Because there are so many different types of kayaks available, there is a lot of variance in the average kayaking speed. For example, shorter, sit-on-top fishing kayaks feel sluggish and slow next to a sleek, long-keeled touring model.
That said, 2 to 3 knots (about 2.5 to 3.5 mph) is a reasonable average speed for recreational kayakers.
Factors That Influence Your Kayaking Speed
Your kayak’s measurements and design have a lot of influence on your speed. However, your paddling technique and ability to anticipate and manipulate weather or tidal changes are just as important. Here are all the factors impacting your speed and what you can do to improve it.
Type of Kayak
The simplest way to predict a kayak’s speed is by looking at the length of its keel. We won’t get into the equations of it here, but all else being equal, the longer the keel, the faster your boat will go.
A narrow kayak also creates less resistance when moving through the water and requires less force to maintain speed. This is why most touring kayaks built for more extended journeys are long and narrow.
Sit-on-top kayaks are almost always wider than sit-in models. This is because sit-on-top designs feature seats higher above the water, giving you a higher center of gravity. To compensate for this, they must be wider to maintain stability, which hampers their speed.
Cutting corners with your paddle purchase may be tempting if you’ve just spent top dollar on a flashy new kayak. But I’d suggest you reconsider that position before pulling out your credit card.
There’s a wide array of paddle types available, and if maximizing speed is a priority, it might make all the difference.
Like kayaks, the lighter the paddle, the more you can expect to spend.
Plastic and aluminum paddles are heavy, durable, and economical. This makes them fine choices for recreational paddlers or kids. But after several hours of kayaking and thousands of paddle strokes, even just a couple of extra pounds can have a cumulative toll on your arms and shoulders.
Fiberglass and carbon fiber paddles are more fragile (but still durable) and noticeably lighter. Switching from plastic to carbon fiber can significantly affect your endurance and technique. The drawback is some of these paddles can cost as much as a recreational sit-on-top kayak, so make sure you’re serious about your paddling before upgrading.
When it comes to blade width, you may expect a wider blade to equal a faster boat. However, while wide blades create more force and are great for short strokes, they require you to exert more effort.
Narrower paddle blades are the tortoise to the wider blades’ hare. Being smaller, they cut through the water more efficiently. So while you won’t be generating as much raw power with each paddle stroke, you’ll be able to maintain a faster pace over the long run.
Lastly, paddle feathering is one of those slight modifications that may seem trivial, but can make all the difference at the end of a long day. This refers to the twist in the paddle shaft so that the blades are not on the same plane.
This way, the blade has its edge turned to the wind when out of the water, drastically decreasing wind-related drag. This is invaluable when paddling into a headwind and can even help on calm days.
In the paddling world, the weight a kayak can safely carry is usually referred to as the boat’s load capacity. Bear in mind this includes your weight too.
Overloading a kayak can make it sit lower in the water, decreasing its maneuverability, speed, and stability.
Ability & Technique
Even the swiftest and most efficiently designed kayaks will flounder in the wrong hands. Conversely, an experienced paddler can get a respectable speed out of a boxy sit-on-top kayak. Learning proper paddling techniques will go a long way to improving your average kayaking speed.
Your hands should hold the paddle with a loose grip and be orientated on the shaft to form the “paddler’s box.“
The best way to create this box is to place the paddle on top of your head. From this position, it’s easy to slide your hands up and down the shaft until your elbows are 90 degrees. Of course, if this feels awkward, there’s nothing wrong with making your box a little acute or obtuse.
The length of your paddle stroke will vary somewhat depending on your paddle, boat width, and height. However, a paddle stroke should generally begin near your feet and end close to your hips.
Remember to push with your top hand on the follow-through too, and you’ll feel your abdominal and back muscles engage in addition to your biceps and triceps. Using these larger muscle groups increases your paddling strength and endurance.
Weather & Water Conditions
It may seem there’s little you can do to change the weather and water, but that doesn’t mean it should be disregarded.
Having an updated weather forecast is vital for planning kayaking trips. So prepare for and anticipate those nasty headwinds, and remember you’ll be fighting any waves the wind kicks up too.
Paddling with waves or tides is usually preferential and can increase your speed depending on the conditions.
It’s still possible to find a little push when going against the tide or up a river by utilizing eddies. These tend to occur close to shore. The majority of the water may be flowing downriver, but some of its volume will be shunted to the side and flow back up to fill in the negative space.
It’s also important to be mindful of bottleneck tidal areas. Shallow or narrow spots where a lot of water is funneled can quickly turn a calm paddle into a challenge. So always carry a chart and rely on local knowledge to paddle these areas safely.
Tips for Kayaking Faster
Incorporating all the suggestions in this article will help you become a stronger paddler. It’s all about finding those little edges that add more to each stroke.
Here are a few tips that have helped me the most:
- Learn how to use a feathered paddle: Switching to this style may feel awkward to begin with. So go slow, and don’t be in a hurry. Focus on your technique and ensure that the shaft pivoting isn’t inflaming your wrists.
- Use a bent shaft blade: Most paddle blades are straight, but bent shaft designs are more ergonomic. Like paddling feathered, this can take some getting used to. So don’t bust out your new paddle for a 20-mile day the first time out.
- Know the area: Pay attention to how the wind, weather, and tide interact. Sometimes you have no choice but to power through a headwind. But many times, a lee, an eddy, or a side current can send you on your way. If you’re new to the location, ask a local or a guide for their suggestions and grab a paddling guidebook of the area if there’s one available.
- Have a flexible itinerary: Things don’t always go as planned. So having multiple potential stops marked on the chart gives you the confidence to keep going. Reached your potential camping spot early and still feeling fresh? You’ll be happy to know there’s another spot up the coast.