Selecting a Kayak

To get close to the Bay, get close to the water.


There is something mesmerizing about the rhythmic slurp of a kayak paddle dipping and releasing from the water one hundred times per minute. There is no peace like the silence deep in the marsh reason the sound of the wind and the waves is muted by the absorptive capacity of grass. A kayak never stalls. A kayak never breaks a shear pin.

For years I scoffed that a kayak is just one more thing to carry, a toy I wouldn’t have time to play with. One more thing to tire me out. At my daughter's urging we rented a pair in Cape May and spend a wonderful afternoon exploring the harbor and nearby salt marshes; we were irrevocably hooked. By-and-by, my daughter bade me to buy her one, we carried it on our sailboat around the Delmarva and the length of the Bay. We use it more than the dingy. Sometimes it comes home and paddles local rivers, and even rides the roof on car trips, exploring more distant areas. Within a year we bought second. They get used both on sailing trips and also paddling locally and on driving vacations.

The Nuts and Bolts

Classes. Flat water paddling is simple enough to learn with a little reading and some reading, but there can be advantages to taking a 4-hour white water class. "I'm never going to paddle whitewater" you say. True, but like sailboat racing, the class will cover safety and technique that a 4-hour tour intro never will. It is a better use of your time, I promise. However, it will not tell you about gear for flat water kayaking.

Fit. One size does not fit all. While sit-on kayaks and to a slightly lesser degree sit-in recreational kayaks are quite forgiving of size differences, that does not mean a proper fit helps, both in comfort and responsiveness. At the very least, sit in the kayak you are considering, adjust the foot rest such that your knee forms about a 120-150 degree angle, and adjust the seat to fit. If it is a sit-in kayak, adjust any leg lifters so that your thighs comfortably rest in the thigh braces or at least against any thigh padding. Rock from side to side; the boat should rock with you without your body shifting in the seat. Twist your torso. Consider whether you could be happy sitting there for an hour or two. White water boats fit like a glove, sea kayaks less so, and recreational kayaks with more emphasis on relaxed comfort. Try several boats. Bear in mind, when the water gets rough, you will need to brace yourself well with your thighs, and the more adjustable seats can really help.

Size. Not the same thing as fit, often the same model is available in several lengths. The longer boats will be faster, track straighter, more stable in open water, carry more weight, and maneuver more sluggishly. However, some boats are also sized for different sized paddlers. The Perception Prodigy 10 and 12 are very nearly the same boat (the Prodigy XS is for small paddlers, under 100 pounds), while the Wilderness Systems 100 and 105 are sized to fit different paddlers (at 5'9" I am very comfortable in the 105 but a little tighter in the 100--thus the 100 would be better for moving water, but the 105 is better for fishing and bay paddling). Curiously, the manufacturers do not post information regarding what constitutes a "smaller paddler" nor any suggested range of heights and weights.

Paddles. I’ve seen folks buy a nice boat and a cheap paddle. Like running, it isn’t the clothes that move you, it’s the shoes  A good paddle is a joy in the hands, is efficient, and lasts a long time. We like cupped blades, fiberglass or carbon fiber shafts (no corrosion, no dents), and 2-part paddles since they are easy to stow and can be adjusted for feather (the blades are slightly rotated to improve wrist alignment and comfort). Expect to pay $100-$140 for a good one. Tie a simple leash if you think you'll loose it. A thin coating of grease on the coupling, even on the composite shafts, prevents salt from causing binding.

  From Werner Paddles
Length matters, and depends on paddler height, boat width, and preference. Small shafts are available for those with smaller hands, though my daughter (5'1") is quite happy with a standard shaft. I believe the length of the boat also matters; Shorter boats (anything under 10 feet) that don't track well require a more vertical stroke; subtract 10cm.

Boarding. Boarding the kayak from the beach is a piece of cake. Straddle, sit down and push off. Boarding from the dock can be a bit more complicated; sit down on the dock edge, swing your feet into the center of the kayak, turn and face forward while holding onto the dock, and lower yourself into the seat in one smooth motion. Boarding is a little simpler with inflatable kayaks, more amater of sliding across than stepping. Boarding from a dingy (we sometimes tow our kayaks to a nice spot) is easier if the paddle is placed across both just behind the seat and used as a brace and bridge. Boarding from a boat can be quite tricky, depending on the balance paddler, the state of the waves, and the geometry of the boat. Some find it useful to descend the boarding ladder a few steps. Some simply step into the center of the kayak and employ cat-like balance, perhaps holding onto a dinghy davit or stanchion. If you feel athletic, no problems. If you have mobility problems or if boarding a tender isn’t trivially simple for you, you might want to try this before you buy. It’s not for everybody.

