This is my guide to the top ten kayaks I have owned or paddled which are suitable for flatwater touring, coastal cruising and wildlife watching.
They are listed in reverse order with number one being the kayak that I consider to be the best for the job.
10. SIPRE MILLENIUM SEA KAYAK
I thought I should include a conventional Sit-in sea kayak just to show that I am not completely biased towards Sit-on-tops. I bought this particular craft when I dibbled with a bit of competition sea kayaking. It was suitably quick and I thought it might also be good for notching up a few miles of coastal touring.
I paddled round Baggy and Morte points in North Devon on a perfect calm day, enjoyed the thrill of scorching along but really didn’t enjoy the gnawing concern of what would happen if I tipped out. I know how to eskimo roll but was fully aware that the majority of competent paddlers (and incompetent ones like me) probably wouldn’t be able to perform a roll ‘in anger’.
You would be struggling to find a faster boat than this, but if you want a worry-free paddle, would like to sit on something more forgiving than a solid fibreglass seat, and paddle something a bit more stable and relaxing, then this is not for you.
It looked great on the roofrack. It spent a lot of time there.
I sold it.
9. GUMOTEX SEAWAVE INFLATABLE DOUBLE KAYAK
Oh come on, you’ve got to be kidding. You cannot include an inflatable in a review of serious kayaks. Well, yes I can, because quality inflatables are remarkably waterworthy.
The trouble with hardshell double kayaks is that they tend to be horrifically heavy. Getting them on the roof could result in any number of strains ,tears and ruptures to many areas of your musculoskeletal system.
This kayak lives in a bag the size of a large rucksack and once inflated is so comfortable that come coffee break and lunchtime you will want to stay lounging and stretching out in the boat instead of trying to find somewhere comfortable to sit on a patch of slithery kelp between those barnacle-encrusted rocks.
Inflatables have the reputation of being blown around by the wind lilo-style. This is massively reduced by the tracking fin which acts like a skeg and locks it on to the surface very effectively.
For me the Seawave is just a bit too long and takes a long time to inflate, and is prone to bending in the middle when there is a bit of chop. I don’t use the optional top deck stiffening poles.
It’s also a pity it doesn’t have drainage (scupper) holes like its smaller stablemate the Safari, so that water flicked in by the paddles gradually accumulates and needs to be scooped out every so often.
But it is superb for a super-comfortable and relaxed paddle for two, or a major camping expedition for one. I used mine for a four day camping trip down the River Severn.
South Africans know about seaworthy craft as their patch of sea can get a bit lively.
The Paddleyak Swift comes from Cape Town and is a fantastic and stylish sit-on-top sea kayak (technically a hybrid as it’s got a coaming for a spray deck, but you really don’t need it). It is only 23 inches wide and so unusually fast for a SOT.
I paddled mine for many years and completed my longest sea paddle of 36 miles (along the length of Chesil Bank and back) in this craft. It’s drawback is that there is no comfortable seat, little back support and the hatches are very small.
But you will struggle to find a better looking kayak. When I rolled up on the beach heads used to turn. Or was that because of my groans as my numb backside came back to life?
It’s just a bit basic compared to the more ‘comfort aware’ range of kayaks now available.
7 OCEAN KAYAK SCUPPER PRO
This was one of the first plastic Sit-on-tops. And what a design. 26 inches wide so narrower than many of its style , and at 14ft long impressively fast. A huge hatch at the front (which inevitably leaks a bit), and a tankwell behind the seat.
The only real drawback is the low seating position which means you have a wet ride and are permanently sitting in a puddle of water. This of course is a common SOT problem but most others have either the seat raised a bit or have channels to drain away the water.
I managed to hole my Scupper Pro while paddling down a river and a rock punctured the hull adjacent to the central tankwell scupper hole at the back. Although it was repaired I lost a bit of confidence with it.
6 WILDERNESS TARPON 160
I think the Tarpon 160 was designed for Americans who spend a lot of time at McDonalds. It is a battleship of a kayak. I bought it when I was in the heart of my kayak-fishing phase with a view to landing some mighty fish. It did indeed see some action with several Tope up to 60lbs.
It is very robustly built and has a comfortable seat and excellent adjustable backrest. My 160 was 16ft long so I could pack in huge quantities of camping gear (plus other people’s surplus they couldn’t fit in their own kayaks). It is 28″ wide which is about standard for this type of kayak.
