Whatever floats your boat – flotation for fishing kayaks

What is flotation?

Flotation is a category of products and technical solutions that keep your kayak or boat floating in case an accident happened, such as capsize, a punctured hull wall, etc.
What flotation solutions and products have in common is their ability to trap air and attach it to the hull, and by that keep the hull afloat so it could be more easily recovered.
This is to say that typically, flotation provides means for recovery, and it usually adds neither to the boat or kayak’s stability nor to its load capacity.

Why is flotation necessary?

The US Coast Guard (USCG) mandates incorporating flotation In boats bigger than kayaks. Although flotation is not mandatory in kayaks, we think it is necessary as means to preserve our clients’ investment in their W kayak. Many other kayak manufacturers, including those who offer sit-on-top (SOT) kayaks outfit them with some flotation, because they know that SOT kayaks are sinkable.

Types of flotation

Integrated flotation. Some kayaks feature built-in flotation. For example, inflatable kayaks that feature air chambers serving as hull walls, and kayaks that feature urethane foam cast in their hull tips and secured by hardware. For years, Wavewalk kayaks used to feature such flotation cast in their hull tips, until we decided to switch to something better.

Added floatation. Other kayaks are equipped with added foam blocks or noodles stuffed into their hulls. Typically, the material used for this purpose is Polyethylene foam, and these elements are sometimes attached to the hull with hardware. Many sit-in and SOT kayaks come with such flotation, and many anglers who use such kayaks for fishing add more floatation to them, since they don’t trust the factory supplied floatation to suffice in case of an accident.

Detachable flotation. Typically, detachable floatation consists of inflatable bladders stuffed into the kayak’s hull tips, and attached to the hull by straps.  Currently, Wavewalk’s kayaks are the only ones that feature detachable flotation modules made from Polyethylene foam. These modules can be attached to the kayak’s sides or between its hulls, under the saddle, where they’re still above the surface.

Inflatable bladders vs. Polyethylene foam

Inflatable bladders are lightweight, sealed plastic bags, and as such they’re effective as internal floatation for kayaks. But since anglers carry on board their kayaks sharp objects such as fishhooks and knives, they don’t like the idea of having inflatable plastic bags inside the boat, and most of them would scoff at the idea of having such objects attached to the deck or to the sides of their kayak, where they would be exposed to various sharp objects that could puncture them.
In contrast, polyethylene foam modules are tolerant to sharp objects, and they can keep serving their intended purpose even after having come many times in close contact with fishhooks and knife blades. As far as maintenance is concerned, unlike inflatable bladders, Polyethylene foam modules require neither checking for pressure nor being re-inflated.

Side flotation vs. internal flotation

The W kayak is the only one offering its users to attach flotation on its sides. This in itself is not a complete novelty, as some high-end fishing and hunting canoes have been featuring static (non-detachable) side flotation for decades. The advantage of attaching the flotation modules on the kayak’s side is that doing so can prevent to kayak from flipping in case on an accident.  The downside of having flotation modules on the kayaks side are  that they can be in the paddle’s way when the passengers are paddling, and fishhooks can get caught in them. Some W kayakers feel that foam noodles attached to their kayak’s sides are unsightly, so they attach their flotation modules between the kayak’s hulls, under the saddle but above waterline, where they’re almost entirely hidden from sight.

Internal flotation is hidden from sight, which is an aesthetic advantage for those who care about such things, and about paddling comfort and problems with fishhooks etc. But having bulky blocks of foam or inflatable bags stuffed inside your kayak’s hull tips takes away from the storage space it offers, and that could mean less stuff that you can carry on board.

Polyethylene foam vs. Urethane foam

Urethane foam can be cast into a cavity in a boat’s hull, or in a kayak’s hull tips, but casting it is not easy, and once the cast foam is in its place it can be easily displaced, and become moldy if moisture finds its way between the foam and the hull’s wall. Furthermore, urethane foam can deteriorate over time, so that eventually it may require replacement.

Polyethylene foam cannot be cast at will, but it is more durable and therefore more reliable as kayak flotation.

Flotation for motorized kayaks

Outfitting a W kayak with a motor mount and outboard motor can increase its weight by more than 50%, and all this added weight is located in one place, which increases the likelihood of an accident, especially at high speed. This means that adding flotation is much needed, which is why Wavewalk recommends using large-size Polyethylene foam noodles instead of standard ones, and offers two models that come with XL flotation modules.

Flotation in Moving water

Paddling and fishing in moving water such as fast streams or the ocean increases the probability of accidents, and therefore the need for flotation. Wavewalk offers all its kayak models with detachable flotation modules, and clients can order extra flotation. Alternatively, inexpensive hollow Polyethylene foam noodles are easy to find in department stores, and outfitting them with a bungee cord and a pair of hooks isn’t hard.

Flotation in shallow water

Some W kayakers and anglers who fish in very shallow water feel their W kayak is so stable that they would never capsize it, and even if they did, they would have no problem recovering it even if it’s not outfitted with flotation. We think these clients should be more prudent since accidents have a tendency to happen in conditions that aren’t predictable, and stuff happens is the rule out there, on the water. We understand that a pair of flotation modules attached under the kayak’s saddle adds a little weight to it, but we think it’s worth it.

More on Wavewalk kayaks’ flotation modules »


  1. PackerYaker

    A few members of kayak fishing clubs down here in Florida have asked me how a Wavewalk would respond to being capsized and filled or half-filled with water, e.g., would it float or sink if totally filled? if filled halfway? if filled halfway with and without the side flotation noodles? I have not been able to answer their questions, and wonder if you have tested the W under such conditions.

  2. fish kayak

    Yes, we did, naturally.

