Looming Crisis Rec Boat vs Sea Kayak

-- Last Updated: May-22-06 8:45 AM EST --

Just back from instructing 46 great novice paddlers at the Hudson Valley Kayak Symposium, we had a great weekend in this heavy skills oriented Symposium. An instructors conference dissussed a looming crisis of the growing numbers of recreation boats and the
markedly increased difficulties and dangers of people who tend to not have much physical strength or conditioning, who may, through no fault of their own be above normal weight, who have few skills, and who have boats the industry has designed that are

VIRTUOUSLY IMPOSSIBLE to empty of water, and get back into even once! It is not that everyone should want skills or go out into big conditions, rec boats are great, but people are being led to believe that boat can and should take them out into everything.

Companies design the boats with no deck lines, high volume high rear decks, cockpits with inflexible, rigid, HIGH rear seat backs, cockpits that folks can NOT get their bums in and then their legs, that cannot be held onto when they capsize, that a rescuer cannot empty of water or get around, again no lines.

Hundreds if not thousands of these folks are middle aged and above and have been sold a line that their boats can go out in most anything. They look to kayak ing as rightfully a new lease on the good life, and feel that a lesson or two should suffice in making them safe to head out ontl large lakes and even the ocean.

What the topic of discussion concluded was that NO MATTER HOW CREATIVE CARING OR MOTIVATED we are in helping these folks that the combination of low strentgh, low skills, overweight and a boat that is just NOT designed to be easily reentered is virtually a lure to becoming a death trap for them.

The real problem is that NO ONE wants to be told that their boat has limits and that they should consider not going out there unless they get another boat, and learn the skills to get back in it and perhaps even take up some weight training, yoga, etc.

Just for folks to know, I have struggled with weight my whole life, and only recently was really able to transform my diet and ways to being much slimmer and a stronger in the uppper body. It does make a dramatic difference, and the fact I have an Explorer and an Outer Island, with very low rear decks, very easy cockpits to get in and out, and am an instructor with skills, does make me overestimate how easy it should be to teach this to folks.

The weekend was a grim, blunt and honest look at all of us being realistic and at the same time trying to help people realize their dreams. What made it work was the wonderful openness of the folks there, the motivated instructors, organizers, and the quality of the boats provided! Please any who reply don't take this as anything less than positive. It is my deepest nature to try to increase a person's potential, not disparage or limit them, OK?


Two Thoughts
A preface first, I agree with the basic statement that you made. There are conditions that rec boats are not designed to handle.

With that said, there are many dealers who try their best to insure that a customer buys, or is at least aware of, the limits of a particular boat. I remember talking to three local dealers about the boats that they carried before making my first purchase decision. Two of the dealers were very direct that I should not buy a rec boat when they found out my paddle plans. Specifically, both of these dealers pointed out that their rec boats would not be safe in the conditions I had in mind to master.

Second, there is a wealth of knowledge available on the internet and via manufactures about kayaks. It seems to me that any rational person would do at least a little investigation about equipment required for a new hobby or sport that they were starting. This is not all that differant from buying any type of boat, motorcycle, or other special purpose vehicle. The buyer has the ultimate responsibility to insure that they are going down the right path.

Happy Paddling,


Grim blunt & honest
Well said Evans, though you’re sure to get slagged for doing so. There is a definite rift developing in the sport, and as an occasional club trip leader I am more and more concerned as time passes. I love my rec boat for what it is, and my sea kayak equally for what it does.

The club I belong to is now 6 years old, and there is a worsening divide between those who have trained and progressed, and those who wish to (or are forced to by circumstance) remain static. New folks are sometimes turned off even by flatwater trips, as we tend to turn them into endurance slogs out of sheer boredom.

What to do? Wish I knew…

not disparage or limit them
Most of us wish to be positive, inclusive, and supportive. However at some points, minimum tolerances should be set.

As this is often done for outings expanding it to include all paddling activities is not inconsistent.

AKT has a page on its web site listing accpetable models:


Some training sessions in which I’ve participated require that one confer with coach(es) to insure ones boat is appropriate.

