In our second installment of “instructor debates” we aim to explore which kayak material is better: plastic or composite. Kayak Dave and Alex weigh in:
Kayak Dave’s Take:
I’ve had the privilege to own and otherwise paddle many great kayaks over the years. Some were roto-molded plastic and others were composite lay-ups. I’ve come to appreciate both materials, albeit for entirely different reasons. My first kayak was plastic mostly because it was more affordable. I had a few great years paddling my plastic boat but found it to be too heavy and cumbersome. After a few years I was able to upgrade to a composite kayak and instantly enjoyed the increase in performance, especially with all of the time that I was spending on the water instructing. The stiffer and lighter hull was much more efficient and made the long days much easier. My composite kayak took a lot of abuse over the next five seasons of instructing from playing bumper boats with the kids to getting dragged over rocks to falling off of my car. She certainly has the cosmetic wear and starches to tell her tales but it otherwise still going very strong! More recently, I bought a plastic version of my composite boat as a loaner to friends and for those surf sessions where I’d rather not abuse my composite boat.
I always remind customers at the kayak shop about the importance of thoughtfulness in their material selection. Plastic kayaks will get you on the water at an affordable price. Most paddlers don’t spend enough time in their boats to warrant spending the money on the increased performance of a composite kayak. If you plan to paddle long distances or spend a considerable amount of time on the water then the added performance that you get out of a composite is worth every penny. Material selection is also a matter of personality. If you’re a perfectionist and don’t like to see scratches on your kayak then a plastic boat might be less stressful. You’re bound to hit a rock at some point in your paddling adventures. Finally your level of fitness should influence your choice in material. If you tire easily or can’t lift the heavier plastic kayaks onto your car then investing more money in a lighter composite kayak may make more sense because you’d be more likely to use it. Which is better a plastic kayak or a composite kayak? Neither. However, the correct choice for you can make a big difference.
We often find ourselves stuck in the functional perception that composite kayaks are strictly for the professionals. While this assumption will often prove true in most real-world circumstances, it should no way negate the capability of novice paddlers to happily own a composite boat. For example, there are several beginner kayak models designed for light-weight, stability, and maneuverability which are constructed from composite materials – the Lincoln Quoddy Lite is one particular kayak which comes to mind. On the other hand, many professional sea kayakers are proud owners of quality plastic kayaks which fit their own needs and capabilities.
Having worked within the retail kayak market, I have seen time and time again the situation in which an individual springs to purchase their first composite boat. Most individuals who move up the material ladder and purchase a composite kayak as their second or third kayak have been paddling for several years. Having felt that they have “outgrown” their old plastic kayak, most people trade-up to gain the advantages of light-weight handling. Here is where the most prevalent issue comes to fruition – many people who move from a plastic kayak to a more expensive composite kayak are so concerned with not “damaging their new boat” that they completely stop paddling all together. After a few extremely careful journeys on the water while avoiding all rocks, beach landings, sand, docks, children, buoys, and fellow paddlers they take their kayak home, wipe it down with a cloth baby diaper, and post it up on the wall in their garage never to be paddled again. This phenomena which arises during the purchase of a new composite boat rarely occurs with plastic kayak owners. The higher price tag and luxury appeal of composite kayaks forces the owner to view their new kayak as large investment which they want to protect.
Unfortunately, this is an all too common situation where individuals are so stricken with the leveraging fear of hurting their kayak that they avoid cosmetic damage at all costs. It is here where I propose the question: What is the purpose of having a beautiful kayak if you are not even going to use it? Kayaks are designed to be paddled – so I try to stress to new purchasers that it is important not to lose focus of why they purchased the new boat in the first place. The worst outcome that might happen is a few surface scratches or scuffs which are all strictly cosmetic, and rarely impede the performance of the kayak. Be sure always shine positive light on kayak “battle scars.”Remember… they add character to the boat and each blemish has a great story behind it.
That being said, it doesn’t matter whether one purchases a plastic kayak or a composite kayak as long as it fits their needs and their budget. It’s important not to let the price-tag dictate the amount of fun you’re going to have. Sure a shiny composite kayak looks great in your showroom or on top of your Subaru wagon, but letting the fear of surface nicks and scratches guide where you paddle is never a positive sign. I believe Dave would agree when I say that a kayak’s true character is revealed through its owner. Battle scars, whether on the hull or the deck, reflect a boat that has not only been used to its full potential but reveals a kayak that has been loved, mastered, and appreciated.