I wanted to add to some of the “big-guy” boat discussion from over the past several years—which I found very helpful to identify potential boats. First, though, I’d like to add a different twist to the conversation, based on my own experiences in trying to find the right boat. “Big Guy” isn’t necessarily meaningless, but it’s not sufficient to really narrow the scope. Someone who is 6’5”, 210 lbs (me!) won’t fit a boat the same way as someone who is 5’10, 210 lbs; or 6’5” 310 pounds; or 5’10”, 270 pounds. You could call us all “big guys”, but odds are identical boats will work very different for each of us.
So the following is based on the impressions of a “Tall Guy”, a subset of the “Big Guy”.
The most helpful reviews for me included an introduction to the reviewer, from dimensions to type of paddling. That’s how I’ll start here. As mentioned, I’m 6’5”, 210 lbs, fairly athletic build (and intent on dropping 10-15 pounds), 35.5” inseam, with smaller 11.5-12 shoe size (stubby toes!). While I think I’ve progressed well beyond the casual rec paddler, with respect to where I want to be I place myself solidly in the beginner camp. I was (and am!) looking for big water boats that I can paddle off the coast of Maine, and boats that I can use for fun and fitness on bigger lakes from Champaign to Superior. From quick fitness paddles, to day trips, to multiday trips. I don’t necessary expect one boat to do everything. But any boat, one more tailored to purpose, has to fit, to be sufficiently comfortable, and be something I can use as I improve my skills.
One problem that I frequently encounter—assuming I could even fit in the boat—is that “Big Guy” boats tend to increase in volume as they increase size in ways that accommodate my overall leg length, femur length, and feet. What this means is that many of the boats billed as great for me would indeed by great if I were on a month-long expedition. But unloaded, I don’t pull the boat down into the water enough, changing the waterline, affecting stability, tracking, and wind impact. It hasn’t necessarily been easy. In the past two years, I’ve sat in probably 50 boats, and paddled about 20. I’m not going to run through that list! However, I will touch on some of the shorter-list models, including a couple that deviate from my size parameters, but that might be worthwhile for someone of close-but-different dimensions.
From the list, you’ll note that I liked three enough—and was fortunate enough to find some amazing discounts on new/like new boats—that I bought them for extended dance trials. I’m not going to focus on the boats’ specs. You can find those in lots of places. Instead, I’ll try to touch on whether these might be good boats for a taller paddler, and suggesting a couple for other type paddlers.
One thing is clear to me. There is no universal “best” boat. Despite clear specs and recommendations, ultimately you’ll never know if a boat is the right boat for you until you try it. Don’t get sucked into what’s cool, what an expert insists on, the big name, or the fancy paint job. A classic example for me is the Boreal Design Ellesmere which I’ll touch on below. It doesn’t quite spec right. Personally, I don’t think the shape is as sexy as some of the others. By many it’s considered too twitchy for a beginner. And you won’t see it listed by many folks as the ultimate boat. And so on and so on. But I like the way it fits, and I like to way it paddles with me in it. Add to that quality construction and that’s all you ready need.
- Boreal Design Ellesmere (Bought one!)
- Boreal Design Narwhal
- Current Design Gulfstream
- Current Design Solstice GT Titan
- Impex Assateague (Bought one!)
- Impex Capella 173
- Impex Force Category 5
- NDK Explorer/Explorer HV
- NDK Romany HV/Excel/Surf.
- Necky Chatham 17
- P&H Cetus HV
- P&H Scorpio
- QCC 500
- Tiderace Xcape (Xcape HV)
- Tiderace Xcite
- Tiderace Xplore (Xplore HV) (Bought one!)
- Wilderness Systems Tempest 170/180
I also like to note a couple I wanted to try based on specs and reviews, but just didn’t get to. I can’t comment on these since I didn’t try them other than to note that they were boats of interest:
• Valley Etain
• Valley Aquanaut HV
• Necky Chatham 18
• QCC 700
- Boreal Design Ellesmere. I paddled both FG and Kevlar versions each with the keyhole cockpit (also comes in an “ocean cockpit”, but I have too much trouble with my legs in that one), and bought a brand new (still in the wrapper) Kevlar version not because I wanted Kevlar, but because it very heavily discounted and wasn’t more than a couple of plastic boats I looked at (like the Scorpio). The quality seemed impeccable on both.
