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Kayak and gear buyers guide

Text only version – email me if you want me to send the full version with pics (So much better!)

Thoughts on questions often asked –

Kayaks, gear and choices

Advice, guidance and myth busting

Trevor Martin
Inland, Sea and Open Canoe coach

text only version – June 2023
Thoughts on questions often asked –
– which kayak is best for you?

It’s just like shopping for shoes!

Q.1 What do you want it to do? Where are you going to wear it?
(There is no such thing as a shoe or kayak that does everything well)
Q.2 Do you fit? Is it comfortable? Can you walk or paddle it all day?
Q.3 Can you make adjustments to make it even more comfortable? Socks?

The universal rule of thumb is that the longer any displacement hull is travelling in the water, the fast it can move. So, same theory for the new Queen Elisabeth Aircraft carrier and your kayak. Slight £ difference there.
In an air vacuum, given enough time to take effect, a 2hp engine could move the aircraft carrier. Conversely, you could be the strongest person in the world but in a 2 metre kayak – you cant make it go faster than about 2-3knots (mph+/-) through the water. You want to go faster? Get a longer kayak! (Speedboats, hydrofoils and the WAZP ‘dingy’ etc, run on a wing underwater so the hull is lifted off the water – never managed that in a kayak – nor I suspect has the 65,000 ton aircraft carrier!)

Resin v Poly
It may depend on your generation! I recall the days when a slalom kayak weighed 9kg. Was built in Diolen/grp or very early carbon and a 5 year old could carry my kayak for me. They didn’t break unless you absolutely hammered them, possibly on a pinning between two rocks on the Tryweryn. Otherwise they still exist 50 years on, mostly in old men’s garages! My lightest slalom kayak weighed 8kg. My current shorter old poly creek boat, a Dagger Animus, weighs about 27kg.
So, is poly better?
My answer is – “No” – they are different. A plastic boat will only ‘look good’ when it is brand new or if you literally handle it with soft mittens. Despite claims of wielding hot-air guns and hairdryers, once they get river-rash, roof-bar dents, sun distortion, UV degradation (can crack a kayak in half) colour fade…….. I could go on….. most owners get on with the paddling and put the mittens away after a month or so. That just leaves the often onerous weight of the thing.
On the other hand, resin boats (grp/Diolen (polyester cloth), carbon-kevlar (aramid fibres) etc are very strong. Especially GRP and Diolen are very repairable and you can polish out scratches and even do truly invisible repairs. They tend to be lighter to extremely lighter. And more rigid, so less ‘hull flex’ and cope with storage outside better.
New, they are super-shiny and can remain that way with an occasional duster and polish unless you spend ages cuddling it whilst wearing a pure wool cardie.
By the way, less hull-flex means faster or easier to paddle especially if it is a longer kayak or an open canoe. Plastics are inherently soft. That is why most designs have sexy grooves and features – hah, you thought it was just attitude huh? Mostly not, just that the more curves you can get into the surface, the more rigid it is. Jump out of a Coleman or Pelican poly 17’er and into a cedar-strip or good aluminium open canoe and you will really feel the difference! Likewise from a 5 metre single skin cheap sea kayak and into a carbon-kevlar such as the Valley Etain 17. Ohh, bliss. Shame about the price!
It’s horses for courses. If you were brought up more recently club paddling poly i3’s, Mamba’s, Scorch or Antix, you will not really consider a resin boat. Though Jester tried to buck that trend with their very pretty resin surf boats back in a day.
If you remember the old days, you may have switched to poly’s but have now sold the family silver (or just got rid of the kids) to afford a carbon-kevlar composite resin boat.
Slightly offbeat/alternative youngsters are now occasionally dreaming of a composite wood and resin hand crafted open canoe or sea kayak in American Black walnut, Scandinavian Redwood and Western Red Cedar. Good for them I say.
• Most (not all) poly canoes are good to reasonable designs due to mould costs – you cant go far wrong with the likes of Perception, Pyranha, Dagger, Liquid Logic, RTM, Wilderness Systems, Valley, P&H, NDK, Old Town, etc etc.

