NDKs lined up on Kayak Beach

Thoughts on Fitting, Demoing and Choosing a Sea Kayak

by Tom Bergh of Maine Island Kayak Co, Peaks Island, Maine

Sea kayak designs abound in our world. The following thoughts are offered to assist you in evaluating any kayak you paddle. With so many designs and models to choose from, which kayak is “the best”? It’s my hope to help you plot a positive and useful course through this exercise.

Your Steep Learning Curve. The kayak you like at the end of the first hour of paddling is different than that comfortable boat you paddle at the end of the first day, first week, month or season. It’s a steep learning curve. Once you acquire a range of actual paddling data and experiences, you’ll be on your way to better determining the right boat for your range of waters, intended uses, physical skills and paddling prowess. By then you’ll have a group of trusted paddlers, sea-wise friends, club members and maybe a band of coaches to listen to and bounce your thoughts off. Until then the beginner-novice to lower intermediate paddler will benefit from thoughtful guidance and neutral advice in choosing an appropriate kayak.

Let’s see if we can help you divide up this complex equation, gather useful data, develop a reliable method of comparison, and apply your demo experience to your physique and interests.

Your Boat. There isn’t one sea kayak that suits everyone, on every day, in all water. You want a boat with a sizeable sweet spot for your current on-water comfort: not a boat so tippy you must part-your-hair-in-the-middle, yet with enough performance that you won’t outgrow it in your next couple of seasons. The right boat for you is one that will invite you to expand your skill set while not being too far above your present level, a boat that is durable and lasting, and a boat that’s saleable if the time comes to move on. And since this isn’t a required sport, your boat should meet your aesthetic and artistic preferences too.

NDK Romany Classic

NDK Romany Classic

The Connection. I like a boat that disappears when I’m paddling: a boat that is an extension of my body and experience, not one that is separate from me. I like a boat that helps me immerse into the beauty of my environment and enriches the experience of my journey through the day’s chosen venue. I prefer a boat that rewards my work effort and connects me directly with my day. I want to appreciate how my kayak improves my trip, enhances what I am choosing to do, suits my physique, and builds upon my skill set and seamanship. I am not so interested in a boat that I’ve got to fight to stay upright, or one that doesn’t naturally help my comfort and support. Regardless of what others may say, the “best” boat may NOT BE the right boat for ME if the fit, form or function doesn’t meet my interests, my physique or my goals for that paddle.

Fit Matters

A well-fitting kayak enhances your comfort and your ability to control your boat.

Fit Matters. Kayaks come in an enormous range of shapes and sizes. Just as you hike or ski with the right size boots, you want your kayak to fit you, too. Finding a well-fitting kayak is more than just a factor of your height and weight, as we’ll discuss below. Small variations in dimensional factors can make a huge difference. We find that a 1/2” difference in cockpit cross section can noticeably affect your comfort and your ability to control your boat, especially on a challenging sea. During custom fittings, I’ve often found paddlers preferring adjustments as little as 1/8” when it comes to the tilt of their pelvis and alignment of their vertebrae. 

Contact is Confidence. Greater amounts of uniform body contact yield more than comfort and control; positive contact with our boat breeds confidence. So here at MIKCo, we custom cut and carefully shape thigh and hip foam pads to fit that paddler’s unique body shape and flexibility. This is not to make the kayak fit you tightly; rather, it is to increase your real world contact for your control and sense of confidence on that jobbly sea.

"Contact is


Custom foam for NDK Explorer

Custom foam for an NDK Explorer.

Custom Foam

Custom foam ready for placement.

Paddler Specifics. Each of us owns a unique set of physical traits. Even when we are roughly the same height and weight, our legs, back and arms vary in muscle mass, strength, flexibility and effective range of motion. For example, a sprinter’s quadriceps are very different from a long distance runner’s leaner muscles. Flexibility or tightness in our muscles can change with the seasons; even the time of day alters our physicality. Our mental state also regulates our confidence, comfort, fears and energy output. The brain can affect our tightness, strength and acceptance, and hence our paddling output and performance. I’m sure you recognize that you are stiffer and more rigid in body and mind when cold, fearful, scared or worried.

