10 Sea Kayaks You Should Paddle Before You Buy

A Variety of Sea KayaksOh well, there’s Flo on my left and there’s Mary on my right / And Janie is the girl with that I’ll be with tonight
And when she asks me, which one I love the best? / I tear open my shirt I got Rosie on my chest
‘Cause I’m the wanderer / Yeah, the wanderer / I roam around, around, around – Dion

Sea kayaks are expensive. To be honest, reading alone won’t tell you what you need to know before you drop $3,000 or more on a top-of-the-line kayak. You have to paddle them to know how they feel to you.  What’s more, how you feel in a particular kayak may be nothing like what someone else feels in that same boat.  That means, no one can really tell you what the right kayak is for you.  From there you can infer that what I’m about to tell you.. is worthless.. but read on if you like! 

Let’s set a few parameters here.  First, I’m only considering composite sea kayaks.  There is nothing wrong with plastic kayaks mind you, they are just not included in this list.  Maybe we’ll do that list another time.  Second, I’m only listing sea kayaks I’ve paddled myself.  To be fair, I’ve paddled a lot of kayaks over the last few years.. but that doesn’t mean there aren’t fantastic boats that I simply haven’t tried.  These days there are all sorts of styles and variations to suit everyone’s needs.  In the end it’s very probable that the right boat for you is not on this list, however if you are seriously going to invest a good chunk of cash on a sea kayak; A boat that you can take out on the ocean or the great lakes, a boat that can handle mixed to rough conditions, one that you can do weekend or longer trips in, and one you can learn to roll in, I’ll stand by today’s title. These are “10 sea kayaks you should paddle before you buy”…

10 Sea Kayaks You Should Test Paddle

1. Nordkapp by Valley – Valley is where modern sea kayaks began.  They have 2 boats on this list.  Since the Mid-70s the Nordkapp has been one of the most respected expedition kayak designs in the world.  Over the years Valley has spun off a variety of  variations to suit a variety of paddlers.  The Nordkapp is number one on my list, not because I think they are best kayaks ever made, but because you simply have to paddle one to have a baseline when talking about the world’s finest sea kayaks.

2. Romany / Explorer by Sea Kayaking UK –  The next boats on the “must paddle” list have to be the The Romany & The Explorer from Sea Kayak UK. I mention them both simply because the Explorer is more or less an expedition (read “Larger”) version of the Romany.  You would be hard pressed to come up with another design that has been trusted nearly as much as the Explorer by world-class expedition paddlers. I own both a Romany & Explorer myself.  Although I paddle other kayaks as well these days, I love my SKUK boats.

3. Force 3/4/5 by Impex – You’ll notice that most of the kayaks on my list come from the UK.  The reason is simple, the UK offers some of the most varied and most challenging sea kayaking conditions in the world and their kayak designs speak to that experience. That is not to say there aren’t great kayaks made all over the world. The Force series by Impex are made here in North America. They are fun, lively sea kayaks that fit a variety of paddlers as well.  While Impex makes a variety of designs, the Force series makes the “must paddle” list.

My Rockpool Alaw Bach

4. Alaw Bach by Rockpool – Rockpool sponsored by 2007 PR circumnavigation so I’m totally biased.  The Bach shares bloodlines with the Explorer, Romany & Tiderace sea kayaks. The sad part is that finding an Alaw Bach to test paddle here in the states is next to impossible. The Alaw Bach is a nimble little minx in rough conditions and rolls exquisitely for a kayak of its size. If you can paddle one before you make your final choice, do so.

5. Tempest by Wilderness Systems – Steve Scherrer designed a great kayak with the Tempest.  I think sometimes the kayak itself has been overshadowed by the heavy marketing on the design of the seat.  Well, even if you removed all the fancy “Phase 3 outfitting” you would still have a very nice sea kayak.  The Tempest comes in a variety of sizes to fit a variety of paddlers.  Before you get out your checkbook, find a Tempest to test paddle.

6. Cetus by P& H kayaks – The Cetus took the sea kayaking world by storm a couple of years back and is still making a name for itself.  The generally unique hull design offers an extraordinarily stable craft that still handles well in mixed conditions and is pretty easy-going on beginners.  When the boat first came out we felt it was a bit big, but now there are small and mid-range versions to fit every sort of paddler.  The Cetus is going to be the dream boat for many paddlers.

7. Xplore S/X by TideRace – The latest sea kayaks from the mind of Aled Williams.  I can say without a doubt, that at the moment these are toughest sea kayaks on the market. While everyone else has gone light and flimsy, TideRace translated “quality” into something you can still crash-land on a rock and paddle away from.  These are some strong boats.  Combine that with their responsive, yet forgiving design and you have another kayak to check out before you decide.

