While overall, paddle sports are generally quite safe, we do need to remember that water is not our native element. As such, there are some risks that we need to be aware of so that we can take steps to mitigate them. The kayaks we use when we paddle come in many different shapes and sizes and are designed for a variety of purposes. Using the wrong kayak for the environment in which you want to paddle, at best, will result in a less than satisfactory experience as the kayak will not perform as you would like it to perform. At worst, using the wrong kayak could actually put your life at risk since the kayak would not be able to do what you need it to do in certain situations. For this reason, it is important that everyone who plans to paddle a kayak has at least a basic understanding of the differences between kayak types and how they should and should not be used.
Very simply, kayaks come in three different categories: recreational kayaks, sea/touring kayaks, and whitewater kayaks. With apologies to kayak racers, we are going to ignore these more unusual types of kayaks and instead focus on the three most common types of kayaks. Racing kayaks tend to be very unstable for the average paddler and comparatively expensive, so they are not very common.
Recreational kayaks are the most common and readily available type of kayak. They are generally from 9 to 14 feet long and 25-30 inches wide. Most are made of rotomolded polyethylene plastic which makes them pretty durable and inexpensive. Despite what you may read in marketing information that is put out by the manufacturers of recreational kayaks, they are ONLY designed for use in small lakes and slow-moving rivers where the paddler will always be within easy swimming distance of shore. They should NEVER be used on large bodies of open water like the ocean or the Great Lakes. The main reason for this is that, following a capsize, a recreational kayak cannot be emptied of water and re-entered from deep water. Your only option for rescue is to swim to shore. The boat must be taken to shallow water in order to be emptied. Since recreational kayaks are marketed as being very stable, why should you worry about capsizes and the need to perform rescues? Because the very hull design that makes them stable on flatwater makes them inherently unstable in waves. Rec kayaks are designed to sit solidly flat on the surface of the water. As long as the surface of the water stays horizontal (flat), the kayak will feel quite stable. On open water, as the waves become larger and the surface of the water is no longer flat and horizontal, the kayak will tilt so that the hull remains flat in relation to the surface of the water. Eventually the flat-bottomed recreational kayaks will flip unexpectedly, throwing the paddler into the water. Another problem with recreational kayaks in rough water is that the waves will begin filling the large, open cockpit with water. Once you have several inches of water in the boat sloshing around, the kayak becomes even more unstable hastening the eventual capsize. Most rec kayakers don’t use a sprayskirt, but even if you do, the cockpit openings are so large that the fabric of the sprayskirt is not strong enough to resist popping off under the weight of the water when a wave breaks on top of it.
For paddling on open water such as the ocean or large lakes where waves can grow much larger and a capsize may mean a long swim to shore, a sea kayak is required. Sea/touring kayaks are generally 15 to 18 feet long and 20-24 inches wide. The defining feature of these boats is the division of the kayak into 3-4 separate compartments by internal walls or bulkheads. These “hatches” or storage compartments are first of all a safety feature that gives the kayak a tremendous amount of buoyancy. If a paddler capsizes in a sea kayak and exits the boat, water will enter the cockpit where the kayaker sits, but the bow and stern compartments will be filled with air which keeps the kayak floating higher. This added buoyancy will actually keep the cockpit from completely filling with water, in most cases, so the kayak will not get as heavy and waterlogged as a recreational kayak. As a result, there are solo and assisted rescue techniques that will allow the paddler to quickly re-enter the kayak from deep water following a capsize. The smaller, more fitted cockpit of a sea kayak, along with the addition of thigh braces, even makes it possible to roll a kayak without having to exit the boat. Even if unable to roll, thigh braces give a paddler greater control over the kayak in waves. The sprayskirt on a sea kayak is better able to withstand the forces that would pop it off on a recreational kayak because the cockpit opening that needs to be covered on a sea kayak has much less surface area than the cockpit opening of a rec kayak. For these reasons, it is much safer to paddle a sea kayak in open water. However, it is important to remember that not only do you need to use the right equipment, but you need to get instruction in the skills needed to paddle in open water and waves, and you need to practice those skills so that you can easily perform them when necessary.
Whitewater kayaks are designed to handle the unique challenges and risks of swiftly-moving water. Paddling in rapids requires a high degree of boat control in order to reduce the likelihood of capsize. Therefore, whitewater kayaks have very snug-fitting cockpits including thigh braces. This allows the paddler to easily edge, brace, and roll the kayak. Since whitewater paddlers also need to make a lot of course changes to avoid obstacles in a river, whitewater kayaks are designed to spin on a dime. They are generally the shortest of all kayaks, most being 7-9 feet long and some as short as 6 feet long. These boats have a high degree of rocker in the hull. Rocker is just what it sounds like, the bottom of the kayak is shaped much like the rocker on the bottom of a rocking chair. The lift in the hull at the bow and stern make it much easier to turn. To reduce the danger of getting a foot or leg trapped in the kayak, whitewater boats have reinforcing foam pillars that run under the front and rear decks. In the event that a kayak gets pinned on a rock or bridge abutment, the reinforcement will reduce the likelihood that the kayak will wrap around the obstacle and collapse under the force of the water flowing downstream against it trapping the paddlers foot or leg. The reinforcement gives the paddler time to exit the kayak and swim to safety.
