Some Practical Tips for Sea Kayakers
Complete with John's Etiquette Advice

 

Someone, somewhere, wrote this sage advice for sea kayakers:

    1.   Always look cool            

    2.  Know where you are

John Caldeira on Ray Roberts LakeLooking cool requires that we know what we are doing.  Below are some tips that will help distinguish one as a learned kayaker.  They will allow one to impress kayaking buddies and avoid obvious signs of being a newbie.  There's even one tip to help prevent getting lost

Also below are some etiquette tips.  For many paddlers, kayaking is a social activity where the company of good friends contributes greatly to the pleasure of being on the water.  These tips help one be a good paddling buddy. 

Paddling

Capsizing and Rescues

Trip Planning

Getting Your Kayak to the Water

Getting into Your Kayak

Getting Off the Water

Buying Equipment

Postscript

Paddling

Heading for a Fiji islandStow bilge pumps and paddle floats INSIDE the cockpit if possible. Store as little gear as possible on top of the deck where waves may strip it off, or where it might interfere with reentry after a capsize.  Under deck shock cords or gear bags work well.  If gear must be stored on deck, tether it in addition to putting it under the shock cord rigging. 

Don't use a paddle as a pole to push off from shore.  That’s a good way to break a paddle or tear up the blade.  If the kayak is grounded in shallow water, 'knuckle-hop' it to deeper water. 

Don’t paddle with asymmetric paddle blades upside down.  The writing on the paddle blade is always a clue as to which way is up.  Politely tell your newbie friend which way is up.

No need to feather your paddle just to look cool.  Most folks are past that now.   And Greenland paddles are fine.

Minimize splashing and whirlpool vortexes when paddling.  Try to move the boat - not the water.  Use silent, efficient strokes.  Let it take a few strokes to accelerate to full speed and slow down.

Wear sun protection.  The newbie has sunburn and no hat.

When parking the kayak on shore in windy conditions, pull the boat up enough that waves don't rock the stern back and forth.  Rocks and gravel can grind their way through gel coat or plastic.

A channel near Galveston, TexasKnow the nautical rules of the road.  The most important rule:  Get out of the way.  Motor boats can kill.  So, stay out of the channels as much as possible and yield to other boats.  In the U.S., most rules of the nautical road are similar to automotive rules, such as keeping towards the right and yielding way to the boat on the right at an intersection.

Second most important rule of the road:  When encountering boat traffic, the more maneuverable boat has a duty to yield to the less maneuverable boat.  Yielding has nothing to do with boat size or type of power, except to the extent it affects maneuverability.  Don't let your kayak become a speed bump to a big boat. 

Practice paddling strokes, bracing and rescue skills often.  Ever wonder why some folks become very skilled at kayaking?  They tend to practice their skills.

The number one rule of kayak navigation:  Know where you are.  After launching from an unfamiliar location, turn around and look at your launch site from the on-the-water perspective.  Many places on the shore look similar, so try to remember landmarks that may guide you on the return trip.

If your kayak appears to want to point upwind when paddling, that's called 'weathercocking'.  It's caused by the stern of your kayak drifting downwind faster than the bow.  If your boat doesn't have a skeg or rudder to reduce stern drift, transfer more gear weight towards the stern to sink it a little deeper into the water. 

Large paddling groups tend to break up into smaller pods of between two and four kayakers.  It’s natural, so let it happen, but leave no straggler behind. 

Etiquette:

  • Breaktime on the Red River, OklahomaOn shore during break stops, store your paddle inside the cockpit or in a paddle park -- not on the ground where people need to be watchful not to step on it.
  • Give your paddling buddies some room.  Maintain an adequate distance between kayaks such that your buddy doesn’t need to make evasive correction strokes.
  • If your kayak is in front of the group, be sure you know where you are going and where the next rest break stop will be.  It's poor etiquette to take the lead and over-shoot the break stop.
  • If you are paddling towards the rear of your pod of kayakers, don't leave the slowest boat too far behind.  If you're the second-to-last boat in the pod, you've earned the important 'sweep' position, meaning you have some responsibility for the safety of the last boat.  
      
