Beginner seeks help with kayak purchase
November 15, 2017 2:45 PM   Subscribe

My reasonably fit wife (49 y.o., 5'6", BMI of 24) is interested in getting a one-person kayak for day use and general recreation on lakes and in the California Delta river and tidal system. I have read enough about kayaks to understand that there's a lot I don't know. Please help us choose the right kayak for her.

The goal is to have fun.

One of my favorite past times is fishing. I have a small 13' aluminum boat that I fish from. My wife doesn't fish, but she's a good sport and will sometimes join me on the boat for the day, or for an afternoon. She's occasionally said that she'd enjoy exploring the same waters I fish on her own, from a kayak. We'd like to find her an affordable one person kayak so she can do that.

I like to fish the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, and I'd like to find her a kayak that's suitable for boating there as well. The Delta, as it's known, is both a river system and a tidal system. Currents can be strong, the area can get windy, and the surface can get choppy. Stability and the ability to maneuver through chop are very important requirements for any craft we get her.

I also fish lakes in (mostly) calm weather, but I'm sure any kayak can handle a calm lake.

Our budget for this approx. $500, for which we'd like to buy the kayak and the necessary accessories (helmet, life vest, paddle, etc.). That number is somewhat flexible, and buying used gear is fine w/us.

I have read up on kayaks and am familiar with the basic types, but because she plans to use ot for general recreation and "day touring" it honestly seems like almost any would do for our needs, although I am sure some (e.g., day touring models) are better suited to our needs than others. So...what type of kayak should we look at? What length? Sit in vs. sit on? Touring vs. non-touring? Are used kayaks generally OK, or should they be avoided? Are there any well appointed beginner packages that are good values? And are there any terrible brands or beginner packages to be avoided?

My truck has a contractor's roof rack, and I plan to use that to transport the kayak to the water. I will also help her hand launch it, so I don't think we need a dolly.

Thanks in advance for whatever kayak knowledge you can pass my way!
posted by mosk to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (9 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I'm sure you'll get great advice here, but if you want to check out models and see the differences up close, if you live near an REI, they are great for things like this. I'm a beginner kayaker myself and will be watching this thread with interest. Mr. Circle and I go a couple of times a year in Tahoe, which is absolutely lovely in the heat of the summer.

I'd go with a sit-on-top kayak because they are super stable, easier to get in and out of, and don't require the added expense of the spray skirt. I've used both and what I like about the sit-on-top is that your feet/legs have room to move after a while. We've kayaked miles in a sit-on-top with no problem, but after a couple of hours in a sit-in, my legs and feet start to get cranky. My guess would be to get a longer one for more stability, but I'll let others chime in on that point.

The cost of a used kayak is remarkably high, comparatively speaking, IMHO. I'd still get a used one, but I'd make sure it's in brand new condition with few scuffs/dings and no cracks.

Also... bike gloves. Mine are a lifesaver when we kayak because they save my hands from blisters. I got a pair of Pearl Izumis on sale at REI and they are great.
posted by onecircleaday at 4:33 PM on November 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'd buy her a kayaking class, the cheapest $400 used SOT that you can find on CraigsList, and a really nice paddle that is properly sized.

Spend the money that you save on beating the piss out of the kayak on the water. After a few years use the experience that she's gained to buy a nicer kayak.
posted by pdoege at 5:07 PM on November 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

Personally I've never really enjoyed sit-on-top kayaks, much prefer the sit-inside kind finding them much more responsive and lighter to handle. Most of my kayaking has been in colder places than the delta, and sit-inside kayaks give me more protection from wind. Sit-insides can be less safe than SOT unless you've taken a class and learned how to exit and re-enter on the water.
Sorry, I've no insight into specific models, nor into the used market, but $500 may be a little less than you'll need for the whole setup.
posted by anadem at 6:01 PM on November 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'd recommend a plastic sit-inside, around 15'. Plastic is cheaper than fiberglass and it can take quite a bit of bumping around. She's not going for speed, so longer boats aren't necessary. Paddles get spendy fast. Start with a cheaper one, even a clunky break apart. If she sticks with it you can splash out (so to speak) for a nicer one. I had a Necky Narpa for years and I loved it. I'd recommend whatever Necky has in that range currently.
posted by humboldt32 at 6:20 PM on November 15, 2017

I often fish for black bass and catfish off Bethel Island, along the edges of Frank's Tract from a 11' sit inside (an e-motion Envy). It's not purpose-built for fishing but it does fine: I have a bit of fabric attached to the bungie cords in front for lures and when I'm paddling from spot to spot, I clip the rod alongside where the paddle would rest. I like this kayak because my middle-aged-5'-tall-150# self can get it up and down from on top of my CR-V and to/from the water by myself w/o hassling with a cart. If I were to buy an upgraded kayak, I'd get a Hobie with a MirageDrive so I didn't have to put the rod down (but then I'd need a cart).

