Kayaks for Big People

from Wes Boyd's Web site

Sometimes, it seems like kayaking is another place where the shrimps get all the breaks. It seems like all the really cool boats are shrimp boats, designed for someone standing about 5'8" and weighing maybe 150 lbs. If you're much over that size, the selection thins out rapidly. There seem to be a lot of "extra small" boats on the market, but not many those of us that fall into the "extra large" category.

Well, there are a few boats out there designed for the big guys and gals. Not many, but a few. I've put together this list of a few of the available boats for big people. It's not complete, but probably does cover the majority of easily available bluewater boats for full size people.

A few caveats:

  • Most important: A boat can haul a load that could break down a pack horse, track like an arrow, turn on a dime and be fast as the wind, but if you can't get in and out easily, and be comfortable in it for several hours, it is not the boat for you. The only way to be sure it fits you is to try it on; if it doesn't fit, look elsewhere.
  • The boats on this list are chosen with a 350-lb. capacity miniumum and with the reasonable expection or actual experience that my 300-lb. mass can fit in the cockpit. However, I have not tried out all these boats, as much as I'd like to.
  • Several of the boats, such as the Necky Looksha IV and the Nimbus Telkwa, come in various sizes. Where there are several sizes of boats of interest to us big people, I've only listed the biggest version for the sake of space.
  • Some boats are largely regional boats, such as Nomad, Pacific Water Sports and Nimbus. These boats may not be available for demonstrations across the country.
  • Many capacities are estimated. Manufacturer's published capacities (if published at all) are often nowhere in contact with reality, due to potential liability concerns. Many of the capacities given in this list were derived from a list provided by Bidarka Boats of Sitka, Alaska, which seems to reflect reality pretty well. Where a boat was not listed on the Bidarka list, its capacity was interpolated from other boats near its size. However, capacity figures should be taken with a grain of salt, as this is not an exact science.
  • Boat weights for composite boats are the manufacturer's stated weights in fiberglass. Most composite boats are available in a kevlar layup, which saves about 5 to 10 pounds per boat, on the average. Many published boat weights represent a good share of wishful thinking, anyway, especially for rotomolded boats. Add at least ten percent to get a little closer to reality; if that figure proves too high, you can be pleasantly surprised.
  • Some cockpit sizes are measured inside of the rim to inside. Others from outside to outside, which can turn a promising big guy boat into a too-small one very quickly. I've actually measured a few boats, but not all of them. I guess that says that you can't take these figures as gospel.
  • Prices are taken from the 2000 Canoe and Kayak Buyer's Guide, and may have changed -- or you may be able to get a better deal. Sale prices, a boat's history as a demo or rental boat, or other factors can result in huge savings.
  • Opinions are strictly my own unless otherwise stated, and yes, I may have made transcription errors, too.

    Rotomolded Boats

    Model Mfr. Length Beam Depth Cockpit Wt. Cap. List (US$)
    Millennium 174 Old Town 17"4' 23" 13" 34"x17" 60 lb 325 lb+ $1249
    Looksha-IV Necky 17' 23" 12" 29.5"x16" 64 lb 350 lb $1320
    Sealution II XL WS 17' 23.5" 14.75" 32"x16.75" 64 lb 250 lb+ $1199
    Storm Curr Design 17' 24" 13" 32.5"x17.5" 64 lb 400 lb $1395
    Narpa Necky 16'5" 24" 12" 31.5"x18" 64 lb 350 lb $1320
    Heron Old Town 16"3' 24" 13" 34"x17.25" 59 lb 300 lb+ $919
    Eclipse Perception 16'1" 24" 14" ? 65.5 lb 360 lb N/A

    + - Manufacturer's stated capacities. When compared with other boats with similar specifications, these appear very conservative. By comparison, the capacity for these boats is probably 350-375 lbs.

    Comments on Rotomolded Boats

    NECKY LOOKSHA IV and NECKY NARPA: If it weren't for Necky, the list of available boats for full-size people would be a heckuva lot more sparse, but Mike Neckar, Necky's founder, is one of us big guys and his boats reflect it. Though these boats are similar in size, the Narpa is usually considered more the touring boat, even if it is a little shorter. The Looksha, in plastic, anyway, reportedly turns quicker. I find both a snug fit, the Looksha especially so, but really can't compare the two in on-water characteristics.

