The Kayak: Boat Design

Now let’s talk about kayaks: by the general term kayak we cover quite a few different boats, with different features and goals.

  • White Water Kayaks are short with a flat bottom. It is designed to go down rivers, turn on a dime, and follow currents.
  • “Recreational” Kayaks are shorter than 14 feet, fairly wide, it has no bulkheads (or only one, and sometimes 2). It’s main purpose is to go on flat bodies of water for a day paddle, but it won’t be able to handle big seas or track well (tracking is the ability of a boat to go straight) in windy conditions.
  • Sea Kayak, Touring Kayak, or Ocean Kayak will be between 15 and 20 feet long, it will usually have two bulkheads to provide the boat with dry storage for long trips and to ensure that in case of capsize the kayak will keep afloat even when the cockpit is full of water. The length will provide the ability to go straight (track) in any conditions and it will also enable the boat to go faster for long trips.

The sea kayak will also possess a rudder or a skeg, hatches, life line, foot pedals… and much more!

So let’s talk about sea kayaks. I will try to stay away from giving my personal point of view, and present the information so you can make up your own mind.

There are many different sea kayaks on the market; they can be short or long, wide or thin, made of plastic or fiberglass…

Where to start?


A few more general facts:

  • Length provides speed and tracking ability.
  • Wider boats are more stable and slower
  • Kayaks with a “rocker” (bow and stern going upward) are more playful, and generally easier to turn

So what is the perfect boat? I am afraid there is no answer to that one. It really depends what you expect from your kayak, do you want to race, go for long trips or a day paddle, do you want to load your kayak on your vehicle by yourself, or be worry free when you land on rocky shores?

There are good things about any boat (well, not quite but…), then you have to decide where your priorities are.

Now let’s have a look at boat design:

A sea kayak has two main parts, the hull and the deck.

  • The Hull is the bottom part that will be in contact with the water. It’s shape will have a direct effect on the ability of the boat to manoeuvre, track and tour.
  • The Deck is the other half, the upper part of the boat where hatches, the bungies, and the life line will be incorporated. Its shape will influence the way the boat handles wind, big waves, how it cuts through them, and how easy a re-entry will be.

Here we will concentrate on the hull shape since the difference of deck shape will be of little interest to the novice paddler.

So once again, you can imagine there are many designs of hulls to choose from.
Here are the main types you’ll encounter.

Frontal View

We will talk during the course of the difference between these hulls, as it is a subject that deserves lots of explanations, nuances, and time. Generally speaking, the shape of the hull will dictate if the boat is designed to make tight turns and manoeuvre, or track well and quickly in any conditions.

Now let’s have a look at some simple vocabulary concerning the parts of a sea kayak:

The front of the kayak is called the bow.

The back of the kayak is called the stern.

Vocabulary: Outside The Kayak

  • The Front Toggle: made of plastic or wood; it should be solidly secured at the very end of the bow. You can use it to carry your empty kayak, to get your boat towed, or to swim holding on to your kayak. Watch out, make sure you never put a finger in the rope that attaches the toggle to the boat as your finger will suffer if the kayak happens to flip!!!
  • The Life Line: different on many boats, it runs all around the perimeter of the boat. It should be tight, and it is the line you grab to catch a boat (yours or your rescuer’s). When rescuing somebody, you can use it to go around the rescuee’s kayak without letting go of the boat (remember that one on windy days!!).
  • Hatches: front, rear, and day hatch. They have to be water-tight (and so air-tight as well), because if they aren’t, when you capsize the dry storage compartment will be flooded with water, upsetting the balance and possibly leaving you with a kayak that stands vertical in the water…. Not good! There are all kinds of systems and we’ll cover them during the course. Size doesn’t matter (but it’s easier to load a big hatch) and some kayaks come with a day-hatch which is quite nice. Why? Because you can reach it without exiting the boat. It also means there is an extra bulkhead so the boat will be stronger.
  • Bungie Cords: in front of the cockpit, great to secure your sunglasses, bottle of water and water-proof camera…. As long as the water is calm. The bungies in the back are great to secure your paddle-float, pump, spare paddle. You can ultimately load a lot on your deck using the bungie cords, but many paddlers like their deck clear… Whatever makes your boat float!!
  • The Coaming: it’s that rim that goes all around your cockpit and on which you put your sprayskirt. A strong coaming is important. Make sure the edge has been sanded or your spray-skirt won’t last long. A thick edge gives a better seal with the spray skirt which will keep water from getting in the cockpit.
  • The Self-Rescue Straps: they don’t come on all boats but can be installed quite easily. They help a lot for novice paddlers during the paddle-float self-rescue. I won’t go into details as you will soon be a professional regarding all those fun things.
  • The Back Toggle: (a little more info for this one), it might be hard to grab it if your boat has a rudder, because the toggle is not at the end of the kayak. Be aware of the possibility of your kayak flipping when you are holding on.
  • Skeg and Rudder