8.  Avocet by Valley – I couldn’t create this list without coming back to Valley and talking about their almost overlooked masterpiece.  The Avocet.  If I had to pick the perfect “student” boat, this would be it.  It’s a fantastic all around kayak that will suit just about anyone of any skill level.  The Avocet would also be the only boat I could even dare to recommend to someone to buy blindly. Would it be my first choice? No, but it’s hard to imagine anyone hating this boat.  If you’ve tried a bunch of sea kayaks and they are all too “something”, then try the Avocet.

9. Capella by P&H – P&H gets another boat on my list, the Capella.  The Capella is P&H Sea Kayaks “all ’rounder”.  It comes in more sizes than sweatshirts at Wal-Mart so there is a boat for every body type. I have to be honest, I could never figure out all the love the Capella gets, but I know it does.  So you simply have to test paddle a Capella to see if its special magic calls out to you.

10. Silhouette, Legend & Shadow by Seaward – Last on my list is family of craft designed by Nigel Foster.  The first time I’d paddled one of his designs was with him standing on the beach watching.. Talk about sweating bullets!!  Nigel’s Silhouette, Legend & Shadow are unique in their feel. They are quick, nimble and attractive on the water.  They are good boats to round out the list because while being very different in feel or design to the Brit-Boats that kick off the list, they are also fantastic craft in their own right.

There are other great boats out there from many fine companies including; Current Designs, Nadgee, Boreal Designs, Mirage just to name a few. The list could go on and on. Maybe a composite  boat isn’t right for you. Maybe you’ll decide a smaller recreational kayak will best suit your dreams. There’s a lot of other questions to ask before your buy. Still, whatever you choose in the end, I’d recommend at least test paddling these 10 fantastic sea kayaks before you put your money down.  These days more than ever, buying a new kayak is a big investment. Take your time. Choose wisely. :)

So let the debate begin! What kayaks would you suggest?

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22 Responses

  1. Well Derrick, we happen to have 3 of those boats in our family :-) The Explorer (HV), an Alaw Bach and a Force 3. They are all very good boats but my preference at the moment is for my Rockpool GT. Just to complete the Rockpool side of things, I am considering a Taran….

  2. Hey Geoff! You are obviously a wise buyer! I’d love to try the GT and Taran as well, but alas, there are none within a thousand miles or more. :(

    1. Well Derrick, there is a great reason for you to go back to Wales :-) I hope to be there again myself in August 2012 (after a 2 week paddle in Greenland). The GT is an excellent expedition boat, the Taran looks to be the bees knees for a quick blast although I haven’t paddled one yet. You would have read how John Willacy (the Taran and GT designer) recently covered 118 kms at an average speed of just over 12 kph in a Taran!!

  3. 11. Wilderness Systems Zephyr 15.5: In the same catagory as the Romany. In fact, it descend from the Romany. The rumor was that Dagger made a deal with NDK to produce the Romany in the U.S., but it fell through. Dagger then tweaked the design and came out with the Meridian — the first sea kayak I feel in love with. A couple of years after the Meridian went out of production and after Dagger and Wilderness Systems got bought out by Confluence, they tweaked the Meridian and came out with the Zephyr. It feels playful on the water and more responsive than a Romany. It’s not as all-around as the Romany, but for someone who just paddles day trip or who is looking for a playful boat to compliment a touring boat, then this is it. If I didn’t already own a Romany, I’d own this. Skip the 160 version, because the fit is too big and it doesn’t feel as nice on the water.

  4. Kellie

    Would love to try: Anas Acuta, Alaw Bach, Seaward Shadow

    Valley Avocet LV was my 1st choice when I paddled boats at Rutabaga, but then I still had to paddle SKUK boats.

    Need: a fast boat, but keep getting fun boats instead

  5. Nominate at least one traditional hard-chined boat (one with rocker and not designed by Nigel Foster): e.g., Anas Acuta by VCP, Greenland by Tahe, Bahiya/Vela by P&H, or Greenlander by NDK.

  6. NorthShore Atlantic LV is a truely excellent kayak – it’s of similar size & performance wise to the Avocet & Romany.
    It was designed before the Romany and Avocet and it’s cheaper than both those boats. It’s my favorite day kayak right now (and I’ve tried almost all the kayaks on your list!). It’s a really under-rated kayak but it’s great.