  • Avoid crowding between two kayaks when approaching from the stern, especially if those paddlers are engaged in conversation.
      
  • The paddler who brings the best snack foods to share often has the most friends. 
      
  • Texas intracoastal waterwayLeave the wildlife alone. They have a hard enough life without unnecessary stress from our intrusion into their environment.
     

  • Try to minimize your impact on the paddling environment.  You can't go wrong by packing out all your trash, and it sets a good example for others. Throwing an apple core into the woods may be fine in some remote places, but 'when in doubt pack it out'.
      
  • Be courteous to fisherman by giving them a wide berth.  Apologize when you can’t.
      
  • Give motor boats a wide berth.  Even if you know it's safe, the motor boat captain may feel uncomfortable with a kayak so close and be concerned about their wake.  When crossing a busy channel, keep kayaks together in a tight pod.
       
        
  • Keep your sense of humor.  It' contagious!  

 

A cowboy self-rescueCapsizing and Rescues

When capsizing and wet exiting, do it with style.  HANG ONTO YOUR KAYAK AND PADDLE.  Never, ever, let go.  Water up your nose is nothing compared to the embarrassment of watching your kayak drift away faster than you can swim. 

If we don’t capsize once in a while, we’re probably not pressing ourselves to our limits.  Smile, and execute the perfect rescue.

Wear a life vest (PFD) and dress for immersion in water.  Many beginners underestimate the danger of high winds, hypothermia, and the power of water current.  In the water, a life vest gives you two free hands to rescue yourself and gear.  If not for your own safety, wear a life vest for the safety of buddies who might need to risk their life to save you.

Learn several self-rescue and assisted rescue techniques.  I'm a fan of the Cowboy Self-Rescue (video clip) because it doesn't require any safety equipment.

When paddling in difficult conditions, it's almost always safer to paddle with skilled companions.  However, paddling alone is usually safer than paddling with companions who may not be able to control their kayaks in the wind and waves, and don't know how to rescue.  Choose paddling buddies carefully in strong winds and cold water.

Etiquette:

  • Discuss safety concerns with your buddies.  If water conditions are too rough or risky for your comfort, let your buddies know.  They're probably thinking the same thing, and they'll be glad you mentioned it.  Don't try to talk someone into going out when they they think it's beyond their skills. Kayaking is no place for excessive risk. 
      
  • Help your buddy pump out their flooded cockpit.  Two pumps cut the time in half, and it seems like forever with only one pump.
  • Learn how to do assisted as well as self-rescues.  When your buddy needs a rescue, they will appreciate that you can help them out of the water in less than a minute. 

 

Trip Planning

Learn the weather forecast before leaving home.   It is a sign of coolness to be able to report to your buddies "Winds are forecast from the southeast at 10-12 miles per hour, with high tide near 2 p.m."

Tell someone that you're going kayaking, the location and when you'll be back.  The best person to tell is someone who might worry about you when you're late, so they might also initiate a search and rescue if you're really, really, late.

Etiquette:

  • Trip leaders should be flexible about paddle plans based on weather.  It's smart to make last-minute changes for the put-in location or paddling direction to minimize adverse winds or other factors to make the paddle more enjoyable.  Mobile phones and the internet make these changes relatively easy.
  • Resist trying to change a trip leader's paddle plan unless you have strong safety concerns.  Suggestions to the leader are usually welcome, but if the trip was posted as a northbound 15 mile trip and you want to go south, organize your southbound trip next week.
      
  • Learn a trip's paddling plan and only go on trips that are suited to your skills and equipment.  A trip posted as a 'fast pace' 20 mile trip is probably not suited for someone in a recreational kayak.  A paddler who can't keep up with the group often holds back others.
      
  • Plan to abide by the trip leader's rules and local law.  If the trip leader asks all participants to carry specific safety gear, that means we really should carry it.  Find out if your dog is invited before taking it on a paddling trip.

