Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Cheap Kayaks

Inexpensive Kayaks like this model purchased from Boat U.S., are easy to paddle, stable, lightweight, and affordable.  More expensive Kayaks are often less fun, heavier, harder to use, and less stable.  For most people, going to expert-level equipment is just a waste of money and a means of decreasing, not increasing, enjoyment of a sport.

We are renting a lakeside house in Camden, Maine, which is pretty affordable ($2500 a week) at the end of the season, and when you divide the cost by three couples.  And we are enjoying an Indian summer and great fall foliage.  The lake is placid and calm, and there is a picnic island in the middle to Kayak to.  So why not get the whole gang out on Kayaks and have a champagne picnic on the island?

That is what we did.  But the experience was an eye-opener.   We have been Kayaking across maritime Canada for the last two months, using inexpensive ($350) Kayaks we purchased years ago at Boat U.S.  These are by no means "serious" Kayaks at all, but, as the advertising label on one notes, "Suitable for bird watching and family fun".  They are very light - one person can carry them and put them on top of the car - and that is a handy thing.  And they are indestructible, being made of a molded plastic.

And they are easy to paddle, and since they are wide and have flat bottoms, stable and easy to use.  And for most people, this is all you need - or want.  These are similar to the Old Town Kayaks we had previously (bought at the annual Labor Day Sale in Old Town, Maine, for $200 apiece, years ago) although those were much heavier and harder to carry.  But those were wide and stable and had no moving parts to them.

At the rental house, they have a number of "ocean" Kayaks that are nearly twice as long - and half as wide - as our cheap Kayaks.  These are "serious" Kayaks, with rudders and elaborate steering mechanisms (mostly broken or in poor repair) and cargo compartments fore and aft (most never having been opened in years, with dry-rotted straps).  They are heavy as all get out and take two people to lift.  They are expensive ($800 or more, even used) and when you put them in the water, well, they are tippy as all get-out.

Trying to get our friends, who have never Kayaked, to use them was a challenge.

This is a more serious Kayak, but it is also more tippy and very hard to get in and out of, due to the small opening.  It is also longer and heavier and has an elaborate steering mechanism.  And of course, it is far more expensive.  Is this better?  Not for most folks.

They did have one advantage over our "lame" Kayaks, and that is they were faster.  Since efficiency is a function of hull speed, these longer and narrower "serious" Kayaks glided through the water with less effort.  However, for a jaunt around a small lake, it really isn't much of an issue, and the point of Kayaking is to get exercise.

Many folks like to use fiberglass Kayaks, which often have white hulls with yellow tops.  These are also narrow, but lightweight.  But since they scratch easily, they cannot be dragged over the rocks like the polyethylene cheaper models.  As a result, the owners often carry these in elaborate sock-like covers, and have to carefully lift them into the water - and back out again - to avoid scratches.  Fun, eh?   Even worse are very beautiful, but impractical, wooden kayaks, which look very cool on the roof of your car, but are fragile and easily damaged on rocky shorelines.

And yes, people who use such Kayaks often turn up their noses and refuse to even make eye contact with, much less talk to, people like us in our floating buckets.

This lovely hand-made wooden Kayak would look great - hanging from the ceiling of a vacation cottage as a decoration.  As a practical Kayak for daily use, I would think it would be less than practical.  Dragging this Kayak, even on sand, would damage the beautiful finish.  I think people have more fun building these types of boats than using them.

Many young "dudes" tend to buy very short whitewater style Kayks, which are turned up on both ends and look like little elfin shoes.  These are often so thin that you can see through the thin fiberglass, although most are more practical polyethylene.  These type seem to spend more time sitting in the corner of a dorm room than actually traversing white-water rapids.  But they do announce to all your friends that you are a serious whitewater dude!
Looking more like an oversized shoe than a boat, these whitewater Kayaks are really only for serious Whitewater rafting.  On a calm lake, they are less than useless, as they are not very directionally stable.  we went Kayaking with someone who had one of these, and they kept spinning in circles.  The ultimate Kayak for one application is often the least useful for another.  But having one of these in your dorm room, or bolted to the roof of your Subaru, marks you as a serious Kayaking dude!

While such Kayaks might be useful for limited circumstances (well the whitewater kind, anyway.  I am not sure what the point of a $2000 Kayak that you can never, ever scratch, is) for just general paddling around, they are not only overkill, but less useful.

It is, in a way, like the scenario I described in The Bicycle Trap, where people spend thousands of dollars on racing bicycles for street use, that are actually less useful than more pedestrian bikes - at least in terms of recreational riding on real streets and trails.  Or the gourmet kitchens with their high-end appliances which are less reliable than a cheap model from Sears.  Our generation, it seems, is hooked on paraphernalia, and we all want to have "top of the line" stuff, even if it is wildly impractical for daily living.

