You would think that choosing something powered by the paddle you wield would be a snap, eh? Well, kayaks like power and sail boats, have as many different types, uses and materials as their sail and motor-powered brethren. It all comes down to what you expect, what you’d like to accomplish and what your intended use is. In the following I’ll try and narrow down the choices of what’s out there and give you a little knowledge for the kayak-buying decisions.
First off, know going in that the word kayak, while somewhat generic, encompasses a virtual menagerie of designs. The first breakdown is a simple one, however. There are basically two distinct designs: river and sea kayaks (and note that doesn’t included racing and competition boats). Regardless, within those two “basic” categories there are essentially two designs (with about a million sub designs). There are the ubiquitous sit-on-top kayaks (SOTs) and the decked boats; i.e., boats that have a top deck and cockpit hole in which the paddler sits. From this point on things kayak-ee can get considerably more complicated. Lengths, beams, cockpit size and type, rudders and material or manufacturing processes all vary.
Since this is Long Island, I’ll get river kayaks out of the way, since this facet of paddling is far removed from our reading area and requires a considerable amount of skill, stamina and water knowledge not necessarily relatable to our saltwater evirons.
Today’s river or whitewater boats are generally very short in length, very maneuverable, have rounded shaped hulls and substantial rocker (the bend of the boat from nose to tail when viewed sideways). They are not designed to go in straight lines, but rather to handle what rivers throw at them. If you choose to get involved — and it is quite an exciting sport — it behooves you to head for the mountains and learn it from those who know how. It’s an easy sport to die while doing, especially as the water size increases.
For most of us, sea kayaking is the familiar name of the activity in which we’re interested, but it’s most properly called kayak touring. Kayak touring can take you around the world (literally), but also open up a hidden world of beauty on Long Island, the Sound coastline, or any place where there is enough water to float you. And enough water can sometimes be as little as six inches.
These boats are the easiest to master, the least expensive to obtain, and the least equipment-intensive (until you decide that you want to rig a kayak for fishing) of the two styles of paddlecraft. Most of today’s SOTs are made of thermo-formed plastic of one form or another; essentially, they are indestructible.
SOTs have been around long enough that there are specific designs for single or double paddlers, touring, exercise, fishing and diving to name but a few. (A note about doubles, whether SOTs or decked. Love and wedded bliss aside, unless the someone who’s supposed to occupy the second seat in a double is as committed to paddling the same times, distances, etc., as you are — and they aren’t! — don’t buy a double! Buy two singles.)
SOTs are generally wide with a slight rocker, most have a v-bottom for directional stability, others have skegs or keels serving the same purpose. When learning to kayak, they are quite forgiving; if you tip over all you have to do is climb back aboard and continue on your way. Some are built with a modicum of storage room (diving models have a place for tanks and assorted dive gear; pre-rigged fishing SOTs have rod holders, etc.,). They are wet boats however, in that there is no way to keep the water off you so be prepared to purchase a wetsuit if you plan on paddling in anything but midsummer.
One type of SOT that is very specific and rare is a waveski or surf kayak, expressly designed to surf and are excellent at it. They usually have leashes and seatbelts as well as footstraps. Another specific type is the — for lack of a better term — distance SOTs. These fall in the realm of exercise craft, are long, thin and very fast (competition SOTs, a la the opening sequence in the old Magnum PI show). They are also rather unstable and require a bit of skill to use. Both types are made of fiberglass; the wave skis are mostly made the same way as surfboards (foam core covered with fiberglass), though there may be some all-glass, hollow ones around.
Aside from your paddle, the only accessory you’d be wise to purchase for a SOT is a back support. This gives support to the lower back and will enable you to paddle further in more comfort.
Now things start to get complicated. While the ancestry of the kayak evolved from its use by Inuits and other cold-climate people, the boats have come a long way from their bone-and-skin covered origins; although you can even replicate those boats with modern materials. There are decked boats made of the thermoplastics, but they tend to be the shorter touring boats. As the boats get longer the plastic boats had a problem with “oil canning;” i.e., they dent and flex. Newer plastic process address this, but the choice for quality long range boats remains fiberglass and its relatives (Kevlar, carbon fiber, etc.).
There are two general types of sea kayaks: Greenland style, which are long, narrow, somewhat tippy, and designed for long-distance multi-day touring and paddling. They provide relatively ample storage room (dry to a degree; you still pack things as if they’re going to get wet), are lightweight, paddle easily and speedily and handle rough water well (your skill level will help here). Most have pop-up rudders which are essential for directional control in counter wind and current situations.
