How to maintain and store your plastic or composite kayak and other paddling gear for safety and longevity
“A ship is always referred to as “she” because it costs so much to keep one in paint and powder.”
USN Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz
As with all the most valuable things in life—our home, a car, our personal relationships—kayaks appreciate dutiful maintenance and liberal TLC, and will return the affection with loyalty and dependability. But perhaps the best reason to take good care of such a boat is safety. Weather and water conditions can change quickly and turn a leisurely cruise on Golden Pond into a potentially dangerous situation; the last thing you need is a broken paddle or a snapped rudder cable.
I typically give my boats a fairly intensive inspection and recommissioning each year just before the summer paddling season, as well as a basic hose-down and decommissioning when I put them away for the winter. Kayaks that frequently see salt water should be hosed and rinsed with fresh water after every outing, to prevent corrosion of metal components. In addition, it’s always a good idea to inspect hardware and other fittings periodically and prior to any big trips.
I offer my annual maintenance regimen below, followed by an easy seasonal checklist for your own use.
Set your kayak on a pair of sawhorses for a little dry-dock time. Carefully inspect all the deck hardware, perimeter lines, and bungees. Performing T-rescues can be especially hard on deck fittings, but simple handling and cartopping can cause normal wear and tear too. The harmful UV radiation in sunlight can deteriorate plastic padeyes and degrade bungees and perimeter lines; inspect these to determine if they need replacing. The fraying bungee shown here will receive a dab of RTV silicone adhesive or hot glue, followed by a neat sleeve of heat-shrink tubing typically used on electrical wires.
If your kayak has a rudder or skeg, evaluate its deployment lines, stainless steel cables and crimps, pivot hardware, and pedals. Clean and apply a spray lubricant to the rudder’s or skeg’s main pivot points and pedals or sliders; shoot a few squirts down the cable housings to lubricate the hidden interior of the guide sleeves.
All kayaks and canoes made of various plastics will scratch and dent on rocks and other shore debris, but in different ways and to varying degrees.
Boats made of polyethylene and Royalex, both softer and heavier plastics, are fairly prone to superficial and cosmetic scratches. Their main strength is in hard impacts, from which they tend to merely bounce off, which is why nearly all whitewater and rental boats are made of the stuff. Any deep gouges they may incur are typically bordered by a pair of raised burrs, which some fastidious owners ‘shave’ down with a razor blade for a smoother hull surface.
Fiberglass, kevlar, and other composite plastics have a hard outer gelcoat which resists superficial scratches better than a poly boat, but damage is sometimes made more apparent by the glossy finish. Scratched composite boats can easily be polished smooth again; even major structural damage can be fairly easily repaired—sometimes in the field—and a good fiberglass worker can invisibly patch gouges and holes, or even completely rebuild a section of hull.
To prevent damage from harmful UV radiation, I suggest a quality automotive wax for composite boats and a UV protectant for polyethylene kayaks and canoes. I like the waxes and polishes from Meguiar’s; their marine and RV cleaners, polishes, and waxes remove oxidation from gelcoat finishes, deepening their color, and seal and protect from UV damage.
Think of 303 Aerospace Protectant as sunscreen for your boat. Follow the directions on the bottle, applying it with a cloth and buffing off the excess. Unlike cheaper automotive sprays like Armor-All, etc., 303 contains no silicone (which some suspect has long-term detrimental effects on plastics), and leaves no greasy residue. 303 can also be used on composite boats instead of wax, but I prefer the additional sacrificial-layer protection and ‘slipperiness’ offered by a good paste wax.
Some paddling enthusiasts advocate applying 303 for winter storage, but this serves little purpose while the boat sleeps in the darkness of the garage. The maker of 303 makes no claim to ‘condition’ or ‘restore’ plastic, but only to serve as a UV protectant and sunblock. Applying it now is like rubbing yourself down with sunblock AFTER you’ve been to the beach; the damage is already done. Save the 303 for spring, and re-apply periodically throughout the season, when it does the most good.
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Other Paddling Gear
Paddle manufacturers offer varying advice on proper maintenance of their products; some permit the judicial use of a ‘dry’, non-dirt-attracting lubricant such as graphite or silicone on their snap-together ferrules, while others specifically recommend against this, and instead suggest simply washing well after each use. Follow the care directions found in your paddle’s instruction sheet or on the manufacturer’s website. In any case, it is always a good idea to quickly swish the joint ends in the lake or river just prior to joining them, to rinse away any sand or grit.
The 303 UV protectant that prevents sun damage to your hull will do the same for nearly all your other exposed paddling gear: PFD, spray skirt, neoprene wetsuit, booties and gloves, drytops and pants, even your drybags. All this same gear should receive a water-resistant lubricant applied to the zippers; there are several brands of commercial products made for this purpose, to keep the zippers zippy.
Lastly, replenish any perishable items in your first-aid kit and bailout bag, such as energy bars and other food, batteries, glues, etc., and hit the water!