As you prepare to experience or demo a boat, you may want to try the following:

Kayak Entry. Older kayak designs often had shorter cockpit lengths. To get into our kayaks, we first had to sit up on the rear deck behind the cockpit. Holding our paddle out perpendicular behind us for support while balancing on our perch, we had to straighten both knees and slide down, sometimes wiggling, into the small sea cockpit. This was the basic maneuver to simply enter and exit our cockpit: not too bad on the beach, but more challenging in surfy conditions off the landing.

The advent of longer cockpits, and especially the keyhole designs (which I suggest you look into), make getting into your kayak a lot easier. Stand on the sea bottom beside your boat facing your bow. Place both hands on the stern sides of the cockpit rim, and then slide your kayak-side leg down into the cockpit while leaving most of your weight on your outside leg, still in contact with the ground. With one leg halfway down into the cockpit, drop your butt fully onto the seat. Since your body weight is now low in the boat, you are more stable. You should be able to now lift your ground side leg, fold up its knee, and slide that leg down into the cockpit without skinning the front of your shin (if the cockpit is long enough for your femur). Way cool – if the cockpit is long enough!

NDK Latitude with long keyhole cockpit

NDK Latitude with a long keyhole cockpit.

Once You Are Sitting In the Boat. After you’ve slid into this new cockpit, focus on your “seat” and your contact points with the boat. Wiggle around for comfort and connection.

Be aware of and tune into these unique features of YOU:

  • How does the length of your femur relate to the boat’s cockpit length, and ease of entry and exit? 
  • Does the size of your feet and the flexibility of your ankle joints allow you to sit comfortably with your feet on the foot pegs or bulkhead? Does the amount that your feet “V” enable you to keep your lower body joints somewhat aligned? This will help transfer the ‘drive’ from the Blade through your Body and into the Boat with less strain on your joints.  
  • Where is the muscle mass in your quadricep, and how does it contact the underside of cockpit deck? Is just your knee cap hitting, or just your thicker upper thigh keeping your lower thigh and knees from strong solid contact with the underside of the deck? You want your thigh contact pressure equal across your whole contact area, from upper thigh down to your knee cap? Could your sense of contact with your boat be improved with small or larger amounts of foam padding?
  • How high must your knees be to release your hamstrings? Ideally, you want to keep your hamstrings and hips loose, actively working to control the roll of the boat, to help with the stability game and ready for your hip snap. 
  • How far apart must your knees be spread to give you good contact with the boat? To test for comfortable knee height, try sitting on the ground with sitz bones and heels touching the ground and legs out front. How much knee bend is required to release your hamstrings and hold your pelvis in the correct forward tilt?
  • How ‘deep’ are you down in that boat? It’s no fun to bump your elbows on the deck, or have the cockpit rim jab into your ribs. Some lower-stroke angle paddlers, like Greenlanders, or shorter spine paddlers prefer a low foredeck as it allows for more paddle shaft maneuverability. The length of your spine should be viewed with attention to the depth of the cockpit, the distance from the underside of the deck to the top of the seat. And if you’ve a shorter spine, you’ve probably got a shorter femur. So it’s likely your knees will be more splayed out to achieve solid contact with the underdeck of the cockpit. Pay attention here and consider the distance between your thigh contact patches while in that boat’s cockpit, along with the cockpit’s length, and its underside planes – how they contact your body. Some boats are easy to foam here, others require more sculpting of your padding to neutralize the inner boat shapes. In any case, you need some sort of contact material between you and the boat to reduce the wet slippery contact, increase your comfort, reduce fiber splinters, and shape that contact space for maximum and effective body connection. I’d suggest you want a thigh contact fit that emphasizes the largest area of uniform contact over the entire thigh and knee. (Your hip pad contact area is also important. It’s a much simpler task to make up custom hip pads.) 
  • By now you should be developing more of a sense of how you fit in that kayak cockpit. It’s particularly useful to be able to jump in and out of a few different kayaks during the same demo for data comparison.
Trust Your Boat

Your boat will handle bumpy water - sometimes better than you do!

Trust Your Boat. Sit in the boat in shallow water, and be sure that your pelvis is aligned, with the top of your pelvis leaning slightly forward. Rock the boat sideways right and left, back and forth gently. You should feel loose and comfortable. This exercise is powered by your hips, while keeping your spine loosely vertical above your hips. Loose hips don’t sink ships, but tight or locked up vertebrae do. The modern sea kayak designs are so seaworthy, and have such high secondary stability, that they are much better than we are (or at least better than I am). One of the great secrets is to be sitting well with an open, accepting mind: trusting your boat by getting your body’s tightness and restrictions out of the stability equation. You want to be connected but loose and flexible, as the sea rocks your kayak. Work on giving up some control and trust your boat.

