This page is about the process I went through in choosing a kayak and other equipment, from the perspective of a novice who is reasonably fit and active, an experienced bushwalker and open water swimmer but new to sea kayaking. It’s not intended as a technical guide. And this is not the kayak I ended up with.
The first kayak. After a lot of research, my criteria were: light enough to pick up and get on and off the car without help; reasonably stable but a kayak that I had to learn to use, and not grow out of in six months; fast if possible; bomb proof if I dropped it; under $2,500.
An often-repeated mantra is “try as many kayaks as you can”. This isn’t easy in Melbourne. With one exception, all retailers (and there are not many in Melbourne) insisted that if I wanted to take a kayak for a test drive, I would need to hire it. The cost comes off a new kayak, quite an expensive exercise if you want to try out a few different types with hire prices between $65 and $85 a day, plus the cost of hiring racks to get it to the beach, and accessories. You can hire a car for less than a sea kayak. You can also fly to Sydney and test out a few boats for free with Expedition Kayaks.
Victorian Sea Kayak Club members are happy to let you try out their boats and the club occasionally organises days especially for this purpose. In the end I settled on a Prijon Marlin from Melbourne Kayaks. It fitted my criteria and Andrew at the shop met me on the Yarra after hours, so I could take it for a spin. A big thanks to Andrew for his great attitude, not to mention a good coffee.
I didn’t have a clue about hull design, or British vs Swede style kayaks, although I know a bit (not much) more now. The Marlin is multi-chined, flat on the bottom, with little rocker (curvature from bow to stern). The hard chines and flat bottom make it a stable, fast boat but it does sit a little high out of the water. The Marlin was good value for the price ($2,200 at the time) and it’s a light boat (about 22 kg). The weight was a major issue for me, since I need to be able to get it on and off the car solo some of the time.
I think, on balance, it was a good first boat. I wasn’t prepared though, to have to re-think it all again six months later after my skills had improved and I gained a bit more knowledge. There is so much to find out about kayak design and what it all means – how it gels with technique, what you want to do, how you want to do it and your own size and shape. I constantly learn about the strengths and limitations of my boat as well as other peoples’ boats on group paddles.
Secondly, getting a kayak from A to B. Racks and cradles are the first things to buy since you need to get your new kayak home. I bought mine from Roof Rack Superstore in Preston, who cheerfully fitted them on the spot. I was really worried that I wouldn’t be able to get my kayak on and off the car by myself and I have to say, I’m really glad I don’t own a Landcruiser. With a trolley and a carpet off-cut placed pile-side down to protect my car, I can slide my boat on and off pretty easily. I throw an old t-shirt over the cradles to reduce friction although it probably would have been better to spend the extra on cradles with felt lining. Eventually I glued some felt onto the cradles, which works fine. Long tie-down straps are used secure the boat and after a short while I stopped worrying that it was going to blow off. I actually did the straps up too tight at first and bent the hull (which eventually popped back out).
Thirdly, paddles. The best advice I had, was that if I bought one expensive thing, make it a good paddle. I ended up buying a Werner Camano bent shaft paddle. It’s designed for low-angled paddling (suitable for long distance as opposed to fitness paddling). After 10 km in headwinds, the next day my wrists are fine. Very pleased with the decision to spend the money, even though it hurt at the time. I bought my paddle from Paddlesports, who were happy for me to take my time and chucked in a couple of extras.
Lessons. The Victorian Sea Kayak Club asks that beginners complete a two-day “Sea Starter” course before signing up for a club trip. From what I could find out, there are only three options in Melbourne (all are about $300 for two days). The VSKC runs training days and regular paddles pitched at novices, as well as rolling nights (in a pool). I’ve found that the best way to learn is to just get info from wherever you can then get out on the water and practice, regardless of how inexperienced you feel, with others who can give you some guidance. There are some very experienced paddlers in the VSKC and they are all extremely generous with advice and taking the time to help you improve your technique and ability. There are also books, podcasts and DVDs around (the Gordon Brown series is fantastic) and it’s amazing what you can pick up from YouTube.
Other essentials. My first life jacket (PFD) was a Seak women’s fit from Anaconda. I found it bulky and uncomfortable, so replaced it with an Ultra with a side zip, which sits better and has more arm movement. However, it’s not all that well made and Kokatat would probably have been a better choice.
