Opening a Can of [Motor] Worms | The Kayak Motor Debate

Can I be honest for a minute? 

I am going to open up a can of worms so we can start a (hopefully) healthy conversation in our community. Actually, I am not opening the can, it has been opened already with the introduction of larger electric kayak motors.

The debate about whether we should allow trolling motors in kayak tournaments already has anglers on both sides of the fence, eliciting responses ranging from apathy to anger. But, with all of the new (higher profile) trails, having and using motors on kayaks is about to get more attention in the kayak world due to ratings on certain kayaks. And the safety implications of the larger motors.

Let’s Kick Off This Kayak Motor Debate

Now, I know that this is not going to sit well on social media (I’m already seeing posts in my mind as I write this) – especially those who have already invested in motors and are arguing that “mine is OK” or “mine has no rating so it is OK” – but the kayak ratings labels are not consistent or always clear as to what motor is acceptable. 

And even bigger — with very few exceptions — the kayaks documentation does not specify how or where to install a motor.  

That is why I called it a can of worms… and after the last couple of weeks they are out and I don’t think they are going back into the can.  

I am going to be upfront where I stand:  I wish we didn’t allow motors at all. (Unless an angler has a documented condition that requires them to use the motor.)

Kayak Motor Debate: Safety and Regulation

I love the Hobie BOS events for this fact… but I am not naive enough to think that since they have been allowed on certain trails that their use will ever be discontinued. I wrote an opinion on this topic and ended it with the fact that I will eventually move toward a motor too. So, now (in my mind) the conversation needs to shift toward safety and regulation.  

How many of you have pedaled up on standing timber that was just below the surface and felt your kayak starting to roll? 

At a paddle or pedal pace, you have time to react. Now picture that same treetop with your kayak skipping across the water at 5 or 6 or more mph… would you still have that time to react?  Would that additional speed push you past a tipping point and dump you? With these motors, should we be required to use a kill switch?  These are all questions I’ve been asking myself.

Kayak Motor Debate: The Legalities

Then the next question, who is at fault? I had this conversation with a fellow kayaker:

“I mean if I make a vehicle and put a tow rating of 5,000-pounds on it and you crash towing 10,000-pounds, you are at fault. If I don’t say the vehicle has a tow rating but offer a hitch when I sell it, I’d assume I’d be liable if something happened. Is that not the same thing here?”  

I do not have a crystal ball, nor am I an expert on the subject. But I do work in a highly regulated industry and am very aware of the documentation and standards that must be followed to eliminate (or just define) liability and keep the consumers (and the companies) safe.  

So, the first time someone is injured because Pat Kayaker exceeded the capacity of their ride by placing a large motor on a garage-rigged mount in a nationally viewed kayak event, we are all going to get some unwanted attention.

So I have this question for y’all. 

Who Regulates the Kayak Industry and Safety Standards for Propulsion via Kayak Motors?  

Just because the rules say I can have a certain horsepower, or pounds of thrust, is it OK to strap it to any kayak in any manner and blast across a lake? Is it safe?

Just ‘cause you can, should you?

Mine has a 400W rating. That means I cannot attach a larger motor and be compliant. Does that mean a DQ at check-in when I use a motor that exceeds the ratings?  

It seems that answer is yes — at least for KBF.

KBF Rules on Kayak Motors  

Unless specifically prohibited on the Event Page, use of a single electric propulsion unit per watercraft in KBF-sanctioned competition is approved with the following restrictions:

  1. Competitors must comply with all boating regulations pertaining to motorized kayak/electric-propulsion watercraft registration, use, and operating restrictions for the designated fishing area. Violation will result in disqualification from the Event.
  2. Electric motor used to propel a watercraft:
  3. must be attached to the kayak in a safe manner for operation, and
  4. may not exceed the lesser of (a.) manufacturer’s labeled Maximum HP/Thrust Capacity, (b.) 3 HP, or (c.) 155 foot-pound thrust. Violation of either condition will result in disqualification from the Event.

And it seems true for BASS in some capacity, they just exclude the final sentence that a violation will definitely result in DQ, so it is not as clear.    

B.A.S.S. Rules on Kayak Motors

Penalties for rules violations may include the following:

  1. Reduction of competition hours as determined by the Tournament Director.
  2. Loss of one or more fish caught in potential violation of rules or regulations.
  3. Disqualification from the tournament in question.
  4. Disqualification from future B.A.S.S. events, which may be from a specific number of events, a specific period of time, or may be a lifetime disqualification.
  5. Any different or additional penalties determined by the Tournament Director including but not limited to monetary fines and/or reduction of points towards championship qualification. 

So, it seems that the rules state it is not OK to exceed ratings in tournaments if your boat came with a label from the manufacturer.  If it doesn’t, I am guessing that will reach some level of clarity soon enough.

What Side of the Fence are YOU on?

This article was contributed by an ANGLR Expert

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Mike Cheatham


May 2016, sat in my first kayak. October 2016, skunked in my first tournament. Spring of 2017, placed 11th in the KBF Open and have chased the addiction since. Fishing is the one place my mind gets quiet, the place I have always found peace. To do it competitively with a great bunch of folks is just a bonus. To have an opportunity to combine my love for fishing with writing...I feel like I have finally found a place in this world! I do have the support of a wonderful woman who understands my need to be on the water; she supports my dreams is truly good.

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3 replies
  1. ButchM
    ButchM says:

    This is precisely why I quit participating all forms of organized fishing tournaments (except charity youth tournaments) decades ago. All the whining and gnashing of teeth over rules. Rules are necessary, however, the endless wringing of hands over if the rules are followed and the need to regulate more is a slippery slope to a spiraling downfall of an organization and wastes more time than it is worth in many cases.

    If anyone is losing sleep about someone flipping over their yak because they were not observing safe control of their boat, they may be not as focused on their own fishing as they should be.

    Alert and experienced kayak anglers should be employing their trolling motors just like a big boat tournament participants utilize their outboard motors … traveling longer distances in deeper, open water to navigate more quickly from point A to point B … not to negotiate shallow stumpy water while fishing same.

    If anyone is competing with folks who would not follow that line of common sense … maybe they would be safer fishing other tournaments.

    • mikecheathamfishing
      mikecheathamfishing says:

      the issue is that you can not regulate common sense, nor can you regulate whether people use the motor from point A to B, or through a stump field. the reality is that tournament directors share responsibility for the folks who enter the tournaments and need to have rules to protect themselves, those in the tournament…..and those who cannot seem to regulate themselves.
      Boat regulations go far beyond that scope and are managed by the Coast Guard and ratings must be followed. it isn’t about focusing on the rules vs fishing; it is about focusing on the safety of everyone involved. just my two cents.

      sorry that you stopped competing. I hope that one day you decide to give it a go…maybe in a kayak?

      • ButchM
        ButchM says:

        The whole point of my comment was to point out you can’t regulate common sense. State authorities and the USGS have been attempting that for well over a century and still have issues.

        I give ‘competition’ a go in my kayak almost every day the weather allows, with the toughest competitors I know, Mother Nature and the fish … (have been doing so for decades, long before it was cool). The entry fees are affordable. I set my own schedule and choose my locations … most importantly, I can choose who I share those times with. No matter my catch for the day (and release) I’m usually near the top of the leader board.

        I begrudge no one else for choosing to hit the tournament trail. Not my cup of tea.


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