Greenland akuiisaq of seal skin
A spray skirt is a piece of material worn around the torso that covers the open cockpit of a kayak. Spray skirts are modern descendants of the Inuit akuilisaq. These simple seal skin tubes tied around the cockpit and were kept tight on the torso by rolling down the top. Strings over the shoulders helped to keep them up. They were rubbed with seal fat to keep them flexible and water proof. Preservation of the garment meant that they were stored outside or in the freezer. They were only used in nearly calm conditions in summertime as the top did not keep out water and the garment did not protect the paddler from the water.
Today the functions of the tuiliq is often divided into three pieces of equipment: a neoprene hood, a dry top and a spray skirt. A spray skirt consists of a tube of material that fits around the torso and a deck that fits around the cockpit. For most paddlers today paddling in light to moderate conditions in summertime or warm water, a spray skirt for small surf and wind waves may be all that they need. But there are many choices of material, fit and accessories that need to be considered when selecting a spray skirt.
Greenland tuiliq of seal skin
When things got rough, the Inuit used a full length, full sleeve, hooded garment, a tuiliq, cinched at the neck and wrists and tied permanently onto the edge of the cockpit (coaming). An Inuit knew many different rolls for various situations. Keeping the cold water out was much more important for him than easy removal of the enclosure if he capsized. You however may want a skirt that is a bit easier to remove! Today you can find tuiliqs made of neoprene and breathable nylon, traditional design with modern materials. They are usually custom made and expensive. Brooks makes a neoprene version, Superior Kayaks, P.O. Box 355, Whitelaw, WI 54247 (920) 732-3784 makes a Goretek version and reed makes a Chill Cheater rubber version. These designs do not protect you much from the cold water should you come out of your boat.
Spray skirts come in three different material combinations. Some spray skirts are all nylon, some have nylon tubes and neoprene decks and some are all neoprene. They all have differing properties and costs. The all nylon spray skirt is usually the least expensive option. That is why rental spray skirts are always nylon. The nylon tube has a looser fit around the torso and will let in some water when capsized. However, the loose fit and the possibility of opening the top to let in cool air and let out warm air makes these spray skirts more comfortable for warm weather paddling. Conversely, rubber tubes and decks are warmer in the cold. A nylon spray deck may leave your legs much colder in the winter time. Rubber tubes constrict the torso and reduce paddling efficiency, but if properly fitted will keep all the water out when upside down. They are the preferred option for those who roll frequently.
Nylon spray decks are slippery around the coaming compared to the sticky nature of rubber materials. Some spray decks have special designs and materials on the edge where it contacts the cockpit to aid in the grip the skirt has on the cockpit. This helps the spray deck to keep from popping off when one does not want it to - such as when a wave dumps into your lap or when you are lifting out of the seat to perform a roll.
Because of the conflict of comfort versus extreme performance, some people have two spray skirts, one for summertime casual paddling and one for cold or extreme paddling.
Spray skirts must be sized for both openings. Both the tube size and the cockpit size vary from skirt to skirt, from paddler to paddler and from boat to boat. So you must find a skirt that fits your cockpit opening size and shape and your torso size and shape. A rubber tube that is too tight will be uncomfortable and will tire you more quickly than a proper fit. A deck that is to small may not fit at all on the kayak. A deck that is too tight and is difficult to get off is dangerous. It could trap you in the boat. Getting a skirt off is much harder when you are upside down and underwater. But it must also be tight or "grippy" enough to not come off when performing maneuvers.
Nylon tubes usually have some adjustments such a hook and loop that will accommodate a wide range of torso sizes. Rubber tubes have about a 2 inch size range. Measurements should be taken just under the rib cage as that is where most tubes contact the torso. Some spray decks have adjustable edges with the use of a thick rubber cord ties by a knot in the back. Most nylon decks are like this. This provides some adjustability to the spray deck's tightness on the cockpit and the size of cockpit it will fit. But the knot makes the spray skirt more difficult to get on and makes the spray skirt more susceptible to popping off. Unless you are planning on using the spray skirt for more than one kayak it is better to get a spray skirt that fits your boat.
Another dimension of a spray skirt that few consider is the distance between the back of the skirt and the back of the tube. This distance must roughly correspond to the distance between the back of the kayak cockpit and the back of the seat. If there is insufficient length in the spray deck, the spray deck will pull off.
One consideration that seldom occurs to one until you have had a spray skirt for a while is the tendency for nylon spray skirts, both all nylon and partially nylon to develop a drip where the tube is sewn to the deck. this drip forms in the depression that is always created from the PFD pressing down on the tube and deck and creating a puddle right on top of you lap. Then there is a slow drip drip torture of cold water falling right in your crotch. Seam sealer is not always effective is stopping this torture. Most rubber spray skirts do not have this problem because their seams are glued, not stitched.
Other than the basic fit and materials of the skirt, manufacturers try to add on all manner of extra features to entice you to buy their skirt. Some have daisy chained tie downs for lashing equipment on top the deck. This is usually a bad idea as it make a bigger puddle in your lap. Others have a quick release paddle park, which can be useful if you do not have an equivalent capability on the deck of the kayak itself. Seals spray skirts have a water tight hatch to allow the bilge pump to be inserted through the skirt to pump out without opening the edge of the spray skirt. A few have stays that keep the spray skirt domed in front of you and resist dumping waves. This seems like a good idea but I have never tried one.
No matter what spray skirt you choose, always make sure that the skirt fits the kayak so that you can easily remove it. Whenever using a new skirt on an old kayak or an old skirt on a new kayak, test your ability to remove the skirt. This applies whether the items are new or just new to you. Some kayakers who have jumped into a friends kayak with their spray skirt and not tested the spray deck release have been surprised when the situation required them to bail out of the cockpit.