By Scott Edwards
Photos: Jan Carol Phillips
As I have watched and participated in the growth of the Paddler ezine, I have been taken on a virtual trip around the globe and seen some of the finest kayaking going on. It was with this in mind that I spoke with Peter the editor about writing something for someone who is not going to kayak Vietnam anytime soon, or try a first descent of a world class white water falls.
In fact, I am writing this for the person who may not even have their first kayak yet! I have seen so many people buy their first boat and have their mind filled delusions of grandeur, only to have them dashed because the boat of their dreams has in short order become inadequate to match their rapidly growing skill set.
Unless your plan, going in, is to just float around the lake at the summer place and that’s it, it is probably a good idea to avoid the ‘big box store’ kayaks that are as suited to being a planter as a kayak. There are a handful of things that I recommend you look for when buying your first kayak, and most of them will not be found on kayaks from ‘Super Outdoor Store’. Now mind you, getting the ‘right’ kayak is going to cost you more, but, it’s still less than buying the ‘wrong’ kayak and then having to go out and get the ‘right’ one a year or so later (the average I’ve experienced).
What kind of kayaking?
Now, mind you, the first things you have to decide is what kind of kayaking you are going to do the most. If you are going to try your hand at white water kayaking, your needs are going to be different than someone going sea kayaking. What I am going to discuss is a good ‘all around’ kayak affording the paddler a plethora of paddling opportunities. It is very hard to have one kayak do everything well, which is why kayakers who paddle diverse types of water have more than one kayak. For instance, in my area we have a lot of small, very twisty creeks that wind through the woods.
Trying to wrestle a 17’ sea kayak down these rivers is near impossible, while taking one of the hybrid white water boats, with a skeg and hatch across an open bay is going to be exhausting, so, without splitting hairs too finely, I’m going to describe a good all around, multi purpose kayak.
A good starting point is length of the kayak, and 12’ is about the shortest you want to consider. Shorter will put you at a decided disadvantage when keeping up with whomever paddling with. Despite the fact that you can probably throw it in the back of the mini van with no problem at all, move up to at least a twelve-foot (3.65m) kayak, you’ll be glad you did.
Event of a capsize
An advantage of going with a longer boat and a major safety feature is that most kayaks of 12’ or more will have a front bulkhead behind the foot pegs. This helps keep your kayak afloat in the event of a capsize by only allowing the cockpit area to fill with water. Having two bulkheads, one in front and one behind your seat are all but a necessity if you are going to be in most any kind of moving water. It also increases the amount of storage space by allowing you to have (reasonably) dry storage both fore and aft.
Also, in the event of a capsize, a front bulkhead will prevent your kayak from performing a ‘Cleopatra’s Needle’, where the front of the kayak sinks and the aft end is pointing almost straight up. If the kayak you are considering does not offer a front bulkhead, take heart! There are inflatable float bags that can be put into the kayak to displace water in the event you happen to dump. All things considered, fore and aft bulkheads are a very sound idea.
Learn how to do a wet exit
In talking with folks looking at kayaks, one of the first things to jump out is the fear of a smaller cockpit. People are drawn to the voluminous, wide-open cockpits of recreational boats because they are afraid they are going to become trapped. First and foremost, anyone who is going to really kayak needs to learn how to do a wet exit as soon as possible. You’re going to dump someday. It’s a reality. The more you kayak, the more likely you are to tip over. There are only two kinds of kayakers, those who have dumped and those that are going to. And, if you have a personal floatation device on, it’s going to pop you out of your seat like a cork!
So, that’s part one of why you want to go with a real cockpit. The other is if your cockpit is huge and you are paddling and a wave or wake comes over the bow of your kayak, you’re going to have more water in your kayak than you would ever want! A kayak full of water is very unstable and very difficult to paddle. The smaller the opening, the less water that is going to get in your kayak and make it difficult to manoeuvre to a safe place to dump or pump out your boat. You are safer in a kayak that ‘you wear’ or at least truly fits you, than one that is like a bathtub.
