| Review, May 1997|
The best craft for cruising, from intimate inlets to wide-open seas
By Jonathan Hanson
Exploration just isn't what it used to be, what with the continents having been mapped and the oceans long since crossed. But with a sea kayak, an entire dimension of more intimate discovery remains. With a sea kayak, you can nip right into all those coastline nooks and crannies that Columbus blew right by, and you don't even have to risk scurvy: Most will carry a hundred pounds of camping equipment or more, thus accommodating such luxuries as fresh food, a full-length sleeping pad, and a tent you can tango in.
While there's little hoopla surrounding innovations in sea kayaks, their growing popularity has yielded a robust crop of new boats, making it an opportune time to buy one. Whether you're a rank beginner or wave-surfing expert, there's likely a model perfectly suited to your needs.
Just how much scratch you're willing to drop will largely determine what that kayak is made of. If you're on a strict budget — still $1,300 or more — durable rotomolded polyethylene (read "plastic") is your best bet. Polyethylene is resilient, but still susceptible to abuse. Drag it over rocks, and the hull will abrade, making it sluggish; transport it carelessly, and it can warp; store it in the sun, and the plastic will turn brittle. With serious abuse, it'll only last about five years.
A fiberglass model, on the other hand, will likely outlast you. Fiberglass is a nearly ideal material for sea kayaks — it's lighter yet stiffer than polyethylene; it can be molded more precisely, allowing for more refined handling; and it looks nicer, thanks to a finish called gelcoat, which provides color and gloss. It's not impossible to puncture a fiberglass hull, but most resulting wounds can be repaired in the field with good old duct tape — and fixed permanently once you're home. Of course, fiberglass is more expensive. If that's not a concern, consider spending even more for a Kevlar layup, which is lighter and stiffer still.
After settling your budget, consider size and design. Tradition holds that short, wide vessels are stable but slow, and long, skinny ones are fast but tippy. True to a degree, but reality is more complex. For instance, the high speed of a long boat can only be realized if you're paddling full-throttle. More significant is how much effort it requires to maintain a leisurely touring pace, and shorter boats typically are easier to paddle. There's also the matter of whether your boat has a foot-controlled rudder, which helps to steer and hold a true course regardless of the hull length.
Still, to exploit any boat's abilities, it needs to fit perfectly, which means shopping where you can demo your prospective purchase on water. Match the width (or beam, in nautical jargon) to your stature: A big paddler needs the stability of a 23- or 24-inch beam, while a small paddler will do better with the responsiveness of a 22-inch beam. The seat should be snug but comfortable, and the boat tight enough to allow you to brace your knees against the deck's underside. Your kayak should be sufficiently steady so you can rock it side to side without flipping, yet suitably manageable so you can turn it easily. As a shopping aid, we've culled seven of the best boats on the market, new models along with a few salty stalwarts.
Current Designs Gulfstream $2,495
To hear it from avid sea kayakers, the war with Britain is still on: While English designers scoff at anything but their pure, rudderless craft, Americans thumb their noses at such high-mindedness, opting for stability and ruddered control. Now a Canadian company has co-opted both designs in the fiberglass Gulfstream, which uses a drop-down skeg, like the centerboard on a sailboat, to keep it tracking true when paddling point to point. Gear space is limited because the skeg housing intrudes into the rear hold, but the boat does have a handy hatch behind the cockpit so you can reach the sunscreen in transit. The 16-foot, ten-inch Gulfstream demands close attention from its captain because of its rounded hull — you can't kick back and let it cruise — but it'll respond with verve whether you're kayaking the tumultuous seas of the English Channel or the placid waters of Glacier Bay.
Dagger Sitka $2,300
Built for the long haul, the new Sitka, at 17 feet, 11 inches, with a 22-inch beam, snaps to attention under the stroke of a strong paddler, providing impressive speed. Yet the ride is surprisingly stable for such a lean boat, an attribute owing to a width that doesn't taper until the very ends of the hull, giving the fiberglass vessel high volume. Thoughtful innovations include a seat with a comfortable back support like a director's chair — rather than molded plastic — for all-day comfort, and rudder pedals that seesaw in place instead of sliding back and forth, to provide better foot support. The built-in rudder, however, is a mixed success. It's simple, reliable, and unobtrusive, but its position — tucked up into the profile of the stern — may be too slick: It simply isn't as effective as conventional designs, which slice deep into the water. For those of you who commonly count three-digit mileages on your kayaking voyages, the Sitka should prove perfect for the task.
