New kayaker-first boat bought

Hi All! I am new to the forum and new to kayaking.

My kayaking experience is low, I have rented Kayaks 2-3 times. This past week I found a great deal on a Sisson Astrolab sea kayak. It has front/rear bulkhead, fiberglass construction, deck lines. From Sisson’s website: 16.5’ length, 19.6" max beam. I have not found a load capacity for it. I am 6’2", 210 lbs, 34"waist. I plan to paddle the Warwick River, James River and the Chesapeake Bay.

I took the boat out for the first time on Saturday, with 45F water temps and 45F air temps. Immediately after leaving the shore I lost all stability/confidence and tipped it! After some good laughs with my wife I called it quits for the day. With my confidence properly checked I spent the evening watching youtube videos and parroting stability technique. Sunday I went back for more, this time I adjusted the foot stop to keep my knees a little bent which allowed me to press more thigh up into the upper portion of the kayak cockpit(no braces), and I also kept the rudder out of the water. I spent a good hour in the muck close to shore without a paddle moving my arms and getting comfortable, by hour two I was just barely able to make big sweeping circles up to 50ft from shore, but I was not comfortable doing it.

Sorry for the long background but I wanted all the info out there. I would like to know how the Astrolab rates to others sea kayaks in terms of primary stability? Am I really bad or is this Kayak supposed to be so tippy? Am I too big?

I guess ultimately I dont want to be wasting my time if something about this kayak and I dont fit. If my experience seems to be on par with what others endure during a transition to a kayak this style then I am all for putting in the time. Or should I be looking for a SOT with a cooler for a seat? :slight_smile:

At first glance…
…with a beam less than 20", that boat seems way too narrow for a beginner and way too small for someone of your weight. Does it seem to sit low in the water with you in it? It’s puzzling that the website doesn’t mention anything about paddler size/weight.

The description there makes it sound more like a racing/training boat than a sea kayak. If that’s what you want it for, fine, but it will likely take a good while to get comfortable in it.

19.6" beam

– Last Updated: Mar-31-15 10:52 AM EST –

Digging around on the Sisson web site, I see that this kayak is recommended for someone who is light or average in weight.

The narrow beam together with your size suggests that your center of gravity might be high for this boat, leading to it being tippy - even if you were more experienced. But it also sounds like a fine boat ... so what to do? If you try to keep this boat ...

Lower the center of gravity:
If the seat is easily removable, you could remove it and sit on something like a closed foam pad and if that helps figure out a back band if needed.
Add ballast low in the boat hatch i.e. something heavy and dense, that is fixed so it won't roll around. This is an easy do-it-yourself project and there are also commercial solutions (e.g. You may need ballast fore and aft to maintain trim - or getting it in the back hatch as close to you as possible.

If these solutions help, you can gain skill and perhaps get to a point where these aids are unneeded.

Depends on our use

– Last Updated: Mar-31-15 11:31 AM EST –

This is an interesting thing - Sisson is some part of the legacy of Frank Goodman, who founded Valley Sea Kayaks, and apparently the mold for the Nordkapp went with him because these guys have the Nordkapp with the 1990's design tweaks.

Now to the Astrolab... I don't know if you are too big for it in terms of weight, but two things are apparent from its dimensions and side view. One is that the boat is skinny for someone sticking that far above the cockpit, even if your weight is in line. Great practice for your balance but is that what you are looking for in a kayak?

The second is that the boat is a tracker. That is from the side view. So it is likely to take a deep edge to turn it without the rudder or maybe even some edge with the rudder if the wind is sufficiently against you. And that gets you to the first part, where it is on the skinny side. You are likely to be more unstable on that edge than in a boat that has a bit more belly to hold you there.

I am not a fan of unduly wide boats, at all. But IMO a new paddler will have a better experience with a boat that is designed to turn more easily. That will allow them to get acclimated to taking a boat over on edge with more confidence. The new paddler can get a boat to turn with a wimpy edge, so feels they are in control, and won't end up swimming every time. Such a boat will usually have a higher width ratio to length than this boat.

The Sisson site spends some time dissing plastic boats, and for the purist they might be right. But there are some great boats out there for a newer paddler in plastic that can be found used or fairly cheaply as demos and will deliver tons of fun for the dollar. The larger Alchemy by Wilderness systems, for example, might fit you and is a great boat for building confidence and skills.

sea kayak version of a surf ski
That is a sea kayak version of a shorter surf ski they make.

For those that haven’t seen it, here is their web site:

You have two options:

  1. Chalk this up as a learning and give up on this boat. Take a lesson on basics of kayaks, rescues, etc., to give you a better feel for the type of kayak that works for you. Pick up some key gear before getting a boat (PFD, paddle, thermal protection, etc.).

  2. stick with it through what could be a longish learning curve. And get self-rescue lessons and clothing that will keep you warm when you swim.

Thanks for the replies
Thankfully I picked this up for very cheap, so I can afford to hold onto it while my skill level increases. I also picked up a 10ft pelican SOT angler, but I just dont see any translation of skill from that boat to the Sisson. I just moved to a house on the water, and want to take advantage.