Vocabulary: Inside The Kayak

  • Dry Storage Compartment: inside the kayak, in front and behind the paddler are two (or three if you have a day hatch) empty storage areas. They are used to store equipment on trips, or air bags for added buoyancy. When loading your kayak, think of distributing the weight and always pack your possessions in dry bags. The last role of your dry compartments is to keep your kayak afloat even if your cockpit is flooded with water (because the dry compartments are full of air and thus prevent the kayak from sinking).  The dry storage compartments are separated from the cockpit by the bulkheads.
  • The Bulkheads are inside the kayak, on either side of the cockpit (front and back). They are basically walls that divide the kayak into 3 or 4 different areas sealed from each other. The bulkheads also add strength to the boat.
  • The Cockpit is where you sit. Situated in the middle of your boat (or slightly back), it is your home in your kayak. Inside your cockpit are many different parts that are quite important to us:
  • The Coaming: is a rim that goes all around the cockpit. It’s use is to secure your skirt on so that water can’t get in the cockpit.
  • The Braces: : when sitting in your kayak and looking down inside the coaming, you will see two symmetric tongues of fibreglass going inward and resting just on top of your knees (bottom picture). If you put your hand under the braces, you should feel some padding, this is to protect your skin and make the contact comfortable. Braces are often overlooked even though they give you stability and control of your boat for edging and for all your strokes.  They work in combination with your foot pedals, so we’ll come back to it.
  • The Foot Pedals: there are many kinds on the market. It is important to understand that foot pedals are needed even if the kayak doesn’t have a rudder. Because the pedals give you control over the rudder (push on the right pedal to turn right, and push left to turn left) doesn’t mean it is their only purpose. They are adjustable of course, and once at the best position for you, your legs should be slightly bent and your knees should be touching the braces without you reaching for the contact. Thus the importance of foot pedals, when your feet are resting on them, your knees should be in contact with the braces and your bum with the seat. In the kayaking world, we say that we put on a kayak like a pair of pants. If you take the example of the Greenland paddlers, they all had their own boat made to fit them. A kind of tailored kayak if you want. Because those different points of contact between you and the boat will give you control over your kayak. The boat should become an extension of your body,
  • The seat: once again, there are many models out there, so let’s have a quick look. Usually the simpler the seat, the less chance it has to break on you. You should be comfortable sitting without your lower back resting. Can you get under the seat? You will need to clean the area under the seat to avoid salt water stagnating there too long. If you can’t, can you get all the water to move in the front of the cockpit by raising up the stern of your kayak? Hard seat, soft seat, with a hole in it for the water to drain or not???? Only by discussing the subject and trying different designs will you find what fits you best.
  • The Back Rest: now that’s a piece of equipment!!!! For sure avoid any back rest that comes higher than the coaming as it will get in your way for some strokes. They are usually adjustable, but to be honest when you are paddling, you’re not suppose to use your back rest too much. Many high performance paddlers have removed the back rest altogether, and replaced it with a high density piece of foam that gives a point of contact to their lower spine only.

Okay, so we’ve covered the materials , the general shape, the outside and the inside, time to conclude. Before we close this chapter, I would like to come back to the subject of how the paddler fits in his kayak.

It is important to be comfortable for long periods of time but we need to be snug in our kayak as well. We should have good contact points for our feet, knees, hips and bum.

When we will get in our boat, please make sure you ask anything you can think of, as it will make a big difference in the outcome of the course for you. Just as the horse rider gives and receives information from his horse, the contacts will “talk” to us continually about what the boat is doing, and by contracting, relaxing or moving our lower body, we are already taking control of the boat before the paddle even touches the water.

In order to be a relaxed paddler, and it’s essential (as much as continuous breathing…), you need to be confident with your boat. Once you own a boat, there are several things you can do to make sure the fit is perfect and the boat feels like a second skin.

Won’t be long before you feel at home in your kayak.