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Smaller paddler needs advice for making big kayak decisions


New Member
Aug 16, 2020
Portland, OR
Hi there! I’m female, 5’2” and about 125 pounds. I’ve got some chronic neck/shoulder/back issues as well as chronic migraines. I think getting out and being active is better for my body than laying in bed miserable all day... so I try and get out a couple times a week. Initially I thought a pedal Hobie would be the best option for me, and it totally is. However, I apparently have a strong desire to explore more. Faster. In more exciting water. The sea caves on the coast are calling to me... my little 9’7” Hobie Sport does not sound like the best kayak for my sea adventures. My skill level right now says no rock gardening, but my stupid level (and the fact that I always hurt anyways) makes me think it could be a possibility that I get out on some dicier rides. Hubby made me take a class (at Alder Creek Kayak) and it was fantastic. I had the opportunity to try out 4 boats on the water, and shot down several after sitting in them in the shop.

Here’s what I’ve been in:
Tiderace Xceed - I didn’t like the seat... not at all, didn’t demo
Vision 130? - cockpit felt HUGE, didn’t demo

Wilderness Systems Tsunami - way too big, did not like it at all, had to shrug shoulders up to get elbows to clear the cockpit. Was miserable in less than 10 minutes. Traded boats (on the water) with the instructor and got in his Valley Etain. It was fine, nothing remarkable, but at least it didn’t set off a pain flare up. Next day I got to try out a Sterling Ice Kap! I am thankful that I didn’t love it, since the price tag is not something I could handle these days. The seat area was too narrow and I felt like my hips were going to lock up. But the Ice Kap boogies for sure!!! Super quick, nice gliding boat. Next up was a P&H Virgo, which I loved. Totally loved. Except that the deck seemed a little too high and I would occasionally bust my knuckles on it. But it was super nimble and responsive and we were playing a couple games I was shocked I didn’t fall out once! Super easy to self rescue by climbing on, I just loved it. The problem is, I can’t afford it and it is fairly new, so finding a used one doesn’t seem likely.

So then the great kayak quest began. I acquired a Necky Looksha Sport in really great shape. It’s a fine boat, but it’s not Virgo! And on a fluke trade, I got a brand new Riot Brittany 16.5. It’s so brand new that nothing is even set up on it! And tomorrow, I’m going to go look at and probably acquire an older P&H Scorpio LV, if I actually fit in it.

Which of these boats, if any, will be similar to the Virgo... playful and fun! These are all much longer than the Virgo, but if Scorpio is Cetus’ baby brother, that could be a great boat for me, too! I feel like unless I can try them all back to back, I really can’t compare them. It would be awesome if the Riot Brittany would fit me well, but until I get the rudder and footrests installed, I won’t really know. I do know that I can only keep ONE of these kayaks. And if not one of the ones I have or potentially can get by morning, what should I be looking for?

Also, the seat in the Scorpio is pretty shot. Is that an easily replaceable thing? Maybe I can upgrade to something more comfy that will keep me paddling for a few more hours. Any recommendations?

Thanks in advance for your time and input. Sorry the post is so long!


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The light grey/white kayak pic is the Looksha Sport 14’4”. The solid orange is the Scorpio LV 16’8”, and the yellow/orange fade is the Brittany 16’5”.
That Scorpio LV is likely the best of the boats, if you fit in it.

Looksha Sport is a playful boat. Early version of today's rock play boats. But was made for a larger person - heck it fit me at 6' and 220 pounds (I owned 2 back in the day).

Some smaller person boats:
Valley Gemini (comes in plastic or 2 versions composite)
Necky Looksha IV LV (the LV a rare one to find)
Valley Avocet LV (they have both plastic and composite, but the composite was a bit better for smaller people)
Dagger Alchemy 14.0S

Normally the Sterling Icecap would be on the list, but you already tried
Hockey Girl, once you get the boat you love, consider making and customizing yourself a mini cell seat and backrest to your "bum"
There are a lot of seat carvers on this site and others that can take the mystery out of the relatively easy process.
Ask anyone who has, it's unlikely they would go back to a factory seat and backrest.
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The Washington Kayak Club had a custom seat making party at one time - wished I lived closer - and it turned out great for a lot of folks.

