Are Sit-on-Top (SOT) Fishing Kayaks Safe For Offshore Fishing?

A kayak fisherman recently posted his personal offshore capsize report on a Connecticut fishing blog. It was detailed and well written, and I copied some paragraphs from it that I found particularly interesting.

In his report the writer exposed the brand name and model of his fishing kayak, a top-of-the-line, 34″ wide sit-on-top, but I replaced these explicit names by the phrase “SOT fishing kayak” because the problem described is not necessarily typical to that particular brand or model – It is true for all SOT kayaks.

The writer took care of adding his advice to the detailed facts he described in his own words:

“· ALL SAILORS SHOULD DO HOURLY CHECKS OF THE BILGE.
· I noticed waves splashing over my bow and around my FWD hatch, then draining into the wet well. Wave frequency was every 4 seconds, or so.
· I didn’t hear any unusual sounds, but the wind was blowing and my hood was up.
· I wasn’t worried because my [SOT fishing kayak] had seen much rougher seas and wind.

· Shortly after… I noticed that my Kayak wanted to tilt to the left twice
· This had never happened before.
· DON’T IGNORE CHANGES IN HOW YOUR YAK HANDLES
· I wasn’t sure why it did this but I decided to make a direct course to the closest part of the island (15º more to the left)
· Now 30 ºoff the seas, the first small wave that hit me capsizing my Kayak.
· I remember saying to my self, “This can’t be happening, my yak is 34” wide…
· When I got back to the surface (Thank you PFD) I said to myself “What is the next step?” I turned my yak over. This was the easiest part of this self-rescue.
· PRACTICE THIS EVERY YEAR IN DEEP WATER
· After righting my Kayak I went to clime back into the cockpit (I snorkel often from my YAK) and noticed the draft was low
· Looking into the cockpit I noticed the water level in the wet well was at the bottom of the upper decal (in-front of the drive). This is about an inch higher than when I am sitting in the YAK. (estimated 35-40 gallons of water.
· DON’T DISPARE WHEN THINGS DON’T WORK OUT, SELECT A NEW STEP IN THE PLAN.
· At this point I realized that I was not going to be able to de-water with the small sponge I had onboard.
· ALWAYS CARRY A KAYAK PUMP.
· (Dude has done this for a long time)
· At this point I started swimming (towing my [SOT fishing kayak]) to the Island that I was heading for. (58º water temp). Current was flowing out carrying me to the left.
· SWIM WITH OR ACROSS THE CURRENT
· I remember that from Boy Scouts!
· As I swam I noticed that I was being set to the left, at one point I remember reminding my self to stay focused on my swimming as not to miss the island.”

After reading the entire report, the first question that comes to mind is -“How can water get inside a sealed SOT kayak hull?”

The answer is that SOT fishing kayaks have a number of typical weaknesses:

1. Parting Line:    All sit-on-top kayaks are rotationally molded. This means that molds used for molding such kayaks have a top part and a bottom part, which have to be perfectly adjusted to each other every time before the mold is put in the oven. Less than perfect fit can result in a kayak with a hull that’s weak along the line where its top and bottom parts meet, which is called the Parting Line.  In some cases a poor fit in the mold can result in tiny holes along the parting line. Parting line weakness and holes are not easy to discover. This is particularly dangerous because a SOT’s parting line is close to its waterline, and often submerged in water.

2. Scupper Holes:  SOT kayaks have scupper holes molded into their hulls. Because of the geometry of the SOT hull and problems of heat distribution during the rotational molding process, it’s difficult to achieve optimal wall thickness in the scupper holes’ area. This results in scupper holes that typically have thinner walls than other parts of the hull. Strain put on the scupper holes can cause cracks along the parting line within them, and result in water leaking into the hull. Such cracks in the scupper holes can appear after using them as stakeout pole points, attachment points for wheeled carts, through inadequate storage, and in some cases just as a result of normal use.

3. Wear and Tear:   SOT kayaks, like other kayaks, can develop wear-and-tear holes in their hulls in the course of normal usage. Such holes can be caused by cracks, cuts, deep scratches and punctures, but they are particularly dangerous when they occur in this type of kayak because its closed hull makes it difficult to detect them, whether on water or on shore.

4. Deck Gear:   All fishing kayaks are outfitted with deck gear, especially rod holders. This requires drilling holes in the hull, and attaching the gear with either bolts or rivets. Any hole in a Polyethylene hull presents a potential problem because it’s hard to seal effectively. Over time bolts can become loose and make the holes lose their water tightness. This problem is particularly dangerous in SOT kayaks for two reasons: One is because their decks are so close to the waterline, and the second being the fact that the closed hull makes it harder to detect leaks.