  7. deborah

    This is like having the chance, Derrick, to select your favorite 10 or 11 dancing girls out of an exquisite harem, and going for all the curvaceous blue eyed blondes. Understandable, stimulating, but not orgasmically & carnally luscious.

    Which is what I thought (hoped) you were going for.

    The List is comprised of old Brit classic designs, permutations of said Brit designs and a couple of trendy Brit exotics.

    See a pattern here?

    Disclaimers: (hold your fire)

    a) I am attacking no one’s personal choice of boat. I’m talking about the aggregate here, and logical concepts behind the determination of same, not what’s on anyone’s rack or trailer. Or heart.

    b)I am fully cognizant & appreciative of the impact of British design in modern seakayaking (starting with, in 1972, the the Anas Acuta which didn’t make the List). I paddle & thoroughly enjoy a Brit boat, albeit not one of the Holy Trinity without Which One Cannot be an Unquestioned SeaKayaker en Veritas.

    c)Greenland styled seakayaks are not allowed. Too bad. (Just Kidding)

    d)North American styled seakayaks – are you kidding? Cease all that noise from the PNW
    (Still kidding. At least I am)

    This list merely exposes the confabulation of the chicken and egg phenomena with a critically independent eye. Which came first – these boats are popular and thus so many should want to paddle them? Or so many are told (subliminally or by example) they should want to paddle them because they are popular?

    Why are they popular?

    Many of these designs are often paddled by coaches/instructors/trainers who are overwhelmingly ACA/BCU members. BCU origins are of course British. The ACA is essentially an American version of the BCU. Some of more territorial among us may recoil from such truthiness, but bloodlines is bloodlines.

    The overwhelming percentage of instructors, coaches and trainers come out of these British flavored organizations. Should we be surprised by their boat choices, or how those boat choices are over-weighted in Lists like these? Does it really mean they are the Ten Sea Kayaks I/You/We Should Paddle?

    If a significant paddling union was founded in Finland, the Artesan Millenium would be a cinch to make every such List. I know I would like to paddle one – and ahead of about half the boats on this List.

    Many of the boats on the list have been/are the choice of expeditioners (unless one is Jon Turk or Freya). So they are mythically “good”. Even if most seakayakers are not in fact expeditioners and that an easy and sizable majority of seakayaking is the day trip. Really just as nice a trick as pitching massive SUVs with 4WD for expeditions down the blacktop to Whole Foods Market.

    Many of these make the List because they are “fast” (a facet of the mythically “good”) invoking of course the Romany Exemption Because It Takes Care of You in Rough Water – followed by the impassioned burnishing of the non sequitur in determining which boat is “faster” , attributing all sorts of pixie dust to a class of boats which move in the sedate band of 4.5 to 5.5 mph. (OK, to 6.5 mph for those of you who sprint, and not you cheaters (lol) on a surf ski).

    The inconvenient truth is that seakayakers looking for a truly and measurably faster boat (for tripping multiple days or daytrips) would select those with a plumb bow, a narrower beam, a stern sans overhang,and (wait for it) a rudder. Yet no such seakayaks made the list.

    Seakayak design is gasping for fresh air – going much further than the presence of a fourth day hatch. Or a choice glitter color/colour. Or a return to a wider aft beam for more stability.

    Each boat on the list does have various most excellent qualities – coupled with some debits in design and performance which are adored by some as “quirks”. To be more specific would escalate the meltiness of the blog, and anyway I promised not to in Disclaimer a.

    If we view the boats on the List in true balance we will find 20, or 40 more composite seakayaks which are, on balance, just as likably paddle-able.

    Which sort of reduces the exclusivity appeal of the List – but leaves us with a much larger harem with a diversity of delights. And a more honest assessment of what lies beneath the veils.

    1. Wow, Deborah, loud and clear! Nice shout!

      Just a few random thoughts. Kayak design has been in the lab over millenia so I am not surprised that that you cry for fresh air in place of cosmetics. Is it, possible though, that sea kayaks are at the same evolutionary step as the wheel? Length, width, rocker, volume have been optimized in the best lab in the world. What else can we do except add hatches, pretty colors, and other comforts. The areas where we can improve significantly is the materials used to build the boats–make them more durable, stronger and lighter.

      The one seeming breakthrough in hull design is the full waterline. But even that is not all that original if you look at what people have paddled for thousands of years in calmer waters outside of Greenland.

