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KAYAK STABILITY

By Frank Ladd

A lot of people searching for new boats sometimes ask, "How can I tell if a kayak is too tippy for me?"

Kayak stability is often an individual issue. Play boaters and racers might put stability last on the list of boat traits when compared to turning ability or speed, because these paddlers rely on bracing skills to keep their boats upright. For them, the boat stability doesn't matter; it is all about the stability of the paddler.

However, these paddlers cannot let go of their paddle and take a picture or their boats will often go right over. When I see the fastest paddler I know, he is working very hard to brace his boat and keep it upright in the calm water of the launch area. He claims that speed really helps stabilize his boat. I wouldn't have a clue, because after he takes a few strokes he is out of sight. At a distance he looks like he is eating up the lake and he sometimes paddles about 10 MPH!

For me, having stability is a good thing. It lets me rest and get a drink or a snack. It lets me put down the paddle and take a picture. And it is faster for me in the long haul because I can concentrate on my forward stroke. So if I'm paddling a few miles a more tippy boat is fine, but for all day paddles I want a stable boat.

The funny thing is I think almost every boat is stable. Only the skinniest kayaks are not stable for me, but you may feel differently. So try the stability test when you are trying a new boat. In calm water, sit on the back deck and put down the paddle. Now cross your arms. How do you feel?

What Affects Stability?

In general stability is most affected by the width of the boat, the distribution of weight and buoyancy, and the shape of the bottom.

  • Wider boats are more stable, and sit on top kayaks greater than 28 inches in width are considered very stable.
  • Boats with high seats are less stable, yet higher seats make many paddlers more comfortable and faster.
  • Flat bottom boats are more stable but they do tend to adhere to the surface of the water which can make them tip over in bigger waves.
  • Round bottom boats are less stable but they are also less affected by the waves.

So flat bottom boats will be more stable on flat water with very small waves or none.

Modifications?

If the boat is too tippy you can make up for it by lowering the seat, adding weight or ballast, or simply by improving your balance.

Lowering your seat may be impossible or at best change the fit of your boat in ways you do not like. Improving your balance is the best way to achieve stability in a "tippy" kayak but it takes time and practice.

Adding ballast is a quick and easy way to lower your center of gravity if you do not mind the extra weight. Usually just 8 - 12 pounds of ballast will make a big difference in how stable a boat feels.

The best material to use for ballast is water because it has neutral buoyancy so it is heavy but will not cause a flooded boat to sink. To contain the water I've used hydration bags and 2 liter bottles with equally good results.

Optimally you want the weight very near your seat. In a Sit on top or other kayak with a higher seat you can often fix a water bag under the seat inside the hull. This lets you carry your water in a place where other things will not fit. In some sit on tops under the seat might be good but in others you'll want it right behind your seat or right in front of it. Sometimes paddlers put it just in front of their foot pegs.

Securing the ballast is very important. If the ballast can move around then it can make the boat less stable instead of more stable. You can tie the ballast in place or wedge it in place. I have had the best luck with wedging the ballast in place with inflatable flotation. Kayak float bags or even snorkeling float vests work well.

If your new boat still feels a little tippy after the first 10 hours or so, try some ballast when you are planning long paddling days. As you get better balance you may decide you need less ballast.

If your boat came stable enough to sit on the back deck comfortably with your feet on the seat, then it still will help to improve your balance. One way I improve my balance at the beginning of every paddle is to warm up in the boat by performing forward and reverse sweeps. Sweep strokes require maximum body rotation and engage your balancing muscles and your mind. I notice that the first 10 minutes in a boat is when I think it is the tippiest, so that is when I practice my sweep strokes and braces.

Another way to improve how a boat balances is to paddle from a higher position. Balance is a tricky thing that can be improved with training. It is amazing what you can get comfortable with over time. Paddling standing up is the highest you can get in your boat, but there are many increments along the way. One easy way is to simply add a thick pad on top of your seat whenever conditions are calm. Often raising a seat makes the boat more comfortable and improves the paddling ergonomics which increase the sprinting speed you can achieve. The next step might be to paddle from the back deck and later you can work on standing up in the boat. After all, kayaking is a recreational activity; you should have fun with it!

If you do not get to paddle as often as you like but you still want to have better balance when you do paddle there are all sorts of ways to improve your balance. Tai Chi and Yoga can be easily practiced for a short period each day, and these popular exercise systems will really improve your balance and flexibility.

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