I have been to a number of kayaking events over the last three months where numerous kayaks have been purchased. I still remember every time I purchased a new kayak. I can remember the pride of driving up to the beach with my new boat and taking it out for its inaugural paddle. I have also witnessed considerable frustration during my clinics as a result of paddlers with new kayaks finding out their new purchase presents some challenges. Therefore, I thought I would offer some suggestions as to test driving a kayak before you buy it. I am not going to review the hull designs and the technical specifications. I am going to offer an experiential approach that will provide you with direct sensory feedback.
Anytime you need to make a quality decision it should be based on some criteria. Here is my list and you can adjust your list to fit your needs.
Am I comfortable sitting in the cockpit for extended periods of time (6-8 hours)? Can I enter and exit the cockpit easily with the different clothes I wear? Do I feel stable on flat water? Do I feel stable on rough water? Does the kayak maneuver to my liking? Can I easily edge my kayak and how stable does it feel? Does the kayak move fast enough for my needs? How does it paddle on windy days (weather or lee cocking)? How wet do I get when paddling into small waves? How does it paddle in following seas? How well does it surf (forward and sideways)? How well does it roll? How well does it recover when bracing? How easy or difficult is it to do my vast array of capsize recoveries? Is it outfitted to my standards (deck lines, watertight bulkheads & hatches,ample deck rigging, etc.? How much storage capacity does it have? Is the kayak well made and does the manufacturer back their product?
Here are some additional thoughts and considerations for each item on my list:
Am I comfortable sitting in the cockpit for extended periods of time (6-8 hours)? I always wonder who is the butt model for these seats. It certainly isn't me. I want to know if my legs fall asleep when I am in the seat for extended periods. I need to feel adequate back support. I need enough knee and foot room. I can usually feel the initial comfort in the showroom but the extended seating time needs to be on the water.
Can I enter and exit the cockpit easily with the different clothes I wear? I am 6'7" and getting into the cockpit and exiting is important. I also need to have good boat control so a cockpit that is too loose will not work. I need to be able to brace myself in the cockpit comfortably when right side up and while upside down. If I slip out my roll will not work.
Do I feel stable on flat water? While this is a consideration most of my time is spent on not so flat water. However, if you enjoy bird watching and photography flat water stability is important. This is often called primary stability.
Do I feel stable on rough water? The stability factor in rough water is a critical factor. When conditions get rough you want to feel as stable as possible. While flat bottom kayaks will feel stable on flat water they usually feel more unstable when the conditions get rough.
Does the kayak maneuver to my liking? Put you kayak through a small obstacle course to see how it maneuvers. Be sure to paddle forward, backwards, sideways, sharp turns, slow turns, turning in place, emergency stops and turn using your paddle as a rudder.
Can I easily edge my kayak and how stable does it feel? I look for a kayak that easily goes up on edge and feels like it comes to a stop while I am knee hanging. Many have called this the secondary stability point.
Does the kayak move fast enough for my needs? Some kayaks are faster than others. You should do a time trial and compare the distance paddled. The time trial should be at least thirty minutes which allows you to get into a steady rhythm.
How does it paddle on windy days (weather or lee cocking)? Be sure to test this factor because you can be working very hard if your boat turns up or down wind. Be sure to paddle in many different directions to see how the different angles to the wind affect its direction. Then deploy your rudder or skeg (if so equipped) to see how well it corrects the affects of the wind.
How wet do I get when paddling into small waves? Some boats paddle dryer than others. I would rather have a kayak that stays a little dryer when confronting small waves. In big waves all kayaks get wet. When I say the kayak stays a little dryer I really mean the kayaker. I have been in kayaks where water was constantly washing over the bow and up to my spray skirt.
How does it paddle in following seas? When the seas are coming from behind, you want to feel in control with reasonable stability. Following seas can play havoc on a kayaker. It is nice to have a kayak that responds well when being pushed forward by the seas.
How well does it surf (forward and sideways)? Since I live in a surf environment I am very concerned with how my kayak performs in the surf zone. I have used kayaks that had tendencies to nose dive and even corkscrew when surfing down the face of a wave. Some kayaks side surf very nicely and others seem to bounce sideways toward shore.
How well does it roll? Kayak design can definitely affect how a kayak rolls. In addition your particular body in a kayak will affect it differently from another with a different body size and shape. Different degrees of personal flexibility can affect your roll so don't take your friends opinion of the kayak for rolling until you try it yourself.
How well does it recover when bracing? Capsize points differ from boat to boat. It is much better to recover with a brace than going over and having to roll.
How easy or difficult is it to do my vast array of capsize recoveries? You may not paddle in difficult conditions but everyone needs to be able to get back into their kayak. Most paddlers who test drive never try recoveries as part of the test drive. This is where I see the greatest frustration. I remember a just married couple in my class and their matching kayaks were their wedding gifts to each other. They loved their new boats. Their kayaks had very high decks. The male had to struggle to climb onto the back deck and the female couldn't do it. I had them try the same skill with some different boats in the class. Both of them were able to climb on other kayaks. At the end of the class they vowed to sell their kayaks because they did not feel safe with such high decks.
Is it outfitted to my standards (deck lines, watertight bulkheads & hatches, ample deck rigging, etc.)? After your recovery practice look into the hatches to see if they are dry. A few drops of water is not unreasonable but if you have to pump out water look for another kayak. Make sure you have deck lines and adequate bow and stern grab loops or handles. Deck rigging can be added and modified once you own your kayak.
How much storage capacity does it have? Storage capacity could be important if you plan to do long kayak camping trips. A number of kayaks now have a day hatch that provides the paddler with storage alternatives instead of having items behind the seat. Day hatches can be opened while on the water and if they accidentally flood the floatation of the kayak will not be compromised.
Is the kayak well made and does the manufacturer back their product? I think it is a good idea to check on-line with some of the paddling web sites where you can correspond with other kayakers.
Of course the aesthetics and colors have to appeal to me but they are not high on the priority list. If there is a certain style of kayak that appeals to you then you can begin your search within those styles. Once you find the kayak you want check with the manufacturer as to color choices and lay-up options.
I don't believe you can tell much about a kayak by sitting in it on the showroom floor. A kayak is a performance vehicle therefore you need to take it out and perform in it to see how it fares up to your test. Many full service paddle shops will put the cost of rental towards the purchase of a new kayak if the purchase is within a reasonable time of the rental. I think going to demo days and symposia are great ways to narrow down your choices by trying a wide array of kayaks. However, taking out your final choices for a full day will give you excellent feedback. I firmly believe and promote buying your kayak from the people who provide you the service and the advice while you are test-driving.
Price, weight and storage while important I believe are minor considerations since a kayak is made to perform on the water. Weight does become more important if you solo paddle and cannot get your kayak on & off your car. However, with the advent of kayak wheels and user friendly car rack systems weight is less of an issue other than how much weight you want to paddle. Most kayaks can be made with kevlar which reduces the weight.
As an old time professional gear hound I know what it is like to want a kayak and want to buy it right now. However, as a kayak instructor I have too many stories of hasty decisions when buying kayaks and other paddling equipment. As I stated earlier, establish your criteria and then get out and test drive.
Wayne Horodowich, founder of The University of Sea Kayaking (USK), writes monthly articles for the USK web site. In addition, Wayne has produced the popular "In Depth" Instructional Video Series for Sea Kayaking.