Getting Into Kayaking - Part 1

Getting Into Kayaking - Part 1

Though I've kayaked before while on holiday, I've never considered myself a kayaker or even owned my own kayak before. I've not really had any friends showing any interest and thought that the UK weather is terrible for it. Recently I've been thinking about it a lot and figured I should give it a go. As with motorcycle trips, I find that having another person along always enriches the whole experience. When I recently proposed it to my friends, one simply replied with a very firm "No." (full stop included.) I was quite surprised when he came back a few days later and told me he is considering it.

Jacko, as we call him, has been part of our group of friends that've been riding motorcycles together for years. He had a back operation when he was younger and he discounted kayaking right away because he thought it might be bad for his back. After some thought, he decided that it might be a good thing, it would improve his mobility and it will strengthen his core. He booked himself in for a taster session with the Newark Canoe Club. I knew I had one shot at getting him hooked, if he didn't like it, he'd not consider it again, he's a stubborn one. I booked in for the same session he booked in for and hoped for decent weather.

It was only a 2 hour session on a very calm lake and the time flew by. We paid a measly £6 each and that got us a kayak, a buoyancy aid, a paddle and access to experienced kayakers with a wealth of knowledge.  The people were great and they were happy to share whatever knowledge they had with us. We shot questions at anyone and everyone and got good advice on all manner of kayak related topics. We soon realised there was a lot more to kayaking than we thought and that talking to enthusiastic people that have experience was invaluable. The weather also turned out pretty good, bonus.

Jacko loved it, he's hooked! I also enjoyed it a lot, I didn't think I would, but it was the first time I was in a solo kayak. I usually paddle a 2 person one with my wife and usually on the sea or a sea lagoon. This was also my first time out with a sit-inside kayak rather than a sit-on-top. I'm hooked on sit-inside kayaks now!

In no time we were discussing buying kayaks, paddling somewhere and camping. How hard can it be to decide which kayak to buy anyway? As it turns out, there are loads of options and not just for which kayak. You also need a buoyancy aid (aka Personal Floatation Device (PFD)/life jacket), a paddle and possibly a helmet. There are lots of other stuff you could also buy, things like wet/dry suits and spray decks. A spray deck is a sort of "skirt" that seals around your waist and then hooks around the kayak cockpit's edge to keep water out (not strictly needed.) Once we started digging around we also realised that there are different types of kayaks for doing different things like racing/white water/rivers/lakes/sea kayaking. Different types of kayaking use different paddles, both in blade shape and shaft length. Which paddle you might use is also affected by paddle style, mainly whether you paddle with the paddle very upright (high angle) or a with it more horizontal (low angle).

I'm one of those people that research things a lot, you won't catch me walking into a shop, asking someone there what I should buy and walking out with it. That does not mean I don't value the opinions of people that obviously have experience and know how, I just need opinions from a few sources that corroborate (preferably from people that aren't trying to sell me something.)  I need to understand all the options and do enough research that I am confident I understand all the differences and then I'm happy to apply all I've figured out to pick what I think will suit me best.

Since I have all the research in my head and in copious notes, I figured I'll write a bit about it, it might help someone else who's also a beginner with some of the trickier questions they need to get answered early on.

Let's start with kayaks. Bar the really specialist types of kayaks there's 4  general types you will come across:

  • whitewater
  • crossover
  • recreational
  • touring

Whitewater kayaks are the really short, moderately wide kayaks that have a lot of rocker. Rocker is the curvature of the hull, if you look at it from the side it will look like a smile. If you look at them from the front or rear they will be a very flat U shape. These characteristics make them extremely manoeuvrable and they climb over water rather than cutting through water. This also means that it is near impossible to keep them going straight, even with a lot of input from the paddler. Whitewater kayaks are used by slightly crazy people to go down fast flowing rivers with lots of rocks that churns the water white, small waterfalls and other bonkers stuff (my kind of people...) This is a dangerous way to kayak and you will definitely need a good helmet too. People die if they get things very wrong when whitewater kayaking in the most extreme waters, it's not for beginners at all. It looks like a lot of fun and, who knows, one day I might be good enough to give it a try. A good example of a whitewater kayak is the Dagger Mamba.

On the other side of the spectrum you get touring kayaks, these are long and narrow and have an almost straight bottom when looked at from the side. Look at them from the front or rear and they will be very V shaped. This V shaped chine makes them cut through the water, splitting it either side of the kayak, rather than riding up over the water. The length and straightness of the hull means these kayaks are very fast and they track straight with very little effort on the part of the paddler. They will turn slower than most other kayak types, but they are made to go long distances fast and the shortest route from point A to B is a straight one. An example of a touring Kayak would be the Dagger Stratos.

Next up are the crossover kayaks. These are like longer versions of the whitewater kayaks with some storage features like you see on touring kayaks. They are generally in the 9-11 foot range. Crossover kayaks also have lots of rocker, the smile shape when you look at them from the side, but it's not as rounded as a whitewater kayak. If you look at them from the front and back you also see the flat U shape, but again, a little less rounded than whitewater kayaks. Crossover kayaks usually have a skeg, this is a little fin that you can drop out the back of your kayak to track straight more easily. Crossover kayaks still turn very easily, with the skeg up, and ride over water easily, much like whitewater kayaks. They can be used for easy whitewater paddling and some experienced paddlers can even use them on some of the more difficult whitewater places. When you are on flat/calm water you can drop the skeg down and have a much easier time going straight, it also helps you to go straight if there is wind. Another feature of crossover kayaks is that they have storage space. Sometimes this is just some fixed bungees on the front and/or rear deck, sometimes you have storage hatches with a lid that seals to keep water out. Crossover kayaks can be used for paddling somewhere with camping gear for a few days, they are very versatile kayaks. I am planning on buying a Dagger Katana 10.4 as my first kayak, a good example of a crossover.

Finally there are what's called recreational kayaks. Aptly named since they are meant for leisurely paddles in calm waters, maybe some flat slow moving rivers, but mostly lakes and flat sea lagoons. They tend to be in the mid range when it comes to length, about as long as crossovers with some up to a few feet longer. They're usually a mix of a crossover kayak and a touring kayak. If you look at the hull from the side the middle part of the hull is like a crossover and the bow and stern (nose and tail) is more V shaped like you would see on touring kayak. They are stable on the water, track straight easily, not as long as touring kayak so they turn fairly easy and often even have storage like a crossover. If you're paddling around lakes and flat rivers/canals then this kind of kayak could be the right one for that. They aren't quite as versatile as crossover kayaks, but they do have a place. These are often ones you see for hire in places where there are holidaymakers. The Dagger Zydeco is an example of a recreational kayak.

Other than deciding which kayak suits your type of paddling, you also have to consider if you want to buy a sit-inside or sit-on-top kayak (aka SOT). Up until recently I've only ever been on SOTs, it's the only ones I ever see for hire at places I go to for holidays. Sit-inside kayak are what any club will tell you to try if you talk about getting into kayaking and buying your own kayak. Once I first tried a sit-inside kayak there was no going back, you're much more connected to the kayak and this leads to better control. Also, your centre of gravity is lower in a sit-inside kayak and this helps a lot with stability. I can only ever recommend that someone goes for a sit-inside kayak now that I've used one.

Hopefully the information here helps someone else with the questions I had about kayaks when I just started out. Part 2 will talk about the other equipment you need when kayaking.