Upper James River Water Trail

First Things

Naming of Parts—Kayaks

By Tamia Nelson

It used to be that canoes were far and away the most common type of recreational paddlecraft on the water. In recent years, though, this has started to change. Kayaks—think of them as skinny, shallow canoes with lids—have soared in popularity, and now they're everywhere you look. Maybe that's why you're thinking about getting one.

Kayaks come in a great variety of lengths and widths, but they all share some common characteristics. The accompanying illustration will help you figure out what's what. It's a picture of a solo kayak—that is, a kayak meant to be paddled by one person. If it were a tandem kayak, it would have two seats.

Kayaks—Inside and 
Out

You'll find the seat in a solo boat by looking inside the cockpit, the large hole in the deck. (The bottom half of a kayak is the hull; the top half is the deck.) A kayak's seat can either be suspended from the cockpit rim or set directly on the bottom of the boat. The smaller holes toward the ends of many boats are hatches. They let you stow gear under the bow (front) and stern (rear) deck, and then they let you get it out again without growing five-foot-long arms. Hatches are closed with watertight covers. At least the covers are supposed to be watertight. And some of them are, at least some of the time.

Cockpit shapes and sizes vary. Some Greenland-style sea kayaks have small, nearly circular cockpits. The cockpits in most modern recreational and touring boats, though, are larger ovals. This is a good thing if you're not as slim as you used to be. Folding kayaks—kayaks made with removable fabric covers stretched over hinged wood or metal frames—often have bigger cockpits still. Large or small, however, the cockpits of most kayaks can be covered by a spray skirt, a sort of waterproof kilt that you pull around your waist and then slip over the cockpit rim, or coaming. This keeps the water where it belongs—outside the boat.

Inside your kayak, you'll probably find two footbraces. These are usually screwed or riveted along the seams of the boat, or (in poly boats) in the places where the seams would be, if poly boats had seams. You rest the balls of your feet against the footbraces and nestle your knees against recesses or pads on the underside of the deck. If you've got things adjusted just right, your boat will almost become an extension of your body. Total control! It's a good feeling.

Often there are foam partitions inside a kayak, too. These are called walls or bulkheads. They're glued or otherwise fastened in place, where they act as stiffeners and help to prevent the deck from collapsing. (This is only a problem if a capsized boat is pinned against a rock or other obstacle. It's not something most flatwater paddlers need to worry about.) Bulkheads can also be used to seal off one or both ends of the kayak, forming watertight storage compartments for your gear. You load these compartments through the aforementioned hatches.

If you really get into kayak touring, you'll probably want to outfit your boat with all sorts of gadgets, from a deck compass to a bilge pump. By that time, though, you won't need much help from me. You'll be well on your way to becoming an expert. 'Nuff said.

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