Unlike kayaking, kayak fishing is more of a stationary sport. This is an important fact because when you’re paddling a kayak that’s partially filled with water it handles differently from a dry one, but the difference is hardly perceptible when you’re not paddling. That is to say that the chances of you detecting a leak in a SOT hull while you’re fishing from it are smaller than if you paddled it, or if you fished from another kayak that does not feature a closed hull.

Read more about ocean kayak fishing >


42 thoughts on “Are Sit-on-Top (SOT) Fishing Kayaks Safe For Offshore Fishing?

  1. Well said, but as far as I’m concerned both SIK and SOT kayaks are unsafe for offshore trips of any kind simply because the traditional sitting position they impose gives me cramps in my legs, and I’m sure anyone who’d suffered from leg cramps while paddling would agree with me.
    The W kayak offers me a chance to change positions anytime I want so I can avoid leg cramps or any other discomfort, so it’s the only safe fishing kayak for me.
    COMFORT = SAFETY
    Big Blue

  2. basically i agree with what this article says, but isn’t the wavewalk yak rotationally molded and rigged with rod holders like s.o.t yaks are?? ;)

  3. Indeed, Wavewalk kayaks are rotationally molded too, but their parting line is high above waterline and never goes below it – not even if the boat is overloaded.
    Same goes for all deck gear and accessories, which are too high above waterline to present a problem.
    Also, because the W kayak’s hulls are open to the cockpit it’s easy for the passenger to immediately detect water on the bottom of the hulls and react appropriately, if necessary.

  4. SOTs are still safer than ordinary SIK kayaks because they are self-bailing.

  5. Pancakes — the new w kayaks have side flotation that makes it hard for them to overturn in case of an accident. This side flotation also makes it easy to turn the boat back if it happened to overturn.
    Also, thanks to the side flotation the lower W hull scoops much less water when you right the boat if it overturned.
    I wouldn’t call the w yak “self bailing” but it’s certainly better designed and equipped to prevent capsizing and facilitate recovery than sit-in yaks are.
    SOTs are self bailing, which is their main advantage, but besides that they are unsafe for other reasons, some of which are described in this article. I would add that SOTs have a higher center of gravity than traditional SIKs have, which isn’t good for stability unless the yak’s buoyancy is distributed along its sides – as it is with the w yak.
    Pete

  6. Aren’t the authorities supposed to regulate those things when they are related to safety?
    QSK

  7. You can’t expect the government to supervise each and every individual and make sure they behave rationally and responsibly. All those stories about mountain climbers that get caught in avalanches or freeze to death, kayakers that have terrible accidents, and similar stuff shouldn’t make it to the news’ headlines. It looks like our society glorifies reckless behavior.
    Cole

  8. Whoever wrote that capsize report did a good thing, and this article is also important because if allows kayak fishermen to better understand and evaluate the risks they’re facing.
    Bob

  9. From what i read it seems the guy who wrote the capsize report is an experienced kayak fisherman and in good shape. I think the results of this capsize would have been different had he been inexperienced and in poor shape, as kayak fishermen sometimes are.
    –Marco

  10. The more people discuss kayak safety the better.
    April

  11. I agree with what bluefish and others have said here: You can’t overestimate the importance of comfort and ergonomics. The more comfortable the kayak the safer it is.
    F.W.

  12. That’s a scary report and a sobering article. I think I’ll stick to fresh water fishing for now :) –Pat

  13. SIK, SOTs and W kayaks each have their own pros and cons for offshore fishing. I think the most important is not to go fishing out in the ocean all by yourself.

  14. This is a provocative article but it sure gave me some food for thought.
    Frank

  15. Great article, and great discussion!
    Anything that inspires overconfidence can be dangerous. With sots you don’t expect problems, and when you have one it takes you too long to realize it, and sometime it can be too late, and that’s the real danger.
    Pete

  16. I wonder is there a way to make a sot kayak totally safe?
    thank you
    Mitch

  17. Yes, by filling the hull with cast urethane foam. Doing so is a long and elaborate process, and it’s risky too since the expanding foam might distort the hull.
    In any case, since neither SOT kayaks nor urethane foam are particularly lightweight, the result might be that the kayak would be too heavy to cartop easily.

  18. The older your kayak gets the less reliable the plastic becomes, and the more prone to cracking and leaking. I agree it’s more of a problem in sots than in other types of kayaks.

  19. I don’t disagree with what’s said here, I just want to say that personally I feel safe fishing in the ocean with my [SOT brand name] yak. I never go fishing alone of course.

