Monday, 14 July 2008

If you enjoy getting out on the water, a kayak is the perfect personal vessel. But thereís a lot to know about buying the right kayak for your needs. We find out what you need to know to shop for this big ticket item.


The Basics

  • There are a few types of kayaks designed for different uses:

    • Recreational kayaks are good for mild river trips, low-key weekend ventures, and other simple tours. It’s easier to turn than a sea kayak, but it doesn’t track (keep straight) as well.

    • Touring/Sea kayaks, between 13-20 feet long, are for paddling the ocean and larger lakes while carrying personal cargo for longer trips.

    • Whitewater kayaks are for riding strong rivers and surfing whitewater. They are generally 11-13 feet long with flat plane hulls that help the boat manoeuver quickly when surfing a wave or a hole. A whitewater kayak purchase choice depends on water conditions as well as the user’s size, weight and skill level.

    • Sit-on-tops are designed based on the Inuit hunting craft. The paddler sits on top of a contoured deck. It’s easy to use, great for snorkelling, diving, sunbathing and ocean surfing, and can also be used for calmer river paddling.

  • The length of a kayak is what determines how the boat will handle. A long, narrow boat generally goes in a straight line (tracks) better, and moves faster than a short, wide boat.

  • Width determines stability. The wider it is, the more stable, but also the harder it is to get it moving.

  • A few terms and features to know:

    • The “rocker” is the amount of upward curvature of the hull from bow to stern along the keel line. A lot of rocker means it will turn easily but it will be slower and have less tracking. A touring boat should have less rocker (more speed, better tracking) whereas a whitewater kayak should have more in order to be able to spin, twist, turn and roll.

    • Chine is the cross-sectional profile of the boat, width-wise. Hard chine means straighter, boxy sides, which are good for resisting wave force and for stability. Soft chine means more rounded sides, which makes the boat feel more tippy but it’s actually less prone to completely capsizing.

    • The rudder is a familiar boating feature, operated by foot pedals in a kayak. It can be raised and lowered and helps keep the kayak from drifting in wind.

    • The cockpit is where you sit in the kayak.

    • The bulkheads are the walls that seal the bow and stern from the cockpit. They should be watertight so that if the cockpit is flooded, they can keep the boat afloat.

  • The seat should be comfortable and fit your body properly. You can fine tune a seat with cushions, pads, and foam blocks, but it’s best to start with a seat that is too big rather than trying to fit comfortably in one that is too small.

  • If you’re trying to decide whether to get a double kayak or two singles, consider price and sanity. A double is less expensive than two singles, and they tend to be more stable. However, they can also create tension between the users since paddling together in unison can be a challenge, as can deciding what direction to go.

  • Kayaks are made from a variety of material, all with advantages and disadvantages:

    • Polyethylene plastic is inexpensive and durable, perfect for beginners but suitable for all levels. They’re less rigid and often heavier than fibreglass, which makes them slower. UV radiation degrades polyethylene in 5-10 years and it’s more difficult to repair than other material, but they’re sturdy enough not to need mending in most cases. Newer plastics on the market these days are now thinner, lighter, and more rigid.

    • Fibreglass kayaks are generally lighter and faster than plastic, but also more expensive. They are easier to damage, but also easier to repair.

    • Fibreglass composite combines material like Kevlar, graphite and carbon fibre with fibreglass, making for a stronger, and lighter (8-10), boat than fibreglass. Competitive whitewater kayakers like this type of material because it is stiffer, lighter, and can be formed into complex shapes.

    • Wood kayaks are generally handmade, either from kits or custom built. They are easy to repair but require routine maintenance. They can be heavy.

  • There are also different design styles to choose from:

    • Hard-shell/rigid kayaks are cheaper and require less maintenance on average. They are also faster with more useable cargo space.

    • Folding boats were originally canvas over a wood frame but newer boats are synthetic fabric with aluminum, making them lighter and stronger, and easier to transport.

    • Inflatable kayaks were introduced in the 1960s and provide great buoyancy, but lack some of the manoeuvrability of a traditional hard-shell.

Other Considerations

  • Paddles are an essential part of the kayak experience. There are a wide variety of materials, sizes and shapes designed for the different types of kayaking. Talk to an expert at the kayak store and explain your intended use before buying a paddle.Other accessories you’ll need include:

    • A spray skirt to keep the cockpit dry.

    • A bilge pump in case you tip.

    • A life jacket

    • An extra paddle is always handy in case you lose your grip. There are telescoping models available now that take up less room in the cockpit.

    • If you’re doing whitewater kayaking, you’ll need a helmet and other protective gear (elbow pads, etc.)


We took a look at some recreational style kayaks to see which might be a good choice for novices looking to get into the sport. We tried:

  • Necky Kyook (plastic): $2150, a shorter, wider, heavier model
  • Current Designs Extreme (kevlar): $3395, a longer, narrower, lighter model.
  • Seaward Southwind Tandem (fiberglass): $4695, a bigger, heavier, stable, more cargo room model for two.

Manoeuvrability Test

We took turns testing each kayak in the ocean and in a wave pool:

  • Overall, the Current Designs Extreme was faster, but the Necky Kyook felt more stable.

  • The Current Designs Extreme felt lighter, easier to move, faster, and more sporty.

  • The Seaward Southwind double kayak was definitely more stable, but also more work. We preferred the singles.


If you’re going to invest time and money to get involved in this sport, spend a little more and buy a lighter boat. If you’re not sure about what to buy, or if you’ll like the sport enough to buy a boat in the first place, you can always rent kayaks, which gives you a chance to try a wide variety of styles and materials.


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