◊ Buying a Used Solo Sit-inside Sea Kayak

Introduction – intended audience

A kayak is a rather general term including (other than river kayaks)

  • sit-inside kayaks (recreational or for the sea)

  • sit-on-top kayaks

  • fishing kayaks (crossing the above boundaries)

  • surf kayaks

  • racing kayaks

and so on. This discussion talks only about sit-inside sea kayaks, my only area of pseudo expertise. More than that, this article is aimed at those interested in buying a used sit-inside sea kayak. So I do not talk about recreational kayaks etc. In particular, the expected audience would include

  • those who know they do not want a ‘recreational’ kayak

  • nor a tandem

  • those who wish to paddle small lakes, large lakes, and the sea

  • those who wish to grow in skill

  • those who are willing to accept a used kayak as a cost effective approach

Henceforth I will just call the sit-inside sea kayak simply a sea kayak or just kayak.

I do not address the special requirements of kayaks whose paddlers are into surfing and rock gardening, even though that overlaps sit-inside sea kayaks. Were I significantly younger, those adrenaline draining activities would be high on my list, but I am a flat water kayaker who wishes to enjoy nature in a calmer setting. Flat water will occasionally get bumpy and that’s OK by me, but I distinguish that from white water as shaped by narrows, visible rocks, and underwater nasties. For example, unless misguided, I tend to slip though narrows (and other areas which can have strong tidal currents) near slack.

Do Your Research

Once you’ve caught the bug, it is tempting and almost irresistible to charge off and buy your first sea kayak. You will be much happier with your choice and typically save some money by doing significant research ahead of time.

At this writing, used kayaks are plentiful on the Pacific Northwest Craigslist market here in late summer and early autumn, with sellers generally eager to sell before winter arrives. Scams are not unusual, so one must take some care – although it seems worse for sellers than buyers.

Introductory sea kayaking classes

The first and most important piece of research is to enroll in some introductory classes from a reputable outfit that provides real sea kayaks to its students with the associated safety gear. This is even worthwhile if you must travel to find such a set of classes. Your eyes will be opened, especially if you are willing to ask questions (and have instructors willing to answer). As an example of an appropriate beginner’s class take a look at https://www.kayakacademy.com/products/sea-kayaking-101, which is one of the selection of courses offered by Seattle’s Sea Kayak Academy. Similar courses can be found elsewhere, of course.

The introductory classes should include safety training. This would include

  • appropriate clothing to wear and carry

  • appropriate gear to enhance safety

  • wet exits

  • self rescue

  • assisted rescues

and any common sense aspects of the rescue process. These classes should, of course, also include paddle strokes that will allow you to move the kayak in whatever direction is desired.

Any kayaker I know would strongly recommend such classes. Do not ignore this suggestion!

Internet resources

You should also start to gather sea kayaking resources via the Internet. As an example, join an Internet based sea kayaking forum such as http://www.westcoastpaddler.com/community/. Such forums are usually friendly to beginners and have members happy to answer questions. Web sites such as https://forums.paddling.com/categories are more general and less useful than one focused on mostly sea kayaking, but are still of interest.

An initial set of books for your library might include

  • The Complete Sea Kayaker's Handbook by Shelley Johnson, Ragged Mountain Press (2002).

  • Sea Kayaking (updated revised 5th edition) by John Dowd, Greystone Books (2004).

  • The Complete Book of Sea Kayaking (5th edition) by Derek C. Hutchinson, Falcon / Globe Pequot Press (2004).

These books would contain way more information than you could digest all at once, yet have plenty of information for beginners.

Window shop, but don’t yet buy


Find out what kayaks are available locally e.g. from the nearest Craigslist. But don’t run out and buy a boat, instead read reviews e.g. do a google search on a boat of interest. A typical search on something you found on Craigslist might be a Google search entry

Necky Looksha IV reviews

But take care, you must learn how to read reviews. A reviewer, new to kayaking, who describes a just purchased kayak, will typically be overly enthusiastic. What you want are reviews from experienced users, who will tend to be more critical and offer much better information. You will learn to recognize these. As you get closer to purchase, ask questions on your chosen web forum looking for any members who have experience with such boats.

When it’s Time to buy

In later sections, we’ll discuss attributes of sea kayaks such as

  • flotation, fit, rigging

  • length and width

  • handling – rudder, skeg, neither – hull shape

  • kayak material

For the moment, let’s assume you’ve peeked ahead to determine what kayak attributes you want. So that you are now ready to buy your first kayak. If you’ve followed the preceding advice in this section, chances are decent that you can now purchase a kayak that won’t be a major mistake. Of course, you need to examine the kayak closely for flaws, but you can find Internet descriptions of how to do this. Some flaws like worn rigging or simple leaks are cheap and easy to repair. Other problems may suggest that you look for your kayak elsewhere.