  20. Sea coyote,
    The guy who wrote that review must have felt perfectly safe too when he launched his kayak that day ;)
    FW

  21. Seems like all kayaks should have maximum closed cell foam in all hollow areas not needed for legs or storage. There should be some ways to retrofit this, even if using spray expanded foam from cans. Would appreciate any info on best way to do this. I think SOTs are much safer for all but the fully trained and skilled ocean kayaker in good pysical shape and properly dressed for falling in the water, or rolling. I am curious why manufacturers don’t fill with closed cell foam. Probably to keep weight down, and buoyancy up. Keep the kayak sleeker etc. I would prefer a heavier kayak, with wheels for getting to the water.

  22. It costs money to fill those sots with foam, and it makes them heavier.
    Carp

  23. Ron,

    You can use expanding foam from cans or mix two components in a cup and pour it in. You just need to do this job gradually, using small quantities of foam at a time because the expanding foam could deform the hull.

    Our experience with foam is that side flotation is the most effective, and therefore we offer all our new models with it, standard.

    Yoav

  24. Sit on top kayaks are just glorified paddle boards outfitted with a nasty combination of foot rests and back rest that’s guaranteed to hurt your back.

  25. Like many other products, fishing SOTs are over hyped to a point where many people feel they must own one just because it’s “Cool”… and then they discover that it’s not that cool to suffer from a wet butt and sore back for hours :D
    Bob

  26. Rented two individual SOT plastic kayaks yesterday to take to Santa Cruz Island off Ventura California. One hour out in moderate chop and swell I fell off my kayak 3 times. Realized that hull was half full off water which made it completely unstable. No way to empty it. Had my son tow me and the half submerged kayak back to a beach which took about 40 minutes.
    Turned out the rod holders were not water tight and were allowing water into the hull. Never a life threatening situation but under different circumstances could have been extremely uncomfortable and or dangerous. Serious design flaw.

  27. John,
    This sounds like a traumatic experience.
    I agree it’s a design flaw, especially since you must assume that there will be holes made in the hull, whether it’s for deck rigging (handles, eyelets etc.) or fishing gear (e.g. rod holders) – and anywhere on a SOT deck is by definition too close to the water to be really safe.
    Worst of all – when it comes to polyethylene hulls there’s no way to get a hole perfectly watertight forever, and all SOT kayaks are molded from polyethylene resins.
    Yoav

  28. Absolutely – Polyetheylene (PE) is the best and most durable plastic material I can think of when it comes to kayaks and other small watercraft, and that’s why it’s by far the most popular in this industry.
    Being a bit flexible makes it resilient (compared to say fiberglass, or carbon fiber), and it’s very stable chemically, so doesn’t bond well with anything. These factors (flex and low bonding capability) are at the root of the problem of waterproofing holes in PE hulls.

    Although the W kayaker can see every drop of water that may be on the bottom of his W kayak hulls, we take the precaution of never drilling holes anywhere near the waterline, simply because we know that stuff happens.

    Yoav

  29. Here’s a related comment I got by email from Jeff:
    -“Remember we had talked about the product defects in kayaks. I saw a recall on some kayaks down in Australia, something about leaky scuppers. Anyway the recall notice mentioned that was dangerous. Under the result of the defect they listed drowning as a possible concern. I really wish I had mentioned something about the defects in sot kayaks long before now. You know we have folks on the JaxKayak site who regularly just stuff foam practice golf balls into their scupper holes to hold down the water levels inside their hulls.
    Of course the other issue with leaks and hull water are the hatches. Last year one of our lady anglers flipped her [popular, 14ft long fishing SOT] over while reaching for something and had her front hatch off at the time. The boat flooded and she lost quite a bit of gear in the process. The water was shallow maybe 5 feet or so but still with a mud bottom things are never found. You would think there should be warnings about leaving hatches open.
    One other thing in that regard about weaknesses in those sot yaks. [A manufacturer of pedal driven sot kayaks] sells their boats with those pop in wheels. You are supposed to put them under the boat with the support arms going up through the scupper holes. The whole idea is just nuts since that thin plastic inside the supper holes will wear and create a leak you’ll not find until you are happily pedaling the darn thing around. I suspect the pedaling effort gets a bunch harder as the water load in the hull increases.
    Jeff”

  30. well, I have never had this problem myself, but in the W yak, if you had waves that were coming into the cockpit, i can see the one easy solution that could never be done in any other kind of yak-bilge pump. you could mount a little bilge pump and float switch in the W and any water that gets in would get pumped back out. run it off the battery that powers your motor, as this yak can easily support an electric motor.
    another point for the W

  31. Discoman,

    If you’re concerned about waves and spray getting in a W kayak, the easy solution is use a plastic sheet or waterproof fabric as a cockpit cover.
    Most W kayak models come equipped with a preparation for a cockpit cover.