Dynamic Paddling Position. Again, focus on this strong effective paddling position: flexibility and looseness in your legs and hips and proper spinal alignment in your lower back. Freedom in the lower back and hips is a key to active paddling and to accessing the secondary stability of your kayak. Our kayak sitting position is dynamic. Our proper sitting position keeps us in good contact with the underdeck, not relying on our seat back or back band to offer ancillary support.

Primary and Secondary Stability. Let’s be clear, any boat that floats is a darn good start in my mind, but some do certain things better than others out on the water. I might be ok paddling a log to Jewell Island, but I’d rather have the superb sea worthy attributes of our modern expedition grade sea kayaks. Most of our up-to-date, successful kayak designs are designed with a high secondary stability component (stability when hull is up on edge) coupled with a smooth transition from its solid primary stability (when boat is sitting flat on calm water). Since Nigel Dennis’s Romany and Explorer came out in 1992, many manufacturers now build this style of high secondary, row boat-shaped kayak hull: a combination I liken to the differences between our modern shaped alpine skis and our old straight sticks.

Accessing a Kayak's Secondary Stability

Accessing a kayak's secondary stability.

Generally, the newer designs offer more fit, comfort and confidence in a wider variety of conditions, especially for beginner to intermediate paddlers (tho’ we also like and paddle them!). The availability of useful secondary stability has allowed many coaches and guides to take novice level paddlers out in far bigger, lumpy, and more advanced conditions than ever before. Read more about Kayak Stability below.

Body, Boat, Blade.* To paddle efficiently and effectively, you want nearly all of your paddle energy transfered from your arms through your chest and upper back, down through your core, and then drive your hips and legs forward into your foot pegs or bulkhead. You don’t want to lose your paddle stroke energy by absorbing it into your body. You want to fully TRANSFER that energy into boat motion. We don’t pull our paddle past us as much as we drive the boat past our paddle while driving your paddle side leg and foot against your peg or bulkhead. So upon first sitting down, make sure your sitz bones are all the way back in the seat, the top of your pelvis neutral or slightly tilted forward. Adjust the foot pegs for comfort in the ankles and knees: not too tight, and especially not too loose (which collapses the pelvis backward). I recommend that you consider having your thighs in slight or close contact with the underside of cockpit deck, even when you’re in a rested or relaxed leg position; that way you can quickly connect with the boat by tightening your foot against the pegs and immediately “locking yourself” into your boat, or snapping your hips to stay upright. With a properly fitted closed cockpit boat, you want more - not less - contact with the underside of the deck, and hence more control over the angle of your hull. Not so much that you risk being trapped in your boat: that’s scary. With keyhole cockpits, sliding one knee to the center line of the cockpit should allow you to quickly free yourself from the boat. Note that you may have some choice on how wide apart or close together you can hold your knees. Once your thigh position is properly foamed up, this knee width variable usually retreats. (Compare this closed cockpit seated position to that of a sit-on-top paddler with boat contact only at their 2 heel and 2 sitz bone points. Just saying.)

Kayak Exits. Exiting from longer cockpits is easier on all landings, and particularly aids your surf or rough water landings. As I paddle in toward my chosen landing zone, I often release my skirt, pull one knee up and place that leg and foot out over the edge of the boat’s cockpit. Then as the kayak slides ashore, I can quickly and easily stand up on that ground supported leg once in shallow water – maybe using my paddle for extra stability.

Kayak Self-Rescue

Practicing kayak self-rescue.

Kayak Re-Entry. The other “big deal” entry and exit maneuver is your chosen method of deep water rescue and kayak re-entry. On the sea, our boats are our life station; we must be able to get back in them quickly and easily before or after the water is emptied. We strongly advise that you develop multiple methods of getting quickly back in your boat, but have at least one reliable, repeatable, consistent method of re-entry. In this sport we can seldom swim ashore. You can experiment with this skill right on the edge of the beach in 6”-12” of water. The hull and deck shape, primary and secondary stability, hand holds, and deck lines must work for your upper and lower body strength and maneuverability to make this all important re-entry effective. Coaching and experimentation is key here; take the time to explore. Practice, practice, practice. Seeing it done is NOT the same as being able to consistently perform a rescue re-entry.