Based on reviews, the seat is a love it or hate it, with it big bump on the front. I really liked it, very comfortable. The rest of the boat’s finish is excellent.
This is billed as a boat for small-to-medium sized paddlers. I’m neither. But I think it is the most comfortable “out-of-the box” fit I’ve ever experienced. It is that fit alone that bump this into the boats-I-must-paddle category.
Primary stability is a bit on the low side, and it’s a bit tippy for a few minutes until I loosen up—remember, I’m a beginner. But it seemed fairly predictable. It also seemed pretty fast when compared with others on this list. It was very maneuverable—and fun—and yet it tracked OK without the skeg, but with strong weather cocking in wind. A bit a skeg corrected that. The volume as listed puts it somewhere in the middle of the boats listed here. But I’m wondering if for a boat intended to be a smaller paddlers boat, my weight lengthed the waterline a bit and kept it lower in the water, too. I think if I weight 50-75 lbs less, I’d have to be a much better paddler than I am to be comfortable. But I’m not 50-75lbs less, and I found it to be a boat that I like spending time in.
No rolling or big waves, but the hatches stayed bone dry.
A word on the skeg mechanism. It uses a dial rather than the typical slider. The knob and mechanism seems to work well and predictably. However, the knob does stand proud of the deck, and I did rap my knuckles on it once while paddling—although only once. You’d want to verify that the combination of your fit and stroke didn’t cause this knob to be an issue.
This is a boat that I could have fun with anywhere from a day boat to longer tours.
- Boreal Design Narwal. There lot’s of room—too much for me. Didn’t want a boat with a rudder. So I didn’t paddle this one.
- Current Designs Gulfstream. Interesting—the boat felt ginormous, but I didn’t fit in it real. Didn’t paddle it. I think it would be worth trying for a big guy with shorter legs than mine.
- Current Designs Solstice GT/GT Titan. The GT felt too small, both near the thighs and out around my feet. And I just felt a bit lost in the GT titan. And I was biased against a rudder in favor of a skeg (both Solstices us a skeg). I choose not to paddle either.
- Impex Assateague. I recall a paddling.net review comparing this to a BMW 700 series. Great analogy. Luxurious boat. It is clearly designed as a performance kayak just for larger than normal people. I’ve had a couple of extended mostly flat water paddling sessions—including one 5 hour stretch yesterday without leaving the cockpit for the first four hours in a Kevlar/Carbon layup version.
The cockpit opening very big—I can do a seat first entry. I’ve got lots of room, but don’t really feel lost in it. The speed is OK, but I wouldn’t call it fast as some have (same day comparison, the Ellesmere “felt” faster). On flat water with good winds, a little Skeg helped. It turned well will a moderate amount of lean (didn’t have a skirt on!), and was able to change directions with a big of body English and minor stroke adjustments. I stability tests with a skirt on, I found it easy to stay on edge. In a paddle through those danged water ski boat wakes, the deck stayed dry (the Ellesmere’s didn’t—wet cockpit without a skirt)
The pegs were a bit too short for me for an extended paddled—but there is enough room (not too much!) for me to easily pad out the bulkhead. But I like this anyway—more comfortable than foot pegs.
I liked the feel of the IR backband—although one of the straps broke immediately. Easy enough to replace, but be aware…
I like this boat enough that I bought an almost new Kevlar/Carbon version that reportedly (and by all appearances—couldn’t find a scratch on the hull or deck) had only been paddled four times prior). This will get several more long test paddles before I decide to keep it or sell it. (If you’re in the Northeast, and you’re interested in buying this, let me know—my wife is shaking her head that I bought three boats this week! Not sure if I’ll sell yet–check back in October!)
