On recreational kayaks, a sprayskirt keeps out rain and occasional waves, on a touring kayak, it keeps you afloat in heavy seas, on whitewater, it lets you ride through waves, plunge down waterfalls and roll over and up again.
Materials: tunnels and decks
Both the vertical part of the sprayskirt that goes around your torso (the tunnel) and the horizontal part that hooks over the rim and covers the cockpit (the deck), can be made of waterproof fabric or neoprene. Some spayskirts use a combination of both materials, so the deck is water-resistant and the tunnel can be adjusted or vented in hot weather.
Used on recreational and touring kayaks, these skirts are made of coated or waterproof-breathable fabric, they usually have an elastic cord that seals out water. Some have suspenders so you can adjust them for ventilation and to stop water from pooling on the top. A well-made fabric tunnel that has sealed or taped seams will keep out waves that don’t come over the top edge that’s around your torso. The narrow seal where the drawcord encircles the rim (called a coaming) makes them less water-resistant than neoprene skirt if fully submerged.
Used for whitewater paddling and for some touring sprayskirts, neoprene stretches to create a drum-like seal that’s very watertight and secure. These skirts are precisely sized to the cockpit opening or your boat, and have very little adjustment to keep them as watertight as possible. (Most boat manufacturers provide information about compatible sprayskirts for their boats.) Some use straps that you can loosen to make them more comfortable when conditions are calm. If you expect to paddle in big waves and rough conditions, look for a skirt that’s reinforced to keep it stiff when hit by waves. The one drawback of neoprene is that it’s warm to wear and can’t be vented.
How the skirt is secured around the cockpit effects how well it keeps water out and how it easy it is to release. Most styles have a grab loop on the deck that you pull to release the skirt.
An adjustable cord that’s threaded through a tunnel and tightened with a cordlock is sufficient for recreational kayaking and moderate touring. This system lets you fine-tune the tension so it either resists waves better or is easier to release. Ideally your deck should sit smoothly around the rim of the cockpit. Fabric can wrinkle around the cord tunnel and create points of entry, so in rougher conditions water can get inside the cockpit. A thick bungee-style cord that’s directly attached to skirt material forms a better seal than a cord and tunnel. But a tighter seal can be somewhat difficult to release, particularly from a fibreglass coaming.
These very stiff, rubber edges are used only on neoprene decks, and almost always for whitewater kayaks. When a sprayskirt is attached, the rand lies flat under the coaming. The wide, flat seal is completely watertight and resists being torn off by water. The disadvantage is lack of adjustability. The size and shape of the deck must be matched exactly to a particular cockpit size. Generally the tighter a sprayskirt seals, the harder it is to remove.
Sizing a sprayskirt
Consult a manufacturers’s website or information that came with your boat to find a skirt to fit. You can also measure the longest and widest parts of your boat’s cockpit coaming, and match these dimensions to a sprayskirt deck. Many sprayskirts are sized to your waist. Ensure the size you select will fit with the clothes that you plan to wear when paddling. If the skirt has shoulder straps, you’ll want to make sure you can adjust them so the deck lies flat when you’re seated in the cockpit.
To check the fit before you go paddling, put on the skirt, then your PFD, get in your boat, fasten the sprayskirt starting at the back and working around the rim to the front (make sure the grab loop isn’t caught under the lip). Once the skirt is secured around the rim, lean forward, back, and over to each side, making sure the skirt stays firmly in place. Push down on the front of the skirt, as though a wave were landing in your lap, and check to see if the skirt slips off the coaming.
Before you go paddling, check that you can reach the grab loop and reliably release your sprayskirt in case you have to bail out after a capsize.