Another feature you want to find on a kayak are more than a few elastic ‘bungee’ lines. Bungees are good for holding a limited amount of gear to the deck of your kayak. However, they are not replacements for ‘hard lines’ or ‘perimeter deck lines’. These are the lines that trace the outline of your kayak and do not stretch. These are the lines that you will grab to help pull you back into your kayak should you happen to fall out. If you are in the water and all you have are bungees, stop and think what will happen. They will stretch and you will go back into the water you were just trying so hard to get out of.
A combination of bungees and hard lines are how a kayak should be outfitted to best serve you in most any situation. One word of caution about bungees, people tend to put too much on top of their kayak, while neglecting to put stuff in their kayak. These leads to trim (how your kayak sits in the water) issues and your kayak being top heavy, guess what top-heavy kayaks have a tendency to do? That’s right, they tend to want to capsize…something you obviously want to avoid. I also try and keep my back deck clear, as if I need to re-enter my kayak, it’s going to be from the back deck, not the front.
As you consider your kayak choice, make sure you can at least sit in it! And, if possible take it for a test drive, um, paddle! A great many kayak dealers are located on or very near a body of water so you can see how the boat feels in the water. Beyond that, make sure it’s comfortable. You’re going to spend hours in your kayak, might as well be comfy.
This is also where you find out how the kayak ‘fits’ you. If it’s equipped with thigh braces, do you make contact with them in the correct spots? If they do not, are they adjustable. Does it have a seat back or back band and what is your preference. How do the foot braces feel? Explore all aspects of fit and feel, and have the person helping you assist in making sure the kayak is set up for you. There are many kayaks that have myriad adjustments for your comfort in the cockpit, fine-tune them to fit you.
An often over looked feature on a kayak are the ‘handles’ on the ends. Many people are drawn to the luggage type handles that offer the most comfortable way to carry your kayak to the water. You see, not only are the ‘handles’ for transporting your kayak to the water; but also, they are what you are going to use to hang onto your kayak if you should find yourself in the water. While they may not be as comfortable for carrying, the ‘T’ shaped toggles on either end are easy to grab hold of and most importantly easy to let go of! The luggage type handle can trap your hand and take you wherever it’s going. I am always going to opt towards something being safer rather than ‘more convenient’.
There is one more factor to this equation and it is usually not considered until after the kayak has been picked out, or sometimes it is a ‘throw in’ to complete the sale. And, I bet by now, you know what I’m going to say…it’s your paddle. This cannot be an afterthought, this must be an integral part in your decision making process for your kayaking. The variety of paddles available is almost endless, ranging from aluminium shafts and plastic blades, to ultra light carbon fibre models, as well as Greenland blades and ‘Euro’ blades. All making your decision making process all the more confusing. Add to that the question, are you a low angle paddler or high angle paddler.
This is where you need the assistance of a knowledgeable kayak consultant. They are invaluable in helping you pick out the right paddle for you, your physical size and that compliments your kayak. One of the major considerations for most people is the weight of the paddle. While it may only be ounces on the shelf, multiply those ounces times how many paddle strokes you make on a days paddle. The difference increases exponentially. While you may not be inclined to go for one of the high end, ultra light space material paddles please do not go low end for the simple sake of saving a buck. After your first paddle or two, you will be back in the very same place, looking for something that doesn’t start to feel like your lifting weights after a couple hours.
Now, I can hear you saying to yourself “that’s going to add up to a lot more money, very quickly”. And, you’re right. That being said, it is less than doing it twice. If you get gear you outgrow quickly, the second purchase added to the first is going to be substantially more than if you made the investment in a reputable paddleshop who is looking to build a long term relationship by recommending quality products than a ‘big box’ store who is just looking to get you in, ring you up and send you on your way. Not only that, by making an investment as opposed to just a purchase, you are also making that same investment in your safety (speaking of safety, you’re also going to need a personal flotation device or PFD, but that’s a topic for another article).
A lot to consider
This is a lot to consider, and it should be, kayaking can be a lifetime sport to be enjoyed countless ways. Over the years, I have encountered far too many who gave up on kayaking because they quickly became frustrated by the limitations of their equipment. It bears repeating, if you just want to float around the lake at your summer home (or things of that nature), well, you’re probably not even reading this. However, if you want to grow in your kayaking and explore the wonders and beauty that are only accessible by kayak, do your homework. Talk to people, pick a real paddleshop and take their advice. It will be money and time well spent!