A good cag. Still don’t have a winter one, but so far have managed with a Kokatat Tropos Super Breeze and rugged up underneath. I’ve found that Kokatat have a well made and well cut women’s range.
Spray deck. Originally an Impi, which did the job but I eventually replaced it with a Reed which does keep the cockpit a lot drier. Electric Water (local, in Mt Waverley) spray decks have a good reputation among VSKC members and are made to measure.
Clothing. In winter, a Sharkskin top and 3 mm NRS women’s wetsuit, which are just fantastic. So far my light cag over the lot has done the job but a heavier cag is still on the shopping list. In warmer weather, NRS hydroskins are good too.
Anaconda sometimes has cheap neoprene shorts. Combined with woollen thermals or ‘skins’, this seems to work as a way of keeping warm in summer. Other options include lightweight sports tops from Kmart. Aldi skiing thermals, if you can snag them at just the right moment, are not bad. Gippsland Kaying Company have women’s clothing, otherwise difficult to buy.
Gloves: Gill brand, bought from a sailing shop which seem to be a bit cheaper than kayak shops.
Shoes: Ronstan with a split toe. In winter I put Orca swimming booties (also with a split toe) under them which seems to work. I also bought Reed long socks with a view to putting wool socks underneath them to keep my feet warm. Find them sweaty and uncomfortable. Expensive mistake.
Fine tuning. Here’s the thing. After all the research, it turns out that it would be pretty unusual for a kayak to ‘fit’. Because the cockpit is large, I just couldn’t get a firm grip with my knees and kept falling out under water when practising capsizing and wet exits. So, I have spent a lot of time glueing extra padding under and around the thigh braces to make a snugger fit while still allowing enough core movement. Initially I cut up a (non water absorbing) closed cell camping mat and a yoga brick from Clark Rubber. First, I experimented with soft foam offcuts to get the shapes right. However, this wasn’t anywhere near enough so I had a second attempt with thick dark grey foam which I bought at Canoes Plus in Kew but can also be ordered from AFC Fabricators in Thomastown. A small hacksaw cut it into shape followed by sanding.
The glue debate – everyone, it seems, has their favourite glue. ‘Kwik Grip’, ‘All Clear’ and ‘Sikaflex’ have all been recommended. Velcro has turned out to be the best system and I can re-adjust the position of the foam if necessary. Clean the hull with acetone first and polish it up for the velcro self-adhesive to stick (I ended up gluing the Velcro on in the end). I’m a Kwick Grip girl in case anyone’s wondering.
Camping gear. Bushwalking gear is transferable to kayaking. By the time I camped, I had a new boat with much better hatches and distribution of storage space. The good news is that weight is not such an issue since volume in a sea kayak is roughly equivalent to two packs. The bad news is you also have to carry it up and down the beach from kayak to campsite. Watch out for that one. I have a couple of 10 litre new wine bladders for water (Grapeworks Pty Ltd). Packing the hatches so the boat doesn’t weathercock with too much weight in the bow wasn’t as hard as I thought but has improved over time.
Other stuff. Bilge pump, safety and first aid equipment, paddle float, dry bags, tow-line, trolley. I use lightweight bush walking dry bags during day trips. So far, so good, with heavy-duty bags for longer trips. A cockpit cover is good while the boat is in storage. In the words of a friend, “there’s nothing more scary than being out at sea and feeling something crawl up your leg”. You can spend a fortune on this stuff but it does need to be safe and stand up to the task.
The rest is a work in progress. One of the many things that I really like about sea kayaking, is that it seems reasonably easy to find people to paddle with. Maybe it’s the sense of adventure and exploration that attracts people to sea kayaking. Lots of kayakers spontaneously share their enthusiasm, paddling and gear tips, meant, I think, in the spirit of sharing such a great experience. The hardest thing is overcoming the fear of capsizing to develop confidence and skill.
But then, six months later….
Test paddle at Barwon Heads to try out a Valley Etain. English built, fibreglass expedition kayak.
It’s a seriously beautiful thing….safe, well-built, with a skeg and not a rudder. Sits low in the water and turns on a sixpence. Love it to pieces.