    It’s pretty easy:

    If the flotation is attached to its sides, the W500 won’t even overturn in most cases, as seen in this video: http://wavewalk.com/blog/2008/03/20/kayak-side-flotation-why-use-it-and-how-does-it-work/

    If the W500 is outfitted with flotation modules it won’t sink even if it gets filled with water.
    Most people who use sit-in kayaks, canoes or dinghies carry a hand bucket or a bilge pump on board, and we recommend doing so as well.
    There are both hand activated and electric bilge pumps out there. Using these accessories, you can drain the water out of the hull in a short time. If there’s little water in, a big towel would suffice for this purpose.
    If you’re close enough to shore (e.g. in the surf) you can drag the kayak to shore, overturn it, and drain the water out in seconds through the special drainage holes in the top side of the spray deflector.

    What the people who ask these questions ignore is the fact that SOT kayaks are not unsinkable by any standard. Furthermore, if water penetrates a SOT hull the user can’t notice it and react in time, as described in this article: http://wavewalk.com/blog/2008/09/22/are-sit-on-top-sot-fishing-kayaks-safe-for-offshore-fishing/ This ignorance is sometimes used by competitors who offer SOT designs to bash the W500 and sit-in mono-hull kayaks.

  3. fish kayak

    And here’s a comment that Gary Rankel just emailed me:

    “I still very much prefer my way of adding flotation with the extra large noodles (4 inch diameter with 1 1/4 inch hole) slit and forced over the rim, thereby also providing stealth (when switching between paddle and fishing rod), comfort (as a head and arm rest), places to hang lures, and optional measuring device (with magic marker markings) without add weight or interfering with paddling. “

    Variations on this method that Gary describes are used by many W kayak anglers.


  4. PackerYaker

    A few of the guys I fish with that have Wavewalks have also used the big noodles over the rim – it’s the go-to method among us. I’m off to a kayak fishing seminar in Tampa today, but will do a little write-up with pictures on this technique when I return.

  5. fish kayak

    Gary, you should be lecturing in such seminars 🙂

  6. PackerYaker

    I can’t begin to compete with the kayak fishing guides in the Tampa Bay / Sarasota area – those guys really know what they’re doing. I learn something new every time I’m with them.

  7. fish kayak

    Well they don’t seem to know the W is the best fishing kayak out there, for them and for their clients 🙂

  8. PackerYaker

    That’s true – I’m sure they receive some type of benefit from plugging other models, but they sure know where and how to fish. Then again, if my livelihood depended on finding fish for my clients, and I spent every day on the water, I’d probably do better as well.

  9. fish kayak

    The competition in the kayak fishing guide business is very strong, and it’s not easy to make a living from offering kayak fishing guide services unless you’re both extremely good and an extremely frugal person 🙂 Which is why kayak fishing guides look for ‘sponsors’, I.E. kayak manufacturers willing to offer free kayaks in exchange of the guide’s ‘endorsement’ of their product.
    Being ‘sponsored’ by a kayak manufacturer reduces the guide’s business expenses, and getting sponsored by a manufacturer who’s willing to donate an expensive kayak may even reflect favorably on the guide 😉
    Wavewalk has always refused to cooperate with guides who proposed such deals. We’ve always thought that we’d rather be endorsed by clients who like our W kayak because it serves them better than other kayaks or boats, and not because they got it from us for free in exchange of them recommending it to others.
    BTW, we’re happy to get good reviews from our dealers, since they not only bought one kayak from us and were happy with it, but they are returning customers, and they make other people happy with it too. We feel this is a powerful real-life endorsement of the W kayak, since our dealers offer for sale only W kayaks.

  10. sea coyote

    If I had to choose between being a regular fishing guide in a boat and a yak fishing guide I think I’d choose the first option because it’s less risky. For example if you take your clients somewhere and after some time you see the fish went elesewhere, all you have to do is just drive there. It’s no big deal for you and no hassle for your clients. But with clients who need to paddle or pedal over a long distance it’s another story because getting to the other spot takes much more time, and they need to make an effort instead of enjoying the fishing, so they could get disappointed and tired. This is unless the kayaks are motorized, or at least your kayak is so you can tow your client’s kayak to the other spot and back.

  11. Marco

    Sure, and if your client gets eaten by an alligator it could be bad publicity for you! 😀

  12. fish kayak

    A good guide should know how to prevent such things from happening.

  13. Pete

    Fishing in cold water is far more dangerous than fishing in alligator infested water.

  14. Benny Suttendorf

    Any kayak outfitted with something in addition to its original design looks not as good as it would without that thing added to it. Whether it’s an outrigger or a pair of outriggers, a milk crate, a plastic cooler, a rudder, a tiny and ridiculous kayak sail, an absurd leaning bar – or external flotation noodles… they all look like add-ons, and they all take something away from the aesthetics of the original design.

  15. fish kayak

    It depends on how cold the water is and how big the alligators are 😉

    I agree, in principle, and I would add that extra detail in the design has a similar effect of overdoing things.
    However, simplicity in kayak design can sometimes be in conflict with the notion of ‘fishing machine’. For example, if you’re fishing out of a sit-in or SOT kayak, you don’t have a choice but to outfit it with a crate, because if you don’t, the lack of adequate storage space in those designs would force you to leave some of your fishing gear at home 🙁


  16. fish kayak

    Here’s a new article that Gary Rankel contributed: http://wavewalk.com/blog/2014/01/28/using-xtra-large-foam-noodles-on-the-wavewalk-kayak-by-gary-rankel/

    In it, Gary shows how he uses extra large foam noodles for a wide range of purposes that are unrelated to flotation.
    It’s a must read for anyone who’s interested in kayak fishing stealth and convenience.


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