◊ Buying Your First or Next Sea Kayak

Introduction

Note that only sit-inside touring sea kayaks will be discussed at any length here; other types are outside my intended scope. Nevertheless, some readers will decide to try and buy a recreational kayak before making the leap to a sea kayak. The term 'recreational kayak' encompasses a broad range of products. Some are downright dangerous if used in waters other than calm, shallow, and near a safe shore. The most dangerous are those with no inherent flotation. In my opinion, acceptable choices would be from these categories and then be judged on relative performance
  • sit-on-tops models (these have inherent flotation)
  • sit-inside models with a fore and aft waterproof chambers  (typically storage hatches with bulkheads and watertight hatch covers)
Although some other types of recreational kayaks can be made safer by the insertion of float bags (widely available), most beginners would consider that step to be unduly fussy.

The rest of this section mostly gives an account of my experience in buying our first kayaks and then progressing to their later replacements. For a rather thorough discussion laced with significant expertise, I refer you to the Kayak Academy's web site discussion at:
http://www.kayakacademy.com/pages/store/kayaks.html
Note that this web site is motivated to sell the Kayak Academy's products i.e. lessons and gear. Nevertheless, if you can discount that, the advice given is excellent.

If you have come this far, you are likely attempting to educate yourself about sea kayaking. Certainly, there are valuable web sites such as that above. But spending a little money on the right books can really save you money in the long run. One of the most authoritative books is "The Complete Book of Sea Kayaking" [Fifth Edition] by Derek C. Hutchinson. His very first chapter, "Equipment" is particularly germane for the discussion in this section, covering terminology and function of various kayak elements. That said, I do not mean to imply that you should run out and buy a Gulfstream, Slipstream, or other Hutchinson designed kayak.

Background

Our introduction to sea kayaking was through several one-day paddles and two 5-night sessions, all offered at Malaspina University-College, now known as Vancouver Island University (VIU). We mostly paddled in the Georgia Strait. By the end of this initial exposure, we decided to purchase sea kayaks. Experienced kayakers almost universally recommend such an approach i.e. take lessons and try various kayaks before you buy. Without such an exposure, one doesn't even know what questions to ask or what one is actually seeking.

These courses exposed us to various tandem and single kayaks, all of the sit-inside variety. In rougher water, as beginners, we knew we would be more comfortable in a tandem. But to grow in skill level efficiently, a single would be better. If possible, we would get a tandem and one single. In terms of construction materials used, we were then aware of three different categories:
  • kevlar
  • fiberglass
  • rotomolded plastic

Kevlar, unless we stumbled on a used kayak bargain, was out of our price range. The rotomolded plastic kayaks tolerate abuse, but are generally heavy. So our search settled on finding used fiberglass kayaks. At this point, we were unaware of thermoformed kayaks and carbon fiber kayaks were too exotic/expensive.

There are two common recommendations made to those wishing to purchase a kayak

  • make sure the kayak fits you
  • try out many different kayaks in the water

A good fit implies that the kayak is neither too big nor too small. A good kayak shop or more experienced kayakers can help here. Big Box stores are typically not helpful. The easiest error to make is to purchase one that feels very stable (not at all tippy) to the neophyte, because soon it will be discovered that it is a barge with a rather flat bottom and not actually that stable in rougher water. A kayaker may 'outfit' the kayak to fit very well by retrofitting thigh and hip pads, so that one 'wears' the kayak. Instructions for 'outfitting' a kayak for proper fit are easily found on the web. Features for such precision fitting are starting to appear in some new kayak models.

To actually try out different kayaks in the water is useful in that the shopper can assess the kayak's fit and comfort. Other than assessing fit and comfort, on water testing is not that useful for beginners, who have no experiential basis for comparison and will tend to choose something they will quickly outgrow. My approach was to see what was in the used market place and then read all the reviews I could find on each kayak. In reading reviews I found that I needed to add some interpretation because of the following two reviewer extremes:

  • owner-reviewers, particularly with a first boat, tend to be emotionally attached to and over enthusiastic about their kayaks - rather like people with their own pets or children
  • more experienced kayakers who have owned/used multiple kayaks tend to be more informative and picky in their reviews

Perhaps the very best source of information is a web site forum populated by experienced kayakers. If you can find such a site focused on paddlers in your general geographic area, you may even get some hands-on paddling opportunities. At the least, you can post questions and ask for advice.

