These cutting-edge hybrid, tandem, and ultra-portable boats make it easy to hit the water.
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Sport-Utility Boat: Hobie’s Mirage Tandem Island.
Hobie Mirage Tandem Island
BEST FOR: MIXED CONDITIONS
Call it the love child of a sea kayak and a sail-powered catamaran. Or just call it fun. Hobie‘s two-person Mirage Tandem Island is a couple of feet longer and has a larger sail than the solo model released four years ago, but it’s still roof-rackable and Lego-simple to assemble. It’s also easy on lubbers: If you misread the wind and flub a tack—or was that a jibe?—you can pedal into place with the flipperlike propulsion system, which provides enough kick to let you explore even when there’s no wind at all. Hell, you can even paddle if you’re in the mood. Or surf it, like we did off the SoCal coast, which is a lot more fun. With those outriggers, it’s nearly impossible to flip. 18’6″, 89-lb hull, 190 lbs fully rigged; $4,699; hobiecat.com
Jackson’s Dynamic Duo
Best for: relationships
BEST FOR: RELATIONSHIPS
What tandem skydiving did for, well, skydiving, Jackson‘s Dynamic Duo is doing for whitewater kayaking: introducing new paddlers to the sport with an instructor close at hand. One tester took his girlfriend down a Class III section of the Rio Grande—sans dumping. “Kayaking is easy,” she said. The Duo isn’t the first K2, as these tandems are called, but Jackson nailed the balance and stability of the planing hull, making it a fun, responsive boat for the experienced paddler, too. 12′, 65 lbs; $1,599; jacksonkayak.com
Ocean Kayak’s Nalu
Best for: flatwater touring
BEST FOR: FLATWATER TOURING
One member of the family wants a stand-up paddleboard and another wants a sit-on-top? Split the difference with Ocean Kayak‘s Nalu: It’s a stand-up paddleboard with a molded seating area, so you can sit down and paddle it like a kayak, too. As a SUP, it’s just maneuverable enough for gentle surf, but it’s really more about cruising around on lakes, bays, or mellow rivers: three low-profile, molded fins out back help keep it tracking straight. As a sit-on-top, it doesn’t win any awards for luxury, but you can get an optional backrest ($60–$85) that ups the comfort. 11′, 40 lbs; $599; oceankayak.com
Dagger’s Alchemy Adventure Kayak
Outside Editors’ Choice
BEST FOR: ADVENTURE
If we had to categorize Dagger’s Alchemy, we’d call it an exploration boat. With a more radically shaped hull than your average sea kayak, this 14-footer is agile enough for everything from coastal rock gardening to surfing and even running mellow (Class II or so) rapids. But there’s also an adjustable skeg and three dry hatches when you just want to make tracks for a few days. Beginning and intermediate paddlers might find the lack of primary stability a bit unsettling at first, but its secondary stability—the kind you need to keep from capsizing—is solid. 14′, 51 lbs; $1,295; dagger.com
Best for: solo excursions
BEST FOR: SOLO EXCURSIONS
Is it a canoe or a kayak? With a seat that can be adjusted for sitting (kayaking) or kneeling (canoeing), Ontario-based NovaCraft‘s RobRoy feels at home on any type of flatwater, from narrow creeks to big, open lakes. “It’s not particularly fast, but it’s extremely efficient—and the secondary stability is excellent,” said our tester, Darren Bush, owner of Madison, Wisconsin’s Rutabaga Paddlesports. The large cockpit is easy to get in and out of, and there’s enough cargo space for a weeklong trip. Our only gripe was with the seat, which has a bit too much lateral play. 13′, 32 lbs; from $1,695; novacraft.com