Tarpon’s are justifiably popular but have one major drawback (apart from the leaky front hatch which I think is now resolved). They are horrifically heavy. I’m still not sure how I used to ‘clean and jerk’ mine onto the roof of my MPV without dislocating my entire body.
I think it weighed 32 kgs but I never dared check in case it was more than that.
As I do a lot of solo kayaking a boat that I can get onto the roof by myself without needing a stay in hospital is absolutely essential.
And surely having a similar craft which is 25% lighter can only be an advantage.
But it served me well during several multiday camping trips including a five-day expedition to the Scilly Isles rounded off by the thirty mile open-sea crossing back to Cornwall.
I sold it for something lighter.
5 RTM DISCO
This is my kind of boat. I really love it. It is narrow (26″) and sleek and longish (14ft). Best of all it is light….23kgs.
I have used one quite a lot in Spain and paddled in excess of 30 miles per day. I think I am probably about as tall as it would accept as my feet are squashed against the bulkhead of the footwell, and I am 6ft 1in. Similarly a heavier paddler might have balance issues as this is quite a narrow delicate craft, certainly when compared to the Tarpon which could accommodate a small elephant.
But it looks great, like a conventional sea kayak, and goes satisfactorily fast.
It has a good watertight tupperware-style front hatch, and attachment points for a comfortable seat.
4. OCEAN KAYAK MALIBU 2
My first SOT Kayak. 16 years ago. My eyes were opened. It was exactly what I had been dreaming of for years. What a fantastic boat. Although little more than a flat slab of plastic with a couple of shallow recesses for seats.
But absolutely worry-free and in fact great fun for swimming off, fishing from and generally larking about with the family. Thank goodness I didn’t buy that Sit-in sea kayak which I so nearly did, and would only have used a fraction as often as the Malibu 2.
It is quite wide and quite slow but extraordinarily light compared to the newer double SOTs.
It introduced large numbers of friends and family to the delights of kayaking.
Fun,fun and more fun.
It was eventually scrapped when the keel wore completely through due to excessive dragging.
3. GUMOTEX SAFARI INFLATABLE KAYAK
I have owned a Safari for nearly two years and still cannot quite believe it. It is my kayak of choice for trips up to ten miles long (quite often more) and it seems to defy the laws of science and aquatics, because it goes almost as fast as anything else. It really shouldn’t.
I think that it is because it is so sensationally comfortable, and jamming your backside against the huge inflatable seat, and your feet against the squashy inflatable footrest, means that you can perfect your paddling action including pumping of the legs and so maximise your paddling efficiency. You are poised like a coiled spring.
I was very doubtful when I bought. it but thought it would hasten my return to the water following a knee replacement. It did, as it weighs only 12kgs.
But since then I have clocked up over 2,000 miles in it, including a 32 mile open coast paddle around Land’s End from Penzance to Longships Lighthouse and back, which is a grade ‘C’ sea kayak trip (the most severe). So technically I did it twice!
It seems to keep up with chums in normal recreational SOT kayaks and is a lot easier to sling around on land. Lots of room for gear in the tankwell behind and, probably its best feature, has scupper holes between the side and floor inflation chambers that make it self-draining. I didn’t realise what a benefit this was until I saw how much water accumulated in the non self-draining Seawave.
Its tracking fin means it doesn’t get blown around.
At only ten foot long and 28″ wide it still amazes me with its speed through the water.
My only criticism is that it gets slowed down rather more than a more substantial craft when heading in to wind and chop but this is hardly surprising.
It is so idiotically comfy and so light and easy to use that I would dare to suggest that over the course of an entire days paddling you would end up notching up the same distance in a Gumotex Safari as you would in any other kayak because you take a fraction of the time to get on and off the water and don’t need to have breaks to stretch your legs onshore because it is a lot more comfortable in the boat (and you don’t get stiff, and can move around).
It might be a bit tippy if you are over 80-90kgs.
2. COBRA EXPEDITION
I spent a long time looking for a kayak like this. Essentially an expedition sea kayak with SOT credentials. And it was plastic so good and rock-proof.
Narrow (less than 23″ wide) and surprisingly light (less than 23kgs). 18ft long.
