First off, don't get discouraged by indecision: You can enjoy fantastic kayaking adventures with either option. We'll just be breaking down some of the pros and cons of each model to give you a little food for thought. And, don't forget--the staff at Paddlers Cove will be happy to go into more detail.
A sit-on-top kayak is about the easiest craft for learning basic kayaking skills--and for getting hooked on the joys of self-propelled watercraft. Something like an elegant hybrid of surfboard, canoe, and traditional kayak, the boat has a sealed hull and molded seats for straightforward entry and exit. Commonly fashioned from polyethylene, sit-on-top kayaks have a large beam to bolster stability and often sport self-bailing holes to shed water splashed into the cockpit.
These are fine boats for recreational paddling on lakes, slow-moving rivers, and protected coastal waters. They're perfect for novice kayakers of any age--as well as experienced veterans who enjoy laidback, no-fuss touring--and are especially suited for balmy waters and seasons. Anglers and divers often prefer sit-on-top kayaks because of the ease with which they can slip on or off them.
One of the chief virtues of the sit-on-top kayak concerns self-rescue. For anyone unnerved by the prospect of flipping underwater while strapped into a sit-inside kayak, the sealed-hull alternative is attractive: Bailing simply means slipping freely into the water. (And, it should be pointed out, a good sit-on-top kayak doesn't easily upturn in the kind of setting it's designed for.)
What are the drawbacks? With their high center of gravity, sit-on-top kayaks are typically slower than sit-in models, and have limited storage space. The paddler's exposed to rain, wind, blazing sun, and waves to a degree her sit-in counterpart is not. They're also less versatile in terms of the environments in which they can be used.
The sit-in kayak is the traditional one, going back thousands of years to the Arctic and subarctic peoples who invented these sleek boats for efficient hunting and transport. The category of course includes such specialized crafts as sea and whitewater kayaks, but here we're considering the recreational version.
A recreational sit-in is often about 12 feet long or less (basically comparable in size to a typical sit-on-top) and has a broader beam and a bigger cockpit than a touring model. It makes for a fantastic boat for
With a sit-in kayak, you usually have more room in the hull for storing equipment; while not designed for big expeditions, a recreational sit-in can still handle a short multi-day trip. You're better protected in rough water or inclement weather. Self-rescue is somewhat more complicated than with a sit-on-top, but many recreational models, with their open cockpits, are far easier to shed than a more enclosed touring kayak. You've got a lower center of gravity, which translates to better stability and more efficient paddling.
Either a sit-on-top or sit-inside kayak sets you up for loads of fun in the great outdoors. Many kayakers begin with sit-on-top models and "graduate" to traditional kayaks to explore more rigorous waters--it all depends on how deeply you want to get hooked on this irresistible pastime.