Recreation Boating’s Best Kayaks
This review is featured in Canoe & Kayak‘s 2012 Beginner’s Guide
Sunny days and warm, blue water. White sand beaches. Palm trees. Really, it's hard to think of a good reason not to go paddling in Southwest Florida, even if you have no idea what you're doing. That's why we decided to team up with the Calusa Blueway Paddling Festival in Fort Myers and gather an enthusiastic crew of newbies to try out some of the best kayaks beginners can buy, on some of the most beginner-friendly backwaters you can float. A tried-and-true, easy-to-use "rec" (recreational) kayak is the perfect craft in which to begin your paddling career. Shorter, wider and easier to maneuver than full-on touring kayaks, rec boats are generally more comfortable, stable, and affordable than other kayak models. And after cruising around the sun-dappled mangroves of the Gulf for three days, we can assure you, any one of these six fun-oriented rides will help you get off the couch, on the water, and over the learning curve. — Dave Costello
Hurricane Santee 126
($1,049 in Trylon ABS thermoformed plastic, hurricaneaquasports.com)
L: 12'6"; W: 28"; 42 lbs.
Hurricane uses a unique, lightweight and UV-resistant thermoformed material called Trylon (read: fancy, shiny plastic) to create this easy-to-carry and remarkably high-performing solo rec kayak. A rear deck hatch provides a place to stash your lunch, or any gear you'd want to keep dry, and the boat's multi-chined hull (meaning multiple angles along the hull bottom as apposed to a smooth, round profile) allows you to comfortably practice putting it on edge—a crucial step in learning quicker turns. The Santee also boasts a super-comfy high-back seat and extra large cockpit, ensuring you'll paddle in both style and comfort, all day.
Current Designs Vision 120 SP
($1,999 in fiberglass composite, cdkayak.com)
L: 12'; W: 23"; 32 lbs.
The Vision 120 SP is a perfect fit for smaller (under 6-feet tall) paddlers looking for a versatile ride that can progress with developing skill sets. Crafted from fiberglass and Kevlar-like fabric, the Vision SP is easy on the eyes and—thanks to its lightweight construction—easy on the back when carrying it to and from the water. The svelte, hollow V-shaped hull is fast and nimble, at the expense of some stability. Watertight bulkheads fore and aft provide semi-dry storage and security in the event of a capsize (key for big, open-water crossings). The Vision's snug and secure outfitting provides both comfort and control. This is an entry-level kayak that's also ideal for learning more advanced paddling techniques.
Necky Rip 12
($700 in roto-molded polyethylene, neckykayaks.com)
L: 12'; W: 28"; 50 lbs.
The Rip isn't the lightest boat you can buy at 50 pounds, but that's only because it's got everything you could want in a starter kayak: a high-performance, straight-tracking hull that will help you maximize your strokes and allow your paddling skills to progress, plus a watertight stern bulkhead with a storage hatch to keep your lunch and extra gear dry. The well padded, easy-to-adjust outfitting will persuade you to sit in it for hours on end, and the price is hard to beat. Besides, you won't notice any extra weight once the Rip's on the water and you're having fun.
Stellar S12 Excel
($1,445 in fiberglass, stellarkayaksusa.com)
L: 12'; W: 25.6"; 38.5 lbs.
A true high-performance rec boat, the Stellar S12 Excel paddles more like a small touring kayak than a rec boat, but without the extra length or cumbersome weight. Also available in jaw-droppingly light composite layups, the Excel's cockpit area features cutaways that enable efficient forward strokes (so you won't bang your knuckles on the sides), and a well-defined keel line (the middle of the bottom of the boat) that helps keep this 12-footer tracking a lot straighter than other boats in its class. Add on two watertight bulkheads and storage hatches, plus an absurdly comfortable seat, and you've got a compact touring option that'll keep up with you throughout your paddling career.
Old Town Heron 11 XT
($530 in roto-molded polyethylene, oldtowncanoe.com)
L: 11'; W: 28.5"; 47 lbs.
Simple, but effective, the Old Town Heron is a great little boat to start kayaking in. This bird is one of the most inexpensive kayaks you can buy, and it does everything an introductory kayak should do: namely, stay upright and fly straight. Sweeten the deal with an additional storage hatch, posterior-pleasing outfitting that's easily adjustable with the pull of a cord, a cup holder, deck rigging to securely stash your paddle while on the water, and some padded bow and stern carrying handles. If you're on a budget, but still want to get out on the water to fish, take pictures, or just cruise, the Heron is the boat for you.
Perception Prodigy 13.5
($799/$1,019 with rudder in roto-molded polyethylene, perceptionkayaks.com)
L: 13'6"; W: 28.5"; 62 lbs.
Designed to comfortably float you, the kids and the dog, the Prodigy 13.5 is all about space and stability. Best for calm paddles on small lakes, ponds and protected bays, the outsized cockpit and adjustable stadium seats are well suited for hauling different sized loads; whether that's just you, or you and anything else you want to bring. Add on the optional rudder and you'll have no problem keeping 'er straight, and at nearly 29 inches wide in the middle, you'll have to try pretty hard to tip it over. Whether you're a larger paddler looking for a little extra breathing room, or want to bring your best friend (dog or kid) out on the water, the Prodigy 13.5 will keep you upright and on course.