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All about Tandem Kayaks

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Schessl | Green Wave Forum News
Published Sunday, November 29, 2009


Tandem Kayak Paddlers
If you don't like to paddle alone or if you have a spouse or friend who isn't comfortable handling his or her own boat, you may consider purchasing or renting a tandem kayak. These boats, also called "double kayaks", are designed for taking two people across the water - and let them have fun while doing so.

The two paddlers don't need to be of similar size, strength and paddling experience, and yet, in a tandem, they both arrive at their destination at the same time.

Like a tandem bicycle, tandem kayaks can be good or bad, depending upon your perspective and intended use. We investigate when tandems work best in the next section, and a bit further down the page we look at three different types of boats, sit-on-top tandems, sit-in recreational and tandem sea kayaks. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses and learning about them will help you make more informed decisions.

Above all, a tandem kayak is designed to be fun. Get out on the water and give one a try. You and your paddling partner just might be surprised at the result.

When do tandem kayaks work best?

There are many times that a tandem kayak is preferred over a traditional sit-in or sit-on single seat boat. Here are a few of them:

  1. When one paddler is a beginner. By sitting up front and following direction from a more experienced paddler in the rear seat, a beginner can quickly learn basic paddle strokes, techniques and boat handling. The beginning paddler gains confidence over a few trips and can easily make the transition to a solo boat.
  2. When one paddler is significantly stronger or has better paddling skills and they are covering long distances. A tandem allows both paddlers to arrive at exactly the same time, without one person always waiting for the other.
  3. When one paddler is a child. By using a tandem, your child can ride up front in their own seat, with plenty of room. No more being squished between a parent's legs in a sit-in or sitting behind in the tank well of a sit-on-top boat. Your child can even snooze as you paddle along.
  4. When one paddler has paws. Dogs love to ride up front in tandem kayaks and you'll love not having Fido jumping all over you as you paddle down that lazy river.
  5. When you need lots of storage and are not going anyplace with rough water. A tandem comes in handy to have if you need to transport large coolers or lots of gear. Load up the front compartment with equipment, not people, and hit the water.
  6. When you don't have lots of storage space. This one might sound strange, but if you have two paddlers and only enough room in your garage for one kayak, a tandem fits the bill perfectly.
  7. When you take the "princess" paddling. Whether the princess is your friend, spouse, child or dog, they don't have to paddle and can just sit in front and work on their tan.
  8. When you need an ambulance. Follow along. Having a tandem kayak on an outing works much better in getting a sick / injured person to safety verses having them sit in a solo boat and be towed by one or more paddlers. Put the sick person in the front, your best and strongest paddler in the back and head for the nearest safe take-out.

Tandem Kayaks, Paddled Solo

One question commonly asked is "Can you paddle tandem kayaks by yourself?" The simple answer is "yes". All tandems can be paddled by a single person, sitting in the back seat. Sometimes it takes additional ballast in front to keep the nose of the boat down to aid in steering. Four or five one gallon water jugs usually do the trick and provide a good source of freshwater for everyone else on the trip. Of course, with two people in the tandem, the boat will be much faster and track straighter.

Tandem Kayaks - The Divorce Boat

Two people paddling one boat at the same time requires some level of communication. The person in front needs to relay information, such as "Hey, there is a rock 10 feet in front of us. Turn left.", and the person in back needs to be able to make corrective actions by steering the kayak. To keep from clanking paddles together, the rear paddler needs to adjust his/her speed and paddle stroke to that of the front paddler. The person in front needs to maintain a consistency that doesn't drive the person in back nuts. If you don't have good communication and are unwilling to work with your paddling partner, you'll find out why tandems are on occasion known as "Divorce Boats".

Since we are good at communicating and we're not going down Divorce Boat river, let's take a look at a few different types of tandem kayaks.

Tandem Sit-on-Top Kayaks

Tandem Sit on Top Kayak

I'll probably catch some flak for this next statement, but sit-on-tops are the most popular style of tandem kayaks. Because of low-cost, ease of use and virtually no maintenance, they are extremely popular with resorts and outfitters along the Gulf of Mexico and lower Atlantic states. In addition to paddling for fun, these boats are frequently used for surfing waves, fishing, snorkeling, scuba diving and short distance kayak tours.

The boats are similar in shape to traditional "sit in" boats, but instead of sitting inside of the kayak, you sit on a molded-in depression on the top of the boat. Most sit-on-top kayaks are made from durable roto-molded polyethylene plastic and will last for years.

