The advice provided here relates to the three categories of watercraft you might buy yourself: kayaks, canoes, and stand up paddleboards. It is general in nature and explains various design features and materials. Understanding these enables you to make an informed decision about which watercraft suits your needs.
The appropriate equipment for you will depend on your choice of watercraft, your physical attributes, the conditions you expect to experience, how far you are going to paddle, the amount of gear you need to take, whether you want to fish, and how you plan on getting to the water.
It pays to have an idea of what you want before you go shopping, rather than be guided by what a retailer has in stock. If your local store doesn’t offer a try before you buy service, contact a kayak, canoe, or SUP club and ask if you can join them on a trip or two. Paddlers are usually more than happy to show off their gear.
Kayaks were invented by the Inuit 4,000 years ago for hunting and transportation. They were originally made from animal skin stretched over a wood or whalebone frame, with a hole in the centre of the deck just large enough for someone to squeeze their legs through and sit inside. The paddler wore a sealskin jacket which was laced into the kayak to create a watertight seal and used a handheld double-bladed paddle to move the craft in the required direction.
These days there are two main types of kayak. The first is the traditional sit-inside kayak. This is very similar to the original Eskimo design. The paddler sits inside the hull and is covered by decks at the front and the back. The second is a recent development known as the sit-on-top (SOT) kayak. This doesn’t have a cockpit. Instead, the seat is a moulded depression on top of the deck with strategically placed drainage holes to allow collected water to escape.
Sit inside kayaks have the best protection of any paddle-propelled watercraft from the sun, the wind, the cold, and the waves, particularly if used with a spray deck. The low seat position translates into a low centre of gravity and greater stability. This allows for narrower designs and therefore faster kayaks.
SOT kayaks won’t trap you inside or fill with water if you capsize and they are much easier to get on and off. However, the higher seat means that they need to be wider to achieve the same stability. This means they are often slower than sit inside kayaks of the same length. The main exception to this rule is a craft known as a ski. This is an extremely narrow SOT kayak designed for racing.
Kayaks are usually available as singles or doubles. A single kayak has one seat and a double kayak has two. Two single kayaks give you more flexibility than a double because you don’t always have to find someone to sit in the other seat. Double kayaks are usually cheaper than two singles and often faster because you have two engines. This is particularly useful if one conks out. On the other hand, they can be heavy and difficult to transport due to the extra length. Doubles have also been labelled divorce boats because of the propensity for arguments to break out between the paddlers. “No, the other left!”
It is possible to get kayaks with more than two seats. There are several SOTs with three seats, and some manufacturers have created modular designs which enable you to bolt on as many seat sections as you like.
Touring kayaks and sea kayaks often have rudders or skegs. These are two different ways of using a retractable blade at the rear of the boat to assist with directional control. Despite how it sounds, neither is meant to be used for steering. They are designed to help the boat run straight and resist weather cocking. Without one it is often necessary to paddle with significantly more effort on the upwind side to maintain your course. This can be very tiring over long distances. Rudders are attached to the back and foot pedals are used to swivel them left and right to control the direction of the kayak. Skegs don’t swivel like rudders, but where they are retractable, the paddler can adjust the amount of skeg in the water to suit the amount of wind resistance required.
Some white water boats are as little as 2 metres long. Recreational kayaks start from about 2.5 metres, touring kayaks from 4 metres, sea kayaks from 4.5 metres, and racing skis from 5.5 metres. Some sea kayaks and skis can be over 7 metres long.
Canoes are relatively small narrow open-topped or decked boats that are propelled using handheld single-bladed paddles. They were originally paddled from the kneeling position, as is still the case in competitions like the Olympic Games, but thankfully most of the canoes that you are likely to use now have seats. The seating position is higher than in a kayak. This makes them more comfortable for a lot of paddlers but it also means a higher centre of gravity so greater width is required to maintain stability.
Canoes have a lot of storage space and can often carry up to 500 kilograms in weight. They also allow easy access to your gear. This makes them ideal for multi-day trips close to shore, like the Murray River in South Australia, the Glenelg River in Victoria, and Shoalhaven Gorge in New South Wales.
Indigenous people from North America, the Amazon, and even Australia have long been making canoes from bark and hollowed-out trees. Who can forget the fantastic 2006 Australian movie Ten Canoes? Surprisingly, the oldest canoe ever found was actually in the Netherlands. It is believed to have been constructed somewhere between 8200 and 7600 BC.
