SIT-IN vs SIT-ON….the Greatest Debate in Kayaking
The sit-in vs sit-on saga is complex and deep because it doesn’t just involve design, seaworthiness and technical stuff such as stability and comfort. You’ve got to throw tradition, experience, pride, machismo and credibility into the mix.
Having spent decades on the receiving end of scowls from the local surfers as the ‘geek in a goatboat’, and more recently completely ignored by passing paddlers when I am using my inflatable kayak, I know all about being bottom of the street-cred pile. So I am in quite a good position to be being non-judgemental.
Especially as, over the last forty plus years, I have paddled all manner of different craft for all manner of different purposes: surfing, white water slalom, flat water racing, camping, fishing, river touring, coastal touring and offshore paddling.
Just in case you don’t know……
In the picture below the paddlers on the outside are using Sit-in kayaks (SINK), i.e. enclosed kayaks with a cockpit and a spraydeck, and the paddler in the middle is using a Sit-on top (SOT) kayak and is sitting on a seat moulded into the deck.
Sit-in or Sit-on….which one for me?…..
If SINKs are always going to have the edge over a SOT kayak, why did I hesitate to get one when the beaches of North Cornwall started to get a bit crowded and the surf line up too much like the queue for the till at Tescos?
It was because, in the back of my mind, I was worried about what would happen if I capsized. Even though I was competent at performing an eskimo roll and had a lot of experience paddling some very tippy kayaks, the concern was there so it acted as a bit of a brake. My intention was to paddle solo along the North coast of Cornwall and I was fully aware it was not a great place to get into trouble, as the sea is lively, the swell is relentless and sheltered creeks are few and far between. ‘From Hartland Point to Padstow Light, ’tis a watery grave by day or night.’
Then the Ocean Kayak Malibu 2 suddenly appeared and I bought one immediately.
It’s not a lot more than a plastic platform, but it was precisely what I had been waiting for. Very wide, very stable and you could hop on and off for a bit of snorkelling. It was superb family fun. Surf, open sea, rivers, canals……just leap on and go….and have a great time.
I started to piece together sections of the North Cornwall coast on the Malibu 2, and then Ocean Kayak started to produce single SOTs, and I wasted no time in purchasing what is probably the best kayak of its class ever made….The Prowler 15. This was a fantastic cruising craft, perfect for all-day paddling as well as multi-day camping trips and fishing, which I was into at the time. White water river paddling was (and still is) my least preferred paddling environment, but the Prowler guided me through.
SINK vs SOT Seaworthiness…..some technical stuff
With a twenty-eight inch wide hull, and fifteen foot long, the Prowler was going to slice through the water a lot quicker than the Malibu 2 but much less efficiently than a conventional sea kayak with, say, a beam of twenty-two inches and length of seventeen plus feet. So that means more effort put in for any given speed, a lower cruising speed, and a lower top speed. A cruising speed of one knot less CAN be more significant than you might think. Paddling a mile against a two knot tidal current takes twice as long at a three knot cruising speed (as in the typical single SOT), compared to four knots (the typical SINK sea kayak). And at two knots you never get there at all!
It is the bit of the kayak in the water (i.e. the hull) that determines performance. Essentially the longer and narrower it is the easier it will slip through the water and the faster it will go. The centre of gravity is lower in a SINK because you are sitting above only one layer of kayak skin, whereas on a SOT the seat is on two layers and therefore higher up so the kayak needs to be wider to achieve the same stability. In a SINK you are sitting just below water level, on a SOT you are sitting just above.
Conventional sea kayaks also have a significant advantage when sea conditions deteriorate. When paddling into a headwind and oncoming wave chop, the pointed bow of a sea kayak pierces the waves with minimal effect on the forward speed. However the wider hull of the average SOT impacts the waves more heavily, and bounces over the waves with a lot of hull slap, all contributing to a loss of momentum. The increase in effort to maintain speed is compounded by having to pull the paddle harder through water which is moving past more slowly. Also the push of wind on body and paddle blades is more significant on the wider profile of the average Sit-on-top.
All this results in a disproportionate slowing of the wider and more ‘floaty’ craft when paddling into wind. For the recreational paddler on a SOT kayak, struggling into a headwind has an erosive effect on morale. On more than one occasion I have been coastal touring with friends who are not regular kayakers, when we are faced with a long beat across a bay into a wind. It’s amazing how quickly heads go down and the group falls quiet. Because the average SOT has a lower speed and less ‘glide’ when there is a halt in paddling, every time you stop to scratch your nose you quickly end up heading backwards. The SINK however maintains a bit of forward speed when you pause and is less prone to getting caught by the wind than the wider craft. I’m embarrassed to admit I once was completely unable to turn up into a strong wind while paddling a long SOT kayak ( theTarpon 160) when it twisted me round beam on, and had to paddle into the shelter of a cliff to be able to head in the direction I wanted. Not a wise day to be on the water, in retrospect.
Most of the above can be avoided with careful planning, which I will investigate further in my next blog. But for example, on there-a-back day trip I always try to paddle into the wind first.
Big trips in small kayaks….
On a flat calm summer’s day, when the majority of casual paddlers take to the water, it really doesn’t matter what sort of craft you find yourself in, because carving across smooth water is reasonably effortless even in the most unstreamlined of kayaks. A few years ago I expanded my fleet with a nine foot long inflatable kayak, a Gumotex Safari. I bought it to help rehabilitation following a knee replacement, as it was very light and easy to chuck in the back of the car.
