Derrick had a great post on ten boats we must paddle before pulling the trigger on our purchase. Obviously this post provoked several responses by those who felt their favorite boat was left out. BryanH, up in Minnesota's arrowhead, countered with 10 boats that he thought should be tried, including one that he didn't even like. Impartial journalism at its finest. My question would ask how many readers out there in cyberspace actually paddled ten boats before they bought? Given the limited opportunities to paddle that many boats, combined with many peoples impulsive nature, my guess would be a fairly small percentage of those buying sea kayaks, especially first timers, tried out that many boats.
Paddling ten boats can be problematic. Most of the larger shops hold demos on local lakes but none of them can claim to have all the models from all the manufacturers, and because they are for profit businesses they have the most popular saleable boats. I love the Anas Acuta but can't remember the last time I saw one on the rack at a shop.....maybe Rutabaga in Madison a couple years ago. Which is a nice segue into boats that can be paddled at symposiums. Rutabaga sponsors Door County, Downwind Sports sponsors the GLSKS, and the Inland Sea Kayak Symposium in Washburn is not sponsored by a shop, although NDK has a very strong presence for a number of good reasons. Years ago I paddled Feathercraft folding boats, Betsie Bay Kayaks, Chesapeake Light Craft, and other smaller obscure brands at various symposiums. For obvious reasons, if a brand of boat is not carried by the company sponsoring the symposium, it would quite rightfully be at cross purposes with their financial interest to have those boats available to paddle.
Which takes us to the mindset of the kayak purchase. There are people who study, paddle, read reviews, consult with more experienced paddlers, mine the knowledge at clubs, agonize, and then buy a boat. Then there are those who jump in a boat or two, paddle them, and write the check. The majority of my friends fall into this category. My own experience is instructive. The first sea kayak I sat in was a Perception Eclipse, which I dumped about 100 yards into my inaugural paddle. It was a twitchy craft with minimal initial stability, as I recall, but this didn't prevent me from renting another Eclipse when I visited No1 son at his summer job guiding in the BWCA out of Ely, MN. Familiarity I guess. Then I went on a guided trip and was put in a Current Designs Storm. This might be a good point to say that my boat choices are much more limited at 6'4", 225#'s, than most folks. The boat fit well, was stable, tracked like a railroad train, and held a pile of gear. That fall I bought a used rental Storm from Trek and Trail in Bayfield and was happy as a clam with my first boat. Until Dale Hedke at the now defunct Boat House in St Paul had me paddle the Solstice GTS high volume. Narrower, faster, lighter, seemed to fit great.......see ya later Storm. Dale was the master boat builder for the MN Canoe Association and handled Chesapeake Light Craft kits. 1stLtO, then a junior in high school, wanted a kayak. Both the price and the clever thought of sneaking in 60-70 hours of one on one father/son time convinced me I needed a CLC 17 LT. When it was done I had owned 3 boats and paddled exactly four. It jumped up to 5 when Ken Ketter had a 'hot deal' on a CD Gulfstream, my first foray into British style boats, skegs, and day hatches. My buddy Podman paddled my Solstice, his lone test drive, and now owns it. As my skill, discrimination, knowledge, and awareness of what I really needed in a boat grew, I worked my way through a Scirocco, Valley Aquanaut HV, Valley Q Boat, and a NDK Explorer HV. Along the way a Valley Avocet, a Valley Skerry, and a P&H Capella also lived at my house. Just for variety a Feathercraft Big Kahuna, a sweet boat until the airlines started having me bend over and grab my ankles when I tried to get in on their planes as checked baggage, and the venerable expedition double, the Aleut II, were also in the stable. I know where 90% of my old boats are and they are being paddled by friends who have basically paddled one or two boats before deciding to pull the trigger on my low, low, friend discount boat prices.
Paddle more boats! I don't go to a symposium where I don't paddle damn near everything that's there and then hit up people to try their boats if they aren't available on the demo beach. Never, never think about purchasing a boat that you didn't paddle, preferably in bigger conditions. Also, never underestimate the power of a good demo to help craft your personal opinion of a boat. The crafty ChrisG at Boreal Shores in Bayfield suggested RonO and I use a couple Explorers on a blustery Bark Bay Fishing Invitational weekend, always the first Saturday in May. We took them out of Saxon Harbor and put em through the wringer in some enjoyable Lake Superior nastiness and then both pulled the trigger and purchased the boats.
Both Derrick and Bryan, as well as the commenters on the post, came up with an enviable and worthy list of boats. Paddle as many as you can but if you jump in one you like, one that just feels right to you, don't feel bad if its the second boat you tried. I'm the personal poster child of the 'you can always buy another one' school of kayak acquisition. Most importantly, have fun.