More about Kayaks

Boat Length. Manufacturers provide a measurement for overall boat length. But waterline length is more meaningful to maneuverability and glide speed. A 16’ boat is likely to have at most a 14’ waterline, probably less. For those of us looking for a wide application sea kayak, I’d suggest you try out the more maneuverable and higher fun quotient of a 16’ boat over a longer 17’-18’ kayak. As hull designs have developed, there are now several rather quick 14’ boats. Yes, a 16’ boat is “slower” than an 18’ boat; but that discussion is a whole separate article. A longer waterline will hold its speed better on the unpowered glide part of your stroke. But the 18’ boat is more susceptible to weathercocking in the wind and gives the bumpy sea a larger surface to get ahold of you. I use a 16’ for teaching and play, a 17’ 6” for my expeditioning. 

Boat Width. This variable is mostly relevant for your size and type of use. With many modern designs featuring high secondary stability, width is now less relevant in bumpy water as discussed in the next sections. Most of the sea kayaks in our fleet average a 21-22” beam; the smaller fitting boats measure around 20”. If you are on the big end of the size curve, or have special uses like fishing, photography or physical challenges, then consider boats 24” wide and up. Just don’t default to width solely for stability.  

Kayak Hull Shapes. A hull is fundamentally made up of three shapes: fully round, like a rowing shell (and hence no edge or platform to provide secondary stability); a deep V, which will slice through the water in a straight line while resisting turning (these may have little primary stability but lots of secondary); and the square-ish rowboat shape, with its increased water friction. So, a round shape is like sitting on a big ball. A deep V shape is often great on calm water, but for many they begin to feel like they’re walking along a fence rail on a windy day. Modern soft chined rowboat designs are slower with the extra wetted surface; but if properly incorporated into a particular kayak design, these shapes can provide us with that huge “safety box” that most of us appreciate in the current modern boats. This feeling of extra stability is especially noticeable when the sea state pushes us beyond our comfort zone (our safety box) and allows for more paddling and less bracing.

Sea Kayak Hull Shapes

Kayak Stability. These modern boats want to stay upright! The reason? It’s the combination of hull shape, fat convex ends, lots of hull supported by the water, and your comfortable, strong connection with the inside of the boat, adding up to the magic of useful high secondary stability when the hull is edged over. Note how the side of a deep V or rowboat hull rests on and meets the plane of the wave shape coming at our beam ( ^ and  v fit together). Some deeper V-hulled boats flop onto their secondary. Other soft-chined rowboat hulls roll up more gradually and smoothly into their secondary. You can test this by sitting in your kayak in shallow water, paddle at the ready for support. Using your knees and hips, edge up onto and into that boat’s secondary stability as the side of your kayak meets the water surface. In fact, you’ll want to test and develop this relation between the static hull design and the gentle control, stability and ease of edging.

North Atlantic Ocean

Read the story about a lost NDK Explorer crossing the Atlantic to France on its own.

Hint: For the littler, lighter paddler, the new breed of 20” wide hulls makes accessing and controlling this all-important secondary stability a dream compared to a wider 22” hull, which will fight your lighter weight and strength. Decades ago, a boat’s beam was its perceived stability. Now, your access to high secondary stability is the secret ingredient for being comfortable paddling out on the ever-changing sea.

MIKCo's demo fleet.

Design Function. The combination of these primary hull shapes defines much of a boat’s stability and performance. Additional basic variables are the kayak’s water line, length, beam, rocker, and the location and amount of each. If you seek to understand the secondary stability component, then note the amount (length) of concave and convex shapes in a hull’s sides, and the changes in these factors depending on how deeply the hull is pressed down into the water.

A professional instructor/coach with a wide experience in body shape and kayak design can be invaluable for interpreting how a particular model will work with your body and abilities. Sea kayak designs must perform in an extremely wide variety of conditions, sea shapes and water structures. A sea kayak (well most kayaks) are a unique bundle of design compromises - that are worth trying to understand.

