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Choosing a Kayak Series: Stability Assessment

Posted by on January 17, 2012

Stability is one of the most important and complicated features to consider when buying a kayak. The stability of a kayak is it’s resistance to tipping. It can also be described as how “twitchy” it feels under you when sitting in the kayak on the water. Stability can have a major impact on the paddler’s confidence and the performance of the boat. This post identifies what to look for in the design of the kayak and how to test the kayak during an on-the-water demo in order to assess stability.

The stability of a kayak is a function of width, hull design and paddler. The width of the kayak provides a simple generalization of its stability. Simply put, the wider the kayak is the more stable it should be. In this sense, the wider, recreational kayaks are typically more stable than light-touring or sea kayaks. The second thing to consider is the hull shape. Look down the length of the kayak and visualize the shape at the middle. It should look like some version of a U or a V or a combination of these. The more shallow the hull shape (i.e. how wide the top of the U or V is) the more stable the kayak should be. Finally, you should consider yourself as the paddler when assessing the stability of a kayak. If you have great balance or quickly adapt to feelings of instability then many kayaks will feel acceptably stable to you. If you struggle with balance then what some may consider to be very stable may not feel that way to you. This is yet another reason why it’s important to try the boat on the water before buying.

Our discussion of stability gets a bit more complicated as we expand to consider the differences between a kayak’s primary and secondary stability. Simply put, the primary stability is how stable the kayak feels when sitting flat on the water. This is the stability discussed above and is usually the only one that most potential buyers consider to be important. The secondary stability is how stable the kayak feels when leaning the kayak onto its side. This is very important in sea kayaks where edging, bracing, and rolling rely on solid secondary stability. The transition between the two areas of stability can be described as slow or fast depending on what it feels like to move between primary and secondary stability. Your instructor or sales person may use the term “chine” to describe this transition area of the hull. A soft chine will produce a slow transition while a hard chine will produce a faster transition. Most sea kayakers appreciate a soft chine with solid secondary stability.

It’s important to test both the primary and secondary stability when participating in an on-the-water demo. To test the primary stability begin by sitting with the kayak flat on the water and see how it feels. If it feels very twitchy and you have not yet moved away from the dock then you can safely say that the kayak has low primary stability. Next, paddle the kayak in a straight line and reassess the primary stability. You may notice that the kayak becomes more stable when underway. This phenomenon is fairly common in more performance-oriented sea kayaks and racing kayaks that are capable of faster hull speeds. To test the secondary stability one should lean while performing a sculling brace on either side of the kayak. This will give you a feel for the transition to secondary stability and how solid the secondary stability is. Once you’re comfortable try a few edge turns to test the secondary stability while underway. Be prepared for the possibility of getting wet if you really push or get surprised by the secondary stability.

The best advice that I can give on the topic of stability is twofold. First, you must try each potential kayak on the water to get a good feel for what the kayak’s stability is like with you as a paddler. The information presented above is a good start but the bottom line is that stability is often in the feeling of the beholder. Second, don’t be too judgmental of the kayak’s stability the instant that you sit in it on the water. If the kayak feels marginally unstable then paddle it around a bit before you begin to analyze the stability. You may adapt to some initial twitching and end up really liking the kayak. I’ve had many customers that have eliminated a potential kayak just because of this, settled on an overly-stable model, and then returned a few years later to upgrade to something “more sporty.” You may be better off starting with something a little less stable to begin with. Chances are that you’ll adapt to it quickly and will then enjoy the added performance (speed) intrinsic to the slightly destabilized hull.

Happy Kayak Hunting!

-Kayak Dave

Comparison of Hull Shapes

3 Responses to Choosing a Kayak Series: Stability Assessment

  1. Red

    Demoing kayaks and leaning them over with the possibility of getting wet I wonder do you put on a spray skirt?

    • arrudad

      Hi Red:

      Yes, a spray skirt can certainly help to keep you more dry while testing the secondary stability of a kayak during a demo. However using a spray skirt often depends on the policies of the shop that you demo at. Most folks can get a sense of the secondary stability without a spray skirt by being careful not to edge it too far. I’ve been known to push the boundaries and end up with a lap-full of water! My best advice is to wear a bathing suit to your demo day and be prepared to get wet!

      -Kayak Dave

  2. berend schilder

    The best way to test secondairy stability would be to go out in rough waves. This stability not only shows itself in edging on flat water but also in staying upright on the flanks of each steep short wave. Meaning that these waves have very little grip on your hull. I have a Dawn Treader and after only one year of paddling I got scared shitless on flat water but once I dared to go out on the waves (beamside!) I realized how easy my pronounced v-shape kayak can be pushed straight up with a little hip balance and leg push. In other words: good secondairy stability means being less tippy in the first place and rather easy control in waves once you do start to tip. I still get scared sometimes because of the poor initial stability but in my mind I know it will be allright if I stay calm and focussed. However, the Dawn Treader is not your typical beginners kayak.

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