Over the years it has been interesting to watch the kayak industry change; companies that were started in someone’s garage have grown into large multinational corporations that crank out kayaks 24 hours a day. Given the proliferation of kayak manufacturers, the novice is faced with a daunting selection of models and styles.
The demand for kayaks has grown in many different ways. High-end fiberglass/Kevlar kayaks are holding their own, and wooden and skin-on-frame home-builts are booming, but their hand-crafted construction has been surpassed by the manufacture and sales of the newer kids on the block, roto-molded boats. With lower production costs, manufacturers have found (created?) a market for smaller, wider, more novice-friendly boats that we refer to as recreational (rec) boats.
What are rec boats, and why would you want one? They range from sit-on-top kayaks to open-cockpit tandems. The closed-cockpit singles are shorter and wider (27-30 inches) than the standard expedition-style (20-25 inches), making them easy to maneuver and more stable, and allowing almost anyone to hop aboard and go for a spin on calm water. There has been an explosion in the demand for such boats. Rec boats presently make up the largest segment of kayak sales. They have found a niche with those who just want a poking-around boat for fishing, photography, or a peaceful paddle from their lakeside homes, the top of their RVs, or sail/power vessels.
Whether you choose a sit-on-top or a closed-cockpit rec kayak depends on how much you like to get wet, and how cold the water is at your paddling destinations. Sit-on-tops are wet rides, while enclosed-cockpit boats allow you to use a spray skirt to keep the water out, and the heat in, on those cooler days. (These are not to be confused with surf skis, which are long, very narrow fiberglass sit-on-tops that are used for surfing ocean swells and racing. They are definitely not for the casual paddler, but for those seeking a faster boat, usually in warmer climes.)
Most of the rec boats are bare-bones, with only deck rigging for amenities. The single boats are in the 8- to 10-foot range, and sell for $399-$499. The sit-on-tops are double-hulled, which gives them built-in flotation. The closed-deck models require float bags bow and stern, which are included by the more enlightened manufacturers. If your boat comes with blow-in foam flotation, be sure to sink it in shallow water and see if it does actually give you enough support to climb back aboard. We have found that most rec boats require a bow float bag, even if it has blown-in flotation.
In the $699-$899 price range, you get a stern hatch and bulkhead, usually a skeg or rudder option, and boats up to 15 feet long. The longer keels on these boats make them track straighter and paddle faster than their shorter counterparts, and the rear hatches and higher volume make loading for short trips much easier.
The open-cockpit tandems, and some of the larger-cockpit singles, can carry a child in the center, and a few of the sit-on-tops have a spot for a third rider. These are in the 12- to 17-foot range and go for $600 to $800. Some allow you to add a stern hatch and bulkhead (about $120), and most will accept a rudder (around $195). If you think you want these options, order them with the boat-retrofitting a bulkhead or rudder is not always an easy proposition. When would you not want one? If you have friends in longer, more traditional sea kayaks, you will not be able to keep up with them. The gear-carrying capacity is very limited, most of them do not have thigh braces, and some of the cockpits are so large that it is hard to keep a skirt on in breaking waves. In particular, the rec doubles have a huge open cockpit that barely holds a skirt on in calm seas. I have rigged some of the singles with thigh braces and had a great time in the surf, but the tandems are at home only on calmer waters. If you plan on paddling open water or surf, get a closed-cockpit double.
Recreational and light touring boats have opened the world of kayaking to the more casual boater with their ease of use, light weight, and low cost. Since we are no longer walrus hunting in the northern seas, why not enjoy the stability and fun of these playful gems?
John Meyer is head sea kayak instructor at and a co-owner of Northwest Outdoor Center in Seattle.