|A spray skirt should keep all the water out of your boat. It should allow you to make all the turns, leans and twists required during a kayak adventure. It should accomplish these things with comfort, style and durability. Easy to say, but tougher to accomplish.|
Spray skirts are generally made in three distinct categories: recreation, touring and rough water. Each makes certain judgements about what are the most important requirements of a spray skirt.
Recreational spray skirts are intended for the beginner or average paddler who does not expect to experience difficult conditions. They are made of nylon to keep them comfortable and to keep the price down. Some are constructed of breathable fabric and some are not. Generally the skirt fits loosely around the cockpit and the torso, giving the paddler good mobility at the cost of some water intrusion when leaning with the cockpit coaming (edge) in the water, during extreme lean turns where the top of the tunnel gets into the water or from both when hanging upside down before a roll. They come off rather easily, making wet exits easier for the novice paddler. They come off rather easily when a big wave dumps in the cockpit too, so they are not a great choice for expedition paddles or surfing. These light nylon skirts are much cooler for hot summertime temperatures in warm water.
Touring skirts are generally built of a combination of neoprene on the deck where the skirt seals the cockpit and nylon for the tunnel where the skirts contacts the torso. The stiffer nylon and stronger elastic of these skirts resist a pounding by waves, but can be rather difficult to get off, requiring both knowledge and strength to perform the proper removal procedure. Built of thicker, more durable materials, these skirts resist extreme conditions and heavy usage. The neoprene keeps the paddler warmer in his kayak which is a good thing in cold waters and air temperatures and a bad thing in high temperatures. Some leaking around the top of the tunnel is common although the seal is much tighter than with the recreational class spray skirt.
Rough water/surf skirts are usually made entirely of neoprene. Both the deck and the tunnel are constructed of the stretchy insulating material. The tight connection of the tunnel to the paddlers torso stops any water from passing into the boat, but it also restricts the motion of the paddler as he preforms a proper torso rotation while paddling. The extra neoprene layer insulates the torso which again can be either a benefit or a liability depending on the weather and water temperatures. These skirts are often tightly fitted with very strong elastic to the cockpit and can be difficult to remove. But the strong tight fit keeps the water out and the skirt on in even the nastiest wave conditions.
The individual user needs to decide what class of spray skirt is right for him and realize that one spray skirt will not be perfect for every situation. ( The perfect excuse to have more than one? ) When comparing spray skirts, alway evaluate a skirt with others of its class.
We received spray skirts from three manufacturers for this evaluation. Kokatat sent us their high end recreational spray skirt, Snap Dragon sent us a touring spray skirt and a rough water spray skirt, and Seals sent an "extreme" touring spray skirt. We already owned an older Kokatat touring spray skirt with a neoprene deck. Kokatat no longer makes this model. All their current offering are nylon decks.
Kokatat GORE-TEX Deluxe Sea Skirt
On the right side of the skirt is a tie down patch of the type found on many PFDs. With a loop of Velcro run through it it makes for an effective and versatile paddle park. You can thread the loop so that you can park you paddle either across your lap as most paddle parks are arranged, or by turning the loop ninety degrees you can park your paddle lengthwise along your boats center line so that you can raft with other kayaks or approach a dock. This is a great idea I have not seen anywhere else.
Kokatat is a major manufacturer of top of the line paddling gear, particularly dry suits. This familiarity with the waterproof/breathable nylon materials shows in the spray skirt they sent us. While this skirt belongs in the recreational category, it certainly is top of the line for that category. It is a fully featured skirt with generally well thought out appurtenances not usually present in this class of skirt.
Most of the skirt is constructed of the familiar breathable multi-layer material. While the permeability of breathable fabric over straight nylon seems minimal from the statistics on permeability - GORE TEX is 97% impermeable - that 3% makes an enormous difference in a dry suit and would probably make some difference here as well. This skirt was the lightest and coolest of the four skirts we tested during a one week kayak trip in the Florida Keys.
As shown here, the backside of the tie down tab, the seams of this skirt are completely seam sealed and taped with first class construction throughout. The skirt comes in three sizes, small, medium and large. The mid weight bungee of this medium size skirt we tested is tied with a knot in the back and allows a wide range of cockpit sizes and shapes to be accommodated within the range of the overall skirt.
