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Choosing The Right Kayak (Hint: It's not about the kayak)

As a sea kayaking outfitter we get a lot of questions about kayaks and kayaking. One common question is; “I kayak at home on rivers and lakes, is this much different than using a sea kayak?” This question has two answers; yes and no. No in the sense that you use a double bladed paddle and a pointy-ended boat. Yes in every other way.

To be clear, the difference doesn’t lie as much in WHAT you paddle, but WHERE you paddle. Paddling in a lake, or on a river is different than paddling in a sea or ocean mainly because wind and waves are such a factor on open water, as well as the water temperature and what types of rescues are possible.

Flat water river and lake kayaks are basically canoes you sit in. Wide, short, flat bottomed.

On a flat-water river you want to be able to turn quickly, maybe have a platform to fish from, or a large enough cockpit to take your dog or kids along in your lap. If you capsize you can swim to shore. These boats are short, wide, and flat bottomed.

On an inland lake you want a boat that tracks a bit better than a river kayak, and though further away from shore you should still be able to swim to land in the event of a capsize. These boats are often a little longer than river kayaks.

On open water you need a boat that can handle rolling or steep seas without making you capsize. I specifically chose the word “making” because if you have the skills for the conditions you won’t capsize in a sea kayak, but you can’t help but capsize in a boat made for flat water no matter how skilled you are. A boat made for flat water is generally very wide and has a very stable feeling when the water is flat, but given some waves, all of a sudden that boat does not give you a choice; Large enough or steep enough waves means you are going over no matter what your skill level.

A sea kayak is longer than a lake or river boat, with bulkheads and hatches, rescue lines, and a properly shaped hull for the sea environment. Because of this a sea kayak often feels less stable initially, but this is because a sea kayak is built with a more rounded, narrower hull which allows you to ride the waves according to your ability. If you have the skills, you can stay upright. This is important on long crossings where you don’t want to rely upon a roll to bring you back up, (if you know how) or worse, doing an exit from your boat and having to climb back in during rough seas. Forget about swimming to shore.

Hopefully I have already answered most of your questions regarding the topic of this article. If you already knew the above, great! You are part of an elite group. If you hoped this would be a gear review, my apologies. It is not. A gear review is best done by first taking a paddling class on the type of kayaking that you want to do and get some good information and experience on the types of water you will be paddling on. Then go to a kayak symposium or event where you can try out a bunch of different boats. Don’t listen to manufacturer hype, or retail sales talk. You need to try a bunch of boats while using your new-found knowledge. Once you’ve decided to buy a boat, use it for a year or two until you realize that your skills have exceeded that choice, sell it, and get or make one to fit your current skill level.

The hint for this article should be obvious by now; It’s not about the kayak, but the environment that you will be paddling in, which should be delegated by the skills you have, not the boat you own.


Lost Creek Adventures offers novice through advanced sea kayak skills workshops.

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