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Before You Rush Out and Buy Your First Boat

A little over a month ago, I ventured into a local REI store to look for certain paddling accessories. Now I love REI and shop there frequently. I also went into my local Dicks store to see about getting some swim goggles and nose plugs for practicing my Eskimo rolls. What do these stores have in common with one another and with Cabelas, Costco, Fred Meyer, Walmart, and a host of other big box stores? They all sell kayaks of one brand or another, some higher quality than others. What they also have is a lack of informed staff when it comes to properly outfitting the kayaker with the correct gear.

In many of the stores, it’s even hard to find a sales person to help, as was the case in the REI store I visited. I stumbled upon a couple who were considering getting into kayaking. The woman was holding a kayak paddle that was nearly a foot longer than her extended arm and hand. The man was holding a kayaking paddle designed for fishing. With no sales person in sight, I walked over to the couple, introduced myself, and proceeded to ask them some very basic questions about kayaking.

I first asked them what type of kayaking did they plan on doing? It turned out this couple was interested in purchasing a tandem recreation kayak. I also inquired what type of water they planned on paddling? Their response was that they mainly planned to use the boat on lakes and calm rivers.

After several minutes, a sales person had yet to appear to assist this couple, so I continued. I told the man that the kayak paddle he was looking at was designed for kayak fishing—it had the notch in the blade. I explained to them both how to properly size a kayak paddle in general. The woman was holding in her hand a Werner 240 cm paddle when in reality, given her small height, the perfectly sized paddle for her would have been 200 cm.

I see many people on the water paddling the Equinox brand of kayak commonly sold in Costco. They’re an entry level kayak, which is fine for those just starting out. Hey, at least the buyer is getting out on the water and experiencing the magic of paddling that draws us hardcore fanatics to the water. The problem is these kayaks come with a one-size-fits-all kayak paddle, and as any seasoned kayaker, or canoeist for that matter, will tell you is that one size does not fit everyone. Just ask the person who keeps banging his/her hand against the side of the boat. Unfortunately, the sales staff in Costco and other big box retailers aren’t there to educate buyers on what type of kayak and length of paddle is ideal. Instead, they are there to simply help the buyers get the boats to the checkout counter or point them in the direction of where they can find the paddling equipment.

Many retailers don’t know that paddlers need to purchase an aquatic invasive species permit (AISP). So when the buyer gets onto the water and the sheriff’s patrol pulls the boater over and asks to see the permit, the boater looks at the sheriff in bewilderment just before being handed a $30 fine. That fine sort of sucks the fun out of an otherwise great day of paddling.

Furthermore, big box retailers are only interested in selling the boat and making a profit, and that’s fine. That’s their business model. Most big box retailers sell more than just boats. In fact, kayaks are only a small component of what they sell. They’re not there to provide training, knowledge, or safety advice. Many sales people in these stores don’t even know how to properly size a PFD or what other equipment besides the kayak, canoe, paddle, or PFD the buyer might need.

If you’re contemplating buying your first kayak or a canoe, what can you do? First of all, educate yourself. Talk to paddlers and visit your local mom and pop paddling shops. In the Portland area, there are several good paddling stores with very knowledgeable people: Alder Creek, Next Adventure, and Portland Kayak Company to name a few. These retailers will also stress safety. More people drown in non-motorized boats than in motorized boats, and that number continues to climb as paddling becomes more and more popular.

There are also many good paddling organizations out there with knowledgeable people who can help you learn about paddling and equipment, organizations like the Oregon Ocean Paddling Society (OOPS), Willamette Kayak and Canoe Club, Canoe & Kayak Oregon, Lower Columbia Canoe Club, and others.

Perhaps for your first boat you can’t justify shelling out $900 or more dollars, especially if you’re not sure how well you’ll like paddling, and that’s okay. You might find a nicely maintained used kayak or canoe that once sold for $1,200 but is selling for $500. You will still want to educate yourself. Sales staff at the previously mentioned paddling stores will help steer you toward the right boat by asking you various questions. Visit the demo days events that many paddling shops hold in the spring: Alder Creek holds their event in April; Next Adventure holds their event in May.

Kayaks and canoes are made of a variety of materials, some of which retain they shape better. Some are prone to oil canning—warping of the hull bottom usually due to heat from the sun. You want to avoid purchasing a boat that oil cans. Many of the low-end boats, those commonly sold in Costco, Fred Meyer, Walmart, and other big box retailers, will develop oil canning over a relatively short time. That isn’t to say oil canning only happens to cheap boats, but it’s far less common, especially when the boat is cared for properly.

Finally, if there is one piece of critical advice I can offer, it would be: DON’T DRINK AND BOAT!


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