No rolling or big waves, but the hatches stayed bone dry. Seem airtight as the covers bowed out when temperatures raised.
- Impex Capella 173. Billed as a big guy playboat, I didn’t fit. Plenty wide, and a heavier but shorter-legged paddler might find this a good option. Because the fit was too far off and not fixable, I didn’t take this for a test paddle.
- Impex Force Cat 5. Test paddled on a lake in moderate winds with small wind waves and a bit of boat wake. This boat seems faster than anything else on this list. Tracks like a champ. The deck height didn’t make it this best fit for my admittedly too long legs, nor my feet. But I feel I could paddle this for an extended period comfortably. I’d probably have to order custom with the bulkhead moved forward a bit.
- NDK Explorer /Exporer HV. The Explorer was one of my favorite boats to paddle. Tracks well. Yet turns well, too. People a lot more knowledgeable than me have reviewed this umpteen times, I don’t have anything I can add. The problem with the Explorer for me was that I didn’t fit well and could only last about an hour in it. And in the HV version, unloaded, I seemed to high in the water and at the mercy of the winds.
- NDK Romany HV/Excel/Surf. Paddled different models of the Romany in Casco Bay (Maine Island Kayaks—Tom Bergh is incredibly helpful!) and on the Atlantic side of the Islands as well as coastal CA. All close, with some difference in hull shape/volume and thus handling characteristics. Boy, I really wanted these boats to work. So many people love them—and I liked paddling them. But I just wasn’t comfortable. The deck height didn’t fit my feet well, with only one slightly splayed position working. This would be no ability to change position during longer paddles. In the standard configuration, the bulkhead was also too close—I would need a custom placement about 2” (or 3” to be safe) fore of the standard position. I recommend anyone looking for a day boat give an appropriately-sized version of the Romany a try.
- Necky Chatham 17. Fun boat to paddle for 15 minutes, but the deck was too low and I didn’t fit well. I didn’t get a chance to even sit in the Chatham 18—but it would be worth a look.
- P&H Cetus HV. This was right up there as the most comfortable cockpit I sat in, right alongside the improbable Ellesmere. Interestingly, it seemed to paddle very close to the Ellesmere, too. A good amount of rocker for such a long boat. It turns easily. And didn’t track so well on a windy lake. I think this is primarily because my 210lbs just wasn’t enough to hold it down. I suspect with an extra 100 lbs this boat would have settled down, tracked better, and been very enjoyable. But that’s not how I tested it, now how I’d likely use it. (I’m a lightweight backpacker—and my gear on extended trips doesn’t weigh that much.)
As an aside, I really liked the extra day hatch in front of the cockpit. Some people have complained that that it interfered with their leg room. I didn’t notice that at all.
- P&H Scorpio. Essentially the plastic RM version of the Cetus. Felt very similar, but the hull/deck were a bit flexible and not as inspiring. Also a bit less rocker. Certainly the most comfortable plastic boat I sat in, better than the big Wilderness Systems, Tempest series for example, which some people find to be the leader on the plastic side of touring kayaks.
- QCC 500. This boat is very different than the Brit style boats which dominate this list. No upswept bow or stern, and the waterline seems about as long as the boat! Good looking, and the QCC boats I saw looked like they had top-notch construction. It’s among the broadest of the boats I’ve mentioned here, with good primary and secondary stability. It tracks like a champ, and seems much faster than its width would suggest. I don’t have the vocabulary to describe how it handled in tidal current with wind waves, but it wasn’t my favorite. It certainly handles differently. Good or bad, I just don’t have the experience to say. When the water got flat, this was a champ. Stable, fast. If I were looking for something primarily for flatter lake or river water, this, or its more advance QCC 700 sibling would merit very strong consideration with a BM.W 500 or 700 series ride (hey, maybe that’s where that got the naming?)
- Tiderace Xcape X. Whew, this is certainly a big guy boat. I slid right in. Huge primary stability. Huge, period, in fact! A quick demo proved this was not the boat I was looking for. But for a big person—tall and/or heavy—looking for a sit-in kayak for more stable platform at the expense of some speed and performance, this might be worth a gander.
