So you want to buy a kayak...
Why not? Everyone out there looks like they're having so much fun, and every weekend you see all those bright plastic 'yaks all over the road on top of cars and SUVs!
OK, but where to start?
You're reading this, so we will assume you're either a member of the Meetup group or at least interested in joining - more about "why" in a couple sections.
First thing to do is to take a beginner kayaking course - check our calendar or email the Organizer for class info. You'll learn how to paddle, turn, stop, and get back in your kayak (with assistance), and all this will happen in kayaks that handle well and are stable enough for beginners.
Next thing to do is check the Meetup Calendar (here's the "why") for beginner (SK1-SK2 Rating) trips and beg, borrow, or rent as many different sorts of kayaks as you can to go on these trips. Do four or five of them, and get accustomed to how various kayaks handle.
Start asking opinions, and be ready to be thoroughly confused. Everyone has several to share, and not everyone has the same goals in mind! By this time (a month or two since you've started thinking about this) you'll either be sick of kayaks or be hooked. You'll also be well on your way to figuring out what sort of things you'll be wanting to do with your own kayak when you do buy it.
If you're hooked, mave on to a "beyond the basics" class to take your skills up a notch - this will help out immensely when you start doing demo paddles in boats you're considering buying. You may be able to rent some of the demo boats and take them on group trips to compare them to other similar 'yaks - if you can, it's a big plus!
Now that you've demo'd a bunch of kayaks, done six to ten decent-length trips with the group, and have both your own opinions and everyone else's floating around in your head, it's time to buy. Bear in mind that by this time you've probably got enough experience to pick a beginner boat that you're really comfortable with - so try out some that are tippier than you like! Remember that your skills will grow pretty quickly, and that most of the boats we see leaning against fences and never getting any use are VERY stable, but not much fun.
Buy your kayak, and enjoy the compliments about your choice!
OK, but WHICH kayak???
Below are some factors to consider:
Sit On Top (SOT) or Sit Inside (Cockpit):
SOT kayaks are overwhelmingly popular in Florida, and are the obvious choice if you're planning a lot of SCUBA or free diving off your kayak. They can also have some advantages for fishing. Generally speaking, you'll be sitting higher up in the kayak, which is good for seeing down into the water, but bad for stability. Because a higher center of gravity makes the kayak tippier SOT kayaks tend to be wider than Cockpit kayaks of similar length. There are exceptions both in seating position and width, but for the most part the "high and wide" relationship holds. There are a couple of notably fast SOTs out there, and at least one that's a great play boat. One myth I keep hearing about Cockpit boats is that they're hotter - would you prefer to have the lower half of your body in the shade all the time, or sitting out exposed to the sun where it can get cooked? Hmmm?
Two variations on the same kayak - the Current Design Kestrel 140
All other design features being the same, a general rule of "longer can be faster" is true. That said, a longer boat will have more wetted area, and therefore more drag, which generally means that longer boats need stronger paddlers to achieve their potential. Longer boats also tend to be skinnier and have less rocker, which means they are not as maneuverable. If you're planning on long-distance kayak racing or adventure racing ONLY, long-and-skinny is likely for you.
Narrower is generally faster. Narrower is also generally tippier. I personally will advocate that you buy your kayak one "notch" less stable than you're comfortable with in the beginning - you'll have a bit of room for your skills to grow into it. Narrow boats generally handle better in larger waves - they tend to let the waves slide under them without rolling so much.
Rocker refers to the fore-to-aft curvature of the bottom of the hull. Generally speaking, the more rocker, the better the kayak will be in rough water, the better it will turn, the worse it will be at holding a straight line, and the more "playful" it will be. Lots of rocker can mean lower speed. Very little rocker can indicate lots of speed and an unwillingness to turn.
Nigel Dennis Kayaks "Greenlander Pro" - not as much rocker, faster, but still good in waves.
Nigel Dennis Kayaks "Romany" - lots of rocker, fun play boat, great in rough water, slow top-end speed.
Weight matters a great deal - when you're putting the kayak on the car. Otherwise there's not much difference for most folks between "light" and "heavy" for a given design. One relatively common Cockpit kayak is available in RM plastic (58 lbs., $1600) and Carbon/Kevlar (38 lbs., $4000) - to some folks the difference is worth $120/lb., but a lot of us can lose more than 20 lbs. by eating salads and paddling more often! Having said that, lighter is VERY important to racers, and very nice in a rough-water play boat. Less weight will also appeal to those who can't simply toss a heavy boat onto the roof rack, but ask your outfitter - there's ways around having to lift the whole boat at once!
Wood rules!! (personal bias) If you're not willing to spend ridiculous amounts of time or indecent amounts of money, all other materials are pretty good too... Below, in general order of cost:
The Plastic Fleet-
- Rotomolded (RM) Plastic - RM boats range from the cheapest junk on the market to some stellar examples of the boatbuilding arts. RM plastic boats once had a universal reputation for being too flexible and for not maintaining hull shape over the long term. There are still many new boats on the market that hold down the low end of the curve, but many of the new boats from the better manufacturers are truly excellent, and are very comparable in weight to FG and FG/K boats, though generally not as stiff.
- Thermoformed Polycarbonate (Lexan) - Polycarbonate (by any of its many names) is a relative newcomer to the kayak market, but a welcome one. Lexan is very impact resistant, generally lighter than RM, FG and FG/K kayaks and usually less expensive than FG and FG/K kayaks. Lexan has good form rigidity (the whole boat doesn't bend easily), but does deflect more than most boats made with fiber reinforcements.
The Fiber Fleet-
Kayaks constructed of fiber-reinforced resins are generally stiffer than plastic boats, with hulls usually constructed of an outer layer of fiber, a layer of light core material and an inner layer of fiber, all bound in a resin matrix. The molding and layup process is much higher in labor time than either of the plastic construction methods, so prices are generally higher.
- Fiberglass (FG) and Fiberglass/Kevlar (FG/K) are often similar in weight, with FG/K being used more often for touring boats intended for heavy use and for expedition kayaks. There are also some FG/K kayaks that are specifically lightweight layup, taking advantage of Kevlar's high tensile strength to allow for thinner layers and lighter weight.
- Carbon/Kevlar is the lightweight queen of the fleet. Most Carbon/Kevlar kayaks are sport and light touring designs - designs that can take best advantage of light weight and stiffness. There are also racing designs that are single-skin carbon fiber - rigid and stupid-light.
I use the words "generally", "usually", "most", and "often" a lot in this article. That's because there's a world of exceptions to almost everything I've written. There are hot-rod FG/K SOT 'yaks and wide slowpoke Cockpit barges. There are boats with lots of rocker that track well and are fast. There are plenty of other exceptions - rely on a good shop/outfitter to guide you, but learn what you want first.
You'll notice I didn't refer you to books, magazines, or the video rack. There's a LOT to be learned in all three, but it helps to have the basics down before you start reading or watching - much of the gear and 'yak reviews and instructional material assumes a command of the basics. That said, read Sea Kayaker Magazine for it's "Health" column, watch Nigel Foster's videos (with coffee handy) for technique tips, and let me know which books you like.
Paddles, PFDs, Skirts, and all that other fun stuff? Go on trips and ask opinions. Try out other folks' stuff - for a few hours or more if they'll let you. Ask your outfitter's opinion. Remember that they make all those different sizes and shapes of stuff for a reason - not everyone loves a big-bladed paddle, and everyone fits a PFD juuust a little differently. Above all, learn your own wants and needs, then make up your own mind.
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