Letter to the Editor:
Kayak Construction: A Safety Matter?
by Wes Kisting
Kayak construction can be a surprisingly heated topic. My article, "Choosing the Right Kayak," sparked an impassioned response from a concerned reader. Frankly, I think this reader is misreading the article's claims about kayak construction and inventing a false danger scenario which the article nowhere encourages; however, I think this exchange is useful to illustrate how devoted some paddlers are to particular kayak materials. Implicitly, it also calls attention to the importance of considering how you will use your kayak before you make the decision to buy plastic, Airalite, or composite. Lastly, it may help to correct possible misperceptions about the article's scope or intentions.
The thesis of Concerned Veteran Kayaker's comments is that Prijon's HTP blow-moulded polyethylene is the superior kayak material and the best or only "safe" choice for hard-core sea kayaking. He feels that my article "Choosing the Right Kayak" displays a "snobbish" affinity for composite kayaks which will place novice paddlers in life-threatening danger by encouraging them to buy a composite kayak and to paddle it in places where it will be dashed to pieces. In short, he asserts that I am an elitist and that my biased advice will get someone killed.
My replies to Concerned Veteran Kayaker concentrate on four important points: First, HTP polyethylene is a wonderful material for a kayak, but it is not necessarily the best choice for every sea kayaker. Second, no material (including HTP) can make a kayak inherently "safe," and to suggest otherwise would be far more dangerous than anything contained in the article. Third, I have no snobbish delusion that composite kayaks are objectively "better" than plastic kayaks, nor any vested interest in selling composite kayaks (I do not sell kayaks); but I do personally prefer to paddle a composite kayak myself for reasons clearly explained in the article. Fourth, my article does not suggestnor would I ever suggestthat a novice paddler should paddle a kayak (regardless of its construction) in conditions which exceed his or her skill level. Concerned Veteran Kayaker's appeals to life-or-death scenarios presume a paddler who willfully and wrecklessly places himself (or herself) in violent conditions capable of crushing a kayak. My article clearly does not endorse such activity; in fact, such concerns lie well outside the article's scope.
Without further ado, I present the letters.
If you're going to stand on a stump and act like an expert, you'd better have your facts straight, and not be just another blowhard. Because that's exactly what this "How to choose a kayak" thing is. His personal unfounded opinions, and obvious composite snobbery were inappropriate. And his leaving out facts is just as damaging to this sport.
These statements this guy wrote, and the things he left out show an extreme lack of experience, and snobbery. Whether you realize it or not you're putting lives in danger by telling novice paddler such things as composite kayaks are ideal for long trips. And Wes didn't even mention the most durable kayaks, and material in the industry. Why? Apparently because he's a composite snob who prefers pretty boats he can get his ego off in. I challenge anyone with a composite boat to follow my HTP out of 6 foot surf onto rocky beaches. In my nearly 10 years of kayaking, and a lifetime of paddling I have many thousands of miles in these kayaks alone. I have owned composite boats. I have an airalite, and I have HTP. There is no comparison to HTP for serious paddling conditions. I paddle with some of the best composites in the world by Verlen. They won't even take their expedition boats where I go with the Prijon HTP. All this composite superiority snobbery is just hype to make these gearheads feel better about spending all that money on a pretty showpiece. Ask Renata who just finished paddling around the entire U.S. what boat she took, and why? Prijon HTP. Ask he what condition it was in when she finished. What are you going to do when that composite is smashed on a beach miles from nowhere? What if it happens at the bottom of steep cliffs with a fast tide approaching and you can't get out? You're screwed if you can't get help. Quite possibly dead.
Even basic questions: How are you going to repair that composite if it's more than what ducttape will fix? How many times can you run that composite up on the beach before the gelcoat, and paint are gone? This Wes guy needs to get his head out of the sand, and stop posing as an expert. Newbies don't know any better. They'll believe anything they read in places like this, and you could kill them by giving crap advice like this. Composite boats are not the most durable, nor practical, nor dependable, and arguably not the best performing with handling, speed, etc..kayaks on the market. What kind of egotistical arrogant butthead cares if a kayak MIGHT BE 1/4 knot faster anyway. The VAST MAJORITY don't do this sport to compete. They do it to get away from society, and ppl who are overcompetitive adolescents. I see these guys riding around mocking the commercials they see on television all the time with their pretty composites atop their Outbacks, Xterras, etc..more, and more. These are almost always the pretty composite boat owners, and somehow they never have scratches on their boats, or almost none. Why? Because most of these types don't use them, and when they do it's only in the best of conditions. Most of these types are just snobs, yuppies, and gearheads who are more concerned with image, and vanity than being practical, and having something that will perform, and hold up. I wasted money on composite boats. And I didn't fall into that snob pit of supremacy. I saw them for what they were. Unless you are weak, there is no real significant advantage of composite over HTP. And all though I've not found Airalite more durable than HTP, the Airalite is still far superior to composite in terms of actually USING it. At least it is one heck alot more durable, and is still lightweight. And there's one heck of alot of drawbacks to composites. If you think otherwise, go educate yourself by trying to paddle that composite in the conditions I take my "cheap plastic boat." Keep in mind they said Toyota was junk in America for years too. That just proves how much ego, and arrogance handicap us. Now they are eating those words. It's that arrogance that is bringing down GM, and Ford now. Denial.
