Sea Kayaking (Photo Credit: Getty)

Beginner's guide to sea kayaking

  • BY Pat Kinsella |
  • May 10, 2012

In calm conditions sea kayaking looks like a breeze, but when things get rough you need to know what you're doing.

A QUICK PEEK THROUGH the curtains confirms that the drumming noise isn't possums tap-dancing on the roof. It's pissing down. Summer be damned, this is Victoria and today I am going to get wet. But that's okay, because learning how to cope with getting wet is exactly what this weekend is all about - and a dose of moody Melbourne weather is exactly what we need.

"We can teach people the principles of sea kayaking under a blue sky, and it'll be fun and they will learn some valuable skills," says Rohan Klopfer, sea kayak instructor and bossman at East Coast Kayaking in Sandringham. "But when the bay is like a mill pond, it lulls them into a false sense of security. They think it's always easy and they're less likely to practice what we preach. Then, when it all turns to cactus and the elements are against them, it's a different story. Far better for us to teach you real skills in really challenging conditions. Like these…"
 
Learning how to read the weather properly - not licking your pinkie and holding it into the wind, but actually understanding what conditions are doing based on information from an up-to-date and trustworthy website such as the BOM (Bureau of Meteorology) - is lesson one in the weekend-long course.
 
Factors such as strong winds, dropping temperatures, and electrical storms can quickly transform a casual recreational afternoon paddle into alife-threatening situation. Conditions can turn in minutes - and not just in Melbourne - so studying local weather is the first thing you should do at the outset of any sea kayaking trip, whether you're going for an hour or a week.
 
Rohan shows us the day's forecast on his iPad. It's all happening out there: storms, rain, a strong northerly swinging to a fierce southerly in the afternoon. "This is going to be great," he grins.

Sea kayak school

A few years ago I was at Wilsons Prom with my family. I'd recently picked up a cheap second-hand sea kayak and was itching to give it a go. The wind was kicking up a fuss around the ankles of the Prom, one of the most exposed stretches of coastline in Australia, but I set off anyway, on my own, neglecting to let my wife know whether I was heading east or west, or how long I was planning to be. My entire kit, besides a pair of boardies and a spray top, consisted of a baseball cap, a pair of sunnies and a bottle of water.
 
After wobbling around in various directions for a couple of hours - mainly heading out towards the open ocean, because it was easier paddling into the waves and, well, that's what you do in a sea kayak, isn't it? - I turned back. The gust had continued to build while I was out and, as an offshore wind, it had the twin effect of making my retreat towards terra firma alarmingly hard and creating the kind of waves that are awesome for surfers, but potentially lethal for clueless paddlers.
 
Muscles aching from the nervous tension of staying upright, but still a distance from Norman Bay, I headed into Little Oberon Bay for a rest.

Approaching the surfzone things really started to get gnarly. Eventually - still a long, long way from shore - I was picked up by a wave which seemed taller than my boat was long, and thrown into a violent cartwheel that ejected me from the kayak.
 
Miraculously I wasn't separated from the boat, but there was no way I could get back into the thing, which was totally flooded anyway. Towing the dead weight of my kayak behind me, and narrowly avoiding getting brained by it when it was suddenly propelled past me by a wave, I swam half a kilometre into the beach.
 
I chose not to share this experience with my wife when I finally got back to our campsite many hours later, shattered and shaken. In fact, I kept it to myself until just the other day, when she demanded to know why I needed to do a kayaking course. It was the perfect answer and I was signed up within the hour.

Before the introduction is over it's clear that I had created a perfect storm of stupidity that day. Off-shore winds are the most dangerous to paddle in, my trip planning was non-existent, no-one knew where I was or when I should be back, I lacked the skills to stay in my boat or to re-enter it once out, and had no equipment to empty it of water. I attempted to land in a huge surfzone and was out of my depth in every sense.

Sea kayak courses

The sea starter course attracts an eclectic range of people, from those going on Antarctic cruises who've ticked the paddle option, to wannabe competitors in the Murray Marathon, to those who simply wish to explore their aquatic backyard.
 
Most good paddling practice is knowledge plus applied common sense. An off-shore wind is more dangerous than an on-shore wind, explains Peter, for the obvious reason you might be blown out to sea. When paddling in an off-shore wind it's prudent to hug the coastline. Makes sense - but how often do we actually invite sense along for the ride?
 
Rohan tells us that for every 5 knots of headwind you paddle into, you lose about 20 per cent of your forward speed. It's better to start a paddle going into a headwind so that, if you begin to fatigue, you can head back. Have a contingency plan, and know a little bit about the local area in case you have to stop earlier than expected - where will you be able to make landfall safely? If the wind rises to over 25 knots and you're going nowhere, don't tire yourself out paddling against it, go with it and try and turn towards shore as soon as possible, just like being caught in rip while swimming.

"Paddlers to love lee," says Rohan, as we hit the water and look for somewhere to raft up and listen to Pete's instructions. Wind shadow extends out about six times the height of the source of the protection, we're told, while ducking in under the harbour wall.
 
Day one is largely about requisite gear and basic skills, such as learning to turn and mastering the proper strokes to send you forwards, backwards and sideways. Even this rudimentary stuff reveals I am woefully under-prepared every time I hit the water, and that I've been busy refining incorrect techniques for years. Not for the first or last time over the weekend I wonder why I didn't do this ages ago.
 
The afternoon moves us into experimenting with corrective strokes, finding edges and leaning, which inevitably segues into wet exits and the all-important part: both self- and assisted rescues.
 
