Over the past couple years, kayaking has become one of the fastest growing sports in the Country. As with any sport, you could spend a lifetime trying to learn all there is to know about it. The intent of this article is to introduce you to the basics and point you to where you can find out more.
If you ever go shopping for a kayak, the first thing you’ll notice is that there are more choices than you could possibly imagine. It’s going to boil down to this: buy the kayak that will work best for the kind of water you’ll be paddling most of the time. For all other trips, it’s beg, borrow or rent. Ask yourself: where do I really want to go, and what do I really want to do?
Kayaks Vs. Canoes: Different Boats, Same Water
Besides the paddling position and the double-bladed paddle, how is a kayak different from an open canoe? Well, water is still water. And the principles of hull design are essentially the same for kayaks and canoes. Length contributes speed and ease of tracking. Rocker, the banana-like upward curve of the keel line, adds maneuverability. And stability is, in part, dependent of width. Kayaks can be smaller than canoes partly because they are covered or decked. The deck sheds the waves and spray that would fill an open craft that was as low to the water surface. The sitting position also means a lower center of gravity, and that means kayaks can be narrow without feeling tippy. The biggest distinction is probably this: in most canoes you are traveling on the water, whereas in kayaks you are sitting right down in it.
So, these days, what actually defines a kayak? Basically, it’s a craft that’s propelled from a sitting – not kneeling – position, with a double-bladed paddle.
The Big Division: Touring Or Whitewater?
Earlier generations got by on folding kayaks that did a bit of whitewater and a bit of touring, but by the 1960’s, kayakers had become more specialized, and so had kayaks. There were too many great challenges out there that require a boat with specific characteristics. Now there are whitewater kayaks, sea-touring kayaks, flatwater kayaks and sit-on-top kayaks. There are kayaks that fold, kayaks that inflate, kayaks that squirt, kayaks that surf. Rodeo kayaks and racing kayaks. Kayaks for one person. Kayaks for two people. And we haven’t even begun to talk about all the different materials they’re made of.
First and foremost, whitewater kayaks are designed to turn. They are maneuverable and relatively low volume. You wear them as much as sit in them, for they react to movements of your hips the way a snow skier’s ski edges carve turns. In such a small craft, subtle differences in design can affect handling in mighty ways. This would usually include the craft’s edges – the sharpness of angle where hull and deck meet – and volume – the amount of enclosed space in a boat.
Sea kayaks, also called touring kayaks, are used for paddling on lakes and oceans when you would rather put your energy into getting somewhere than into spinning in circles. This means that most sea kayaks are longer than river kayaks – as long as 19 feet (some doubles are almost 23 feet) – and relatively narrow, just 21 to 24 inches. Sea kayaks have straight keel lines and sharply raked, upturned bows for slicing through waves and resisting lateral motion.
A Note About Seats And Cockpits
The seat and cockpit of a kayak are where you’ll actually spend your time. It’s worth taking a look at how these can affect your comfort and performance. Seat shape, back bands, hip braces, foot braces, and seat height vary from model to model. Sit in each boat and see how it feels. A seat that’s mounted too high will compromise the boat’s stability. Hip braces that are too tight can make your legs and feet go numb. Also, when you set a budget for your kayak purchase, don’t forget to account for the accessories you can’t do without. Good kayak paddles will cost upwards of $125, and you’ll also need a PFD, a spray skirt, and for whitewater, a helmet.
The Final Words: Try Before You Buy
These days, there are more kayak manufacturers, designs, and even colors to choose from than ever before. Look for the one that fits your most frequent style of paddling. Remember, renting a kayak on those occasions when you want something different is a better solution than buying a kayak that’s a compromise all the time. Toward this end, you can’t spend better money than in taking a weekend clinic (see below) with a reputable instruction company in the area of kayaking that interests you most, be that whitewater or touring. The skills you learn, and the different designs you will get to try, will set you on the right path to happy paddling!