Other materials are
• Plywood
• Canvas or poly-canvas on wood frame, often foldable.
• Inflatable – often vinyl or reinforced woven polymer
• Aluminium
• Basswood composite
• Spruce or cedar strip
• Nylon fabric shrunk over wood frame
• Any more? I am awaiting a natural polyermsised potato starch!

Shorter kayak features
• Highly manoeuvrable.
• Lighter as less material
• Many short kayaks will both surf and whitewater play ‘reasonably’.
• Easy to put on any car roofrack, store in shed etc
• Not necessarily cheaper. Latest ‘must-haves’ rrp £1,300+
• Very slow through water. Designed to play on water that is already moving.
• Exhausting on daylong river trips. Holds up group with longer kayaks.
• Dangerous on coast or anywhere where there are strong currents.
• Risk of being blown out to sea or not able to return to beach.
• Frustrating to find a fit if you are 1.8m+ and shoesize 10 +.
• …otherwise – great fun!

Longer kayak features
• Fast. Or medium speed with less effort, depending on weight & hull-form
• Less tiring to paddle longer distances
• Longer paddle strokes and lower paddle-rate – more relaxing.
• Carry lots of gear – less effected by load weight (up to a point).
• Longer the kayak the harder it is to turn. Rudder or no rudder.
• Tend to be heavier than shorter kayaks – watch your back!
• Most garages are 15’. Most tourers and sea kayaks are 15 – 20’
• Many roofrack bars cant be set very far apart. Watch out for bumps in road and speed humps – sudden rocking motion can strain your roof rails
• Especially sea kayaks are prone to theft due to value. Rrp’s £2000-5000
• There is something very special about exploring ‘further’.
• There is something almost spiritual paddling a graceful long open canoe or sea kayak. Often people tell of being absorbed by serenity and ‘flow’.

So-called ‘general purpose’ kayaks – the compromises (common choice)
• Typically 3.5 – 4.3 metre. Bit of most things can be tried.
• A good place to start if you are unsure of how interest will develop
• Good for learning all the techniques
• Often very forgiving and stable designs encouraging confidence. Watch out for older variations on slalom and recreational designs from the 60’s – 80’s in GRP (Fibreglass) and earlier wood types. Can be very unstable.
The Olymp 5 slalom kayak makes a great learner/general purpose boat with exceptional build quality by Gaybo (owners of UK Perception). Circa 1980. Mostly woven Diolen/grp at 11–15 kg.

• Fit most garages, some sheds and most roofracks.
• Generally manageable weight with some horrible exceptions
• Wide range as the 400x60cm slalom rule produced so many older kayaks now available as ‘general purpose’. Affordable. Check condition!
• Prolific grp good kayaks – Comanche, Snipe, Olymp, Delta etc.
• Prolific poly good kayaks – Dancer, Everest, Master, Corsica, RPM, Pirouette, MI designs, loads more.

The ubiquitous Perception Dancer came in XS. Standard or XT versions
Probably more made than any other poly kayak in the UK due to long production run. Very forgiving nature. Does a lot averagely.

Typical kayak lengths
• Sea kayaks, like most yachts tend to be measured in feet and inches
• Other kayaks tend to be measured in metric these days.
• Open canoes swing both ways

2-3M Squirt, play, short surf kayaks.
3-3.3 Better surf kayaks. Short whitewater kayaks
3.3–3.8 Bigger whitewater kayaks, creek kayaks, short GP kayaks
3.8-4 GP, trainers, starter kayaks, old slalom (4m), short tourer
4-4.5 Tourers, shorter open canoes
4.5-5 Open canoes (15’-17’), short to medium sea kayaks, tourers
5-6 Longer open canoes, modest doubles, longer sea kayaks (17’-19’)
6+ Much longer sea doubles, pace river/surf runners (Epic etc), Race Sea kayaks. (20’+)

What to check when buying a used kayak

• Buoyancy front AND back
• Hand loops, toggles, handles each end
• FAILSAFE footrest system. That prevents foot entrapment.
• Seat fixed properly to hull.
• No leaks? Chuck some water into it or stick your head inside to look for daylight
• Preferably has a ‘backrest’ – see my notes on BACKRESTS

