10 (More) Sea Kayaks to Try Before You Buy

The problem with selecting 10 kayaks for folks to try is that you inherently leave out 400 others.  Some readers will think that when you leave something off, it’s a personal slight or that you are being limited or intentionally “bias”. Of course you’re not.  The limit is simply in your personal goal and how long you want your list to be.  It’s fair to say every paddler in the world will have a different list… With that in mind, here’s another “10 sea kayaks you should try” list from fellow paddle blogger Bryan Hansel. He writes about canoeing and kayaking at Paddlinglight.com.  Take it away Bryan!

Recently, Derrick wrote a post about the 10 Sea Kayaks You Should Paddle Before You Buy. I liked the list, but I also thought that it ignored a lot of sea kayaks in favor of British-style boats. While I’m a fan of British-style boats — I own two — I don’t think that they are the only kayaks that you should try before you buy. I think that you should try as many different styles of boats as possible before making a buying choice. Chance are that if you’ve been paddling for awhile, you already know what you like, but if you haven’t, you need to try a bunch of different styles. In that theme, here are my top 10 sea kayak picks to try.

Before you read on, just note that I’m a 5’10” tall male who weighs 200 lbs. Although, I do longer trips most of my paddling is day trips. I paddle Lake Superior usually five days a week during the paddling season and a few days a month in winter. I’d rather paddle right up against the shore, while weaving through rocks than paddle a straight line between two points. I don’t go fast. Even in my expedition boat, I cruise along at about 4 miles per hour (I think paddlers overestimate their actual speed when they post online). If you look at my choices and they seem like they’re sized for a 200-pound paddler, they are. I’ve paddled these and really like all of them (well, except that one). If you weigh less, try the smaller version.

1. Wilderness Systems Zephyr 15.5 – Dagger originally made this kayak and called it the Meridian. It was 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 other day tripping sea kayaks. For someone who just paddles day trips or who is looking for a playful boat to compliment a touring boat, then this might be it. Skip the 160 version, because the fit is too big and it doesn’t feel as nice on the water. Try it to see if you love playful kayaks.

2. Necky Looksha Elite – A fast full-on touring boat that reflects the traditional west-coast designs. The Looksha kayaks have been around for a while, and I debated pretty hard about buying one in the past, because they’re really fun to paddle and feel fast, stable and carry a load. Unlike the Romany, which uses a skeg, the Looksha uses a rudder. You want to try this boat to get the feel for west-coast-style kayaks.

3. Maelströmkayak Vaåg 174 – This is a sexy sea kayak. The lines are stunning, the rocker accentuates the sweeping sheerline, and the paint job choices are unlimited. I like a red or orange deck with the back hull. The cockpit fit out-of-the-box felt comfortable to me, one of the best fits I’ve ever had in a kayak before modification. The construction is top-notch. The boat feels quick to paddle, turns fast, and is well-behaved in following waves. The initial stability feels a little touchy, but you’ll get used to it. Try this one to learn what a Canadian British-style boat feels like.

4. Current Designs Solstice GTS – This hurts me to put on the list, because I can’t stand it, but it’s a good example of generic North America design. It’s a rudder dependent touring boat that hauls a massive amount of gear. I have friends who swear by this design and have used it to paddle down the Mississippi, around Lake Superior and up the Inside Passage. You must try it to see if you like North American designs.

5. Valley Anas Acuta – Some paddlers fall in love with hard-chined designs, and you need to know if you’re one of them. The Anas Acuta is the classic fiberglass hard-chined boat and descends from the 1959 Ken Taylor boat. Although there are other hard-chined kayaks out there, this will probably be the easiest to find and try. Try it to see if you love hard-chined kayaks.

6. Valley Aquanaut – You need to try a British-style expedition boat and you have lots of choices. The Aquanaut feels a little quicker, slightly more stable that the standard-bearing NDK/SKUK Explorer. It’s a solid boat that won’t let you down in rough water, and it carries a good-sized load for longer expeditions. Instead of trying this boat you could go for the Explorer or the new Valley Etain. It doesn’t really matter which British-style expedition boat you try, because they all sort-of feel the same.

7. Tiderace Xcite – You should try this kayak to see what a playful, but long kayak feels like. Typically, playful British-style day boats measure 16 feet long, but this one takes the length out to 17 feet and still retains the playfulness. The 17-foot length seems to be my personal sweet spot, and the feel of this boat or the Rockpool Alaw Bach or my Siskiwit LV are different from British-style day boats or expedition boats. It’s a unique feel at a good length for touring. It’s billed as a coastal expedition boat used for touring where you play. That’s why you should give it a shot.

8. Wilderness Systems Tsunami 160 – This is a big boat built for a big guy, and it’s fast-ish, carries a massive load and feels stable. To me it feels like a detuned sea kayak, but I’ve used the 140, 145 and the 160 versions when guiding. It’s an easy boat to paddle for the beginner, and for the big-guys there aren’t that many options. Try the size that fits you just because. The 140 is actually pretty fun in surf.

9. QCC Kayaks Q700x – This one is designed by John Winters, which typically means efficient, fast and lean. In Sea Kayaker Magazine, when you see the KAPER/Winters resistance number, it’s his formula. This ruddered boat will get you to your destination quickly and in a straight line. Some people are really into that. I know I am sometimes, so you should see if you’re that type of paddler.

10. Epic 18x – When I tried the 18x, I loved it. This is a really fast kayak that likes to go straight, but is easy to turn when you edge it. It holds an edge surprisingly well, and it rolls easily. The rudder is built in to the kayak, so it’s not up on deck causing problems when not in use. This is for going fast over long distances or during races. I have a friend who recently used it in a pretty competitive race that he won. It feels very race-car-ish, and that’s why you should try it.