The release loop is the usual one inch nylon loop with a wide base and a piece of plastic tube keeping the loop open and making the loop easy to grab. A small zippered mesh pocket is placed on the very front of the skirt. This is an intelligent place to put such a pocket as it keeps the weight low and the cockpit coaming supports the weight of anything you put in there and helps prevent sagging and puddling of water at that spot. Closer to the paddler in the critical area right above the lap where puddles always form in many other skirts, they have sewn in a stiff plastic bar that domes up the skirt and keeps the water away from there. It is very effective at shedding water away from that critical area. It might also work somewhat as an implosion bar when heavy green water loads up the deck, although that is not really what it is intended for and it is likely that the loose fit of the skirt is going to pop off the skirt anyhow.
The high wear areas of the deck, where you often rub a skirt during your paddle stroke, is constructed with a heavier nylon codura material. While not as formidable as the other skirts in this review, this skirt should provide years of good service.
The top of the tunnel has a three inch neoprene band that fits snugly against the torso. This newly arrived design feature as a vast performance improvement over the old spray skirt tunnels that merely had nylon with a bungee cord or nylon with Velcro tighteners. It is much more water tight than previous versions and is something that you definitely want in your spray skirt.On the front of the skirt tunnel is a hand warmer pocket lined with fleece on the inside, facing the weather. This seems like a great idea when you put on the skirt in the store, but its actual utility vanishes once you put on your PFD which effectively seals off the pocket from being used. The only time I would see it being used is when you are standing around the beach with your spray skirt on and your PFD off.
Finally the whole skirt is held up by removable suspenders. All suspenders need to be removable so you can ditch them for the best fit when using the skirt with a dry top tunnel which fits over a spray skirt. The buckles are the inexpensive reliable click in buckles found on outdoor gear of all types. The straps on the suspenders are overly generous to fit a wide range of potential customers of this standardized market skirt.
In our extreme leans test and roll tests, water did enter the boat via the cockpit /deck seal and some through the torso belt. This is typical of this class of skirt. The amount that came in the torso was much less than for most recreational/nylon skirts due to the excellent neoprene band. The water that came in the deck seal was not excessive and would not be of concern for all but repeated dunkings. So while I would not pick this skirt for extensive expeditioning or surf work it is a great skirt for the warm water, mild conditions for which it is designed.
The only thing that this skirt lacked was some way to secure a chart case. Other than the lash down loop there is nothing and the chart case would blow around if secured only at the lash down patch, giving you no option for the case but the deck rigging.
Seals Extreme Tour Spray Skirt (see picture)
When I contacted the people from Seals about getting a skirt for this review, they asked a lot of sizing questions, height, weight, chest size, boat make model and cockpit material type. I paddle an unusual boat and they did not have a pattern for it so they asked that I send in a tracing of the cockpit. The result of their obsession was a skirt that fit like a custom suit which it certainly was. It was a dream to put on. The three inch neoprene tunnel fit well even before cinching up the Velcro tensioners. The light stretchy neoprene left enough room for additional warm garments such as fleece and dry suit but would have been quite tight under these conditions, probably a good idea for conditions where fleece and dry suit are required. As it was 83 degrees with 74 degree water and I was lightly dressed, it was easy to snug up the two tabs of each side of the tunnel top.
The deck of the skirt actually matched the shape of my cockpit. The heavy duty bungee cord snapped into place with authority. Seals recommends that you put the skirt on your cockpit for 24 hours prior to use to stretch the skirt some. I forgot to do that. I tested releasing the skirt with the grab loop and found that it took considerable force and proper technique to release this skirt. You would not be able to release this skirt if you improperly just tried to pull back on the grab loop. It just wouldn't come off. The skirt was very difficult to get off grabbing at the sides of the deck instead of the grab loop. If you failed to keep the grab loop outside the skirt as it should always be, you could be in serious difficult getting out of the boat. The super strong bungee, tight shaping, sticky material that keeps this skirt tight on the cockpit might prevent an exit from the boat without proper procedure and technique. Therefore this skirt is not appropriate for the beginner whose skills in wet exits are suspect.
In any case you should always test releasing your skirt whenever you are in a new boat, have a new skirt or have sustained any type of shoulder injury.
The grab loop was a narrow based loop of doubled one inch nylon the passed all the way around the bungee. Its strength did not depend on the stitching, but the strength of the nylon strap itself. This is a superior way of attaching the loop and should be extremely reliable. Any weakness due to wear or stress over time will be readily apparent and easy to correct in the field.