When you first start paddling, it’s not uncommon to feel a little numbness in your legs because the back of your legs press down on the edge of the seat. Some put a rolled towel or small dry bag at the edge of the seat to support that part of their leg. Over time, your body learns how to position it’s legs to minimize that numbing effect. Also, you can take your feet off the peddle to stretch out a bit during the paddling.

You can live a rich and happy life without rockgardening. But if that will be your cup of tea, you might consider a polyethylene/rotomold boat. Some manufacturers have that construction option for the same model as fiberglass or carbonite 2000.

My 5’6” (been warned not to provide weight or age - if you live, you learn) paddling partner likes her EddieLine Fathom LV.

At 5’2” you have a fine line to play with. A much smaller boat - 14ft or so would fit you but you don’t want to go too small because you’ll want to carry gear and have some seaworthiness rather than just lake/river worthiness.

You are wise to try out the boat first - at least sit in it. The Necky Elisa was specficially designed for women, yet Joy was very uncomfortable in it. Doesn’t make it a bad boat; just not the boat for her.

Because of your shoulder/back/neck issue be sure to focus on improving paddling technique - a local club probably has some DVD’s to borrow or they are inexpensive to buy. My experiences was, the torso rotation, instead of primarily using your arms/shoulders, felt unnnatural for quite a while. Then it finally kicked in.

Also, you can get a paddle like a “little dipper” with a long narrow blade. It is easier on your joints. The downside is you can’t quickly apply a lot of power to the blade. For touring, it’s just fine. I used it when I learned to roll to eliminate a psychological dependency on a wide flat blade.

The more I think about your chronic condition, the more I want to encourage you to consider that style of paddle. Note that it is not a greenland paddle - though that would work too.
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The Washington Kayak Club had a custom seat making party at one time - wished I lived closer - and it turned out great for a lot of folks.
A good seat can be made very crudely and yet be extremely comfortable. We have a bit of stiff closed cell foam to fill the V bottom, make it higher at the front than the back. On it a length of closed cell foam about 3" wide and 2" thick. This runs fore and aft along the centre on the bottom pad. On this is a closed cell foam same as a sleeping mat foam, about 2+" thick and square, from back to front of seat area. The leg pressure in now softly on the inner legs as that narrow strip makes the top pad bend over it.

The back pad, oblong across the cockpit with a strip like the seat but in this case horizontal so the back pad curves over it. The back pad does NOT wrap round the paddler but the horizontal strip is about level with the top of the pelvis. Pressure is on the pelvis, not the back any higher than that.

When you first start paddling, it’s not uncommon to feel a little numbness in your legs because the back of your legs press down on the edge of the seat.
Never if the seat is made properly.
Also, you can take your feet off the peddle to stretch out a bit during the paddling.
Unfortunately you will probably end up with little pedals with hinged bits at the top. A very bad design. Our pedals are the size of the feet. You put all your foot pressure on them and the hinge line is level with the ankle.

As for the actual kayak, unfortunately glass or carbon are likely to get scratched and hard to make good again. A plastic kayak is tough but heavy. This is why we use plywood as it is light and tough and easily repainted after scratching.

Being short I'd suggest a narrow beam but keep the length up. You won't be able to get a good rudder design but try for the best there is. Pull it up when rock gardening, down when getting there.

Because of your shoulder/back/neck issue be sure to focus on improving paddling technique ... My experiences was, the torso rotation, instead of primarily using your arms/shoulders, felt unnatural for quite a while. Then it finally kicked in.
Most definitely, torso rotation. I suggest someone paddles without bending their elbows - for 1/2 a minute, a minute, just to get the idea of the rotation.

