This question is from imsealin – they asked how long should a kayak be for sea kayaking, and can it be also used on big rivers and lakes.
I thought I'd cover some of those basic requirements that I have been taught, what a “sit-in sea kayak” should have for you to safely go out into coastal waters. Now, to note, these are not the only kayaks that can be used in coastal waters. There's sit-on-top kayaks, surf skis, surf kayaks, there's so many different types of kayaks that also would be okay to be out on the water. But if we're talking about our generic sit-in sea kayaks, these are some of the things that you should look for.
Length and airtight hatches
The minimum length I've been taught has been 14 feet. The reason for that is that when in addition to having two airtight hatches (one in the front, one in the back) it will provide you with buoyancy in case your cockpit gets flooded with water. You’ll be able to still float and you can stay inside the kayak and paddle it. Sure, you'll be sloshing around with lots of water in the cockpit. I would recommend trying this sometime! See what it feels like to paddle around with a cockpit full of water. In any case, you can turn the kayak it upside down to empty it, you can do a T-rescue, you can empty it out of water with a bilge pump, and just get that water out, but you will stay afloat regardless.
Another feature will be perimeter lines that go all the way around the kayak’s deck in the front and the back. If for any reason you fall out, you can still grab onto it anywhere around the kayak or if you assist someone else you just have to be able to get a hold of that kayak. For example, when we do rescues on skin on frames, it's always a bit harder to maneuver. Sure, there are techniques of how to do it, but if you just have those running lines in the front in the back, it just makes it so much easier to move the kayak around. Same thing if you fall out, just to be able to put your hand anywhere along the perimeter of the kayak and hold on to it.
Points of contact in cockpit
Another item to look for is a cockpit where you have several points of contact. You have foot pegs, you have thigh braces, you usually have some way to get your hips involved, and you have a back band or seat behind you. Depending on how you set up your kayak you can be in control of the movement of the kayak and it's extremely helpful to be able to detach what your upper body and your lower body are doing.
Your upper body can focus on either propulsion, or bracing, so that you don't go over. At the same time, having this level of contact will allow you to have your hips control what is happening with the kayak. Whether you're edging, or leaning, these are things that as you move your kayak around it'll affect how your kayak responds to what you're doing in order to get around, or in order to turn, stop or even come back up if you're upside down.
Skeg or Rudder
Next is a way of dealing with winds and usually that means having either a skeg or a rudder. Usually, depending on the way a kayak is designed, it can try to turn up wind (known as weather cocking). A skeg is a way of counteracting that depending on how much of it is deployed, and it can also help you go in a straight line.
A rudder can also help you counteract wind, but it can also help you in other ways. Let's say you don't want to alter your forward stroke. Let's say, if you're racing, then the rudder can allow you to turn the kayak using your feet instead of having to alter the way you're paddling with your upper body. That's just one example of how a rudder could be used. But overall, a sea kayak should have something that allows you to deal with wind irrelevant of what direction you want to paddle in.
So, to recap, these are all things that usually are a part of a desirable sit-in sea kayak:
- At least 14 feet
- Perimeter lines
- Hatches fore and aft
- Five points of contact
- Skeg or rudder
Now, the other two questions are: can they be used in slow, big rivers and lakes. Absolutely! You just have to remember that the longer the sea kayak, the harder it can be to turn. An example, there's parts of the Delaware River that are very wide and there's not much current, and it's great. My wife and I have paddled it with our sea kayaks and it was great, we had a great time. Just remember also about whatever material you have versus where you're paddling. For lakes, absolutely! One thing I will mention, though, my wife and I used to go to Split Rock Reservoir in New Jersey – which is beautiful, it's a wonderful place to paddle – and in our recreational kayaks it would take us a long time to get to the end of the reservoir and back. Eventually, when we switched over to sea kayaks, we brought them over one day and we got there in 20 or 30 minutes, and we couldn't believe just how much faster we were!
One more item to mention: Similar to coastal kayaking, if you are paddling in a really big lake, wind and weather will affect your conditions. Always keep an eye on what the weather is doing and if it's the right time to go out and paddle.
I have a couple more questions in the queue that I'm going to try to tackle every so often. If you have any other questions, please do send them my way.