In a best case scenario a used kayak would come with a spray skirt, paddle(s), cockpit cover, and other accessories. At the very least, the rigging, deck, hull, bulkheads, and rudder/skeg (if any) should be in good condition. The seat(s) should be functionally comfortable, although it is possible and not unusual to change out or modify a seat to configure one that works better for a particular individual.

What follows is not intended as advice, just a sharing of our experiences.

Rudder, Skeg, or Neither

There is an ongoing debate between those favoring rudders vs. those preferring skegs. Typically both skegs and rudders are retractable. A beginner will likely prefer a sea kayak with a rudder, which helps in turning and tracking (going straight). Purists will argue that a rudder is for tracking and not turning, but beginners are often taught to use them for turning and it works. Some boat designs nearly require a rudder. A skeg helps in tracking, but not typically in turning. Kayaks that weathercock (the tendency to turn into the wind when moving forward) require corrective strokes. If the weathercocking is severe, a rudder or skeg makes the paddler's course correcting task simpler and less work. A kayak which 'naturally' leecocks is quite undesirable, but kayaks of this ilk do exist. In difficult seas, such a kayak would require constant attention to avoid broaching. In some cases, this can be corrected by reloading the kayak to adjust trim. A skegged boat, If the skeg is more aft and is fully extended, may tend to leecock in a following sea, but this can be tuned out by retracting the skeg to the appropriate depth. A rudder can also cause leecocking if oriented incorrectly in a following sea. There is at least one report that the Nordkapp HM (with its integral, non-retractable skeg) leecocks under certain conditions.

It is (correctly, I believe) argued that over dependence on a rudder hinders a beginner's development of important stroke techniques - using the rudder to turn is the common example. However, most experienced paddlers I know who have boats with rudders keep them retracted unless they are really needed. So if you get a kayak with a rudder, disciplining yourself to use it only when needed would seem a viable option - especially if you continue to develop techniques that make the need for the rudder more and more rare. Knowing that I would likely lack this discipline, I purchased as my first kayak, a single kayak with a skeg. The adjustable skeg depth can be tuned to get the level of tracking you want in current sea conditions. My wife's first single and our tandem both had rudders. I believe tandems without rudders are rather atypical.

From the above, it will seem that I have come down on the side of favoring a skeg over a rudder for my own single kayak. But if I were an expedition paddler, needing to cover a great deal of distance (on the average) each day, I would opt for a rudder and carry appropriate repair parts. The reasoning goes like this. I can use a rudder to compensate for various non ideal conditions as long as they aren't extreme. With a rudder I can retain my forward stroke at maximum efficiency and not need to use an asymmetric stroke or edging the kayak for hours on end to compensate for non ideal conditions. With the rudder and an efficient forward stroke, I should be able to cover more distance each day than without the rudder. Paul Caffyn tested this idea years before I purchased my first kayak and accumulated persuasive data that a rudder is the way to go for expeditions. Keep in mind, that the expedition paddler still needs paddling technique that does not require the rudder - which can decide to break when a landing for repair is not feasible. The kayak should handle well with or without the rudder and the paddler should have the technical skills for either mode.

Some kayak designs yield kayaks which are quite neutral, neither weathercocking nor leecocking. These are appealing because, as mechanical devices, rudders and skegs can fail. But beware. If you find a used kayak without a rudder, that doesn't mean its design doesn't need one. Rudder, skeg or neither - this is an area where a beginner hasn't the experience to make an informed choice. You can read reviews, ask more experienced kayakers, and (if feasible) try many boats until you gain some experience. A rather neutral design with a retractable rudder would provide a beginner with the initial comfort of a rudder, and with discipline at not using the rudder, a path to developing strong stroke techniques and only rare need of the rudder. In my own case, I eventually evolved to a neutral kayak with neither skeg nor rudder. This particular kayak was built by Mariner Kayaks, operated by the Broze Brothers.

Independent of rudders and skegs, some hulls are designed to be nimble, turning easily, but not tracking that well. Similarly, there are kayaks which track as if on rails, and are reluctant to turn. If you have purchased either of these extremes, and it's your only boat, you may want a skeg for the nimble boat and a rudder for the tracker. I've noticed that many experienced kayakers have multiple boats for the various conditions. This requires significant money and either a very tolerant spouse or one who is similarly afflicted.