Personally I use a Greenland paddle and have trouble now trying to use a Euro paddle, they seem so crude as the body rotation encourages the wing effect. Try a Wing paddle, it might be just what is needed as they were designed for body rotation.
I am 6’4” and own two boats. I am in my second year but still consider myself to be a “new paddler”. After about 90 mins or so I am ready to exit due to lower back strain. I then got a small inflatable pillow thing. Sort of like a mini Thermorest. I stuff it behind me before securing the sprayskirt. On the first day of using it I was about two hours into a solo paddle off Orcas Island and suddenly realized my usual “barking” back was much quieter...
Hi! Wow, thank you so much for all your replies and great info about things I hadn’t even considered (like the paddle suggestion). I did NOT purchase the Scorpio LV, it was in very sad shape, and the bottom of it was almost wavy there were so much oil canning in multiple places. I’m almost certain that boat was stored outside and unloved most of its life. I also sold the Looksha Sport, and I am elated to say I’m in love with the Brittany! I did remove the rudder (since it also has a skeg), and I didn’t miss it at all. She tracks really straight, and I never had to use the skeg. To be fair, we were on Lake Merwin, not a river, but I didn’t really have to do much in terms of corrective strokes. I went out with one of my classmates from sea immersion 1 and another friend to paddle around and also to work on some of the things we learned from class.

Conditions were perfect and after we paddled from Cresap Bay to Canyon Creek, we stopped at a nice little beach for lunch, and we decided to work on some of the stuff we learned in class. Time to put my Brittany 16.5 to the test... after pretty much emptying everything out of my hatches because I wasn’t sure how watertight she was.

First thing I did was play around with some edging and figuring just how far I could go before tipping over. Since we were all working on reentries and such I wasn’t scared to get overly edgy... it was inevitable that I’d be going over anyways! I discovered I could get WAY over onto my edges. So much so that after I had gone over a few times and I hadn’t put my sprayskirt on again since I knew I’d be over again any minute, I noticed if I edged hard enough, I could just fill my cockpit up with water because I could get over so far and bring it back up. I thought that was pretty awesome, just makes it so a sprayskirt will probably be necessary all the time. There was quite a bit of water in the rear hatch afterwards... at least 2-3 cups. The front was completely dry. The day hatch had just a couple drops. Do I fix this my caulking the bulkheads more? Or is this normal because I spent a considerable amount of time with my kayak upside down in the water? If it’s leaking from the hatch covers, is that fixable?

Overall, I was very pleasantly surprised with how agile this boat was! And I never busted my knuckles on the deck, either. Really, the only problem would have been the weight, but that’s only a pain when I’m trying to get to and from the water or if I’ve gone over and need to flip her back upright. My friends could both lift the front ends of their boats and get a lot of the water out of the cockpit before trying to reenter. My boat was heavy empty... with water in it all I could do was shove myself under the water instead of lifting my boat up! I tried using a paddle float to help keep me from going under, but that didn’t work either. My bad shoulder wasn’t helping the cause, but I could still cowboy and get back in, it was just very unstable with so much water inside. Not sure how that would work if I was in rougher conditions. Paddle floats aren’t my favorite, but I did practice reentries using them a couple times. I considered using the bilge pump to get water out before attempting to get back in, but decided that wouldn’t be very realistic.

The seat was fairly comfortable and there is a little cord with a ball and a toothed area to lock the cord in that adjusts the front edge of the seat to angle upwards. I had done that when I pulled the rudder out so I would make more secure contact with the thigh braces, which I had to move forward. I could probably stand to have some additional padding in the hip area, but then again, I was able to edge pretty well with the current seat set up. A seat building party sounds like a great way to meet people while being incredibly productive! Maybe after more seat time, it will be more evident if the seat needs to be messed with or not. We ended up going for 8+ miles and almost 6 hours, and pain wise I was doing ok... although I started off the day with a migraine and a bad neck so I was already medicated and maybe would have been less comfortable had I not been.