 

 

Getting Your Kayak to the Water

When car-topping, use two straps over the kayak to the roof rack, and a bow line to the front of the vehicle.  There are too many stories about airborne kayaks on the highway.  If the roof rack crossbars are very close together, a stern tie-down may also be needed, but at least get a bow line tied off.  If any one tie-down fails, you still have the boat. 

PA250293.JPG (190372 bytes)Foam blocks on a factory roof rack work fine.  If the vehicle does not have factory-equipped cross-bars, buy a good roof rack.  No need for fancy, expensive, kayak cradles unless you kayak very often. 

Most, but not all, bow and stern toggles are designed for carrying a boat.  With toggles, the boat is carried safely close to the ground and moves independently of the people carrying.  However, an under-arm carry of kayaks is best if toggles are weak, hands are wet, or the kayak is heavy with gear.  When helping a friend carry, follow their lead on whether to hold the toggle or boat.

Minimize the time it takes to ready a kayak for the water.  Try to get your vehicle-to-water routine down to ten minutes or less.

Mesh gear bags are great for carrying kayak gear between the vehicle and boat, and can be stored in a hatch while paddling.

Every sea kayak does NOT need to carry a spare paddle on every trip.  One or two spare paddles in the group are enough on most trips.  Bring a spare to the put-in and then decide whether you ought to take it on the water.  

Carry, don't drag, the boat to the water.  The ground is like sandpaper against a hull.

 

Etiquette:

  • Offer to help your buddies carry their boats to the water, and ask for help carrying yours.  It's not a time for macho 'I-can-do-it-alone' weightlifting, especially in wind.
  • Avoid blocking boat ramps, and park your vehicle where it will not interfere with boat trailers or traffic.  Pay your parking fee.
  • Arrive at your launch site in sufficient time to prepare your kayak.  Learn whether a posted trip start time is an expected "arrival time" or the “paddles wet” launching time, and plan accordingly.
        
  • Don't be a silent 'no-show' at the put-in.  If your buddies are expecting you and you can't make it to the put-in, let one of them know so they're not waiting and wondering.
        
  • Help the newbie.  We all start out that way.  New paddlers need paddling friends, and your kindness and attention will make their day more fun.  More experienced paddlers can accelerate their learning.

 

Getting into Your Kayak

Learn to get in without using a paddle for support or sitting on the rear cockpit coaming, unless the kayak has a tiny ocean-style cockpit.  Follow the ‘Butt is the First In & Last Out' approach:  Straddle the kayak, lower your butt into the seat and then lift your legs in, or simultaneously lower one leg and your butt in first, then lift your second leg into the boat.  Either way, your butt goes into the seat first without any balancing act.

If a paddle must be used for support when entering the kayak, place the paddle shaft behind the coaming; not on top.  Don't sit on the paddle shaft, and don't even put a lot of pressure on it with your hands, especially if it is a $300 carbon paddle.

Wear clothing made from fast-drying and lightweight fabrics.  The paddler in blue jeans is the newbie.

Etiquette:

  • When launching into surf or in high wind, help paddling buddies keep their kayak pointed properly into the sea while they are getting settled in the cockpit.  They can’t reciprocate the favor that day, but you’ll have earned some points.
      
  • Where launching space is limited and other paddlers are waiting, get into your kayak as quickly as possible and paddle a few strokes offshore before attaching the spray skirt. 

 

Getting off the water.Getting Off the Water

Don’t even think about paddling the bow of a kayak fast up onto a steep beach.  A boat supported only by the tip of the bow on land is unstable, and the bow won't last long with that treatment.  Instead, in shallow calm water pull parallel to the shore, lift one or both legs out first, and stand up in a few inches of water.  

When landing in rougher water, release the spray skirt and lift at least one leg out of the cockpit when approaching shore, so the exit will be quick enough that the kayak doesn't get swamped or damaged on the rocks.  Step out of the kayak on the up-wave side, so the next wave won't knock the kayak into your legs.

Before driving off after paddling, say goodbye to friends and check the ground for paddles and gear before it's left behind.  Every year on the bulletin boards we read “has anyone found a paddle left at the take-out….?”

