit. Generally the bigger the cockpit, the less comfortable it is. Small cockpits can be so comfortable that the need to bring you knees up to your chest while sitting in the kayak goes away; conversely, the less comfortable the cockpit, the greater the need to stretch this way.
In choosing a kayak that will make learning to roll easier: look for one without sliding rudder pedals; the lower the rear deck, seat back, and rear part of the cockpit coaming the better; the more the knee/thigh braces (under side of the deck and/or flanges on the coaming that give the cockpit opening a "keyhole" shape) curve so as to wrap over your legs in a way that prevents them from slipping out unintentionally when hip snapping, the better. Many sea kayaks rate poorly in these regards, which is why kayak schools often put sea kayakers in river kayaks while teaching them to Eskimo roll. However, a well designed sea kayak can be even easier to learn to roll in than a river kayak, and if you learn to roll in your sea kayak, then you won't have to readjust your roll to adapt what you learn to work in your sea kayak.
Flotation: Hatches & Bulkheads, Float Bags, Sea Socks
Sea kayaks can sink (even wood ones) unless they are provided with some means of flotation. In order for you to have a chance of getting back into your kayak after a wet exit, your kayak needs to have flotation in both ends. If a kayak only has flotation in one end, it will likely go vertical when swamped because all the water will run down to the end without flotation. There are three practical means for providing flotation in sea kayaks, but unfortunately all of three have failure modes. Since all the common means of kayak flotation are vulnerable to failures, it is prudent to back up the flotation in both ends of your kayak with a second means of flotation - more on that later. The three common means of kayak flotation are: bulkheads; float bags; and sea socks.
In boats, bulkheads are walls that run from side to side in order to partition a boat into separate chambers and so provide flotation for the boat. A while ago, bulkheads were the new technology in ship building that made the Titanic unsinkable. Fortunately sea kayakers have the option of adding redundant flotation to back up their bulkheads, but we will get to that later. A sea kayak has bulkheads will also have hatches to allow access for gear storage in the bulkheaded chambers. Hatches that leak severely or fall off easily are common failure modes for kayaks relying on bulkheads for flotation. So if you are going to have hatches in your kayak, you want ones that are as dry as possible and not prone to accidentally opening. Good hatches are often harder to open and close than unreliable and leaky ones; so inexperienced people often prefer dangerous hatches. The driest kayak hatches are generally the ones that look like Tupperware food container lids. These hatches often puff up on a hot day as the air trapped inside the bulkheaded chamber expands, this serves as a check that the hatch is sealed air tight. As a rule of thumb, if a hatch is air tight, it won’t leak (unless it isn't’t put on correctly or pops open). The amount or rate of leakage among other hatch design concepts varies wildly. Sometimes very similar looking hatch designs can have night and day differences in their leakage rate, and even with the best hatches it is possible that the seams or bulkheads leak. So it is wise to test bulkheaded compartments for leaks (periodically as well as when demo testing a new kayak), and not just by spraying it with a hose … practice some Eskimo rolls and do some re-entry rescues then open the hatches to see how dry they are. If a kayak you own has big leakage problems, the next step is to see where the water gets in (hatch, bulkhead, seams, or all of the above).
Float bags or air bags for kayaks are specially made inflatable bladders fitted to the size and shape of the ends of a kayak. With float bags inflated in both ends of a kayak, it could have the necessary front and rear flotation - as long as the bags are in good working order, inflated fully and big enough for the kayak, the valves are sealed properly after inflating the bags, and nothing punctures them, etc. But that is a lot of qualifiers, so again the best way to go is to back up the flotation in both ends of your kayak with a second means of flotation - we will get to that in a soon. The biggest problem with the concept of airbags is that most people don’t like blowing them up, and they should be inspected for inflation prior to launching which is easy to forget to do.
The other somewhat common means of providing flotation in sea kayaks is a thing called a seasock. Seasocks are basically a bag (some have likened them to a condom) made of waterproof material that lines the cockpit of the kayak and seals around the cockpit coaming (generally with a bungee cord similar to the way a spray skirt seals around the coaming). Water that enters the kayak through the cockpit is trapped in the seasock and can’t flow to the end of the kayak, so the kayak won’t go vertical from that. Further, a seasock limits the quantity of water that can enter from the cockpit, and the less water that gets in the more flotation the kayak will have. Of course there are failure modes to this form of flotation too, so again the best way to go is to back up the flotation in both ends of your kayak with a second means of flotation. Possible failures include a rip in the seasock, the seasock coming off the coaming, a hole in the hull, etc. The biggest drawbacks to the seasock are that many people don’t like using them (they can feel clammy against your skin if you are in shorts) and a single failure can cause the loss of all your kayak flotation (instead of only one end, which is bad enough).