Color

Your kayak's color should be thought of as a safety issue rather than a fashion statement. This is also true of your pfd and to a lesser extent your other gear. In particular, you should opt for colors that have high visibility at distance. If a group of paddlers becomes dispersed, high visibility will help you get back together. In a more drastic search and rescue scenario the need for visibility is obvious. Bright orange and yellow lead the list of desirable colors. Other colors (even red) are much less useful. This issue is discussed at some length in this article by Tom Watson:

http://www.paddling.net/guidelines/showArticle.html?173

By the time you find a kayak that meets other selection criteria, choosing colors may not remain an option - but your pfd color can be a viable option. Presumably, clever use of certain reflective tapes etc. could also prove useful.

Weight

If you're not an agressive bodybuilder, your kayak's weight could be an issue - not when paddling, but when attempting to place the boat on your vehicle for transport or otherwise lug it around. As a general guide,

  • rotomolded kayaks are the heaviest
  • then fiberglass composite
  • then thermoform plastic
  • then kevlar composite
  • and lightest, carbon composite

Lighter is usually more expensive. What about Diolen (poor man's kevlar), commonly used in the UK? And there are combinations e.g. kevlar/carbon, and there are different manufacturing techniques. As an example, if you compare two fiberglass kayaks of close to the same form factor and one is significantly lighter, is it because the lighter one is using some clever construction technique or is it more flimsy? Maybe the the heavier one is significantly sturdier, less prone to damage and spontaneous disintegration - but maybe not.

My first kayak was fiberglass composite, the next fiberglass/diolen (extremely sturdy), then I moved to kevlar, and finally back to fiberglass. All these were purchased used. A new kevlar kayak would be totally out of my reach.

All this said, a very light kayak, albeit expensive, is cheaper than back surgery.

The Tandem Kayak

The tandem was intended as our beginner kayak. It was acceptable that it might become unstable in heavy seas, because we would avoid such adverse conditions by making very conservative choices. Tandems can be quite large and heavy, not unacceptable in the water but a definite problem to carry and hoist onto a vehicle. So I looked for a relatively light (but stout) used fiberglass kayak. Kayak outfitters often have used tandems and periodically replace their fleets. We found a Discovery Gemini (manufactured by Seaward Kayaks) for sale by an outfitter in Friday Harbor. It came with 2 usable spray skirts, 2 paddles, and 2 tired pfds. It was specified as 82 pounds, within our carrying capacity. It was our first purchase and has proved to be a well made, stable, and not too slow boat. We've been out in modest seas and winds up to perhaps 15 knots.

Tandems are sometimes called 'divorce boats', but the two of us happily coexisted in it for several years of ownership, for many day trips. We then purchase singles and tended to use the double mostly for introducing friends to the activity. One great virtue of the tandem is that two paddlers of uneven abilities have no problem staying together during a trip. Another virtue of the tandem is that we were not motivated to replace it with a higher end tandem. It served its original purpose well.

The First Single Kayak

We next decided to get a used single. Looking on the Internet, there seemed to be a good variety available in our vicinity (then on Vancouver Island) from individuals, outfitters, and a few manufacturer demos. After reading reviews, I made a selection from this pool - a Seaward Endeavour. This is a 17' 6" kayak, reasonably sleek (22 1/2" beam), weighs about 58 pounds, and with a skeg rather than rudder. It spanned the beginner to intermediate skill levels nicely. I purchased it as a demo from the Seaward Factory in Chemainus, BC.

Now What? A Third Kayak?

At this point, we had a tandem and a single, both made by Seaward. As the next year went by, I talked my wife into a single kayak. Following the same decision making process as before, we found ourselves once more at the Seaward factory picking up a demo. At 16' 2" the Cosma TX weighs about 51 pounds and has a 23" beam. It has Seaward's smartRUDDER system, which gives a much more solid foot brace than traditional sliding rudder systems. The hull/deck material was new to us, a thermoformed plastic, with a finish looking much like that of a fiberglass kayak and much lighter than the rotomolded plastic.


Photo: Blue Cosma TX & Yellow Endeavour, Ready to Go

Kayak Quality

Somewhat coincidentally, we ended up with 3 kayaks made by Seaward, a vendor with a reputation for building kayaks of high quality and crafted with careful attention to detail. None of ours were new, but none leaked anywhere and had well secured bulkheads.