The other style kayak is a less sleek looking design sometimes called Alaskan or Aleutian style. They perform the same functions as the Greenland boats but tend to be a bit stabler. They’re most personified these days by the folding kayaks. These boats are as close as you’ll come to a seal-skin-over-bone-frame kayak. Essentially they use modern materials (aluminum, etc.) to make a frame with a cover fitted over it. These are excellent expedition boats where air travel is part of your plan because they generally come in two or three medium size duffel bags; they’re great if you happen to be a paddler who lives in an apartment as well. The foldboats have an almost cultish following and quite a history, by the way.
Regardless, look for adjustable footbraces, a comfortable seat, well-sealed hatches, waterproof bulkheads and plenty of mounting points on the deck if you plan on getting into paddling. The best way to find the right boat is to paddle it first. This can be accomplished by renting different styles at your local shop, joining a club and trying other’s boats or showing up at symposiums where manufacturers exhibit their wares.
Prices on kayaks vary. Expect to pay around $800 for a decent SOT and around $1,000 for a shorter bare-bones plastic touring boat to anywhere around $3,000-plus for a Kevlar or carbon fiber offshore boat. Folding kayaks are generally in the $1,500 to $3,500 range depending on bells, whistles and manufacturers.
Like any other outdoor activity you can spend as much as you’d care on kayaks and the related gear. Let’s start with the most basic, the paddle. Paddles come in right- and left-hand models. Hold a paddle in front of you with the concave side facing your feet. If the upper concave faces right, it’s a right-handed paddle and vice versa. That said, you needn’t have much of a curve in the blade. Sea kayak paddle blades tend to be long and thin; especially if you’re planning any long-distance paddles. Winds can actually catch wide blades and make them difficult to use, thus the thinner blades. While many less expensive paddles are made flat, I suggest you used an opposed paddle. This means the blades are cocked at angles to each other (when one is ready to enter the water the other would be horizontal to the water in a 45-degree paddle). It isn’t necessary to go to 45 degrees, but there should be some difference in angle — 75 degrees is acceptable in sea kayaking.
Paddles can go from two-piece aluminum and plastic hunks that weigh a ton to feather light composite paddles; wood paddles tend to be genuine works of art. You can get a quality paddle under $200; but remember you get what you pay for and the shoreline is a whole lot of paddle strokes away.
Other gear you’ll need is a PFD; the make paddling specific ones. If you have a decked boat you’ll need a skirt as well. This seals the boat from water and allows you to roll the boat if it turns over. A bomb-proof roll is a must and practicing … as is practicing and practicing how to get your boat from bottom side up to bottom side down without leaving the boat.
Buy a paddling jacket (I’m a Stolquist fan) and a farmer John style wetsuit; it’ll extend your paddling season to all but the coldest of months. (A side note: I was paddling for a decade before I ever paddled in summer. I felt as if I was forgetting something very important when I climbed in wearing shorts and a t-shirt.). For those wishing to paddle year round, paddle-specific drysuits are available.
If you’re paddling an SOT and have no desire to paddle across the bay, you’ll be fine paralleling the shoreline and discovering the landside world from a different and often strange perspective. A PFD is still essential.
If you end up like many, you’ll progress from a SOT to a decked boat and your journeys will go farther afield. The more seriously you get into paddling, the more serious you need to be. With decked boats, the roll, as aforementioned, needs to be bombproof, but even then you should be practicing getting into a boat you failed to roll … not an easy chore until you’ve done it over and over. PFDs are essential but so is exposure gear (i.e., wetsuits, drysuits, et al)., a compass, charts, a handheld VHF, emergency signaling gear, paddle float (for self-entry), pump, etc., all becomes part of your kit.
Then there’s multi-day tripping with all manner of lightweight camping gear to consider. Regardless of where or how you plan on kayaking, remember that on marine waters, you’re out of your comfort zone and just about anything that can happen, might. A big hazard in summer paddling are boaters; be aware of boaters because they are generally not aware of you.
Like any new activity, go slowly at first, find others who are more skilled and learn from them and practice the skills required. The entire world looks different from six inches off the water, and you’ll get a chance to commune with a side of mother nature you’ve never seen.
Sea Kayaker Magazine; www.seakayakermag.com
Paddling Magazine; www.rapidmedia.com/paddlingmagazine
Kayak Guru; kayakguru.com
Kayak Angler; rapidmedia.com/kayakangler
Sea Kayaking: A Manual for Long-Distance Touring, by John Dowd. The bible of open-ocean tripping.
Complete Folding Kayaker, by Ralph Diaz. A New Yorker, Diaz has forgotten more than anyone knows about folding kayaks. The second edition (out of print) is — I believe — the most recent.