Guide To Buying A Sea Kayak

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There are many joys of sea kayaking that simply can’t be experienced on lakes or rivers. The variety of marine life you can observe is reason alone to seriously look into purchasing your own sea kayak. 

While there are certainly different environmental considerations to account for when sea kayaking, the rewards are worth the added skills and training you’ll need. 

With the right sea kayak in your quiver, you might even become confident enough to attempt an extended trip. Something like kayaking the Inside Passage might spark your fancy as you and your sea kayak become best mates. 

In this article, we’re going to provide a comprehensive guide to buying a sea kayak. We’ll touch on kayak jargon, why it helps to take a lesson before buying, several buying considerations, and five buying mistakes to avoid. 

What Is A Sea Kayak?

By definition, a sea kayak is specifically developed for use on open water. Their unique characteristics include a covered deck and the ability to incorporate a spray skirt to keep the cockpit drier. 

When compared to recreational or whitewater kayaks, sea kayaks tend to have a higher cruising speed, larger carrying capacity, and more comfort for long-distance adventures. 

Sea kayaks are also designed to be easier to paddle over straight-line distances. There are many models of sea kayaks ranging from 10 to 26 feet in length and able to accommodate one to three paddlers. 

While most sea kayaks feature a sit-inside design, recent years have seen an uptick in sit on top kayaks designed for sea use. There are even foldable kayaks that prioritize ease of transport that provide good performance in ocean waters. 

One feature that is very common to sea kayaks is a skeg or rudder. This fin-like accessory extends down into the water below your kayak to improve your ability to track straight when paddling against heavy winds or strong ocean currents. 

Jargon Buster

Sea kayaks have a number of features and accessories that you won’t find on other recreational or whitewater kayaks. In this section, we’ll provide brief definitions of some common terms you’ll run into later in this article. 

Rudder or Skeg

These terms are often used interchangeably with kayaks, but they always refer to a fin that extends from the stern of the kayak down into the water. This fin can be controlled by hand or foot pedals. 

The purpose of a rudder or skeg behind a kayak is to help the paddler steer straighter. Rudders or skegs are especially helpful when paddling in heavy winds or strong ocean currents. 

Cockpit

The cockpit of the kayak is where the paddler sits. In a sit-inside sea kayak, the cockpit can be entirely enclosed with a spray skirt to keep the paddler’s lower body protected from wind and waves. 

Gunwales

A kayak’s gunwales are its sides. Sea kayaks sit lower in the water and have higher gunwales than most other types of kayaks so that less water gets into the cockpit and the paddler stays drier. 

Bulkheads

A bulkhead is an internal compartment in your kayak that is airtight and watertight. The air that’s trapped in this compartment gives your kayak added buoyancy and helps to keep the kayak afloat. 

Hatches

A hatch in a kayak is an opening in the hull that can be used to access internal compartments. In many cases, hatches are watertight and offer a place for kayakers to store dry gear on an extended trip. 

The Benefits Of Taking A Lesson

Sea kayaks require a little more skill and training than recreational kayaks. While some of the maneuvers are similar to those needed for whitewater kayaking, sea kayaking is in its own realm. 

If you’re relatively new to sea kayaking and just starting to look into buying a sea kayak, there are benefits to taking a lesson before you make a purchase. At the very least, you’ll need to know how to steer a sea kayak without using the rudder or skeg. 

But the best-case scenario is that you learn how to execute the various kayak strokes before you buy a sea kayak. You should also learn how to exit your kayak quickly and efficiently if it capsizes. 

Other skills you’ll need include the ability to execute a wet exit and then right a capsized boat. Because of the design of sea kayaks, this is a bit more challenging than a wet entry in a sit on top, recreational kayak, so a lesson is highly recommended. 

Sea kayaking requires more technical skills and expertise than recreational kayaking on calm, flat water. Take a lesson before you buy a sea kayak so that you have the skills and knowledge you’ll need to feel comfortable on your personal outings. 