Check that hatch covers are firmly attached or properly stored before driving off.  Our highways have enough hatch covers on them.

Etiquette:

  • Where take-out space is limited, get your kayak out of the way promptly after landing on shore.  Other kayakers and boaters will appreciate the room.  
      
  • Exiting a kayak at a dock is easier with the help of a paddling buddy.  Pull two boats parallel to each other at a dock; the outside paddler steadies the dockside boat while the dockside paddler exits; then the remaining paddler moves to dockside and has her boat steadied by the paddler on dock.  
  • Offer to help paddlers carry their boats to their vehicles, but let them guide the carry process.
      
  • Let your paddling buddies tie down their own boat.  Everyone has their own way of tying down a kayak.  Let them do it alone unless you really, really, have this established mutual trust.   Resist interrupting someone while they're tying their boat to a vehicle.
       
  • Trip leaders on social paddles are almost always volunteers.  If you enjoyed the paddling, a word of thanks to the leader is appreciated after the trip.
      
  • If you're very late arriving at the take-out, call the person who might be worried about you.  We don't want a search and rescue operation initiated while you're driving home!

 

Good gearBuying Equipment

There are three desirable criteria to look for in most kayaking equipment:  (1) Strong, (2) Lightweight and (3) Inexpensive.  Pick any two.  I never met anyone who thought their kayak or paddle was too light.  Buy quality until your wallet can’t stand it any more. 

Lighter weight paddles make paddling long distances much easier.  Most folks prefer paddles under 2 pounds, and even lighter is better.  Be wary of buying a paddle that doesn't advertise its weight.

For your first touring kayak, choose one that is longer and narrower than the popular recreational boats.  You’ll grow into it quickly.  Sixteen or seventeen feet long and a beam (width) of between 22 and 24 inches is good for most folks. Shorter kayaks tend to be slower, thus the paddler must work harder to keep up with the group.

Some kayak manufacturers 'cheat' when advertising the weight of their kayaks.  If paying a premium price for a lightweight boat, confirm that you're receiving what you're paying for.   

Warm, dry feet feel so good when the water is cold.  Knee-high dry neoprene boots or even cheap clam-digger rubber boots with pants tucked into them are great for cold-water paddling.

Buy a dry bag or two, because most things in a kayak will get wet if they're not in a bag.  Pack your mobile phone and lunch in a dry bag.

Bring a sponge for the bilge.  The large sponges sold in the hardware store's flooring department or automotive shop are usually very absorbent and work well.

Appropriate safety gear depends on environmental conditions and nature of the trip.  You don't need every type of safety gear sold on every paddle trip.  On warm, slow shallow rivers, even a bilge pump may be overkill.  Conversely, on multi-day trips on cold open water, a group of kayakers is best equipped with flares and several navigation and communication devices.

A bow line, or "painter", can be an important piece of safety equipment in rough water.   It's hard to bring a runaway kayak back to a swimmer without an immediately accessible tow line because it takes two hands to paddle.  For towing paddlers longer distances, a tow line should allow at least 1.5 wave lengths between kayaks so the towed kayak doesn't surf into the towing boat. 

Spray skirts prevent cockpit flooding from side and rear-quarter waves, so a neoprene-decked skirt is also an important piece of safety equipment in rough water.   

 

Postscript

Most etiquette is derived from an awareness and anticipation of other people's feelings and needs.  When in doubt about what is the proper etiquette in a situation, consideration of other people's feelings and needs is my guide.

Thank you for reading this far.  The above was written from my limited perspective, primarily kayaking with friends in Texas and the Fiji Islands.   I’m sure to have missed some important tips.  If you think of something that ought to included or revised, I’d enjoy hearing from you.

John Caldeira                john@outdoorplace.org

Sea Kayak Touring

Rakiraki, Ra, Fiji Islands

 

Author's background:  John lives and paddles in the Fiji Islands.  Prior to moving to Fiji in 2008, he was an American Canoe Association certified Open Water Coastal Kayaking instructor. 

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Created 25 July 2010.  Most recent revision:  19 October 2010