I couldn’t resist the temptation to round Land’s End in it when I spotted an exceptionally favourable weather (and tide) window. My intention was to paddle the sixteen miles from Penzance to Sennen Cove, pack the kayak away in its bag and catch the bus back, but it was such a superb day I actually paddled all the way back to Penzance, including going round Longships Lighthouse and the Runnel Stone, some of the most committing kayaking in SW England.
A Variety of Kayaks
I had some great fishing, and sea touring, using a succession of good but ‘recreational’ SOT kayaks, such as Ocean Kayak (OK) Prowler 15, OK Scupper Pro and Wilderness Tarpon 16. I clocked up a load of thirty plus mile day trips. Although the cruising speed is less than a sea kayak, the comfort levels are higher so you are happy to spend more time in the seat. There is a tendency when paddling a SINK (in my experience) to rush between stops where you can rest and stretch your legs and ease your back. With the freedom of movement of a SOT, including rest stops on the water when you can sit with legs dangling over the side, you can actually spend the entire day without stepping on to dry land, and still feel relatively un-achy.
One of the longest non-stop trips I have completed is the legendary Scilly crossing……the thirty miles of open sea between the Isles of Scilly and Sennen Cove on the tip of Cornwall. One of my companions (Keith) was paddling a SINK, my chum Austen was in his Perception Freedom SOT and I was paddling the battleship-like Wilderness Tarpon 160.
The crossing took us about nine and-a-half hours, and included a sighting of a Leatherback Turtle. Yes we probably could have done it quicker in narrower sea kayaks, but we probably wouldn’t have seen that Leatherback (although I suppose we might have seen something else).
It’s like the hare and the tortoise (referring to the difference between the types of kayak…I’m not talking about the turtle).
In search of a narrower, faster SOT…
With a view to getting the best of both worlds, I started to look for a narrower sea kayak more akin to a SINK, but with a SOT format. These are not easy to find, because the SOT market is largely aimed at relatively inexperienced paddlers who want a stable craft (and maybe need to lose a pound or two….. a heavier paddler means a more unstable kayak, so it needs to be a bit wider to compensate).
However I managed to find a Paddleyak Swift on ebay, a rare craft from South Africa, home of fast SOT kayaks.
And then the superb Cobra Expedition kayak, which has been my most used craft and in which I have clocked up many thousands of miles. It essentially has the hull of a sea kayak and slides through the water beautifully. Laden with camping gear I undertook an eight hundred mile (solo, because my paddling chums never turned up!) kayak camping trip up the west coast of Scotland and back down the Outer Isles in 2014.
My main interest has now evolved into photographing wildlife from my kayak, and SOT kayaks with their storage areas moulded onto the deck providing easy access to my camera are ideally suited for the task. everything does, however, need to be in a waterproof dry bag, because even on calm days there is always a lot of water splashing about, especially when the paddle rate is cranked up when a pod of dolphins appears a mile ahead.
I now favour the slightly less narrow and less fast RTM Disco kayak, which is just a bit lighter and easier to move around than the Cobra Expedition, but just a bout the raciest of the recreational SOTs. It’s less strain on my ageing back. It is still good for a trip out to the Eddystone Lighthouse however, 25 miles, so it does the job.
No Axe to Grind
I should point out that I really have no axe to grind when it comes to choice of kayak, whether SOT or SINK. I have never really been swayed by anyone else’s opinion and have tried out a large selection of kayaks. I have even been the proud owner of a very narrow and fast sea kayak, a Sipre Millenium. It had all the other advantages of a SINK such as keeping a dry bottom half below the spray deck, and as a result staying much warmer. However all this was far outweighed by that niggling worry of the disaster of falling out. So it soon disappeared via ebay.
A crunch moment came last August when I was over three miles off the Cornish coast, about an hour’s paddling from dry land, on a beautiful warm and calm August day. I was looking for dolphins and any other exciting sea creatures, and was really buzzing because I had already encountered porpoises, dolphins and Giant bluefin Tuna. Then a Humpback whale exploded from the surface nearby, engulfing one of the baitballs of sandeels and sprats that I could see below me in the clear water.
The whale proceeded to work its way round the shoals of baitfish, which were ‘marked’ by stippled patches of dark water at the surface. I found myself sitting in the middle of one of these patches and there was a moderately high chance the whale would come up right beside me (or closer)….but instead it chose an adjacent shoal about fifty metres away. An absolute off-the-scale thrill that I have always hoped to have but never thought I will…and probably won’t see again.
A large part of the 100% undiluted excitement, with no room for concern or worry, was the fact that I was paddling a SOT kayak (my Disco). If I was dislodged by the wave of a whale surfacing beside me….no problem, I would just clamber back on. It was a hot day, the water was warm, I was wearing wet suit trousers, a bit of stuff would get a bit wet, but it would have been worth it. But what would have happened if I was in a SINK with a spray deck? OK I might have been able to roll, but maybe not. Getting back into a swamped sea kayak is a major effort, whatever anybody says. Yes, I could have been rescued as I carry all the safety kit, but I would rather not have to call for help.
The fact is, when I initially saw the whale from a distance of about a mile away I had absolutely no hesitation in paddling towards it (keeping a distance that would not disturb the whale, of course), because I was on a SOT kayak. Had I been paddling a SINK I would have hesitated, and probably kept right back, just in case. So the once-in-a-lifetime experience would not have been quite so thrilling.
Here’s my current quiver of kayaks (and self-isolation tent). All SOTs.