There is a small snap buckle on the end of the grab loop. I suspect it is intended as a paddle park. I fear someone might be tempted to snap it into their deck rigging, a disastrous decision. In any case the buckle is too small to be handled under rough conditions, when you aren't going to park your paddle anyway, or with heavy gloves. For expedition equipment that needs to be accessed on the water, Velcro is a bad choice as ice will make it unusable so a buckle is the correct choice but it should be larger.
The tight seal and special grip of the reinforced neoprene deck make the seal between skirt and boat water tight. There was no water intrusion during either extreme leans, braces and rolls. Not a drop came in there. All the seams are stitched and glued, but there are a lot of them.The tunnel however was not water tight. Like the Kokatat neo band, a small amount of water, a couple of ounces, came in every time I went over. I am not sure where it gets in given what seems to be a tight seal of the band against the clothing, but I think it may be in the overlapping fold of material that tightens the tunnel top band. There just isn't any way to get rid of this if the fold is utilized. The good fit of the Seals skirt minimizes this problem but it is still there. Its small and not dangerous, but the cold four ounces of water running down the ribs can be annoying. Frequently, the overlapping neo band of a dry top will get rid of the issue.
The deck had four lash loops that would be excellent for securing a chart case onto the lap. Some type of clip or rigging on the chart would be necessary to secure into the four simple small nylon loops on the edge of the deck.
The removable suspenders use a custom plastic clip I have not seen on any other equipment before. They are simple to operate and very thin. That is good for comfort but I worry about their durability particularly the very thin bar that holds the suspender clip to the skirt top. On the front of the tunnel neo band and connected to the suspenders are two loops of nylon. I do not know what these are intended for, but it must be something. Perhaps it is just a stronger way of attachong the suspenders to the nylon instead of the neoprene.
This is a fine touring skirt with expedition capabilities and superb fit for a nylon tube skirt. It is sure to please any purchaser.
Snap Dragon Glacier Trek
There were no suspenders on this skirt and I don't really think any are needed. There was no paddle park. A simple strap and buckle crossed the deck and served as a convenient place to put the chart case, but I think it would be effective only in mild conditions as it would be difficult to secure the case properly. The four loops of the Seals skirt were much better.
The grab loop was a single loop of one and a half inch nylon webbing. I liked the larger size of the nylon web and the softer feel of the loop. But I preferred the attachment and sewing method of the Seals skirt better. On this skirt there is a double row of stiching that goes through three layers of material on the underside of the skirt. While solid, its location and short overlap would make field repairs a little more difficult.
Snap Dragon Ocean Tour
Both Snap Dragon skirts fit well and were easy to get on and off, although the Ocean Tour was appropriately a little stronger and tighter. If you have a standard model kayak with a fixed seat position, it is important that you get the correct fit for the skirt, that is, the correct distance from the back of the cockpit rim to your back. If that distance is wrong there will be a ditch that collects and holds water. There is always a seam at the bottom and some water will get in through the glued seams eventually. My seat slides back and forth for trimming the performance of the boat. So the distance is almost never perfect and the little ditch forms. I have found that over time even sealed and taped seams develop little leaks that cause a water torture drip usually in the most sensitive of areas. All neoprene skirts seem to last longer keeping these little tortures away.
If you are going to do a lot rolling, bracing, extreme leaning and heavy surf kayaking, the neoprene tunnel is the thing to have. Although the tunnel of this skirt is made of a light rubber, there is some restriction in paddling rotation and it is hotter than the tubes with a nylon portion. On the other hand there are many fewer stiched seams in this skirt in both the tunnel and the deck. Fewer stiches mean less chance to develop leaks and repair issues.
All the skirts are simple, clean, solid skirts that perform very well.
I liked all the skirts in the review and would not be unhappy to have bought any of these skirts. You need to decide what type of skirt is best for you in the conditions you paddle in most. All these skirts are better than my three year old Kokatat neo/nylon skirt. Now I really have a problem. Which of these skirts am I going to buy? I really like the fit of the Seals and I really like the simplicity and water tightness of the Snap Dragon Ocean. But my three year old Kokatat is still in perfect condition. I wonder if I could get away with owning four skirts, hmmmmm.............