But very difficult to get hold of one in the UK because of lack of demand. Kayakers wanting a performance sea kayak went for a Sit-in, paddlers wanting a recreational Sit-on-top , frequently for fishing, went for a wider more stable variety….very sensibly.
But not me. I was looking for a narrow craft that would REALLY do the mileage, but by this time I was a definite SOT convert. I just can’t see the point of having to worry about safety associated with falling out of your boat when you have absolutely no worry at all when paddling a SOT. And can stretch your legs. And sit with your legs dangling over the edge having a cup of tea ten miles from the shore. All those pages devoted to rescue techniques in the sea kayaking books can be torn out and replaced with a few words……..’you just climb back on’.
I will accept that it just might not be that easy to climb back on if the conditions were bad enough to tip you out in the first place, but its going to be easier than getting back into a swamped sit-in sea kayak.
(And also I will accept that SOTs encourage completely inexperienced kayakers to take to the water with all the associated risks).
Back to the Cobra Expedition. It’s not quite as comfortable as some SOTs and comes only with a backrest. I glued on a load of camping mat to the seat area which probably makes it a bit more unstable. Stability is definitely an issue with the Expedition but something you will get used to.
To make it as steady as possible the seat is set low. This leads to a wet ride in anything more than six inches of chop because water comes over the low freeboard. So expect to get a wet backside in anything other than completely flat conditions.
The rudder is handy but it has an appallingly big turning circle. However this is not really a problem as tight turns are not really required when sea kayaking. The beauty of having a rudder is that you can concentrate on keeping up a steady paddling rhythm and finely tweek or adjust your direction using the foot pedals.
Only one major complaint with this kayak . The hatches leak. They are good size hatches with covers locked down by eight plastic rotating toggles. But if you get waves over the deck, and this does happen a lot with this craft which is fast and low-profile, water gets through. Embarassingly I havn’t found out quite how yet. I completely taped over the cover of the small day hatch behind the sea, and water still got in!
The quantity that enters always seems more than it actually is, but it is a bit of a concern given my penchant for offshore paddling.
However overall a fantastic kayak.
I put its Expedition credentials to the test when I spent two months paddling around the west of Scotland in 2014 (including around St Kilda). Surely as good as any Sit-in sea kayak.
1. OCEAN KAYAK PROWLER 13 or 15
The original, and in my opinion still the best.
It’s pretty remarkable that Ocean Kayak’s initial design for one of the first recreational SOTs has yet to be bettered.
It’s perfect for beginners and experienced kayakers alike.
At 28″ wide and 13 (or 15)ft long it is moderately fast. It is super stable. It is well laid out. You can clip in a comfortable seat. It has got a big storage space behind the seat. It is a pleasure to paddle. It is lightish (approx 24kgs).
I am talking about the original uncluttered Prowler 13. This is all you need for touring or wildlife watching. All manner of newer versions are aimed at fishing and the plethora of gadgets increase the weight considerably. Light is good as it ultimately means you go paddling more often.
I would recommend the Prowler 13 to anyone as a first SOT , and often do. It’s length means it has better tracking than a shorter kayak and so is more suitable for longer trips. Also length means it has better ‘glide’, so carries on moving through the water for longer and in the right direction if you stop to scratch your nose.
And more length means more suitability for packing in the gear for camping trips.
My first single SOT was a Prowler 15 and I seriously regret selling it.
So that is it….my overview of the best kayaks for distance cruising and wildlife watching, based on nearly 17,000 miles paddled. (2020 update……over 25,500 miles now!)
You will notice I drone on a lot about weight. Weight is much more important than you might realise. And plastic (rotomoulded) kayaks seem to be getting heavier because they come with more and more features which are largely unnecessary if you are not fishing. All you need for fishing anyway is a couple of rodholders.
The heavier a kayak is the less likely you are to take it out in marginal conditions (such as a cold wet day in winter) because it is just too much effort. You are more likely to stay at home and eat cakes and watch the telly.
That is why I love my Gumotex Safari inflatable because I can chuck it in the back of the car and be on the water within a minute of arriving at the river/lake/sea. This is an extreme example but the principle applies to all of them.
Unquestionably the best multipurpose craft which you will be guaranteed to enjoy is a Sit-on-top which is over 12ft long (so it tracks and glides well on extended trips) and about 28″ wide which provides the best compromise between speed and stability. Like the good old Prowler 13.