The more open skills sessions in which I participate usually demonstrate why certain boat attributes are essential.

Education, sharing information, and modelling are likely the best way to move more individuals to safer boats.

good point
Yes, my comments do sound as if someone is to blame, but I don’t put it all anywhere, the manufacturers and dealers are responding to the market and the paddlers want a very low price boat and something has to give. That said the conjuction of the unaware paddler, and SOME not all dealers, mainly the giant companies that now sell many of the boats, end up wit folks who are mad when I and others are the first to tell them if may not be the best idea to head out there.

You mean bulkheaded Pungos didn’t solve the problem of self-rescuing a rec. kayak?

I remember wincing
I remember wincing when some time ago I first read the AKT web site and they stated what boats were acceptable and what not. I winced not because I thought they were wrong to say so, but beacause I remember several people to wrote me horrible personally insulting emails last year attributing the worst possible personal motives for saying they might consider another trip or a different boat to come along on Lake Champlain camping excursion.

That a for profit concern can be this firm is to their credit indeed. Yes modeling, sharing, and skills are the way, preaching not only sucks it is not attractive on us. Still there comes those moments when folks just are darned mad when you have some integrity and their genuine interests at heart. I am not one to save the world, but selfishly and for the others on the trip, just not responsible I think to say, sure come on out, everyone for themselves, that is unless that is what all want. Of course if that is so, as sing says, quit that club and head out with buddies who do help each other, much more fun!

Bottom line, I think it remains to be seen where this is headed, for the better, or a mess.

We are taking steps
Didn’t mean to sound discouraging, while I don’t have the answers, we are taking steps as a club to address the split. our mandate is to be inclusive, and to bring new folks into the sport, so that’s the way I lean as current pres.

With that in mind I asked our flatwater paddlers specifically to suggest venues at our annual planning meeting, and worked them into the sched this year. We also have an impromptu “coastal committee” that plans big water trips and regulates training. We recently discussed hiring a trainer to bring some members up to a specific level, who could then train others. This group would specify that certain trips will be suitable for “level X or equivalent, as decided by the committee”. I think I worded that as agreed, it’s still under development. The “or equivalent” is an absolute must to maintain inclusivity, as some of our best paddlers have not had a moment’s training, and likely never will on principle. When it comes to the crunch, I hope to h@ll I never have to tell a keener; “sorry, we don’t think you can do this…”

Next weekend we do an inland (gulp) trip, down the meandering Stewiacke River, a place I’ve never been. Armed with advice from local canoeheads and gps waypoints, we’ll have a nice lazy float instead of our usual white-knuckler.

Trouble is, I have absolutely no idea how to organize a shuttle so chaos is likely.

The odds
The fact that so few paddlers who do stupid things suffer any consequences makes it hard to get the message across that less comfortable boats, training sessions, and, god forbid, PHYSICAL FITNESS are necessary for safe paddling. Although it is very common for people to paddle for years in their unrecoverable rec boats in conditions posing serious danger, only a very tiny proportion will ever suffer injury, death, or even an embarrassing rescue. Almost always, their luck will hold out, and they will doubt the credibility of those of us who insist they are taking a terrible risk.

One of the best benefits of beginner instruction for rec boat users is the “grim, blunt and honest” practical demonstration of the unrecoverability of their boats which will leave those with imaginations aware of the plight they would be in if capsized. All beginner programs should begin with wet exits and recovery techniques. I’ve seen this become a chastening reality check for some beginners, one that might prevent them from tragically pressing their luck.

Well Put and So Important
This became graphically apparent this past weekend in a river race. Came past a swamped Perception America, that had taken on water and completely sunk in the rapids. Wasn’t sure if the paddler was a competitor or had just put in as a rec paddler who thought it would be fun to run the class 2 (approaching a 3) rapids at 3500 cfs. EMTs were with him on the bank treating him for hypothermia, while a rescue crew was trying to grab hold of the six inches of bow protruding from the water; all that could be seen of his boat.

self discover or embarrassment

– Last Updated: May-22-06 9:40 AM EST –

I agree wholeheartedly Lee. IMO, it is just darn hard to keep it self discovery and NOT inadvertantly a process of public peer embarassment, I would not wish on anyone. It is true that way better to be embarrassed than dead, so finding out this way is surely better than on a day of 4 foot waves and ferocious chop on Lake Champlain.

