Kayak Design Basics

Our renters and purchasers want to know what kayak will best suit their needs. This page is meant to be a starting point to  give concise answers for the most important considerations.

Kayak Fit

Obvious, right? So long as you fit through the hole you’re good! Not really. You have tandems and singles, and you have many types of seating systems. Some that you can hang out in for 4 hours, and others that seem like they will create permanent damage within fifteen minutes. You need to try some boats out, sit in them while at the shop while reading a book perhaps. Until you know what a good fit for you is, you need to try out different boats and systems. Be sure to wear the shoes and clothing you would be wearing while paddling.

Key points to kayak fit:

  • Seat should support your upper legs so that the pressure from your upper body weight is not all coming down directly on your sit bones. This will help your feet to not fall asleep also.
  • It would seem like a high back rest would be good, but these inhibit proper upper body movements which in kayaking is called “torso rotation”. In the long run this can cause chronic overuse injuries to all of the other body parts that are making up for this lack of range of motion. (Mostly shoulders) I recommend as low a “back band” as possible. Something that supports the lumbar region of your lower back and that’s all. It should make you want to sit up as straight as your grade school teacher told you to.
  • Foot braces are normally adjustable. You should have the balls of your feet on the braces, your knees bent and touching the thigh braces that are under the front deck.

Tandem vs. Single

Tandems

  • More initial stability. Wider boats.
  • Heavier than singles
  • Good if one paddler in the group cannot paddle, a single paddler can still make headway.
  • If built for expeditions (such as our Seaward G3) can carry a lot of large sized gear.

Singles

  • Less initial stability, but with an experienced kayaker on board, can handle rougher conditions than a tandem.
  • Lighter to car-top
  • If you own, easier to find someone to paddle with (yourself!;-)

Materials

Rotomolded plastic

  • Less expensive
  • Tough
  • Heavy
  • Over time will warp slightly
  • Will accept deep scratches, but easy to repair.

Thermoform plastic

  • Shiny, nice lines. Most people mistake it for fiberglass.
  • Very light, lighter than most fiberglass boats
  • Some parts can be brittle
  • Easy to fix. Can even be fiber-glassed.

Composite

These are your fiberglass, Kevlar, carbon-fiber, etc boats. They use a mesh fabric infused with a resin to stiffen and keep moisture out. They come in various layups (layers). Some fiberglass boats are very heavy and strong, while others are made to be very light (thin layup)

  • Can be light
  • Easy to fix
  • Easy to break, or crack the gel coat, the outer layer of protective “paint”. Dropping from any height causes cracks.
  • Requires more maintenance than plastics, but are less sun sensitive, and can last your lifetime.

Skin-On-Frame

These are in the genre of folding kayaks that you can purchase, or non-folding boats that you can build on your own.

  • The shell is fabric, so you can easily repair it by sewing and sealing
  • Can be light weight
  • Frame has some flex, which some people like (makes the boat feel more alive)

Steering

How do you want to control your kayak? Some kayaks come with a rudder, some with a skeg, and some with nothing (i.e. you use your paddle strokes to steer with)

Rudders are controlled by your feet, and steer the boat. Skegs are small fins near the rear of the boat that are controlled with a hand lever, and are dropped down just to help keep the boat tracking straight. For more details Paddling.net did a nice in-depth article found here.

Safety

Kayaks come with a wide range of safety features. The main one is that it floats. You think I’m being funny, but many boats once swamped are about as good as seaweed. You want a boat that even when the cockpit is full of water you can get back in and paddle it without emptying it. Many boats won’t do this, but this is my criteria, as you just can’t rely on being able to pump it out when in rough conditions.

  • Bulkheads: Keep the cockpit and storage areas separated. This is the main way sea kayaks provide floatation once capsized. You are looking for a boat with enough foot room for your legs, and that is all. The rest should be hatch space separated by bulkheads. Too much cockpit area means too much water in the boat once swamped.
  • Hatch covers: Should be easy to seal and see that they are sealed. Neoprene (wet suit material) works for a while, but stretches out eventually and you must replace it. I like solid one-piece rubber hatches.
  • Color: Yellow is best. Orange is next. Of course I love my brown wood boat, but it’s not the safest color.

What about building your own?

There are lots of kits out there, but then again you may be stuck with a boat that was designed for someone else. Unless attending a school that will show you how to create a boat just for your size and needs, I would suggest paddling a lot of kayaks before choosing a kit or plans and building your own.

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