A modern sea kayak off west Wales
A modern sea kayak off west Wales
A sea kayak on Valdes Island, British Columbia, Canada

A sea kayak or touring kayak is a kayak developed for the sport of paddling on open waters of lakes, bays, and the ocean. Sea kayaks are seaworthy small boats with a covered deck and the ability to incorporate a spray deck. They trade off the manoeuvrability of whitewater kayaks for higher cruising speed, cargo capacity, ease of straight-line paddling, and comfort for long journeys.

Sea kayaks are used around the world for marine (sea) journeys from a few hours to many weeks, as they can accommodate one to three paddlers together with room for camping gear, food, water, and other supplies. A sea kayak usually ranges anywhere from 3.0–5.5 m (10–18 ft) for solo craft, and up to 7.9 m (26 ft) for tandem craft. Beam width may be as little as 53 cm (21 in), and may be up to 91 cm (36 in).

The term "sea kayak" is said to have originated with the publication in 1981 of a book of that name by John Dowd, who said "It wasn't called sea kayaking until my book came out, ... It was called kayak touring or sea canoeing or canoe touring, blue-water paddling, coastal paddling, all those things."[1]


Main article: Kayak

Inuit seal hunter in a kayak, armed with a harpoon.
Inuit seal hunter in a kayak, armed with a harpoon.

Contemporary sea kayaks trace their origin to the native boats of Alaska, northern Canada, and Southwest Greenland. Inuit (formerly Eskimo) hunters developed a fast seagoing craft to hunt seals and walrus.[2] The ancient Aleut name for a Aleutian kayak is Iqyak,[3] and earliest models were constructed from a light wooden frame (tied together with sinew or baleen) and covered with sea mammal (sea lion or seal) hides. Archaeologists have found evidence indicating that kayaks are at least 4000 years old.[4] Wooden kayaks and fabric kayaks on wooden frames (such as the Klepper) dominated the market up until the 1950s, when fiberglass boats were introduced. Rotomolded plastic kayaks first appeared in 1984.


Kayaking in a double on Lake Union in Seattle, USA
Kayaking in a double on Lake Union in Seattle, USA

Modern sea kayaks come in a wide array of materials, designs, and sizes to suit a variety of intended uses. In sea kayaking, where the designs continue along primarily traditional lines, the primary distinction is between rigid kayaks and Folding kayaks. Folding kayaks are in some ways more traditional boats, being similar in design to skin-on-frame kayaks used by native people. Modern folding kayaks use ash and birch or contemporary materials such as aluminum for the frame, and replace the sealskin covering with synthetic waterproof fabrics. Unlike rigid kayaks, folding kayaks can be easily disassembled and packed for transport. Many folding kayaks include inflatable sponsons that improve the secondary stability of the vessel, helping to prevent capsize. More recently, a class of inflatable folding kayaks has emerged, combining a more limited rigid frame with a tightly inflated skin to produce greater rigidity than an inflatable boat alone.

In recent years, there has been an increase in production of sit-on-top kayaks suitable for sea use.[citation needed][5]

Most rigid sea kayaks also derive from the external designs of native vessels, especially those from Greenland, but the strength of modern materials such as fiberglass, rotomolded plastic and carbon fiber eliminate the need for an internal frame, though significantly increasing weight. Modern skin-on-frame sea kayaks constructed with nylon skins represent an ultralight niche within the rigid sea kayak spectrum. Some recent design innovations include:

A different class of vessel emerged in the 1960s, the surf ski, a long, narrow boat with low inherent stability that is intended for use in surf and following waves.


Most production sea kayaks are between 3.7 and 7.3 m (12 and 24 ft) in length, the larger kayaks often built for two (or in rare cases, three) paddlers. The width (beam) of typical kayaks varies from 46 to 81 cm (18 to 32 in), though specialized boats such as surf skis may be narrower.[6][7] The length of a kayak affects not only its cargo capacity (for both gear and paddlers) but may also affect its "tracking" ability—the ease with which the boat travels in a straight line. While other design features also impact tracking, very long kayaks are easier to paddle straight (and harder to turn). The width of a kayak affects the cargo capacity, the maximum size of the cockpit (and thus the size of the paddler in that cockpit), and (to a degree that depends on the design of the hull) the stability.[8]


A sea kayak constructed from plywood, epoxy and fibreglass
A sea kayak constructed from plywood, epoxy and fibreglass

Most rigid production kayaks are now made out of fiberglass, rotomolded polyethylene, thermoformed plastic, blow moulded polyethylene or carbon-kevlar. More exotic materials include carbon fiber and foam core. Some kayaks are hand-built from plywood or wood strips covered with fiberglass. Skin-on-frame kayaks are built on wood or aluminum frames covered in canvas, dacron, or other fabrics, and may include inflatable tubes called sponsons.