Eddyline Merlin XT $1,700
Chemists at other manufacturers may be melting down perfectly good Merlins as you read this. But they're not laboring in the name of senseless destruction — they're looking for secrets to steal. The Merlin is engineered from an entirely new material for sea kayaks: polycarbonate, similar to the UV-ray-resistant stuff found in the lenses of your ski goggles. It's a stiffer, tougher, and sleeker plastic than polyethylene, yet considerably less expensive than fiberglass. Materials aside, the Merlin is a fine boat any way you slice it. At 15 feet it's short and zippy, and it's nearly as light as a fiberglass boat. The hull has a pronounced V-shape that provides excellent tracking and stability — even compared with longer boats — yet you can quickly wheel it around. Although it's not speedy, the Merlin offers prodigious cargo holds for its length and slips through the water effortlessly when cruising.
Feathercraft Khatsalano-S $3,950
For those who yearn for far-flung kayaking destinations — or who have addresses on the ninth floor — foldable kayaks have long been an option, albeit one providing somewhat raftlike responsiveness. Not so with the Khatsalano-S, an aluminum-and-plastic frame that slips into a Hypalon-and-polyurethane shell and includes a rudder. With a narrowish 23.5-inch beam, rakish lines, and upswept ends, it's the liveliest and loveliest packable kayak on the market. Despite the near-18-foot length, gear space is modest, as with all folding kayaks, and its rounded hull gives it an initial tippiness that might frighten novices. The initial price is also somewhat frightening, although this does include a spray skirt, an essential that otherwise costs a few extra bucks. The great value of the Khatsalano-S, however, is in performance that'll match your pace wherever you travel.
Nimbus Telkwa $2,223
Eighteen feet long with a 23.75-inch beam, the Telkwa is a beast of a boat for big paddlers. And even though it's made of lightweight fiberglass, it also requires a big person to wield its 62-pound hull. The benefit of such girth is that the Telkwa rides regally over big swells, like the Queen Elizabeth II, while you relax in your stateroom of a cockpit. Yet big doesn't mean clumsy: A rounded hull and relatively short waterline — the measurement of how much boat is in the water — make it more nimble than similar-size boats. The flip side is that the hull has to be loaded down to track straight, but there's ample cargo space. You'll also appreciate the thoughtfully designed deck, which has flush hatches and recessed fittings so waves slide off smoothly instead of splashing in your face.
Northwest Kayaks Cadence $2,335
The 17-foot Cadence is proof that beginner equipment doesn't have to be disposable. Made of fiberglass, unlike most starter boats, the Cadence will carry you all the way up the learning curve and perhaps even a little farther — in five years it'll be an old friend, not just an old boat. No single aspect of the performance is superlative, but there are no major compromises in the overall package. The Cadence's characteristics are dead-on typical. Tracking is very good, and its stability while sitting still is comforting. It's easy to turn sharply if you flip up the rudder, and as long as you fit the cockpit (medium to large paddlers do so best), leaning into waves to maneuver comes naturally. Bonus: The gear capacity is excellent.
Perception Chinook NW $1,250
The first mass-produced polyethylene sea kayak still has popular appeal 15 years later, and with good reason: It's as affordable as sea kayaks come, it's exceedingly tough, and it's user-friendly. Reassuring stability allows the novice to practice technique rather than worrying about staying upright; even splashy beginner's strokes will propel the 16-foot, one-inch V-hull. You'll need the rudder for turns to overcome its renowned tracking ability. Revered as it is, the Chinook's design hasn't been static: The bow was recently flared out slightly to help the boat more easily climb up and over oncoming waves. Eventually you'll grow out of this design, but rest assured that when you do, you won't have any trouble finding takers for your trusty classic.
Jonathan Hanson contributes frequently to Outside's Review pages and kayaks in the Gulf of California.
Photograph by Rex Rystedt