    OLD TOWN HERON and OLD TOWN MILLENNIUM: I am not an employee of Old Town Canoe, nor is this a paid endorsement. I own an Old Town Heron, and I like it. It's one of the smaller "big guy" boats, but it's just big enough for me, although I do wish it were a little bigger. It's a good boat, built well at a very reasonable price that fits me reasonably well (it has about the fourth biggest cockpit on these lists, right behind the big composite Neckys and the Thunderbird), its plastic work is about the best and stiffest in the industry, avoiding several problems common with other boats, and the boat is capable of doing what I want it to do. You really can't ask for much more than that. I know that the Heron is often passed over by people that think that Old Town isn't "exotic" enough to build real kayaks. It's their loss. Granted, the Heron isn't perfect -- its hatches and bulkheads leak like most plastic boats, the seat, while comfortable to sit in isn't built for rolling, the boat is delivered rather barren of accessories like lifelines, the cockpit rim is too narrow to keep a spray skirt on easily, and so on. Most of the problems are easily solved or tolerated. If you want more ranting, check out I Paddle An Old Town Heron. If you want the manufacturer's ranting, check out Old Town Canoe.

    Much of the above comments on the Heron apply to the Millennium 160 and 174. In general, theseboats are somewhat snugger in the cockpit than the Heron, although space was still adequate for me when I tried them out. Both the Millenniums are hard trackers, but do turn a little better than the Heron. They are quite a bit narrower, though, and the initial stability is noticably less than the Heron's, although the secondary stability is still pretty good. Capacity is somewhat less, especially on the 160, although when I paddled the 160 at about 50 lbs over stated capacity it didn't seem as sluggish as the Heron when it was similarly overloaded. The Millennium seats are snug and not as good a fit as the Heron's. I think the lines of both Millenniums are very pretty, especially the 174's, and wish they were available in fiberglass. The 174 was the only plastic boat to make the "Final Four" list of my recent boat purchase.

    PERCEPTION ECLIPSE: This is the old "Sea Lion", one of the most popular of the large plastic sea kayaks. I only had a few minutes in one on flat water, and didn't notice anything too out of tthe way. It is a little softer tracker than the Old Towns, and cockpit size is ample. I don't particularly care for Perception's single-layer plastic layup, however, and other examples of this boat that I have seen have evidence of considerable thermal instability, which is fifty cent words for saying that if you're not careful, you can get some interesting warps and dents.

    WILDERNESS SYSTEMS SEALUTION II XL: Whenever the subject of boats for big people comes up, especially in plastic, the Sealution II XL is usually the first boat brought up, especially by people that don't know better and think they do. In fact, it's on the small side, both in terms of capacity and cockpit size, for a big guy boat. In addition, I was not impressed by its handling -- it really needs a rudder. With the rudder up, I found that it tracks poorly, but commences a turn well -- but doesn't want to come out of the turn without excessive force and will power. I can say, "It doesn't fit" about a lot of boats, but the Sealution II XL is one of the few that I've come across that I can say "I don't like," over and above the size issues. Your mileage, of course, may vary. For more information, try Wilderness Systems.

    CURRENT DESIGNS STORM: Having a great opinion of the Current Designs composite boats, I was expecting great things from the plastic CD Storm when I tried one on at a show. However, I was disappointed -- while the fit was snug but adequate, I found the plastic work mediocre and floppy. When I flexed my ankles and knees into a brace position, I could lift the bow what looked like three or four inches. It's plastic boats doing these sort of things that gives plastic a bad reputation. Your mileage may vary, but I didn't like the boat. I have not tried one of these on the water, and it could well give a better impression there. For more information, contact Current Designs.

