cockpit size-functionality-sea kayaks

For a while now I’ve noticed on the mboard a preference for small cockpit sizes when it comes to sea kayaks. What is the thought process behind that- smaller opening so the boat is drier when paddling? when capsized the boat takes longer to fill?

in the ww realm I consider the larger cockpit sizes to be a great innovation that improves safety and functionality yet sea kayaking doesn’t seem to follow suit, or maybe it has and I don’t realize it. Explain how it works (to an inland paddler like myself) who is a complete novice in the salt water environment.

It appears
that it relates to the intention to have your knees and hips tightly linked to the kayak in order to have maximum control. I’m no expert but that’s what I’ve occasionally read.

Frankly, I’m with you on a bigger opening being safer for exit and entry up to a point. Very few sea kayaks have larger cockpits, though.

ahh but the cockpits in ww
boats have evolved into a deeper keyhole shape- thereby you can lock in your knees and upper thighs yet still have space to put your knees together to exit the cockpit. So not only has the size changed in ww boats but the shape has morphed a bit as well. People “lock in” ww playboats and squirts so I don’t think its a control issue.

Once the cockpit opening is large enough to allow reasonable ingress and egress, you’ve got to consider the practical size of the spray skirt. Part of the purpose of a sea kayak is to withstand rough water that sometimes will deposit substantial amounts all over the boat. Too large a cockpit would naturally make it much more difficult to have a skirt that wouldn’t implode with the weight of a large wave collapsing on the skirt. The same is true whenever the boat is other than upright.

Smaller cockpit better because…

– Last Updated: Jun-04-16 9:41 AM EST –

Most of the sea kayaking stuff boils down to the fact that shore could easily be at least a mile away, not under 50 feet. And there is no current that might carry you near a convenient eddy to try and get in an emergency swim. All recovery has to happen out there. No dragging the boat to shore to dump it.

In general, a smaller cockpit can reduce the amount of water that gets in assuming that the skirt is working as planned.

But most importantly, it can reduce the amount of water you have to dump from the boat before doing an on-water self rescue. If I get into the NDK boats the first try in a cowboy self-rescue, there is almost no water in the cockpit. So I can skirt up and move in. If I mess up and it has a second chance to scoop water, there still is not so much that I couldn't manage the boat to paddle off. If it is a real capsize, either due to my own issues or the conditions, being able to skirt up and move one without having to pump is a huge safety factor.

In really bad conditions, that time with the skirt open will just cause the boat to fill again and a re-capsize. Hence the not uncommon feature of an electric pump in sea kayaks.

In an assisted rescue this also greatly aids the poor rescuer when they have to haul a cockpit full of water over their deck to dump it before putting a swimmer back in. Less water is less weight.

WW boats pretty much swamp when they capsize because of that huge cockpit. Even with float bags, they aren't made for easy on water recovery. Nor is being in a fast current a great environment for that. Shore is nearby and most WW paddlers go out in groups including people who have decent rescue skills.

Also, the decks are also on the higher side from WW boats unless you are talking about creekers. That is because if you are in the thing all day, you need room to stretch your legs. The focus on constant quick response in a WW situation usually means everything is a lot more locked in under the deck. I know I can't wear paddling shoes in my smallest one, have to wear socks and stash a pair of sandals under the float bags in back.

There was a story on pnet a few years ago from a guy who took a group out off the west coast and things got unexpectedly gnarly about a mile offshore, a fairly normal distance. One of the paddlers was a decently experienced WW paddler, so the conditions per se should not have bothered him. But the trip leader found that the WW paddler was more disconcerted than some less skilled long boaters by how long they were going to be in the soup before finding land. The difference in having to stay on the water just had not occurred to him.

again I’m not buyin’ it
ww boats have to withstand large amounts of water and force, the sprayskirts are bigger and longer but fully functional. Most of the ww boats are plastic with deep cockpit rims built into them. When they were glass (like my lettman and slipper from years ago) the rims weren’t quite so pronounced. We had more problems with skirts imploding back then. I think a big skirt is less likely to implode than a little skirt. Since the old seats were built as one unit and were combined with the cockpit rim we had more breaks and failures and leaks than we do now. Just my two cents.