One should not be tempted to use a recreational kayak for whitewater paddling. The large open cockpits of recreational kayaks do not give the paddler enough control over the kayak increasing the chances that the boat will get pinned on rocks or bridge abutments. The lack of thigh braces in rec kayaks makes it very difficult to edge the kayak in order to prevent capsizes when crossing strong eddylines and they are impossible to roll. Recreational kayaks also lack the reinforcement of the front and rear decks that protect the paddler from entrapment if the kayak were to become pinned on a rock. In this situation, a rec kayak would collapse very quickly under the force of the water pushing against it. Finding yourself pinned in a collapsed kayak with your head underwater, it is unlikely that you would be able to extricate yourself before running out of air, and it may be just as unlikely that anyone else would be able to get to you in time. Because moving water poses more risk than flat water, whitewater kayakers are taught never to paddle alone. But even with other paddlers in your group who will offer whatever help they can, a whitewater kayaker always need to be prepared to self-rescue in the dynamic and fast-moving environment of a swiftly-flowing river. Using the wrong type of kayak in these conditions puts you and your fellow paddlers at risk.
It is worth noting that all three of the previous kayak types are available in sit-on-top versions. They are so named because the paddler sits on top of the kayak rather than inside a cockpit. Sit-on-top kayaks are a good choice for beginners who haven’t practiced wet exits and rescues or who are claustrophobic. People who paddle in warm climates often prefer sit-on-tops because the paddler can stay cooler. Conversely, sit-on-tops tend not to be as popular in northern climates where the air and water temperatures are colder. The paddler is more likely to get wet in a sit-on-top even without capsizing, and may end up getting cold if he/she is not dressed appropriately. As a result, sit-on-tops have a shorter usable season in the upper latitudes. Sit-on-tops do not take on water in a capsize (as long as any hatch covers are in place and well-sealed). This provides a safety advantage for sit-on-tops over recreational kayaks. Following a capsize, the swimmer can flip the sit-on-top right side up and then climb back aboard in a similar manner to climbing back onto a surfboard. Scuba divers/snorkelers often choose a sit-on-top because it is easier to climb back aboard after completing a dive. Sit-on-top kayaks are made for many different purposes: recreational, whitewater, surfing, racing, touring, fishing, etc. If you prefer a sit-on-top for any reason, there is probably a model made for what you want to do and where you want to paddle.
There are a few other types of kayaks that fill special niches in the market like folding and inflatable kayaks. Both of these are good options for apartment dwellers who lack storage space for kayaks or for travelers who want to be able to take a kayak with them on an airplane. Keep in mind that most folding sea kayaks do not have adequate flotation for safety as these boats do not have watertight bulkheads and hatch covers. You will need to add float bags or have the boat stuffed with waterproof drybags full of gear. The addition of a sea sock in the cockpit can also help to reduce the amount of water that the boat will take on in a capsize. Inflatables are popular among some rive runners because the inflated tubes make these kayaks more forgiving in rapids for beginners. In regards to inflatable kayaks, keep in mind that you generally get what you pay for. Good inflatable kayaks should have multi-layer construction so that a scratch or tear on the surface of the boat does not puncture the air chambers within. They should also have multiple air chambers so that if one of the chambers loses air while on the water, the paddler will still have enough buoyancy to get back to shore.
The same rules apply for choosing tandem kayaks as for solo kayaks. Recreational tandems do not belong anywhere other than on small lakes and slow-moving rivers. You will need a tandem sea kayak if you want to paddle on open water. While a tandem sea kayak is generally more stable than solo kayaks, once a capsize occurs, it is harder to rescue because tandems are heavier than solo kayaks, and the large amount of cockpit space takes on a lot of water that can be hard to remove. Keep in mind that two paddlers in a tandem have the same level of risk as a solo paddler in the event that the kayak is lost or becomes seriously damaged during a trip. On the other hand, it is possible for one paddler to evacuate an injured paddler who can no longer paddle if they are using a tandem. With two solo kayaks, one paddler might have to leave the injured paddler alone to go for help if there is no way to call for help.
Keep in mind that there is no single kayak that can be safely used for every kind of paddling. Don’t be tempted to use an inappropriate kayak just because it’s the only boat you think you can afford. If cost is a major obstacle to getting the kayak that you need to paddle safely where you want to go, there are options. You can rent, find a used kayak, or build a boat from scratch. In the meantime, if you have to make do with a less than adequate kayak, paddling on less challenging inland lakes and slow-moving rivers can still be a lot of fun, and you can be using this time to practice the skills that you will need when you are finally able to get the boat you want and need. Every beginning whitewater and sea kayaking class that I have ever taught starts out with ample time learning and practicing skills on easy flatwater before taking those skills into more challenging conditions. Whitewater instructors recommend that you “practice Class IV moves on Class II water.”
Getting your first kayak can be one of the best days of your life. Educate yourself, test paddle, and get reliable advice before you buy. Consider getting instruction and find your local community of paddlers. Do it right and you will find a rewarding activity that you can participate in for a lifetime!