You have a responsibility to report facts. If you think otherwise then you are part of the problem in this sport, instead of part of the cure. The bottom line is that your advice can kill ppl who venture in places where they shouldn't be going in composite boats instead of something far more capable of surviving those conditions. The least you can do if you're going to try to play expert, is give them the facts so they can at least have a chance of surviving.
Concerned Vetran Kayaker
Dear Concerned Veteran Kayaker,
I appreciate the feedback, though I do not appreciate the manner in which you voice it. Assuming your zeal is well-intended, I will post your letter so that RoguePaddler's readers may have the benefit of your perspective.
You accuse me of "snobbery" and of being a "blowhard" while your own letter is saturated with explicit insults and overt hostility. Respectfully, I consider that a poor way to establish your credibility on the subject. Contrary to your perception, my article "Choosing the Right Kayak" mentions all of the most commonly used materials in kayak manufacturing: Airalite, plastic, and composites like fiberglass or kevlar/aramid. HTP is a proprietary acronym for polyethylene, which is covered in the article under the more generic term "plastic." It is not a distinct material, as you seem to believethough I am sure Prijon will be delighted to learn their marketing efforts are working.
Your assertions that HTP is the "toughest" material are patently false when divorced from context. Plastic is tougher to the extent that it is able to "give" (flex) more than composite, making it more likely to "bounce" harmlessly off of impacts which might cause cracks in a composite. The article acknowledges this fact quite clearly. However, structural cracks in a composite boat do not happen easily, as you seem to believe. Also, they can be taped over and repaired more easily than cracked plasticpartly because tape does not adhere well to plastic in the water, and partly because plastic can be more difficult to fix with readily available materials (composites, on the other hand, are fairly easy to repair to "like new" strength with epoxy and glass). My current kevlar kayak has seen six years of very hard abuse, yet it has never sustained even a minor structural crack. More importantly, a blow capable of demolishing a composite boat to the extent you suggest will just as likely crush or crack a plastic kayak. As for the loss of gelcoat: While admittedly very annoying, it does not seriously compromise the performance or integrity of a composite kayak. It is also fairly easy to replace in small quantities, so I do not understand what safety concerns you may have about gelcoat.
It is true that the paddling world is littered with stories of crushed composite kayaks, but this is not because composites are inherently weak; it is because the push toward "ultra light" construction has led many companies to produce composite "sea kayaks" which are grossly underbuilt for actual rough-sea use (a complaint typically leveled at American kayak manufacturers, and a big reason that many hardcore expeditioners paddle more heavily built British boats). A properly built composite kayak can be every bit as tough as plasticand more so, if we're talking structural integrity from pressure (like dumping waves) rather than impact. You can't blame composites for the market: Companies simply discovered that the public wants to buy a lighter boat, and so they build them lighter. In fact, if you were to build a composite boat to the same weight as a plastic boat, I dare say it might survive a missile hit. I built my 18' cedar strip kayak to an approximate weight of 57 lbs. (lighter than a comparable plastic kayak) and I would confidently strike the hull with a blacksmith's hammer if I didn't care about ruining the finish.
In contrast, plastic kayaks have shown a far higher incidence rate of decks collapsing under the pressure of dumping waves (a major reason more hard-core expeditioners don't use them). They have also shown a remarkable tendency to distort/warp due to the heat of a hot beach or while strapped to the roof of the car. They are also more likely to have problems with improperly sealing hatches (a problem that used to plague the industry, though it has gotten much better now). That is precisely why Airalite was sought after for a more rigid (and excellent) substitute. (It is also why the Prijon HTP blend of polyethylene is especially touted for its rigidity.) All that aside, the article explicitly acknowledges the unique durability of plastics; it does not speak dismissively about them.