  32. Very good information. Thanks. I have been deciding between a [12 ft long, folding outrigger SOT] and The WaveWalk. The more I read, I am gravitating toward the WaveWalk. This article points out what I thought was a disadvantage as actually being a good point. I sure do not want to have my SOT fill with water and not notice until it’s too late.

    That said, I know I am going to get water in it. What is the best bilge or emptying device you guys have come up with that you can attach to the kayak?

  33. Rick,

    Finding some water in a SOT hull is a fairly common thing, and in most cases it’s not dangerous. The question is just how much water gets in while you’re out there paddling and fishing, and whether it’s reaching a point where it’s no longer safe. The point being that you might not be able to notice it before it’s too late…

    As for reentering a W kayak, it’s fairly easy, providing you do it slowly, and plan each move in advance.
    Here’s a video shot on flat water by W kayakers from upstate NY:
    http://wavewalk.com/blog/2009/11/10/re-entering-w500-kayak-from-deep-water-tim-kerr-ny-movie/

    Practicing is always a good idea :)

    There’s also a video showing a W300 reentry in the surf.
    You’ll find it near the bottom of the user manual section: http://www.wavewalk.com/FISHING_KAYAK_USER_MANUAL.html
    The two interesting things about this demo movie are:
    1. The W300 is less stable than the W500, and therefore the W500 is easier to reenter.
    2. It’s rather pointless to reenter a kayak in the surf. It makes more sense to bring it to shore, or simply let the waves do it for you, and then re-launch it.

    Yoav

  34. What happens if you roll one [w] in the surf? looks like it holds a lot of water. How is the W on long distance paddles say compared to a 14″ SOT like a [brand name model]? I suspect that the W is awesome at short distance, stability, and lots of seating room. If you could travel long distances at 4-5 mi per hr like the OK supper pro… sign me up. Just remember width and multiple hulls = resistence, period. Why not get a pram?
    Alick Munro

  35. Alick,
    The W500 paddles better than SOT kayaks, including the one you mention (sorry about the little editing job – we don’t mention other brands on this blog).
    The W500 is faster than monohull kayaks of comparable size, especially if they are designed for fishing, I.E. wide – as the one you mention.
    In case you’re interested in reading about kayak speed, here’s a very long technical article on this subject: http://www.wavewalk.com/KAYAK_SPEED_ARTICLE.html

    You shouldn’t roll your W500 in the surf unless you’re there to have fun surf playing in big waves, and then capsizing is just part of the game.
    Neither capsize nor recovery are a big deal if your W500 is equipped with side flotation (see: http://wavewalk.com/blog/2011/02/19/detachable-flotation-for-fishing-kayak/ )

    Yoav

  36. SOT kayaks are easily stuffed with pool floaties like the ones pictured for the W500. They can be rigged all over them too. And the SOTs can be outfitted with outriggers and amas, I know because I’ve done it all and I’ve been going offshore for decades. The real point is that the W500 is a superior answer to the SOT for fishing and going offshore and it should be creatively rigged with boo coo flotation as well. Don’t forget a survival kit, radio, whistle, compass, reflector and all that will expedite your rescue and life preservation if you go offshore in anything. My next boat will be a W500 after I finish constructing my 24 foot fiberglass epoxy outrigger canoe.

  37. Robin,
    Just curious – did you actually add foam noodles to the sides of a fishing SOT kayak? I’m asking because that’s adding 5″ to the width of a kayak that’s already too broad to paddle comfortably in most cases..
    Pete

  38. Still haven’t figured out how to fish from a yak that has outriggers
    Too many lines snagged
    Ron

  39. Pete, never to the side exactly but rather up top on the sides using rope and eyelet. I have taken ethafoam 2x4s and riveted them to the sides of a canoe. Never was it an ideal situation and I don’t believe it will ever be, which is why the wave walk is the great design that it is. I built a catamaran last year out of corrugated plastic sign board and poly resin and glass, in an attempt to arrive where the W500 is. Always flotation was to prevent the unthinkable: drowning at sea. I’m 6’3″ 275lbs. I thought about building my own W500 type model from epoxy, glass etc. but why? It’s already been done and I can spend more time fishing and on the water in an already researched design and at a very reasonable price of ownership too.

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