I immediately felt that my CG was too high. So it makes sense to me to try shaving down the seat first, and even some ballast.

Ideally I would like to be able to wake up early morning drop it in the water and get a 30-45 minutes workout in on the Warwick river. River is flat and wide, not much current, fairly protected from wind with trees on either side.

I have a PFD and have stayed within eyesight of my house at all times. I have considered some lightweight fins that I can clip to my PFD, and a leash. In case I dump far from shore. What other safety gear should I consider?

So far the responses are reassuring me that at least I am thinking along the right lines. Thanks

IF I cant get comfortable on it I will not be able to afford a proper replacement until the fall. So I figure I might as well try.

read up on water temps
I was concerned when I read about you dumping (fortunately near shore and a person who could help you) in 45 degree water. You need to do some reading on cold water immersion. That dunk you took could have had very bad repercussions out on the water. Besides the PFD you need some temp protective clothing. It would also be a great idea to get some formal instruction – best would be to learn to Eskimo roll the boat, best option for any capsize and that boat should be easy to learn that in. You might also want to consider looking into a Greenland paddle – good choice for that size boat and for straight ahead fitness paddling on flat water. Also easier to learn to roll with one.

No to ballast
The boat is already too small for your weight. Adding ballast will only sink it deeper - I think it’s a very bad idea to do so. Lowering/removing the seat will help a bit.

Paddle float
One that inflates on both sides, and learn how to use it. There are lots of self-rescue videos online, but a better option would be to find an ACA instructor near you and schedule a lesson or two. He/she could also give guidance whether installing thigh braces would be helpful.

You can access a list of ACA kayak instructors here:

KiwiBird of the WaterTribe paddles a NZ Grahame Sisson ‘Arctic Raider.’

No ballast, and safety gear

– Last Updated: Apr-01-15 6:12 PM EST –

A boat is less stable both too lightly laden as well as too heavily, since either take it away from its designed waterline. So since the above seems to say you are too heavy for the boat, the last thing you want to do is increase the problem with more weight in ballast.

As to safety gear, it seems that swimming is your most likely risk. So your safety gear needs to include at the least a lot more in the way of clothing than you have right now. At your present water temps, in the 40's, ideal would be dry suit. But if you are in this for a shorter term hold, maybe hold off until the water gets to the mid-fifties and go for wet suit and paddling jacket combination. With your other precautions like staying near shore. Obviously PFD. As to the leash, honestly for staying near shore you could just learn to hang onto the boat which is a habit you need to acquire anyway. But there are arguments for a paddle leash. Later add - in calmer water, NOT in moving water.

Self-rescuing would be a great exercise for you, but rolling may be faster to learn. (Get help with that rather than learning a bunch of bad habits yourself.) From the sounds of it, if you can do a paddle float re-entry in this without recapsizing several times, you will have gained outstandingly good balance.

themal protection

– Last Updated: Mar-31-15 2:06 PM EST –

A few have mentioned getting thermal protection. Even if you paddle within sight of your home, you really do want this. Wet suit or dry suit.

Here is a story that just came out close to you where a kayaker got lucky, and admits it:

Note - of course there is much different here to your situation. What I hope you notice is that he was within easy sight (and what should be easy swimming distance) to the light house, but he wasn't going to make it because the cold was sapping his strength fast. I believe the water temps he was seeing are similar to what you are seeing. This is normal in cold water, and what unfortunately kills a few kayakers every year. The only solution is to dress properly for the water temperature (not air temperature).

You’ve bought a multi-sport racer!!!
I had never heard of Multi-Sport until I stayed at a mountain pass inn in New Zealand. It’s a bit like triatholon but they use very competitive racing kayaks. There will be guys your size paddling that thing down rivers and in protected bays.

Your problem with being a beginner is that you are tense, you can easily balance a 19" wide boat but you need to learn to let your hips and upper body move independently, to dance with the boat and to keep a paddle in the water, sculling or paddling to keep yourself up right. You need to learn good low and high bracing technique. A good video for learning to brace and roll is Eric Jackson’s rolling and bracing, learn to brace and roll that thing. Check out videos on paddling surf skis, and the balance tricks used. The secret is to keep that boat moving fast with momentum, keep a paddle in or on the water as a brace when standing still and turn with confidence and power. People who paddle surfskis will be much more helpful with advice. Practice first as you are doing in shallow water with no skirt.

more GP advantages

– Last Updated: Mar-31-15 11:51 PM EST –

A wooden Greenland paddle is also quite buoyant and you can use it almost as an outrigger when sitting in the boat feeling for your balance, just by laying it on the water and holding it with one hand like a handrail. Easier to scull with and brace too, at least IMHO.

Also get a good high volume hand bilge pump. Harmony makes a decent one and they are only about $20. I always carry one and it is remarkable how fast you can suck a lot of water out of your boat if the cockpit floods. Also makes a good water cannon for fending off "pirates" when paddling with friends.

No, do not “leash” this thing to
yourself !


Oh, sorry. Okay, look, you have picked up a nice sports toy but DUDE, this is the WRONG SIZE 'YAK for you.

