Choosing a Kayak

Learning to Speak Kayak

From emails I have received and from my own experience, I get the feeling that the CT is like the Appalachian Trail, in that it attracts people who aren't already experienced, expert paddlers. That's great, but before you walk into an outfitter and start checking out kayaks, it's a good idea to learn to speak a little kayak. The guy at the store will be asking you things like, "What's your position on skegs?" or "Glass boats flex less than composites, but how important is that to you?."  You'll probably want to do more than nod at these statements.

So if you want to learn to speak kayak, you can always google "how to choose a sea kayak" and read a dozen articles. This will introduce you to the vocabulary, but have your bullshit detector set to "high" since a lot of opinion and personal preference is presented as fact.

Here are a few articles that are decent introductions to kayaks types, designs, et cetera:

Sea Kayak Buyer's Guide at Kayak Academy

Choosing a Sea Kayak at One Ocean Kayaks

Choosing the Right Kayak at Rogue Paddler

Basic Features to Look For

To do the CT you will need a sit-inside sea kayak that

  - is at least 14ft long

  - has a rudder or a skeg (see below)

  - has front and back watertight hatches

  - and the hatches are large enough for all your gear.

Sit-on-top models and fishing kayaks are out of the question but all other features, like plastic vs fiberglass, hull shape, brand, et cetera are a matter of personal preference and your budget. When shopping around, look at boats marketed as "touring" rather than "recreational" or even "day touring."

The absolute most important thing is that you have a comfortable seat, because you are going to be in that sucker for seven hours a day, day in and day out. Unfortunately, the stock seat sold by a lot of kayak manufacturers is hard, uncomfortable plastic. If you want a great seat you may have to buy a separate third-party seat and install it yourself. One of the reasons I like Necky kayaks is that they have always sold comfortable seats. Their boats used to come with soft, curvy, adjustable Extrasport seats, but Extrasport no longer makes them and seems to be focusing exclusively on PFDs. Necky has since replaced them with an in-house design that seems just as good.

To determine your preferences, and see if your butt can take the seat, it's best to test drive different models at an outfitters like Bill Jackson's in St Pete, which has a lake out back, or one that is close to the beach. You can also rent kayaks just about anywhere along the Florida coast and take them out for the whole day to get a feel for different brands.

Everything is a Compromise

New or Used?

I'm always an advocate for saving money! You can find great used kayaks out there. For my CT trip, I bought my kayak at an outfitter's scratch and dent sale. Many outfitters sell demo models at a discount. My paddling partner found his on Craig's List because when the economy is in recession or people fall on hard times, they sell their expensive toys like kayaks. Also, when people move to Florida, they often buy a kayak, thinking or hoping they will get out on the water a lot. Later, after work and kids have gotten in the way, the kayak goes up for sale but may have only been used a few times. Florida Craig's List ads are filled with kayaks, many in great condition.

Two caveats: First, compare the asking price on Craig's List with the new price for the same model at outfitters or online. Pride may keep the seller's price too high. Second, if you by used, inspect it like you would a used car and make sure it has the all features you want -- don't settle just because it's a good price.

Rudder or Skeg?

The rudder vs skeg debate has produced some heated arguments, with hyperbolic claims and over-the-top essays across the internet. Personally, I prefer a rudder, but I'm not going to jump into the fray and argue you must use a rudder. The CT can be done with a skeg, a rudder, or neither. It's up to you. The most level-headed discussion of rudders vs skegs I've seen is an article by Alex Matthews, "The Great Rudder/Skeg Debate."

photo from Necky kayaks
photo from Necky kayaks

A rudder is connected to foot pedals via thin cables like bicycle cables. Turning the rudder to the left or right steers the boat without changing your paddling stroke.

photo from Necky kayaks
photo from Necky kayaks

A skeg is like a keel on a sailboat. It provides stability and keeps the kayak going in a straight line. Skegs can be fixed or retractable.