You won't need a helmet or a skirt, they will both get in the way. Do get a proper kayak vest and a paddle leash.

Also, lately I've been fishing from a SUP. Much better visibility but I've had some hilarity when the fishing gets too exciting.
posted by jamaro at 7:18 PM on November 15, 2017 [3 favorites]

Thanks all. We appreciate your responses. This weekend we're going to check out the kayaks at REI, as onecuircleaday suggested, and determine if she prefers a sit-on or a sit-in. It sounds like we could go with almost any cheap kayak as a start (and upgrade once she has a better feel for the equipment), but we should invest in a decent paddle and that's the right size for her, etc. Anyway, thanks for the suggestions, I feel a bit less daunted now.

And jamaro, I love fishing Bethel Island and Frank's Tract, too - primarily for black bass, LMB, and stripers. I'll keep my eyes peeled for you when I go out :)
posted by mosk at 10:51 AM on November 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'm a whitewater boater mainly (who am I kidding, solely), but I do occasionally coach beginners on flat water with my club and I would suggest not getting a sit-on-top if you're hoping for longer term use out of it. They're fine as the gateway drug to kayaking and for getting people over their initial nervousness, but the lack of connectivity from the knees is a problem.

The stability and maneuverability you're after come from being connected to the boat by your feet, knees and bum; that forms the solid base through which the power from your paddle is transmitted and in turn propels your boat forward and turns. This will be key to handling chop and tides. The knees also play a substantial role in righting the boat should it become unstable along the log axis, i.e. you would lift with the low-side knee to correct if you're shoved over a bit (combine with a downwards paddle stroke with a flat blade on the same side and it's called a low brace). Some sit-on-tops come with knee straps which would be OK for this correction but the power transmission is still going to be an issue.

Definitely scout out a local club to see if they do intro lessons. You may get the chance to try a few different boats to see what you like. Boats are a bit like push bikes; the best one for you is the one that feels the best when you take it out for a spin.

I would also suggest that you DO NOT buy a paddle leash. If you're on water fast enough to need one, i.e. you can't swim after boat and blade at the same time, then it becomes a significant hazard by itself and could end up wrapped round a limb or neck. Snag hazards are one of the major causes for concern in kayaking.
posted by fatfrank at 7:18 AM on November 17, 2017

I have a cheap kayak (Pelican Pursuit) that a friend bought at CostCo. I went out with a group with boats of every description (longer, shorter, sit in, sit on top, etc) and it was fine. It was tricky to get in and out of. The trickiest thing I did was to get off a beach with some surf coming in.

Mostly, I'm posting to mention that I bought a paddle with an aluminum shaft, thinking it was a starter paddle. I never did get a carbon fiber one. The weight didn't bother me at all on my typical 1 hour adventure. I'd get advice from a dedicated paddling shop if you can find one, rather than a big retailer like REI or West Marine. A shop like that will definitely know about any lessons available in your area.
posted by SemiSalt at 6:20 PM on November 17, 2017

Update: Ended up going with a new Pelican Athena 100x ($370 + tax, but from a local store so no shipping was required). This is a 10' sit-inside model specifically built for women, with a slightly narrower cockpit and smaller interior sized to facilitate better contact between a female paddler and the kayak. It's also very light (38 lbs.), so she can manage it without requiring my help. It has some other nice features, too, like adjustable foot pegs and a very stable hull design. She's happy with it, and from a price standpoint this is about perfect. We still need to get her a paddle and flotation vest, but even with those our total outlay is probably ~$600, which is fine. I wasn't planning on buying a new kayak - I thought we would go with a used one - but after figuring out what we really wanted and then seeing our options, this made the most sense, and I think we did well. Thanks, all! We really appreciate the suggestions!!

She will be signing up for a beginning kayaking class soon.
posted by mosk at 4:20 PM on November 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

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