Unless you are in very swift whitewater, or breaking surf, a kayak, when flipped, does not usually take off too fast without you, because it usually does not go very fast upside down. Instead, your first priority if you’re upside down is too make sure that you can get OUT of the kayak, clean, if you don’t intend to roll. Once out, you can then come back up to the surface, and discover the kayak is embarrassed that that happened, and is wallowing there bottoms up, but it will be waiting for you because it knows that you have the paddle and the car keys.

Wait. You DID secure the car keys, didn’t you ?

By some very slight chance if your kayak would take off, fast, upside down, without you, or re-rolling around, there is no way you ever want to be dragged along with it, as it can go MUCH faster than you can, and it won’t have anyone steering it. But the problem with rivers is that there is a lot of junk to snag on, and you don’t want to get caught up in a sideways snagged kayak by a leash, nor pinned between the kayak and whatever it hit by strong current, nor being held in the kayak accidentally.

•Remember, stay upstream of the empty kayak. PRIORITY.

•Remember,don’t turn the kayak sideways to the current, then lean towards upstream. That refills it with water. Other priority.

•Remember, if 6" of water can float a low clearance small automobile during a flood event, the power of force of 2 feet of fast water can knock you over in a heartbeat when you slip on rocks. Respect the current. Priority.

You can carry either a knife or a pair of inexpensive,surgical type bandage cutting blunt tip scissors on you in your pfd’s pocket, just in case you have to cut something, quickly.

Even flatwater paddles tend not to go too far too fast, when dropped in current. This always surprises me. But it’s how that sort of shape of thing behaves when it floats. Take the paddle and put it in the river at the shore. See how it doesn’t really take off really quickly? Feel better? If you are still worried about that, get a spare paddle, and figure out how to break it down and lash, bungee, or velcro at least half of it to your kayak. Also, it helps to put a brightly colored piece of duct tape on it with your name, to make it easier to spot if it gets loose and someone is chasing it, and then easier to reclaim if someone turns it in at the park kiosk.

See, this is the beauty of the larger, more stable sit-on-tops. They don’t feel like this perpetually on the edge of “tippy,” yet provide a good workout precisely because they are a bit more work to move forward. If we get a surprise, flip them back over, they drain themselves, don’t have to go ashore and go thru a ritual pumping out, we get back on, and wonder how we managed to do that.

Sobering story
Read the story as well as three pages of comments. I wonder if the cold water exposure made him forget about his whistle. Why a VHF and not a PLB in such waters?

Whatever, thanks for posting the link as it’s making me rethink my own gear. I was nearly overheating in a 3/4 Farmer Jane and a few layers in early November, even though air temps were 45 (as was the water). I don’t think that’s going to be the case next month, once the ice clears from the lake.

I hope to start paddling two months earlier than last year. Maybe it’s time to consider a paddling jacket of some sort.

VHF faster response

– Last Updated: Mar-31-15 10:02 PM EST –

On why VHF instead of PLB, the VHF would have a faster response. I think it was the Gordon Brown video that covered safety measures that tracked how long it takes - and basically from when you push the button on the PLB to when the local authorities are called is in the order of an hour. Time for signal to get to satellite, there to base in Colorado (?), them to figure out who to call, and the call to be made. Then the call will be made over the radio asking for nearby mariners to keep a lookout and assist if possible, and a helicopter or boat sent out. This guy would likely have been dead in that amount of time.

VHF is answered immediately by Coast Guard.

This all said, I have both a PLB and a VHF. PLB is permanently attached to my PFD. VHF is when I am by myself or in more exposed situations or using it, in other cases it may be in day hatch.


– Last Updated: Mar-31-15 10:49 PM EST –

That's a good point about ballast, Celia. The Siison web site (delve down in the advice button area) recommends their kayaks for 3 unquantified weight classifications - light, average, and heavy This kayak is recommended for light and average. I'm not sure where the OP falls in this unquantified range. Further, there is not likely a specific waterline depth ... more likely a waterline depth range and hence a limit.

It is easy to check the effect of ballast - typically on the order of 10 pounds (~5 % of the OP's weight) to see how close to the coaming the water encroaches. Place some weight of that magnitude in the kayak while staying within one meter of shore and see how low she goes. The ballast may indeed be a bad idea ... or not, but should be approached more cautiously than I suggested in my earlier post.


At 210 lbs…
the OPer is on the higher side of “average”. Also taller than likely expected, and extra torso height can have a much more destabilizing effect than many people realize. I have seen quite tall guys struggle with it and there is no question that at 5’3.5 inches I sit more easily weighted in a kayak than them.

There might be a reason to use ballast in this boat to weight the stern or bow a bit differently than the default balance, but time and practice are usually needed to find if that is necessary. For the time being, the OPer likely will have enough on their hands just staying out of the water.

Did you
email Grahame Sisson with this question?

Wrong Boat
I agree completely that this is the wrong boat, a seriously wrong boat, for this paddler. His size, experience level, and evident unfamiliarity with the cold water threat all cry out for another, beamier kayak, for a drysuit, and for the purchase and study of several sea kayaking manuals to see how it all fits together.