That’s my 10 sea kayak list to try before you buy. It’s different from Derrick’s, and I think more well-rounded (although it still leans towards British-style boat). There are lots of kayaks that I left off, but I stuck with the boats commonly available in my area. I’d like to hear about your top 10 list. You should write a blog post about it, or write a guest post for PaddlingLight. Maybe I’ll do a top 10 canoe list next.

Thanks Bryan.  If you’ll like to share your “10 Ten” feel free to send it along. I’m happy to publish other guest posts here as well.

Photos are © Bryan Hansel and used by permission.

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9 Responses

  1. Everyone has their own opinion on kayaks, but I really can’t understand Bryan’s comment about the Current Designs Solstice GTS. “Rudder-dependent?” The Solstice line is the most rudder-unnecessary boat that I’ve ever paddled. I owned one of the older Solstice SS models for nine years before getting an Explorer. At one point, I removed the rudder because weather-cocking was never a problem, I never used the rudder, and I wanted the solid foot bracing that you get without a rudder cable attached to your footpegs. The Solstice tracks like its on a rail. You won’t like it if you like the feel of a highly maneuverable boat, but it is NOT rudder-dependent. My husband still owns the boat and while I did install a new rudder system with solid foot bracing, he never uses the rudder either. I was all set to buy a GTS at the time I got my Explorer, and would have bought it except that I got a killer deal on the Explorer and couldn’t justify spending extra to get the Solstice.

    1. Hey, Sherri,

      I didn’t care for the way it turns. For me, even with edging I never felt it turned well, so rudder dependent in that way. Does it need a rudder for tracking? Probably not, although I remember more weathercocking than I get in my Romany, which is absolutely zero. I also don’t care for the way the Solstice rolls. It’s just one of those boats that doesn’t work for me, but I have friends who love it. I included it in the list because people fall in love with it, and they never experience it the way I do.

  2. I did not like the way my old Solstice SS rolled, but the redesigned hull of the GTS took care of that problem which was the reason I was looking to replace it when I bought my Explorer. I suspect that your perception of the Solstice has to do with your skill level and paddling style. Your Romany is most-likely weather-cocking (they all do), but because it turns so easily, you are compensating on each stroke without actually realizing it. The Solstice is hard to turn (I never use a rudder to turn a kayak, though) and so you notice the small amount of weather-cocking more readily because you feel more resistance to your compensating stroke. I used to use a Dagger Meridian to teach out of. One day, I happened to have my husband paddle it because I didn’t feel like getting his Solstice out of the rafters. He never had any problem with tracking when paddling the Solstice, but he couldn’t keep the Meridian on anything resembling a straight line. The exceptional tracking ability of the Solstice had been keeping him on course for years despite less than stellar forward stroke technique. You would be correct in saying that the Solstice is very hard to turn. If you look at the hull from the side, it’s pretty easy to see why.

    1. Sounds good, Sherri. I’m glad that the newer Solstice took care of the rolling problem for you. Part of determining how a kayak weathercocks, which all boats do to some extent, is also accounting for a hull’s ability to respond to it in an efficient way. A hull such as the Romany’s, Meridian’s or the Zephyr’s allows the paddler to easily correct for any weathercocking issues, either through subtle corrective strokes or through slight edging, but a hull, such as the Solstice’s, that doesn’t turn easily, even when edged, doesn’t give the paddler any leeway in controlling the outcome. A hull shape is always dynamic in the water, and if the weathercocking can be corrected by a simple tweak in the hull shape by edging, it doesn’t really weathercock. That’s the way that I look at hull design and weathercocking, and that’s why it’s my opinion that the Solstice weathercocking is more than an issue than it is in a Romany. I.e, you can reduce it to absolutely zero in the Romany, but in the Solstice, you need to drop the rudder. When I have more time, I’ll expand on my thoughts about kayak hull design in relation to weathercocking and tracking. It’s a confusing subject that seems to get simplified too often. I also seem to remember that the Solstice is a bear to bring about into the wind, which is a safety issue that’s compensated for by using the rudder.

  3. Bringing the Solstice into the wind is done the same way all kayaks can be turned, get up some speed and let the natural tendency of a boat to turn into the wind help you. Most kayaks are hard to turn into a strong wind if you are trying to do it standing still. Use of the rudder isn’t going to help either unless the boat is moving. The Romany is almost a foot and a half shorter than a Solstice, so there is some slight unfair comparison. My 18′ Explorer can be a bear to turn into the wind unless I get it moving. As you may have guessed, I’m not much of a fan of rudders or skegs as they both seem to have serious limitations. I’ve seen as many problems with skeg deployment as I have with rudders and I’ve paddled both for about 10 years each, so in my opinion, it’s best not to have to rely on either to control a kayak. When they are working, either one can make life easier for the paddler (as does edging which is a critical skill to master), but there is nothing worse than suddenly having to control a kayak without skeg or rudder when that’s all you’ve ever learned to do. I don’t let my students use either during classes. The last of my 2 cents worth. . .

      1. Sherri Mertz

        I’m cool with that, Bryan. It also occurs to me that since you are about 70 lbs heavier than I am (although roughly the same height), our perception of stability and performance on just about all boats is probably going to differ markedly. I’m not of the opinion that everyone needs to be paddling a Solstice, I just think it has its place and serves well for paddlers who prefer a boat with less maneuverability (my husband and several other paddlers I know happen to be those people).

  4. Stew Gunyon

    Bryan, nice complement to Derrick’s top Ten. Boy, if I could have tried even five boats before getting mine who knows!! Think I landed on a winner anyway (Impex Force Cat 5), but it would still be fun to try other boats someday!