Outrigger canoes have their origins in the islands of the Pacific. They have one or more parallel support floats called outriggers attached. Each float acts as a separate hull and gives the canoe more stability. This can be particularly useful when standing in the boat to fish and when sailing on open water. Outrigger canoe races like the Molokai Hoe in Hawaii are now much publicised annual events. Outriggers are commercially available for some canoe models.
In Australia, two-person canoes are by far the most popular option. This doesn’t really make sense as seat number considerations should be the same as for kayaks. It is probably just because “that’s the way it’s always been”. One and three-person canoes are also available. Families sometimes opt for the additional seat so more of them can go along for the ride. Single paddler canoes are popular in the US and they will probably take off here soon too.
Single canoes start at around 3.5 metres in length and can get to over 5 metres. Two-seater canoes are usually between 4.5 and 5.5 metres long, and three-seaters are sometimes longer than that.
Stand Up Paddleboards (SUPs)
Stand up paddling is a sport that involves standing up on a large surfboard and propelling it forward using a single-bladed paddle. It was started by the Waikiki Beach Boys, who are also credited with keeping surfing alive in Hawaii in the late 19th and early 20th century. The Waikiki Beach Boys were famous for their welcoming attitude and willingness to teach tourists to surf and use outrigger canoes. In the 1960s they started supervising their students standing on longboards, using outrigger paddles to move around and get onto waves. The idea of using a paddle with a surfboard faded away for a while, but it made a comeback in the early noughties when some leading Hawaiian surfers used it as a form of training. The SUP hasn’t looked back since. A wide range of purpose-built boards and paddles have been created, and the sport has now expanded into both flat and white water environments.
Most SUP measurements are given in feet. SUPs used in the surf are usually between 9 and 11 feet long. That’s around 2.7 to 3.4 metres. Flat water boards are often longer than that and racing models can get up to 14 feet, which is about 4.3 metres.
SUPs are designed to carry one person, but that hasn’t stopped people trying to see how many passengers they can get on board. It isn’t unusual to see young kids and dogs along for the ride.
The right boat or board for you will depend on your ability, where you plan to go paddling, and what you want to take with you. A short wide craft is just as valid for one paddler as a long narrow one is for another. Many people end up with a “quiver” of boats and boards: one for white water, one for surf, one for touring, one for sea kayaking, and so on.
Short craft are very manoeuvrable and great for white water and surf conditions. They are also cheaper and easier to store and transport, but they can restrict how far you can comfortably paddle. Long craft are fast and easy to steer in a straight line and preferred for long-distance paddling on flat water and the open sea.
Wide craft are stable, making them great for beginners, anglers, birdwatchers, and photographers. Narrow ones glide more easily through the water and therefore tend to be favoured by experienced and balanced paddlers.
This is the banana shape of the hull from bow to stern. More curve from end to end means greater manoeuvrability. Less curve results in better straight-line tracking and improved speed. This is because the shape of the rocker has a direct effect on the waterline length of the craft. Racing craft have very little rocker, while white watercraft that need to turn quickly have it in spades.
This is the shape of the bottom of the craft from port to starboard, and it affects stability. If a boat or board is flat near the centre (the keel) and curves up quickly at the sides it is said to have good initial stability. It will feel stable at first but will tip quickly when placed on edge. If it is “V” shaped at the keel line and flatter at the sides, it will feel tippy at first, but more secure on the lean. This is called secondary stability. Initial stability is preferred by beginners and nice on still water but secondary stability is more useful in rough conditions. A flat bottomed craft is like a tricycle; great on the driveway, but not so good in the velodrome.
Noticeable changes in the curvature of the cross-section of the hull are called chines. Sharp angles are referred to as hard chines and more gradual ones are known as soft chines. All of these represent points of instability when you lean a craft over in the water and the hardest chines are the most unstable.
The bow is the front end. A sharp bow cuts through the water enabling greater speed and efficiency. A blunt bow pushes water aside and tends to ride up over waves rather than dive through them.
Flare and tumblehome
Flare is an outward and upward slope in the side of a craft. It deflects water away and is commonly used at the bow and the stern to displace water and provide a drier ride. Tumblehome is an inward and upward slope in the side of a craft. This is often used near the paddler to allow them to have an efficient paddle stroke.
