Sit-on kayak or sit-in? Inflatable, plastic or composite? A bit of research can go a long way when choosing your first kayak, says world champion paddler Andrew Morton
I was chatting to a friend, whose husband has a small yacht, and we were comparing the pros and cons of motorboats and yachts. I thought she summed it up perfectly when she said ruefully, “In a motorboat, you get there”.
My father had a couple of small yachts, which I learned to sail as a boy. But I switched to kayaking at 15, because it was the only boat I could afford. That was in 1962, and I’ve kayaked ever since, and loved every minute.
So, why did I buy my first ‘big’ boat in 2005? Two reasons: I could finally afford to do so, and I wanted ‘to get there’. I like the motion of the boat, and I love the sea, but I find a yacht just too slow and complicated. I like the simple ‘press and go’ approach. Jump in, turn the key, and you’re off. But, and it’s a big but. It’s not exactly a very active pursuit.
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Not a lot different from a car to be honest, and it horrifies me to see folks out for a Sunday afternoon drive, just to drink coffee, and scoff cakes in some coffee shop beside the sea – sitting almost the entire day. There has to be some form of exercise built into the activity, surely?
So when I bought my boat, I had a roof rack fitted to it, and then, on a whim, bought a folding bike too. Could you do the same? Perhaps. It all depends on two simple factors: can you fit a bike or kayak on your boat, and are you fit enough? I can’t answer either of these questions, but I can give you a few tricks and tips for sure.
I know many of you yachties scoff at motorboats whizzing by, guzzling vast quantities of fuel, and I sympathise with your position. A yacht is silent and very green, but the problem is, it’s too slow and complicated for me, and it doesn’t ‘get me there’. I excuse the purchase of my motorboat, because I carry two silent, and green, modes of transport with me: a bike and a kayak.
The kayak is particularly handy because it runs in a straight line (usually), draws only an inch or two of water, and doesn’t break down. The bike is fine, but not so easy on crowded roads. I like to stick to the Scottish Islands, where the traffic is not quite so dense.
But with a bike and a kayak, you have the perfect combination to explore the Scottish islands, or any other islands for that matter: I visited the Scilly Isles for six or seven years with my kayak 20 years ago, before I bought my boat, and enjoyed kayaking round all the islands immensely.
What a joy that was, paddling round a different island every day, and going ashore to explore and enjoy a well-earned ice-cream or coffee and cake. There was even one early morning trip to Bishop’s Rock and back, before breakfast – but that’s another story.
One other item, which is worth buying, if you plan to explore the Scottish islands, is Hamish Haswell-Smith’s iconic book on the islands. That really is a ‘must-buy’ if you are a Scottish island hopper. Hamish firstly defines an island, then sets about describing every aspect of every Scottish island, including pilotage, and illustrates the whole book with the most beautiful line-drawings and watercolour pictures.
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Carrying bikes on your boat
So back to the plot. What about a bike? Almost everyone can ride a bike, so that needs little explanation. A folding bike is ideal, particularly because it can be carried on the smallest of dinghies. But take care you don’t hole the fabric in the process (See PBO issue number 659, where I nearly came a cropper rowing ashore to Gigha in an unsuitable dinghy!)
Some folks are buying electric folding bikes now. By all means do, but they are heavier, and not so easy to handle in and out of a dinghy, and you don’t get such good exercise!
Ideally, buy one where the battery can be carried separately from the bike. Prices for folding bikes range from £200 to £3,000 for the lightweight Brompton electric. Google your way to a choice! I’ve got a standard Brompton, and I love it. I’ve cycled on many Scottish islands, and enjoyed the experience immensely, particularly the quiet roads.
Kayaks: Trike or Bike
Almost everyone can ride a bike, but the kayak is not quite so easy. So I want to use an analogy between the bike and the kayak at this point, because they are remarkably similar in terms of stability, and not many realise this.