By combining two of the above flotation concepts, it is possible to create redundant (back up) flotation in both ends of your kayak. Examples are: front and rear bulkheads with airbags in both ends; front and rear airbags with a sea sock; front airbag and a seasock plus rear bulkhead and an airbag in the rear hatch. If you back up your flotation this way (and test swamp the kayak to be sure there is enough flotation) there is little difference in the safety of one flotation means over the other (assuming the hatches seal well to begin with and the air bags are big enough for the kayak, etc.), so the choice comes down to personal preference.
Most manufactured kayaks are molded from some form of polyethylene plastic in a roto-mold or some form of a fiber reinforced composite plastic (i.e. fiberglass and resin etc.). Roto-molded kayaks are generally the least expensive and the heaviest (except for certain fiberglass kayaks that happen to have caught on in spite of their heavy construction). They are usually molded in one piece whereas composite kayaks are built from two main pieces (hull and deck) which are molded separately and then seamed together. There are many methods used to seam the two parts together, unfortunately the techniques that generally yield a stronger and more waterproof seams tend to take more labor and hence cost more. One of the least expensive ways to seam the deck and hull is with a fiberglass seam only on the inside of the kayak. If you care about strength, this is to be avoided (many different methods are used to make the outside of such kayak look finished as if they had a fiberglass outside seam, but these things usually add little to the strength). One of the most expensive ways to seam the deck and hull together is with a fiberglass seam on both the inside and outside of the joint; this method has the potential of making the seam many times stronger and twice as waterproof as inside-only seams with little or no added weight (depending on which alternative method of making the outside look finished you compare it to).
Although the weight of a sea kayak has only a small effect on it’s speed and efficiency, it has a big effect on your back when you lift it on and off your car and carry it to and from the water. If you can afford a lighter kayak, go for it. In addition to being lighter than roto-molded kayaks, well made composite ones are generally easier to care for (not likely to warp) and if damaged, easier to repair. Roto-molded kayaks do have one advantage other than their low price, they are the toughest when it comes to hitting rocks. This is why practically all river kayaks are plastic in spite of the weight penalty (but then river kayaks are so small that even a plastic one is not too bad to lift). Fortunately, most sea kayakers rarely need to worry about hitting rocks (use a bit of care when landing), so unless you plan to do a lot of "rock garden" paddling or surfing at rocky beaches, the toughness of a roto-molded plastic kayak is generally a moot point for us and we can take advantage of lighter constructions. On the other hand, it is far better to own a good roto-molded sea kayak than a poorly designed fiberglass one. Yet there are plenty of people fooled into buying really poor kayaks just because it's fiberglass when they could have bought a much better plastic kayak. There are also plenty of people buying glass boats that weigh more than a good plastic kayak, and think that it means their glass boat is somehow stronger when hitting rocks. The trouble is there are a lot of poorly designed roto-molded sea kayaks, so you need to know what to look for. The Kayak Academy carries a variety of great roto-molded sea kayaks to choose from.
A composite kayak can be built out of a variety of fiber materials, a variety of resins, using a variety of construction techniques. Some form of fiberglass and resin is the most common form of composite kayak. Generally the same mold can be used to build a kayak out of fiberglass, Kevlar, or carbon (also known as graphite), whereas an altogether different type of mold is generally used to make a roto-molded kayak. Since the same mold can be used for glass, Kevlar, or carbon, many manufacturers of composite kayaks offer a choice of these lay-up materials or some combination thereof. Kevlar is lighter and has a higher strength to weight ratio than fiberglass, but it costs more and has durability issues. Carbon is even lighter than Kevlar and has a higher yet strength to weight ratio, and it doesn't’t have the durability issues that an all Kevlar kayak has. The only problem with carbon (other than it being the most expensive option) is that most kayak builders don’t have the tooling or experience to get the full potential out of carbon. As a result some believe that carbon kayaks are inherently brittle, but a few builders are able to mold carbon kayaks that are no more brittle than glass or Kevlar kayaks (There is a myth about Kevlar being tough because it is what bulletproof vests are made of, but if resin was added to the Kevlar in these vests, bullets would go right through. So a Kevlar kayak is no tougher than a glass kayak). While lay people speak of fiberglass as if all fiberglass were the same there are actually many grades of fiberglass (standard, E-glass, and S-glass) and each of these grades can be in the form of random orientated matt as will as different weaves or unidirectional and bi-axial materials. There are also many different grades of resin that can be used to saturate and bond the fibers into the molded shape. The cheapest and heaviest construction is to use lots of fiberglass matt which soaks up resin like a sponge making for a really heavy brittle kayak. This is common for kayaks built outside the U.S. The cheapest resin is polyester. Vinyl ester resin is better, but the strongest resins are epoxy based. But epoxy is more expensive and requires more skill to work with so you won't find this in sea kayaks under $3000. There is a myth that heavy equals strength -- don't be fooled. A heavy fiberglass kayak is generally one that was built out of low end materials with low end construction techniques. As construction techniques go, the three main ones are wet (hand) lay-up, vacuum bagged, and infusion molded. A good craftsman can do about as well with the wet lay-up as with vacuum bagging, but for the average manufacturer vacuum bagging ends up making more consistently good quality parts (stronger and lighter). Infusion molding is similar to vacuum bagging in a lot of ways, but it improves the strength to weight ratio making it the undeniable best of the three (albeit at a price. At this time, only a few companies, mainly in the US and China are using infusion molding.
