How To Cruise with Kayaks
Take along a small boat that you can paddle into thin waters. You’ll be glad you did. Hands-On Sailor: Living Aboard from our December 2012 issue.
Length, width, and hull shape affect speed, maneuverability, and stability. Short, wide kayaks are more stable and easier to board from a moving boat. But a shorter kayak won’t track as straight as a longer, narrower version. Long, thin kayaks slice through the water quicker and easier but are more difficult to turn. Short, beamy kayaks promote stability and turn easier but require a bit more effort to maintain momentum.
Most recreational plastic kayaks aren’t equipped with rudders, which can be useful in strong current and wind, allowing you to paddle evenly while your foot pedals control the rudder to adjust your course. We don’t have rudders on our 9-foot Wilderness Systems Riot kayaks, and we haven’t missed them.
Plastic kayaks, the most durable, are also the heaviest. (That said, don’t be overly concerned with weight; our 9-footers weigh about 40 pounds but are easily hoisted aboard.) They’re also the least expensive, so you won’t feel as guilty if they get scratched or dinged. Fiberglass, inflatable, or carbon-fiber kayaks are more susceptible to nicks when dragged over rocky shorelines, but if you’re spending lots of time paddling, their lightness will be much appreciated.
In our opinion, sit-on-top kayaks have a few advantages over sit-in kayaks, especially for cruisers. The former have open decks and, because they’re easier to board and use and less confining, many paddlers feel they’re more comfortable. There’s also no risk of being stuck inside if the kayak tips. Beginning paddlers especially enjoy sit-on-top models, which are even cozier with an optional seat. Of course, decked kayaks are drier, especially if you wear a cockpit spray skirt when paddling.
Some cruisers enjoy tandem, two-person boats, which are fun for couples to paddle. The downside is that such kayaks don’t perform well with just one person on board. And while there are a dizzying array of paddles and accessories available, only two are necessities. The first, of course, is the paddle. Ours break down into two pieces for easier storage. Make sure you get the right size: Beamy kayaks require paddles that are long enough to clear the sides, as there’s nothing more annoying than banging the edges with every stroke. A rule of thumb when assessing a paddle is to hold it on top of your head. Bend your elbows 90 degrees and grasp the paddle on both ends overhead. Ideally, there should be a 4- to 6-inch gap between your hands and the blade. Because our kayaks are beamy, I actually have a 6- to 7-inch gap. A good kayak store can assist you with sizing.
For us, the other critical accessory is a comfortable seat, and we recommend purchasing the best that you can afford. Try a few different ones to decide which is right for you.
When purchasing a kayak test several different models. Some stores have demo models for this purpose. We tested four different types—a pair of sit-ins, a sit-on-top model, and an inflatable—before we made our decision. If you can’t find a store that provides “test rides,” ask if you can rent the type of boat that you’re considering beforehand. Or take a kayak excursion trip with a company that has kayaks similar to what you’re interested in purchasing.