Rudders or Skegs or Not. Rudders and skegs make boats go straight when you can’t. They can aid a novice paddling a straight line or following a chosen course in wind and waves. Anytime one adds a mechanical device to a simple hull, you’ll increase chances of extra human error, breakage and maintenance. But most sea boats 16’ and longer will have greater application to a wider variety of conditions with a rudder or skeg. Please know that most boats will turn quicker and sharper without use of the rudder or skeg; as I mentioned, they are mostly for maintaining a straight course. Boats turn best by using your intermediate strokes, hull shape and an edge or lean.

Rudders are usually controlled by one’s feet and hence may require pressure on both pegs simultaneously for power transfer or bracing (except for aircraft style pegs). Rudders allow for greater use of your forward strokes, and less corrective strokes so may cover more ground more easily, hence many race boats are ruddered.

NDK Quantum rudder

Kayak rudder.

Kayaks fitted with skegs usually have fixed foot pegs for simpler transfer into the paddle side foot peg as you drive your Blade energy through your Body and into the Boat. Skegs often have an attack angle of 0 to 90 degrees (a range of positions), which offers the paddler a wider variety of pivot points in your hull. Though not without their own maintenance complications, skegs generally require less repair and maintenance, depending on materials, design and proper use, and their failure while paddling usually is less problematic. 

Rudders have definite advantages for racer types. Skegs have some solid advantages for more expeditioner and play-boater types.

Bulkhead Material and Installation. In a sea boat, after your personal fit and excitement over paddling that model boat, I’d suggest that maybe the MOST important variable is the bulkhead placement and integrity. By this I mean the bulkheads stay securely in position and allow for the least water in your cockpit in a rescue. Most of us can visualize, and some of us have experienced, how difficult it is to rescue and empty an open canoe. Water weighs around 7 lbs. a gallon, and your kayak might easily hold 80 to 120 gallons. Math tells you that water inside your boat dramatically effects your ability and speed in performing a rescue. I understand that you might not view a boat’s bulkhead integrity as a high priority for your boat choice; but remember that Darwin is sometimes right. So, I suggest considering your bulkheads’ role in safety on the sea. Even with solid, well-placed bulkheads, learn to deal with the amount of water that fills your cockpit in a rescue. This is why, at MIKCo, we order custom-placed front bulkheads, and further reduce the possible water volume by installing custom foot foam against the bulkhead. These modifications decrease water in the cockpit, increase bow storage space, and strengthen the boat overall.

NDK Echo Front Bulkhead

The front bulkhead glassed in place in an NDK Echo.

Bulkheads can be foam, plastic, composite, or wood. Some materials are stronger than others. The bulkheads are then glued, welded, or fiberglassed into position; obviously the quality and durability of this bond is key to their integrity. Glues and attachment methods have dramatically improved over the last 15 years. But many committed sea paddlers prefer strong composite bulkheads that are then fiberglassed into their water displacing position.

Having owned many hundreds of sea kayaks over the decades and suffered all sorts of real world rescues, breakage and destruction, my experience to date says that composite bulkheads glassed in place are the best combination to avoid bulkhead failure. We seldom, if ever, experience a fail. Again, I’d suggest that bulkhead integrity is a real deal here, period.

Kayak Materials and Construction

Most modern boats are either rotomolded plastic, thermofoam plastic, or synthetic composites held together by resins. Additionally, there are great applications of wooden boats, skin on frames, inflatables and folding boats, but this last group make up a small percentage of kayaks overall. Price, durability, outfitting, stiffness and weight are the primary variables (sorry, not color). Technology provides us with loads of options, and people provide even more opinions. There is lots to learn to be able to sort out these variables and wisely connect them to your physique, budget, venue and use.

NDK Factory

The NDK Factory in Anglesey, Wales.

Rotomolded Boats. RM boats are molded from a few newer plastics: some more recyclable than others, some shinier and less apt to ‘hair up’. Manufacturers must go through many stages of trial and error to make a boat that is strong and stiff enough for the intended use without being too heavy to move around. Not all RM boats are equal. The bigger deal with plastic boats is how to attach the various outfitting bits, cockpit rims, deck lines, and rudders or skegs. We often are repairing the rivets, glues, screws, tape and friction fits. In particular, the bulkheads in an RM kayak (made of softer materials with greater flex), can separate from the hull, breaking the waterproof seal with the boat. If this happens, it can be dangerous. Please pay attention here, aye?