    Fiberglass/Composite Boats

    Model Mfr. Length Beam Depth Cockpit Wt. Cap. List (US$)
    Eskimo 18-6 Easyrider 18'6" 24.75" 14.25" ? 59 lb ? lb. $3000
    Telkwa HV Nimbus 18'3" 24.25" 14" 32.75"x18.75" 62 lb 400 lb $2523
    Looksha-IV HV Necky 17'8" 24" 12" 32"x16.5" 55 lb 400 lb $2395
    Solstice-GTSHV Curr Design 17'7" 22.5" 13.75" 31"x16" 55 lb 350 lb $2595
    Serenity Formula 17'6" 23.5" 14.25" 32"x17" ? ? $1450*
    Thunderbird PWS 17'6" 28.25" 14.5" 35.5"x19.5" 65 lb 500 lb $2800
    Pinta Necky 17'4" 27" 15" 36"x19" 60 lb 500 lb $2575
    Wind Dancer Eddyline 17'1" 24" 14" 35"x17" 60 lb 450 lb $2585
    Vagabond Nomad 17" 24" 13.5" 31.5"x18.5" 48 lb ? lb $1795*
    Tesla NM Necky 17" 24" 13" 32"x16" 55 lb 400 lb $2395
    Vision Seaward 17" 24.5" 16" 32"x16.5" 55 lb ? lb $2495
    Raven Eddyline 16'9" 22.5" 13" 31.5"x17" 56 lb 360 lb $2559
    Viking Seda 16'6" 25" 13" 33"x16" 46 lb 350 lb $1350

    Comments on Fiberglass/Composite Boats

    CURRENT DESIGNS SOLSTICE GTSHV: I've tried on the CD Solstice GTHV and GTSHV at shows, but not on the water. However, the fit is pretty good, and with the thigh braces removed would be better. I suspect that the wider GTHV might be a little more comfortable and docile. I liked the handling of the snugger GT well enough that the GTHV was provisionally on the "Final Four" list for my recent boat purchase, pending an on the water test, but it proved to be difficult to find a place to demo. I still would like to try one on the water. For more information, contact Current Designs.

    EASYRIDER ESKIMO 18-6, ESKIMO 17 and SEA HAWK: (Note: specs only given above for the 18-6.) I have not seen these boats, and they are apparently hard to find to demo; the only dealer is in the Pacific Northwest, but they are advertised nationwide. Though they have some interesting design features, I've heard it said in online discussion groups that quality control suffers, and some people don't like the handling. The innovative rudder system also reportedly causes foot room to suffer. Try before you buy.

    EDDYLINE WIND DANCER: The Wind Dancer is a fairly decently handling boat that will carry a load, if not necessarily in the cockpit. The one I tried on was pretty snug, although adequate, and I was well locked into position -- but stretching or squirming to relieve leg cramps might be a bit difficult. The dealer said that the Wind Dancer I demoed was an older one, and that the cockpit has been aired out on the newer ones; a little work on the seat would have helped the one I paddled. I didn't particularly care for the highly cathederaled cross-section of the deck; while it may aid water runoff, it seems to me to add a lot of side wind resistance without adding a great deal of volume. The Wind Dancer has been around longer than many of the other boats on this list, and the chances of picking one up used at a decent price are therefore a little better than others. Also, if a medium sized paddler wanted to haul a big load, say, for an extended trip, the Wind Dancer would be an excellent candidate; one was recently used for a three-week paddle across the Gulf of Mexico, chosen for this reason. For more information try Eddyline. I've not tried on an Eddyline Raven, but suspect that it might be a bit snug for a guy my size.The Wind Dancer was also on my "Final Four" list, at least, sort of; I wanted to try on the longer, narrower Eddyline Sea Star as a possible replacement, but didn't get the opportunity.

    MID-CANADA FIBERGLASS FORMULA SERENITY This is a new boat that has a lot of possibilties. Mid-Canada is better known for Scott Canoes. I tried this out at the same time as the Telkwa and the Vision, and the handling in high winds, without the skeg, was a little worse than the Telkwas, but not a lot worse. A number of people besides myself have commented on the sweet handling. It has much more rocker than many big guy boats, and a skeg, instead of a rudder. It's solidly built, although I had the impression that the hatch covers might be a little fragile, and I found the skeg control sticky on the boat I tried. Still, I was quoted a price in Canadian dollars that converted to about $1450 US for a new fiberglass boat, which certianly makes it a contender in the price war. For more information, try Scott Canoes. The web page did not have a picture of a Serenity when I checked, but it looks somewhat similar to the Diamante.

