Four Perfect Kayaks

Four perfect kayaks that won't fail you, no matter what your searing obsession

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Eat Your Heart Out, Ahab

The pleasures of sea-kayaking are often tranquil ones. Cruise solo along the Na Pali Coast, for example, and you’ll become lost in your own lush paradise. But such idyllic serenity lasts only so long. Soon you’re likely to find yourself indulging in “lower” seaborne pleasures: crashing through head-high surf, abandoning your boat to skinny-dip, matching wits with a sperm whale.

Indeed, sea-kayaking is the most versatile of outdoor sports. The boats can haul twice the gear of a backpack, glide as effortlessly as a snowboard, and thrill like a luge. As a rank beginner you can dink around a sheltered harbor watching birds and seals. Learn self-rescue skills plus tidal navigation and you can head offshore to go island-hopping for the weekend. Eventually you’ll be ready to explore the most remote coastlines for a month or more—quite often using the same boat you started with.

But since you can’t embark on an expedition every time you paddle, it’s important that the boat you choose be entertaining for the short haul as well. To that end, we tested a host of models and picked the exemplars of four signal sea-kayaking virtues: capaciousness, zip, ease of use, and portability. We’ve also selected the utmost appropriate gear for each boat. What’s left to be done? Well, deciding exactly how you want to go about chasing Eden. Rough duty.

The Explorer

Some Kayak with Your Gear?

You’re packing for a three-week expedition through the inside passage and must fit everything you’ll need into your boat. But the thought of leaving behind the Outback Oven, the hand-crank coffee grinder, and the full-size Therm-a-Rest is too ghastly to contemplate. No worries—you’re loading a roomy Dagger Sitka ($2,568). Toss in the sheepskin slippers, too.

The dimensions of the Sitka—18 feet by a svelte 22 inches—offer little clue to the vast spaces inside its glossy fiberglass hull (it’s also available in Kevlar for $3,069). The secret lies in the wide bow and stern of this expedition rig, which carry high volume well into the ends of the boat. The bulbous bow does bounce in small chop, but the clever design makes the Sitka feel as stable as a boat two inches wider. It’s quick in a straight line and responsive to a sweep stroke. The innovative rudder, built flush into the aft hull, flaps uselessly in the breeze every time the stern lifts over a wave, though it will help correct your course in a crosswind.

To fend off the water that inevitably seeps through the rubber hatch covers (as it does in all sea kayaks), stow your gear in dry bags. The Baja Bags from Cascade Designs—simple, roll-top PVC numbers—are cheap enough ($12–$32) that you can afford to bag everything. Keep the cockpit dry with a high-quality spray skirt, such as Snap Dragon Design’s Sea Tour ($115). It combines a reinforced neoprene deck with a comfortable nylon chest tube. My original Sea Tour is eight years old and still in fine shape, if somewhat faded.

Load all you want in the boat, but remember that you must stroke with every extra ounce of your paddle ad infinitum. Aqua-Bound’s two-pound Expedition AMT Carbon paddle ($195 for the two-piece; $225 for the four-piece) substitutes carbon fiber for fiberglass to allow all-day use with minimal fatigue.

Long tours in mercurial weather also demand a versatile clothing system (paddling jacket and pants in Seattle, neoprene farther north), but in any conditions, I like the traction of Five Ten’s Nemo High neoprene booties ($89) and the four large pockets of the Palm Equipment Ocean PFD ($125). The back pocket holds a survival kit while the three in front swallow flares, mirrors, and the genuinely waterproof Icom IC-M1 VHF radio ($386). With this setup, I’d paddle to Ketchikan and back.

The Sportster

Smoke on the Water

If paddling straight offshore to meet a sunrise sounds like fun only if you can do it at racing speed, meet the Ferrari of sea kayaks. The Eddyline Falcon 18 ($2,549) is a lean 18 feet by 21 inches, with a needlelike bow that parts water faster than Moses. It accelerates and holds speed effortlessly; I was able to maintain five knots—nearly a jogging pace—for miles at a time. There’s 20 percent less volume here than in the Sitka, creating far less drag, yet there’s enough luggage space for a comfortable week’s tour.

The Falcon is not for the novice pilot because unlike wider kayaks, it can tip easily. Still, the snug cockpit and perfectly placed thigh braces allow pinpoint control. The experienced paddler can make the Falcon track straight through conditions that would send day sailors running for safe harbor, though the sharp bow and finlike extension of the stern that keep it tracking true also make for balky turning.

You’d be missing the point to propel a boat like the Falcon with a low-performance paddle, so try Eddyline’s own Graphite Mid Swift, which is a gossamer 28 ounces (albeit a weighty $365; don’t use it for digging clams). The medium-wide blade affords plenty of power and a generous area for bracing, while offering little wind resistance.