Not to lean your back on, unless resting, munching the sandwiches! I know they are called backrest – but what you really need is a ‘lower spine support’.
If you have a popular sit-on style armchair backrest, and paddle leaning back on it (I so often see this), your spine will take all the strains generated by your upper body working to paddle, they would normally be spread by the support of tensioned muscles of your whole body. (Competition paddlers often have overdeveloped calves!) The two or three discs at L3-5 take all the strain with no tensioning or support from ‘below’. Lovely afternoon paddling. No great aches next day. Six months later (or the end of the same week), hello Chiropractor invoice. Now that’s real pain! Back rests should be no higher than the cockpit rim. I would favour lower. They are for your buttocks to push back on by your pressing your feet onto the footrests either side on each stroke. Spread the load! Lean into the paddle stroke, as far forward as you comfortably can. It will crunch the stomach and stretch the back but in a good way. Aches the next days and weeks. But you will be getting great core exercise and will be so much stronger for all your hard work. On the other hand, who would begrudge chiro’s and physio’s their new-reg BMW’s? (Other cars and cycles are available). Ok, rant over. Your choice.

Hull shape
The flatter the hull base, the more stable it will ‘feel’ – upright! Tip it to one side and due to the harsher angle from base to sides, it can be very unstable when leaning. (A ‘punt’ half way to its edge will flip over). Good kayaks that work ‘on the edge’ can have low ‘initial stability’. That means when you are ‘upright’ it can feel a little wobbly. You need to get used to that feel and develop confidence that as you lean, nothing suddenly ‘happens’! Canoes that have a flattish base and a slow curve to sides have to by necessity be highish volume which can have its drawbacks and tend to be heavier. (See Perception Dancer above)
The flatter the base, the more drag through the water. The more V-shaped, the more it slips through the water with less effort. But V hulls are notoriously wobbly paddled in the upright! (A ‘K.1’ racer (see pic) usually falls over if you stop moving – like a bicycle). Volume is very important to think about. Too high-volume for the paddler means high decks so a tiring and unpleasant paddling posture (arms too high), a too low-volume boat may have insufficient room inside to be comfortable, make egress harder and have sharper edges between hull side and base. If it is a very fine angle, it’s good for stunts, but can easily catch you when the boat spins. The edge may dig into the water and flip you over. Which Rodeo and Squirt boaters do to get more points! Slalom designs after about 1980 also use this to get under the hanging poles without penalty and to spin the boat for a faster turn against the current. Though it slows down any following need for acceleration, but it has its place.

Cockpit size
Sea kayaks started out with tiny ‘Ocean’ rims so that the Eskimos could stay in when they did their roll back up. If they came out of their kayaks, they would quickly die from hypothermia. So, 1960 grp European sea kayak design followed that legacy. Fur trappers had open canoes. Leisure kayaks from the 1930’s often had a deck with large cockpit opening. Recreational kayaks soon appeared with larger cockpits for comfort although slalom kayaks retained a close fit. Plastic kayaks moved to larger cockpit rims although the larger the hole, the less structurally sound the kayak. Early ones could fold in half in white water! More ridged plastics followed with various pillar support additions. As paddling opened up to extreme white water, the keyhole cockpit was developed to give the best of both worlds; a larger cockpit where the knee can be tilted to centre, the heel drawn back and the kayak pushed off the paddler just with the feet, should the shoulder be dislocated or the collar bone damaged! These larger cockpit rims soon became the norm just for comfort. More dynamic boats therefor have a ‘thigh/knee’ brace moulding so you can wedge yourself in when required. More recently a wide range of very large cockpit rimmed boats of the more recreational variety are now available. Ironically, imitating the early designs of the 1950’s canvas over frame and plywood tourers.
Now there is pretty well a boat design for everyone. But, if you plan on rolling or using high support strokes, you need a SNUG fit. Many pad out the cockpit seat area with plastic foam sheet or outfitting kits.
For spraydecks, the option is usually ripstop nylon or neoprene (wetsuit material). Single skin neoprene is also getting quite popular for its soft light feel (eg; Reed) and there are also composite materials with braces and pockets etc (eg: Palm Roanake). Baggy adjustable nylon decks start at about £28. Neoprene from about £50. A top complicated or strong spraydeck can cost £180. If a spraydeck starts or claims to be waterproof, it will leak in time if not immediately! Most are called ‘spray’-decks by definition. Nylon decks tend to ping off if you capsize, most neoprene decks have to be pulled off using a tab or strap. Always make sure the strap is on the outside so that it can be easily reached!