This is a ridge that runs along the bottom of the craft from bow to stern. This helps it to run straight and resist weather cocking, which is the tendency of a watercraft to point toward the direction of the wind. Keels are useful in flat watercraft and sea kayaks, and they can also prevent side slippage in the surf. However, they are not helpful in white water where manoeuvrability is essential.
Make sure there is enough room to carry whatever you want to take on your trips e.g. fishing and camping gear. Canoes are the best in terms of internal storage, while kayaks often have dry storage available in the hull accessible through holes in the deck. Bungy (elastic) cord on the deck of kayaks is also handy for storing maps, food, and anything else you want close at hand.
Most craft specify the maximum load they can carry in terms of kilograms. It is important to consider both your weight and the weight of other gear you might carry when making a decision about which boat to purchase. It is obviously important to make sure that you won’t exceed the limit, but it can also be a disadvantage to be well under the limit. Some long-distance boats are designed to perform better when they are fully loaded.
Comfortable seats are very important in kayaks and canoes as you will be in them for long periods of time. Some seats have more padding than others. SOT kayaks usually have backrest or backrest/seat options that can be buckled onto the boat. Sit inside kayaks sometimes have adjustable lumbar support, and the angle of the seat can be changed in some instances. Canoe seats also sometimes come with backrests. Most SUPs have deck pads to increase paddler comfort.
You’re never going to use your boat or board if you can’t get it to the water. Make sure the one you buy is light enough to manage. Some incorporate handles to make lifting easy, so don’t make a decision based purely on the specified weight. Try to pick it up in the store.
Several SOT kayaks have the option of being propelled using pedals instead of paddles. In one design, alternating pressure on the left and right feet drives flippers underneath the boat. This allows the occupant to move the craft in a forward direction while keeping their hands free for other things like fishing and photography. Another design has bicycle-like pedals that drive a propeller which can be used to move the craft both backwards and forwards.
There is a range of sails specifically designed for kayaks and canoes. You might think a SUP with a sail is actually a windsurfer but it is now also possible to buy SUPs with mast bases already installed. Some sail types claim to enable you to tack into the wind, but in reality, they are most useful with the wind behind you. On the open waters of the ocean, it is possible for sea kayaks to remain under sail all day, and this can be a great relief to a tired expedition paddler.
Wash your mouth out! No, it’s true. Flat-back canoes and some SOT kayaks are specifically designed to take motors and there are brackets that can be used to attach them to other boats.
Kayak and canoe fishing are hugely popular activities and SUP fishing is also growing in popularity. It is possible to buy packages that have rod holders, fish finders, bait bins, catch bags, and cutting boards included. Features like these can also be easily retrofitted to boats of solid construction.
Paddle powered watercraft are usually made from plastic or a composite of resin and fibre, like glass, carbon, or Kevlar. It is also possible to get folding boats, inflatable boats and boards, and kits that include everything you need to make a wooden or skin-on-frame kayak or canoe. Factors that will influence your decision about which is best for you are cost, performance, weight, durability, and convenience.
Most commercially available kayaks and some canoes and SUPs are made from rotationally moulded polyethylene. They are heavier than composite boats and don’t perform as well, but they are cheaper and more durable and therefore a better choice for everyday use. Boats made from triple layer foam injected polyethylene and vacuum formed plastics like ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) are also becoming more common because they weigh less and perform better on the water. A lot of canoes are constructed with these materials.
Composite materials are commonly used in the construction of canoes, racing boats, high-end sea kayaks, and SUPs. In SUPs, the composite material is usually wrapped around a polystyrene foam core. Composite craft are more expensive and less durable than plastic ones, but they are lighter and faster through the water.
Wooden craft have wonderful aesthetic qualities and can be works of art. The cost is comparable to a plastic boat and they perform like composite boats, but you usually need to be prepared to make them yourself, and they require significant ongoing maintenance.
Inflatable craft are convenient in terms of transport and storage, but they don’t track very well and tend to get blown around by the wind. They perform best in white water, where tracking and speed aren’t important.
On the water, folding boats are very similar to the skin-on-frame boats used by the Inuit so they are loved by traditionalists. Off the water, they can be taken apart and put in a suitcase. They are easy to transport and store, but it takes time to put them together and they are comparatively expensive.