After a long summer of idyllic cruising or intrepid adventuring, it may be tempting to toss your kayak in the corner of the garage to rest until next season. But if she has served you well this year, and you hope she will next year, now is a good time for some deserved care. Set your kayak barnacle-side-up on a pair of sawhorses and start by hosing it down as you would your car. Even mild household detergents will strip your hand-buffed wax off, so instead, lather your boat up with a bucket of boat/RV wash and sudsy water. From beneath, spray water throughout the cockpit interior and all the hatches, allowing any loosened sand, crud, and dead bugs to drain out. If possible, remove the seat bottom to clean beneath it.
If you prefer to perform any repairs or modifications during winter layup, do your full inspection now instead of in the spring.
If your rudder utilizes bungees to provide return tension on the pedals, loosen the pedals’ adjustment straps during winter storage to help those bungees retain their elasticity. For the same reason, undo any quick-release buckles on hatch straps and remove neoprene hatch covers (those jaunty black berets like the art students wear) from the hatch rims. To allow air to get in but keep vermin out, use large rubber bands to attach pieces of nylon window screen over your hatch rims.
All kayaks, whether plastic or composite (or even sealskin over spruce, I suppose) should be stored either on well-padded rigid brackets or suspended in slings made of 2- to 3-inch-wide nylon webbing straps, like automotive seat belts. Various manufacturers offer a wide array of kayak-storage solutions. Consult the owner’s manual or website of your kayak’s maker to determine whether they recommend storing your kayak right-side-up, inverted, or on its side. One thing on which they nearly all agree is that wall brackets or slings should be aligned with the bulkheads of your boat, where the hull is strongest. Any kayak will be overstrained by supports which are too far toward the middle or the ends of the boat, or (cringe!) suspended from the ceiling by ropes attached to the boat’s carrying toggles.
Your paddle, bilge pump, and paddle float should all be washed with a mild detergent, dried, and inspected for damage. Sea water is especially hard on soft goods like clothing, with salt deposits jamming zippers and snaps, and even plugging up the micro-pores necessary for high-tech fabrics to maintain their breathability. Hand wash your PFD, spray skirt, neoprene wetsuit, booties, gloves, hatch covers, and drytops and pants in a washtub with a purpose-made neoprene shampoo. Other paddling and camping soft goods such as drybags may be washed in a mild detergent. If anything has attained a bit too much aromatic “character” over the season, use Revivex Odor Eliminator. This miracle enzyme does wonders for even the funkiest of footwear and other neoprene gear.
Inspect and repair any damage to your paddling clothes, and replace any weak zippers or straps. Apply 303 protectant to your drysuit’s latex gaskets, as it protects this especially delicate rubber against damage from harmful ozone. You can also apply 303 to the rest of your clothing and gear, but, as already mentioned, there is little need for sunlight protection in the shaded confines of your home or garage, so save the stuff for the paddling season. Store your clothes in a cool dry place out of direct sunlight, with all zippers OPEN.
Remove any perishables from your first-aid kit and bailout bag, such as energy bars and other food, batteries, glues, etc..
While the winter snows howl outside and you pore over your charts and guidebooks, plotting and planning, you can rest easy in the knowledge that your boat and your gear will be ready and waiting for you and next year’s adventures.
A Seasonal Maintenance List
Here’s my current annual maintenance list, applicable to both composite and poly kayaks. As evidenced by the revision number above, I will post any future, updated list here as needed.
Spring Maintenance, Kayak
- Inspect and Repair all Deck Hardware, Perimeter Lines, Rudder or Skeg Lines, Bungees
- Lubricate Rudder or Skeg Assembly: Pivot, Cables and Housings, Pedals or Slider
- Apply UV protectant to entire boat: auto or marine paste wax on composite boats, 303 on polyethylene boats
- Paddle: Inspect for damage, Apply silicone spray-lube to ferrule
- PFD, Skirt, Wetsuit, Neo Booties and Gloves, Neo Hatch Covers, Drytop and Pants, Drybags: Apply 303 to all,
- Apply Zipper-Lube to anything with a zipper
- Replenish perishables in First-Aid Kit and Bailout Bag
Fall Maintenance, Kayak
- Wash boat inside and out with mild detergent
- Inspect hull and deck for damage
- Loosen rudder pedal straps, hatch straps
- Store in cradle with hatches loosely covered
- Paddle, Pump, Paddle Float: Wash; Inflate and dry float; Inspect and repair any damage; Apply lube to pump shaft
- PFD, Skirt, Wetsuit, Neo Booties and Gloves, Neo Hatch Covers, Drytop and Pants, Drybags: Wash all in tub (neoprene with wetsuit shampoo; all others with mild detergent); Thoroughly dry; Inspect and repair any damage; Repair worn straps and cords; Apply 303 to drytop gaskets; Store in cool dry place with zippers OPEN for winter
- Remove perishables from First-Aid Kit and Bailout Bag
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