Marine grade plywood available today provides a high strength to weight ratio for kayak construction. Inflatable kayaks may be made from cheaper polyvinyl chloride (PVC) with a nylon outer skin to resist abrasion, or more expensive single-skin designs made from hypalon which is very tough and easy to dry after use.

Bow, stern, and deck

There are many design approaches for the bow, stern, and deck of kayaks. Some kayaks have upturned bows, which are meant to provide better performance when paddling into waves, as well as better wave-shedding ability. Other kayaks achieve this through increased buoyancy in the bow. Kayaks with unobstructed stern decks may ease certain types of self-rescue. Waterproof bulkheads in modern kayaks provide flotation in the event of capsize.

Sea kayak decks typically include one or more hatches for easy access to the interior storage space inside. Kayak decks usually include attachment points for deck lines of various kinds, which are aids in self-rescue and attachment points for above-deck equipment or luggage.

Cockpits can be of several designs. They can be large or small. A large keyhole cockpit can give the advantages of both, and combine firm contact between paddler and boat, while offering relatively easier access.


Sea kayaking is a popular way to explore Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii.
Sea kayaking is a popular way to explore Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii.

Sea kayaks have a wide range of hull designs, which greatly expands their range of performance. Designs can accommodate a wide range of physical fitness, or usage. Boats come in many lengths, whereby shorter boats are generally more maneuverable, and longer boats generally travel straighter and faster. Width of beam can affect a boat's stability, speed, and ability to bring to an edge. The amount of rocker (the curve from bow to stern) can greatly affect the ability of a boat to turn.

Many have steering gear or tracking aids in the form of rudders or skegs. In most cases, rudders are attached at the stern and operated by lines (wire or synthetics such as Spectra) from foot pedals in the cockpit. Rudders are typically retractable for beach landings. Skegs are typically retractable straight blades that drop from a well in the stern of the boat. Both devices assist in paddling when a strong wind or waves are coming from a direction other than directly in front.[9] Some skegs may be more effective at countering pitch, roll and yaw.[10][11][12][13][14]


Sea-kayak paddles, and the associated paddling styles, fall into three basic classifications:

[citation needed]
Two roughly spoon-shaped blades at either end of a cylindrical shaft. This paddle style was developed for fast acceleration and sudden manoeuvring in whitewater kayaking, and then back-ported to sea-kayaking. European-style[citation needed] paddles can be made of aluminium, plastic, or even wood; but the best are usually formed of more expensive materials like carbon-fibre for lightness. Often the two blades are feathered, or set at an angle relative to each other (both for ergonomic efficiency, and so that as one blade moves backwards through the water, the opposite blade moving forward through the air presents its edge, rather than its face). This makes it less efficient with the wind on the side or behind.
A European[citation needed] style kayak paddle, (a) top view, (b) axial view, (first angle projection)
A European[citation needed] style kayak paddle, (a) top view, (b) axial view, (first angle projection)
Relatively narrow blades which are rounded and full near the loom and blade roots, and becoming oval near the blade tips. Some paddles feature a "shoulder", or abrupt transition between the loom and blade roots. Greenland paddle blades are usually not feathered. Short Greenland paddles (generally one arm-span in length), called storm paddles, are used with a sliding stroke, during which the hands are shifted along the blades for each stroke. Storm paddles are often used as spares and in very windy locations, as there is very little outboard blade to catch the wind.
A Greenland style kayak paddle
A Greenland style kayak paddle
The blade of the paddle is shaped with a profile like a wing. When used with a particular stroke, the blade produces lift as it moves through the water, enabling the kayaker to produce more forward motion than with any other kind of paddle. The paddling technique is different from the European style paddle though the same motion is how the Greenland paddle works with its narrow blade. It is most often used in racing, but also sees some limited use in recreational paddling such as touring.
A set of wing paddles
A set of wing paddles


True sea kayaks, not to be mistaken for wider, more stable recreational kayaks, are available in many designs. The length of a solo sea kayak can range anywhere from 4.3 to 6.1 m (14 to 20 ft) long, and tandem kayaks can range from 5.5 to 7.3 m (18 to 24 ft) long. Sea kayaks can range in width (beam) from 50 to 60 cm (20 to 24 in).[citation needed]) Wider touring kayaks of 60 to 75 cm (24 to 30 in)[citation needed]) are better for bigger paddlers, or small/average sized paddlers looking for more initial stability and maneuverability. Narrower beams of 50 to 65 cm (20 to 26 in)[citation needed] are good for small-medium-sized paddlers who want more speed and less maneuverability. And lastly, kayak depth (or the height from the hull to the highest area of the deck) can range from 28 to 40 cm (11 to 16 in)[citation needed] high.