The Good, Bad & Ugly in RMs. Many argue for the advantages of rotomolded boats. There’s no question the construction, performance and cost of the better designed RMs is now great and ready for prime time. We agree and use them for lower level courses, and less experienced paddlers. But most all of us full time, pro-like paddlers use composite boats for their performance, durability and aesthetics. Some of the many plastic boats are now full-on sea kayaks. Many of us have RMs around for more carefree days practicing rescues or teaching in the rocks. But for paddlers who will have lots of contact with beach landings and launches, boat adjustments and packing, rough surfaces, car racks and general rough handling: plastic “hairs up” with contact, and gets slower with each beach landing. In contrast, gelcoat wears thinner but remains mostly smooth. RMs are usually heavier to start with.

Composite Boats. Composites are usually lighter, stiffer and cleaner through the water than plastic boats. Their glide between strokes is longer. Their water friction is less. Hence energy expended per stroke is better used. Yes, they’re costlier, but they last longer in an efficient condition. Composite decks and hulls are made in their own separate molds from one to many layers of woven cloth with structural foam or other strengthening inserts sometimes laid into the mix. Each cloth layer can have varied thickness and numbers of threads per inch, woven at 90 degrees. The primary materials are fiberglass, Kevlar and carbon in various combinations. Resins that bond these flexible cloths together, through a chemical cure in the shape of the mold, are usually polyester, vinylester or epoxy. The waterproof outer layer is traditionally gelcoat, can be paint, and increasingly is a vinylester or epoxy. The better composite manufacturers will proudly argue for their chosen builds, and most will offer two to three “layup” options for different uses and price points. In the last few years we have seen interesting new cloths and materials incorporated, but buyer resistance to necessary price increases has kept many of these positive developments at bay.

Opinion. To date, I still prefer well engineered and solidly built composite boats with glassed in bulkheads for their combination of durability, safety, variability of design and performance. As an owner of many hundreds of kayaks over the years, MIKCo has received best value from the super seaworthy, well designed composites, built by hand in open molds. And we mostly live and paddle the harsh, rocky coast of Maine. If you are a big bloke, then sizing is more important than weight. If you are on the “little” end of the bell curve, then a kayak’s weight could be as important to you as its small fit size – and then the more expensive, often lighter carbon Kevlar (CK) builds become more relevant.

Latitude hole - structurally solid an inch away

Latitude hole - structurally solid an inch away.

Maintenance and Choice in Composite Boats. As a mid-sized, older guy who mostly paddles in the bumpy water rockgardens or on multi-day trips, my bias is toward the durable, long lasting, minimal maintenance of the lower cost composite materials and basic construction methods. I sure like picking up those 40 lb. carbon Kevlar boats instead of my 50+ lb. expedition layup Explorer. But for my rough use and size, a full-on CK boat would only last me a few years, whereas my current hand laid up standard expedition composite Explorer was built in 2010 and remains my primary kayak. It’s true that the CK boats are tough and strong and absolutely suitable for most paddlers use. But they are also more brittle and prone to stress cracks and breaks. Yes, many CK builds can take a big hit without serious damage, but when they do break it’s often catastrophic. The damage will be over a far larger area than the point of impact, with the layers perhaps delaminating far from the point of impact. This necessitates a more complex repair and materials, and more highly skilled repairer. In contrast, NDK’s more old-fashioned, basic expedition layups chemically cook together into a mass not unlike over-boiled pasta. This thick (and heavier) conglomerate along with NDK’s use of multi directional chopmat cloth, and thick hand laid gel, makes for one of the toughest, least repaired, longest lasting boat builds we have experienced. They’re easily “20 year boats”.