Some paddlers, often sea or white water, and especially instructors paddle with a nylon one over a neoprene one. The neoprene one gives a cosy flat deck and the nylon one protects it from other kayaks scuffing when doing deepwater rescues.

Almost all canoe materials SINK. So all canoes need buoyancy of some kind.
• Closed cell polyethylene foam block. Medium or high density. ££!
• Bulkheads (assuming that hatches are fully watertight and closed!)
• Open cell buoyancy block (cheaper older stuff that breaks down in UV light and washes into the oceans – you are eating it in your fish fingers!)
• Polystyrene. Horrible stuff. Gets waterlogged, breaks away, breaks down and also ends up in your fish fingers. Please don’t use it!
• 1ltr Plastic milk bottles tied together and tied into canoe. Tops firmly on.
• Large water bottle from camping shop, strapped down or wedged firmly.
• Purpose designed airbags. Yes, they sometimes deflate!

The amount you need? Must be both ends so that the boat floats level when the boat is full of water. Trying to empty a boat that is sticking up like a tombstone or menhir out of the water is very very hard and impossible to tow.
If you plan on lots of capsizing such as in surf or whitewater, the more buoyancy the better. With full buoyancy added, a swamped canoe will float higher, be more manageable and take a fraction of the effort and time to empty. Such a kayak could do with foam block buoyancy along the centreline and airbags squeezed down the sides, both front and back. An open canoe can have all unused space filled with purpose designed large airbags, strapped in. For more leisurely use, canoes can be fine with what is called ‘half buoyancy’ (block), just enough that the kayak wont sink. Many manufacturers use this version whenever they can get away with it to reduce their costs. Closed cell foam is very expensive. Sea kayaks of course have watertight compartments (except some of the ‘lid and strap’ type hatches) so are fine just like the Titanic. Maybe add a bit of buoyancy somewhere just in case? Tether hatch covers – most sink. Then your Titanic has no buoyancy! I used a sand-castle bucket once to plug a missing hatch cover on a sea kayak in Madeira!

There are many books on this and everyone thinks they can write one and will bend your ear eternally. A paddle is a hand in the water stuck on a broom handle (lever). If you loose your paddle – use your hands. Having told a ‘friend’ who was organising kit and car drop-off before an Upper Exe river descent, who was earlier boasting his new £400 Werner blades, I had said, “oh for heavens sake, I could paddle with a broom” ……. I searched around then asked him where my paddle was. He then, at much amusement to the group, presented me with a …broom. I paddled with it to prove my glib point, was exhausted and had blisters. A few years ago my paddles were not with me but a spare boat was, so I actually glued two blades cut from plywood to a…broom handle and I still have it. Works fine! £5? You can get a ‘reasonable’ plastic bladed, ally shaft production paddle for about £50 or £20 second hand. Cheapo old ones in ABS plastics tend to split and are often given away with a few miles left in them. On the whole it is the same old strength/weight/price conundrum. But I urge you not to overdo it. There will always be a paddler in the club with a better or newer paddle than yours. And if you have the best and latest available, mon amigo will rock up with a cranked, NASA laboratory aramid shaft with kevlar laminated hand carved Mongolian temprathaytghana wood blades carved by a shaman under a full blue moon on a leap-year and blessed by the Dali Lamma. Just pay £20-£120 to get started.
Paddles come in length, blade shape, various materials, colours, if curved – left or right handed, solid-shaft or splits (2way, 3 way, even 4!), feather (90 – 45 degree or variable). Curved or ‘flats’, weight…… best to ask a sensible paddler or me! Generally, the longer the boat and the taller the person, the longer the paddle.
Please don’t give children adult-sized paddles – it’s just mean.