Ratcheting - New Kayaks Lay in Wait

We became used to and satisfied with our kayaks. Nevertheless, after four years my skills had advanced and, although I remained satisfied with my Endeavour, I wanted a more maneuverable kayak to continue my skill evolution. This is a transition strongly recommended in the article at:

http://www.kayakacademy.com/pages/store/kayaks.html

I was now at a level where it made sense to actually try out different kayaks in the water. I tried several kayaks at the Vancouver Island Paddlefest - Ladysmith, BC (in mid May of 2011) - an event which is no longer held.. Such events offer associated classes, workshops, demonstrations etc. I 'demoed' several kayaks, more highly rockered than my Endeavour, that were of interest because of their maneuverability. Were they 'better' than the Endeavour? Not necessarily. It becomes clear that one kayak is unlikely to fit all your criteria as your experience evolves. Recall that many sea kayakers have multiple sea kayaks - one for long distance touring, another for surf, etc.

The demo kayaks I tried at Ladysmith were outside my price range, if new - and relatively impossible to find used. But I had concluded that I wanted something more rockered and slightly shorter than the Endeavour (note that would almost certainly mean it would be slower than the Endeavour). I next sold the Endeavour (Craigslist) and searched for a replacement. I found a Northshore Calypso in Port Angeles, priced lower than my sale price for the Endeavour. I brought it home, fixed the skeg, padded the cockpit to fit me, modified the backband for comfort, added a keel strip. and began enjoying it immensely. Note that Northshore was purchased by Valley and the Northshore brand perseveres under the new ownership. But the Calypso was produced before that transition and is no longer available new and quite unusual to find in the used market. Despite its age, the boat was in good shape. Occasional further moves up or sideways on the klayak food chain were now expected.

Unforeseen Factors

In my case, something initially unnoticed became somewhat important - the size of the cockpit opening. A small opening makes it less likely that the spray skirt will implode in heavy seas, but it is also makes it harder to get into and out of the kayak gracefully. My wife's Cosma TX has a cockpit opening specified at 31"x16"; whereas for my Endeavour it was 27.5"x14". That doesn't seem like a big difference, but for me it was - the shorter 27.5" length is an issue, not the width. Due to an injury incurred when I was but a callow youth, the flexibility of my lower back is compromised. I can just plunk my butt in the Cosma TX and then pull in my legs - and reverse the procedure for getting back out. This is a relatively stable way to enter a kayak, keeping the weight low throughout the process. I could not do this with the Endeavour. There I needed to sit on the deck behind the seat, insert my legs, and slide my butt into the seat - and reverse the procedure for getting back out. When sitting on the back deck, my instability was maximized. My rare spills have been from this position, particularly when exiting the kayak. The stability could be enhanced by using a paddle as an outrigger. The Calypso also has a smallish cockpit (but a slightly larger 'slalom' cockpit), but I found entry/exit slightly more stable than with the Endeavour.

Did I Finally Buy My Last Kayak?

In spring of 2013, my wife and I were about to launch on her first day trip of the new season. As we cooperated carrying our kayaks to the water's edge, she mentioned that my Calypso seemed rather heavy and that perhaps I should get something lighter (I know this will drive some men into a fit of jealous rage). Indeed, I am rather small, reasonably puny, and in my waning years. However, I calmly and patiently let this thought of a replacement purchase percolate for some time before acting. Twelve minutes and 13 seconds later, I had located THREE used kevlar Boreal Design Ellesmere kayaks (Craigslist) in or near Kalispell, MT. This was less than a 4 hour drive and we could stay with friends there, friends we hadn't used yet! We made the trip, visited several friends, stayed with the least wary couple, and even got in a short hike in Glacier to Avalanche Lake. Oh, and I bought the least expensive of the Ellesmeres - with a decent sized keyhole cockpit and a dial for the rope skeg. Upon returning home I sold the Calypso for $300 less than the purchase price of the kevlar Ellesmere.

Next I added a keel strip, outfitted the cockpit, modified the deck lines slightly and named this all white Ellesmere, 'Bianca'. I was prepared to modify the seat and backband, but they were already comfortable. Bianca seems as maneuverable as the Calypso, is significantly lighter, and has a cockpit sized nicely for this rather inflexible guy. It weathercocks about like its predecessor, which can be tuned out with the skeg. By my measurements it is also faster, but perhaps I am getting stronger and more skilled as I age. I can't see a defensible path to yet another kayak (my beautiful wife seemed happy with her Cosma TX, as well).