Rolling, an advanced skill, is a whole course unto itself, but Peter demonstrates it none-the-less. We concentrate on less elegant, but highly effective, techniques such as the cowboy (where you get astride your kayak and edge your way back into the cockpit) and the shimmy (where you lie face down with your legs going into the body of the kayak and then rotate around).

We learn what an awesome invention the paddle float is, particularly when all of the above fail. The float is an inflatable bag that fits over one end of the paddle, allowing you to wedge the other blade under the kayak's deck cord and then to use the shaft of the paddle to lever yourself back into the boat. It's an astonishingly effective way to re-enter a kayak.
 
On day two we move into trip planning, with students assigned positions such as trip leader (who travels at the back of the pack to ensure no-one is left behind) and assistant trip leader (who goes up front to point everyone in the right di rection). We set off on an 8km round trip to the wreck of the HMAS Cerberus, in conditions that are pretty challenging, with a strong westerly wind and large chop on the bay.
 
After negotiating a landing in the surfzone at Halfmoon Bay - "easily the most dangerous part of sea kayaking" according to Rohan - and a subsequent relaunch from the beach, conditions get heavier for the return trip, and several people end up being towed (another skill which had been explained and demonstrated to us on the beach).
 
The course is rounded out with a theory session which explains how to read charts and understand tidal movements. I walk away knowing exactly what I need to get, practise and master before I head back into the open ocean on my own again.

Kakay school

Going from a sea kayak to a race-style ski feels a little like transitioning from a tricycle to a penny farthing at first, but with training you build up muscles in places you didn't know existed that add to your core strength and enable you to maintain your balance.
 
These sleek boats are primarily built for speed, but paddling instructor and adventure racer Jarad Kohlar believes that soon traditional sea kayaks as we know them now will be almost totally replaced by ocean skis.
 
"Unless you're paddling in really cold conditions or you're on a major expedition, there really is no need to be sat inside a kayak," he says. "Designs will change over time, and you'll start to see ocean skis with storage space in them, and then people will be taking them on overnight expeditions."

Although they're a lot more tippy than a traditional sea kayak, they're also a whole lot easier to get back on when you fall off. And you will spend quite a bit of time falling off, especially at first, when it feels like you're trying to balance on a razor blade. For people segueing between a kayak and ski, Jarad's company Peak Adventure runs an Introduction to Ocean Paddling course. Taking place over two consecutive Sundays at Sandridge on Port Phillip Bay, the course sets out to teach people the basics of paddling an ocean ski.
 
Obviously there is much common ground between paddling a sea kayak and an ocean ski, but there are also more differences than you might expect. In a ski you keep your knees together (as opposed to the brace position most people adopt in a kayak) and the rudder, operated with the top of the foot, is utilised more for turning in a ski than it is in a kayak, where directional paddle strokes are employed more. When you're paddling a ski, you tend to be racing, so a steady cadence and maintaining speed is all important.
 
Most beginners start out on a stable plastic ski, before progressing to much lighter and faster (and more tippy) models such as the offerings from South African companies like Fenn, Epic and Custom Kayaks.
 
Despite Jarad's predictions for the future, at the moment skis are used almost exclusively for fitness training and racing. The two pursuits take place across the same terrain and use many of the same skills and muscle groups, but it's like comparing bushwalking with trail running and I don't think one will supersede the other any time soon.

Course details

VIC

What: Sea Starter Course
When: Once a month
Duration: One weekend
How much: $298 per person ($200 with own kayak); includes four hours kayak hire after course. Children under 14 are free, but must paddle a double sea kayak with an adult.
Where: The Kayak shop/East Coast kayaking, Sandringham, Victoria,
Contact: 03 95970549; Roh@eastcoastkayaking.com
More info: www.eastcoastkayaking.com Where next: Consider furthering your knowledge with a Beyond Basics Course or a Rolling Course.
Join the club: Becoming a member of clubs such as the Victorian Sea Kayak Club (www.vskc.org.au) and other similar organisations is an excellent way to meet likeminded people and further your skills through trips, classes and expeditions.

The following recommended people offer similar programs to Rohan's Sea Starter course:

NSW

Who: Rob Mercer (Advanced Sea Kayak Instructor, Australian Canoeing) The Balanced Boater
Contact: 02 9398 8209, 0417 227 627; robmercer@balancedboater.com
More info: www.balancedboater.com


QUEENSLAND

Who: Craig McSween (Sea Kayak Instructor, Australian Canoeing) Adventure Outlet
Contact: 07 5571 2929;
More info: www.adventureoutlet.com.au


SOUTH AUSTRALIA

Who: Phillip Doddridge (Sea Kayak Instructor, Australian Canoeing) Adventure Kayaking SA, Glenelg
Contact: 08 8295 8812;
More info: www.adventurekayak.com.au


WESTERN AUSTRALIA

Who: Les Allen (Advanced Sea Kayak Instructor and Assessor Australian Canoeing) Les Allen Kayaks, Rockingham
Contact: 0419 900 715; les@lesallenkayaks.com
More info: www.lesallenkayaks.com


Paddle ski course details

What: Introduction to Ocean Paddling Course
When: Once a month over summer
Duration: Two days (consecutive Sundays) for two hours a day
How much: From $60 per person
Where: Sandridge, Victoria
Contact: 0409 786 237; jarad@peakadventure.com.au
More info: www.peakadventure.com.au
Where next: Weekly ocean ski training sessions will see your skills and speed improve dramatically.


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