Choosing a Sea Kayak

Selecting a Sea Kayak: A General Discussion

Purchasing a Kayak can be overwhelming particularly if it is your first time.  Here are a few things to know and consider when it comes time to buy your first boat or upgrade your current boat:

Where are you going to paddle?

What is your skill level?

How far will you paddle?

What are your goals?

Before we introduce the different kayak families and discuss the specific characteritics let's take a moment and define some terms:

Definitions/Rules and or Assumptions:
Rocker-  Rocker is the amount the ends of the hull are curved upward in relation to the center of the hull. Virtually all ocean touring kayaks have some rocker. A bit of rocker seems necessary to improve the speed potential of kayaks. As the amount of rocker increases, kayaks become easier to turn, but not all kayaks with the same amount of rocker react the same.
There are two basic cross sectional shapes for kayaks with many variations possible between them. There are very round shapes (soft chined), and very square shapes (hard chined). Simply speaking, how they influence the feel of a kayak is that the hard chined shapes have more initial stability than the soft chined shapes, whose rounder shapes have a bit less surface area to reduce surface drag.
Skeg-  Drops out of the stern of the boat to provide lateral resistance to keep the boat tracking in a straight line.  It can be set in a number of positions depending on conditions.
Rudder-  A steerable option to control the kayak in wind and or current
Primary Stability-  Primary stability is the relative stability of a boat that is sitting flat on the water right-side-up. A wider base gives increased primary stability.
Secondary Stability- "Secondary stability is vital when you're faced with rough water or when you lean in to a turn. Lean turns are an efficient way to maneuver your kayak. If your kayak is long, it will likely track well, but it will lose maneuverability. By lean turning a kayak, you reduce the waterline length presented to the water and turn quicker. This is why secondary stability is so important—it helps you stay upright while you orient in a way that makes the kayak move the way you need it." Necky Kayaks.

Kayak Length-  A longer waterline results in a smoother transition and a faster boat. In moving through the water, the hull must separate the water at the bow, allowing it to return to the stern as smoothly as possible. A shorter waterline results in a less streamlined passage through the water, but the hull will be more maneuverable.  Given two kayaks of the same width, a longer kayak will have a bigger "footprint" on the water. Besides more efficiency, a longer kayak will have more stability and load carrying capacity.

I like to think of sea kayaks as being divided into three families:

Recreational Kayaks:  These Boats are typically 10-14ft long and intended to be used within the proximity of the beach and in calm conditions.  A recreational kayak will often only have one water tight compartment in the stern which will make re-entering the kayak (self rescue) very near to impossible should you tip over (capsize).  A recreational kayak is also much less efficient than a day touring or touring boat because of its proportions.  They are shorter and wider than their cousins, which is the opposite of what you may want if you are looking for a boat to cover ground in.  What makes a recreational kayak a viable option for people is their stability and ease of use.  Typically a Rec. boat has an enlarged cockpit which makes it very easy to get in and out of.  On the other side of the coin that enlarged cockpit makes it easy for water to enter the cockpit should it become rough.  A rec. boat is very stable.  The stability is a function of the width of the boat along with the shape.  Rec. boats are wide, comparatively speaking.  They commonly have a hard chine, or multi-chine which refers to the shape of the side of the boat.  A hard or multi chine boat provides greater initial stability by creating resistance when the kayak starts to roll.  *Note: If boat is stable in flat water it doesn’t mean that it is going to be stable in rough water

Pros:                                                Cons:
Easy to get in and out of                   Not self rescue-able
Stable                                                Inefficient                                                          
Price                                                  Poor Tracking (zig zag)                                                       
Light Weight                                      You can get swamped
High Initial Stability                            Low Secondary Stability

Browse Recreational Kayaks

*Low rocker, typically no skeg or rudder because of the short water line.