A Ferrari or Porsche is a fine racing machine, but as many owners discover, very esoteric, high-end cars are not very practical for daily driving in heavy traffic.  500 HP is not going to help you out of L.A. Freeway traffic jams, and hard-butt racing seats get pretty old after a few miles.  It may be the "ultimate" ride, but you might find that the guy in the next lane in the rented Impala is actually having more fun and more comfortable (and has a place to put his luggage).

Not surprisingly, these Kayaks at the rental house were covered with dirt from sitting in the side yard.  They had not been used much lately, and no doubt the owners discovered that moving these heavy monsters, wedging into the tiny, uncomfortable compartments, and dicking around with rusted steering cables, was more hassle that it was worth.  I think they would enjoy a cheap "lame-ass" Kayak a lot more - and save a lot of money in the process.  After all, they live on a small lake that rarely have any chop on it.

But of course, in America, we all have to become "experts" in what we do, so we all go out and buy this stuff.   You can't even walk today without some sort of special shoes and ski poles, and even lessons (I kid you not).  I haven't needed walking lessons in 50 years, and I am not going to start now.  But for many folks, even taking a hike is no laughing matter, but something that requires that you be kitted-out in fancy and expensive gear - and something that be taken deadly seriously and very competitively.  It sucks all the fun out of it!

But the rise of creeping expertism, I think, serves to do little than to induce consumers to spend money - or spend more than they should - and to suck the joy out of any sport or endeavor.  By definition, most of us will never become experts in any given sport or endeavor - nor should we.  The idea that one can excel in everything they do, is inherently flawed.  If you are a recreational skier, you will never become an Olympic contender, unless you devote your life to the sport.  Buying all high-end gear will not make up the difference.

Similarly, the best golfers are not the best because of their fancy clubs, but rather because they golf a lot - and have some natural talent for the game.  Buying hyper-expensive golf clubs, as an amateur, is not going to improve your game much.  Golfing more, will.  But the expensive clubs are impressive to look at - and let's face it, that is sort of the point of buying them - to impress people we don't know.

Of course, this can all backfire horribly.  The fellow with the shiny new set of expensive clubs who whiffs the ball off the first tee, is sure to get chuckles from the Plumbers and Carpenters in the next foursome, who blast the ball off the tee with their mediocre, but battered golf clubs.  After all, they play nearly every day, at 4:00, provided it's not raining.  The lawyer with the pricey clubs rarely has time to golf, unless he is schmoozing a client.

Or consider the "serious" bicyclist, with the $5000 carbon-fiber bicycle and spandex bike clothing (with advertisers logos all over it) who is pedaling down the road in the wrong gear, with the seat too low, the front wheel wobbling side-to-side.  Clearly, he or she doesn't know what they are doing, and the fact they are 60 pounds overweight emphasizes this point.  But the salesman at the bike shop was certainly persuasive.  They probably would be happier and better off with a cheap mountain bike from the chain sporting goods store - and be more likely to use it, as well.

And that is the other problem with expensive gear.  People buy this stuff, pay a lot of money, and kid themselves they are going to become fans of the sport or activity.  But since the racing bicycle is no fun for recreational riding, and the high-end Kayak is no fun for putting about in the water, they end up languishing in a garage somewhere.  And as a result, the person with all the good intentions and the checkbook, once again feels guilty that they have yet to follow-up on yet another project.  So the recrimination and low-self-esteem engine is fueled yet again, priming the individual for the siren song of the next salesman or next trend or activity bandwagon to jump on.

Another problem with amateurs buying expert equipment, is that it tends to dumb-down the equipment over time.  Many folks buy high-end stuff, figuring it is "better" when in fact, it may be merely more esoteric and suited only for special applications.  When the Z28 option package came out for the Camaro, it was designed for Can-Am racers who needed a package of options for that 5.0 liter class of racing.  Air Conditioning was not even an option on such cars, early on.  But over time, people got the idea Z28 RPO option code was the "ultimate" Camaro, and thus insisted on owning one - and demanding things like automatic transmissions, air conditioning, and power windows.  Before long, the Z28 devolved from a factory race-car to an overloaded pimp barge.

So, what did I learn from this experience? 
1.  More expensive is not always better.

2.  Consumer grade products are often best - for consumers.

3.  Expert products should be left to experts.

4.  It is OK, and in fact, normal, that you will not be an expert in every endeavor in your life.

5.  This does not mean you can't have fun at other levels of skill.

6.  People who are experts at sports may in fact have less fun than you.

7.  People who try to pretend to be experts by buying fancy crap will very likely have no fun at all.

8.  People who try to make everything into a competition of expertism are no fun to be around.
We have been Kayaking three times here so far, and we have had fun.  But I've had to lend my "lame-ass" Kayaks to my friends, as they are easier to use and more comfortable.  The "serious" ocean-going Kayaks are OK, but a lot less fun to use than our cheap ones.