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Recreational Kayaks vs Sea Kayaks

A question I get very often is on different types of kayaks, the pros and cons of each type and why you should get one versus the other. But it really comes down to what type of paddling you're going to be doing and where you're going to be paddling. 


Now, there's many types of kayaks out there and I thought I'd do a quick overview of two types that I actually own. That way I can do a kind of a Show-and-Tell of the differences between these two, as well as some of the features that maybe you can look into if you happen to be in the market for a recreational kayak, or a sea kayak.


For most paddlers I know, they've either started in one of these or they rented something like this to spend a couple of hours on a lake and had a great time. This is an entry-level, affordable, recreational kayak. You can tell it has a very large cockpit. It's wide and it's short so that means it'll be slow, it'll be very stable and it'll be comfortable for someone that's new to paddling.


This one in particular was not very comfortable so I put a bit of padding for the seat and then it came with a back band. Some will have bungee cords so you can put things away as well as a drink and sometimes a drink holder. This one also happens to have foot pegs - a lot of them do and that is very useful for having a better forward stroke. Some of them will have hatches, this one does not have a true hatch – it has a space where you can put something away but this is not a true hatch in that and doesn't seal, so if you capsize, you’ll get water in it, whatever you have in there will get wet.


Higher-end recreational kayaks will often come with a much, much nicer seat. Brands like Wilderness Systems will have really nice seats and then you can spend all day on a recreational kayak and feel just fine on the water. Now, because it's so wide it'll be really stable but only in really nice conditions. If wind picks up or if there's a lot of waves this is not a kayak you want to be in, or if there's fast-moving water this is not a kayak you want to use. This is for very calm waters or very, very slow-moving waters.


But you’ve got to remember if you wanted to fish or just spend time in a beautiful, calm location, a recreational kayak might be absolutely perfect for you.

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Now here we have two examples of sea kayaks. This one happens to be made out of fiberglass, and this one is plastic. The plastic in this Necky Eliza happens to be a lot more durable than the recreational kayak I showed before, so if you were to get an equivalent of a recreational kayak in this material it would be a lot more expensive.


One of the first features that is very noticeable between a sea kayak and recreational is perimeter lines. These are strong lines to which you can hold on to if you have a capsize, or if someone who wants to hold on to your kayak, or if you're rescuing someone else – these are essential, especially in rough conditions or when wind picks up.


Another thing you notice right away is hatches. Every brand has a different style of hatch but usually what it means is there are bulkheads that divide the kayak up into different compartments. So that means that if the cockpit filled up with water, the hatch compartments will still be dry and full of air. You could be completely filled with water where you're sitting but still remain afloat because the rest of the kayak has enough buoyancy to keep you floating.


With a recreational kayak, if you fill up with water it will just sink unless you have float bags – which are available for purchase. Float bags are just dry bags that you can fill up with air and shove in the front and the back of your kayak. There are models of recreational kayaks that will come with sealed hatches so that you can have flotation in the event of a capsize.


The other reason for hatches is that you can now have a dry compartment to fill up with your gear. Usually sea kayaks will have hatches in the front and in the back, and some of them will also have what's known as a day hatch. A day hatch is a smaller compartment that is easily accessible when you're in the cockpit.


This Rockpool, like many other fiberglass kayaks just uses a rubber hatch cover, the Necky on the other hand uses a double clip and a plastic hatch cover. You can also tell that these sea kayaks have a lot more bungee cords. That's because as a sea kayaker you usually carry a lot more gear. Another feature that I’d like to point out is these often have back bands. In recreational kayaks you'll see higher seat backs, but in sea kayaks it is often recommended to have a nice low back band because that gives you more mobility on the water. It's easier to perform maneuvers, as well as laying back if you're doing a lay back roll.


Now, you'll also notice that the cockpit in the sea kayak is much smaller, so that's how you can fit a skirt around here, and so that you can have thigh braces. So not only are you using the foot pegs but you can also have your thighs contact the kayak, as well as the hips and the back. That way it's almost as if you're wearing the kayak rather than just sitting in it. In a recreational kayak you usually just have your backrest and your foot pegs, but here you have a lot more control by using your lower body.

Another feature that's a must on a sea kayak is either a rudder or a skeg. A skeg is deployed from the cockpit and it comes out usually in the back of the kayak. It can help you either keep a straighter line or in times of a lot of wind, this can help you correct the direction you're going in. Same thing goes for a rudder. It can be deployed, dropped in the water and then with your feet you're able to control the direction of the rudder and then you're able to easily turn. I prefer a skeg over a rudder but I think it just comes down to preference. I like doing all my turning with my strokes, but at the same time, for fast paddlers it's a good idea to have a rudder because then you can focus on only doing a forward stroke and then turning with just the rudder. One of the drawbacks with a rudder is that there's a lot more moving parts and there's a chance something could break. So if you have a rudder just keep an eye on it every time you go paddling just make sure everything still functions correctly.


Sea kayaks are usually very narrow and very long so that means they'll track very well. You'll be able to keep them straight, you'll be able to go much, much faster than a recreational kayak – but at the same time they'll be very tippy and that's done on purpose for rough water. Rough water will not affect a tippy kayak anywhere as much as a stable kayak. A stable kayak will probably be capsized by a wave where a tippy kayak will probably not as much.


Just like with recreational kayaks, sea kayaks come in lots of different sizes, shapes and volumes. These happen to be low volume and that's because of the type of paddling we like to do. Low volume is great for rolling, but this one happens to have just the right amount of space that I need for the type of camping that I like to do.


So if you want to get a recreational kayak, please remember that you can only paddle it in calm waters or very, very slow-moving waters. But they're fantastic for having a good time out on the water, and if you want to go in open waters you need a sea kayak that has deck lines, hatches, sealed bulkheads so that you can have flotation regardless of being swamped. As well as thigh braces, foot braces, and either a skeg or a rudder.


So I hope that was helpful, please reach out with any questions you might have, and if you have anything to add, please comment below. Subscribe if you like I'm always putting these videos out, and as always Luke Rovner for Kayak Hipster, thank you for watching and see you next time.


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