- Tiderace Xcite. OK, I’m cheating with this one. I didn’t fit–too much leg. The 15-minute test paddle was fun. “Xcite” might be a good name. And if you fit in a regular Romany, do check this out if you can.
- Tiderace Xplore (Xplore HV). Maybe THE boat for me? I’ll find out because I bought a used rental version although I don’t take possession for a month. Like the name implies, the Xplore is a touring set-up. Big, pretty fast, lot’s of storage volume. Great primary and secondary stability.
Tiderace seems to take a different deck approach than most Brit-style boats—much higher. What this means for us longer-legged creatures, is we can get more of a knee-bend, and knees-up position, than a splayed out yoga position. The deck height/cockpit opening mean I can do a seat first entry, one-leg at a time, and get a bit a knee-bend relief while on the water. And all of this was in the regular Xplore, not the Xplore X, which I mention but which I did not get to paddle. Because the legs fit in the Xplore, and didn’t have to go the HV route. And this means I didn’t get the extra volume—something I don’t needed, didn’t want, and worked against me in several boats.
The Xplore has excellent primary stability. Let me illustrate with an example. On a long test-paddle on a river, we stopped for lunch at a river-side restaurant. The exit point in this urban environment was a dock three feet above the water. Standing in the cockpit was remarkably stable—albeit with hand on the dock. I was able to reenter by dropping a foot to the hull and then sitting on the back deck, at which point it was purely the boat’s stability that let me enter. Secondary stability is excellent with the hard chine giving it a solid lock point, beyond with I didn’t push it.
On the Xplore model, I will move the seat back as much as an inch, something that Tiderace says shouldn’t affect the trim of the boat much, especially with more longer than normal legs counterbalancing the backwards shift in weight.
As one might expect in an expedition worthy boat, they’ve emphasized durability over light weight—and I’m great with that. The construction seemed rock solid with no visible defects. The glassed in bulkheads appear strong done. I want a boat that can stand up to the hard use I’d like to heap on it as I develop skills. One thing I’ll note here where that Tiderace does not angle the bulk head right behind the seat to facilitate emptying water before reentry. The NDK boats and the Assateague do. It seems this should be a more common technique—but I’m not a boat engineer.
I’ll comment that like the P&H Cetus/Scorpio, the Tiderace has the front/center micro day hatch just fore of the cockpit. I immediately found this welcome and useful and not interfering with leg position or comfort.
I’m looking forward to really seeing whether this might be THE boat for most of my needs.
- Wilderness Systems. Tempest 170/180. I didn’t fit easily in the 170—the deck was lower than I find comfortable. I fit easily in the 180, including entry. But the cockpit seemed like it would need too much customizing with foam to grab me. I bet a tall AND big paddler would find the 180 a contender. A demo was too much work, and I never test paddled easy. (I confess that some of the reviews of quality problems on the WS composite boats made me not try to jump the hurdle of the demo.)
While I tried many boats at several dealers and elsewhere, I should give mention to a few in particular.
Tom Bergh of Maine Island Kayaks was very helpful. Tom knows and sells NDK boats among others. But he pays attention to what’s right for you. His boats are right on the water and you can demo in calmer waters to surf pounding conditions in the Atlantic. And if you’re new to sea kayaking, sign up for one of their day tours around the islands of Casco Bay. No offense to anywhere else, but kayaking along the coast of Maine is about as beautiful and amazing as anywhere in the world.
Ike at Lake George Kayak Co. has an excellent selection of boats, and it very helpful as sizing up the paddler and matching to appropriate kayaks. The right-on-the-water boat house makes it easy to try.
Charles River Canoe & Kayak has a huge selection of new and rental kayaks, and they had no problem slinging more than a dozen boats in the water for me to demo for most of a day—something they’re do for anyone. And it’s nice that their rental fleet is almost as large so you go do extended tests on anything you find intriguing.
And a big thanks to everyone who’s reviewed and commented on paddling.net. A real wealth of information. This is my meager way to give something back.