A critical step in narrowing down your choice of boat, for either a first-time buyer, or for a paddler ready to upgrade, is participating in a "Demo Day". These are usually sponsored in conjunction with your dealer and one or more boat manufacturing reps. Typically they are held on weekends, at a local recreational lake or river and are designed to let potential buyers actually paddle boats before they buy.
There’s a lot of merit to this exercise. Clearly many choices are made initially by believing all the hype in the catalogs or on the websites of your favor manufacturer. The information process perhaps comes more reliable as you discuss your wants, needs and expectations with your dealer – who, while having a bias for one brand over another, is still going to serve the most good by putting you into a craft he knows will make you happy and help you progress in the sport.
But as the test of the pudding is in the eating, so is that of the boat in the paddling. Even sitting comfortably in the cockpit on the dealer’s floor or at the annual expo’ event will not optimize the critical signals you need to select the proper boat. You need to test paddle the boat - on the water.
Several years ago I sold a boat to a friend who had test paddled the kayak in Seattle, he had read all he could on the websites and was completely convinced that this particular boat fit every need. We concluded the sale, and "just for laughs" I suggested he try the next boat up the line (he had always refused before, trusting his own sensibilities). He got in rather reluctantly and shoved off from shore. He gave it three power strokes and yelled back over his shoulder "I want THIS one!" Take the time to try out several boats, that’s what Demo Days are there for!
If you can, try to wear the clothing you’ll normally be wearing when paddling, at least, that is, your paddling footgear and pants. An "unfitting" cockpit may not manifest itself until you hit the water during that first post-purchase outing.
You already know you "fit" in the boat, but how well does it handle with you in it, and floating on the water rather than standing still on a hard showroom floor? When you are actually paddling, do the pedals feet spongy when used with the rudder system – or not? Do the thigh braces work when either shifted or fitted into place? Do you sit solidly and squarely into your and not slide from one side to the other as you execute a turn?
Does the boat tend to glide in a straight line when you ease up on paddling (assuming no wind) or does it tend to weathercock severely (turn into the wind as would a weather vane)? Most customers would like to see a nice, calm day for a demonstration of a boat’s handling capabilities. That’s great if you are a novice and are still a bit unsure of your own paddling skills. A bit of a chop or some wind, however, can give you a better idea of how the boat will handle when conditions aren’t so choice. Sometimes it may be a good idea to attend a couple of demo days, using two different weather conditions to test the boat and your skills.
Towards the end of the demo section you may want to open the hatches and see if any of the roughhousing, rolling and general on-water maneuvers caused the hatches to leak. You can also see what types of hatches each boat has and whether or not their clips and latches are easy to use with cold or tired fingers.
This is not a function of handling, but it does perhaps shed light on how devoted the dealer is to making a watercraft. When you have those hatches open, or even when you’ve got your nose buried down in the forward reaches of the interior – check out the workmanship! As important, check out the chips, dust, clumps, grit, etc. of that work. A boat should be clean, smooth and solid on the inside, too! Rough, sheared or broken rivet heads and other fasteners can catch on clothing. Globs of extra sealants can be, at a minimum, very unsightly and could possibly cause problems if ripped off while connecting to a larger section. If a manufacturer doesn’t feel it’s important to clean out that sort of production waste, how attentive was he/she when doing the detail of construction?
The demo day experience is typically several weeks after the winter sales expos that are conducted throughout the country. Many dealerships will offer sales extravaganzas while ponds and rivers are still frozen. The custom can secure a boat at a good sales price and, as part of the customer’s satisfaction, reserve that final, binding purchase agreement until after the demo day try-outs. It’s a great system.
If you can’t make a demo day or they just don’t offer any within a reasonable distance, consider renting the boat you want to buy (again, not always possible).
Another good reason to check out a boat is to determine if perhaps it’s not already a boat you can master. It may be a limiting design already at the top of your current paddling game. It’s often better to buy a little below your capabilities and grow into a boat – learn and hone skills to a higher level and then trade or buy up to that level. If you are really into sea kayaking, you may not want to start out with a very comfortable, and user friendly “recreational” kayak that you are going to outgrow after a short time on the water?
Imagine never having ridden a bicycle before and someone puts you on a safe, easy-to-peddle, and basic big-tired, 3-speed bike. Within a month of rides you figure out two things: 1) You really love the feeling of riding a bike, and 2) You want speed, efficient power peddling and better pedal to wheel ratios. Similar considerations can be made for kayaks and canoes as well.
Lastly, a demo day can introduce you to others who might be at the same point in their paddling development, you can build an even better bond between yourself and your dealer, get in the loop, become excited over pool sessions and more.
Even if you have the boat of your life, a demo day’s a great way to mingle amid the excitement and the camaraderie of paddling. Oftentimes you can meet some of the big shots of the trade, learn a tip or two from an experienced guest/expert paddler. Most importantly, it can be the consummate act in the final phase of knowingly buying that dreamboat – and not a future nightmare.
Tom Watson, an avid sea kayaker and freelance writer is also the author of "How to Think Like A Survivor" available on Amazon.com and most major bookstores.