For hard-core expeditioners, composite boats may be appealing because they can be strategically strengthened by adding epoxy and glass layers where desiredproviding a degree of customization not possible with plastic or Airalite kayaks. This is why so many kayaking expeditions and circumnavigations have been accomplished in reinforced composite or hand-built boats. Personally, I would happily paddle any of the aforementioned materials (plastic, Airalite, or composite) on any expedition. I do prefer kevlar, and that is because I have put it through serious paces on expeditions so I know what it can do. Also, the performance of a composite kayak will remain consistently high over its lifetime, whereas plastic kayaks (not Airalite) will inevitably degrade from UV and heat. I have seen countless plastic kayaks "oil can" from too much heat exposure, resulting in a ridiculously inefficient hull form. Others merely soften in shape and slowly degrade. You can reduce and slow these problems with careful storage and use of your kayak, but they are still legitimate concerns that people need to be aware of.
I have personally owned and paddled plastic and composite kayaks. I also sold kayaks professionally for three years, so I am quite familiar with the "marketing hype" which insists that some proprietary materials are "tougher" than otherswhich is rarely the full picture. The certitude with which you espouse your viewpoint is patently unrealistic. The article acknowledges the fact that there is no "one right choice" for all paddlers, and that is the simple, obvious truth that your hostile comments ignore.
Your inflated tone of concern that the article will get people killed stems from the unrealistic assertion that a new paddler (the target audience for the article) would buy a kayak and put it to the life-or-death purposes you cite. If so, the problem is not the kayak, but the kayaker's poor judgment. I think it would be far more irresponsible to suggest (as you appear to believe, based on the logical inverse of your argument) that a "more durable" kayak will somehow make it "safe" for a novice paddler to venture out in the kind of conditions you're referring to. Perhaps you should reconsider your zeal before you launch exaggerated attacks against well-reasoned advice, or worse, suggest counter-arguments which really could endanger someone's life by giving the dangerous impression that the material of any kayak could ever compensate for a lack of skill.
It is well known that I consistently recommend plastic kayaks as "by far the best bang for the buck"; but yes, it is also true that I personally prefer composites. I don't see why it is unreasonable to include that preference in an article which does not try to conceal its biases. Certainly, what you perceive as "snobbery" in my article is not one-tenth so pronounced (or exaggerated) as the preference for plastics displayed in your own letter. I find it particularly ironic that your concern for the paddling public is promptly followed by a rant about how so many people who paddle composites are just "yuppies," "snobs," "gear-heads," and the like. Even more ironic is that right after you acknowledge that "the VAST MAJORITY don't do this sport to compete... [but rather] to get away from society, and ppl who are overcompetitive adolescents," you mock those people who take their kayaks out "only in the best of conditions." Pardon the inference, but it seems you're the one with an elitist attitude, whereby the only "true" sea kayakers are (apparently) those who crash rock gardens and sea caves, or seal-launch off sheer cliffs and jagged shores.
While I acknowledge that there is room for disagreement, I reject your assertion that there is something egregiously flawed about any of the advice dispensed in the article. Again, I sincerely appreciate your concern for the paddling public, but I resent the tone and manner in which you choose to voice it.
If you took my statements as "hostile", that's just your perception, and your obviously trying to lead it now. I do stand by my statements about your author Wes Kisting being a composite boat snob because anyone can see that his advice is saturated with bias, generalizations about plastics, and exaggerations, about composites. It's just amazing to me how you try to justify these statements no matter how obvious it is, and lack of the facts. In fact, you sound far more like a composite marketing guy rather than someone who is interested in giving an unbiased advice to the general paddling community. If you think regular rotomolded plastics are anywhere near the same as HTP then you have some serious lessons to learn. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Show me one HTP boat that's been "cracked". Find one owner anywhere on the net that's had to be repaired in the field, or otherwise. Composite boat guys are endlessly talking about repairing their boats, and all the endless maintenance they do. I don't base my life on marketing hype. Nor do I pass things that sound good on as truth. I pass only what I've seen, and what I've learned as truth through many years and thousands of miles of paddling.