Children need shorter kayaks. No, then they will have to paddle faster. Partly as the shorter the boat the slower it will be and partly as children tend to under-displace the hull so the waterline length is even shorter, so even slower! Volume and deck height is the issue.
Skegs help you go straight (except for some sea kayaks in certain waves).
NO. They just make it harder to learn to paddle efficiently.
Paddling without a spraydeck is safer (might trap you). NO. More likely to take in water and de-stabilise the boat. More likely to get wet and cold.
‘Sea Kayak’ means any kayak that you can put on the sea. Sadly, NO! Watch out for adverts that claim to be suitable for the sea, when it could a be a lethal choice.
Shallow water is safer. NO. Shallow water close to the shore is often littered with sharp objects, glass, weed, rope, fallen wire fences, and even shopping trolleys and netting. Better to swim or float! Wear some kind of simple shoe.
Kayaks are ‘wobbly’. NO, except for racing types and some advanced sea kayaks. Older poor designs in wood or GRP can be wobbly. Avoid them. 98% of what is out there now should be medium to very stable.
Paddle drip-rings stop your hands getting wet. NO! If you paddle correctly and you are ‘leisure-paddling’- the water should drip off the lower curved edge of the paddle as it is drawn from the water. If you are paddling in mushy stuff like sea. surf or rapids, drip-rings wont stop you getting wet! They are pointless – but popular.
GRP (Fibreglass) and resin composites are not as strong as ‘plastic boats’. NO. If anything they can be stronger. Look for the better manufacturers.
Lifejackets keep you afloat – yes they do, but they STOP you swimming. Buoyancy aids give all-round body buoyancy so you can swim, rotate and even force yourself down a bit if required. You take less effort to stay up. Especially important if you are in cold water or tired. A lifejacket disables you! On purpose! As your best survival chances at sea are normally to not swim. They also rotate you face-up (45 degrees from the wave-surface) which gives you a chance to survive if you are unconscious or fatigued. All except sea kayakers should consider buoyancy aids their choice. Some sea kayakers carry a manual -inflation life jacket in a buoyancy-aid back pocket. Life-jackets ruin Eskimo rolling. (self-righting technique)
Life jacket and buoyancy aid are the same thing. NO – they are not. See above.
I have to learn to ‘Roll’ (Eskimo Roll). NO! Very over-rated. It is mostly just a convenience or good to ‘show-off’. The main benefit, once achieved, is that it gives a far better understanding of how far your kayak can be thrown over and yet still be put back upright with high or low brace support strokes. I have seen a fair few paddlers think they are falling over and have jumped out of their boats just to look back and see that the boat has settled in the upright position! Eskimo-rolling is interesting. Learning it with a knowledgeable and trusted friend or instructor is incredibly confidence boosting and even aids mindfulness. I used to run youth session in swimming pools and many parents joined in as they could see the personal benefits in such a trust and control exercise. Occasionally non-swimmers! NOTE: IT IS FAR BETTER TO SPEND THE TIME LEARNING HOW TO DO DEEPWATER RESCUES AND PADDLE WITH 2 BOATS. WITH 2 BOATS YOU CAN EVEN DO ‘ALL-IN (the water)’ SELF RESCUES. GET TRAINED or watch a vid and then experiment yourselves in a safe place. *

*IF YOU ARE CONSIDERING BUYING A DOUBLE KAYAK/CANOE – consider that two people will have a really hard time trying to bail it out and re-enter if they capsize – if you have two boats – there are simple techniques for emptying and re-entry using one boat to support the other. REALLY WORTH CONSIDERING.

You have to be able to swim to canoe. Yes/No. It is far better if you can. If you cant, but paddle in company with an appropriate boat, buoyancy aid and gear on a nice day on placid water – why not. But do tell others that you cannot swim or are a poor or less confident swimmer.
Definitions: ‘Canoe’ is one thing, ‘Kayak’, another…erm, which one? They are all ‘canoes’ and you go ‘canoeing’ – it is a generic term. Different types of ‘canoe’ are – kayak, open canoe (Canadian), sit-on (SOT), surf-ski, eskimo kayak, polo-boat, B.A.T., 10m2 (sailing canoe), playboat, squirt-boat….I could go on.

