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Know Thy Paddle Craft

Sea kayaks. Recreational kayaks. SUPS. Canoes. Rowboats.

With so many kinds of paddle craft out there, it can be hard to know where to start, or which one can best help you achieve your paddling dreams. Read on to learn the difference between each type of vessel, and how and why to choose the one that’s right for you.


Kayaks are decked paddle craft in which the paddler sits low in the boat and propels it with a double-bladed paddle. They come in a wide variety of styles designed for different types of water. Kayaks can be single (solo) or double (tandem). All categories of kayaks may or may not have a steering rudder controlled by the paddler’s feet. These days the most common kayaks are made of rotomolded plastic, though some are made of fiberglass, kevlar, wood, or other materials.

Sea Kayaks

Example solo sea kayak

P&H Delphin, a playful solo sea kayak

Sea Kayaks, also known as Expedition Kayaks or Touring Kayaks, are long, high performance boats which have evolved from those first invented by indigenous arctic peoples, especially the Inuit of Greenland, for hunting whales and seals in often rough waters. They are fast, seaworthy, and able to carry heavy loads. They can be used for both long open paddles and island camping trips as well as for roughwater play like surfing and exploring sea slots. They are narrow, with rounded bottoms, which makes them feel tippy and unstable to beginner paddlers. However, this narrowness allows experienced paddlers to hold them on an edge, making them more maneuverable despite their length, and able to react to waves and swell without capsizing. Modern sea kayaks are defined by a number of key features: length, rigging, compartments, and cockpit shape.

Length: 14 feet is usually considered the entry point for “true” sea kayaks. A solo will typically range from 15-18 feet, while tandem (and the rare triple) kayaks can be up to 25 feet in length.

Rigging: Sea kayaks typically have two different types of rigging on their deck for ease of use. The first is elastic bungees, which go across the deck and are used for holding down gear. The second is static line (aka rope) which forms a perimeter around the boat. This line is used in a number of different safety contexts: to help flip a capsized boat back over, connect a tow rope, anchor the boat in place, etc.

Example fiberglass sea kayak

Seaward Legend, a fiberglass touring sea kayak

Hatches with sealed bulkheads: Sea kayaks are divided into separate compartments which provide both flotation in the event of a capsize (the boat flipping over) and space to store gear for camping trips. These compartments are separated from each other by waterproof walls called bulkheads, and are accessed via removable hatch covers. Sea kayaks will typically have four compartments, including the cockpit section where the paddler sits.

Cockpit Shape: Sea kayaks have cockpits (the area where the paddle sits) with an enclosed deck, which can be further sealed off with a sprayskirt, a piece of neoprene, vinyl, aquatherm, or other material worn around the paddler’s waste, which then wraps around the cockpit entrance creating a waterproof sealed area. This allows an experienced paddler to handle rougher conditions, put the boat further on its edge, and roll the kayak back up from a capsize without exiting the boat or causing it to flood.

Example tandem sea kayak

Boreal Esperanto, a tandem sea kayak

At Portland Paddle sea kayaks are used on all of our guided tours and lessons, and are available to renters with the capsize recovery and paddling experience necessary to use them safely, who are renting for four hours or more. We use both solo and tandem kayaks, and have kayaks designed for a range of experience levels, body sizes, and styles of paddling.

Recreational Kayaks

Example recreational kayak

Old Town Loon, a recreational kayak

An example of a Recreational Tandem Kayak

Old Town Dirigo, a tandem recreational kayak

Recreational kayaks are the most common kayaks, and they are what most people use when they kayak on a lake, pond or calm river. They are shorter than 14 feet, and have wide, stable bodies, and wide, open cockpits meant for comfort and ease of entry and exit. They often have extra features for enjoyment on calm water such as cup holders. They may or may not have storage compartments for equipment. Recreational kayaks are often fairly light for ease of carrying down to the water or putting on top of a vehicle.

Recreational kayaks come in both solo and tandem styles at Portland Paddle, and are available at our East End Beach site, as well as for delivery for multiday rentals. We also have youth specific recreational kayaks. Recreational kayaks are appropriate for use in our “shore zone” (good for an hour or two of paddling) or in sheltered locations offsite, such as calm ponds and rivers, and marshy estuaries.

