Yakking about some kayaks – shopping tips for newbies

If you’d like to buy a kayak to poke around on local rivers and lakes but are baffled by the array of cute little boats in the stores, turn to the area’s experienced paddlers.
I put the word out on the South Bend Paddlers’ email list-serve, and several people replied with good, thoughtful tips for the newbie. So did a few people on Facebook.
“Find a group to paddle with,” says Mark Spurrier, the South Bend Paddlers’ coordinator. “Most paddlers are only too happy to trade boats for a while and let you experience their ‘ride.’ It’s a great way to figure out exactly what suits you.”

Many paddlers suggest renting different kayaks first.
The end-of-summer sales are tempting, and used kayaks can be a great deal. But try before you buy.

I’m not delving into white-water and sea kayaks, which are for the advanced.
John Senecal, owner of Fluid Fun in Bristol, says that in order to figure out which of the 300 to 400 canoes or kayaks it has in stock is right for a customer, “We like to ask lots of questions.”

So should you. What kind of water do you hope to paddle? What kind of vehicle will the kayak go on? Will you paddle alone or with others?

Fluid Fun has long been a go-to store for paddlers with a knowledgeable staff. Senecal also owns the Trading Post, a campground and canoe and kayak business in Mongo, Ind. He and his wife bought Fluid Fun last year. He says Fluid Fun has a few of the cheap boats that you’d find in big-box stores but mostly deals in higher quality boats. And since the store is right on the St. Joseph River, you can try out boats anytime.

“The trouble with big-box stores is that the staff may have limited or no experience paddling,” says Ken Stelter, vice president of the Northwest Indiana Paddling Association. “They are compelled to sell you what they have in stock, not what the right boat for you is.”

He said his club has seen people buy the “cute boat on sale at a big-box store,” only to find it doesn’t suit what they want to do. So they have to buy another boat.

“Find a ‘demo day’ (at a store),” says Dan Valleskey. “A 20-minute test paddle is not enough. A real expert giving advice, after listening to you and sizing you up, may be far more valuable.”

“Longer, narrower boats are generally more efficient (you’ll go faster and farther for the same effort),” Steve Horney explains. “Wider boats are more stable, but slower and harder to paddle. Shorter boats are more maneuverable, but also tend to track poorly. Flat bottoms will feel more stable when sitting still on the water, but they tend to react more to side waves, have more drag and sometimes less stability than a more rounded bottom.”

Gary Andert at Outpost Sports, who’d taught kayak lessons for 15 years, says first-timers often think kayaks are supposed to be 10 feet long since that’s all they’ve seen at discount stores.

“Any kayak under 11 feet will have a tendency to ‘wander,'” Andert says. “A boat in any length from 12 to 17 feet will track and slice through water rather than plow. The biggest problem a new paddler has is keeping the boat going straight. This is where a lesson from a qualified instructor is highly recommended.”

“Be sure the kayak will carry the weight of you and your gear,” says Matt Harlow, of Niles. “Will you be camping along the river? Do you want to take a dog or a small child along? The capacity is usually posted in the boat.

“Water-tight compartments aren’t 100 percent water tight. Put your cell phone in a dry box or your change of clothes in a dry bag.”

A comfy seat and solid foot pegs are key, Horney says.

Invest in a good paddle.

“There is no joy to be had using a $40 paddle,” Valleskey says. “They flop, bend too easy, and are way too heavy. At least 20 percent of your budget should go to a paddle. Similarly, you want a personal flotation device you can be comfortable in.”

Sabine Shive tells women to “avoid buying a heavy kayak.”

The least expensive boats are made of polyethylene, or “plastic.” You can buy kayaks that are much lighter, made of Fiberglas, carbon fiber or Kevlar. They cost a lot more — not an entry-level boat.
Some paddlers advise starting with a quality kayak. Spurrier tempers that: “If someone is new to the sport, I usually tell them to buy the cheapest boat they can find and are comfortable in.” It stinks if you invest money, then find you don’t like the sport, he says.
Once you know what kind of paddling you prefer, then you can upgrade.


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