The foot pegs do seem a tad narrow width wise. What are the pedals that are the size of feet that Mac50 mentioned? Can they be used on any kayak’s existing foot pegs or do they require new rails or tracks to be installed?

Does anyone know of a good beach (preferably OR coast) to go out and just practice things like self rescues and getting a feel for ocean tides, swells, currents... I want to go to Cascade Head so badly!!! But first I need to get comfortable and get some practice in the ocean.

All in all, today was a fantastic first day out. I think this boat looks intimidatingly large especially since the guy from class has a Sitka XT, which is shorter than my boat, but he is 6’1”! Regardless, this Brittany 16.5 seemed to fit pretty darn good. If only she wasn’t so dang heavy!

Also, on the paddle front... are these little dipper or greenland paddles something that a store that rents kayaks might also have for rent? Are they sized the same as the more common paddles? Do you have a size or specific brand/model recommendation? I know absolutely nothing about these paddles! Intriguing idea to look into though! With less surface area, will learning to roll be noticeably more difficult with that style paddle? Is there a material that is preferred? Usually I will want whatever is lightest...

Thank you all again for your input! It is much appreciated.
What are the pedals that are the size of feet that Mac50 mentioned? Can they be used on any kayak’s existing foot pegs or do they require new rails or tracks to be installed?
I think Mac50L was referring to a home-built DIY design for rudder pedals.
Something along the same lines (but different, as I'm sure Mac50L will point out :) ) would be the 'Bigfoot' pedals from Australia. I've installed them in a couple of boats and they work well.
Solid. A bit heavy. A bit expensive.
Good report!

There is no substitute for seat time out in the water.

For leaky hatches: could be the bulkhead or the rubber hatch cover. You could fill the hatch with water, place the cover on and flip the boat upsidedown. You might see water coming out the side of the cover. If you have front and rear covers that are the same try swapping them to see if they behave differently.

Foot peddles: I find dedicated kayak booties are better than all water sandles like Keen’s etc.

I made two external water lines with quality carabiners (with eyes at one end) in two lengths ( one short and one tow length) useful. Like tying up to a neighbor boat or a log (while taking photos or snacking). The longer line can be useful to secure your boat to a dock or a tree while practicing wet exits without risking losing your boat).

I would get a solid paddle float rescue down before attempting developing a roll technique. Even if your cowboy scramble is good you may find you will need a paddle float rescue in rougher waters. This is best video on this:

I would practice this in warm fresh water and then progress to more choppy salt water.

If you are going to paddle in North West salt water you should get a dry suit. Our waters are really cold, even in summer. Dry suits are expensive, a chore to get in and out of and can make you hot. But they will save your life like nothing else. They give you a lot of extra buoyancy which is useful if you go over. They also allow you time to think about your situation and calmly progress through your practiced self rescue steps. Doing a rescue in cold water without a suit is a shock. It can make you panic. One failed self rescue
in the ocean is ok. But if it takes three or four attempts you risk hypothermia. If you are paddling in the ocean and you get hot wearing a dry suit then purposely going over will cool you down while providing an instant practice session.
This is best video on this:
You need to be a bit cautious about putting just the blade under the deck lines.
paddle blade under lines.JPG

Two friends broke their Werner carbon blades doing that.

Also, the 'standard' heel hook starts with the person floating on their back. The method in the video looks like it would work well.
Pumping out the boat in rough conditions can be tricky.
Also, you can get a paddle like a “little dipper” with a long narrow blade. It is easier on your joints. The downside is you can’t quickly apply a lot of power to the blade. For touring, it’s just fine. I used it when I learned to roll to eliminate a psychological dependency on a wide flat blade.

