Speed. It's a paddle craft, so you are probably asking yourself how much of a difference is there. Is there really a big difference between 2mph and 3.5mph? I'm going to try and help you understand kayak speed and its importance.
Let's first cover a few things that affect the speed of a kayak. First is the width. That ever important balance between speed and stability. The wider the kayak the more stable, but it's also usually slower. Width is a great feature and one that has become a source of high importance for those looking for a more stable platform, but it does sacrifice some speed. Those looking for faster kayaks have to sacrifice width and some sense of increased stability. In the stability vs. speed balance equation, if one factor is increased the other is decreased by default.
The second attribute is the length. A longer kayak is usually faster than a shorter kayak. A longer kayak tracks much better, meaning it will tend to stay straight when you paddle. That means that your paddling is more efficient as your stroke causes the kayak to move forward and not wander left or right. Longer kayaks tend to have a sharper entry (bow), that helps the kayak cut through the water. This feature is important in fast currents, tides and/or waves.
The third point is overall weight. A 135-pound paddler in an empty 15' kayak is more efficient than a 135-pound paddler in an empty 10' kayak. However the same may not be true if the paddler in the 15' kayak has an additional 50 pounds of gear, or as stated earlier the width of the longer kayak is substantially wider than the shorter kayak.
Now to the next point, the strength of the paddler along with technique has a significant effect on overall speed and performance. A paddler more slight in build with not much upper body strength requires more effort paddling wider/heavier kayaks than larger muscled paddlers with more upper body strength. This is when the proper paddling techniques are the equalizing factor, no matter the paddler's stature. Proper paddling techniques is a very large subject to cover and unfortunately, I cannot cover everything in this blog post. There will be future blog posts about the proper paddling techniques for various situations, so please revisit the site often.
Now I would like to discuss what this all means when you read about particular kayak features/attributes. Many major kayak manufacturers use some sort of system to rate kayak attributes, most use a star or number rating. How does a kayak from one manufacturer with 4-star speed compare to a kayak from another rated 4 out of 5 in speed? By simply reading these ratings, you can't compare them effectively. It's figuratively apples to oranges. These rating systems are only valuable if you are comparing their kayak models only. For example when comparing a Jackson Kayak brand "Cuda" vs. "Kraken", the "Kraken" is rated faster based on their "star" rating system. In this case, their system is a good for comparison to their brand, but it does little good compared to other brands. For instance, the "Ocean Kayak" website uses a different rating system for their brand of kayaks as they are comparing only Ocean Kayak models and not Jackson Kayak models. The best way to judge a kayak is to paddle it in real water conditions, not in a pool. It's also best to test paddle kayaks one right after another. A few different models and a few different brands. You get an accurate comparison jumping from boat to boat. I suggest contacting your local kayak shop or retailer and/or kayak clubs to see if they have Demo Days that will allow you to try as many different brands and models as possible.
Now that we have discussed what affects speed, what does it all mean together when on the water? Is 1mph/1knot really a big difference in speed? If I paddle my kayak at 3.5mph on a lazy day compared to normal day paddling at 5mph, I paddle 30% slower. We usually think of speed directly linked to distance, like far we can go in how much time. It's a little different with a kayak. You can still look at it that way, but what if you looked at it as effort? How much more effort does it take you to cover the same distance in a kayak 30% slower?Increased wind, increased tide strength, rain, hunger, landed fish, are just a few factors that have positive and negative outcomes on distance and effort of the paddle. If you fish big open water, rivers, inshore saltwater, off-shore saltwater, or long days on the water your distance and effort of the paddle is a much larger factor than when fishing small ponds or for short periods of time. If it is a nice calm day on the pond during the demo day when you test paddle your kayak, you may say to yourself “this kayak is just fast enough, I can cover water efficiently”. However, expect it to be much slower in the wind, rain, against the current, after getting skunked, and/or lost equipment overboard. As bad weather, windy conditions, poor attitude, and being uncomfortable have a significant effect on the speed and performance of the paddler and by extension the kayak.