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Into a kayak, out to the sea

May 12, 2003|Roy M. Wallack

Maybe it's a good thing that a kayak crowds your garage, requires a roof rack and is a hassle getting down to the water. Otherwise, we'd need traffic lights at the Marina del Rey jetty to handle the gridlock. Sleeker, faster designs, rejuvenating sea breezes and a fantastic workout from the waist up have made kayaking red-hot; since 1998, U.S. participation has tripled to 11 million. Here are four models that'll float your boat.

Beginners' cost-cutter

Wilderness Systems Freedom: A "sit-on-top" recreational kayak.

Likes: Very fast for a plastic beginner kayak. Streamlined profile and aircraft-carrier-like bow cut the water like the higher-performance, "sit-inside" kayaks. But this is more convenient because there is no spray skirt or pump needed; it's easy to get in and out of for fishing or diving, and larger people won't feel claustrophobic. Has two water-tight storage bays for touring or camping. Easy to climb back onto if you capsize. Self-bailing. Rudderless version costs only $650.

Dislikes: Sit-on-tops are best in warm weather because your legs are exposed and can more easily become chilled and wet in cooler weather. Slightly slower and less stable than a sit-inside kayak.

Price: $799. (800) 390-0819; www.wildernesssystems.com.

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Fit for any season

Perception Carolina 14.5: Economical sit-inside touring kayak.

Likes: Usable year-round, unlike a sit-on-top, as legs stay warm and dry under spray skirt (which fits around your waist and seals the opening from water). It's fast and stable. Upswept bow slices through rough waters and handles beach launches. Plenty of cargo fits in storage compartments and in on-deck shock cords.

Dislikes: This plastic boat is faster than sit-on-tops but heavier and slower than sit-insides made of more expensive materials, such as fiberglass or kevlar.

Price: $950. (800) 595-2925; www.kayaker.com.

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Fragile but fast

Outrigger Connection OC-1 Stingray: Modernized version of a Hawaiian outrigger canoe.

Likes: Exhilarating speed; ultra-thin, sit-on-top hull cruises at twice the 3-to-5 mph of kayaks and can reach 15 mph with the right wind and water conditions. Pontoon provides great stability. Single-sided paddle (not a kayak's two-sided) doesn't drip all over you. At just 25 pounds, it is half the weight of kayaks; you can carry it to the beach without a wheel caddy and lift it easily onto car racks. Assembles in seconds with no tools.

Dislikes: Expensive. Legs exposed to the elements. Not for touring or cold weather without a wetsuit. No compartments. Gangly (22 feet long), and made of fragile fiberglass. I banged the boat into a parking pole and caused $300 in damage. Tougher carbon-fiber model is $3,085.

Price: $2,285; (877) 655-1822; www.cdkayak.com.

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Go fish, and pedal too

Hobie Mirage Outback: Claims to be the world's only pedal-powered kayak for fishermen.

Likes: Pedaling is easy -- and quite fast. It uses a back-and-forth motion with two submerged flippers. Lots of gear space for a cooler and fishing poles.Fingertip steering with a small on-deck lever. Optional sail saves energy when sailing with the wind.

Dislikes: Difficult to synchronize pedaling and paddling because your knees may get in the way. Paddling alone is slow and clunky due to boat's width (35 inches). A narrower model, the Mirage Classic ($1,245), pedals fine and paddles faster but is not designed for fishing.

Price: $1,455. (760) 758-9100; www.hobiekayaks.com.

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-- Roy M. Wallack

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