Note that if you get hooked on sea kayaking, you will evolve in directions you might not have expected. In that case you will likely punctuate your evolution by buying another kayak, then another, and so on. Some you will keep, some you will sell.

Kayak Configuration

Flotation

Upon capsize, the kayak should still float horizontally when you eventually get back in. Further the coaming must be enough out of the water so you can pump (or bale) the water out of the cockpit. This means that there must be enough flotation fore and aft to make this happen. Overloading your kayak or using a kayak too small for your weight would obviously be unwise.

Early kayaks, many of today’s skin on frame kayaks, and some home-built kayaks do not have the desired inherent flotation. For these you can buy float bags to insert in bow and stern. The float bag is a tough air bag that fills the cavity it occupies. If your kayak needs float bags, you must have the discipline to use and maintain them.

More typical sea kayaks will have at least two hatches with covers that can be sealed to prevent water ingress, essentially a stern hatch and a bow hatch. Then, if the kayak should capsize, it will still float horizontally. Personally I also like an additional day hatch, a small hatch just behind the cockpit and accessible to the kayaker.

Fit

The kayak should fit you; some say ‘you should wear your kayak’. This means the kayak should be reasonably snug, but not uncomfortably restrictive. Some kayaks will just be too big for you. Note that if the kayak is not quite (but almost) snug enough, you can use micro cell foam to improve the fit. Various vendors (e.g. NRS) carry kits for such outfitting.

The kayak seat and back band should be comfortable, and not stick up above the coaming (or just barely), otherwise certain rescue techniques are compromised. Kayakers often find it necessary to modify the seat and/or back band; it’s generally not that big a deal. Make sure there is sufficient room for your feet. In my situation, I wear boots over my dry suit socks which establish a worst case scenario – with those boots I must fit inside the cockpit. So with my gigantic 5’5” frame and US size 9 street shoes, I end up with kayak shoes that are size 11. Hence there are kayaks actually too small for me.

Rigging

There should be a static (non stretchy) perimeter line at the edge of the deck, bow and stern – not necessary around the coaming. Once you learn how to perform a self rescue, you should examine a kayak to see if the perimeter lines aft of the coaming support the self rescue exercise. There may also be additional bungee rigging, convenient for various reasons. Note that it is not difficult or expensive to modify the rigging on most kayaks.

Kayak length and width

Kayaks have a speed called hull speed:

hull speed in knots = 1.34 x sqrt(length of water line in feet)

A kayaker can reach hull speed by paddling quite hard and some can even exceed hull speed. This leads to the claim that kayaks with longer water lines will be faster than those with shorter water lines, which is a gross oversimplification. For example, we intuitively expect kayaks that are narrower to be faster, as well. Without getting mired in details out of our scope, we will suggest that kayaks that are significantly longer and narrower are faster than those that are much shorter and wider. So if you are paddling a 14 foot kayak in a group where everyone else has a 17 foot kayak, you will typically need to work harder to keep up, maybe too hard.

I would tend to say that sea kayaks typically fall in the range of 15 to 18 feet long, a good range to stick with as a buyer. Violating that range with a 14 foot kayak is not necessarily a deal killer, but maybe. Smaller people (let’s also say not so strong) can buy a kayak that is too long for them and be unable to get anywhere near its hull speed, so shorter can make sense. A kayak that is too long becomes unwieldy. However, beware! Shorter kayaks are sometimes wide in beam, making them barge like i.e. not only slow, but track poorly.

My suggestion for kayak’s length and width is to buy

  • a kayak that is as long as is comfortable

  • one that is as narrow as is comfortable

compared to other kayaks of the sort you are looking for. But what is ‘comfortable’? A first time buyer will find longer, narrower kayaks to be very ‘tippy’ and choose one that feels more stable. They will subsequently find that the stable kayak is a barge and not all that maneuverable. So, as a first time buyer, you need a lot of butt time in a kayak before you make a choice to buy i.e. get past feeling the ‘tippy’ point if possible for that kayak. Note that a large, tall person will have a higher center of gravity and tip more easily and may want a kayak a bit wider in width.

Kayak handling - 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 inherently leecocks (the tendency to turn down wind when moving forward) 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 are reports that the Nordkapp HM (with its integral, non-retractable skeg) leecocks under certain conditions.

It is 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.

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 perhaps 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 many 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. A rudder can decide to break, especially 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 the discipline of 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. At this writing, I also have a skegged NDK Explorer, which I typically paddle without using the skeg.

Kayak handling – hull design

Independent of rudders and skegs, some hulls are designed to be nimble, turning easily, but not tracking that well. These typically have more rocker than a kayak that tracks strongly. 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 or a rudder for the tracker. I've noticed that many experienced kayakers have multiple boats for various conditions. This requires significant money, storage space, and either a very tolerant spouse or one who is similarly afflicted.