      Would it be too much to suggest that Epics, Rapiers, and QCCs are not sea kayaks and don’t belong on top 10 of sea kayaks? They are extreme boats that optimize going forward at the cost of maneuverability. No magic here. I would argue that going straight around Australia is NOT sea kayaking! Surely a unique, interesting, worthwhile thing to do but NOT sea kayaking in the popular sense, not having fun in coastal environment and rough water. It’s Formula 1 not just a ‘sporty’ car–a car just not an all-around car or a practical one for majority of the drivers.

  8. Thing about an arbitrary 10 list.. is that there’s always an “11” that didn’t make it. LOL! Valley Rapier for speed, CD Solstice for large builds.. Tahe Marine for rolling, etc., Still, from the view point of standard composite expedition sea kayaking I’ll happily stand by my statement that if you can, you should try these boats. Not buy, like or love them, but try them..

    That said, you make a lot of good points and I hope folks read and consider your counter points. :)

  9. The NorthShore Atlantic is also a classic boat. You name a number of the classic UK skeg designs all great boats. I have also had a Tahe Wind585, and a Necky Looksha V, but as you suggest though this post – you need to paddle them… I feel heaps more comfortable in the Atlantic – just as fast and way more playful, yet both boats have great reviews and many examples of their use are available to see on the internet – sit in it, paddle it, play with it… a boat that you enjoy is a boat you feel like paddling….. just my 2 cents worth – cheers, Garth

  10. deborah

    great comments.Shout out to Haris :)

    it’s so difficult for the human mind to contemplate the human mind.

    it’s hard to see past biases (biases not meant as evil & agenda-laden manipulation, but a natural development of familiar pleasurable & repeated experiences).

    This list is heavily biased toward skegged British composite seakayaks. The very way my favorite blogger limits his fields of choice, before the list is even compiled, reveals bias.

    For example, the P&H Delphin is certainly an innovative & different breed of boat (a skegged seakayak adept at rough water, to further tantalize Haris!) Do we have to wait until the composite Aries is available to put it on the List? the exact same design in a different material?

    I say hell no. And since there isn’t ever likely to be a composite Prijon Barracuda, I’m not gonna wait for that one either.

    It’s like being expected to utter a well memorized catechism before one is allowed to enter the church. At that point, what does it matter in which pew you are sitting or which part you are singing in the choir?

    another bias visualizes seakayaking as playing in rough water. That is certainly one aspect, but certainly not the only aspect, and not even the most common one. There are millions of seakayak nautical miles logged that have nothing to do w. rough water. Or
    circumnavigating Australia. ‘-) There are a lot of us who like to play,in water not so rough, to surf, to travel to a certain point and back, carry some stuff, or carry a lotta stuff, and do a bunch of skills in between. Some or all of the above.

    We all think we are seakayaking :) And there are a broad variety of seakayaks that will let us do that.

    There was once a designer who, on being questioned why his much admired design so closely resembled another designer’s iconic boat, said something like “They all have two pointy ends and a hole in the center.”

    True enough,but if we stop there, then there is no point in making lists. Or appreciating design differences and how they evolve.

    Every human invention continues to evolve, however imperceptibly and slowly, and to show crosscultural fertilization of ideas and concepts whenever cultures mingle and human organizations compete. If it doesn’t it dies out.

    Seakayak design could go further, and will, once someone uncouples imagination from bias. Someone who sees things that could be and asks why not rather than as they are and ask why (to paraphrase poorly the late Robert F. Kennedy on a much weightier topic).

    Derrick, as always a superb blog with a thought provoking topic.

    1. Deborah, Seriously.. how about if you write “Deborah’s 10 kayaks everyone should paddle before they buy”.. as a guest post? I think it would be really worthwhile.

      1. deborah

        Derrick – thank you! I was actually thinking along those lines this morning.

        There are two danger words (for me) in the topic: is Ten Kayaks *Everybody* Should Paddle Before They *Buy*.

        Whenever I hear the words “everybody” coupled w. advice, I tune it out.
        When it comes to kayaks, most of us are special snowflakes seeking special sauce.

        I could stop right there. Read on if of interest:

        In terms of anthropometrics (nice to get that into a kayak blog!) body size, weight, mobility and balance vary infinitely between people and greatly impact their impressions.

        For purpose, someone prioritizes big volume, arrowlike tracking for multi-day tripping point to point, and another agile turny roll-friendly low volume day play in textured water, their criteria for points “everybody should paddle” is entirely different. I realize this is but one example, and you’ve already touched on this.

        And there is an aesthetic that is highly personal. For example, someone might peel off more miles more efficiently in a QCC700, and fit it perfectly with admirable boat control in all manner of skills, but just can’t get with the looks of a plumb bow. That’s legit. We are only here a short while: we may as well surround ourselves with as much of what we consider beautiful as we can.

