"Sit-on-top kayaks are no good for long-distance paddling. They are heavy and slow, and a pain to paddle for more than a couple of miles." (Photo: Rocky Point by Shawn O'Donnell)
That's a familiar refrain many of us have heard at one time or another. It is a "wisdom" not only commonly espoused by sit-inside kayakers, but also one that has gained wide acceptance among us sit-on-top kayakers. Many of us have come to believe that sit-on-top kayaks are simply not designed to cover a lot of ground (or water, if you will) and, as a result, tend to limit our paddling excursions to relatively short distances of no more than 5-10 miles, usually much less.
In some cases, this negative mind set has caused paddlers with long-distance aspirations to trade their sit-on-top kayaks for sleeker, more efficient sea kayaks. I would know, I was tempted to do just that a few years ago.
In this article, I will try to make a case for sticking with your sit-on-top kayak for long distances, particularly for the solo paddler. What is a long distance to one paddler may, of course, not be a long distance to another paddler. Some paddlers are exhausted after just 1 mile, others can cover 100 miles or more in a single (very long) day. These are the extreme ends of the spectrum, of course. From reading many different kayak trip reports, it appears that even seasoned sea kayakers feel quite accomplished if they can cover about 20-25 miles a day. This range, then, is the kind of distance I will be talking about here.
One more caveat is in order: As others before me have appropriately pointed out, it is strictly speaking not even true that sit-on-top kayaks are, as a type, heavier and slower than sit-inside kayaks. There are some (though not many) sit-on-top kayaks, not to mention surf skis, that are lighter and faster than most sit-inside kayaks.
The fact that this is not true for most sit-on-top kayaks is a matter of market realities rather than inherent design differences. Most sit-on-top manufacturers simply don't offer sleek sit-on-top kayaks with performance comparable to that of a traditional sea kayak. Their main target groups are beginning paddlers, kayak rental businesses, and kayak fishermen, customers interested more in stability and safety than efficiency and speed. While perhaps regrettable, this reality should not detract from the fact that a sit-on-top kayak can, in principle, be designed with the same efficiency and speed as a traditional sea kayak. This is perhaps best illustrated by Kaskazi sit-on-top kayaks.
For our purposes here I want to concede however that sit-on-top kayaks are, at least for the most part, not as efficient and fast as a sea kayak. Even longer, relatively narrow sit-on-top kayaks, like the Ocean Kayak Prowler 15, Ocean Kayak Scupper Pro, or Wilderness System Tarpon 160i, don't come close in performance:
Their beam is still much too wide and their waterline much too short, not to mention that their sponson-shaped hull strongly favors stability over speed. (Right: Sponson-shaped hull - See Kayak Design Terminology Defined)
The typical cruising speed - the speed a paddler can comfortably maintain for several hours in mild to moderate conditions, allowing for a 5 to 10 minute break at the top of each hour - of a standard sit-on-top kayak is at best 3 mph (my own cruising speed on my Scupper Pro is typically only 2.5 mph). By comparison, the typical cruising speed of a sea kayak is easily 4 mph. Over a distance of 20 miles, for example, this means that a sit-on-top kayaker will have to paddle two to three hours longer than a sea kayaker. This gap is obviously significant and grows in proportion to distance. It also becomes more pronounced as conditions worsen.
Yet, these are the boats most of us own and can afford. If high-performance sit-on-top kayaks like those made by Kaskazi (South Africa) or Howe (Australia) were more readily available here in the U.S., the issue would be moot and there would be no need for this article. (below: Kaskazi's Marlin)
What I want to talk about, then, is what it takes to comfortably paddle a run-of-the-mill plastic sit-on-top kayak for a distance of at least 20 miles a day. I added "comfortably" because if you put a gun to a paddler's head, any kayak, even a bathtub, can be paddled for 20 miles a day.
As we saw, the hull shape of a standard sit-on-top kayak is a serious impediment to efficient paddling. This is however not, or at least should not be, the end of the analysis. There is more to long-distance paddling than hull shape, much more.
To begin with, there are certain design features of a sit-on-top kayak that actually make it more suitable for long-distance paddling than a sit-inside kayak.
Comfort - It is no secret that sit-on-top kayaks are perceived by most paddlers as being more comfortable than a sit-inside kayak. One obvious reason is that the lack of an enclosed cockpit provides limitless leg room and, even more importantly, allows the paddler to switch positions now and then (sitting side saddle, facing backwards, or even lying down). This relieves pressure points on the legs and buttocks, and reduces spinal compression (think bulging discs!), reducing the risk of sciatic pain and other painful conditions that limit the amount of hours a paddler can comfortably spend on the water. Thanks to the open cockpit, I have been able to spend more than 10 hours on my Scupper Pro on several occasions without any ill effects or serious discomfort. And like many other middle-aged paddler, I am not a stranger to low back pain.
There are several other, less obvious factors that count in favor of a sit-on-top kayak for long-distance paddling. One is that the typical cockpit design of a sit-on-top kayak is such that the legs of the paddler are parallel or nearly parallel to each other. This is much a more ergonomic leg position than that required by a sit-inside kayak, where the legs of the paddler are rotated outward and hooked under the cockpit combing (as is, I might add, also true when knee straps are added to a sit-on-top kayak). In fact, there is reason to think that this is one of the main reasons why sea kayakers experience sciatic problems more frequently than sit-on-top kayakers.
