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The Basics of Buying a Recreational Kayak

At Clavey Paddlesports we’ve sold one or two recreational kayaks over the years. As a result we’ve seen a whole spectrum of buyers. At one end was the guy who wanted a green kayak. Within fifteen minutes of telling me his one and only parameter for buying a boat, he drove out of the Clavey parking lot on his way to the Russian River with a new green kayak on his minivan. At the other end was the couple who came back to the store every four months mostly complaining that they hadn’t bought a boat for her the last time they were in. Then we would pull all the boats off the racks so they both could sit in them again. Long after my lunch had cooled (buying a hot lunch is my hugely successful technique to get people into the store) they would ask for a fresh set of catalogs and go have lunch on the river watching the happy people paddle by them in the water below. When they missed their next four month appointment I soon forgot about them. Then one day after I had just picked up a nice hot slice of pizza, they wandered back into the store, bragging about the great deal they got on craigslist. The boat was short. The boat was light. The boat was inexpensive. And unfortunately for her, the boat was built specifically for a child of no more that a hundred or so pounds. There was no point in me saying anything but congratulations. She’d find out soon enough without me. And besides, I had cold pizza waiting.

Buying a recreational kayak is one the easiest purchases you can make. Why? Because with few exceptions, you can’t go wrong. A rec boat is by definition nothing more than a way to get on the water and have some fun. Some are lighter. Some are faster. Some track better. Some are more comfortable. But unless you have a really specific use (like taking your dog) that requires a really specific feature (like a extra large cockpit), don’t stress it, almost any rec boat is going to give you years of paddling fun.

Things to think about: Cost, weight, comfort, tracking and safety.

If you you use it, it doesn’t matter what it costs, it’s a great deal. If you don’t use it, it doesn’t matter what it costs, its a bad deal. That is to say a thousand dollar kayak that gets on the water once a month is a great investment while a two hundred dollar kayak that becomes a permanent fixture in the garage is not. At Clavey our line of rec boats ranges in price from the Old Town Vapor for $399 to the Eddyline Skylark for $1399, and we don’t sell crap so even our bottom of the line kayak is still a great little boat. What do you get in the thousand dollar spread from one kayak to another? Bells and whistles mostly. Some have features you don’t care about. Other features are non-negotiable. Our number one non-negotiable feature is…

WEIGHT: If you can’t put the kayak on top of your car, you’re probably not going to go kayaking very often. You’re going to pay more for less weight. There’s simply no two ways about it. With the $399 Vapor you get a relatively lightweight kayak (46lbs) but at the expense of other features like a more comfortable seat. At $699 for the Necky Rip you get a little boat that’s super comfy. And the Delta 10 for $989 gets you a boat that’s as stable as a dock, as light a small child (37lbs) and has all the comfort and safety features of a much larger boat. And speaking of…

Just like paying more for less weight, a more comfortable seat is going to cost money also. Why? Because they cost more to make. And unfortunately you can’t just put a better seat into a cheaper boat. Kayak manufacturers with uber comfy seats usually build their kayaks around the seat. The seat is really the selling point of the boat. After all, if your plan for the weekend begins with a few hours kayaking Tomales Bay on Saturday morning, you probably don’t want to spend the rest of the weekend massaging your aching back because of it. A comfy kayak is a kayak you’re more excited about using. People come back to the shop all the time raving about how great the seat is . Never once has somebody come back in the shop wishing they had saved a few bucks on a less comfortable boat.

My favorite comment I hear is about a kayak is that it doesn’t turn very quickly. Congratulations. Unless you’re a whitewater kayaker you don’t want a boat that turns quickly. It’s not like you’re out there dodging dolphins at 50mph. What you want is a boat that tracks easily in a straight line. Rec boats have been notorious over the years for not tracking very well, mostly because they’re so short. But today’s recreational kayaks are considerably better. They’re better thought out with sharper entry and exit lines on the hull. The materials are more rigid so the boats don’t flex as much in the water. What this means is simply you’ll work less and enjoy your time on the water more.

Here’s the deal: Recreational Kayaks are for general recreation. They’re not meant for surfing Bolinas. They’re not meant for making the Inside Passage to Alaska. They’re meant for enjoying flat water on relatively pleasant days. Rec Boats are wide and stable. Most people don’t wear spray skirts. A lot of people bring their dog. Rec Boats are NOT designed to turn over. You don’t need to learn how to roll. They’re designed to sit flat on the water comfortably for even the first time kayaker. As a result, the vast majority of recreational kayaks have the very bare minimum of flotation in the event that you did tip your kayak over. This makes it difficult at best to get the water out of a swamped boat, and while the boat won’t sink, it won’t float high enough to get back in either. Manufacturers build boats like this for three reasons: keep the price low, keep the weight down and also because the chances are very thin indeed that you would ever tip the boat over (if you paddle in the conditions the boat was built for). Stepping up in price, most rec boats have a watertight bulkhead and hatch in the stern. This makes for a kayak you definitely cannot sink but can still be difficult at best to get back into from the water as the nose may fill too far to pump out. Meanwhile, the high end rec boats like the Delta 10 or the Eddyline Skylark have built in bulkheads fore and aft. This means a swamped boat will never dip nose down, will always stay level and can always be entered back into from the water (with proper training of course). But why do they cost so much more? Because you get it all. They have all the safety but still weigh under 40 lbs, track like they’re built by Burlington-Northern, and are comfy like a Lazy Boy recliner.

Check out our selection of recreational kayaks here, or swing by our shop in Petaluma for the full monty and a free demo on the water.

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