The word "kayak" literally translates to "hunter's boat," but this 4,000-year-old vessel has become the favored watercraft for all types of shore fans' coastal recreation. Just as early Eskimos designed kayaks to suit their needs, modern designers have perfected lighter, sturdier, and more-versatile boats. Several new types of kayaks give enthusiasts more choices than ever. The market can be confusing, especially for beginners, so experts encourage novices to get firsthand experience on the water before making any purchases.
"I advise beginners not to buy equipment first," says George Gronseth, president and head instructor of the Kayak Academy in Issaquah, Washington. "People who buy their equipment first often realize that they have to sell it after their first lesson."
George says that one class can completely change what people look for. "The kayaks that usually impress beginners are the ones with tall chair backs and huge cockpits. But these types of kayaks actually work against movement and can make it harder to learn safety skills, such as getting back into a boat after capsizing."
He also discourages kayakers from shopping exclusively for recreational boats. "You can have a lot of fun in inflatable and folding kayaks, but there is a tradeoff. Their advantages are being able to take them on a plane or store them in a garage," he says, but they don't all glide through the water as easily, or maneuver as well, as some more traditional models.
The classic sea kayak is the vessel George recommends to all beginners. "An all-around sea kayak is great because it facilitates quicker learning and you can use it even when you are beyond the beginner stage."
If you're interested in kayaking but don't want to sign up for a class, you do have other options. Many REI stores let members demo boats for free, and kayak manufacturers have symposiums for testing gear. You can also check with a local paddling club, and ask members for guidance and instruction.
Committed kayakers learn the "Eskimo Roll" as soon as possible. It's the move that allows a capsized kayaker wearing a spray skirt to right his or her boat quickly and easily. Basically, the kayaker, who is upside down in the water, twists toward the surface, using a paddle for extra help. Experts perform the roll in one quick motion. "A lot of people believe it is a completely different skill set," George says. "But it is related to all of your basic strokes."
To help you decide what kind of boat to test drive, consider where and how you plan to use a kayak. Merchants sell three basic types:
• Sea Touring/Long Distance (more than 12 feet long, 60 pounds): The longest and heaviest kayaks offer large cargo capacity, ease of straight-line paddling, and comfort for long journeys. The cockpit, well-fitted to the kayaker, and the seat make stretching and position changes possible.
• Recreational (under 12 feet long, light): Large cockpit opening allows for easy entry and exit. A wider beam gives more stability but limits cargo capacity. The wider hull results in slower speed and does not track well.
• River/Whitewater (6 feet long, 30 pounds): Short with a cockpit that provides a snug seat, this boat has extreme maneuverability.
Also important―because they relate to the cost, performance and, durability of the kayak―are the materials and methods used in construction of the boat.
1. Rigid (or hard-shell) boats: Made of plastic, fiberglass, Kevlar, carbon fiber or wood, the rigid kayak is what most people think of when they think of a kayak. Prices run from $500 to $3,500.
2. Folding boats: Boats made of fabric stretched over a wood or aluminum frame for easy portability and storage. Prices run from $1,300 to $5,000.
3. Inflatable boats: Offering terrific portability and ease of storage, these are generally the least expensive options. Kayakers should be conscious of their payload capacity (your weight plus your gear). Prices run from $250 to $4,000.
The Right Stuff
• Dry Suit: This waterproof suit keeps a kayaker warm and dry. Most have breathable fabric and some have hooks for spray skirts.
• Spray Skirts: A nylon skirt worn by kayakers that slips over the edges of a kayak cockpit to creates a watertight seal. A snug fit is key to performance.
• Dry Bags: Waterproof bags or containers keep stowed items dry. The PVC/polyester body and storm strips prevent the ocean and river from soaking your gear.
• Paddle: The propulsion for your kayak. Look for paddles with blades that are relatively wide and slightly curved.
• Roleez: A cart specifically designed for easy transportation of touring kayaks.