Tough sea kayaks

You’re going to be really hard on whatever sea kayak you buy. So it needs to be really tough to take the abuse. Not just out on the open sea. Here, you’ll be just the same as your fellow paddlers.

Tough choices

No, as an amputee your big bashes and scrapes will be on hard concrete slips and getting in and out on rocky landings. You will drop your wet, slippery prosthetic leg onto the kayak while you’re trying to control it. You and your hard-edged metal leg will fall heavily onto the kayak as you try to get out during a surf landing. Just a few examples.

Great comedy for everyone else and you will need a thick skin but you probably already have developed that. However, your kayak will need an even thicker skin if it’s going to survive you. You can be absolutely sure you will abuse your kayak more than most.

Demos

Making the choice of sea kayak is essential to your success. There are  many different models from a variety of manufacturers. Most are good, some are superb and some are really bad. As an amputee, you may find that real-world on the water testing (demos) is a little less easy for you to achieve. Most retailers will be reluctant to allow you to modify unless you buy it first. You are unlikely to want to get into bumpy conditions without good connectivity unless you are a very confident paddler.

I want amputees buying from British Sea Kayaks to know they can carry out the same rigorous testing as any other customer can. I will, where necessary, install the system I use to secure my own prosthesis at no cost to you. The only charge will be the normal cost associated with a demo.

Always make sure you can fit yourself and your prosthesis into the kayak comfortably, including whatever footwear you’re going to have on.  Then make sure you can get back out and get the prosthesis on – quickly. On a surf beach you will need to be able to exit quickly and get the kayak under control. This will take practice – I’m still working on it!

Feet (yes, two of them!)

Be wary of foot plates – I have used them and they are very comfortable but the prosthesis can get caught at the wrong moment. Similarly, front hatch “chocolate pods” can make life really tricky as they intrude down into the cockpit. Make sure you can get in and out easily and that there is enough room for your prosthetic too.

Plastic foot rest tracks are not as strong as metal ones. You will be anchoring your prosthesis to that track so you need to trust it. A plastic tracks broke while I was doing some self-rescue practice in Looe harbour a few years ago. The prosthesis came out and I had to wait until low water to retrieve it – six hours later. I don’t trust plastic tracks now.

Rudders

Rudders are a bit of a challenge and are often found on fast kayaks, such as the Rockpool Taran range. You are the “engine” that powers the kayak – the more power you can output, the faster the kayak will go. The rudder provides most of the directional control allowing you to focus on paddling forward, rather than using your paddle strokes to steer. Most rudder systems are controlled with the feet, which poses a challenge if you only have one foot, or if your feet don’t work very well. I wanted to paddle these high-performance sea kayaks so it was time to get inventive.

I now have a Rockpool Taran16 which is fitted with the usual SmartTrack rudder system, but I’ve adapted it to allow me to fully control the rudder with one foot. It doesn’t stop anyone else from using it either – it’s a small add-on that doesn’t get in the way. Now I can fully experience the sparkling pace and performance of this outstanding British sea kayak designed and built by Mike Webb and his team in Anglesey, Wales. It’s been a really useful test bed and I’m looking forward to using a similar system on the new Quantum!

Seats

Check that the seat is comfortable and that it allows you and your prosthesis to fit easily. It’s generally not recommended to be too tight in a sea kayak. You only need to”lock-in” when you’re in bumpy conditions. Most of the time you need to be able to move around a bit. This is a real advantage in cross-winds. You can shift a little weight to one side by shuffling your backside across. This is easier than holding an edge for a long time and is useful if there is no skeg.

Durability

Not all sea kayaks are truly tough. Not many will cope with being beaten with a prosthetic leg – the equivalent to a hammer. So be very sure that your new boat can stand up to the abuse you will give it. When it comes to the crunch, make sure you can see evidence of the durability you will need and be realistic about your choice of construction.  Make sure you understand the compromises you are making on strength and ease of repair if you are trying to save weight.

Of the kayaks I sell, which do I recommend?

I endorse two sea kayak manufacturers and they are both British companies. Coincidentally, they are both based on the island of Anglesey, Wales. There is some shared heritage and people from both camps have worked together over the years. However, the sea kayaks in their ranges are distinctly different. I’m going to call these two companies the Starfish and the Dragons. You’ll probably know them as Rockpool and NDK/Sea Kayaking UK.

The Starfish

The Starfish team is Rockpool Kayaks, owned by Mike Webb. His team design and build beautiful, innovative kayaks. He pays huge attention to detail and quality of finish. His ground-breaking “Taran” has helped a number of paddlers to achieve some extraordinary record-breaking feats. The Taran16 and Tarantella are almost as quick but more manageable, being slightly shorter. A whole new crop of sea kayaks are sure to emulate this style of design, which has proved to be capable and trustworthy. I paddle a Taran16 and love it!

The other superb member of the Starfish team is the Isel. This low-volume kayak has a sublime hull form which produces virtually no water disturbance. It’s easy to manoeuvre, largely due to the connectivity provided by the beautifully crafted cockpit and adjustable footplate. It is an exquisite kayak to roll. This kayak will only suit lighter or smaller paddlers. I’m too big to get the most out of this kayak but in the right hands it is perfection.

The Dragons

The Dragons are the kayaks produced by Sea Kayaking UK. They are all designed by Nigel Dennis, the Managing Director. They are robust and dependable sea kayak designs, most of which have been around for many years.

First from the Dragon team is the Romany, which comes in a number of sizes/volumes. They all share the same DNA and performance characteristics. They are designed to get you somewhere, play in big conditions (if that’s your thing) and get you back in a day. Capable of taking big knocks and scrapes, these kayaks are great all-rounders and for many paddlers, the Romany is the original and best. I paddle a Romany Sport a lot of the time now, as the tough plastic allows me to make mistakes in the rocks without massive financial punishment. But I still love my carbon/kevlar Romany Surf in the tidal races. The Romany Excel is too big for me and the Romany Classic a little too small.

A very good friend started paddling a Romany two decades ago. After trying and owning a whole bunch of different kayaks over the years, he’s just got rid of everything else and bought a new Romany. Full circle!

The Explorer is possibly the best-known and loved expedition sea kayak in the world and I’ve had some great times in my distinctive gold and black boat. It’s dependable, predictable and has plenty of space for multi-day trips. It surfs really well, picking up waves with ease. Plus, it’s easy to roll which is a bonus in an expedition kayak.

Recently I’ve been getting to know the new Latitude a bit better. This kayak has really taken me by surprise. Stability is very predictable and solid where you need it. It is unremarkable to look at but the combination of narrow hull and low deck is very satisfying and the acceleration is excellent for a conventional hull form. I’ve found rolling is easier than any other kayak I can (realistically) fit in. I think it’s a winner.

Conclusion

I only use sea kayaks designed and built in the UK. They are the best in the world and fit for purpose. All are strong, tough and beautiful too. They suit the conditions I usually paddle in, as the coastal waters around the British Isles and Western Europe are often bumpy and unpredictable. British sea kayaks excel in this environment because they are designed and built in Britain by people who know paddling and who paddle these waters, just like us.