How to choose the right canoe or kayak

Eric Zelz| Bangor Daily News
Posted March 08, 2013, at 12:28 p.m.

Paddle your own canoe.

The idiom means something like “act independently” or “decide your own fate.”

But before you can paddle your own literal canoe (or kayak), you have to purchase one. And that is something that is best done with a little bit of help.

Maine outfitters and sporting goods stores can help. But it’s important that you think about a few things before walking into a store and becoming overwhelmed by rows and rows of brightly colored boats.

Things to ask yourself while choosing a kayak or canoe:

-What’s my budget?

-How many people do I want the boat to carry?

-How much gear do I need to carry?

-Where am I going to paddle? What’s the water like?

-What are my paddling skills? And do I want to progress in my paddling skills?

-Who will be using this boat and how big are they?

-Do I want this boat to be durable?

-Do I need this boat to be lightweight?

-For canoes, do I want to put an engine on it?

“You want to ask the right questions,” said David Behany, a registered Maine guide who works at ski Rack Sports in Bangor. “What’s your intent? Will you be on a lake, an ocean? The best way to break it down is what type of water they’re going to paddle.”

But even asking the right questions sometimes isn’t enough to narrow down the many models and find your ideal boat.

Testing out different boats can help. Many outfitters offer opportunities to try their canoes and kayaks on nearby lakes and ponds. For example, Cadillac Mountain Sports runs demos on Thursday afternoons from the end of May to the beginning of September at the Harbor Park & Marina in Ellsworth.

“People can sign a waiver, put on a life jacket, and we talk them through what they might be shopping for,” said Cadillac Mountain Sports merchandise buyer Peter Beckett. “When you’re making an investment like that, we try to get people to think about what their paddling environment is, what their skill level is, where they want to go and if they want to advance their paddling skills.”

Another way to test out boats is by renting from outfitters or attending paddling classes and trips led by businesses such Castine Kayak Adventures.

Canoes — for fishing, touring, racing and recreation — have long been popular in the state of Maine, home to the world famous Old Town Canoe. Yet nowadays, a greater quantity of kayaks are being purchased, according to David Hadden, watercraft brand director for Johnson Outdoors (owner of Old Town Canoe, Necky Kayaks and Ocean Kayak, among other outdoor equipment brands).

“There’s been a big swing toward kayaks,” Hadden said. “One reason is that you can paddle by yourself and be a lot more efficient.”

But kayaks are a lot like shoes. There are so many types to choose from; they’re made of different materials; and each one is built for a certain activity. You wouldn’t wear stilettos to play baseball, just as you wouldn’t paddle a wide, 10-foot-long kayak along the Maine Island Trail. But kayaks (like shoes) can be clumped into general categories to help customers narrow down the options.

The family camp kayak: This recreational kayak is usually 9-12 feet in length, easy to steer and light enough for most people to carry or drag from the camp down to the water. This boat is wide, and therefore very stable, and it’s made out of a tough polymer that can handle being dinged on rocks. The cockpit is roomy enough for larger paddlers (and people who want to suntan their legs). This small boat is perfect for navigating narrow streams and traveling short distances on flatwater. A popular Old Town example of this type of boat is the “Otter,” which has been recently discontinued and replaced by the similar “Heron” kayak.

The versatile kayak: Between 12 and 17 feet in length, this kayak is comfortable for long-distance paddles and can handle a variety of water. This kayak may include several features, such as a rudder or skeg (to help with steering), decking and hatches (to carry gear), and bulkheads (to protect gear and add buoyancy to a flipped boat). An example of this type of boat is the Necky Kayaks “Manitou,” 13-14 feet long with decking and one or two hatches.

The fishing-hunting kayak: Sit-on-top kayaks have recently become a favorite for fishermen, hunters and campers because they don’t have a cockpit to inhibit movement — whether it’s casting a line or grabbing tackle. Sit-on-top boats are built with fishermen in mind have plenty of storage areas, come with rod holders and are often camouflage. The seats are typically large and comfortable. The Ocean Kayak Trident Series are popular fishing kayaks that are made right in Old Town.

The whitewater kayak: This specialized boat is specific to both the size of the paddler and the type of whitewater the paddler will be running. For example, Dagger whitewater kayaks are categorized as “creeking,” “free running,” “freestyle,” “longboat,” or “river running.” All white water kayaks are fairly short, making it easy for the kayaker to quickly turn and navigate through rapids. The Dagger brand makes a wide variety of whitewater kayaks.

The touring kayak: Built for the sea and long voyages, this boat is long — typically 14-20 feet in length — and narrow, to cut through waves and travel fast. Paddlers will probably want to wear a spray skirt to keep water out the boat’s small cockpit. Camping gear can be stored in the front and back hatches, which are cealed by bulkheads. And a small day hatch, directly behind the kayaker, is for food and gear needed while paddling. Most have a rudder or skeg to help the paddler stay on course. Some of these high-performance boats are even made in gender-specific models, such as Necky Kayaks “Eliza”, a women’s kayak that has a shallower cockpit to account for a shorter torso.

The tandem kayak: This is the longest kayak you’ll find, with two cockpits and seats for two paddlers. Typically, this kayak will also have a rudder to help the paddlers steer. Don’t consider this boat unless you have a paddling partner you’re sure to get along with. An example of this style boat is the “Northstar” kayak by Wilderness Systems.

Of course, you need a few more things — such as a paddle and PFD — before you can “paddle your own canoe (or kayak).” The easiest way to get outfitted as a paddler is to visit a local sporting goods store and talk with the experts working there about the boats they sell, as well as the gear you’ll need out on the water.

Employees of Johnson Outdoors, Ski Rack Sports of Bangor and Cadillac Mountain Sports of Ellsworth shared their knowledge about kayaks and boats for the purpose of this story.

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