Making a Tandem Kayak Work for You

When I was considering a kayak, I wrestled with the same question that so many other new kayak anglers with families wrestle with:

Single or Tandem?

The advice I got (from very knowledgeable people by the way) was to go with a single. One fellow who used to work as an outfitter told me a tandem was the surest way to destroy my marriage!

I did not take that advice.

For one thing, I'd hung wallpaper with my wife so I knew that my marriage was made of pretty tough stuff. But I also put a lot of thought and effort into understanding and planning around the potential pitfalls of a tandem kayak. And so far it's all worked out well for me.

I won't go much into the pros and cons of single and tandem kayaks. ACK has a good article that covers it nicely. I'll just say that the age of my kids, my budget, and my objective to make this a family activity sent me down the tandem path. And I haven't regretted it.

Let's assume that you've decided to get a tandem. They have intrinsic disadvantages and challenges that you have to deal with. What I want to talk about in this post is how to make your choice work well for you.

Get a Rig That Also Works Solo

You will want to go kayaking by yourself sometimes, especially if you're fishing from it. Make sure to get a kayak that has a middle seat option for solo paddling. Most do and there's really no good reason to settle for one that doesn't. Some "tandems" are big enough that you can squeeze 3 people onto them – a "tandem+1" kayak. That's what I have. Usually it's best when one of the people is small because 3 people can be really crowded on a tandem+1.

But it's not just about the yak. You also need to figure out how you will load, transport, unload, and store your big, heavy tandem kayak by yourself. Getting a storage or transport system that requires two people to use will discourage you from using it solo, keep you off the water, and make you regret your decision to go tandem. If you want some ideas about how to do this, check out my articles on storage and transportation. Getting it down to a one-person operation will also make it that much easier when you do have multiple people going.

Balanced Seating

When deciding who goes where on the kayak, there are two simple rules:
  1. Place people to balance the boat, bow to stern.
  2. If you can't have good balance, then it's better to have more weight in the stern than the bow.
Given those rules, here's what I recommend:
  • Solo paddling – Paddler sits in the middle seating position
  • 2 people – Heavier paddler goes in the rear seating position
  • 2 adults, 1 child – Adults in the front and rear positions with the heavier adult in the rear; child in the middle seating position.
  • 2 children, 1 adult – Children in the front and rear positions with the heavier child in the rear; adult in the middle seating position; 
  • 3 adults – Heaviest paddler in the middle, next heaviest in the rear. Exercise patience and keep a good sense of humor. You'll need it. ;-)

Harmonious Paddling

Two (or three) people paddling a tandem requires coordination. You obviously have to be on the same page about the destination and the route. Work those things out ahead of time. Make sure you're fair and equitable about the navigation decisions. Otherwise, you will erode the trip of fun and will find yourself paddling alone in the future (which, admittedly may not be a bad thing!)

On the water, you'll find it much easier going if everybody's paddle strokes are synchronized. Otherwise, you'll be banging paddles and losing a lot of efficiency. The smaller the kayak, the more important this will be. This is where the potential for paddler meltdown gets really high. Fortunately, there is a very simple rule for avoiding it:

Each paddler bears 100% responsibility for syncing with those in front of him/her. Moreover, a paddler surrenders all rights to gripe, whine, piss, moan, or yell about what the paddlers in front of him/her are doing. 

The middle paddler is responsible for syncing with the front paddler. The rear paddler is responsible for syncing with the middle and front paddlers.  In my boat, I'm usually the one in back so this usually falls on me. It's actually very empowering to be totally responsible for syncing when paddling with my son or wife, and absolving them of any responsibility for it. It's easier to maintain peace in my boat since I'm the one primarily on the hook for being peaceful!

Now, it helps if the paddlers in front have a predictable stroke (steady cadence, alternating left and right), and it's okay to remind them of this in a positive way. But absolutely no yelling allowed by the person in the rear.

The front paddler takes the lead in steering the boat with the other paddlers adjusting their strokes to synchronize. The front paddler may be a child and may require some guidance on that. Just remember to keep your cool and make it a positive experience.

Sharp Hooks in Close Quarters

On my kayak, if I have two or more paddlers and there are children, the rule is that everybody has to either fish vertically (dropping bait straight down) or must make casts to the side of the boat. No casting to the bow, lest you hook somebody behind you! If everybody is an experienced angler, then we may allow the front paddler to do side-arm casts to the bow area.

The crammed quarters of a kayak is a bit of an adjustment for bank and big boat anglers. For example, when you bring a fish in, due to space constraints you need to leave more line between the end of the rod and the fish in order to net it. If you're fishing with children, you need to brief them on these things and make a small number of simple rules for them to follow. For example, they need to be taught not to touch the rod and reel when you're baiting hooks or unhooking fish for them. Or, if they're baiting their own hooks, they need to know exactly how to place the rod so that it's stable and doesn't get in other paddlers' way. They also need to know how they can and can't move on the boat in order to keep it steady.

Anything not tethered to the boat or attached to a float is a strong candidate for getting dropped overboard and lost. Especially with children. They're always dropping stuff. You might be tempted to put a leash on everything, but you should resist it. The more leashes you have, the more likely one will get wrapped around something, including a person. This is at best a nuisance, and at worst a serious safety hazard. The one thing I insist on leashing is a paddle. If you lose all paddles, you can no longer propel the boat and depending on the conditions that can be dangerous. In addition, a paddle on a float can get away from you (particularly in current) and be impossible to retrieve because you can't paddle to it. So I leash at least one paddle. I will usually leash a couple of other items too, but I try not to get carried away. If it's genuinely valuable or losing it will instantly end your kayaking trip, put a float on it. Otherwise, accept its possible loss with grace.

Travel Light

A tandem usually has limited storage space when hosting multiple paddlers. If you like to bring tackle to handle any possible fishing scenario, plus food, drinks, fish storage, books, and a bunch of other stuff – you'll need to rethink that strategy. The more stuff you bring, the more will get strewn around on the deck creating an obstacle to fishing, a safety hazard, and a bunch of stuff to lose in a tip-over. This is especially true with small children. There's no way to make them keep things orderly without being Captain Bligh about it, which will discourage them from the sport. It's easier and better for you to be disciplined about what tackle you bring than to make them be disciplined about keeping a big mess of stuff organized. I'm a big fan of minimalist tackle. I have small, species-specific tackle boxes and only bring the boxes I need for the fish I'm targeting on any given trip. And it all must fit in my small tackle backpack or I start shedding things.

With these strategies in play, you should be able get the most out of your tandem kayak. You'll be able to reap the benefits of sharing your sport with your friends and family, without turning the experience sour and making you wish you'd bought a single kayak.

See you on the water!