My first experience with a sit-on-top kayak was a terrifying one. With no help or information, I bought one on sale at a big box store and headed to the water. It was a 12’model with four scuppers near the bow and two beneath the seat. I was excited as I drove to a neighborhood lake for the maiden voyage.
The water was cold and muddy as I readied the kayak for launch. I waded out a few feet and turned to sit down into the seat. This is where things turned from a fun experience to a learning experience. As soon as my posterior hit the seat, the bow scuppers looked like fountains in Las Vegas and the seat scuppers gave me my first case of swamp butt.
I jumped out of the kayak wet, cold, and confused. I wasn’t sure what had happened, but it sure made me want my canoe back. Since I was already soaked, I decided to see how far down it would go and climbed back in. The kayak floated me but the cockpit was filled with water. As I paddled, the water would siphon out, but as soon as I stopped it would rush back in. It wasn’t a bad kayak manufacturer or design that caused the problem; I had exceeded the kayak’s weight rating.
Manufacturers assign weight ratings for two primary reasons: safety, and performance. An overloaded kayak is an unsafe one. It will be more apt to have problems with wind-driven waves, boat wakes, or current. Also, a paddler in a too-heavy kayak will be more likely to flip just due to moving their weight around while landing a fish, or reaching for gear.
An overloaded kayak will suffer poor performance. The bow will push through the water instead of the whole vessel gliding through it. This will wear out a kayaker in a short time. The paddler will have to fight to get the kayak up to speed, and when they stop paddling there will be very little glide due to the bow digging in.
Weight distribution is as important as weight limits. Even if it is below the rated limit, a poorly-positioned load will create its own issues. Too much weight in the stern area will make the kayak zigzag back and forth, and too much in the bow area will make the kayak nearly impossible to control. If too much weight is toward one side or the other it could lead to a tip over, or at least a sore back from the paddler leaning toward the high side of the boat.
Kayaks have two types of stability: primary, and secondary. Primary stability is how stable the kayak feels when you are sitting still and centered. This stability is the least affected by weight distribution. Secondary stability is how the kayak feels when you are leaning to the side. Poor weight distribution or overloading will greatly diminish secondary stability and can lead to dangerous or costly turnovers.
Some manufacturers add an ideal weight range to their specifications. I would recommend trying to stay below 70 percent of the rated weight of any kayak – and don’t forget to calculate your gear in the total. Some kayak anglers travel light, but there are days that fishing and camera gear adds another 50 lbs to my already stout total. If you are a live bait fisherman, a bait tank or bucket will really add the weight quickly.
Of course, one of the best ways to find out about any kayak is to join an informative group such as YakAngler.com and ask. Most of us have tried many different kayaks and we are a myriad of sizes. With a few short keystrokes, you can ask a question and receive an answer that will come from an experienced paddler. Just describe your height, weight, and the type of water you will be paddling, and help will be on the way.