Co-pilot Egg and I attended the beginner level kayaking class offered by Clintonville Outfitters tonight. They hold the class at Aquatic Adventures, a scuba and swimming training facility just a few minutes from our house. Our instructor, Matt, had trailered over a nice selection of kayaks to choose from, and Egg and I chose a pair of Hurricane Kayaks.
I was particularly interested in the Santee 100LT, which is a ten-foot recreational model weighing in at a mere 31 lbs. My 17 ft. touring model is a real strain for me to move at 47 lbs, so I was interested in looking at something lighter that I could move around by myself on those days when I want to take it to a reservoir or lake. I also wanted one that would be small enough for Egg to control. She took the 100LT and I went with the next larger model, the Santee 116. It too is significantly lighter than my Shearwater at 36 lbs.
After a brief introduction regarding some of the different types of kayaks available, we started the in-water training. Egg volunteered to be first in the water and had very little trouble getting into the boat. We were using a "deck launch," which is really just a way of saying that we stepped into the boat from the edge of the pool. On my two trips down the Darby, I didn't have the luxury of an edge to step off of, so I've been using a "get yourself all muddy with the nasty smelling crud on the banks of the river and then try to push yourself across the mud like a freshly born sea turtle" launch, which I'm here to tell you is a vastly inferior cousin to the deck launch.
As I cannon-balled myself into my boat, narrowly avoiding an ignominious plunge into the water, Egg paddled off across the pool. Much like my single experience with snow skiing, she almost immediately learned that getting moving is pretty easy, but getting stopped is an entirely different story. Without the benefit of an actual river stretching off in front of her, it was just a matter of time before she pranged into the far side of the pool.
It was a small class with only four students and Matt, but even with just five boats in the water it quickly degenerated into a kind of slow-motion, water-borne bumper car fiasco. At least until we started getting the hang of turning, anyway. I noticed a couple of things about the Santee as compared to my Shearwater right away: it is much easier to turn, and the seat is MUCH more comfortable. The comfort factor was greatly increased by the type of PFD (life jacket) that I was wearing. I've been using a cheap Wal-Mart ski-type PFD, and it is very uncomfortable in the small confines of the Shearwater's cockpit. The PFD I was using tonight was specifically designed for use in a kayak and thus was orders of magnitude more comfortable.
The easier turning thing was a mixed blessing. The bad thing about the Shearwater is that it takes some effort to get it to turn, but the good thing about it is that it takes some effort to get it to turn. It turns out to be situationally dependent as to whether it's good or bad. When you want to apply some power strokes and stay in a straight line, its tendency to stay straight is a plus. But if you let it get away from you and get into a situation where you need to get it turned quickly, well, not so much.
After paddling around awhile, Matt had us all move to the edge of the pool. This is where he demonstrated the stability of these boats. This is exactly the part that I wanted Egg to experience because she had said that she was afraid of the boat tipping over. These recreational boats are far broader in the hips than my Shearwater is. They're more like the Oprah of kayaks, while my boat is more like a Keira Knightley model. (Use Google images if that comparison doesn't mean anything to you - you'll see what I mean). Anyway, what it all comes down to is that the only way to tip one of these boats is to really want to.
So, having proven to us that it is pretty hard to tip one of these boats over, Matt's next assignment to us was to immediately forget that lesson and tip them over anyway. Which we did. It wasn't very hard to do deliberately, but I did manage to bang my head on the bottom of the boat while I was under it, and Egg, being in a perpetual contest of oneupsmanship with me, promptly banged herself in the face with hers. The point of getting us out of the boats was, of course, for us to learn how to get back in. Let me tell you, even with a boat having the hips of a brood mare, that is one helluva hard job to do. I found it to be reasonably possible if I was in the shallow end of the pool and I could essentially just jump in, but when I went down to the deep end I found it to be much more of a challenge.
The problem was that when you turn the boat back to right side up, it's full of water. That extra weight naturally makes it sit far lower in the water, and it becomes much tippier. You have to kick with your feet to get yourself up out of the water and straddled across the boat, but when you try to get yourself actually back down into the boat, you will either tip over to the side you're climbing in from, or flip right over the far side. It was roughly 50-50 for me as to which side I would flip towards. Eventually I learned to get straddled on the boat and then ever.so.carefully move around to get back down inside of it. Even with an abundance of patience and caution, I'd dump myself right back out 80% of the time. And boy howdy, is it ever TIRING!
This difficulty in getting back into the boat finally made me realize why you want to be able to roll the boat. If I had this much trouble getting back into a boat with hips that could graciously be described as "child bearing," I would have no hope of getting back into my anorexic Shearwater. With the roll, you simply (well, probably not "simply") stay in the boat. Unfortunately, the roll is a topic for the as-yet-unscheduled advanced class. I'll be watching the Clintonville Outfitters web site for that, though, because I can't see going out in deep water without knowing how to do it, and I really want to explore some of the local lakes and reservoirs. For now, though, I'm fine with periodic trips down the Darby.
Egg seemed to have a great time, or at least is no longer afraid of the boat. I asked how much the Santee 100LT costs, but it's a bit steep at $678 or so. There's another light boat called the Featherlite 9.5 made by Heritage Kayaks that's cheaper, but reportedly at a lower level of quality. Affordability is, of course, a desirable quality in and of itself, so it becomes more a question of exactly how much lower in quality it is. Matt was using a Heritage Kayaks boat and managed to stay afloat (and dry, the bastard) for the entire class, so it can't be too bad and a price difference of roughly $225 is pretty significant. It's not like it would see the hard use of a rental or white water boat, after all.
So, great fun, albeit fun that I will pay for tomorrow with sore muscles. I'm very definitely looking forward to the advanced class, and I want to stop by the shop and see how much a better PFD is going to cost me.