Another factor is that the stability of a run-of-the-mill sit-on-top kayak requires no effort whatsoever on the part of the paddler to stay upright. The paddler's mental and physical energy can be fully focused on producing and maintaining forward speed. When stopped, a sit-on-top kayaker can fully relax and rest without any worries of capsizing in all but the worst conditions. The same is not true for a narrow sea kayak, which is known to require a certain amount of "attention," especially when unloaded and/or stopped. This "attention" translates into more energy expended by core muscles involved in maintaining balance, which in turn translates into earlier fatigue.
Finally, sit-on-top paddlers can readily access gear, including dry clothing and any amount of food and water, by opening hatches and drybags at sea. Especially for a long day on the water, this can make the difference between an enjoyable trip and a torturous trip. Being of higher volume, a sit-on-top kayak typically also offers more stowage, allowing the paddler to carry more gear (especially water!), which translates into more or longer comfort ashore. My twin-hatch Scupper Pro, for example, can carry not only camping gear, food and water for five days, but also accommodates two sails, two leeboards, two inflatable outriggers, and a full set of freediving gear. (right: Current Designs The Zone)
All this means that it will generally be more comfortable for a sit-on-top kayaker to spend long hours on -- and off -- the water than for a sit-inside kayaker. While this added comfort is, in and of itself, not enough to offset the speed differential between a sit-on-top and a sit-inside kayak, it does narrow the gap and substantially so.
Safety - Although this is a topic of much debate among paddlers, I think it is fair to say that at least for the average paddler, a sit-on-top kayak is a safer mode of transportation than a sit-inside kayak in most conditions. One obvious reason is that in most (but not all) conditions, most (but not all) sit-on-top paddlers can reliably remount the kayak in the unlikely event of a capsize. The same is not true for sit-inside kayakers. Although sit-inside kayaks tend be more prone to capsizing than wider sit-on-top kayaks, reportedly, only about 10% of sit-inside kayakers know how to Eskimo-roll, and a so-called "wet reentry" is problematic in the best of conditions because the cockpit is at that point full of water. From reading different accounts, it seems that unassisted wet entries usually fail in all but the mildest conditions. (See our Safety section)
A lesser known safety issue arising in connection with sit-inside kayaks
has to do with leaky hatches and bulkheads. While the large, strap-over hatches of sit-on-top touring kayaks are
notorious for leaking, this becomes a safety issue only
when the paddler takes lots of water over the bow or stern, as happens
for example when a wave breaks over the bow. In most conditions, the hatches will allow only minimal water intrusion. A cup of water in a day is about average, but even a gallon or a bit more presents no problem whatsoever.
(See Maintenance Of Large Cargo Kayak Hatches).
Not so for a sit-inside kayak, which routinely submarines through swells and wind chop, fully submerging the bow hatch and sometimes also the stern hatch for several seconds at a time. Thus, IF the hatch of a sit-inside kayak leaks - an occurrence admittedly much less frequent than for a sit-on-top kayak, but not at all uncommon (I have read at least three accounts of exactly that scenario, all involving groups of highly experienced kayakers) - the result is usually a swamped boat.
Bulkheads, i.e., watertight walls dividing the hull into separate compartments, are a mixed blessing at this point. While they limit water intrusion to only one compartment (usually the bow compartment) and maintain enough buoyancy to keep the kayak afloat, there is no practical way for the sit-inside paddler to pump the water out without assistance. The paddler would have to exit the boat, swim to the bow, open the hatch, somehow pump out the water while in the water, and then be able to close the hatch and reenter the cockpit. Since we are talking about average paddlers here, it seems reasonable to assume that this procedure is not likely to meet with success. (see Kayak Rescue Procedures In Mixed Fleets)
A sit-inside paddler with a leaky hatch therefore runs a serious risk of becoming a rescue case unless accompanied by another paddler who can pump out the water for him. In contrast, a sit-on top paddler has a much lower risk of a swamped boat and, if the unthinkable should nonetheless happen, should be able to pump the water out without assistance by opening ANY of the hatches (ideally the center hatch between the paddler's legs). Instead of bulksheads, simple pool noodles or airbags inside the hull can be used to provide enough buoyancy to stay afloat.
The upshot of all this is that from a safety perspective, a sit-on-top kayak scores much better than a sit-inside kayak, at least within the above parameters. Especially when paddling long distances in open water, which will often take a paddler away from outside help, this added safety can make the difference between life and death. While this added safety does not narrow the aforementioned speed differential, it makes possible trips, especially solo trips, that otherwise would be completely out of the question for the average paddler. It is the reason why I feel quite safe doing the 22-mile crossing to Catalina Island solo (See Article: Catalina Revisited - There & Back Again).
So much for the inherent advantages of sit-on-top kayaks over sit-inside kayaks. I hope you can see now that comfort and safety, though often overlooked, are indeed crucial to long-distance paddling.
But there is, of course, more to long-distancing paddling than comfort and safety. All the comfort and safety in the world, you might think, cannot get around the fact that a standard sit-on-top kayak is much slower than a standard sit-inside kayak. How can I say that a sit-on-top kayak is suitable for paddling 20 miles a day or more, if it takes at least seven or eight hours (rather than only five or six hours, as in a sit-inside kayak) to cover that distance?
The basic answer is that we sit-on-top kayakers should focus on efficiency rather than speed. Any speed gains for our boats come at an unacceptably high price in terms of additional effort. To raise our cruising speed by just 0.5 mph (e.g., from 2.5 mph to 3 mph), for example, would require so much additional effort, it would no longer be a speed we can comfortably maintain for more than just two or three hours on the outside. What we can do, however, is to learn to paddle our boats at cruising speed with the least amount of effort, thereby increasing the number of hours we can comfortably paddle and thus extending our range of travel. Efficiency is the name of the game.
Continue to Part II - Paddling Efficiently
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