Buying Guide

As we mentioned above, sea kayaks can be anywhere from 10 to 26 feet long and they can also come with different features, varying widths, and a host of other differences. In this section, we’ll provide some key considerations to help you choose a sea kayak that will fit your desired use. 

Experience Level

Experience level is often overlooked when it comes to buying a sea kayak. Because beginners aspire to become experts very quickly, there can be a tendency to over-reach for a kayak that’s not really suited for beginner use. 

As a beginner, you really need to look for a kayak that will be forgiving so that you can learn and hone your skills. You should also be careful not to overspend on your first kayak, as there are many options out there and the kayak you start with might not be your ‘forever’ kayak. 

More experienced novices should look to find a kayak that fits somewhere in the middle ground in terms of price. Find a kayak that falls between the most expensive model out there and a cheap recreational kayak that you’ll outgrow in a matter of weeks. 

Intermediate and expert kayakers will have a much larger wealth of knowledge to pull from. Now you will know which features are really important to you and what truly makes a kayak comfortable when you spend a full day in the cockpit. 

Sizing

This one is really hard to test out unless you actually go into the store. Looking at a kayak’s dimensions online will only tell you so much about whether or not you’ll feel comfortable in the cockpit. 

In reality, you’ll need to physically sit inside a kayak’s cockpit in order to know if it’s a good fit. It’s a classic too-snug, too-loose, just-right process of trial and error. 

The good news is that you don’t necessarily have to make a purchase at the retail store after you find the kayak model and size that feels like a good fit. You can always note the price at the retail store and then go home and hop online to do a little comparison shopping. 

Length And Width

While sea kayaks come in a variety of lengths and widths, there are some important metrics you should be aware of. In general, sea kayaks are going to be longer than recreational or whitewater kayaks. 

This extra length improves a sea kayak’s ability to track straighter and maintain higher cruising speeds. It’s a good rule of thumb to make sure your sea kayak is 11.5 feet long or longer. 

Generally speaking, the wider a kayak is, the more stable it’s going to be. In reality, a kayak’s length and width work together to determine just how stable, or unstable, the kayak feels on the water. 

Most novice or beginner sea kayakers should look for a kayak that’s at least 30 inches wide. But as you gain experience, you can start to feel comfortable in thinner and thinner kayak models. 

That being said, there is a point of diminishing returns at which your risk of tipping or capsizing significantly increases. Many experts believe that a sea kayak should be at least 19.5 inches wide if you want to prevent frequent capsizing. 

Cockpit Design

Most sea kayaks have relatively small cockpits. It’s simply a common trait amongst this style of kayak because most of your gear should be stored in hatches, bulkheads, or secured to the deck using attached bungee rigging. 

That being said, a smaller kayak cockpit means less water splashing over the gunwales and into the cockpit. Because sit-inside sea kayaks are harder to drain than self-bailing sit on top kayaks, it’s really important that their design limits the amount of water that can get into the cockpit. 

Limiting the size of a kayak’s cockpit means a drier, more comfortable ride. When looking at the cockpit dimensions of the kayaks you’re interested in, make sure the cockpit isn’t much wider than your waist. 

Low Center of Gravity

Sea kayaks don’t sit up high out of the water for a reason. Because they’re made for straight-line speed, sea kayaks tend to have a narrower hull design that makes them a little more susceptible to tipping. 

In order to counter that susceptibility, sea kayak designers have given their kayaks a lower center of gravity. This means that the kayak sits lower in the water and, therefore, reduces the likelihood of tipping. 

A kayak with a lower center of gravity is also less affected by heavy crosswinds that can threaten to take you off course. Being able to steer to your desired landing point is critical when conditions change on the water. 

A kayak with a lower center of gravity will respond less to heavy winds and be easier for you to maneuver in those conditions. And this factor shouldn’t be taken lightly, as it can often play a huge role in your safety on the water. 