Just an FYI: the current version of the Werner Little Dipper is not the full "quill" blade they used to make many years back. I've attached a picture of my "classic" Little Dipper and a link to the current version.
Phil with the quill.JPG


Quill paddles are getting harder and harder to find. I like mine because of the lower load on the body, especially when paddling a kayak loaded for touring, and because it doesn't need to be feathered when paddling into the wind. Downsides: the longer leading edge makes it less forgiving of a miscalulated angle during a sweep brace or a roll.

Having said all that, my latest paddle love is a Carbonfibre Greenland paddle. Loving the way it makes it instinctive to paddle with torso rotation rather than arm movement. And I just pulled off my first successful rolls with it last week. Its high bouyancy means you'd almost have to work at it to get it to sink during a sweep brace or roll.
HockeyGirl, You can see a lot of this discussion is “over pizza and beer” type. We all have our experiences that lead to opinions - not to discount someone else’s idea. For example, I have a mountain climbing friend who advocates a snow picket (T shaped aluminum bar you pound in the snow as an anchor). I favor a snow fluke (like the head of a shovel) you bury in the snow. Different situations and techniques for each one.

So let’s see … water in the boat. You will have some water in the boat - that’s why people put things in dry bags. You could spend time/money finding the “leak” in the back hatch - or, as mentioned, it could be from the skeg box - just a fact-of-life with that construction. And you were wise to recognize that a lot of time was spent with the boat upside down, going over and over, is not business as usual. This sort of thing came up when neoprene was replacing latex as the neck gasket material for drysuits. After sessions of rolling/rescue practice, people found the neoprene let more water in than they’d experience with latex. But the physicality of their endeavors was not what you’d usually experience “out there”.

I used neoprene for years and many of the paddling sites in the Gulf Islands - once Canada opens again - are warm-ish. There could be cold shock but then the wetsuit does it’s job. Also, if you are padding with a friend, and you’ve learned to stay together, how long do you think you’ll be in the water - couple minutes? Neoprene seems to be more versitle in adjusting for outside temperature. But if I were paddling alone or responsible for someone who is prone to panic, I would absolutely wear a drysuit (maybe not in a lake on a warm day).

It’s good to learn the Heel Hook entry; for me it takes much less effort than the flop over the back style. And you may be assisting someone who isn’t strong/coordiated enough for other methods. The trick with the heel hook is you have to stay elongated. There’s a tendency to scrunch up in a fetal posiiton. You have to stay long.

For a non-heal hook style, It might also be handy to carry a loop - maybe made of floating line like used for water skiing - that you put around the shaft of your paddle opposite the side with the float, then you bring it under the kayak (may need it dip your head in the water to do that), up the side the float is on, and over the paddle shaft. The loop is long enough that the reminder becomes a stirrup you can place a foot in to help you (or the person you are rescuing) flop on the back of the boat. Note in that case the paddle is all the way across the back of the boat, not halfway stuck in a bungee cord. And added advantage is any force is on the shaft, not the blade.

My boat has a 4 inch port near the bow - the Mariner doesn’t have a front bulkhead so you can push all the gear that goes there towards the front. You learn to tie a line to the first piece that goes in. You learn not to put your arm in beyond your elbow, especially as others in your group are leaving the beach. The point there is even if the compartment is small, if you can’t reach the back of it, you’ll want to tie a tether on what ever goes in first. Also, I put a little silicon grease on that port’s treads. No water comes in that route. Maybe some silicon grease on where your hatch covers meet the boat would help with the water issue (if that’s were it is coming from). Two cups is nothing. Wait till you land, and pull off your hatch and an unexpected wave comes in and breaks over the stern of your boat. You have lots of fun ahead of you.

Another accessory to consider, if you can’t easily carry your boat alone, is a two wheel cart. Helps to move the boat from the car to the launch point. They are designed so you can take the wheels off and - maybe - pack them in a hatch. But I’ve never needed one once I’ve left the primary launch point as all other landings during the adventure go up on a beach. But with two people to carry an empty boat - a cart may not be necessary.

