Plastic v Fibreglass - Myth Busting
Probably the most confusing aspect for anyone new to the kayak market is the choice between the two major materials used - Plastic (usually a type of polyethylene) or Fibreglass (this can cover all kinds of composite mixes including Fibreglass, Carbon Fibre and Kevlar). I will try to briefly cover the most commonly asked questions and maybe put to rest some common misconceptions, especially about Plastic which has gathered some interesting urban myths.
Plastic is not repairable - the most blatant untruth, repeated confidently, loudly and ... duh .. wrong! You can. Surprise yourself - go and look in the Yellow Pages at the entries under PLASTIC, besides the fascinating quantity of plastic related pages, you will find a listing for Plastic Repairs. Myth Busted. I only know of two plastic repairs in the last 3 years, one on a very old kayak and one on a very new kayak. Both were undertaken by Bumper Repair specialist listed in the telephone directory at a very reasonable cost. Now look under the heading of Fibreglass just to be even handed.
Plastic is heavy - well yes it can be, but let us be fair, so can Fibreglass. In the mid range of kayaks the average weight in both materials is around 25 kgs. But hold on - is heavy always bad? No - quite the opposite. Whatever the material, I believe that all kayaks for recreational use should not be too light - weight gives the vehicle a solid footprint in the water and, with the right design, a stability that is both forgiving and comforting for the beginner. That said - I have never come across a plastic that can match a Carbon kayak for strength, rigidity and lightness - and how sexy is that black?
Plastic is unbreakable - well, no, it isn't. But it is VERY robust and that is definitely a plus if you are launching or paddling in rocky areas. In our particular area (Cape Point, False Bay) envy is evident when the plastics freely explore the rock gardens and play between boulders in the deep swells. But in reality do composite kayaks break in crucial circumstances? There are pictures of surf skis broken in the shore break, and K1s in the river, in every issue of SA Paddler magazine but my composite sea kayak has survived many a knock. In my experience the worst damage I have seen has been caused by transportation mishaps. And here is something interesting - some Fibreglass kayaks are not as repairable as you may think. Composites using "sandwich" technology are not always able to be repaired to their original specifications.
Plastic fades when exposed to sunlight - this is actually true of the early plastics (they have been around for more than 25 years) but plastic technology has moved on, with most plastics these days having better UV protection as part of their chemical make-up. Fibreglass kayaks also suffer from colour loss due to excessive exposure to sunlight. My recommendation is protect all your gear, no matter what the material.
In conclusion - Plastic technology has, and continues, to improve - as has the composite industry and maybe plastic competition has had some part in that. Mass produced plastics have brought the cost of getting onto the water, within the reach of a wider audience. Plastic has brought us bright visible colours and has introduced a whole new level of recreational craft. But a word of caution - you get what you pay for. Cheap finishing and materials can ruin the best design - irrespective of the material.