Let’s be clear here. I personally appreciate and definitely enjoy the refinement of carbon (and Kevlar) materials, builds that use lots of different materials in strategic positions, all combined with the modern vacuum and infusion construction methods. All this makes sense, works well and can be gorgeous. Though these builds cost more, they can make a lot of sense for those of you requiring or preferring the lighter, easier maneuvering CK boats, especially if you are attentive to your boat’s care, avoid high contact rock play and shy from that paddle ending in personal injury. At 6’ and nearly 200 lbs, I still paddle standard expedition layups with their basic polyester gels and resins for their durability and ease of field repairs. My hundreds of fully loaded landings on rocky shores each season are best handled with the more basic composite builds. So I carry around a heavier boat, but when paddled fully loaded (unlike most day paddling), the weight difference is negligible. These basic materials and construction methods make for simple, quick repairs when needed, generally just to the gelcoat. By the way, gelcoat serves two primary purposes: it waterproofs the cloth and resin, and it acts as a sacrificial wear layer. So boats with thicker, hand laid gels are heavier, but have a long lasting wear surface versus the lighter, thinner sprayed gels. Most of my field repairs – seldom necessary - have taken only 5-20 minutes. But for the smaller framed, lighter weight, less powerful paddler, and those wanted or appreciating the quicker acceleration and easier directional change of a light boat, the 40-ish pound CK builds are well worth their required extra attention, care and cost. Twenty years ago CK boats were not as ready for prime time as now. Nigel paddled one on our Antarctic trip in Y2000. Due to the razor sharp, super dense Antarctic ice, we left it with the base commander for his kids as it was mostly toast after our 5 week trip. However, my standard expedition layup 3-piece kayak used on that same expedition is still fully operational. But do know that in the last 15 years, CK has definitely come of age and many of the rugged pro paddlers I know are using CK for their daily paddle.

Environment: The Third Big Variable. After the “You” and the “Boat” fixed variables in choosing a sea kayak, pay attention to the exciting changing effects that environmental factors have on your sea kayaking experience. This is a life-long study. Fresh and salt water venues are significantly altered by the myriad of sea and environmental factors influencing the water surface shape, steepness, speed and power. I’d suggest that beginners and novices study a wave’s steepness and the rate of change of those angles as they approach your boat. A wave’s steepness is the primary variable for our comfort and confidence in bumpy conditions. A super flat but 30’ tall swell might scare us, but is unlikely to tip us over, while a steep faced 3’ dumping wave can easily flip many of us . The interaction of the wave’s plane with our hull’s plane is exactly where our secondary stability meets the sea; we need to test and experience each boat’s stability and how our physique connects with our boat in the conditions we paddle. 

Wind and Waves. As all kayaks are affected by the wind and the shape of the waves, you should note the differences in the amount of weather cocking (or the scarier lee cocking) by paddling with these on your beam. Try several wind-to-hull angles and velocities. Perhaps you are ready to paddle the same course and angle with a deployed rudder or adjustable skeg, but listen up: deployed rudders or skegs will make a boat run downwind and you may not be able to turn back upwind. Understand this before you subject yourself to any venue out of reach of the safety of land. If your rudder or skeg gets locked in a down position out on a high wind day, what is your recovery response?

Backshore of Peaks

Swell breaks as it meets the backshore of Peaks Island.

Following Seas. Know that one of the more difficult design conditions is a following wind or sea (over the stern). So, demo your boat in this downwind direction as well. Here a rudder or skeg offers advantage along with its danger mentioned above. Recognize that your less-developed paddling abilities may not allow you to fully explore a kayak’s real design potential. 

Surface Texture. The surface of most seas has an even greater “surface topography”, or more dimensions, than the Great Lakes. Pay attention to where you are placing your boat on the water. A few yards one side or the other of your course could have significantly different conditions, and alter your fun or fear factor a whole lot! Learn to see and read this texture. Waves vary by the wind’s velocity, duration and fetch. Tidal flows create currents and change the water depth, again altering a wave’s shapes. Over greater distances and time, waves become ocean swells, a whole other advanced course for your seamanship study.

So enjoy this boat learning process, take your time, paddle in a variety of conditions. You’ll be learning every time you paddle, and your boat demos should be fun and fruitful. Strongly consider investing in your personal paddling development while figuring out boats that match your interests and uses over the next few years.

If you want some help on sorting out this fun, interesting and challenging exercise, drop Tom a note for an appointment with our demo fleet and come try on our demo process. 


Boat use should enhance your physical skills, and connect your body to that boat.

Its design ought to complement your artistic sense and desire for adventure.

The design and performance should work well for your intended and secondary uses.

That boat should connect you to your goals and your environment in conditions.

Kayaking isn’t a required task; does that boat add to your smile? Peace? Excitement?

* With thanks to Shawna and Leon for their great training programs at Body Boat Blade.

Posted in Boats and Gear.