This would actually be an 8.5 rating. After doing a demo of 7 kayaks and reading as much as I could find, I saw a red Castaway for $450. Since this was less than most of the other 12.5 foot kayaks around, I read all of the Castaway and Castine (same hull with hatches, bulkheads, and foredeck rigging) and Old Town reviews that I could. Two college professors in the area highly recommended Old Town due to the Polylink 3 construction--stiffer, better insulated, and harder to damage, they said. After reading all the reviews noting dissatisfaction with softer polyethylene kayaks with oil-canning, bent hulls, denting, and scratches, I got a lot more interested in the Old Town Line.
Before you think I am an Old Town flunky, I really didn't see Old Town as my first choice. There were a lot of reviews on Old Town boats mentioning poor construction (usually bulkhead leaks and trim), or that they were too wide, too slow, etc. The other kayaks that seemed to be in my price range that I could find in the area were usually Perception boats, and I really liked the Monterey, Carolina, America and Sundance that I tried at the demo. Bottom price for any of them? $500-$799; July is not a good month for sales. A few of the Dagger and Necky boats looked good, and the reviews on the Pungo 140 have been excellent. I planned primarily to use the kayak to go fishing in areas with less engine traffic, so I didn't need race speed, but I didn't want the proverbial pumpkinseed boat, either. Tried a couple of Walden boats, too--liked the Scout all right, except for the knees-outside position, and couldn't get used to the Vista (no offense, Vista lovers! I'm not good enough for your kayak!). The popular Old Town Loon series seemed a bit too wide from my demo experience, and I knew I was looking for something narrower, but not too expensive. So, I had an idea of what I liked and didn't like, and knew I needed something over 12 feet, 27" wide or less, with decent tracking vs. handling, and moderate stability vs. speed. Then, marching through the store again, I saw the floor model Castaway that had been marked down to $400. 12'6", 26" wide, and a hull that seemed to be close to the Perception Monterey that I was so pleased with at the demo. After checking it out in the store for defects, I did the impossible--I bought it without having tried it!!!! Heavens no!!
Don't try this at home. I do not recommend buying a kayak without testing it unless you are prepared to live with the consequences, or you have the money to buy another boat that you like better. I don't. I am happy to say I got lucky. Enough blabbing about the search, here's the review:
Slipped the Castaway into the lagoon off the river (river averages 100 yards wide, medium slow flow, 3-10 feet deep. The lagoon is 2" to 8 feet deep and a big more sheltered from the wind). Rocking it back and forth brought nothing alarming--it had the comfortable feel of a well-balanced rocking chair: Not too tippy, but with enough lean to help with turns, etc. Very responsive to hip flicks, sweep strokes, and accelerated pretty well. I would rate the speed a bit faster than the Perception America, but not quite as fast as the 13.5 foot Carolina (also note that the Carolina is just under 23" wide and goes for $699 MSRP. The Carolina also turned like a log). I cannot prove the speed comments as I did not time paddling speed with any of these boats, so I admit to this not being an objective assessment. The folding seat was comfortable for 15 minutes around the lagoon, two hours going a mile upstream fishing on the river, then back down and around the lagoon again. Luckily, my old fishing PFD fit fine, and the paddle I chose off the rack worked better than its price suggested.
Of course, I had to slip a fishing rod into the back deck rigging, and actually ended up fishing half the time. While non-fishers may not care, it was easy to fish from, and being that low to the water meant casts under trees and bushes were a snap--you're already at water level! I finally stopped fishing after catching a few smallmouth to remind myself I was supposed to be testing out my new kayak. It was a pleasant realization that the kayak worked great for its intended purpose.
Acceleration was fine; turning was very good, once I got a feel for the amount of lean; cruising speed was good, and it will glide quite a way after you stop paddling. The foot braces adjusted easily--I forgot to adjust them onshore, and was able to reach inside the hull and adjust them while on the water! I had a good test day because the wind was coasting down the river at about 10-15mph (according to the weather forecast). This meant I got to paddle upwind, crosswind, and downwind. The reviewers' comments about this hull's tendency to lose tracking downwind (I believe the term was "with a following sea") were correct. The Castaway did lean a bit with the wind at its back, but I found that if I leaned the correct direction with the correct stroke, I could straighten it out without repeated correction strokes (I was incapable of doing this with the Walden Vista a few weeks ago). Crosswinds were not a problem at all; I crossed the river three times across the wind, and it NEVER windvaned, so I've got to say that the tracking was nice. If the only problems I have are downwind, what am I complaining about!? Upwind was no challenge at all. The hull splits the wind and the waves (which were just beginning to whitecap) nicely. In the water, I couldn't be happier for the money. I give the boat an 8.5 overall while comparing it to much more expensive boats. Compared to the boats in its price range, the Castaway is a steal.
Out of the water, I transported it cockpit-down on a set of four foam canoe/kayak blocks snapped on the cockpit rim, a 1" wide nylon tie-down strap over the middle of the hull, and nylon ropes front and back (doubled through the carrying handles. Not only did it not slip forward or backward during its two trips, it didn't move sideways, either. Since it has a stiffer hull, I just made everything snug (not tight) and didn't worry about warping my new boat. Yes, a nice Yakima or Thule rack would have been nice, but this transportation setup cost a grand total of $15, and took five minutes from package to peel-out. After my trip today, it took even less time to cartop it.
The Polylink boats are heavier than comparable kayaks of the same length. The Castaway is advertised as 54 pounds. I put my PFD on my shoulder, and the Castaway on the PFD, and carried it 100 yards back from the dock to my car (my launching spot was grass-to-mud--easier going than coming, so I decided to land at a dock instead). While this wasn't a whistling carry, nor am I a lumberjack-strong type (5'8", 158), I am sure I could do it repeatedly without much problem. Plus, I was able to re-cartop the kayak easily. With no rack in the way, I simply fit the foam blocks back on the cockpit rim, lifted the kayak back on my shoulder, and slid it onto my car's roof crossways. Then I rotated it until it faced forward, and tied it down. Why the details on something so simple? Because this "heavy" kayak made it easy to do.
Looking forward to a longer, more extensive test on a variety of water. Of kayaks in this price range, this is the 10. I'll update my review with more water time.