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  Gear Guide
Open-Cockpit Kayaks

Five open-cockpit kayaks

Five new models let you come out of your shell and still master rapids, bays, or ocean waves:

• Dagger Pegasus, the Class III craft
• Aire Force, the rodeo-ready inflatable
• Islander Kayaks Lipstik, the wave carver
• Custom Inflatables Thrillseeker, the river rider
• Wilderness Systems Tarpon, the open-ocean kayak

In extreme conditions, kayakers will always rely on closed-hull crafts, but for most paddlers on most water, kayaking needn't involve the hassle of wearing a spray skirt, cramming your legs into a narrow cockpit, and spending countless hours practicing wet exits and Eskimo rolls.

The latest high-end inflatable and sit-on-top boats are the solution: Sturdier and sleeker than their predecessors, the new boats rival their traditional hard-shell siblings on the rivers and in the ocean, and the selection is varied enough to suit just about anyone. Many seasoned paddlers even use sit-on-top or inflatable kayaks exclusively. Here are five reasons to follow their lead.

—Greg Melville

All prices in U.S. dollars.

Dagger Pegasus, the Class III craft
Price: $599
Telephone: +1 865 882 0404
Web: www.dagger.com

The advantage of a sit-on-top white-water kayak over a closed-hull design can be summed up in three words: no Eskimo roll. The boats allow beginner and intermediate paddlers to enjoy Class II and III rapids without ever having to perform kayaking's trickiest maneuver.

Among the small handful of these models, perhaps the premier version is the Dagger Pegasus. The hull is narrow for sharp, decisive turns; the seat is self-bailing, so you won't wallow in a puddle all day; and the thigh straps are easily fitted to ensure that you won't be unnecessarily thrown out of the boat.

The 52-pound [19-kilogram], 10-foot-6-inch-long [3.2-meter] Pegasus is exceptional for learning to read rapids, and with a bit of practice, you can even roll it if you really want to.

Aire Force, the rodeo-ready inflatable
Price: $1,300
Telephone: 800 247 3432 (U.S. and Canada only)
Web: www.aire.com

The premise behind an inflatable kayak with a rigid foam floor is simple: Combine the portability and ease of use of a blow-up boat with the handling and performance of a hard-shell one. Skillfully executing this theory is another matter. The Aire Force is one of the few success stories.

This 9-foot-6-inch-long [2.9-meter] boat weighs only 28 pounds [10.4 kilograms], and its flat floor comes out in two sections, making the boat easy to pack for travel. The floor enables advanced paddlers to punch through Class V rapids and navigate hazards almost as deftly as they would in a molded polyethylene or composite boat.

The air chambers in the front and rear of the cockpit add a touch of buoyancy—nice for rolling—and the adjustable seat back and footrest ensure that anyone will sit comfortably.

Islander Kayaks Lipstik, the wave carver
Price: $450
Telephone: 888 525 2925 (U.S. and Canada only)
Web: www.islanderkayaks.com

When it comes to surfing, a sit-on-top wave ski such as the Islander Kayaks Lipstik invariably leaves closed-hull kayaks eating its foam.

Designed by a lifelong surfer, the hard-carving Lipstik resembles a beefy surfboard with divots dug out to accommodate a seat and foot wells. It's 8 feet 10 inches [2.7 meters] long, 26 inches [66 centimeters] wide—about average for a sit-on-top surf kayak—and weighs only 36 pounds [13.4 kilograms], which means that it can turn on a pinhead and is so light that it barely breaks the water's surface.

Beginners might find the Lipstik a little tippy at first, but the learning curve is fairly fast—and painless. If you flip over or get knocked off, you simply climb back on and catch the next wave.

Custom Inflatables Thrillseeker, the river rider
Price: $1,250
Telephone: 800 673 3537 (U.S. and Canada only)
Web: www.tseeker.com

Before you swear that you'll never paddle an inflatable kayak (IK) down serious white water, consider for a moment: IKs are less tippy than traditional kayaks, and if you do get into trouble, you simply bail out rather than having to float upside down through rock-strewn rapids. Not to mention that you don't need a roof rack to transport a blow-up boat, it can be stuffed into a duffel bag for long-distance expeditions, and finding storage space at home is never an issue.

Among the best of the IKs is the durable Custom Inflatables Thrillseeker. Stable enough for beginners and quick enough for experts, the PVC boat is custom-sized (anywhere from 9 to 13 feet [2.7 to 4 meters]) to accommodate most any paddler.

Wilderness Systems Tarpon, the open-ocean kayak
Price: $699
Telephone: 800 311 7245 (U.S. and Canada only)
Web: www.wildernesssystems.com

Shedding a reputation as cheap, plastic play boats, sit-on-top sea kayaks have become as technical as their closed-hull counterparts. The Wilderness Systems Tarpon is a case in point.

It looks almost identical to a standard touring boat and slices across the water's surface with nearly equal swiftness, but it's much easier to handle. At 16 feet [4.9 meters] long and 28 inches [71 centimeters] wide, the 58-pound [22-kilogram] Tarpon is stable enough for beginners and makes for an ideal swimming and fishing platform—something a traditional kayak could never be.

For weeklong tours, the polyethylene boat is equipped with spacious storage hatches on the stern and bow, a comfortable molded seat back, and adjustable foot braces.

Photograph by Kit Noble

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