When you first started cycling, it’s quite likely you would be given a trike, or stabilisers, and then over a period of time, graduate to a bike. What’s the difference? Well of course, it’s stability. With a trike, the three wheels keep you upright; with a bike, it’s how you handle the handlebars which keeps you upright. There’s that magic moment when your brain learns the trick of moving the front wheel right or left to stay upright.
Could you describe how it works? Probably not. It’s all automated in a most wonderful way, just like learning to ski or skateboard. So it is with kayaking: beginners use the stability of the kayak to maintain balance, but experienced paddlers learn to use the paddles to stay upright, rather than the kayak.
When you get the knack, you find that every paddle stroke is a subtle support stroke which maintains stability. You don’t need the kayak’s wide beam to keep you upright, so you can graduate to slimmer, lighter and faster boats. I can still paddle my two racing kayaks on the sea at 5 knots for more than two hours, which gives me a massive cruising range if I so desire. But I’m in ‘bike’ world, and it’s most likely you readers are still in ‘trike’ world.
Can you graduate from trike to bike in kayak terms? The short answer is ‘yes’, but it’s tricky, takes perseverance, and is more difficult the heavier you are and the older you are. So, if you are overweight and over fifty, it’s probably a ‘no-no’ – sorry.
There are two ways of training your body to react to a capsize: one is to paddle an unstable kayak in warm, shallow water, or in a swimming pool, so that falling in is not a penance. The other is simply to paddle your own kayak and try to capsize it intentionally, and stop it turning over by slapping your paddle blade on the water. Make sure you practice on both sides equally too. You might eventually want to graduate to an Eskimo roll, but that’s a big ask.
Consequently, to start kayaking, you must buy a boat which is inherently very stable, so that you are not going to fall in. In other words, you need a ‘trike’. The snag with very stable boats is that they don’t go fast, and they are heavy. Most of them are made of plastic and can weigh up to 25kg.
Which kayak should I buy?
You could consider an inflatable kayak of course, which is lighter and much easier to store on your boat. They are also very stable, and there is a wide variety on the market: singles, doubles and even trebles.
Snag is, they are slow and rather difficult to manoeuvre, and blow around easily too. The contrast between all the different kinds of kayaks is considerable, so if you are absolutely new to it, approach a local canoe club, or manufacturer and ask to try different boats. Don’t just take my advice!
On top or inside?
Many are buying kayaks which are ‘sit-on-top’ kayaks with a solid, sealed, self-draining hulls. They are particularly good for using as tenders to paddle to and from your big boat. The beauty of these is that they are unsinkable, and if you capsize, you can climb back on board and continue on your way.
That’s the theory, but do practise this in shallow water or a swimming pool, to check your competence. Again, old age and added pounds make this feat increasingly difficult. I prefer to sit inside, because it’s warm and dry, and I’m lucky to be able to Eskimo roll out of trouble.
Surf Skis are the ultimate sit-on-top kayaks, and are becoming quite popular, but they are mostly unstable, and expensive. The beauty of the Ski is that you can paddle quickly, and in a straight line, because they have a rudder with pedals to steer. New ones can cost over £3,000, but they are now being made as light as 9kg.
My one, which you see in the photographs, is 21ft long and weighs just 10kg. What a joy it is, launching from the back of my boat, and setting off to paddle round an island off the west coast of Scotland. I also use an adapted river racer, which is almost as quick, with a rudder, and is just 9kg and 15ft long.
But these are specialist, unstable boats of course. Check out Carbonology Splash (light-weight paddlers) and Cruize models for something light and stable and quick. Only consider these boats if you want to take paddling seriously, and go places. They are expensive
I would suggest not, unless you have a very big boat. They are simply too heavy and too large, and can be quite expensive. They are not so easy to get in and out of either, when launching from a boat.
Plastic or composite?
Very simple: Plastic is heavy and very durable. Composite (glass fibre/carbon/kevlar) is light and more easily damaged. My boats are mostly carbon.
Rudder or skeg?
Short kayaks are difficult to paddle in a straight line, because of the Bernoulli effect. So, if you are paddling any distance, a rudder or skeg is good to have. You can buy glue-on skegs if your boat has neither.
