A while back, I worked for a prominent international kayak company. I was fortunate to see the development process of a new whitewater kayak. Like others, our company was constantly innovating, improving existing designs and doing our best to compete in a challenging environment by bringing the best designs to market.
Over months of design and hundreds of hours of CAD work, tens of thousands of mouse clicks, hand-built plugs, prototype molds, field testing, plug revisions, more testing and more CAD, our design team inched closer and closer to the boat we hoped would breakthrough performance barriers and become a hit.
Once the boat launched, we went to the trade shows. We talked to paddlers and made the pitch. We answered questions. Questions like: “How many gallons is it?”
How big is this thing? Not, why is the bow shaped like that, or how is the rocker profile different from previous designs, or what does the edge do on a squirrely eddyline?
It always seemed like a funny question to me. Why volume? In fact, why ask about specs at all?
We’re all looking for answers and trying to make good decisions. Deciding on a new whitewater kayak can be challenging. When it comes to plunking down our hard-earned cash on a new boat, we want to be confident we’re making the right choice.
There are many ways to create this sort of confidence. One of them is by comparing the specs of a new boat to one we already know. But does a simple list of specs give us a feel for how the boat will perform? I don’t think so.
For example, how much does length matter between two similar models? Length tends to vary more by boat category than model. River runners are longer. Playboats are shorter. Race boats are really long. Does an inch of difference between models tell you much about how the boats compare? All things being equal, a longer boat will be faster, but those other things rarely are equal.
It’s a similar story for width. We all know wider is more stable and narrower is less. But there are many other factors in stability—cross-section shape, volume and rocker, to name a few—so an inch of difference isn’t going to tell you much about how the boat will perform. This model is 24 inches wide and that one is 23—so what?
And how about weight? It counts when you’re putting a boat on the roof or hiking on the portage trail. As with length, boats of the same category are often similar weights. Creekers with beefy bulkheads and center pillars tend to weigh around the 45-pound mark, while playboats with foam foot blocks tend to come in around 30 pounds. Yes, bigger boats are heavier than smaller boats.
Within a category, do lighter boats outperform heavier ones? Not necessarily. If you put a 150-pound paddler in a 50-pound kayak, you’ve got 200 pounds on the water. Cut the boat weight down by five pounds and you’re down to a combined weight of 195. That’s less than a three percent difference. Likely, only a pro will notice a performance difference based on such a small variation.
Which brings me back to volume. Can anyone make a good comparison between two boats based on volume? Say one creek boat is a couple of gallons bigger than another. How volume will affect performance depends on where the volume is added and how it changes the shape. There are just too many variables. A single number doesn’t tell you enough about the design of the boat to be useful.
On top of this, sometimes volume numbers from different manufacturers don’t line up. You can calculate volume off the CAD drawings, or you can measure volume by filling an empty hull with water and reading the volume off a flow meter. Depending on the method preferred by the manufacturer, you’ll likely end up with slightly different numbers.
Finally, take recommended paddler weight. Recommended paddler weight is almost entirely subjective. Some people like to paddle lower volume boats. Others want to have a little more boat around them. You can pad out a big boat to make it fit or cram your feet into a tiny boat for better squirts. This means recommended paddler weight has the potential to expand to an absurd range.
Often it seems like the recommended paddler weight range corresponds directly with how many sizes of a given design a company makes. For example, the Dagger Axiom is a popular river running playboat available in four sizes, with paddler weights for each Axiom size running in 60- to 80-pound increments. The Dagger Green Boat is arguably the bestselling model in the longboat category, available in one size, and its recommended paddler weight is 140 to 260 pounds—a range of 120 pounds encompassing much of the adult population.
I’m not singling out Dagger—most manufacturers, including Liquidlogic, Pyranha and Jackson, do the same. If you have four sizes, you can fine-tune the ranges. If you’ve only got one size, it has to be a one-size-fits-most model.
So, if specs don’t tell us the full story, how do you know if a kayak is right for you? You have to do the legwork.
Part of that legwork involves talking to people who’ve paddled the boat. When a design first comes out, those people are likely to work for the company. Later, once it’s been on the market for a while, it might be your paddling friends. You have to factor in that opinions are more subjective than recommended weight ranges. People are often loyal to a brand. Skill level varies wildly. No two people have the same combination of skill, size and preferences. On top of this, most folks will naturally want to say favorable things about a boat they already own. After all, none of us wants to think we’ve chosen unwisely.
Talking to people is a start, but it isn’t a solution. The only way to decide if a boat is right for you is to try it yourself.
Though purchasing boats online is increasingly popular, the best thing you can do is go to a shop and sit in the boat yourself. Don’t worry about the length, width or volume specs on the tag. Figure out if the outfitting is comfortable for your body shape. Is the cockpit deep enough for your thighs? Do you have enough foot room? Does it feel too big? Too small?
If it feels good, demo the boat. A flatwater demo is a good start. On flatwater you can tell how much effort it takes to hold the boat on edge, how well it tracks and turns and how easy it is to roll. It’s a start.
The proof is on the river. If you want to be confident about how a kayak is going to perform in whitewater, you need to paddle it in whitewater. Arrange a loaner, rental or demo on a stretch of the river well within your skill level. If you can, paddle the boat back-to-back on the same run with your current kayak. Try to hit the same lines. Get a feel for how the two designs are different.
And if you’re new to kayaking? Start by taking a class. The kayaks you’ll paddle in an introductory course are chosen to be forgiving to new paddlers. Once you’ve done a day or two of instruction, you’ll have a much better idea of which boat you want to surf on a wave than you would have received from surfing the web.
Specs can be a starting point for your kayak buying experience, but they’re not a shortcut. We can read the specs, check the charts and sift through the reviews, but that won’t tell us how a boat will feel to us. How you feel about a kayak is a unique combination of your size, skills, desires and destinations. We’re all different. No two people will connect with a boat or a stretch of river the same way.
To know what’s right for you, you have to experience it firsthand, for yourself, in all its messy, chaotic and glorious subjectivity. Take it to the river. And forget about the specs.
Contrarian Brian Day has been paddling kayaks and sharing unsolicited opinions about outdoor gear since the early ‘90s. Please direct your rebuttals to [email protected].
Choose your next kayak by running a river, not running to Google. | Photo: Daniel Stewart