There is an easy way to buy a kayak that takes no thought whatsoever. Just plop down your money on the first thing that looks cool or on the boat everyone says is hot for what you want to do. Those who use this method of purchasing anything are about 90% likely to be disappointed in what they brought. With the availability of kayaks in sporting goods stores and the growing popularity of kayak fishing, I fear too many people will be tempted to resort to this crap-shoot method of buying their first boat. Okay, they are far less costly than motor boats. But, a little thought, research, and experience with a kayak will make that first purchase a wise one.
(1) What is your SECOND priority in kayaking? It is too easy to think on the lines of getting one use out of your watercraft. But, the more versatile your boat is, the more you’ll want to use it. Sure, that wide sit-on-top “Shark Hunter” you saw in the fishing magazine has great stability for hauling up large Red Drum along the CBBT. But, taking a long trip along a winding creek with something like that will be painfully slow. No one boat handles all conditions and interest well. But, your first kayak should permit you to have fun in two or three facets of paddling. Camping, fishing, photography, touring, surf, class II whitewater; your second interest is just as important as your first. Make your second boat one that is specifically made for certain conditions.
(2) Online reviews. Chances are your next door neighbor is no expert on kayaks nor have paddled anything in his or her life. Thankfully, websites are chock-full of useful information about every make and model of boat in and out of production. Pay attention to first hand owner and user post, even the negative comments. Critics will help you decide if the kayak is suitable for your purposes and even warn of some design flaws.
(3) Try before you buy. Hey, you are going to be sitting in or on this thing for hours. You want to make sure the kayak “feels right” to you. Unfortuneately, Bay Trails Outfitters is no longer in business. It was located on a portion of Winter Harbor in Mathews and offered great guided tours as well as “test drives.” Appomattox River Company and others have special demo days in a nearby lake or river. When you visit parks that rent kayaks, test out a few models. If there is one you really like and you see it for sale, buy it.
Your budget, taste for accessories and gadgets, and other factors will play a role in your decision-making. Paddling.net has the most complete review of kayak reviews you can find on the internet, including my reviews on the Wilderness Systems Pungo 140 (www.paddling.net). Appomattox River Company, www.paddleva.com, will ship any canoe or kayak anywhere.