Out on the water tonight I bumped into a paddler who told me that the sit-on-top kayak they were paddling was bought new for £200. Cheap import kayaks are becoming common on the water, but this was the lowest price that I had heard so far and represented a bit of a milestone. Looking on ebay tonight I’m amazed that you can go even cheaper, with new sit-on-top kayaks selling for as little as £185 including a backrest and something that looks a bit like a paddle. As we were all on the open sea at the time, I didn’t exactly give it a full inspection. What I could see was fairly predictable: The design looked familiar, but not quite right. It sat awkwardly low in the water causing the rear storage well to fill with water. This made paddling much harder than it needed to be. The outfitting looks pretty cheap too and the handles and ties didn’t look like they would cope with much abuse. Is that really a problem though? At £200 that kayak was at least £100 cheaper than a something comparable from a quality brand, so are crappy handles and a permanent wet bum really a problem?

Cheap kayaks are cheap. So what?

One of the things that I love about sit-on-top kayaking is that it doesn’t share the elitism and snobbery that plagues other watersports (if you want a taste of that there are plenty of kayak retailers who will oblige if you just mention “sit-on tops”). Sit-on-top kayaking is about being out on the water and enjoying it, however you get there. If it takes a cheap kayak to get you out there, then I’m all for it, as long as it is safe.

Safe? Who mentioned safe?

There are concerns in some quarters that some cheap imports might not be safe. Plastic quality is inferior and it only takes one bad fitting to start letting in water and causing a serious problem. This may well be an issue. I honestly don’t know enough about this end of the market to give an informed assessment, although I know that I find comfort in a respected brand (and those “Made in Britain” stickers) when I’m further from shore than I could ever swim. It might be the case that these cheap imports are used in much safer conditions by novice kayakers who stay in shallows close to shore. If that is the case then maybe safety issues are not a real concern either.

What about performance?

I’ve paddled a lot of different sit-on models, but mostly from recognised brands like Islander, Fat Yak, Perception, Tootega, Wilderness Systems and Roam (amongst others). When I have paddled kayaks from obscure brands or no brands I’ve generally been surprised at how poor they are. Common issues include kayaks that fill with water and refuse to drain, hulls that sit too low in the water and just horrible comfort levels (I hired a no-name kayak on holiday in Spain that had be close to tears within 15 minutes). Again I’d ask: Does any of this matter? If you are only going to drag your kayak to the local lake or sheltered bay for an hour a few times each summer, this stuff all becomes less important. If it really is just about fun on the water, then surely performance is not an issue.

The big picture

One quite serious potential issue is that the rise in cheap imports might undermine the sit-on-top kayaking. All of the brands I have mentioned support sit-on-top kayaking in various ways. They attend events that encourage people to try the sport, they sponsor groups and sporting initiatives (and websites like ours), they attend demo days and they risk investment in developing new ideas and designs to further kayak development. Many cheap imports are made by taking moulds off kayaks developed by these brands. That results in kayaks that look familiar, but without any of the underlying strengths and quality. When people buy the “rip off kayaks” none of the money flows back into the firms that support the industry. Long term this could cause sit-on-top kayaking to stagnate, but does the newbie looking to try out kayaking really care? Probably not. Frankly why should they? So, if none of these are really compelling arguments against cheap kayaks, why would I still recommend that people don’t buy them?

Cheap kayaks are a bad investment

Even if you don’t care about any of the above, the simple truth is that cheap kayaks are a bad investment. Searching Ebay tonight I can find used kayaks for around the £200 mark from all of the major brands. These are often hardly used and will be significantly better boats than a new import. Spend a little more and you might even get a quality paddle, backrest and BA in as part of the deal (Don’t get me started on cheap safety equipment!). A used kayak from a quality brand will perform better. It will probably also be almost totally unaffected by depreciation. Whilst your cheap Chinese import is losing fittings, fading in the sun and having its stickers peel off, a year old quality kayak will look almost identical after year two and three and its price will reflect that. It’s also pretty telling that the first conversation I have with most owners of cheap import kayaks is them asking me what I would recommend as a replacement. You will probably also enjoy your kayaking a lot more. Being comfortable, feeling safe and not battling against poor design will mean that you enjoy being on the water more… and isn’t that the point?