Perhaps it’s just the narrowness of the sea kayak design and composite materials that makes a small cockpit more attractive? The overall boat is structurally stronger because it has a smaller hole- and more rigidity for the composite materials? Don’t really know, just thinking out loud. Not trying to be critical of anyone’s answers but implosion doesn’t make sense to me either.

Squirt boats were made of composites- their cockpits weren’t as big as today’s creekers but still a good bit larger than sea kayaks.

now that makes a lot of sense…
the small cockpit as well as sealed hatches slow down the rate at which a capsized boat fills with water- thus making self rescue easier- reentry on the water which is unlike my typical situation. I figured there had to be some actual utilitarian advantage to a smaller cockpit.

Personally, the idea of being immersed far from shore scares the hell out of me. I like my shoreline nearby.

Thank you for taking the time to explain this to me in a way that made sense.

Y’r welcome, and the skirts
The reality is that most sea kayakers prefer a skirt that can be easier to get out of than the typical really challenging WW skirt. Hence the bungie rather than the rand, that kind of thing, for a couple of reasons.

One is that you can actually open your skirt when things are calm to grab something from in the cockpit or otherwise air out. Unless you capsize or catch a rogue wave, water is not going to come in. A skirt that does not take a companion to get back on, which is more often than not the case for my WW skirts, works a lot better out there. I am not the only female of shorter stature who just can’t get the right angles to pull the last couple of inches of my WW skirt over unless it has been really well stretched.

Another is that fiberglass boats have very sharp edges. Yeah you could get a randed skirt off them with the right effort and I know people who do. But I am not going to count on it if I am upside down, my roll has failed and I am likely otherwise at the end of my resources.

WW and long boating are similar as far as when you open that skirt. It is just that you have more opportunities in sea kayaking. Once things ramp up opening anything, skirt or hatch cover, to grab a camera is not going to feel safe. GoPro has made all the difference. Though I have paddled with a day hatch mostly full of water in moderate conditions and never realized my cover was loose. The concept for the additional bulkhead really does work.

As a trivia point, a lot of tide races that people will mess around in using long boats are roughly equivalent to class II whitewater. They can get much bigger, but as the difficulty increases the crowd thins out to stronger paddlers.

You are still always balancing ease of use with safety against implosion, regardless of your water environment. So surf skis are SOTs, hence removing the whole issue. And people who take SINKs into surf a lot will tend to go in with tougher skirts to remove than people who are out on what is expected to be an easy tour.

You can get skirts for touring boats with really large cockpits in any level of tightness you want, hence having something that would withstand implosion as well as a WW skirt. But for most long boaters, having a skirt that is difficult to remove or put back on is itself a safety issue.

"Ocean cockpit"
The small circular or oval cockpits are called “ocean cockpits.” I’ve always heard the reasoning for them as reducing the chance of spray skirt implosion.

I have to think that WW kayakers are more at risk of skirt implosion than sea kayakers. But, like Ceila said, sea kayakers often spend a lot of time far from shore. The ww kayaker has short duration implosion risk while they are in waterfalls or getting pounded in a hole. For an ocean kayaker, when waves start dumping on the deck, it’s more of a steady state. The waves keep coming, and they can’t just paddle out of it with a few paddle strokes. Thus, ocean cockpits (and sea socks, but that’s another story).


I love my Nomad by Current Designs but the 29.5" cockpit is to damn small for me at 6’. When I go out in the winter when it’s rough alone I take my Solstice. Sure it’s only 31" but it means so much when getting back in. I would buy a new Nomad formerly Extreme if the redesigned the cockpit like the rest of the North American family of kayak as they call them. Probably least demand for Nomad so I doubt they will unfortunately. I doubt implosion of the skirt on a cockpit 1.5" longer is more of a risk than not getting back in the kayak.

I dunno
The driest boat I have is the one with the largest cockpit (P&H Capella 166).

Still way smaller than in WW boats
And the 166 also has a good bit higher deck than either of my boats.