    NECKY LOOKSHA IV HV and NECKY TESLA NM: As I said above, Mike Neckar, Necky's founder, is one of us big guys and his boats reflect it. And, no more so than in the "High Volume" version of the popular Looksha IV. Most designers, if designing a "high volume" boat would just add on an inch to the depth and call it good enough. Not Necky! The Looksha IV HV is a genuine redesign that resembles its shrimpier brother. Eight inches longer, two inches wider, an inch deeper, a much bigger cockpit, much improved capacity -- plus retaining the Looksha handling and stability. The thing that kept if off my "Final Four" list is that there aren't a lot of HV's out there, and I was unable to find one to demo. I did try out a Tesla, and found it a little snug.

    NECKY PINTA and PACIFIC WATER SPORTS THUNDERBIRD: If the Looksha IV HV isn't big enough for you, you're left with the Pacific Water Sports Thunderbird and the Necky Pinta. They're similiar in size -- the Necky is a couple inches shorter and a bit narrower -- but both have true 500 pound capacities and good performance. You're going to have to be a real big guy or gal to need something the size of the Thunderbird or the Pinta. The Thunderbird is the granddaddy of the really big singles. Unfortunately, it's pretty much a regional boat, and unless you live in the Pacific Northwest, getting one to demo is going to be difficult. Demoing a Pinta should be easier, as Necky has dealers nationwide. However, smaller dealers may not stock a relatively rare bird like the Pinta, so you may have to search for a bit.

    NIMBUS TELKWA HV and SEAFARER: (Note: Specs above only given on the Telkwa HV.) A very highly regarded kayak builder calls this competitor's boat "very impressive", noting that it'll fit a 250-280 pound or larger guy -- and that's nice words to have about the competition! This is a regional boat, mostly in the northwest, and I figured that it would be a long time before I saw one. However, there are two dealers east of the Rockies, and I was able to paddle both the regular Telkwa and the HV version, but not the Seafarer. The Telkwas are very well done, with many well thought out details. My first trials were in a very strong wind, and I found the handling adequate with the rudder up and exceptional with it down, although the HV, with its higher profile, does get blown around a little more. In calmer waters, handling is good. It's a rather hard tracker, but turns reasonably without the rudder and edges well. Initial stability is very good, maybe too good, and secondary stability is awesome.The HV actually felt a little big for me, something I never expected to find in a kayak this side of the Pinta or Thunderbird, and the regular Telkwa was on the verge of too large. I wound up buying a regular Telkwa, and will post a detailed report on it when I've had a chance to become more familiar with it, but for an initial reaction, see Telkwa to Goose Bay. For more information, try Nimbus/Rainforest Designs. In addition, Sea Kayaker Magazine gave it a glowing review. (I'm a little mistrustful of SK reviews, however -- while they always seem to find something to pick at, I've never seen a truly bad review.)

    NOMAD VAGABOND: I have not paddled one of these Quebec-made boats, but from the specs it looks like a possible contender, and certianly in the price war. It's listed at $2450 CDN, and that works out to about US$1700 at current exchange rates. One of the interesting things about the Nomad is that it's available in a kit form. If you're at all good with tools you can do a few hours finish work and save yourself an extra $750 CDN (about US$500). There are a few dealers around where they can be demoed, too, and I'd want to try before buying. For more information, try Nomad Kayaks.

    SEAWARD VISION and NAVIGATOR: These are big boats that are commonly used in rental fleets. They have lots of foot room, but have a reputation for stiff tracking, especially the Navigator. I tried out a Vision at the same time as the Nimbus Telkwa, and found the Vision virtually unmanagable in high winds with the rudder up, and difficult with it deployed. For more information, Seaward Kayaks.

    SEDA VIKING: I have tried on a Viking, but not paddled it, mostly because I found it uncomfortably snug in the seat. Someone with a little smaller hind end might end up liking this boat. For a number of reasons, fiberglass Sedas cost considerably less that comparable fiberglass boats, with near level quality. They deserve a serious look; more information is available from Seda Kayaks. Like the Sealution and the Wind Dancer, the Viking has been around long enough that there's a shot at finding a resonably priced used one.