Sit-on-top tandems are typically short (11 to 14 feet), wide (28 to 36 inches) and slow as molasses in January. But with this comes a bunch of positives - they can be stacked in a small space (resorts love this), they don't flip over easily (your grandma will love this) and they are cheap (everyone loves this). No fancy computational fluid dynamics flow modeling and physics software needed for the design of one of these boats. Does it float with people sitting on it? If yes, we're good to go.

In addition to being economical and stable, sit-on-top kayaks have an advantage when it comes to people with large bodies, long legs or limited flexibility. With few exceptions, they all fit. Sit-on-top tandems are some of the easiest boats to re-enter if you fall out. One person can hold onto an edge of the kayak when the other climbs into the boat from the other side. The first person helps the second in the boat and the water automatically drains out and everyone is on their merry way.

Sit-on-top tandems typically are priced $600 to $1,000.

Manufacturers: Cobra, Ocean Kayak, Malibu Kayaks, Pelican, Perception, Hobie, Future Beach, Emotion Kayaks

Tandem Sit-in Recreational Kayaks

Tandem Recreational Kayak

After sit-on-tops, these recreational "sit in" style boats are frequently seen on lakes, flatwater rivers and protected bays. Recreational tandems tend to be a bit longer (14 to 16 feet) and narrower (less than 30 inches) than their sit-on-top cousins. Also like sit-on-tops, most rec tandems are made from polyethylene plastic and can withstand years of use and abuse.

So why have a sit-in vs. sit-on? Some of it is tradition but the biggest reason is protection from the elements. With a sit-on-top, your entire body is exposed to wind and water. You'll end every trip with at minimum a wet bottom. With a sit-in boat, your lower body and legs are protected from wind. Most rec sit-in boats have an optional very large sprayskirt that can be used to keep paddle drip, light rain and water from small waves out. These will not hold during large waves or heavy surf launch or landing.

Recreational sit-in tandems may be a bit more efficient and faster than sit-on-tops, mostly due to length of the boat. Typical price range for a recreational sit-in tandem kayak is $850 to $1,300. 

Manufacturers: Perception, Heritage, Old Town, Native Watercraft, Dagger, ClearWater Designs

Tandem Sea Kayaks

Tandem Sea Kayak

Tandem sea kayaks differ from their recreational counterparts in a few areas; they are traditionally longer (16 to 23 feet), narrower and have two separate cockpits that can be covered with individual sprayskirts, forming a watertight seal. Most tandem sea kayaks have bulkheads that aid in flotation and dry storage compartments in front, center and rear. Many tandem sea kayaks have rudders that help with steering the boat. A few have a center hatch that can be used for storing additional equipment or setup with child seat. These boats offer the highest level of protection from the elements and most can be rolled by experienced paddlers.

When paddled by individuals of similar skill level, tandem sea kayaks are usually faster than either solo sea kayaks or tandem recreational kayaks. Typical price range for a tandem sea kayak is $1,600 to $3,200 depending upon construction materials. Polyethylene (plastic) boats are less expensive, fiberglass and Kevlar are more.

Manufacturers: Wilderness Systems, Prijon, Current Designs, Delta, Necky, Eddyline


As you can see from this article, tandem kayaks have a place in the sport. Whether it is to take your friend, spouse, child or dog for a trip on a nearby river or bay, a tandem kayak can serve you well. Many couples start with a tandem and then as their kayaking skills develop, they purchase one or two single kayaks and keep the tandem for use by visiting friends and family. Check out the many reasons listed in the section "When are tandem kayaks best?"

Is there a tandem kayak in your future?

Last update Sunday, February 10, 2019

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Cmt All about Tandem KayaksLogin to Post   
You are in the public comment zone. What follows is not from Green Wave Forum; it comes from other people and we don't vouch for it.
sharli on 2/10/2019 2:12pm
Very interesting info indeed, If someone is looking for good tandem kayak you can check this list.
joecyrayah on 5/5/2014 3:34am
I came accross this website to read more info on this great product:
slashpine on 11/30/2009 5:47pm
Thanks for an informative and entertaining article. Tandem owners, my wife and I, we've nailed each of your points about the "divorce boat" and worked it all out, much to our pleasure. (No princesses aboard either.) If I were now purchasing one, the information would give me a great start for consideration.