Recently I was asked by an individual new to paddling if I could recommend a kayak for his wife. I replied back to him that his request was a tall order. Choosing a kayak can sometimes be a difficult task. Most of us are familiar with the story about Goldilocks and the three bears—one porridge was too hot, one too cold, and one just right; one bed too hard, one too soft, and the other just right. Welcome to the world of trying to determine the right kayak. Even though he said his wife would mostly be paddling flat water lakes and rivers, there is a lot to consider when deciding which kayak is best.
Choosing what type of kayak is simple enough if you have an idea of where you’ll be paddling—recreational kayak for flat water, stubby kayak for playing in white water, sea kayak for those extended paddles off the coast, sit-on-top for fishing or surfing, you get the picture—but that’s where the “simple” end.
What if you want one that is versatile to use on several types of water? Then what do you do? In many cases you may have to but another kayak—boat dealers will love you—because while a kayak may perform great on one type of water, it may not be ideal on another. Just as you wouldn’t take a Nissan Sentra off road or enter a Hummer in a race, you wouldn’t paddle white water in a sea kayak. Several kayak manufacturers make transitional kayaks, meaning they work good on several types of water, “good” being the operative word. They don’t excel in any one type of water.
Every kayak manufacturer out there has its own seating system, and they come with elaborate names. Some seatbacks in kayaks are nothing more than a foam pad attached to the strap stretched across the back of the cockpit that you can adjust by using a buckle much like the buckle that comes on tiedown straps used to transport the boat to the water. Other seatbacks are more elaborate with the back rest attached to a vertical pillar so that it is adjustable. Determining which seat feels comfortable to you is like Goldilocks trying out the three beds in the bears’ home—one was too hard, one too soft, and the other just right. No two seats are alike.
Then there is the cockpit you have to slide your legs and butt into. A paddling friend of mine has told me that he has a hard time finding a cockpit large enough to get his body into. The problem is really pronounced when looking to buy a sea kayak. Recreational kayaks by their nature tend to have fairly large cockpits, big enough that you could fit yourself and your Bernese Mountain dog into, well maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but you get the idea. Kayaks with a keyhole cockpit can be tricky, especially when maneuvering your knees around the thigh braces.
Stability becomes a major factor in choosing a kayak. Recreational kayaks tend to be wide and have a flat or shallow arch hull. This makes them seem extremely stable getting in and out of (what we call initial stability). The drawback is speed. Paddling one of these kayaks can seem like paddling a barge. They’re not fast, but they are stable, great for new paddlers. Touring and sea kayaks tend to have a long, narrow, rounded or shallow V hull. This makes them fast and track straighter, aided by a skeg or rudder, but they can also seem tippy to new paddlers. Some touring and sea kayaks come with hard chines that aid stability.
Finally, there’s the material the boat is made of. While a polyethylene boat is impact resistant, it is also heavier. A small-framed woman might find the weight of a poly boat too much and prefer the lighter weight offered by a fiberglass or Kevlar boat. Remember, you have to get the boat up on top of your vehicle to get it to your paddling destinations. If you can’t hoist it onto your vehicle, then all you have really bought is an expensive yard ornament, because that’s where the boat will sit, either there or taking up space in your garage.
So what did I recommend to this individual? Having never met his wife, I really couldn’t offer him any concrete advice on what type of kayak would be best for her. Just like Goldilocks had to do until she found the right porridge and bed, I suggested he have her try out a number of different kayaks, both by design and manufacturer. There are many excellent kayak manufacturers that produce recreational and/or touring kayaks: Old Town, Necky, Wilderness Systems, Current Design, and Perception, to name a few.
For these reasons, I never recommend anyone buy a boat off the Internet without first having tried the boat at a local store or livery. Nothing will ruin the joy of paddling faster than buying a boat not properly suited for you or one that after 30 minutes of paddling is killing your back because it lacks the back support you need. As the knight in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade said, “Choose wisely, my son.”