Recreational Kayaks vs Sea Kayaks: What’s the Difference?

When looking at kayaks, one of the first things that novice paddles notice that modern kayaks seem to come in different types.

For instance, some are short and wide while others are long and slim. In addition, some are designed such that the paddler sits on top of the kayak while others are designed such that the paddler sits inside. Then, to further complicate matters, the different types of kayaks have different names such as sit-on-top and sit-inside as well as recreational, day touring, and expedition.

Therefore, one of the most frequently asked question by novice kayakers is what is the difference between a recreational kayak a sea kayak or, touring kayak as they are sometimes known, and why should a paddler choose on over the other?

Recreational Kayak: Beginner’s Choice

Recreational kayaks are for beginners that just want to have FUN!

What defines a “recreational kayak” and why would a paddler want to purchase one?

Well, the answer to that question is that a recreational kayak is mainly defined by its intended purpose. Therefore, as the name implies, a recreational kayak is specifically designed for recreation.

Now, while that may sound like an oxymoron, in this particular case, the term “recreation” is defined as leisure pastime pursued by novice paddlers who have a preference for paddling on protected waters while remaining close to shore and paddling over relatively short distances and/or for relatively short periods with very light to no gear load.

Thus, in short, recreational kayaks are specifically designed for novice paddlers who simply want an inexpensive means of spending a day paddling on the water while exploring shorelines or paddling with family or friends and thus, they are perfect for novice paddlers of all ages ranging from the very young to the elderly. Consequently, recreational paddlers generally prefer a kayak with a high degree of initial stability and a high degree of maneuverability as well as one that is easy to store and transport.

So, now that you know why a paddler would want to purchase a recreational kayak, the next question is what does a recreational kayak look like?

Well, the answer to that question is that recreational kayaks encompass both sit-inside and sit-on-top kayaks and are defined by relatively short lengths generally ranging from 9 feet to 12 feet and relatively wide beams (width) ranging from 28 to 36 inches.

In addition, they generally have a relatively high degree of rocker (the amount of curvature in the hull from bow to stern) in order to make them highly maneuverable without the need to lean them on their sides. Furthermore, they generally have extra large cockpit openings to make them easy to enter and exit as well as to make room for a child or a dog to ride along.

Therefore, recreational kayaks appear to be short and wide with extra large cockpits compared to sea kayaks which are generally long and slim with relatively small cockpit openings.

Sea Kayaks: Day Touring, Racing and Expedition Kayaks

So, now that you know what a recreational kayak is and why a paddler would want to purchase one, the next question is…

what is a “sea kayak” and why would a paddler want to purchase a sea kayak instead of a recreational kayak?

Well, in this particular case, the term “sea kayak” encompasses three different purposes which, in turn, encompasses three different types of kayaks. For instance, sea kayaks are generally divided into day touring kayaks, expedition kayaks, and racing kayaks and, both day touring and racing kayaks consist of both sit-inside and sit-on-top kayaks whereas, expedition kayaks tend be sit-inside designs only. Some of them are foldable.

Day touring kayaks are both longer and slimmer than recreational kayaks which makes them both faster and less maneuverable than “rec boats”. Thus, they commonly range from 14 to 18 feet in length and have beams (width) that range from as little as 20 inches to as much as 25 inches. In addition, sit-inside day touring kayaks generally feature significantly smaller cockpit openings than recreational kayaks do and, they also feature more sheer (the curvature of the gunwale).

Thus, both their bow and stern feature a distinct rise to aid them in riding over waves.

Wave riding on a kayak

But, sit-on-top day touring kayaks all have open cockpits and significantly less sheer and thus, they are far wetter to paddle than a sit-inside kayak is.

Expedition kayaks on the other hand are both somewhat longer and slightly wider than day touring kayaks and thus, they generally range in length from 17 to 20 feet in length and have beams (width) that range from as little as 22 inches to as much as 26 inches. In addition, they also have smaller cockpit openings than recreational kayaks do and they also have higher decks than day touring kayaks so that they have more internal dry storage space in their holds.

Plus, they also feature more sheer than a recreational kayak in order to improve their performance in rough water. However, due to that fact that expedition kayaks are specifically designed to enable a paddler to embark on extended, multi-day, paddle trips, by carrying both the paddler, their camping gear, dry bags, their food, and their water, they are only available in sit-inside designs.

Racing kayaks are the longest and slimmest of all sea kayaks and thus, they are also the least maneuverable and the least stable. In fact, racing kayaks are seldom shorter than 18 feet and are sometimes as long as 22 feet and they often range in width from as little as 18 inches to as much as 21 inches. Plus, racing kayaks are also available in both sit-inside and sit-on-top kayak designs. However, when paddled by an experienced kayaker, they are amazingly fast for a sea kayak.

Consequently, because more advanced paddlers often like to strike out for parts unknown rather than limiting themselves to paddling close to a dock or landing or, only making short excursions along the shoreline, they require a kayak that is faster and less maneuverable than recreational paddlers.

Also, due to their advanced paddling skills, they can also afford to sacrifice a bit of initial stability for an increase in speed and a gain in secondary stability which makes the kayak more stable in rough seas but less stable in calm water.

Therefore, when looking at a sea kayak versus a recreational kayak, the difference is immediately obvious in that the recreational kayak will be relatively short and wide while the sea kayak will relatively long and slim.

A Sit-Inside sea kayak

In addition, it will also be immediately obvious that recreational kayaks have relatively large cockpit openings while sea kayaks have relatively small cockpit openings.

From there, other differences such the amount of sheer the gunwale has and how much rocker the hull has also help to distinguish a recreational kayak from a sea kayak. But, more than that, recreational kayaks are specifically designed to appeal to an entirely different class of paddlers than sea kayaks are because they are designed for an entirely different type of paddling experience.

When choosing a kayak, it is very important that you take the time to lean the difference between the many different types in order to make certain that you choose the type that is best suited for your intended purpose.

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