The trick is the low frequency of deaths leading follks to wrongly conclude that all is well. Of course even a high frequency of death and accidents does not lead us to drive defensively, stop using cell phones, and eat food while driving either. So maybe this is just the way it is and wil be kind of thing.

IT would be so nice though if companies could just make these boats with lower rear decks, different back supports, key hole type cockpits and deck lines! Wow, too much sense, no one would pay for it, etc.

Merlin LT?
They accept a Tsunami and Merlin XT, but not a Merlin LT? Very strange.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago while I was putting on a drysuit, nearby a few folks launched with rec boats without sprayskirts, wearing shorts and sweatwhirts, and no kit other than some food. I stood there thinking they must be wondering what kind of fool am I to have all this junk. It was a sunny day with 55-60 degree air and 45 degree water. It appeared they stayed near shore in a totally protected bay while we were going out and down the coast for the day. Maybe they were putting their lives in danger in ignorance or maybe they have been cruising on easy water for years and felt at home in the bay. I guess we all have the right to choose the risks we will take. But I think that is the point, you need to know enough to be making a choice as opposed to getting by in ignorance.

So, you mean to say this rift…
… is not about “elitist” paddlers at all? There really is need for proper gear, skills, and moderate fitness to go with?


But seriously- you raise great points. While I agree with your main thrust here, I cannot agree with statements like: “through no fault of their own” and “people are being led to believe that boat can and should take them out into everything”.

The reason is these completely miss the most important aspect of paddling: PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY. That is what leads paddlers to develop their knowledge & skills, select more appropriate gear, and get fit enough to use them safely.

I also have to take issue with people and groups who are overly focused on “inclusivity”. Open skills sessions, sure. Open trips? No way. Feeling bad for turning an unprepared /under skilled paddler away makes no sense. Whatever happened to safety first? Not only do some not belong on certain trips -some don’t belong on the water at all. We just don’t like to say it.

Kayaking is not and never was for “everyone”. It’s that message that gets people killed.

Keep up the educational efforts. The cost to benefit ratio of these choices is not that hard to demonstrate.

thanks mates
Appreciate the comments. Good to be reminded of the personal responsibility angle too.


where’s the data?

– Last Updated: May-22-06 11:26 AM EST –

Can you actually show data that people in rec boats are more likely to be killed/injured/require rescue than people in sea kayaks?

I don't have the numbers, but I wouldn't be surprised if the number of rec boater incidents compared to sea kayaker incidents was proportional to the sales of each type of kayak. Safety is ultimately about making good decisions, not buying a different boat. You can be a safe paddler in a Swifty, and a reckless idiot in an Explorer.

I agree that some boats should not be used in open water -- watching someone attempt a surf-landing class in a Loon made that pretty clear -- but if you're going to make blanket statements about dire consequences it'd be good to have the numbers to back you up.

No Looming Crisis…
how are rec boats any different from open canoes that have plied lakes and rivers for decades? A rec kayak is just as capable within that environment as an open canoe.

Physical fitness? Plenty of folks with thousands of dollars in high end sea kayaks are in sh^tty shape. I run into them all the time. The boat doesn’t make for their lack of physical conditioning. The boat may be more capable but that doesn’t mean the paddler necessary is anymore than the rec paddler out on the lake.

Sorry, I don’t buy into the “looming crisis” thing at all. We will lose folks every spring and fall, as it has been, since I’ve started, before I started and well into the future after I have stopped paddling. But, I doubt that it will be a dramatic percentage increase.


1 Like

I have read your post and threads and have one more comment which may be implied but has gone un-said.

