Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Art of Sea Kayaking

This is part of a series of posts covering what it takes to paddle on the open ocean, exposed to swell and away from easy landings. I'll discuss the techniques and ideas I feel are important to understand in order to safely paddle in such a dynamic environment with the focus on how to approach thing instead of simply how to do things. While my intention is to help guide folks who are newer to the sport and possibly neophytes on the ocean, I hope some of the wisdom I share gives even the most seasoned paddler more to think about. This is not meant to teach any specific skills, but rather to inform people on what they should be learning and give some suggestions for going about it. Many of these things are covered in typical classes (some are not), and I highly encourage instruction from a skilled teacher. But I also know many paddlers learn through experience - properly so - and hope these concepts will lead to better learning experiences.

There's a sequence to these posts for a reason, so if something seems unfamiliar try starting at the beginning. Make sure to read the disclaimers and warnings in Part 1: Introduction. And feel free to ask any questions or share your own thoughts in the comments.


The Theory

Once again, these posts are primarily aimed at an intermediate crowd, designed to relate what skills, and more importantly what knowledge and awareness I feel is required to paddle on the open ocean. I’m going to assume people know their basic rescues (solo and assisted) and strokes, and have some time paddling in protected waters. If you're just starting out in this sport: take a class, a full day introductory class that includes practicing rescues in the water. That will get you going, then spend some time paddling on small lakes, calm harbors, or flat bays with no current. Then come back and read more. This series will focus on getting more out of your paddling, being safe on the water, and ways to continue to develop and improve.

A few words of warning before getting into things: the ocean can be dangerous. In whitewater, people start knowing the river can be dangerous and this naturally leads to some caution as they advance. The ocean can fool ya – it often looks as calm and gentle as the peaceful lake you’re used to. Beginners often head out in conditions that are well within their abilities. But the ocean is fickle. Winds can rise dramatically, currents can form out of nowhere, swells can increase in the blink of an eye. Don’t venture out into the open ocean unless you can handle the worst that could come your way. Have the skills I’m talking about here, or go with someone who does and is capable of assisting you. In any given conditions it takes more skill to help someone else than merely take care of yourself, so choose your paddling partners wisely.

How do you find the right people to paddle with? There are lots of great clubs across the country, so look up your local group and check them out. Don't assume because someone is in a club that they are a skilled and knowledgeable paddler (especially if you found them on Meet-up). There isn't safety in numbers - there's safety in safe numbers. A large group of unskilled people is just a larger disaster waiting to happen. Talk to people before you paddle with them, find out about their experience, ask others in the group about who initiates paddles and what their reputation is. Your safety is your responsibility and never hand it off to someone without knowing who you're giving it to.

Start by paddling with new people in places and conditions where you feel comfortable and are not relying upon them. The best place and time to find out what you and your paddling partners will do when something goes wrong is before it happens. That simply means practicing. If it's a club, make sure that people have regular practice sessions (and maybe attend a couple). If it's a new group of paddlers you're joining, ask when was the last time they did rescues. People who don't practice, people who say they never fall in, are the ones most likely to be in serious danger when a minor incident happens. Don't be one of those people. Practice what you learned in that first class.

The Practice

For now, let's say that you need to practice the basics. The simple stroke technique that you learn in that one-day class is enough to keep most people growing and improving for several months. The rescues need to be done a dozen times before they're solid and familiar enough to perform when needed. So start with the simple mindset that if you want to paddle more challenging waters and in rougher conditions, you need to work at it. I'll cover more of exactly what skills you need to practice as the series continues, but for now let's talk a bit about what equipment you'll need if your goal is coastal paddling. 

To begin with, dress appropriately. Unlike the river or most lakes, swimming to shore isn’t always an option. Even on a warm, sunny day, most ocean waters are well below human body temperatures, and hypothermia is a serious risk even in seventy-degree water. The most common sea kayak tragedies involve people starting out in fine weather, getting caught in changing conditions, and getting too cold due to poor clothing choices to save themselves or survive until rescued. Dress for immersion. (Here's a website with good information on what cold water does and how to prepare for it: National Center for Cold Water Safety)

The right gear goes beyond clothing and includes what you're paddling and what you bring with you. Rec boats are designed for protected water, sea kayaks are designed for the sea. These days there's some blurring between the categories, but there are a few things any ocean-going boat should have, starting with flotation. Whether it's internal bulkheads that create a front and stern air chamber, or inflated airbags that fill up all the space, your boat needs to stay reasonably buoyant on both ends even if it fills with water. It should also have deck lines - something strong for you to grab onto to climb back aboard - as well as toggles at both ends - to help you swim the boat if you're in the water and need to get yourself and your ride to someplace safer before you get back in. Before you head out always make sure that there are no major leaks, that hatch covers are on tight or floatbags are fully inflated. The sinking feeling you get when your boat is sinking is not a pleasant one, especially if you're miles out to sea.

In addition to the basics of paddle, PFD and sprayskirt, there are some additional items that should be with you when you're going out farther. Take a light/headlamp, even if you're sure you'll be back well before sunset. Take some flares - it's a requirement if you're a mile off shore but a good idea no matter how far you go. The cheap pencil flares are pretty much worthless, so splurge for a parachute flare which really works. A VHF radio is another essential safety item, especially one with the new DCS emergency beacon feature which transmits your GPS location to rescuers automatically. And people often overlook it, but a simple whistle on your PFD that's always ready is probably the emergency signal that is used the most - so make sure you have one (it's another Coast Guard requirement anyway).

A few other pieces of kit that can come in really handy: a spare paddle, extra clothing, food and water (a thermos full of warm soup can literally be a life saver), a tow rope, GPS/Satelite Tracker, first aid kit, repair kit, and a helmet if you're going to be paddling near any rocks. I know it can seem like a long list, but I have a drybag filled with most of those items and I simply toss it in my hatch every time I go out, even if it's just a short paddle, even if I'm sure I won't need it. You don't have to go very far to be in serious trouble if you break a paddle or crack a boat, and the difference between having what you need to deal with the situation and struggling to get back home can be hours and serious danger levels.

The open ocean is an incredible and beautiful place. I think pretty much any type of kayaker will enjoy the experiences you can find out there - if you are prepared and know where to look. Hopefully this series will help you get there. As usual, let me know if you have any questions or thoughts on the topic.


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  2. Here's a post I wrote a while ago on different boat types: Calkayakl)

    This link is broken :)

    1. Sorry about that. It was a blog post I did for a company I used to work at, and they have since removed it. Shame - it was a useful post :)