Sea Kayaks Vs. Recreational Kayaks

One of the most common questions we get asked is, what’s the right type of kayak for paddling at Hilton Head? There are several different types of kayaks on the market, and some of the differences can be hazy and confusing. The two most common categories are sea kayaks and recreational kayaks. But what exactly is the difference? 

Sea Kayaks and recreational kayaks each have specific characteristics that make them well suited to different situations. Let’s take a closer look at what makes these two common types of kayaks unique, and which one is ideal for your next kayak adventure. 

Sea Kayaks

As their name suggests, sea kayaks are designed for open waters, multi-day excursions and potentially rough conditions. Sometimes referred to as ocean kayaks, they’re more advanced than recreational kayaks, and it takes a bit more skill to pilot one well. But that doesn’t mean they’re better in all situations! 

Features that set sea kayaks apart from recreational kayaks include a longer, narrower shape, double bulkheads, smaller cockpits and a rudder or skeg. 

Recreational Kayaks

Recreational kayaks are generally smaller and wider than sea kayaks, and they’re made with smaller, calmer waters in mind. There are actually several different types of recreational kayaks, including touring kayaks, which are a bit more high-end and have features that make them suitable for multi-day paddling trips.

In general, recreational kayaks are cheaper than sea kayaks and easier for a beginner to pilot. They’re designed for stability on calm water, and usually don’t have much storage space (touring kayaks being an exception). 

Sea Kayaks vs. Recreational kayaks

While you wouldn’t want to paddle a recreational kayak out on an open ocean, a sea kayak also wouldn’t be ideal for a small, secluded pond. Let’s take a deeper dive into how these two types of kayaks compare. 

Length & Width

The first thing you’ll notice if you put a sea kayak and a recreational kayak side by side is the difference in shape; sea kayaks are much longer and comparatively more narrow than recreational kayaks. A typical recreational kayak is between 9 and 15 feet in length, while sea kayaks more often measure 15 to 18 feet. 

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Stability & Speed

The overall shape of a kayak impacts both its stability and its speed. Long, narrow sea kayaks are, as you might guess, faster and straighter-tracking than a relatively short, squat recreational kayak. You might also assume that the opposite is true when it comes to stability, but it’s actually not that simple!

It’s true that recreational kayaks are more stable than sea kayaks on flat water, and also easier to turn in tight spaces. But even though long, narrow sea kayaks are “tippy” in calm conditions, their ability to roll with the movement of the water actually makes them more stable when seas get a little more rough, allowing them to roll with the waves.

Bulkheads

Some recreational kayaks have a single dry compartment in the rear, but the majority, particularly cheaper models, have no bulkheads at all. Sea kayaks, on the other hand, almost always have double bulkheads, with sealed compartments at the front and the rear that help the kayak stay afloat if it tips over or fills with water. 

Cockpit Size

Sea kayaks have smaller and narrower cockpit openings, which allow the user to attach a spray skirt to help keep out water. The seat back is usually low to accommodate the skirt, and the rim of the cockpit will have a “lip” that it can be attached to. 

Recreational kayaks have much larger cockpit openings, and aren’t generally designed to accommodate a spray skirt. If a recreational kayak tips over, it’s easier to exit the craft, whereas experienced sea kayakers can right a capsized kayak without leaving the cockpit. 

Rudder or Skeg

Most sea kayaks have either a rudder (which is mounted on the deck and flips down into the water when needed) or a skeg (which is fixed to the bottom of the kayak). The purpose of either is to keep the kayak tracking straight, especially when being pushed by heavy winds or rough seas. Recreational kayaks are seldom used in such conditions, so a rudder or skeg is rarely needed. 

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Deck Lines & Hatches

Recreational kayaks sometimes have a few bungee-style deck lines, which are used to strap gear to the deck. Touring kayaks are more likely to have them than basic recreational kayaks. 

Sea kayaks have even more deck rigging, including perimeter lines along the edges of the deck, which are there for you to grab onto in case you are tipped out of the boat. Sea kayaks also have hatches that lead to the sealed compartments inside, allowing them to function as dry storage. 

Best Kayak for Hilton Head Island

Most folks who kayak on Hilton Head spend their time paddling the sheltered waters of Broad Creek or similar tidal creeks and estuaries that are protected from heavy winds and rough seas. Recreational kayaks are ideal for these situations. 

It’s both easy and affordable to rent a recreational kayak on Hilton Head, and most Hilton Head kayak tours use recreational kayaks in these sheltered waters. Sea kayaks are better suited to adventures that take you out on the open Atlantic Ocean, or onto broader bays and sounds like Calibogue Sound. 

Blair Witkowski
Author: Blair Witkowski

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