For athletic kayaking, you don’t want a constricting dry suit or even a wet suit if the water isn’t frigid. Instead, try thermal stretch garments like those from Rapidstyle ($72 shorts to $139 bodysuits): cozy pile lines a stretchy waterproof-breathable shell. You can protect your hands and feet with Northwest River Supplies Crew Gloves ($15) and Perception’s Low Riders booties ($34). Their thin neoprene provides a modicum of warmth without sacrificing dexterity. The Kajak Sport spray skirt ($65) from Finland has a light and pliant nylon construction, and a thick PVC coating renders it leakproof. Likewise, the narrow shoulder straps on the Stohlquist Mobius PFD ($85) stay well out of the way during desperate braces. Watertight Otter Boxes ($17-$25) will protect your camera, picnic supplies, or whatever else you might carry on a race up the coast.

The Player

Goes with Games, Rhymes with “Sun”

To purists, sit-on-top kayaks are like green eggs and ham: we did not like them and their open-deck cockpits, until we tried them. Then we experienced the sheer, childish fun of abandoning ship. If you fall out of the Heritage Kayaks Nomad LP ($990)—accidentally or on purpose—just climb back on. Novices gain confidence and snorkelers can fin across outer reefs without beaching their boats. Of course, since you can plan on getting wet, sit-on-tops are best suited to tropical waters.

The Nomad’s swim-platform persona emanates from its porky, 28-inch width, typical of its breed and necessary to steady the high seat in high seas. But the Nomad incorporates an unusual design trick: The width of the hull at waterline is a drag-reducing 23 inches; the remaining girth skims just above the surface unless you lean sideways, at which point it feels as if you’ve plopped down a stabilizing outrigger. The result is that the Nomad paddles faster on flat water than most of its cousins.

At 16 feet, the Nomad is also longer than most sit-on-tops, so it stays sufficiently true to course for a full-day paddle, and watertight storage compartments fore and aft can accept a week’s gear. If you want to keep your butt above waterline, though, heed the maximum capacity of the boat: 190 pounds for paddler and equipment. (Compare this to the Sitka’s 320 pounds.)

The Nomad really shines when just messing around. Hop in, adjust the footbraces, and power out through the surf. Waves that wash the deck drain right out. The polyethylene hull, while heavy (62 pounds, the same as for the two-foot-longer Sitka), is tough and abrasion-resistant—just the ticket for exploring offshore rock gardens in the Gulf of California.

You don’t want to abuse a featherweight paddle fending off boulders. The fiberglass Nimbus Spartan is affordable ($115) and tough enough to use as a clam shovel, though heavy at 45 ounces. An appropriate PFD for the Nomad user is the Seda Model 33 ($59), a sea-kayaking standby. Its channeled-foam construction makes it more comfortable than slab-sided models.

Since there’s little danger of hypothermia when the water temperature is 80 degrees, your chief sartorial concern is not offending other boaters. Throw on a pair of Patagonia Baggies ($35) over your swimsuit and you’re set. A pair of Teva Alp Pro sandals ($55) will protect your feet while exploring tide pools, and the wide cotton-duck brim of the Ultimate Hat ($37) will keep your nose and ears from frying.

You can go swimming from the bow / And you can use it in Palau / You can drag it on the beach / For island-hopping it’s a peach.

The Globetrotter

Kayak? What Kayak?

Visiting the best sea-kayaking spots often involves a daunting first step. Namely, getting your boat there. The cost of shipping, especially for a dream trip to, say, the fjords of Chile, can exceed the value of your vessel. Skirt the airline fees with a kayak that disguises itself as luggage. The Feathercraft K1 Expedition ($3,940) travels as a single 50-pound backpack guaranteed to slip past baggage check unnoticed. At the launch site, put together its aluminum-alloy and high-density polyethylene frame, wedge it into the taut, urethane/nylon skin, and—Shazam!—you’ve got a seaworthy ride in about 30 minutes. No tools required.

At 16.5 feet by 25 inches, the K1 mimics the handling characteristics of hard-shell touring boats. It’s reassuringly stable, yet easily rocked to brace against side-waves. The nylon sling seat is extremely comfortable, the nylon spray skirt comes with the boat, and the upturned bow prevents small waves from slapping your chest. To top it off, the K1 has cargo hatches—previously unheard-of among folding kayaks—so you can reach stowed gear without blindly groping from the cockpit.

The lack of bulkheads allows a lot of frigid bilgewater into a swamped folder, so your dry bags have to serve as storage and backup flotation. I’ve never seen better bags than the ZipDry duffels from Watershed; they’re frighteningly expensive ($70 for the smallest size) but worth every penny if you’re capsized. For those hypothermia-prone digits, slip into Northwest River Supplies neoprene Paddlers Gloves ($30) and Chota’s neoprene MK100 Mukluks ($72), whose knee-high uppers let you make most landings and launchings with dry feet. The Gore-Tex Meridian dry suit ($679) from Kokatat insulates superbly over a fleece layer and a front-entry zipper makes donning the suit less an act of contortionism.

The Lotus Designs Strait Jacket PFD ($115) is not nearly as constricting as you might guess from its name, thanks to huge armholes. A web loop holds a knife and two pockets suffice for flares and the Garmin 12 ($232)—a nearly intuitive GPS whose display charts your course and speed. As for a suitable paddle, the four-piece Werner Little Dipper ($285) has narrow blades that won’t whip around like an albatross in the wind, and it breaks down into sub-two-foot sections. Heck, it’s carry-on size.