A swim platform helps. We added these primarily to ease kayak and dingy boarding.

Reboarding a flipped kayak from the water is a whole 'nuther matter. Reboarding a sit-on-top kayak is generally a simple matter of grabbing the rail, easing back, and combining a strong pull with a strong kick; a little athletic, but most fit sailors can manage. Reboarding a sit-in kayak requires practice and a plan. Bailing it out first helps, since a partially flooded kayak is extremely unstable. There are several general approaches:
  • Reboard at the stern. Pull yourself up and stradle. Then slide forward (until straddling) and drop into the seat. Some make it pretty, but it doesn't work for me (guy).
  • Another approach involves wrapping the PFD around the blade of the paddle and using it as an outrigger. Some like it, I find it fiddly.
  • Reboard at the bow. Flop yourself across the bow in one motion (lower, then pull and dolphin kick)leaving your hips on the boat, and head and legs still in the water, on opposite sides. Slide aft to over the cockpit, still flopped across with your feet and head touching the water and hips over the boat. When over the cockpit, rotate your torso 180 degrees and drop in the seat. I can manage this  in waves and moving water, the only times I'm likely to be out of the boat (I've only capsized once, in river whitewater--the rest was just for practice).
Well worth the practice for the confidence and safety it adds when crossing open water.
Narrow sea kayaks require different technique and more practice.

Safety Equipment
PFD. Make certain the arms are free and it works with the seat back. Make certain there is a convenient place to stash it within easy reach, since we know you won't wear it all the time.
Whistle. Every boat, even kayaks, must have a noise maker. Though they don't seems very loud, they work. Once my daughter took the dingy out without checking the gas tank. About 2 miles away, she and her friend ran out of gas. They blew the whistle, and though I couldn't hear it, every dog in the county did. The barking got my attention, I scanned the horizon with binoculars, and spotted the kid waving her arms. Very handy.
Flashlight. Required at night. And common sense.

Drysuit. Depends on where you paddle, but a must in remote areas when the water drops below 60F. Comfortable so long as the air is below 55F. I wear a wet suit beanie if it is rough or raining; it keep my hear dry.

Gloves. We like the rubber faced gardening gloves, such as Atlas Fit or some lighter models. They offer a great fit and grip even when wet, are cool particularly when wet, significantly reduce the effort required to grasp the paddle and thus reduce hand cramping. In the winter we switch to insulated versions and freezer gloves; generally only the paddle shaft gets damp and so the rubberized palms keep our hands dry. Sailing gloves are good. Wet suit gloves in the winter.

Wading Shoes. The 5-finger type can't be beat in the summer for all-terrain capability; ordinarily I hate them, but they really work in the kayak around marshes. I move to wet suit boots in cooler weather.

Paddle Lanyard. We can go either way on this. handy if you're fishing. Just tie one out of cord and decide if you like it. 

Camera Boxes. We've been more than happy with gasketed locking food storage containers by Tupperware and others.

Knife. Something simple and stainless. You won't use it much, but if you only really need it once to cut something free or make some get-home fix. Some parachute cord for lanyards and fixes helps too.

GPS (hand-held). We've found that the maps for mash areas are so bad GPS is of little use. A compass and a good memory should be enough. But then again, I grew-up pre-GPS and pre-cell phone and prefer to go into the bush more plainly. Handy in a few of the larger marshes, like the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge.

Carrying. Very boat specific. Ours are often kept on the side deck, where a child can slide them back and down the sugar scoops. We've seen them carried outside the lifelines, somewhat aft (presumably on boats that never bury a rail), but that would foul spinnaker sheets on our boat. We've seen them strapped to the cabin top. We've seen them on tramps on catamarans. We've even seen custom racks to carry to kayaks using davits, though that precludes caring a tender. Our favorite is to stack them side-by-side on the davits, where they are easy to launch and not in the way unless carrying bikes. 

Yes, inflatable kayaks are an option, but we like the immediate readiness, ruggedness, and handling of hard kayaks. Most inflatables lack effective keels thus and "sashay" across the water, rather than tracking straight.