Day Touring Kayaks (Jack of all trades):  If we were to rate a day touring kayak on a scale of 1-10 in categories such as stability, tracking, efficiency and maneuverability it would be a solid 5 across the board, hence the monicker "jack of all trades", they do everything well but don't really excel in one area.  Day touring Kayaks are typically 13-16ft long.  Now we are talking about a boat that is fully compartmentalized, meaning there are water tight bulkheads (walls) at each end of the kayak that provide buoyancy should the kayak fill with water.  This is a major difference that now makes the boat self rescue-able with proper training.  Again, a self-rescue means that should you fall out of the boat or capsize you can climb back in and be on your way while in open water.  The day touring kayak also has a smaller cockpit that is better suited for paddling in conditions.  The smaller cockpit provides more coverage there by keeping more water out of the boat should it become rough.  *Side note: That is also the purpose of a spray skirt.  The shape and proportion of the day touring kayak also drastically change.  Typically a Rec. boat will be 27"-30" wide, while a day touring boat will be in the neighborhood of 24".  This major change, along with the additional length, make a day touring kayak much more efficient than a rec. boat.  Know that a day touring kayak will commonly have a hard chine to give it added initial stability. 

Pros:                                        Cons:
Self Rescue-able                      Less Capacity
Comfortable                              Doesn't excel in one category                                      
Tracks well                                         
Easy to use
More efficient
High Initial Stability

Browse Day Touring Kayaks

*Varying Rocker, Typically Ruddered, Often Hard or Multi Chine

Touring Kayaks (Performance/Multi-Day): Touring kayaks are built with one thing in mind, performance.  These kayaks are purpose built to be efficient and outfitted to emphasize safety, storage, fit and performance.  A touring kayak is typically 14ft and up.  Keep in mind that the longer and narrower a kayak is the more efficient it becomes.  But there is a trade off there.  Length adds efficiency and capacity but decreases maneuverability, and a narrow boat may be quick but a narrower a boat is the less stable and has less room. 

Touring kayaks also will either come equipped with a drop skeg or a rudder.  The drop skeg will act to keep the boat paddling in a straight line when in wind or current.  It is not steerable, a set it and forget it mentality.  The rudder will help the paddler control the boat in adverse conditions by providing a means to steer the kayak.  Typically you will find skegs equipped on boats with a lot of rocker and rudders equipped on boats with less rocker.  Rocker describes the amount of curve a boat has from bow to stern.  Example:  If we took a boat that had a lot of rocker to it and set it on the floor we would be able to see both the bow and the stern up off the floor.  The more rocker a boat has the higher the bow and stern will be raised up off the ground. 

So what does rocker get you?  Rocker will increase maneuverability and help the boat to perform better in rougher conditions.  As you edge a boat that has a significant amount of rocker you are essentially shrinking the waterline which will make the boat turn much easier and quicker.  A boat with a high amount of rocker will also perform better in rough seas.  The fact the kayak has that "curve" to the hull allows the boat to rise up and over waves and chop rather than plowing through them.  But again there are trade offs, loads of rocker will decrease efficiency and tracking (with the skeg up).

It is up to paddler to decide am I looking for a boat to go from here to there efficiently, with lots of room to carry gear?  Am I looking for a boat that will excel in inclement conditions and dynamic environments like you would find coastal paddling? 

Pros                                                     Cons
Efficient                                                 More expensive
Lots of room for gear                            can be less maneuverable
Track Well                                             Tighter Fit                                        
Performance fit                                      Lower Initial Stability
Performance outfitting
(seat, back band, day hatch etc...)
Self Rescue-able
Wide Variety of designs
(Lengths, Rocker, Chine, skeg or rudder)
Excels in variety of conditions
High Secondary Stability

Browse Touring Kayaks

*Varying Rocker and often Soft or Hard Chine, depending on intended use.

If you have questions please give us a call (360) 297-4659 or send an email to:, we will do our best to provide you with the most accurate and up to date information.

Happy Paddling,
Forrest Wells
KayakProShop/OOC  Manager