    Others for possible consideration

  • I've been told that the Wilkinson Boat Enetai HP and Polaris II are good big guy boats, but I can't find any data.
  • I've exchanged e-mail with a guy about my size who has been transferred to Sweden by his company for a while. He's very happy with a boat he bought there called a Seagull Ocean. It's fiberglass, about 17'4", 25.2" wide, 12.2" deep, and a cockpit of 17.3"x38.6". Weight is 55 lbs., and capacity close to 400 lbs. Cost in Sweden is about $2400. It's not imported into North America as far as I know, but if you're planning on visiting Sweden, try Vitudden. I'm looking forward to trying this boat out when he brings his back to Michigan in a couple years! In addition, this boat might have some potential is a distributor were looking for a new line.
  • A Canadian boat that I don't have full specs on is the Boreal Narwhal. It's about 16' long and 24" wide, is stable and edged well in a brief trial. I was quoted a price in Canadian dollars that converted to about $1650 US, so it could be a good deal on a smaller big guy boat.
  • Another possibility for a big big-guy boat is the Kruger Dreamcatcher. Verlen Kruger has paddled any number of extreme long distance trips in his Kruger Loon, a semi-decked canoe -- one trip was 28,000 miles! The Dreamcatcher is an updated kayak version, and is very beefy compared with what we normally think of as a kayak. The deep hull version is 17'2" long, 28" wide and 15.5" deep, and weighs 71 pounds in kevlar, the only way it's available. Kruger gives the capacity at 400 lbs, and that's probably conservative. The cost is $3900 for a boat that's laid up by Kruger himself, but where else are you going to find a kayak with an optional Bimini top?.

    Some downers -- and the reasons why

  • I had listed the Prijon Kodiak in the rotomolded section, but removed it after discovering that the advertised "18-inch wide cockpit" tapes out at 16 inches. It does appear to be an interesting boat for a moderately big guy, and several of the new glass Prijons, while not big guy boats, appear to be good looking boats at good prices.
  • A British boat freak suggested that I ought to have a couple of British Boats on here, and he specifically recommended the rotomolded Valley Skerrey RMX (the extra-large version of the Skerry) and the P&H Orion. I tried both of the boats on, and neither fit my very first requirement: I couldn't get into them comfortably. In fact, I'd have to say that I couldn't get into either one of them at all. There's no hope on the Skerrey, it's just not a big-guy boat. Although my legs aren't particularly long for my body, there wasn't enough room between the front bulkhead and the seat back to get my legs under the deck, or to get my butt far enough into the boat to give a test to the width issue. If that's their "extra large" boat, their regular size must really be built for shrimps.
  • The P&H Orion, on the other hand, is almost a big guy boat. I still couldn't get all the way into it, because of a seat that was so narrow that I couldn't hit bottom. However, I'm told that this is one of four seat designs available, and probably the smallest, so further investigation is called for. I might do it some time, even though it was still a snug fit, mostly because P&H boats strike me as far and away the best of the British lines, better and more realistic than the Valley and Romany boats that are commonly imported.

    Some Closing Thoughts

    IF YOU ARE A FIRST-TIME BUYER, don't worry too much about getting the perfect boat the first crack out of the box. Get one that you can get into and out of comfortably, preferably used and don't bypass the rotomolded boats. There are a fair number of used Sealutions, Chinooks and Sea Lions out there that will serve you through the first part of the learning curve; there are fewer used Narpas and Herons, but the latter is available new at an attractive price. And don't overlook the possibility of a new or used fiberglass Seda Viking. Or, buy a recreational boat like an Old Town Loon or a Wilderness Systems Keowee as that first boat -- mine was a Loon. Spend a year with that boat, learning how to handle it and getting some feeling for what you want in the next boat, trying out various possibilities based on what you enjoy doing and what you want to do with it -- and not what someone else would do with it, either. Then, you can sell the first boat to someone else for almost what you paid for it, and have a boat that's a little closer to what you want -- and what you want probably won't be what you thought you wanted the year before. The time will come when you're probably not satisfied with it, either, and will be shopping again . . . get used to it.

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    Updated June 8, 2000