What Determines Kayak Speed?

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Many paddlers aren’t concerned about going faster. Their goals are different – whether that’s simple enjoyment on the water or enough room to store their fishing tackle. But if you’re curious about what determines kayak speed, keep reading. Here are the four major determinants of kayak speed:

  1. The length of your kayak determines kayak speed. Watch any paddle-sport event in the Olympics and you’ll quickly notice much longer kayaks than you’re used to. There’s good reason for this, as kayak length is the number one way to go faster on the water. Here’s an extremely scientific reason why:

At speeds approaching ‘hull speed’, wave drag dominates. Hull speed is the theoretical maximum speed of a given displacement hull, and is proportional to the square root of the waterline length of the kayak. A longer kayak will have correspondingly higher ‘hull speed’, so it’s able to reach a higher maximum speed. However, it’s important to note that it requires considerable output from the paddler to get to maximum speed. In short, the slower you paddle, the less the kayak length will help you go faster.

2. The width of your kayak determines kayak speed. As kayaks get longer in length, they tend to get shorter in width. This is because hull speed also increases as the proportion of length to width increases. While width is less of a factor than length, width has a big impact on the next determinant of kayak speed.

For example, our popular Stellar S18 touring kayak is 18’ long, but has a beam (width) of 21.5”. The S16 model is a little shorter, at 16’3”, but is also a tad wider at 22.1”

3. The efficiency of the paddler determines kayak speed. When it comes to kayaks, there’s no getting around it: you are the engine that makes it go, and the more efficient you are as a paddler, the faster you’ll go.

As kayaks get longer and slimmer, they become less stable than kayaks that are shorter and wider. Until paddlers adjust to this difference, they’ll be less efficient than they were in their shorter kayak.

Using our earlier example, the Stellar S18 is a faster kayak than the S16, but only once the paddler has gotten used to the slightly less stability provided by the longer and narrower hull.

In the end, often the simplest way to think about speed is that the fastest kayak is the longest, narrowest one that you can paddle efficiently.

4. Finally, your hull material determines kayak speed. As kayaks designed for speed increase in price, you’ll also notice that the actual material of the hull changes, progressing from a variety of plastics to fiberglass and eventually even carbon composites. These materials are increasingly lighter and also have less water resistance. To the average paddler, these differences are negligible, but for those with the need for speed, hull composition can give you the last bit of edge you need to reach the podium.