There is a place for rec kayaks. I remember reading a thread in the last day or so indicating that many people who own a sea kayak also own a rec kayak. I have thought about buying one to use on occation. There are some places that a rec kayak would work out better than a sea kayak.

Small ponds, small lakes, shallow slow moving creeks and rivers all lend themselves to places where a rec kayak would work just fine.

The rub comes in when attempting to make the cutoff or dividing line between rec kayak ok and not ok. That may only come with knowledge and experience. I paddle in conditions from time to time that I would not feel comfortable in with a rec kayak. On the other hand, many of the places I go are just fine for rec kayaks. If you get flipped and can stand in waist deep water, it does not much matter what kind of boat you are using, (at least from a safety standpoint). Several of the posts talked about flatwater club paddles with rec boats and I think that is fine.


Alternate view

– Last Updated: May-22-06 2:47 PM EST –

Overall a great weekend, a very positive learning environment and an honest practical demonstration ground for the differences between various types and designs of kayaks. I missed the discussion that Evan spoke of, being preoccupied at the time with sorting / organizing my excessive collection of gear.

There were two very positive things that stand out in my mind about the HVKS. Firstly, the organizer Johnny Miller has made and continues with a strong commitment to the quality and legitimacy of the instruction / training that is offered at this event. The skill and experience levels of the instructors was very good and the client-centered nature of all the services was first rate. There's also a positive and friendly competition among the staff to be at our best and to help further each and every client towards their goals and general paddling education.

Secondly Terry from HVO, the lady that funds this event, said on multiple occasions that this event was about skills development and education and not about selling product. Of course there was some gear available for people that needed this or that but the focus was clearly and unmistakably on the skills development. For me this spoke volumes about where the organizers want to take this event and about their commitment to the sport rather than the almighty dollar.

The "rec boat problem" has been an issue for years. The marketing of paddling as an every-man's sport is somewhat miss-leading. But at this event, every client had to take several "courses" that clearly illustrated the differences in design and quickly show the limitations of some "entry level" kayak designs. In some cases the effect of the training / instructor input lead some clients towards gear that HVO does not sell.

It's easy to criticize the manufacturers for designing entry-level boats that are difficult to self or even assisted rescue but that facts are that we live in a market-driven economy and there is intense competition to tap into the huge population of non and new paddlers. Those of us that make our living outside the industry can sometimes be unrealistic about our expectations.

As many have said over the years, education and leading by example are the key. Preaching the benefits of one design over the other is often futile since the standards by which sea kayakers measure boat design are neither understood nor particularly valued by those just entering the sport. Keep in mind that many who enter the sport have no aspirations of ever moving past flat and protected venues. Why should someone that wants little more than to float around on their local pond a few times a year be pressured to spend thousands of dollars on equipment and hundreds of dollars on training so they they will be safe on the open ocean, a place they don't want to go?

As long as rescue training is kept a fundamental part of kayak instruction we are giving people the tools and information they need to make informed choices about gear, the sport and they personal safety. What more do we have a right to expect? Paddling is a big sport with lots of different way to express, enjoy and participate. IMO, tolerance, sharing and education are the keys to providing a safe experience for most. Unless and until training is legislated (something I hope never happens) there is little more that we can do.



Maybe not “strange”

– Last Updated: May-22-06 11:26 AM EST –

"They accept a Tsunami and Merlin XT, but not a Merlin LT? Very strange."

The Merlin LT is 13.5 feet, the Tsunami is 14 or 14.5 feet and the Merlin XT is 15 feet.

AKT's qualification is 14 feet or longer. It's possible that the Merlin LT doesn't track well enough for longer trips. It's also possible that the site hasn't been updated for the WS Tsunamis.

Rule over reason?
While the Merlin LT is only 13.5 LOA, it has a long WL. Tracking is often in the eye of the paddler, but my wife has used one on several trips and she had no trouble staying with folks in longer boats nor holding a course. Just because a boat is short does not mean it isn’t a good boat for the ocean within reason. There are people who go on coastal camping trips in them. I wonder if they would reject someone showing up in a Mariner Coaster because it was under 14’?