Sit On Top Kayaks

Example of a Sit on Top Kayak

Old Town Twister, a sit on top kayak

Sit-on-top kayaks (SOTs) are a variation of recreational kayaks in which the paddler sits exactly as the name implies: directly on top of the boat. There is no deck on a SOT and no cockpit that a paddler can put their legs inside. This provides the advantage of easy entrance and exit from the boat, and removes some of the need for adjusting seats and foot pegs for sizing. On the other hand, SOTs generally involve a wetter ride for the paddler, since there is no deck to protect from paddle drips and waves. SOTS kayaks are the widest and flattest kayaks, making them extremely stable in their normal position, but unable to be put on an edge for performance paddling. The stability and ease of access to gear makes them ideal for activities like birding and photography. They also have the disadvantage of typically being heavier and a bit more awkward to carry than regular recreational kayaks. Recreational sit on tops should also not be confused with Surfskis: extremely long and narrow, high performance sea kayaks which also use a sit on top cockpit method.

We use sit on top kayaks at our Crescent Beach location in Cape Elizabeth! Our youth specific kayaks are also sit on tops, and are available at both Crescent Beach and East End Beach, as well as for delivery.

a child in a blue boat on a body of water

Lifetime Wave, a youth specific sit on top kayak


Hybrid Kayak

Example of a Recreation Kayak

Old Town Sorento, a rec leaning hybrid kayak

Hybrid kayaks combine elements of recreational and expedition kayaks, and thus have some of the most variety in features. They typically range from 10 to 14 feet in length. Befitting their hybrid nature they may have an enclose able cockpit like a sea kayak, a semi open cockpit which gives some of the benefits of a recreational style cockpit, but which can be covered with a very large sprayskirt, or a fully open cockpit. Hybrid kayaks often have some of the deck rigging and compartmentalization of a sea kayak but less so, perhaps only having one set of deck bungees, and only one or two storage compartments. Hybrid kayaks are great for those who typically paddle in the calm conditions and short durations appropriate for recreational kayaks, but who want to start dipping their toes into longer distance paddles or paddles in rougher conditions, without committing to the cost, length, weight, or tippyness of a full sea kayak. Longer, touring oriented hybrid kayaks are a great alternative to sea kayaks to fit a wider array of bodies. Close attention to match boat features to paddling goals is particularly important with hybrid boats.

Example of a hybrid kayak

Old Town Castine, a touring oriented hybrid kayak

Portland Paddle has a few hybrid kayaks at our East End Beach location, which we mix in to both our rental and guided tour fleets when appropriate.

Other Types of Kayaks

There are a number of other specialty kayak types. These include traditional Greenland style kayaks (lower volume with sharper angles compared to other modern sea kayaks), whitewater kayaks (meant for use on whitewater rivers and other roughwater situations), surfing kayaks (built like a surfboard including fins, with a seat and deck on top), fishing kayaks (often sit on tops, with rod holders, tackle compartments, and even pedal motors), surfskis (a type of high performance sit on top), and flatwater sprint kayaks (used for high intensity, short distance races, including in the Olympics!), to name just a few. Needless to say, kayaking is a many varied sport!

Non-Kayak Paddlecraft

Stand Up Paddleboards (SUPs)

paddleboarders at sunset

Paddleboarders on a sunset tour at Portland Paddle

Stand Up Paddleboards, often shortend to SUPs or just Paddleboards, owe their heritage to longboard surfboards in Hawaii. In the 1940s some of the earliest modern surf instructors and pro surfers, such as Duke Kahanamoku and the Ah Choy family, would use canoe paddles to get out beyond the surf break. This allowed them to stand up as they paddled out and waited to catch a wave, which let them better keep an eye on their students. It is likely this practice was done on longboards in Hawaii at other times before then as well though. In this way, modern SUPs evolved directly from the two Polynesian sports of surfing and outrigger canoeing.

In a case of convergent evolution, another claim for the invention of modern SUP comes from Australia, and intersects with the creation of surfskis. Around the same time as surf tourism was growing in Hawaii, Australian oyster farmers commonly used long, flat boats to haul in their catch, while early rescue “surfskis” were beginning to be employed by lifeguard clubs at area beaches. These early surfskis resembled a surfboard with a seat, and a wide flat area for a rescued swimmer to hang on. In the way of human play, Australians began racing both of these crafts in and out of surf breaks, as well as challenging each other to stand up as they paddled through the surf zone. These activities led to the creation of modern surfskis, incredibly long and narrow, sit on top racing boats, and waveskis, high performance sit on top machines meant for doing tricks in the surf zone, and is also believed by some to be a source of inspiration for modern paddleboarding. Duke Kahanamoku, as well as a number of other Hawaiian surfers, made several trips to Australia during this time, and it is impossible to know exactly how these two ocean and paddlesport cultures might have influenced each other.

