Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Gear: Benefits and Weaknesses of SOT (Sit-On-Top) Kayaks

I briefly discussed some of the benefits of SOT kayaks in my previous post Safety is a Mindset, but I'd like to get into the subject in a bit more detail. 

The primary benefit, in my opinion, of an SOT kayak is safety. It is a kayak that can be climbed into without the restrictions of a closed hull cockpit, and water in the cockpit hull will self bail through a drain hole, or can easily be dumped out if the kayak is turned over - even in water. Draining a swamped closed hull cockpit is significantly harder to do. There is no self bailing drain hole, and the main idea is to keep water out of the cockpit in the first place. That is one of the reasons closed hull 'yaks are fitted with a spray skirt - to seal the kayaker into the cockpit and away from the water. This requires the kayaker to "roll" (video tutorial here) the kayak. Alternatively, the closed hull kayaker can pull the front loop on her spray skirt and wet exit the cockpit - which will then need to be bailed out, re-entered, and re-fitted with the spray skirt. In challenging conditions, this can be difficult, tiring, and add to the overall danger of the scenario. Now, picture an SOT kayaker rolling her boat over (video tutorial here) and climbing back on it - faster, easier, less tiring...less dangerous. Remember, a swamped kayak sits much lower in the water, which makes it much more likely it will continue to get swamped in rough conditions. It is also incredibly heavy if you try to drag it onto land. Several cubic feet of water is a huge weight, and very hard, or even impossible, for many people to move. I remember foolishly beach landing my previous closed hull kayak (a Perception touring model) without a spray skirt. It got swamped by waves, and dragging it onto the beach was incredibly difficult. Trying to punch back out through the waves without the spray skirt was also nearly impossible, as the cockpit took on water and made paddling the heavier, lower kayak much harder. Then, I had to bail out the cockpit, as well as I could, to continue on my journey - I thought "never again" on that trip. 

So, a spray skirt and the commitment to learn how to roll a closed hull kayak are essential to its safe operation - especially if you plan to venture into cold ocean waters. The beauty of that design is its efficient rolling capability. Closed hull kayaks are built to roll. That's part of the overall strategy to keep water out of the kayak in the first place. Think about it - the native peoples who invented the kayak had absolutely NO interest in a wet exit. The water and air temperatures they operated in meant almost certain death if they got wet. And they weren't operating their kayaks for recreation. They were hunting. So, the death of a hunter could mean starvation for his family. That was NOT what anyone wanted. They designed a craft, therefore, that, in concert with the acquired skill of rolling it, could keep them dry in the event of a capsize. That is either a benefit or a weakness of the closed hull design - depending on the acquisition of the rolling skill. 

SOT kayaks take acquiring the rolling skill out of the "necessary" category, and move it into the "nice to have" category. This can also be seen as both a benefit and a weakness, because SOT kayaks are not designed to easily roll. They are wider, sharper edged at the chines (the side transition between the lower hull and upper deck), and the paddler is not "locked in" to them unless she affixes thigh straps. However, it can be done. This kayaker shows how - note he has thigh straps deployed...  .

SOTs put the paddler in much more direct contact with the elements. This requires proper clothing. If you roll your SOT, you will get much wetter than by rolling a closed hull 'yak. So, full body clothing protection is required. This may mean a dry suit - which can be expensive (see my post 8 Tips for Dressing Right for Your Kayaking Adventure). 

SOTs are heavier than closed hull 'yaks, therefore they are harder to put on your vehicle, harder to carry, and are slower to get going on the water. Finding a touring or expedition style SOT is difficult, and they are not without their construction issues. You should do extensive research on what SOT is right for you (see my post 10 Tips for Which Kayak You Should Buy ) and check them out in person before buying. Try a couple models at least for a test paddle to see how you like them. If you don't want to shell out for a new one, find a current model that has great reviews, then see if you can locate the same model from a previous year used, or a similar model from the same manufacturer (sometimes changes in model year are small, and even model name changes aren't hugely significant) that has been phased out - you can often get these at a discount. 

SOTs can often be more expensive than comparable closed hull kayaks. This makes opting for one a decision that requires careful consideration. In my estimation, however, that consideration is well worth it if you can locate an SOT you are happy with. For me, it comes back to the safety issue. How much effort is it worth to locate the right SOT if it saves your life one day? I think it's worth every second of time, energy, and expense.

A few years back, I tried surfing a closed hull kayak in waves (see my post What's That Thing Called? ). My experience being upside down in a closed hull, without a solid roll convinced me to switch to a sit-on-top waveski. After seeing how well that set up worked in waves, it was a no-brainer to apply that knowledge to my touring kayak. So, I ditched my closed hull 'yak, and found a used Heritage Sea Dart SOT (unfortunately, no longer manufactured), and I haven't looked back.

My safety is my greatest priority when heading into the water. Not all risks can be foreseen or avoided, but they can perhaps be mitigated (see my post Please, Stop the Kayaking Deaths! (proper risk management)). It's something to think about if you're looking into an SOT option.

Plan for the worst, then enjoy the best.

- TB on the Water 


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