A few companies now manufacture sea kayaks using thermo-forming. These kayaks are plastic, but the type of plastic (basically and ABS) is stiffer than the polyethylene used for rotomolded kayaks. These kayaks generally have properties roughly between those of a roto-molded kayak and a composite one. The price also tends to be in between the other two. Thermo-formed kayaks are made of sheets of plastic that are heated to a temperature where they can be formed into the shape of the mold using vacuum. As with composite kayaks, thermo-formed kayaks are built in two pieces, the deck and hull, which later are seamed together. Like composite kayaks, thermo-formed kayaks are not known to warp from storage or transporting, and they resist scratching better than a fiberglass kayak. On the down side, thermo-formed kayaks are not as tough as a roto-molded kayak or as easy to repair as a composite one.
Wood is an often under rated material. When it is free of knots and the grain is straight, many types of wood have extremely high strength to weight ratios, making it a good material for structures that need to be strong and light - such as kayaks. Of course good wood is getting harder to find and hence more expensive. To keep the cost down, most wood kayaks are hand built by the owner from plans or kits. Not everyone has the time or facilities to build a wood kayak, but it is option for some. As with any kayak, the way it handles and performs has more to do with the design and fit than what material it is made of. So if you are lured by the weight or look of a wood kayak, be sure to test paddle one of the same model before investing your time and money into building one. The biggest limitation is the design of the currently available wood kayaks.
Some skin on frame kayaks are among the lightest sea kayaks ever made. Eskimo kayaks were all built that way, and some enthusiasts are going back to it. Most folding kayaks are a form of this construction, but the constraints of making them easy to assemble doesn't always make them so light (or very good at handling in wind). If done right, a skin and frame kayak can be surprisingly strong and tough. Other than the folding ones, most skin and frame kayaks are home made, and as said before, the way it handles and performs has more to do with the design and fit than what material it is made of. There are many people offering classes on building such kayaks, and their experience can save you a lot of wasted time. However many of the people offering such kayak building classes are better craftsmen than they are kayakers, and so their understanding of how to fit a kayak to the paddler varies widely -- ask how skilled they are at Eskimo rolling, surfing, etc. -- things that force one to think about how their kayak fits them. If possible, test paddle some of these kayaks before investing your time and money into building one.
If you've already got a kayak that fits your body and your needs well, then trying new designs and different types of kayaks (racing kayaks, sit on top kayaks, folding kayaks, etc.) just for the sake of curiosity can be a fun, lifelong hobby, but if you need to upgrade or buy your first kayak, don't make a career out of the selection process. There's no perfect kayak and there never will be, and there's no new model in the works for next year that is worth waiting for if waiting means not owning a kayak or making do with one that is holding you back from advancing your skills and pleasure. Speed up your search by focusing on a few kayaks that fit your body and are designed for the type of kayaking you will be doing; if possible, test the best two or three in conditions you plan to use them in. Then buy the best one and go paddling!
You don't need to shop all over to buy the right kayak, the Kayak Academy carries all the best sea kayaks (available in a choice of roto-molded, thermo-formed, and composite fiberglass lay-ups) from the leading manufacturers in the industry. The Kayak Academy has a full range of sea kayaks all of which meet our criteria for rudder-free sea kayaks or we wouldn't sell them. We don't just sell boats, we inspect them, tune them, give them our free dealer prep and put a little bit of the Kayak Academy into every kayak we sell. So a kayak from the Kayak Academy is the best of the best. We carry all the best retractable skeg type sea kayaks from several leading manufacturers including Tiderace, Valley, Rockpool, Wilderness Systems, and Impex. The only question is which size fits you best, and with our experience and dozens of great models of sea kayaks with retractable skegs to choose from we can fit practically any paddler. If you've had safety training and know how to steer a kayak without a rudder, call (206) 527-1825 or email us to arrange a demo/test paddle of any of our fine line of sea kayaks.
