Intermediate’s Guide to Buying/Building a Kayak
So you’ve taken kayak lessons, started rolling, and probably been on a number of kayaking trips with friends and clubs. Lately you've reached the conclusion that something is holding you back from becoming a better kayaker -- your kayak which now you know doesn't fit right or doesn't have the performance you want. Or maybe it's the lack of owning a kayak that holding you back (combined with 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've 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 decide which kayak to buy. Meanwhile they've test paddled a half dozen kayaks any one of which would be a huge improvement over what they own 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 paddle doesn't fit or doesn't have performance handling qualities for the type of conditions you are paddling in. 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 you now go on.
Whether you are shopping for your first kayak or your fifth, you want to avoid common mistakes and make this kayak purchase one that will bring you satisfaction for years to come, while also having 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), while other 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 anywhere between a day tour to 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 emperor 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. 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 is to paddle -- 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. This is true whether you're 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 (width) is the lever that waves use to capsize you. Yes, you read that right. The problem is that form-stability doesn't necessarily act to keep a boat right side up. 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 face of a breaking wave 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 you need to lean into the waves is so you can use your body weight to 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, the shape of the paddler’s behind, etc.) 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 be too forgiving of your paddling mistakes when you're trying to push your limits. 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 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 kayak that will let them go 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.
Checking a kayaks 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, 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. Another test you can do is 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 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 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 will take for you to feel comfortable in a kayak that starts out feeling tippy. I've seen many experienced paddlers who've 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 (i.e. With and Without Retractable Skegs)
When moving forward while sideways to the wind, most boats tend to turn upwind. This is called weather cocking (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. This comes up a lot when crossing between islands or from one side of a long, narrow lake to the other. This is due to the fact that wind tends to blow parallel to a channel or lengthwise down a long, narrow body of water. Weather cocking is the bane of all unskilled sea kayakers or anyone with a poor handling boat.
Two devices to stop a kayak from weather cocking are rudders and retractable skegs.
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 hull design that handles poorly in the wind. 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. It doesn't matter how well designed a kayak is if the user doesn't know how to efficiently steer it without ruddering (In this sence of the term, I include ruddering with a paddle as well as with a mechanical rudder). Also, even a well designed kayak will be hard to handle if it isn'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 their skill and strength, leading to frustrating experiences which force them to conclude that a mechanical rudder is a the way to go.
Kayak rudders can generally be locked in the up position (out of the water), which in theory would allow one to work on their paddling skill. In reality, however, when the conditions get a little challenging, most people in kayaks with rudders use the rudder instead of working on their paddling skill set. This leads to the kayaker developing a dependence on rudders rather than an increase in skill over time as their 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. They can so increase your drag. In short, if your kayak has a rudder, it is to your advantage to do as much paddling as you can without using it. One problem with many kayak rudder systems is that they use sliding pedals to steer the rudder. Sliding rudder pedals rob you of the increased control of the kayak that you would have with fixed foot braces which makes a vicious cycle that leads to more dependacy the rudder. Using a kayak with a sliding pedal system also means that if a cable or rudder pivot breaks, you not only lose the use of the rudder but you also lose the use of both foot pedals. Steering a kayak in wind is challenging enough with foot braces, but without the use of the foot pedals it can be impossible. However, there are some rudder pedal systems on the market that give you fixed foot braces combined with a hinged rudder peddle connected to the foot brace (the "gas pedal" style rudder pedals): 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 retractable skeg kind-of looks like a rudder blade at first glance, but a skeg is merely a fin (positioned on the bottom of the hull, usually near the stern) and it only moves up and down not left and right. A retractable skeg is used to prevent weather cocking or occasionally to increase tracking even in calm conditions. Retractable skegs can be raised and lowered in and out of the water with a hand control near the cockpit. 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, using a skeg doesn't retard the development of your steering and turning skills the way a mechanical rudder does. Kayaks with skegs generally have adjustable but rigid foot braces rather than sliding rudder pedals, so they 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 a bit of 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 (remember: skeg up to land) so as not to damage the skeg 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 can go wrong. Rudder cables and hinges can break, and pebbles can jam retractable skegs. It is noteworthy that practically none of the traditional kayaks had rudders (and Inuits had many different kayak designs styles). The few exceptions were almost certainly influenced by Westerners who lacked the Inuit paddler’s skill, and even then I don’t recall any example of one-person Inuit kayaks with rudders. There is evidence that removable skegs (strapped on when needed) were used by some Inuit paddlers (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 too big for him or her to handle efficiently in the anticipated conditions. One potential risk, however, 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 of kayaks with retractable skegs. With good hull design, a balance can be struck: you can drop the skeg down to keep the kayak from turning up wind when holding a course sideways to the wind or lift the skeg up to make it 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 retractable 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 retractable 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 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 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 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 mat 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 mat 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 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: Current Designs, P&H Sea Kayaks, Tiderace, Valley, Dagger and Wilderness Systems. 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.
We do not offer kayak demos from Nov. 1st to Feb. 28th.
Remember it's not what kayak you buy that matters, it's where you buy your kayak. A good specialty kayak shop that cares about it's customers will want you to buy a kayak that is the right size and type for your needs.
Kayak prices and specifications are on our Kayak Store web page.