Very recent trips to local beaches, marinas and town docks with holiday visitors from inland areas who needed a “water fix” and to be in their happy place again before heading home, were reminders of the easygoing fun and simplicity of the boating that takes us closest to the water – kayaks and SUPs.
What’s new and exciting in very small boats? Pedal power has become a major player in kayaks, with multiple brands now competing with Hobie, the originator of the Mirage Drive for kayaks. Hobie is currently the only major manufacturer in the pedal SUP market, selling their several models and accessories about as fast as they make them, according to a local dealer.
Buying a kayak used to be an easy decision. Armed with friends’ recommendations and your own rental experiences, you bought the one you liked the best, which felt the most comfortable and responsive. Until the late 1990s, when you said you were buying a kayak, the assumption was that it would be a sit-in or a sit-on-top that you would paddle.
In 1997 Hobie changed kayaking by giving us a choice – pedal or paddle – with their Mirage Drive that depended on foot power. It used a push drive that Hobie engineers based on how penguins moved their fins underwater. By pushing the pedals you activated the fins under the kayak that moved you ahead. When you stop pedaling a push drive the kayak immediately loses momentum. By not fully extending your legs you may get foot or leg cramps and you may experience back pain.
In 2008 Native Watercraft introduced Propel, their pedal propulsion drive, which used rotational pedals. Other kayak manufacturers soon followed with rotational pedals that operate more like riding a bicycle, using fuller leg power and creating energy that is not lost when you stop pedaling. The process is more efficient in transmitting power to the propeller than the push drive and they were able to incorporate reverse, which Hobie didn’t have.
By 2017 Hobie’s Mirage had become the Mirage 180 and incorporated reverse. The good news for Hobie Mirage owners from earlier years is that the new 180 Drive is retrofitable to existing Mirage kayaks and available as a stand-alone accessory from Hobie. Reverse is a nice option whether you are a fisherman, a camera enthusiast or just coming into or leaving a dock.
If you are in the market for a new pedal SUP, your choices are limited to which model Hobie is the right one for you. If you are buying a pedal kayak, there are considerations beyond being in the water and pedaling. The old sit-on-top kayaks had advantages we never thought about – there was nothing to compare them to. Their light weight makes them easy to load into a pickup, into the back of a suburban or up on the roof rack of a car. Two people can easily carry their 40 to 50 pound kayaks and gear to the water’s edge.
Pedal kayaks are heavier, beamier and come with equipment. You’ll want to park as close to the water as you can because you’ll be making several trips with the added equipment and heavier kayaks. You may have to rethink some of the places you like to go because you can’t get the heavier kayaks close enough to the water.
Thinking ahead, before you buy a pedal kayak, how much time do you spend navigating in shallow water or in water clogged with plant life that would require you to retract or remove the fins? The pedal kayaks have less footwell space available for storage – this is where most pedal kayak drive equipment will be located. There will be more time spent maintaining your pedal kayak, especially if you use it in salt water. It will need to be thoroughly cleaned, the pedals checked each time you go out and the system lubricated periodically.
There are advantages for fishermen using pedal kayaks – being able to launch in a place close to the action without a launching ramp, being able to access waters only reachable with a kayak and sneaking up quietly. Having greater control of the kayak works for all the kayak fishermen I’ve talked to – they really like being able to concentrate on the fish instead of trying to fish while keeping the kayak steady. “The level of boat control possible is unparalleled…in wind, current and around structure,” Marketing Director David Hadden said about Old Town’s pedal drive kayak design. “A 10.3:1 gear ratio allows speeds up to 5.5 mph without working hard.” The drive requires 16” draft and has a unique pivot and docking system to go from park to pedal in seconds. The drive console weighs 21 pounds and floats in case you drop it in the water. For fishermen, arriving quietly can make the difference in catching fish by surprise or scaring them off with the splashing of sloppy paddling. Your chances of meeting the fish in the water when you capsize your kayak are reduced by the wider beam and extra weight of most fishing kayaks. Hobie’s Mirage12 and Old Town’s Predator are both 36” beam kayaks.
Although Hobie and other kayak manufacturers probably had fishermen in mind when they designed their pedal kayaks, these kayaks and pedal SUPs have caught the attention of camera and exercise enthusiasts. The newer underwater cameras are small and easy to stow in a jacket pocket. Hobie pedal kayaks and pedal SUPs are being used for exercise workouts. Pictures and instructions are available on Hobie’s website (www.hobie.com/auenblog/sup-exercise). There’s also an interesting forum on their website (www.hobie.com/forums/viewtopic).
Paddling is a full-body workout that includes not just your arms and hands, but your core – your back and leg muscles are working as you push against the kayak with your feet while paddling. If you buy a pedal kayak you can alternate paddling with pedaling. The low impact workouts using your kayak mean no pain from biking or running.
If you introduce your children to kayaking they’ll thank you when they get older and have muscle strength they earned by paddling and pedaling. The Uphill Athlete says, “What you did in your youth will be with you for the rest of your life….Sit on the couch watching TV and eating junk food and you will have missed a crucial developmental window that will never be completely reversible.” (www.uphillathlete.com/forums/topic/leg).
Some say the pedal kayaks are slower than paddled kayaks. I asked Steve Berner, President of L.I. Paddlers, Inc. if a pedal kayaker would be welcome on one of their group trips. He thought a kayak with a wide beam might have trouble keeping up, but they would see which level the pedal kayaker would fit into.
If you’re ready to buy a pedal kayak you’ll find they run higher than traditional sit-on-tops, which are in the $500 and up neighborhood, depending on brand, model and extras. The pedal kayaks start close to the $2,000 and up range. The pedal kayaks are heavier, beamier and have the drive that moves the price up. You can find several good brands of pedal kayaks on Amazon, but you probably want to buy from a local dealer.
For those of you who would consider winter paddling or pedaling, O’Neill has a baggy version of the drysuit. Their suit is a waterproof non-cling nylon fabric with latex neck, wrist and ankle cuffs that you can add layers to underneath for warmth, get in and out of easily and not feel constricted or claustrophobic while using it.
In case you’re looking at the pedal SUP or the pedal kayak as a way to exercise and find it a little too expensive, there’s the Sea Jogger. For $800 you can buy a portable, inflatable stepper that comes in a bag that will easily fit in a small car. The ads say, “If you can walk, you can walk on water with the Sea Jogger.” If you’re into social media, the clean living aspects presented by your picture on a Sea Jogger on some scenic waterway will impress friends and prospective employers!