We've heard of folks towing kayaks. I fair weather it's an option and we've done it a few times just so that we could report on the practicality. The trouble is, if the boat is so small bring it on deck is not practical, what do you do if the weather kicks up? Perhaps a reasonable option for a sit-on-top model, where flipping is of limited consequence. We frequently tow them behind the tender to reach a spot to distant to paddle to.

Material of construction. The vast majority are molded from polyethylene. While purists will explain that fiberglass and carbon fiber make it lighter and stiffer kayak--and they certainly do--polyethylene will not scratch the deck, and that is a major factor. Combined with the toughness, no maintenance, and the low-cost of molded polyethylene boats, you won't see other materials out there much.

Nuts and Bolts. Some kayaks have bolts sticking out the beam well placed to scrape gel coat. Beware.

Which Kayak?
Inflatable, sit-on-top, sit-in, recreational, touring, hybrid, folding.… Too many choices. Like sailboats or shoes, there's no one right answer. However, I've borrowed, rented, and test-driven dozens, many while researching an article for Practical Sailor Magazine. I've learned a few things and developed a few biases as well.
Perception Impulse serving as tug boat.
We don't like them. The thrill of kayaking is the agility and simplicity of a light craft you can weave into the tightest spots. A vessel that one person can launch with minimal effort, less than getting a tender on davits ready to go. Two person kayaks are less maneuverable, ground more easily, are significantly heavier and... less fun. Like a tandem bicycle, only a few will like them. Concerned that a weaker paddler won't be able to keep up? We've never found that to be a problem, and if it were, towing is simple; my daughter once towed me a mile in an inflatable dingy (broken motor)!

An alternative for those who have no space to store hard kayak or an aversion to deck cargo, inflatables are and option. Generally, they are virtually uncapsizable, lightweight, and relatively inexpensive. They store about the size of a briefcase and inflate a few minutes with electric pump. With the exception of a few models that include frames and semi-rigid panels, they track poorly, wiggle through the waves, have the widest beam (less efficient paddling), and present puncture risk around rocks, shells and sticks. Not my personal choice, though I might well choose one of these over an inflatable dinghy that would be stored after every use; they certainly paddle far better than any inflatable rows.

Very popular and perhaps the best option for many.

The Pluses
  • Less stable. All things being equal, sit-on kayaks place you ceter of gravity about 4-5 inches higher. On the other hand, some brands (ocean kayak) compensate with wider hull forms that are nearly impossible to capsize, but they paddle like tubs.
  • Can be reboarded from the water. While this can be a little physical, it's not difficult. Sit-in kayaks can also be reboarded, that is an acquired skill and is considerably more difficult and more time-consuming, as the boat must be bailed out as well. 
  • Great for snorkeling. Reboarding comes in pretty handy. Great for reaching areas further than you'd like to swim. 
  • Surf. Some of the short models, notably the Ocean Kayak Frenzy, are quite comfortable in gentle surf. Fun stuff. Also considerably easier to launch from the beach since you can push them out the distance as required. 
  • Fishing. Many prefer these over sit in kayaks because of easier accessibility deck storage and greater stability. However, the more stable recreational sit-in kayaks fish just fine.

The Minuses
  • Cold. No protection from the weather and not a particularly good choice once the temperature (water or air) drops below 70°. 
  • Wet. You end up sitting in the water. Always. Also more difficult to keep your gear dry.  
  • Slow. When compared to equivalent sit-in kayaks they paddle like tubs. Most track very well, but they present a lot of resistance, buck more in the waves, and force a wider paddling stance. 
  • Less maneuverable because of underwater tunnels. Some short surf models (Frenzy) are very maneuverable due to increased rocker.
  • Less comfortable over long periods. Without an upgraded backrest, most are not suitable for long periods. Even then, sit-in kayaks generally offer better seating.
  • Less control. Leg bracing straps are available and are VERY helpful in rough water, since there are no cockpit sides to brace against.
  • Weight. A little heavier than equivalent sit-in kayak, even more so after a padded seat is included.