Kayak Material

Listed from cheapest to most expensive we find kayaks built from

  • rotomolded (polyethylene) plastic

  • thermoformed (outer acrylic, inner layer structural ABS) plastic

  • composite – fiberglass, kevlar, and/or carbon

and there may be combinations of particularly the last three e.g. fiberglass with kevlar reinforcement at stress points. Diolen (polyester), sometimes called poor man’s kevlar, is also used as a strengthener.

rotomolded pros:

  • inexpensive compared to alternatives

  • durable, e.g. can take a good shot from a rock

rotomolded cons:

  • heavy compared to alternatives

  • difficult to repair if actually holed

  • boat flexes while paddling (performs more poorly than a stiff boat)

  • deforms if stored in the sun (not always reversible)

  • does not age as well as composite boats

  • eventually gets fuzzy when scratched (hurting performance)

thermoformed pros:

  • excellent UV protection with the acrylic outer layer

  • lighter and stiffer than rotomolded

  • less expensive than composite

  • more abrasion resistance than rotomolded boats

  • does not deform in the sun

  • can be repaired with fiberglass cloth

thermoformed cons:

  • ABS becomes brittle over time, so not as long lasting as composite

  • Not quite as stiff or light as composite boats of comparable sturdiness

composite pros

  • usually the lightest weight boats, with weight going down and price going up as you evolve from fiberglass to kevlar to carbon

  • stiffer than the alternatives and hence better performing

  • easiest to repair in the field, with excellent results achievable off the water

  • longest lasting, especially when stored properly

composite cons

  • usually expensive, especially kevlar and carbon

  • don't take hard impact as well as rotomolded boats

Other Gear

If you followed my advice in taking a proper course, you know you’ll need more gear. For example,

  • paddle

  • paddle float

  • bilge pump

  • tow bag

  • pfd

  • whistle for pfd

and so on. I’ll say a few words about the paddle, but not discuss the other items.

Beginners typically purchase a paddle that is too long e.g. I think mine are still too long. I’d suggest starting with a fiberglass (euro) paddle that you try and like, certainly not aluminum. As you get used to it, you’ll develop a more picky outlook on paddles. You really need to carry a spare paddle so when you get the paddle of your dreams, relegate the fiberglass paddle to the spare category. Your new paddle should be carbon, much lighter than fiberglass but much more expensive.

You might also investigate Greenland paddles (GPs), often called sticks. I have a GP that I really like, but cycled through a few that were not as appropriate.

My Personal Kayak Choices – at this Point

I have purchased quite a few kayaks, nearly always for myself. My first solo kayak was a Seaward Endeavour, a 17’ 4” long kayak with a 22.5” beam. It had a so called slalom cockpit, larger than an ocean cockpit but smaller than the typical keyhole cockpit. I found that it tracked very well, but, with a compromised lower back, I had difficulty getting in an out of the slalom sized opening. So I moved on.

Currently my wife and I have 4 kayaks, all composite:

  • 17’ Necky Looksha IV in kevlar (my wife’s preferred boat)

  • 15’ 2” Noyak DeRide in fiberglass (with an ill chosen model name)

  • 16’ Mariner Express in fiberglass (which is somewhat difficult for me to roll)

  • 17’ 8” NDK Explorer in fiberglass, diolen reinforced (which is very easy for me to roll)

The Necky is quite light and has a rudder, with sliding pedals having been replaced with the accelerator style pedals from Sea-Lect Designs, more suitable for bracing. I rarely paddle it, but my wife finds it stable and reassuring.

The Mariner Express is a classic Broze Brothers design. It has neither rudder nor skeg and doesn’t need such, even in rough seas. Typical Mariners had no front nor rear hatch and needed float bags for safety. However this particular kayak was modified by John Abercrombie in Victoria, BC. It now has front, rear, and day hatches – all very professionally done. It weighs in at 60 pounds.

The DeRide is quite light (47 pounds) and is kept for guests. It was designed and built by Palatvong Noy, who was Mariner’s premier builder when the Broze Brothers retired from the kayak production business. It weathercocks only slightly and does quite well, having neither rudder nor skeg. It is perfect for guests and I like it as well.

The NDK Explorer is probably our fastest kayak, although not especially fast for that length. It was quite distressed and disheveled when I bought it, but fundamentally sound. I brought it back to life and was planning to sell it for a modest profit. However it rolled so easily, that I decided to keep it in the meantime, at least until my roll was more consistent and with better technique – which is happening. It is a skeg kayak, but I haven’t had occasion to use the skeg so far other, than refurbishing it. This is a relatively neutral boat, weathercocking only slightly.

We don’t need 4 kayaks, so I hope to sell one or two of our kayaks – my wife’s kayak is off limits, of course. So our fleet may evolve, most likely by selling the Mariner or NDK. Both of those are relatively heavy and I would eventually hope to go lighter.


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