I’ve made many a post here about kayaking and stand up paddle boards. In fact, my post on starting a stand up paddle board business that I wrote 2 years ago remains my top searched post of all time. OF ALL TIME! But, for the rest of the great unwashed, I may have been remiss in the specifics regarding different kayaks and boards. So, here is a basic primer on paddle vessels.
As for my own qualifications, I’ve been paddling for 16 years, and boy are my arms tired. I started kayaking up in the Central Florida area and took up the fine art of kayak fishing. A real challenge if you never have. When I came to Key Largo 6 years ago I worked at a local kayak shop and really got into the sport. I left after a couple of years because the owner was a first class douche, and started up my stand up paddle board business. I ran that for a couple of years, sold everything and came to Key West. I thought I was done with paddling when Kayak Kings offered a guide position. I took it and also picked up the website job and that is what I have been doing part time ever since.
If kayaking or paddle boards are your thing, and you are interested in doing something like that for a living, it can be strenuous with long hours, low pay, but still, more better than working in a cubicle. And if you are mobile, you can move around according to the seasons and work in interesting places. Some resources to do so are at Cool Works.
But this post is for the beginner. Those who may be interested in getting into paddling as a hobby and don’t know much about such things. So, here is some stuff to help you out.
When you say, “kayak” to the uninitiated most people think of eskimos and Alaska. Those narrow types of kayaks that one squeezes into and then paddles out to catch walrus and polar bears. Those kind of kayaks do exist but there are many others that are in use today. Kayaks have come a long way in recent years. Plastic has become the most popular material for making such a vessel. Fiberglass is popular along with carbon fiber, but those types are usually more expensive. Plastic boats are cheaper, easier to build, and last for a reasonably long time. For this post, I’ll be writing about three kinds: Sit on Tops, Recreation, and Sea Kayaks.
Sit On Tops are exactly what they sound like. Kayaks that you sit on top of. Open to the elements you sit on the top in a seat well, there are spots to place your feet, and you are all set. SOT’s tend to a bit heavier, wider, and more stable as kayaks go. They have built in drain holes so the water can run in and out. These are called scupper holes. SOT’s are a wetter ride, but they are nice if you happen to go into the water, either on purpose or by accident. If the kayak flips, or you get out, it’s easy to get back in. Flip it back over, the water drains out, crawl back in, and you are good to go. SOT’s are ideal for fishing, snorkeling, diving, and the types of exploratory paddles we do here in the Keys. They come in many sizes and shapes, can be built to hold one or two people, (We call tandems, “divorce boats”), and generally make a good and relatively safe rental kayak. Some are rigged specifically for fishing, some can have hatches for storage, some have a clear plastic window on the bottom so you can see the many large and vicious sea creatures under you that want to bite you, sting you, or eat you, and some can even be adapted with a small sail. Down here in the Keys, the vast majority of kayaks you will see are SOT’s.
Recreational kayaks are a bit different. You sit inside them, similar to an expedition kayak, but the cockpit is longer and wider. They are usually slightly narrower than a sit on top and have a much drier ride, until you flip one. Recreational kayaks are good for just paddling around and looking at stuff, but can be a lot of trouble to get in and out of. Should you flip one, as happened last week on my monthly save an idiot excursion, the recreational kayak will fill up with water. There are no scupper holes for the water to drain out of, so the only way to get rid of said water is to bail it out. Hence, don’t go out in one of these types of kayaks without a bailing pump or big sponge. I’m personally not a big fan of recreational kayaks for the above reasons. Also the kayak ain’t much good for anything other than paddling around, preferably in calm waters.
Finally, the sea kayak. This is what most think of when you say, “kayak”. Sea kayaks are long, narrow, and sleek. They are fast, do not turn particularly well, and can handle rough seas. Most are designed with several storage compartments that can carry a lot of gear. The cockpit is extremely small so when you get in you are there to stay. Advanced paddlers use something called a spray skirt which you put on like a skirt, and seal around the edge of the cockpit. This keeps you dry and water out. Sea kayaks frequently come with a foot operated rudder or drop down skeg, sort of a fin, to help steer. Most people who paddle sea kayaks are more experienced paddlers. They can go longer distances, in rougher conditions, and the better paddlers can do the famous, “eskimo roll“. Should the kayak flip, the paddler can use their paddle and body to flip the kayak upright again. Sea kayaks are ideal if you are going to paddle out to some distant island or place to do some rough camping. Gear can be put into dry bags, these are bags that fold up and don’t let water in, and placed in the storage holds. An sea kayak can hold a lot of gear and many paddlers with advanced skills will go out for days at a time on these boats. Sea kayaks tend to be the most expensive of the three.
As for stand up paddle boards, there are some differences in shapes, sizes, and uses. The vast majority of stand up paddle boards are made of fiberglass with a foam core. There are some that are now made of plastic but the glass boards remain the standard. A typical board has a cushion deck on the top to stand on, a small slot in the middle to carry it around, and a fin on the bottom for helping with steering. Some boards come with bungee cords for adding gear. Stand up paddle boarding may look difficult compared to kayaking but it is actually a very easy sport to learn. The average person can get the hang of it in just a few minutes and personally, I enjoy it more than kayaking. It’s well worth the experience should you get a chance to try it. As for the boards themselves:
Surf stand up paddle boards are usually shorter, more maneuverable, and designed for surfing the big waves. If you plan on paddling someplace like the local lake, this probably not the board for you. In California, or Hawaii, then yes.
Touring boards are the most popular stand up paddle boards. They range in size from 10′ to 14′. Widths can vary depending on the design. These types of boards are designed to be more stable, allow the paddler to get around on flat as well as choppy water, and carry some bits of gear. The more better designs have a built in keel in the nose, sort of like a kayak, to add stability and speed.
Racing boards are designed for speed. They tend to be longer, depending on the class, very narrow, and don’t turn as quickly. A racing board takes some practice to get used to. They also tend to be more expensive.
As with any sport, take a little time and learn the who, what, where, and how, before taking the plunge. Otherwise, you may take the plunge and I won’t be nearby to drag your soggy, wet ass out of the water. Kayaking and stand up paddle boarding are easy sports to learn, relatively safe, and not gear intensive. You won’t need to spend a lot of money on the essentials. If you are coming down here to the Keys, find a good kayak tour company and come out for a few hours to see what it’s like. It’s quieter, you use no fossil fuels, and you get to be up close and personal with the ocean. Well worth it.
After all these years of paddling, I still enjoy going out.
But my arms are still tired.