When I bought my first kayak, I made a classic newbie mistake: I failed to do my homework. I strolled into an outfitter store, asked too few questions of the sales staff and picked a boat based on price and whether the lower half of my body would fit into the cockpit of the thing. Turns out I had a ball paddling and fishing in that little craft all over Central Florida, where I lived at the time, without even knowing the boat was actually wrong for both my size and my main intended use.
Fast-forward a few years to when I began working for Mahoney's Outfitters, where I was promptly tasked with launching (sorry) the boating category for the business, and that's when my overdue paddlesports education finally began in earnest. Back then we offered pretty much every type of canoe and kayak, from full-blown sea-going crafts, to general recreational models and all the various kinds of whitewater boats. These days the shorter, easier to manage and master rec boats have surpassed all others in popularity, particularly among the ever-growing kayak fishing crowd.
If you're planning to start kayaking, learn from my experience and do some research before choosing your first boat. We get a little worried when a customer walks into Mahoney's, heads straight over to an entry-level, flat water rec boat and confidently states that he wants to "do a little whitewater kayaking — maybe give the 'ol Nolichucky Gorge a try." It's a little tricky, but this is where one of our boat experts will politely probe a bit and allow the customer to gradually admit he needs a little educating.
So what are the basic differences in kayak types? With whitewater, the most technical (and potentially dangerous) of the three kinds, formal instruction is virtually mandatory. Whitewater boats are designed to be extremely maneuverable in fast moving rivers, somewhat like a high performance, Grand Prix style racing car. You virtually wear a whitewater boat, as it is made to fit snugly around your lower body, adding to your ability to control its every move and turn. Conversely, recreational (rec) boats are designed to be roomy and highly stable and predictable for paddling on lakes and very slow moving (non-whitewater) rivers. Because of the power of the currents moving past the many rocks, boulders, chutes and ledges in a whitewater river, whitewater kayaks can be quickly capsized, hence the need for specialized instruction and equipment for this form of kayaking.
Rivers can be enjoyed using both general recreational kayaks, of 12 feet or less in length, and whitewater kayaks, usually under about 7 feet. The type of river, or particular section thereof, determines which type of boat can be used to float it. Rivers are classified as Class I through Class VI, with VI being the most difficult and dangerous. Class III waters and above are for highly trained, experienced whitewater paddlers only.
Class I and II waters are more suitable for recreational paddlers and require the use of basic, established paddle strokes for solid boat control and the ability to properly read the river's flow and currents as it moves past exposed and near-surface rocks. A river's classification and other important information is readily available online from numerous sources, including perhaps the best known, American Whitewater, which can be found at www.americanwhitewater.org.
If like most people your interest is in recreational paddling, you'll need to choose whether to go with a sit-in or sit-on kayak. Sit-ins are of a traditional design in which the paddler's lower body is actually inside the boat hull. Sit-ons are made to sit on top of what appears to be a solid plastic hull, though they are actually hollow inside. This sealed design prevents the boat from sinking or swamping, making it a much safer design for most paddlers. This is the boat of choice for virtually all kayak fishing due to its excellent stability and the allowance for maximum movement by the angler.
Boat length is determined first by whether you plan to spend most of your time on rivers or on lakes, or split between the two. Longer boats of 12 feet and up are best for lakes and big slow rivers; they're designed to paddle straighter and faster. Shorter boats are best for smaller rivers due to their greater maneuverability. It's also important to consider a boat's weight capacity. Remember that first boat of mine? It was about 3 feet too short and, therefore, sat lower in the water and paddled much slower than a boat of 11 or 12 feet would have. Live and learn.
Finally, don't scrimp on your paddle or life vest — either could save your life. A paddle should be selected based on the width of your boat at its middle, as well as your height. Rec paddles generally range in length from 220-260 centimeters. Choose the right paddle for your type of boat, either rec or whitewater. Choose a vest actually made for paddling; they are much more comfortable.
Once you've acquired your boat and gear, take it to a shallow, protected area of a nearby lake and get the hang of things. Make it flip if you can. Learn its stability level and how to get back on or in without touching the bottom. Practice the basic paddle strokes. Then set a course for the nearest sunset; there awaits great justification for your newfound diversion.
David A. Ramsey is a regionally and nationally recognized outdoor photographer and writer from Unicoi, TN. His recently released book, Rocky Fork: Hidden Jewel of the Blue Ridge Wild, is available at Mahoney's in Johnson City and online at www.ramseyphotos.com