A few makers (Wilderness Systems, Dagger, Liquid Logic) offer hibred kayaks that include some of the maneuverability and wave handling ability of white-water kayaks (fuller bows and more rocker) with the speed, stability and tracking (longer keel and defined chines) of recreational kayaks through the use of retractable skegs. Seating is more adjustable; the back can be lowered to allow more freedom of motion, and adjustable leg-lifters secure the legs against the thigh braces. The Liquid Logic XXXX is a fat white water boat with a skeg, not really suitable as a sailor's boat, the Dagger Axis is more river oriented, while the Wilderness Systems Aspire is more Chesapeake oriented, in our opinion. Certainly all are far more at home in mild rapids than any recreational or sea kayak, making them an interesting choice for the sailor that would like to enjoy gentle rapid sections of the James, Rapahanock or Potomac; it can be wonderful way to spend a day on vacation away from the Bay or when a smaller adventure is desired. With a spray skirt they are at home in rough water, though the going is slow.


Some of the most popular and low cost kayaks are in this category.

The Pluses
  • Stable. Nearly impossible to capsize once some basics are grasped (brace stroke).
  • Warm, particularly when fitted with a spray skirt.
  • Easier to store gear. Many have good waterproof compartments, though bags are still helpful. Most of the time, stuff can simply be piled between your legs; it is not really in the way, since the knees are agaist the outside edge braces for stability when paddling.
The Minuses
  • Fear of capsize. While narrow sea kayaks require some balance and skill, recreational kayaks are VERY difficult to tip. As for getting out of a capsized boat, this is nothing to fear:
    • Fight the capsize. Instead of just leaning the other way (won't work since it simply pushes the rail under), paddle HARD on the low side, pushing yourself up. Just as dingy sailors remember the adage "when in doubt, sheet out," kayakers remember to "paddle out of trouble."
    • Don't try to get out during the roll. Fight the capsize, but once she's going, just stay in the cockpit.
    • Pop the front of the spray skirt. No, you probably don't have one.
    • Fall out. Once inverted you will virtually fall out of the boat, straight down, nice and neat. Just pop-up next to the boat.
    • Grab the paddle before it floats away. You'll need it.
    • Right the boat in one quick motion. The faster you roll it back up-right, lifting some if you can, the less water it will swallow. Bail it dry. Make sure the seat back is up.
    • Practice reboarding (above).This is done over the bow or transom, and NEVER right into the seat.

Recreational Versus Touring
Dedicated kayakers may well prefer to take what they have. If this is you, you know what you like. But even an experienced kayaker may choose something more optimized for sailboat cruising.
  • Length. Touring kayaks start at 14 feet, while recreational kayaks are commonly 9-10.5 feet. Many smaller sailboats simply don't have the space for long kayaks.
  • Speed. Like sailboats, length equals speed and the ability to take waves on the bow more smoothly. 
  • Rudders. These help tracking with long boats in bumpy water and can make it MUCH easier to keep the bow from blowing off in a breeze, but also present one more thing break when horsing the kayak on and off the deck. Except for the longest boats, steering is quite easy with corrective strokes, so we don't like these on kayaks to take cruising. 
  • Maneuverability. While long touring kayaks may be speedsters, they suffer miserably when maneuvering narrow guts deep in the salt marsh. For this reason, we don't care for anything over 10.5 feet. 
  • Weight. Lighter is better when it is time to slide the kayak up on deck. Read the specs, but touring kayaks can be as much as 15 pounds heavier than recreational kayaks. In fact, this can be a strong point in favor of the simplest of recreational kayaks; fewer bells and whistles equals lighter weight. We don't see any point in kayaks over 45 pounds for most cruisers, with 48 pounds being the absolute upper limit.

Our Favorites
Pass on the very low end models; they will disappoint with poor seat comfort, sloppy tracking and low speed. But that's not to say a simple design can't make an excellent sailor's kayak, and some of our favorites are less expensive. I've listed all REI products as they seem to have the ones we think make the most sense to the cruiser, free store delivery, and fair prices.
  • Advanced Frame. The only one we personally know that paddles well. But still there is this; punctures and tears are not covered by warranty:
"This warranty does NOT cover:
Products used for rental, for hire or in professionally guided tours and other uses not considered normal recreational purposes; and punctures, cuts and abrasions sustained in normal use; and items involved in accidents; and items damaged in white water mishaps, and other unreasonable uses or improper storage.
Advanced Elements, Inc shall within (30) days from receipt of an authorized return from purchaser, perform its responsibilities in conformance with this warranty."