        IME, people will turn down the opportunity to try a kayak because they are “not looking to buy”. Well, neither am I. I quite like my stable. No new boat is keeping me up at night :)

        I try them for the experience, to learn a little more about design and how it affects performance, and, because, well, it’s fun.

        I’ve also test paddled boats that were too big for me (the P&H Bahia, the Q boat, the Anas Acuta, among others) knowing this upfront. And when asked for impressions I state this. I’m not of the right size or weight to settle these boats for optimum performance. They’re not ones “everybody should paddle” if they’re built like me. But they could and would be for someone else.

        If someone were making a list of kayaks to try it would seem most logical to think about where (what conditions) they paddle, what they now do w. their kayak (if they have one)and what other things they’d like to do. Then mix in the subtleties of body, balance, flexibility, etc. Special snowflakes that we are.

        Think about those things and a good list would come together shortly – a good list for them. Not “everybody.”

        1. UM.. I should let you off the hook a bit here. I used the specific title as satire based on some personal recent reading. Satire does not play well in print. :) You see, there have been a variety of articles recently about how using “Top 10″ or any numerical list, will increase traffic simply because people are drawn to simplified lists. Which btw, seems to be true! LOL! The title was intentionally cliche…

          Secondly to create such a “short list” you are, by nature forced create a set of arbitrary limitations, biases and boundaries. You can’t create a short list without a limited scope.

          Lastly, that is exactly why I used some of the phrasing I did…

          “You have to paddle them to know how they feel to you. What’s more, how you feel in a particular kayak may be nothing like what someone else feels in that same boat. That means, no one can really tell you what the right kayak is for you. From there you can infer that what I’m about to tell you.. is worthless..”

          “There are other great boats out there from many fine companies including; Current Designs, Nadgee, Boreal Designs, Mirage just to name a few. The list could go on and on.”

          Then I invited readers to “let the debate begin!” because I was well aware of the incredibly limited scope of the list. 😉

          1. deborah

            LOL it did have a Cosmo kind of title to it. I realized it just now. This is what comes of subscribing to SeaKayaker instead of Elle ‘-)

            I’m all for establishing limiting criteria as long as it’s consistently applied.

            Had your list said these were your picks for the top 10 British (style) composite skegged seakayaks I would’ve read without a peep. There’d be much less discussion. So there’d go half the fun. You’d already anticipated the rumblings from the Greenland cohorts :)

            But as set forth the blog just seemed to me that these qualities were all touted as attributes of the sina qua non of seakayaks. That’s what tripped my wire.

            Even tho I myself prefer these attributes (in metrics, aesthetics and performance!) I do not think that only boats having these attributes are the top ten seakayaks worth paddling.

            As we agree, the kayaks that make the cut are drawn from personal preferences, purposes, body metrics and butt time in the boat.

          2. deborah

            Lastly, this kind of debate is good, it’s mind opening!

            None of us need shuffle in sheeplike rhythm towards the boats other people tell us are “the” boats. We can leave that to ads and “reviews” by parties who are decidedly *not* disinterested. We can take all kinds of info within, take ourselves on the water, and decide.

            That is the joy and beauty of being an individual!

  11. Derrick, I think your list is pretty solid. I’m not familiar with Seaward but if you drew a list of boats you would live your life in, this list is spot on. Sure the Rapiers, Tarans and Greenland Ts are cool but if you were going to live out of your boat in any condition and stake your life on its reliability then your boats would make any list. Personally, the Rockpool GT would be on my list and I’d substitute the Force series for the Assateague due to my size. Good call on the Tempest, too. Often overlooked as a serious contender but I have mates who rely on them. One of the top rollers in Oz, Paul Tobin, uses a Capella and sees no need to upgrade so good call on that one as well. Then there’s the problem of where to put the Atlantic.

  12. Hey Brad,

    I’ve read quite a bit about the Atlantic.. I have a feeling some would say it should be there in place of the Romany.. I won’t go there. I’ve stirred up this hornet’s nest enough already! LOL!..

    1. Well you made your list and now it’s out there so brace yourself. (excuse the unintentional kayaking pun). The Atlantic is respected in OZ as the model play boat. You may not need to include it in your list as the story goes that the Impex boats are really North Shores. Geoff Burke from the UK paddled my Assateague and said it is identical to his North Shore but can’t remember model. Shore Line? Story goes that North Shore sold patterns of older boats to Impex prior to Valley takeover but I could be wrong here.