But the OPer is coamparing this to WW boat cockpits, which tend to be huge because you are squeezed in there so tight no one could make it in or out without a really big cockpit.

I agree with you, but:
I like the smaller cockpit on my 21" wide long sea kayak for the snug fit it gives me.

It makes leaning and maneuvering very easy.

Only one I had a problem doing a wet exit, and that was because I had trouble getting the skirt off.

Once it is off, I still can slide right out

jack L

Implosion is not really the issue…
…though it is less likely with an ocean cockpit. The main advantage of ocean cockpits is that your knees/thighs are under the deck at every point across its width. This provides more leg positions and allows you to easily and quickly brace against the deck wherever your legs are located. Being able to move your legs around more increases comfort over long stretches of paddling. It also allows you to shift your weight around in the boat to make edging easier, if you’re compensating for wind/wave conditions.

Getting in and out of an ocean cockpit takes a different technique (you can’t just fall in or out), but once you get used to it, it’s no big deal. Those of use who prefer them realize that we spend 99% of our time on the water PADDLING and almost no time getting in and out of the boat, so why compromise on-water performance for slightly easier entry and exit?

my $0.02
More perceived space for knees, more real space for leg positions and bracing. Most sea kayak keyholes sort of lock your legs into one position.

another factor
that I didn’t see mentioned yet (forgive me if I missed it) is that a smaller coaming dimension makes it easier to stay in the cockpit when you capsize so it is easier to roll back up. As has been pointed out, re-entering a boat when flushed out is far more imperative, effortful and complicated out in deep water, so rolling is the preferable option. In boats with overlarge cockpits you really have to battle to keep gravity from causing you to fall out when you’re upside down. Unlike with WW kayaks where your legs are already crammed in and you are controlling the boat in constant directional changes, when you are cruising along in open water you can be surprised by a capsize or near-capsize when your body is not as engaged with the inside of the boat.

Last weekend I was taking a sea kayaking course and the instructor had several NDK kayaks along that she let us students demo. Though the keyhole cockpits on them were roughly the same basic dimensions as on my own P & H kayak, I noticed the NDK’s have a “pinched” shape in the front (that really makes them look more like the keyhole on an old-style door lock). I was surprised to find that it was still possible for me to plunk my butt in first and draw in my legs through that narrower opening one at a time, but once inside I could see how this design would help you stay in the boat if you were up-ended in it, giving you more of a platform under the deck to roll yourself back up, like an extension of the thigh supports.

And an ocean cockpit…
…provides even more security and ability to move your legs around under the deck than a narrow keyhole.

Yeah, that too

– Last Updated: Jun-06-16 9:01 AM EST –

And the only thing that is easier to roll than a Romany is my ancient Dagger Piedra...

Nigel Dennis was actually the only one I know who was putting proper keyhole cockpits into sea kayaks when he was first doing it. Hence I can comfortably paddle a regular Romany even though I am small for it, because the keyhole shape gives me good contact.

River running or play WW boats and sea kayaks both can get to good contact to stay in the boat, but do it in different ways. The WW boats when properly fitted have the paddler in there tight under the deck, including lack of wiggle room for feet and legs, and have pretty grabby thigh hooks that would make a lot of sea kayakers very uncomfortable. So the bigger cockpit does not encourage falling out.

In long boats, as the cockpit gets bigger like in rec boats it can get so bad a paddler can't stay in the boat once it is upside down. That is because the room for the paddler's legs etc under the deck is much less constricted than in most WW boats (creekers maybe excluded, I don't know). So the smaller cockpit and an affirmative keyhole shape go a long way towards helping to defy gravity long enough to get the boat rolled up.

Just before any WW folks tell us they have great ability to hold in their larger cockpit river runners - you do. But you probably can't straighten your legs to leave them flopping loose under there.

Thank you! I’m trying to adapt to an ocean cockpit. This was helpful.

Big cockpits, ie 56" in some rec boats, put my deck bag, water bottle, pump too far away. It also puts the skirt pull tab too far away. Putting a skirt on a 30-33" cockpit can be interesting at times. But 56" forget it.