- Choosing the right boat for you -
some considerations to help beginner paddlers get their
heads around the huge variety of design choices available
and narrow down their options.

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Some thoughts on design. If you are about to spend months building a boat you want to choose the right one. Consider where you will use it and consider your size and weight. See below about volume.

SPEED: I have found, while touring in groups, or alone over distances, that variations in hull-form affect stability far more than they affect speed. Unless one is entering a race, where absolute-hull-speed may become an issue, the differences in effort to speed ratios of genuine sea-kayaks at touring speeds are really not that great.

A little more or less rocker, length, V, or beam, will effect the tracking, turning and stability of the boat far more than they will the speed. At touring speeds a couple of minutes in the hour may be all the difference between one boat and another of quite differing shapes and behavior. The length of your paddle and shape of the blade, your posture and cadence and the refinement of your stroke, relaxed adaptation to the sea state, and taking proper advantage of following seas, may make a far more marked difference to your speed and apparent stamina over long distances than simply changing boats.

Given similar hull width and sections, a longer boat will theoretically go faster, but it will also have more drag, so it will take more muscle to take advantage of that potential. for boats of similar volume, the shorter boat will have to be wider, so it will probably produce more drag than the long boat.

Arguments rage on the forums espousing the advantages of longer and shorter boats, but I suspect it is the bigger guys who like the longer boats, because they have the power to get the best out of them, and the smaller folk get more out of the shorter, and often slightly narrower boats. A smaller paddler displaces less water, so depending on the amount of V in the keel, the smaller boat may in fact have a similar length to width ratio at the waterline, giving similar theoretical hull speeds to the larger boat.

The one area where the kayak with the higher potential hull speed may have a real advantage is on long downwind legs. If swell and wave action is adding to one's motive power, then a longer boat with a higher potential hull speed will have long legs on a shorter boat. in such conditions wave motion is adding to the power of the paddler and all the argument about overcoming drag becomes moot. On the other hand, in a group, such a boat can't just run free, because the paddler is having to constantly slow and wait for his friends anyway.

STABILITY: If we face the facts, and accept that most of us are always going to be weekend paddlers, with limits to our skills and to our courage, then I have noticed at times that people in "faster" (that is narrower) boats, when they encounter rough conditions, can get tense, and may end up expending valuable energy in apprehension. They may also be less willing to stop to enjoy the view, take a photo, or wait for back-markers. (in a narrow boat movement equals balance).

If one is out on one's own, then a boat in which one feels really confident, and which you know will see you comfortably through an unexpected rough patch, allows one to explore more widely and stay more relaxed.

There can be a misconception amongst beginners that a boat with a flat bottom will be more stable, and in calm water it will be (primary stability), but in rough water the flat bottom will want to stick to the slope of the water and may begin to feel like it is rocking from side to side. In rougher conditions a kayak with a more rounded hull shape may in fact feel more stable (secondary stability). Looking at two boats with similar hull sections, the shorter one will look as if it should be more stable. this is not necessarily the case. There are many factors that determine the stability of a kayak, but they are not all obvious to newcomers, so it is worth doing some research in this area and asking opinions regarding specific designs from the designers and on forums etc. you may in fact find that a boat you would have thought too challenging at first glance is actually known to be quite well behaved.

RUDDERS AND SKEGS: There are some modern kayak designs that absolutely require a rudder to perform as their designers intend, but the vast majority of designs for DIY builders will benefit just as well from a skeg as from a rudder. competent kayakers deploy their skegs less often than a beginner may realize, but a skeg can be a real blessing on long off-wind legs when you are tired and just want to move ahead without any fuss. It is almost impossible to buy a quality modern sea kayak without skeg. Ask yourself why, and go to the extra trouble to fit one, or a rudder if your chosen design requires it.

VOLUME: In choosing your design you really need to consider your intended use. If you are going to do extended camping you will need more room under the decks for gear and more buoyancy to cope with the gear, but if you mainly want to get a fast workout before breakfast every day your choice may be very different. However, with all the dreaming in the world, the reality for most of us is that we are lucky to grab the occasional Sunday afternoon. With this in mind I have come to believe that a sea-kayak that "fits" is crucial when choosing a first design. What this boils down to is "getting the volume right". If the paddler is too heavy or too light or too tall or too short for the boat it will not behave in the way it is designed to. Actually this goes for paddles too. A longer or more buoyant boat will require a longer paddle, which a smaller, slighter person will find requires more leverage than they are built to exert easily. So take your vital statistics firmly in hand and you will at least know what designs not to even bother looking at. this helps hugely to narrow down your choices.

You will get more joy from paddling your boat if you are cold blooded about the reality of your paddling future and build a boat that reflects that reality and not your dreams of expeditions or winning the next rolling championships. Specialist kayaks are huge fun, but are for the second and third projects, once you have your primary boat... For most of us, a boat for day cruising that will give a good turn of speed over decent distances and still be user friendly enough that we don't end up sitting on the beach every time the wind picks up past a force 2.

Rereading the article I realize that I may be encouraging people to be too conservative in their choice of design. You will be surprised how quickly your confidence will grow, especially in the early stages of paddling, where the learning curve is fast. So, keeping the above in mind, leave yourself with something that you will grow into as your skill progresses as well. I am not advocating building a bath tub.
My first love when younger was always windsurfing and I doubt I would have maintained the kayaking interest if it were not that I loved the sensation so much of being at sea in a vessel I had built myself. I am still using boats that I built thirty years ago. Over the years one looks for a greater challenge and the designs one tackles become more sophisticated, but the feeling stays the same. As I get older I seem to appreciate the benefits a more sedate pace has to offer. I am probably becoming an old codger. Recently I was fortunate to find myself outside Sherkey Island surrounded for about ten minutes by a pod of about thirty exuberant jumping and circling dolphins, including mothers and babies, many of them passing within reach of a paddle blade. How many people experience a moment like that, ever?