AMC Outdoors, March 2003
By Michael Lanza
Dick Coveny followed a circuitous route into sea kayaking. Thirty years ago he started out with a whitewater boat, spent a winter perfecting one roll in a pool, then, in his words, “damn near drowned” on a spring weekend trip on which three other participants did drown.
As a result, he gave up on whitewater for some years, built a two-person mahogany boat and contented himself paddling the waters around Cohasset, Mass.—until a carpenter dropped a ladder through its hull.
That put him out of sea kayaking altogether until five years ago, when his experience windsurfing awoke his dormant desire to paddle. Coveny began exploring Cape Cod Bay. Now he’s a trip leader and safety instructor with AMC’s Southeastern Massachusetts Chapter and has a goal to circumnavigate the Cape.
You may not take as storm-tossed a course into sea kayaking as Coveny. But whatever your route, the advice he and other seasoned paddlers offer will help you pick out a boat, whether you’re a beginner looking for your first touring kayak or an intermediate paddler shopping around for a second boat.
Beginner shopping for first sea kayak
The terms “sea kayak” and “touring kayak” are often used interchangeably. Touring kayaks are longer and narrower than recreational kayaks, and usually hold cargo in closed bulkheads. Before buying one, take several boats out for test rides—borrowing, renting, or using boats at demo days sponsored by retailers and manufacturers.
Southeastern Massachusetts Chapter Canoe and Kayak Chair Ed Foster suggests seeking out a variety of situations, especially wind and choppy water—it can be difficult to sense differences in handling among models when you’re on flat water with no wind. Paddle at least six models, comparing how stable or tippy they are, how fast and maneuverable, and how well they track, or hold a straight line.
Also, get a feel for how your body fits in the cockpit. Is the seat comfortable? Are the foot braces all the way in or out, or is there room for adjustment? Andy cBride, a longtime kayaker from the New Hampshire Chapter, says his first kayak put his legs to sleep because it was too small.
Single (one-person) touring kayaks are roughly 12 to 18 feet long, tandem kayaks slightly longer. The shorter boats are usually easier to steer, making them better suited to exploring tight tidal streams in estuaries and salt marshes, but have less storage space. Longer boats have more storage, but are harder to handle in and out of the water.
Beginners usually prefer to start out with a wider, more stable boat, 23 to 24 inches wide, until they refine their skills. Some like having a rudder, which doesn’t steer the boat, but keeps it straight in a wind. McBride suggests getting a rudder if you want, but learn to steer without it. Foster uses a skeg instead. A skeg works like a rudder, but can be dropped into, or raised out of, the water from the cockpit. In strong winds, Foster says, “It makes paddling so much easier.”
Don’t spend a lot on your first kayak—you’re going to outgrow it, in terms of skill, in a season or two on the water. Buy a used plastic boat to start with. Plastic is more difficult to repair when it is damaged and gets soft on a hot day, not holding its shape as well as fiberglass. But it’s durable and inexpensive—a new plastic 16-footer may cost around $1,200, while used it may be half that price—and you’ll replace that first boat, anyway. Plus, resale value is high.
Intermediate paddlers looking for second kayak
Any boat represents a compromise. Long, narrow kayaks are faster, but less stable and harder to turn. Shorter kayaks are easier to maneuver, but slow. Roomier cockpits are more comfortable, but make the boat harder to roll upright. Find the right combination of qualities for you.
For intermediate paddlers, Coveny advises getting a boat that feels unstable. Once you develop a good brace and paddle stroke, the narrow boat that feels unstable at first will come under your control, whereas a wide boat that feels initially stable may soon seem too sluggish. Look for a boat about 22 inches wide and about a foot longer than your previous boat.
Think more about materials than you did with your first boat. In short, the more you spend, the lighter your kayak. Where a 12-foot plastic kayak can be had for $600, or a plastic 16-footer for about $1,000, a fiberglass boat—which is lighter, smoother, faster, easier to repair than plastic, and tough—-costs $1,000 to $1,500 more. Stepping up into the $2,000 to $3,000-plus range gets you into Kevlar and carbon fiber, which may be several pounds lighter (depending on design and size) than fiberglass and another several hundred to a thousand dollars more expensive. Unlike plastic, however, fiberglass, Kevlar, and carbon may crack from a hard impact. Wooden boats are light, fast, repairable, and tougher than they look, but require a lot of TLC and regular maintenance.
Be sure to lift the boat you’re considering over your head and load it onto a car alone. Loretta O’Brien of AMC’s Knubble Bay Camp and Southeastern Mass. Chapter says a boat’s weight should be a major consideration, especially for smaller people. Some 17-foot fiberglass boats weigh 60 pounds, which can be tough to carry around or load onto a car, especially in wind. Try hefting less-expensive, heavier boats and more-expensive, lighter boats, to make your own judgment about the trade-off between cost and weight. If you plan to kayak several times a week for a good deal of the year, paying an extra $600 or more to get a lightweight boat is probably worthwhile.
Talk to other paddlers about the strengths and weaknesses of their boats: how stable versus how fast, how the boats perform in heavy weather, etc. See what they like and dislike and weigh their recommendations against your own needs.
Consider your own sense of adventure and physical reality: Are you a big person who needs a lot of boat, or a small person who doesn’t want to have to carry a heavy boat? Do you foresee taking multi-day expeditions? You don’t need a 17-foot or longer boat for day trips; you’re only gaining unneeded storage, expense, and weight.
But if you plan to take multi-day trips, look for a longer boat with two bulkheads—watertight storage compartments in the bow and stern, accessed through deck hatch covers. They help keep a boat afloat (without bulkheads, you’ll need to substitute flotation bags) and make it easier to right after capsizing. McBride suggests you pack a boat with your gear before buying, to make sure everything fits. Never, ever buy a boat you’re not absolutely sure you want. If it doesn’t feel right, keep looking.
Lastly, think outside the boat: Coveny points out that “the best boat performs poorly with a poor paddle.” Some experts recommend spending 25 percent of the price of your boat on your paddle; others say spend at least $200. Most agree you get more out of putting an extra $100 into a paddle than into your boat. Get a good spray skirt, personal flotation device (PFD), whistle, dry bag, compass, and chart holder, and make sure you have drinking water easily accessible. Then get out there and practice, practice, practice.
—Michael Lanza is author of The Ultimate Guide to Backcountry Travel, from AMC Books.