How Do I Demo Sea Kayaks?

Hello again.

I will be test driving some sea kayaks in the near future, and I’ve a few questions. With the help of a lot of folks in a different thread, I’ve narrowed my list of candidates from three to six, so demos will be really helpful in making a final selection.

  1. Apart from ‘feel’ what empirical data points should I be using for comparison purposes? (Feel is probably enough for me, but if I don’t have all the boats at the same time, I don’t think I’m articulate enough to compare based on feel).

  2. I’ve read Tom Watson’s “On-Water Demo Days” but I’m concerned that a kayak’s behavior in a small pond does not correlate to behavior in large waves, following seas, high winds, etc. How can I use a relatively static environment to estimate strengths and weaknesses in more dynamic surf zone or open water?

  3. Is there a sensible alternative to just renting as many boats as I can find and heading offshore, one at a time?

    I can, of course, muddle through this, but any suggestions will be appreciated.

put a boat through its paces
I safety boat for demo days every year and demo a lot of boats when not keeping people upright.


get the boat on edge, aggressively. find it’s point of no return with a sculling brace.

forward and reverse paddle and edge boat. Put it through all the steering strokes.

check out foot room with the biggest footwear you plan to paddle in.

Paddle hard forward until you get the boat to sink into its own wake. This test is what made me NOT buy a Delphin when I realized what a dog it was.

roll it of course if you can.

check the deck lines, hatch covers etc for ease of use.


paddle out forward stroke only in a big circle and come back. This won’t tell you much about the boat except foot room and forward speed.

However, if you don’t have much of a brace or roll at least do some steering strokes with it to get a feel for how it would be in rough water. a boat with lots of primary will feel good on flat but not on rough. A boat with good secondary will let you smoothly transition to edging WAY over and not all of sudden let you go in.

Real-life boat test
You’re right that you really can’t tell how a boat will behave in conditions by just paddling it in a pond. If you want a real sense of how it works in the real world, you might be able to take a class with an outfit that has a few of the boats you are interested in trying, and you could try a couple of them during a course in real conditions (either by swapping with other paddlers, or by just bringing extra boats to a park and play class such as beach surf, or tidal falls.

Contact either of these

– Last Updated: May-06-14 8:59 PM EST –

Midcoast is our stomping grounds for summer paddling for many years now. Try either of these folks and, as above, pay a few extra bucks to have a guide go out with you so you CAN feel the boat in some waves without getting into trouble.

John Carmody, Seacliff Kayaks, out of Boothbay. Handles P& H boats and is on team P&H, so he will want you to buy one of their boats. But regardless of whether one is on your list, he can take you out into real water.

Maine Island Kayak Company on Peak's Island, again ask to go out with one of their coaches. No ponds involved - the only paddling is on the ocean there. NDSK boats at least, not sure what else.

As to how you tell - if it is the right boat it will feel like it is even if it is a little scary at first. All three of my sea kayaks have seemed a bit much at first, the first plastic as well as the fiberglass boats that succeeded it, but they all felt like they should be my boat. So I figured that I and the boat could work out the stuff that made me nervous at first. We did.

Buy used
Find a used boat (or 3) similar to what you’re looking for at a good price and buy it. It doesn’t have to be exactly what you’re looking for since you don’t really know anyway. Then you get lots of time to paddle it in any conditions that you want and get a good feel for what you do and don’t like.

Now that you have a better feel for what you’re looking for you can sell that used boat for the price you paid for it (because you got a good deal in the first place) and buy something new with confidence.

Even if you don’t like the boat it will still be very instructional and you can still get your money back out of it when you sell it.

Or maybe you’ll love it and keep it for a long time, saving lots of money.

Or maybe you’ll do like I did and just keep buying and selling more boats until you’ve owned about 25 different ones. But it’s a blast and I only lost money on a few of them. Made some money on a few as well. Now I know exactly what I do and don’t like in a boat. Turned out I didn’t really like kayaks after all, I’m a canoe man now, preferably fast ones. It was a fun progression with lots of boats in between.