Remember it's not what you buy that matters, it's where you buy your kayak. A good specialty kayak shop that cares about it's customers and will want you to buy a kayak that is the right size and type for your needs. And even the same model kayak won't be the same if you buy it from a store that is all about the bottom line.
Prices and specifications are on our Kayak Store web page.
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Expert’s already know what they want in a kayak and only read stuff like this to see if it agrees with their preconceived notions so as to stroke their ego. If you truly are an expert, focus your kayak testing to the short list of boats that fit you reasonably well right out of the box and are of the type you want in terms of speed vs. maneuverability, etc. Get them out in some wind and waves, then trust your instincts about which kayak works better for you (don't just buy what all your friends own, they're not you). You can add foam etc. to modify a kayak to fit you better, but it is best to start with a kayak that is in the right ballpark for your size - then customize its fit for more performance. The more you care about your kayak's performance, the more critical it is that the kayak is the right size for you to start with. You can easily pad the knee and braces to tighten their fit, but you can't lower a rear deck etc. If you find a kayak that feels better or handles better than what you've got, buy it now -- don't wait another season. You never hear experts saying, "I wish I'd waited longer before buying this kayak." If next year you find an even better kayak, you can sell your old one and upgrade again. High end kayaks keep their resale value well, and there's always a market for good used kayaks. If kayaking is your passion, then life is too short to wait to upgrade your gear. At the expert level, the gear really does make a difference, and the longer you put off getting the best kayak for you and your needs, the longer you will be stuck on your current plateau.
All kayaks have flaws, but some flaws are easy to fix while others can't be fixed at all. To an expert, there's no kayak that is so good it can't be improved upon. So even with the best boats available, experts often saw-out the original seats and replace them with their own hand-carved custom foam seats, replace the stock back-rests with an after market back band they like better, build up more extreme knee and hip braces, change the deck rigging lay-out, add fiberglass reinforcements to the decks and keels, etc. before using a kayak on a serious expedition. To an expert, these improvements are little things -- so don't base your kayak purchase decision on things you can fix or have fixed (like foot braces which can easily be replaced with whatever model you prefer) -- go with the best fitting and best handling kayak that meets your needs. There's only a couple problems with kayaks that can't be fixed. You can't make a heavy kayak lighter or an excessively stiff tracking kayak more maneuverable. Lastly, remember there is no one boat that will do everything well. So if you want a kayak that is fast, maneuverable, with a low rear deck for rolling, and yet has enough volume to hull food for that 2 year self-supported expedition you dream about -- you need more than one kayak. It's okay to own multiple kayaks (as long as each one fills a different niche).
For expert paddlers it should go without saying, but our experience tells us otherwise -- Kayaks come in different sizes to fit different sized people. One of the most important things about choosing a kayak is finding one that fits your body well. Don't buy a "high volume" kayak because you plan to go on a long expedition. Buy a kayak that is sized to fit your body and then learn to pack your gear so it fits in the kayak. If you have trouble fitting your camping gear into a kayak that is right for you, you may need to upgrade your camping gear. Camping gear has become a lot smaller, lighter, and more comfortable in recent years.
The most common mistake experts make in buying a kayak is they wait too long to do it. For any given size paddler and genre of kayak (i.e. fast touring sea kayak or maneuverable ocean play sea kayak), there is -- at most -- a half-dozen kayaks worth testing. Don't waste your time demo'ing kayaks that don't fit your body or your needs. Once you've tested the few kayaks that might be right for you, if you find one that feels even just a little bit better than what you have now, buy it. If you are an expert, then you are passionate about kayaking. If kayaking is your passion, then don't waste another day of paddling in a kayak that isn't the best one for you.
There's no better place to buy your next kayak than the Kayak Academy. We don't just sell boats, we inspect them, tune them, give them our free dealer prep and put a little bit of the Kayak Academy into every kayak we sell. So a kayak from the Kayak Academy is the best of the best. We carry all the best retractable skeg type sea kayaks from several leading manufacturers including Tiderace, Valley, Rockpool, Wilderness Systems, and Impex. Call us to come pick up your new kayak. (206) 527-1825 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Remember it's not what you buy that matters, it's where you buy your kayak. A good specialty kayak shop that cares about it's customers and will want you to buy a kayak that is the right size and type for your needs. And even the same model kayak won't be the same if you buy it from a store that is all about the bottom line.
Need more information, back up a level or two in the experience levels in this article.
Prices and specifications are on our Kayak Store web page.
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