The Other Stuff

Moots Tailgator Rack and Bag

Schlepping a day’s worth of stuff down road or trail has always been an all-or-nothing proposition for cyclists: Bolt on a heavy rear rack and panniers for an extended tour, or cram the bare necessities into jersey pockets and a floppy under-the-seat bag. But say you want to pedal a century through remote territory, or fish a trout stream that’s 15 miles in by way of a narrow trail. Then what?

The Moots Tailgator ($125 for rack and both bags; 970-879-1676) lets you bridge the gap between cumbersome and minimalist loads. Crafted of titanium from surplus B-1 bomber hydraulic lines, the featherweight, 100-gram rack neatly clamps to your seatpost with two Allen bolts. The loop of 3/8-inch-diameter titanium tubing extends for 13 inches and provides just enough backbone to carry a day’s provisions—up to ten pounds and 150 cubic inches—in the two Cordura packs. When the valises are in their standard configuration, sandwiched above and below and strapped tightly, there’s more than enough room for energy bars, spare tube and tools, plus fly-fishing tackle or, if your destination is a deep-woods hot spring, sandals and swimsuit. For smaller cargo, you can split the packs apart and use only one bag. Just right if you don’t want to bother with the suit.

G3 Targa Telemark Binding

Telemark skiers have been ripping double-diamond runs on wide skis and plastic boots for some time now, but they’ve been waiting impatiently for a revolution in bindings. Along comes G3’s Targa ($145; 604-924-9048), a cable binding that doesn’t so much predict the future as perfect the past. The Targa benefits directly from tele technology pioneered by others: Rainey Designs’ Superloop is the inspiration for the stainless-steel toe-box, the rear-throw cable is indebted to Black Diamond’s Riva II, and the built-in riser plates give a nod to Voilé’s shims. But G3 came up with its own innovation as well: compression-spring cartridges on either side of the cable, which distribute tension on the heel evenly as it lifts through a turn. Unlike older bindings, the Targa’s springs don’t try as desperately to return ski to boot. The result is less “tip dive” in deep, soft snow, and thus fewer face plants. The cartridges are available in three degrees of stiffness: Powder (soft, for leather boots and fluff), All Mountain (medium stiff, for most boots and conditions), and Race (very stiff, for Scarpa’s T-Race boots or heavier skiers). Don’t be surprised if you see a gearhead skinning up using the Powder cartridges and swapping in the All Mountain versions for the descent (extra cartridges cost $40 a pair).

G3 has also engineered the toe-box to fit the soles of your boots with precision. The plastic anti-ice plate produces a 90-degree corner that snugs tightly against the edges of the sole, letting you initiate accurate turns on hardpack while preventing the unweighted ski from deflecting in crud. Subtle improvements, but for aggressive tele skiers looking for a simple, strong, buttery-smooth boot clamp, the G3 has set a new free-heel standard.

GearAid Repair Kits

Over nine years of guiding sea-kayak trips in Baja, I’ve painstakingly stocked my own equipment-repair kits. But I won’t anymore. All the tools I’ve collected are included in GearAid’s (800-324-3517) new adventure repair kits. Available in five models—from the Fig Newton-size Go Repair ($11), suitable for day trips, to the comprehensive Expedition ($43)—each is thoughtfully packed with the essential heavy-duty needle, thick nylon thread, duct tape, hot-melt glue, fabric, webbing, Seam Grip, parachute cord, and spare buckles. The bigger models have more of the same, along with such save-the-day devices as replacement zipper pulls, tent-pole splints, and even patches for sleeping pads. While there are few items you couldn’t scrounge up on your own—eventually—it’s vastly more convenient to get them all at once, and packed in a sturdy Cordura pouch to boot.

Oceanic Zeta Regulator

You don’t have to be Jacques Cousteau to appreciate that the best scuba regulators let you breathe easy. Diving deep with a typical regulator can feel like sucking air through a straw, but with the new Zeta Regulator by Oceanic ($550; 800-435-3483) there’s no more wheezing. It also happens to be the smallest device of its kind.

Instead of relying on a clunky internal lever to open the air hose, the Zeta’s valve works like a Porsche turbocharger. Inhale and a small pilot valve flips open; the resulting rush of air creates suction that automatically blows open the main valve. I used a computerized breathing monitor to check the device’s efficiency and found that inhaling and exhaling through the Zeta requires half the effort I expend with my Poseidon Odin regulator. At 200 feet down, the Zeta’s air flow also feels more natural than the big blasts of gas delivered by the Odin.

The one drawback, strangely enough, comes from the Zeta’s tiny size. The short exhaust ports can allow bubbles to rise alongside your mask. On the other hand, its sub-six-ounce weight and oversize silicone teeth grips—report-edly designed by an orthodontist—do wonders for reducing jaw fatigue. And it’s a breeze to disassemble when clogged, with only three moving parts and no need for special tools. Just make sure that when you put it back together there aren’t any leftovers.