  • Ocean Kayaks Frenzy. Slow and not a comfortable kayak for long distances, it is inexpensive, maneuverable, durable(many in rental fleets), capable in gentle surf, and just plain fun. $439.95 at REI.
  • Xxx
  • Perception Impulse. Though not cheapest, the perhaps the best value and we love it's simplicity. Lightweight (43 pounds), very comfortable seat, good tracking and maneuverability, and good capsize resistance. A little slow compared to some other boats, but the on deck storage behind the seat and in the console in front are quite handy. The low price as a result of a very simple, elegant design requiring few parts. $399.00 at REI. Also available at West Marine.
  • Wilderness Systems Pongo 100. Perhaps the best all-around recreational kayak. Comfortable, fast, and straight tracking while reasonably maneuverable. We also like the huge easy-open storage compartment.  A little heavy at 48 pounds. $699.00 at REI. There is also a 12-foot version, which is a better boat for long days and more popular, though it might be a bit much for sailors to carry. 
  • Dagger Zydeco 11. More maneuverable than the Pongo and perhaps a tick less stable, it is a fun boat to paddle.The Zydeco 9 is also very fun, very maneuverable, but probably only suited to paddlers up to 170 pounds.
  • Wilderness Systems Aspire. The hybrid; part mild whitewater boat, part recreational kayak. Faster than the others, considerably more maneuverable yet with arrow straight tracking when  the retractable skeg is deployed. A few extra seat adjustments allow for additional control. More capable than other recreational kayaks in rough water. We also like the huge easy-open storage compartment. A little heavy at 48 pounds; the Aspire 100 is lighter (43 pounds). $699.00 at REI
Paddles. Just as climbing shoes are critical to a rock climber, or a racket to a tennis player, the paddle is your connection to the water. Skimp where you must, but never skimp on the paddle.

  • Aquabound Manta Fiberglass. No corrosion after 3 seasons and some whitewater bashing, no dents, feathers to suit, nice cupped blades. $110.00 at REI. 

Loading your Kayak on the SUV's Rooftop
While the focus is on sailing, much of the Bay and rivers are better explored using the family car for transportation. And while it is certainly possible to muscle the boat up on the to the roof, when you are alone, if the car is tall (a few inches can make a difference), and if you are tired or have back trouble, it can be a challenge or even dangerous. Transport wheels are an awfully good idea. Get nice ones, as you are likely to pull the boat over a few beaches and back woods trails.
Sliding the boat up over the back with a quilt or towel for padding works, though holding the towel in place required some figuring.

The best solution? Find a set of wheels that  Serves for both transport and loading, like these. Just flip them over and strap them to the car like a bike rack (you will need to add a second strap). I took these pictures 45 days after breaking a rib--it's easy.

Wrapping a blanket under the read rack cross bar and draping it down over the back works too, just less "trick."

The Marshes
One of the defining characteristics of an estuary are salt marshes. They are in fact the nursery is much of the sea life, in the summer teeming with small fish and crabs and wading birds, in the fall with migratory birds, and the winter… silence.
Mosquitoes and biting flies. Curiously, there are most often virtually none. Mosquitoes require freshwater, and the teeming fish and dragonflies devour the rest. Small crabs clean up any dead animals that might be around; there simply isn't a smelly flotsam that attracts biting flies. Sunscreen, course is a good idea.
Navigation. Yup, it's not hard to get turned around, and some are worse than others. Some suggested handheld GPS, but the maps in these areas strikeouts is so undependable that a good memory is better. We've never really gotten lost, though the issue may have been in doubt once or twice.

Further detail is available in the posts or by clicking the "kayak" label on the right side bar.

  • Taylor Island Wildlife Refuge/Slaughter Creek.
  • Janes Island
  • Barren Island
  • Watts Island. A small island without much marsh, and the island is closed. Still, fun to poke around.
  • James Island. Small islands, not marsh, but fun to poke around just the same.
  • Tangier Island
  • Smith Island
  • Honga River 
  • Parker Creek / Warrior's Rest
  • Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge  
  • Plum Island Wildlife Refuge. Caution; some areas closed due to exploded ordinance.  
  • A creek at the head of every harbor....
 What of whitewater? While I'm no class 4 paddler, there are certainly bits of moving water on many of the western shore tributaries that are safe enough to enjoy in recreational kayaks, with practice on the Bay, careful scouting, and proper equipment (a helmet may be required by law even on apparently tame sections, if they have been designated white water by MD DNR). Wear the PFD and learn slowly. My daughter and I have spent some wonderful afternoons paddling down creeks with a few small rapids here and there.

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