No, I Did Not Buy My Last Kayak

Our tandem was sitting, mostly unused and disconsolate. So I traded it for an iconic NDK Romany, the model now called 'classic'. I rather liked the Ellesmere more, but felt that the Romany would be easy to trade out. In late September of 2014, we did a camping trip on Idaho's scenic Upper Priest Lake. We then decided that we would try incorporating some camping into occasional kayak outings. With 2 of our 3 kayaks being skeg designs, we were short of gear storage space in those kayaks. Consequently, I replaced the Romany with a kevlar Necky Looksha IV. With a rudder and hence no space wasting skeg box, it offers plenty of gear storage space. I did replace the dreadful sliding rudder pedals with the SeaLect Designs fixed pedal system. At this point we had 3 single kayaks:

  • Thermoform Seaward Cosma TX (rudder)
  • Kevlar Necky Looksha IV (rudder)
  • Kevlar Boreal Design Ellesmere (skeg)

However, after trying the Necky on several day trips, my wife decided she strongly preferred that to the Seaward. With two of us and 3 kayaks we decided to downsize and sold the latter to a friend. This seems like a stable equilibrium state ... but we'll see.

And Maybe Just One More

The Ellesmere is really a fine kayak, yet I sold it to a guide on Quadra Island and moved on to a 16' Mariner Express. The Express was designed to need neither skeg nor rudder, even in gnarly weather. Reviews and other comments from users indicated that this design goal had been achieved. Other Mariner kayaks share this trait. These kayaks are no longer made. My guess is that the Broze brothers tired of hand crafting kayaks and moved on. Their web site is still maintained (http://www.marinerkayaks.com/) and is a treasure trove.

From my viewpoint (not shared by all kayakers), the drawback of the Mariner kayaks was that they did not include bulkheads with fore and aft hatches - well some had rear bulkheads. So they required float bags or a sea sock, which I did not care for. However, John Abercrombie in Victoria, BC started reconstituting these kayaks and I purchased mine from John. It includes fore and aft hatches and even a day hatch, all with the appropriate bulkheads. John's work is pretty incredible. So my newest kayak, called Marissa, neither weathercocks nor leecocks and handles well in the modest winds and waves that I have tried. It also sports a movable seat i.e. movable even if underway. It just handles nicely and I prefer it to the Ellesmere for my style of paddling.

Where to Find a Used Kayak

Outfits that offer kayak tours often have end-of-the-season sales, replacing some portion of their fleets every few years, with the greatest selection offered just post season e.g. starting in September. Their web sites typically have a section with used gear available. Some outfitters will have mostly decent touring kayaks, but not necessarily high performance kayaks. In particular, they may stock kayaks that will carry most any client - so the boats will tend to be roomy and quite stable. Certainly there are exceptions where the kayaks will include high performance models - perhaps not what you want for a first kayak unless you're willing to accept a more brutal learning curve.

Another possibility is a vendor who specializes in kayak instruction, for beginning/intermediate students to advanced. Such a vendor is more likely to include performance kayaks in its used kayak selection. If you take instructions, you can get advice on which kayaks might work best for you at that point in your evolution.

Kayak manufacturers may have some demos available - we got 2 of our 3 kayaks as demos from Seaward. Of course, at that time we were living in Nanaimo on Vancouver Island and Seaward was just down the highway in Chemainus.

Craigslist for certain cities can be an excellent source of possibilities. Obviously, a large city near the ocean will be a more likely source. For example, here in North Idaho, Craigslist for Spokane covers NE Washington and North Idaho and often has viable used kayak prospects, but Craigslist for Seattle has many, many more. Craigslist offerings seem to get more plentiful just before the season, as paddlers move from one kayak to another. Kijiji, a Canadian alternative to Craigslist, isn't as active, but works similarly and may be worth a try.

Lastly, there are kayak forums and clubs on the web - typically with a used gear section and lots of friendly, free advice. A really good example here in the northwest is http://www.westcoastpaddler.com/community/index.php.

A used kayak must be examined very carefully and the preceding web site can give useful advice. In all cases, "Caveat emptor" - and if you're visiting a seller with a mean, nasty dog, "Cave canem!" as well.

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