Buy a set which are composed of two halves (split paddles) which you clip together. I’d recommend this for three reasons:
- Easier to carry and store
- You can adjust the angle of the blades to one another (the feather)
- You can adjust the length of the paddle to some extent
Launching a kayak from a boat
Launching from any boat is not so easy as off the shore, or from a solid jetty. So, a good swim deck at the stern is best by a long way. What’s more, it’s hugely important to anchor in a spot which you know is safe for your return. At worst, if I come back to my boat to find it bobbing about in big waves, I will not be able to get back on board – it’s happened to me once.
Fortunately, I was able to return later, when the wind had died down. If I have to get back on board, and the movement of the boat is too great to make that possible, I have to capsize intentionally, and swim to the boat’s ladder – not a bundle of laughs.
So, I always park the boat in a sheltered spot, and make absolutely certain that even with a change of wind direction and strength, I’m still OK for return.
Carrying a kayak on your car
Keep in mind, to get your kayak to your boat, you will need to carry it on a car. Here are a few tricks and tips:
- SUVs are not so good for carrying kayaks because they are higher from the ground. If you have one, invest in a small step to unfold beside your car.
- Ideally you need a rack without rubber feet, because rubber feet tend to damage the paintwork over a long period of time, especially if some sand gets in the way. Roof rails are stronger and better. (Roof rails are permanent fixtures which run the length of the car. Roof bars are temporary fixtures which fit across the roof rails at right angles to the long axis of the car)
- You can strap the kayak straight onto the cross bars, especially if they are rubberised. That will probably do for a short journey in calm conditions. But if you are going a long distance in windy conditions, and have a long kayak, then you must buy V-bars or vertical bars to bolt on to your roof-bars.
- Tie on with rope or snap-grip webbing. Don’t use elastic cords, except for tensioning your rope.
- Kayaks have the habit of moving forwards or backwards on the roof-rack over a long journey, so it’s worth using some ropes as ‘springs’ to stop that happening.
- Don’t drive quickly, especially into a strong head wind. I’ve had an entire roof rack full of kayaks lift off the roof of a mini-bus many years ago, because of gale-force winds. In strong winds, keep your speed down.
Ten top tips for kayaking from a boat
- Ideally, carry a PLB with you.
- Anchor your boat in a sheltered spot, where you are guaranteed you can get back on board a few hours later.
- Consider taping a map (in plastic pouch) of where you are planning to go on the foredeck of your kayak, particularly if you are paddling right round an island – headlands can be very deceiving, and confusing.
- Always attach your kayak to the big boat on departure and return with a quick release tether – they blow away very easily.
- Attach yourself to your kayak with a tether cord of some sort, round your waist or ankle so that if you fall in, you don’t lose your kayak.
- Wear or carry a buoyancy aid.
- Take a mobile phone in a waterproof pouch or case, and attach it to yourself or the boat.
- Carry some spare food and dry clothing if you are going far.
- Tell someone where you are going and when you expect to return.
- Check the forecast on more than one weather app.
Quick guide to start you off
Buy a 9ft sit-on-top, weighing less than 20kg, and costing under £500. Consider Tahe Ouassou sit-on-top.
If you want to sit inside, and are of small build, consider the Ace Jumper trainer kayak. It’s very cheap and light and short, to fit on any boat. These two are only for flat water exploration. The Venture Islay range is worth a look too, for something a bit bigger, to take you further afield.
Graduate to faster, lighter, more expensive boats as you gain confidence and experience.
Why bother kayaking?
I couldn’t think of a better way to see the coast of Britain, or any other country for that matter, and it keeps you fit, not fat. The payoff is immense, believe me.
If you want to hear more about Andy’s canoeing life and the impact it’s had on his health and fitness, watch:
About the author
Andrew Morton owns a Finnmaster 76CA motorboat, on which he can carry a kayak. He started kayaking in 1962 at the age of 15, and raced for Britain in the 1970s. He has attended the World Masters’ Marathon Championships six times in the past 20 years, and won a medal every time, including two golds.