SIT-INS V SIT-ONS (I am so often asked!)
“Sit-on kayaks are safer”? NOT OFTEN.. They are different. Please read on.
Yes, you can just fall off. So they seem safer! But I have never heard of a sit-in paddler dying from being trapped inside their kayak on open water.

• Sit-on kayaks have higher ‘freeboard’ so are more easily swept out to sea, are harder to paddle to beat a tide or current and leave the paddler exposed to wind and wet so prone to chill or at worst, exposure. (I have towed a few back to shore).
• Sit-in kayaks offer more protection, storage for extra clothing, safety and comfort kit etc.
• Sit-ons are generally heavier. I cant help but think more back strains occur through lifting. They are often more tiring to paddle.
• True, Sit-ons can’t fill up with water when capsized – but that is only
an issue for a sit-in kayak if you are solo paddling. Never an issue for paddling in company when 5 minutes on YouTube and 5 minutes of practice of deepwater rescues would mean that they CAN be emptied. Or even better get some qualified instruction. True, Sit-ons have dramatically popularised the sport, and are great fishing platforms. If you really want to paddle one kayak as a double, a Sit-on could be safer, as you can get back on it without a second kayak. But they have also steered many away from learning and training. Worth a think.

For full notes – refer to BCU/Canoe England/RNLI/RYA etc websites and publications.
• Your group is as fast as the slowest paddler (who also needs more rests)
• Let someone on land know where you are going, when you plan to be back and tell them what to do/who to contact if you are overdue. Especially if you are paddling on your own.
• Get a weather forecast! Treat it with suspicion.
• Think long and hard before you paddle at night or near dusk.
• Rain: On high land catchment areas, research speed of grading increase.
• Carry a mobile phone* (+ designed waterproof pouch. Attach it to YOU). *and consider a marine handheld waterproof VHF transceiver if at sea.
• Wear or carry extra clothing/layers/protection even on a sunny day.
• Carry water or similar. Fresh water is good for eye-wash.
• Carry simple first aid kit – add antihistamine pills.
• Spare sunglasses. I had to paddle an extra 2 miles at sea last year as I just could not see anything straight into the sun after dropping my sunglasses! Sunglasses are surprisingly good in daylight fog.
• At sea, carry a spare (splits) paddle. Or one per group.
• Paddling at night and drunk – many have done it – why shorten your odds?
• Night paddling as a pair or more can be very rewarding – but you need to be VERY experienced and take extra precautions and kit – just like on a yacht.
• If sea or wilderness paddling – carry a satellite beacon and correctly register it. I use ResQlink. Others are very available and the cost is a fraction of what it costs rescue services in money, risk and resources to take longer than needed to find you. Whilst they are looking for you, they are not available to look for others. You could save your own life and others, many miles away with their own problems and…remember that AN HOUR OF DAYLIGHT IS WORTH 5 HOURS OF DARKNESS to rescue teams. Allow a wide margin if paddling on the approaching dusk.
• Most commercial vessels CANT see a kayak. Regardless of RADAR.
• Tea-time Law. Most skippers will be pouring their tea when you are waving frantically for them to change course.
• Many observers of flares and other signals – happily just wave back!!
• Whether it’s a weir, a surf wave or a sea passage, if you know in your heart that you are worried, don’t do it. There is a subtle difference between anxiety and fear. More than once have I said to a peer (when I have not been in a leadership role), “well, I am not doing it”, only to have to rescue them and potentially putting my own life at risk.
• If you don’t know what these are – – OFF-SHORE WIND, RIP CURRENT, SPRING TIDE, KATABATIC WIND, WIND-OVER-TIDE EFFECT, STOPPER OR EDDY CURRENT and WIND CHILL EFFECT– find out well before you are in one!

• Watch out for others saying to you “go on – you go first!”

Most our land in the UK is privately owned – remember that you are an ambassador for the sport – keep the riparian rights holders, shoreline owners and farmers happy. We need more access, not less! And litter goes home!
• See SAS (Surfers Against Sewage) online for how to improve our precious waters.

Trevor Martin
Inland kayak Coach, Sea kayak Coach, Open canoe Coach, Slalom trainer
Sea Survival instructor
See my website: or call into Canoestore in Weymouth for second-hand kayaks and gear.