What are Real Sea Kayaks?

Sea Kayaks vs Recreational Kayaks

Look at the homepage of TheKayakers.com and you’ll see two lines that read:

“All classes are taught in Real Sea Kayaks on the Fox River in Batavia Illinois” and “We do not use any Recreational Kayaks”

So what are “real sea kayaks”? and why don’t we use “recreational kayaks”? Before I answer those questions, let’s first take a look at what makes a sea kayak different from other kinds of kayaks.

Sea kayaks

Sea kayaks come in a variety of shapes and sizes for a variety of uses. Sea kayaks are built to cruise long distances on flatwater. The key feature of a kayak is that the paddler is sealed into the boat by a sprayskirt. Oddly it’s the spray skirt and the curled over cockpit rim that it attaches to that makes a kayak a kayak, not so much the shape or size of the kayak.


Sealing yourself into the sea kayak makes you and the sea kayak a single system. As the Zen Master said, you become one with the sea kayak. By making the sea kayak system waterproof  (wearing a sprayskirt) the sea kayak becomes unsinkable…if you know what you’re doing with a double bladed paddle. Learn to eskimo roll and you’ll never have to come out of your boat if you tip over. Learn to brace and you won’t even have to roll. FYI, you don’t have to wear a sprayskirt in our classes.

Wikipedia’s definition of a recreational kayak:

“recreational kayaks are characterized by having a larger cockpit opening for easy entry and exit and a wider beam (27–30 inches) for more stability on the water and are generally less than twelve feet in length”

sea kayaks

Wikipedia’s definition of a sea kayak:

Sea kayaks are seaworthy small boats with a covered deck and the ability to incorporate a spray deck. They trade off the maneuverability of whitewater kayaks for higher cruising speed, cargo capacity, ease of straight-line paddling, and comfort for long journeys.”

In kayak design (and a great many other things), everything is a trade-off. Want more stability? You have to trade off some speed and turning ease. Want a larger cockpit for easy entry and exit? You have to trade of sea worthiness and the ability to seal out the water if you dump.

What kind of kayaker are you?

There are only two kinds of kayakers…those who’ve dumped and those who will dump. It’s only when your boat is upside down in the water that the important difference between a recreational kayak and a sea kayak becomes apparent…and a real problem.

kayak clothing can save immersed kayakers

Kayaker fell in water.

Bulkheads vs no bulkheads

Nearly all sea kayaks have bulkheads. Interior “walls” that separate the bow and stern sections from the cockpit. These bulkheads create watertight “floatation” chambers in sea kayaks. These floatation chambers will keep the kayak from sinking even if they’re packed with camping gear and the cockpit is full of water. Righting the sea kayak, re-entering the cockpit and emptying a cockpit with a hand pump is a chore, but it’s possible, and  gets even quicker with practice. Or you can do an assisted rescue, which is even faster. And you will have a fairly dry cockpit without going back to shore. This can be done in under 60 seconds with practice.

Recreational kayaks

Recreational  kayaks (not Sea Kayaks) on the other hand, rarely have bulkheads or sufficient floatation to keep the boat afloat when it’s awash (full of water). The large cockpit makes a sprayskirt effective for keeping splashes off your lap. But it won’t keep the river out if you dump.  Emptying the water out of a recreational kayak is extremely difficult.  Even with the aid of another kayak and nearly impossible for the solo boater.

Limits where you can kayak

Recreational kayaks are safe for the limited kinds of paddling they are designed for. Such as shallow inland ponds and lakes, quiet backwaters and smaller, slow moving rivers. Their width makes recreational kayaks really hard to tip over and they’re great for people with limited mobility or balance since they’re so easy to enter and exit. The problem is that they look like kayaks. Some manufacturers call them kayaks, people take them on waters where only sea kayaks are safe. And when they get in trouble we see their sad story on the news.

Touring class sea kayaks

“The Kayakers” only uses sea kayaks and touring class kayaks.  These kayaks have the capabilities to be safe in weather and wave conditions that far exceed any during which we’d run into during a kayak classes. And we teach the skills you need to take advantage of the unique design features of a real sea kayak. The longer and narrower a boat is, the faster it can go. Generally, the more tippy a kayak is, the more agile and quick it is when turning (and the easier it is to dump).

Learn to brace on either side reflexively and you become un-tippable. Seal yourself in a sea kayak with a sprayskirt, learn to roll, and you become un-sinkable. Equip yourself with the skills, gear and a proper sea kayak and you can cross an ocean.  Just don’t try it in a recreational kayak.

sea kayaks

Were do I get one of those hats?