Explorer sea kayak side view.jpg

This design is typical of modern sea kayaks and has a low rear deck for easy rolling, a white water cockpit, compartments that allow the kayaker to reach into them while at sea, and a sloping rear bulkhead that enables the kayak to be emptied by lifting the bow.


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Sea kayaking at Trunk Bay on St. John
Sea kayaking at Trunk Bay on St. John

A sea kayak's primary safety device is its paddler. Although some kayakers consider a well-practised self-righting move such as an Eskimo roll to be essential in order to safe open-water kayaking, it is the technique of bracing that every well-trained, experienced kayaker practises in order to maintain an upright position in their kayak. Practice in bracing is often neglected by inexperienced kayakers once they have learned the Eskimo roll. However, the reality is that having to roll really means having to recover from a failed brace. Being in the capsized position in some environments due to missing a brace can put the paddler in danger of colliding with obstacles under the water. Staying upright in surf zones, rocky surf zones (informally known as rock gardens), and rivers is most important and is only accomplished through well-practised and successful bracing.

While there are a number of techniques for unassisted righting and re-entry of a kayak after a capsize and turtling, most paddlers consider it safest to paddle with one or more others, as assistance is useful if attempting to recover via rolling solo fails. Even if the assistance fails to successfully right the kayaker, it is much easier to climb back into a boat in the open sea if one has another boat and paddler to help and the swamped boat has been emptied of water first. Nonetheless, experienced paddlers do attempt open-water crossings unaccompanied, and many major long-distance kayak expeditions have been carried out solo.

The use of a paddle float self-rescue device, generally consisting of foam or in the form of an inflatable bag, and attached to the end of a paddle when needed, allows the paddle to be used as an outrigger while climbing back into the cockpit. If an inflatable paddle float is chosen, it should be a dual-chambered model on account of the safety advantage (in the event of failure of one chamber) that is conferred by the redundancy. The kayaker is advised to train with only one chamber inflated. In many areas (Canada, for instance), a paddle float is a safety item required by the coast guard. Re-entry using a paddle float is a fairly reliable rescue technique that, if well practised, allows one to paddle with confidence when one is not equipped with a flawlessly honed rolling skill.

There is a strong culture of self-sufficiency amongst sea kayakers and extensive safety equipment such as compass, towing lines, manual pumps, repair kits including wet application repair tape, flares, paddle leash, spare paddles, and survival gear are routinely carried; along with supplies of food and a flask of hot beverage for non-emergency use. GPS, charts, lights, radios and cell phones, and radar reflectors are also sometimes carried.

Forms of sea kayaking

Kayak Sailing on the Columbia River
Kayak Sailing on the Columbia River

Kayak sailing

Developed by kayak enthusiasts, Kayak sails can supplement or effectively eliminate the need for paddling. Using a sail can increase offshore range and allow longer expeditions. Use of a sail for touring has established a strong following with recreational sea kayakers, expedition paddlers, and adventure racers.

Sea Kayaking at Wilsons Promontory in Victoria, Australia

Expedition trips

Weekend trips with overnight camping are popular among recreational kayakers and many combine kayaking with wildlife watching. Modern sea kayaks are designed to carry large amounts of equipment and unsupported expeditions of two weeks or more are conducted in environments ranging from the tropics to the Arctic. Expedition kayaks are designed to handle best when loaded, so it may be necessary to ballast them on shorter trips.

Surf kayaking

Further information: Surf kayaking

Further information: Surf skis

Closely related to surf boards and requiring a mix of surfing and kayaking skills, a wide range of sea kayaks are specifically designed for the sport of surf kayaking.

Sea fishing

Main article: Kayak fishing

The sea kayak has long been a means of transportation and a means of accessing fishing grounds and kayak fishing has gained popularity due to the availability of purpose built stable designs. This technological development also solves some ergonomic problems that are associated with sitting for long hours without being able to change positions and special kayaks for fishing are accessorized for this sport, including specially-designed hatches, built-in rod holders, catch bags and equipment mounts.

Many of the techniques used in kayak fishing are the same as those used on other fishing boats. The difference is in the set-up, how each piece of equipment is fitted to the kayak, and how each activity is carried out on such a small craft. Contemporary kayaks can be equipped with fishing aids such as rod holders, electronic fish-finders and live-bait containers. Kayak anglers target highly prized bottom feeders like halibut and cod and also pelagics like amberjacks, tuna, sailfish, wahoo, and even marlin.

Pioneering sea kayak expeditions

Map of Oskar Speck journey (1932-1939) from Germany to Australia
Map of Oskar Speck journey (1932-1939) from Germany to Australia

See also


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