Way back when i got my first sea kayak
All it took was sitting in different ones during a demo day in calm water.

The one I thought I wanted turned out to be way unstable for my liking, and then after trying a few others, I tried one that was almost identical to the first, but was from a different Mfgr. and the feeling was completely different and I was much more at ease in it.

In my estimation, if it is comfortable and you feel at ease in it, then that is the boat to get.

More then likely it won’t be your last boat anyway.

Jack L

Lots to look at.
The number one consideration should be the quality of construction; if the boat doesn’t pass muster in that department, don’t bother testing it. Second, you aren’t likely to be able to truly assess a boat’s traits until you’ve paddled it for a long time, but there might be some initial impressions that preclude any further considerations.

If you don’t like the style and look of the boat–move on, there are plenty of really good looking boats that paddle as good as they look.

At some point, you have to decide what weight is acceptable and how much you’re willing to spend. Are you looking for a boat that can do just about everything well, or are you more interested in a boat that favors speed over handling, or vice versa.

Demo as many boats as you can and you will begin to whittle the list down to a handful; then the hard choices have to be made.

The last one
I bought I never demoed or test paddled it but I loved the fit and feel of the cockpit. This breaks my cardinal rule of always try before you buy but an opportunity was there and I jumped on it. The price was good on this leftover so I figured I could not lose, now if the wind will just stop blowing so I can take it out for sea trials.

Sensible Alternative
3. Is there a sensible alternative to just renting as many boats as I can find and heading offshore, one at a time?

Yes. Get a kayaker buddy to go with you. Rent two boats at a time. Find a club and go paddle with people. They’ll let you try their boats.

Unless you can get some serious seat time in the boats your considering I would definitely spend some money and rent one for a day. Especially if it’s a higher end boat >$1500.

Higher end ($1500)?
Don’t we wish?

echo this^
This is a relatively rare opportunity, get to demo a sea kayak in the conditions for which it was designed.

skills & growth
I definitely agree with renting or even some guided rental trips. But one thing that is absolute: your boat desires will change as you gain skills and experience. NO kayaker stays with their first boat forever. Kayaking is just one of those sports where your skills will dictate changes in the things you like or dislike about a kayak. But you have to go from where you are now and there’s no way around that. So get a boat that is easily affordable, has nice stability and seat comfort for you and enjoy the sport. Check out used as well.

An excellent question!
Most people do not know what to look for in a demo. Basically you do several things that you do in your current boat,things that you are comfortable with. Do the same things in all boats you demo, write down your experiences, compare, think a lot, purchase when you can. Try as many boats as you can any time you get an offer. Good luck.

Just remember
From my experience and as mentioned by others you can’t really lose with a used boat. Both of the used boats I have purchased I either made money or only lost $100 after one to two years of use.

Have reasonable expectations
You probably cannot pick the kayak of your dreams on the first try. But most of the major brands will work just fine for now. Ask to try other person’s boats. Go to symposiums and try boats. If you stick to major brands you can sell what you didn’t like and move on.

Thanks a lot
I really appreciate all the replies. This weekend is unfortunately stacked, but next weekend I should be able to get out and start demoing and/or renting boats.

The buddy and group ideas are sensible, but I don’t do sociable well anymore, so I’ll have to stick to the more commercial options for now.

That said, if anyone is looking for company in the Midcoast area…

As I said…
we expect to be there this summer as usual. If you want to connect, email me.

I am not sure what you mean by the buddy and group thing - but the process I recommended is what got us our first good sea kayaks and it worked very, very well. We still have those boats as our old reliables, can take them anywhere and not worry about having to “handle” something the way we do with the more challenging boats.

I usually also try to get a picture or two of my waterline for reference. Some boats ride too low, others just right. It’s nice to see a picture after to get an idea how much room I have left for gear. I think your waterline will be a limiting factor depending on how much camping gear you plan to carry.

BigandSmall, you give rise to a fairly basic question I’ve never thought to ask.

What would a correct waterline look like, or what sort of a above- to below- waterline ratio should I be looking for?