July 2007

Paddlers Notebook

There Is A Kayak For You

By Kayak Jay
Photo by Joe Sedelac

Kayaks come in many styles, shapes, and sizes. They also come in a variety of materials.

The lowest-priced kayaks are made of plastic. They are flexible, durable, and extremely heavy. Plastic kayaks can't be stored on their hulls or they will “oil pan” in our heat.

You can't strap them tightly on a rack without making a groove in the bottom. They can be stored on end, and transported on their side in a “J” rack. Some plastic kayaks will oxidize in the sunlight and heat and become very brittle through time. More modern plastics offer a longer life.

Composite Kayaks

Composite kayaks made of mats and resin are markedly lighter than plastic, with the weight and price dependent on the material used in the mats. The standard for kayak use is fiberglass.

Fiberglass boats are about twice the price of plastic boats, they are lighter, more durable and repairable. A 16-foot sea kayak may weigh 70 pounds in plastic, but the same model might be 45 pounds in fiberglass, depending on the quality of the lay-up.

Lighter composite boats use more exotic materials in the mats.


The next step up from fiberglass is Kevlar, which is a lighter and stiffer material. Our 45-pound fiberglass kayak might be about 38 pounds in Kevlar.

The weight reduction will cost $50 to $75 a pound. Kevlar boats are stiffer than fiberglass, and suffer more from impacts.

Lightest Composite

The lightest composite uses a carbon fiber mat. The 16-foot kayak in carbon fiber will be around 34 pounds. The reduction will cost about $100 a pound, and will give you a boat that you had better not drop.

There Is A Kayak For You

Whatever the material, there is a kayak for you. Most people first encounter a kayak in a big-box store. The ones you find there will either be toys or recreational kayaks.

Recreational kayaks will typically have no storage compartments, and no sealed chambers. If this is true, you must add a flotation device, or the boat can fill with water and sink.

Plastic doesn't float! For fun and games horsing around in the water, a recreational kayak can be worthwhile, but you can't ask it to do much else.

Top-end recreational kayaks, or day-use boats, will have an accessible hatch that provides a sealed compartment for storage and a floatation air chamber.

The storage area is roughly enough to contain all you need for a picnic and snacks during the day. Most will not have a rudder because they are short and easy to turn. Of course, easy-to-turn means hard to keep going in a straight line.

Sea Kayaks

The next step up is a sea kayak. It will be larger than the recreational kayak, have two or more hatches, and provide enough storage for serious camping.

Some variations have an indentation or well in the rear deck for scuba gear, fishing tackle or water toys. Some folks use the area for children or pets.

The sea kayak may have an optional rudder that can be folded up when not in use, or a drop-down skeg to improve tracking.

The larger size of the sea kayak means the method of construction is much more critical to the weight of the boat.


All types of kayaks can be had in either a sit-on-top (SOT) or a sit-inside-kayak (SINK). Native peoples of the North manufactured traditional kayaks to enable them to stay warm paddling on cold water in a hostile environment.

They learned to roll their boats upright after a spill because they would die if they fell out of the boat. The SOT boats were developed by the South Sea Islanders because they didn't need to protect themselves from the bitter cold, and an enclosed vessel would be too warm for comfortable use during the day.

They fished, swam, and dove from SOTs and developed designs that were most practical for these uses.

On a straight comparison of climate, a SINK would be most uncomfortable in the entire southern portion of Arizona .

To see all the different models of kayaks, use a Web resource such as a manufacturer's site or paddling.net. To physically see different models you need to visit the one full-service kayak shop in the Phoenix area or go to Aqua Adventures in San Diego , or Southwind Kayak in Irvine , Calif.

All full-service dealers provide the opportunity to paddle a given model before you buy. Any questions on kayak types and composition, you can reach me at kayakjay@msn.com or (602) 359-1354.