In one rendezvous on Orcas back in 2003, there were a variety of classes you could sign up for - a total of three. Those putting the event on did their best to get you in the classes you wanted and at least 2 out of 3 was the norm. It was a feature, not a bug, because it sort of forced people to take a class in something they may not consider - something new. For me, it was a greenland paddle class. What did I want to do with this “stick”, how could it move a boat? But it worked. I still stuck with a European blade, but I remembered. Later, in a group outing, one of the women had a greenland paddle and she was in front of everyone (seasoned paddlers) the whole time. I spend money for a bent shaft paddle that for me was a waste - I’ve never had a problem with my wrists - even with decades (and decades) of using a keyboard. So if I had it to do over, I would have gotten a greenland paddle as my backup paddle. As it is, I carry a wide paddle blade and a narrower paddle blade as a backup paddle - or vice versa depending upon conditions.

Also during that event, one of the trainers refused to teach “self-rescue”. He said it gave a false sense of security. He said if conditions were rough enough to tip you over, any “float” rescue wasn’t going to get you back in the boat. And if you did get back in, there was no way you’d have the stability to pump out the boat (usually takes both hands). He negotiated to teach re-enter and roll. This is one of those things - I disagree with him. There are plenty of situations with beginners where they just go over in calm water. I used to assist in XC ski classes. The beginning class would be in a semicircle listening to the instructor and all of a sudden, someone would just go over - kaboom. My very first kayak class was at Ebb and Flow in Portland and they required everyone actually tip over and get back in (the Willamette). It was so useful because after the class they let us cpntinue to use the boats and sure enough - I’m just sitting there, watching a big boat go by and my center of gravity gets off (first time in a kayak) and over I go. Another, larger kayak retailer, had a similar beginner class and they demonstated the self rescue while the actual doing by students it was optional. I think they did a real disservice to the students, not “encouraging” (as in “you have to do it”) to gain this experience in a safe, supportive, situation.

Portland has their own kayak club - I think it is OOPS (oregon ocean paddlers society?). I have no experience with them. I know the Washington Kayak Club has a variety of outings including a wide range of instruction/practice on the water and in a pool. At least they did; don’t know about now.

Your play around Cascade Head would be a day trip - it would be different than packing your boat for 4-5 days for a week of adventure. Though Canada is currently closed, the San Juan Islands area is an excellent training ground.
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Thanks again for all the comments and great info. That paddle float reentry video was awesome. I will be trying that next time I’m out, which will hopefully be Sunday. That method seemed so much simpler than what I was taught in class! Looks like I’ve got some researching to do between greenland, Zephyr, and quill paddles... would be nice to test them out somewhere. In terms of dry suits, it actually looks like we might be moving to FL! Hopefully my farmer Jane neoprene suit will suffice for out there. Is it possible to wear a dry suit top with the farmer Jane underneath? And is a splash top good enough to withstand reentries and practicing? I had seen a decently priced splash top (BomberGear Blitz top) that seemed like it wasn’t really ideal for what I needed, but maybe it’s “good enough” and would actually be a good option for Florida waters? Anyone have any experience with this top?

Thank you all again!!!
On warm days/warm (relatively) water I wear a splash top (20 year old Kokatat) over neoprene. I have learned again and again and again (slow learner) to always bring it (with neoprene) and usually wear it. When loading the boat I am generating heat. And it’s a warm day. But once out in the water, it takes very little breeze to bring up a chill - especially if the neoprene is wet. So it’s more for a barrier against convection heat loss rather than to stay dry. Much easier to cool off on the water if too warm than it is to get warm if too cold.
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If I am practicing rolling with a buddy, I wear a dry suit because I'll be standing in the water to assist my buddy if he needs to avoid a wet exit. If I am rolling on my own in summer in North Idaho waters, I wear a dry top over my farmer John neoprene - becuase I am immersed for a much shorter time. I prefer the dry top to a splash jacket.