A pod of paddlers stood next to their well-crafted carbon-fiber sea kayaks, disdaining the plastic sit-on-top fishing kayak taking off from the beach. “Do you call that a sea kayak?” one tittered. Another chimed in: “Ha! Looks more like a kiddie wading pool.” Still another said, “I bet that cost under $500—brand new!” They sniggered as the fisherman waded knee deep into the small surf, plopped his butt onto his seat, and began paddling slowly toward the breakers. He timed the first breaker wrong and fell out of his boat to snorts and muted howls of laughter from the owners of the cool kayaks. But the fisherman hung on to his craft, and when the turbulence subsided, he crawled back on and continued his journey through the surf. Eventually he made it outside and disappeared around the bend.
With dismay mingled with pride for the fisherman, I watched the little drama unfold as I stood next to my truck in the parking lot. I had planned to embark from this very beach. “Too crowded,” I said to myself and drove to another put-in a mile away. As I hauled my Tsunami X-15 off my rack and carried it to the sand, I wondered, “Would those guys laugh at me behind my back because I also paddle a sit-on-top, although mine’s made of Kevlar instead of rotomolded plastic?” My X-15, designed by Glenn Gilchrist and Jim Kakuk, is an ocean rock garden kayak made tough to be played with rough, carry a bunch of gear, and still go pretty darn fast. I love it. But I reminded myself, like all boats, it can’t do everything….
This event occurred seven years ago, but I never forgot the air of arrogance emanating from the paddlers with the genuine kayaks. In the past three years, I’ve attended three major sea kayaking symposia in different locales. All three times I noticed a dearth of sit-on-top kayaks, though there were plenty of plastic, fiberglass and exotic layups of modern sea kayaks around. There were a few gorgeous wooden kayaks and some useful folding kayaks about but not one sit-on-top. “That is odd,” I mused, because sit-on-top recreational kayaks are everywhere. I don’t have the stats, but would wager that there are more sit-on-top rec kayaks around than the traditional kind. Yet, you never see traditional kayakers hanging with sit-on-toppers. It seems to me that rec kayakers should be welcomed into the sea kayaking community. Though regular sea kayakers have a lot of knowledge to share, sit-on-toppers can also contribute a lot.
Then you have the surf skiers. These guys paddle sit-on-tops with a winning attitude. The surf skis’ long, sleek hulls make them look like racing machines—and they are. Most surf skiers I know are fantastic paddlers in excellent shape. I’m proud to say I’m friends of John Dixon, who designs and races in surf skis, and Don Kiesling, who designs and builds surf ski rudders and also races. For more information on surf skis check out https://tsunamirangers.com/2011/01/26/surfski-racing-part-one/.
Similar to surf skis are outrigger canoes whose paddlers are also in tip-top shape. You can see these guys in singles, doubles, and multiple paddling options out on the open ocean in Hawaii, but you won’t see anyone snickering at them as the canoeists zoom by. They don’t hang out with regular sea kayakers, but it would be a boon for all if they did. Though I’ve paddled canoes in rivers, I’ve yet to experience an outrigger canoe in the ocean. Someday….
Now the latest craze is the SUP, the stand-up paddleboard, which looks like a fat surfboard with a guy standing up and propelling himself with a long paddle—sort of like traditional Hawaiian surfers did ages ago. Ranging in price from $400 for an entry-level SUP to $1800 for a pro model, the popular SUPs are turning the paddling world on its head. A guy named Dave Cornthwaite just paddled an SUP 2,404 miles! SUPs are here to stay.
Before SUPs were wave skis, a paddling craft which hit the market in in the 1970s with designs by venerated watermen such as Merv Larson and Dick Wold. Wave skis look like oversized boogie boards, but paddlers surfing them can really rip on the waves. Wave skis are definitely fun.
Surf kayaks, surf shoes, and good ole slalom river boats do the same job as a wave ski, but the rider gets to stay comfy inside, with a spray skirt keeping the water out. In 1980 I first tried a fiberglass Dekadense river kayak in the surf (designed and built by Jim Kakuk), and then later branched out to Perception Mirages and Dancers, and various whitewater playboats over the years. I greatly enjoyed trying out a Rhino surf shoe built by Doug Schwartz a few years ago. Nowadays, I use a Tsunami X-O Crossover sit-on-top slalom kayak in surf.
And lest we forget, there is the ubiquitous inflatable kayak, which has got to be the slowest form of propulsion at sea, but holds a lot of gear, can be carried on a plane, and is stable as the Rock of Gibraltar. If it’s good enough for Audrey Sutherland, one of the world’s best sea kayakers, it’s good enough for me. I have enjoyed paddling inflatables in surf, on an overnight ocean expedition, and of course going down rivers.
Also here to stay, as they have for thousands of years, are traditional ocean paddling craft, ranging from sea-going Chinese dragon boats to giant waka canoes paddled by the Maori in New Zealand to big coastal native American canoes. All are still paddled to this day. A few years ago we Tsunami Rangers met some Chumash canoeists who paddled in a traditional canoe from the California mainland out to Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Islands. We were impressed with the paddlers and their sturdy boat.
I’m very happy that modern craftsmen are making Aleut baidarkas and Inuit kayaks using modern fabrics (instead of seal skins), and other native sea boats made of reeds or dug out trees. It’s very interesting to watch such beautiful boats in action, and they are a real joy to paddle. Baidarkas, for instance, are not only historically interesting, but are fast and sleek, can be used in surf and rocks (with care!), are perfect for expeditions, come in a variety of designs, and undulate with the water, which makes you feel united with the sea.
All in all, we can see that it’s a wide world of boats out there, and they are all good, and all have their place. Someday I’d like to go to a symposium and see ocean-going boaters of all stripes joyfully interacting with each other and enjoying the plethora of paddling craft. There are so many new things happening in paddling designs. New materials, new designs, new uses for kayaks and similar craft. Just the other day I saw a photo of a river kayak with a hydrofoil attached to the bottom of the hull. I was intrigued, to say the least, and look forward to seeing and trying new stuff such as hydrofoils. Why not?
Lest you think I’m a dreamer, I leave you with these immortal words written by Kenneth Grahame and spoken by Water Rat in The Wind in the Willows: “Believe me, my young friend, there is NOTHING—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”
What types of ocean boats do you paddle? What would you like to paddle? Have you invented a new type of paddling boat or designed a boat? Please share your “messing about in boats” stories and musings by commenting below this post.