Five Buying Mistakes To Avoid

When buying a sea kayak, it’s just as good to know what NOT to look for as it is to know what TO look for. So let’s dive into five common mistakes you should avoid when buying a sea kayak. 

Not Testing Your Choices

Many kayaks look great in the store. The store employees have taken careful time to display their kayaks in such a way that will catch your eye and maximize the chances that you take one home. 

But, in many ways, kayaks are just like automobiles. Many of us would hesitate to buy a new car without having first taken it on a test drive if we don’t also insist on bringing it to our trusted mechanic for an inspection. 

In the ideal scenario, you should learn what it actually feels like to sit inside and maneuver a kayak before you make a purchase. And, just to be clear, this isn’t possible on land or in a retail store. 

It’s okay to be a little picky and seek out retailers that will allow you to take a kayak for a “test paddle.” And if you can’t find one, at the very least you need to choose a retailer that offers a very lenient return policy. 

Over-Prioritizing Weight

While weight is an important factor in selecting between different sea kayak models, it’s not the ONLY factor. The kayak market is saturated with lighter and lighter models because of improvements in material design. 

If you’re going to be doing a lot of portaging with your kayak, weight is certainly going to be a primary factor in your kayak choice. But when you’re on the water, you’ll rarely notice a difference of just five or 10 pounds. 

So, while the weight of your kayak is important when you need to move it on land, be careful not to over-prioritize weight. Small weight differences will hardly be noticeable on the water, which is where you should be spending most of your time in your kayak. 

Not Looking For Comfort

Comfort is arguably the most important factor when choosing a sea kayak. Because people have so many different heights, weights, and body types, there’s definitely not one kayak that’s best for everyone. 

In addition to trying out different kayak models, you can also try out different sizes of the same model. This will give you a great idea of what feels best for your unique body type and which kayak you can imagine spending multiple hours, days, or even weeks inside. 

How you feel when you sit inside the kayak’s cockpit in the store is, for the most part, how you’ll feel when you’re out on the water. If the cockpit feels too small or too large, you won’t feel as stable and in control when you’re paddling that kayak out on the water. 

Falling For The ‘Bells and Whistles’

Many kayak manufacturers do a great job of selling you on all the added features and accessories they’ve included in their kayak design. But you’ll need to use a keen eye to decipher how many of those features and accessories you’ll really need. 

Many buyers make the mistake of falling in love with a specific feature or accessory that they actually won’t end up using all that often. Unnecessary features will always inflate the price of a sea kayak. 

A good sea kayak should have a host of basic features. That includes a continuous deck line running on the bow and stern, secure carry toggles on the bow and stern, watertight hatches and bulkheads, and a backrest that doesn’t extend higher than the cockpit of the kayak. 

Other features can be nice for specific purposes, but they also come with added risk. More moving parts tend to mean a higher likelihood of equipment failure, which can sometimes derail an otherwise-promising kayak expedition. 

Settling For The ‘All-Arounder’

This is one of the most classic and over-used sales lines: “This kayak is made for the all-around paddler and works great in a wide variety of conditions.” 

On the surface (ahem!), that all sounds fine and dandy. But when you’re seriously looking into a kayak that can perform well in ocean conditions, an ‘all-arounder’ simply doesn’t fit the bill. 

Kayaks are made with different hull and cockpit designs that maximize their efficiency in different conditions. An ‘all-around kayak’ will never perform better in ocean conditions than a kayak that is made for those conditions. 

Before you settle on a kayak, you need to carefully consider the type of paddling you do most often. Choosing a kayak that is best for that type of paddling will ensure you get the most use out of it. 

While expedition-style kayaks are flashy and alluring, you need to be sure that you really intend on executing that type of trip. There are always trade-offs in performance when you try to take a kayak designed for one environment into a different environment. 

By having a firm grasp on the paddling that you do more than 80 or 90 percent of the time, you’ll be able to choose a kayak that will perform best in the conditions you most frequently encounter.

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