SUPs today come in many forms, including wide, flat, stable boards for beginner paddlers or for doing yoga on. Most of Portland Paddle’s paddleboards fall into this category. There are also surf specific boards with different fin and hull shapes, long narrow boards for racing, center finned and hydrofoiled varieties for sailing with a wingfoil or windsurf mast, and touring specific boards which have a large number of bungees for holding drybags full of gear. SUPs are typically made of fiberglass, but there are also many inflatable models for ease of transport and storage.


a close up of a boat

The Esquif Prospecteur, a large two person tripping canoe

As with most paddlecraft, many similar shaped forms have evolved independently in different cultures all over the world throughout history. This is perhaps the most true of all with canoes. Examples of canoe-like craft have been used on every continent, and continue to be used today. They are typically propelled with either a single blade paddle or with a push poll, with the paddler either kneeling, standing, or sitting on a raised bench. In Polynesia, canoes with outriggers were common, and these often also had sails. In the Great Rivers region and on the West Coast of North America, 30-60 ft long dugout canoes were common.

Modern canoes used in western culture owe their heritage most directly to the birch bark canoes invented by eastern woodlands peoples of current day United States and Canada, such as the Wabanaki People of what is now Maine. When European settlers encountered these crafts, they quickly adopted them for fur trapping, hunting, timbering, and other forms of exploration, due to the birch bark canoe’s ability to handle a wide range of paddling conditions, carry heavy loads of gear, and easily be portaged from one body of water to another or around unrunable rapids. Unlike kayaks, canoes are open boats with no deck or bulkheads.

Example canoe - Esquif Prospecteur

A typical two person canoe, note the open space and the portage yoke at center

Modern day canoes are built from a variety of different plastics, fiberglass, wood, or metal. They typically are intended for one or two paddlers, though most manufacturers also make three and four person models. Non-paddling passengers can also “duff” by sitting in the open area as if they were a piece of luggage. Canoes meant for more than four people are referred to by a number of different names including Voyager Canoes, War Canoes, Salish Canoes, or simply Big Canoes. A canoe’s ability to handle roughwater can be further improved by adding air bags or temporary spraydecks to avoid the open boat getting swamped by waves.

At Portland Paddle we rent canoes for day long and multi day rentals. Canoes are generally tippy-er and require more skill to steer efficiently than a recreational kayak, so we find that most new paddlers prefer the later. For the experienced paddler though, or those who wish to build that experience, there is no better craft for exploring New England’s network of inland rivers and lakes.


Open boats of Mediterranean and European origin, rowboats are different from most other paddlecraft in that they don’t use paddles! Instead, rowboats use oars. What’s the difference? Paddles, whether single or double bladed, are held entirely in the hands of the paddler, while oars are connected to the side of the boat via an oarlock. The rower holds a pair of oars in each hand (known as sculling or rowing), or a single oar in both hands in combination with other rowers (sweeping or pulling), allowing the majority of the oar’s length to stick outside of the craft. This means the rower must face backwards, instead of towards where they are headed, but allows them to utilize the larger muscles of their legs and back, as well as to take advantage of a longer lever created by the oar, in order to propel the boat more powerfully per stroke. Rowboats were historically used for a wide variety of purposes in Maine, including as lobster boats, for cod fishing, and for getting from ship to ship or ship to dock aboard the famous windjammer schooners. Modern day recreational rowboats can have either fixed benches in the traditional style, or the sliding seats seen on crew racing shells. They are able to carry large amounts of gear and passengers, but unlike canoes or kayaks, most cannot be easily carried overland or placed on top of a car.

FAQ: What do YOU use?

Portland Paddle uses a wide variety of sea and recreational kayaks from a number of different manufacturers, including Old Town, Necky, Current Designs, Boreal Designs, Wilderness Systems, and Seaward, to name just a few. We have used a number of different paddleboards over the years, and our canoes are from Old Town. Our guides’ personal boats span an even wider range of styles and manufacturers, adding NDK, P&H, Gig Harbor, Tiderace, Esquif, Jackson, Rockpool, and more to the list of boat manufacturers represented in the P2 family fleet!


Table showing different types of paddlecraft used at Portland Paddle