So you think you're not being biased huh? You talk about in this return letter about referring to plastics in general, and not specific types as though they are all pretty much the same, but it's funny you didn't do that with fiberglass. You went on to mention nearly all the different types of composites. That's proof in itself by your own statements that your biased, and that all my comments are legitimate. It really makes no difference to me at all that you're confused enough to believe that pretty much all plastics, are plastics, or that the differences aren't enought to at least warrant mentioning. What bothers me if you stand on a stump as many do in this sport portraying yourself as an expert, and giving untrue, and downright dangerous advice to the new, and unknowing. I can't help wonder how you would justify it if you knew that advice caused the death of one of these novice, or intermediate paddlers. What you are doing is irresponsible. If you can't tell the whole truth, or you are going to mold the truth to your beliefs, you are doing the paddling community a great disservice. I don't think you realize the magnitude of the damage you are doing to this sport. If anything, I've held my tongue very well so far. All I'm saying is that if you don't know what your talking about, or have some personal agenda to sell more composite boats, or whatever the reason for your munipulating the truth, and bias, then stop posing as experts. Leave the expert advice to the people with obvious experience, and those who are responsible enough to know how to be unbiased when expaining the facts about how to choose a kayak.
Concerned Vetran Kayaker
Dear Concerned Veteran Kayaker
You are entitled to your opinion, but based on several erroneous statements in your initial letter and your reply, I can only conclude that you (1) did not read my article in its entirety (it specifically addresses several of the concerns you claim it ignores), (2) do not possess the level of experience or knowledge you claim (virtually every detail mentioned in my prior reply is well documented), or (3) have never actually paddled your composite boats in the conditions you describe to see for yourself what a composite boat can survive. To be clear, I am not advising you to attempt the latter. It sounds to me like the situations you're describing are situations you choose to put yourself in willingly and wrecklessly to prove you are not one of the "yuppies" or "gearheads" you apparently revile; hence my assertion about your own elitism. A skilled paddler, however, ought to have little trouble landing on a beach in a dumping surf without fear of catastrophic destruction to the kayak. If that confidence is not present, it is likely the paddler is not sufficiently experienced and shouldn't be paddling in those conditions.
Two of my present composite kayaks (one kevlar, one cedar-strip/fiberglass) each have over a thousand miles on them. A third kayak (also kevlar) has 300-400 miles on it. They have been "maytagged" in ocean surf, they have been landed roughly on the impossibly sharp rocks of Isle Royale, they have banged their way through shallow rapids on the upper Mississippi, they have slammed against the walls of sea caves, they have been dropped (fully loaded, no less) on concrete boat ramps, they have struck hidden boulders in the Apostle Islands, they have been dragged across pavement and gravel, they have been seal-launched, they have been tossed down wooded hillsides... well, the list goes on. Not once has any of them sustained even a tiny structural crack. Only the gelcoat has ever needed repair. Quite frankly, to do more damage to my kayaks than they have already seen, the paddler would need to be profoundly foolish.
Contrary to your perception, I did not address "nearly all the different types of composites"; in fact, I mention only two: fiberglass and kevlar, which are fundamentally distinct materialsunlike HTP, which is (regardless of what you may think) a proprietary-branded polyethylene plastic which contains longer plastic molecules to create better stiffness and abrasion resistance. Your assertion that HTP is a far superior polyethylene, or that all other blends are far inferior, is simply wrong. It is good stuff, yes, but not the universal "miracle material" you pretend. In fact, you will find that some of the flexier ("inferior") linear polyethylene kayaks (often considered "really cheap plastic" by devoted HTP advocates like yourself) will bounce like tupperware off hits that I'm not convinced HTP could withstand. Of course, the paddling performance of such a flexy boat will likely be crap by comparison. Your assertion that you have never seen or heard of an HTP boat being damaged is a moot point; it is sufficient to observe that repair kits are commercially available and that folks have commented about repairing them.
Even if HTP were indestructible, it would not guarantee paddler safety in the way you seem to assume. Moreover, given your own assertion that composite kayak owners don't like to scratch their "pretty" boats, those who paddle composite kayaks may also be less inclined to take unnecessary risks near dangerous obstructions than an inexperienced paddler who is put in an "indestructible" HTP kayak and told to hit whatever he likes. So in that way, too, it could be argued that composites have the potential to be "safer." Personally, I would never associate "safety" with the kayak at all, but with paddler skill.
That is the truly important point here, if you care about safety: The material of the kayak will not save a paddler from freak accidents or life-or-death scenarios. Only skill can do that. Your suggestion to the contrary is far more dangerous than anything the article contains. In fact, were I to make such a claim in my article, I would almost certainly render myself legally liable to accidents which occurred on that account.
[Editor's Note: Concerned Veteran Kayaker's comments have been posted in their entirety. Wherever possible, editorial replies have been shortened for conciseness, without altering any of the original sentiments contained therein.
© 2006, Wesley Kisting