Nothing beats an island continent for sea kayaking opportunities, whether it is a short and sweet day-paddle exploring short sections of coast, or a bigger multi-day adventure, such as the Whitsunday Islands’ Ngaro Sea Trail. Even those living inland can take advantage of the sea kayak; paddling some of Australia’s long rivers (the Murray and Darling are two examples) or poodling around in lakes and estuaries all help qualify the sea kayak as the multi-tool of the paddling world.
The sea kayak: the craft of the sea
The Inuit people are credited with the development of the first sea kayaks roughly 4500 years ago (give or take a century or so). These craft, a combination of either wood or whalebone frame, with animal skin stretched over it, were used for everything from hunting to (often long distance) travel between communities. Not much has changed in regard to the basics of sea kayak design since those times, with just a wider available choice of materials, such as fibreglass, plastic, carbon-fibre Kevlar and more used in the construction. An additional difference is how paddle design and tech has changed.
Today, the sea kayak is the biggest selling kayak-type. It is also known as a ‘touring’ kayak to differentiate it from its shorter, rapids-running sibling, and the sit-on-top plastic variants you often see in lakes, estuaries and rivers. A sea kayak’s narrow form and its length (as a guide, we’d advise looking for a kayak of a minimum length of 4.5 metres) allow it to track easily through choppy ocean water. You can opt for a single-person sea kayak, or for a two-person (these usually measure between 6m and 7.5m).
A sea kayak will usually have a rear rudder, to assist in directional changes. However, there are sea kayaks available without rudders – indeed, ‘purist’ paddlers often prefer these due to their simplicity (less chance for anything to break) and the fact you can steer just as easily sans rudder by using a number of different paddle strokes and body movement.
A sea kayak is generally stable and relatively easy to learn to paddle. Add in its surprising load-carrying capacity – some longer touring models can lug up to 300kg – and it’s easy to see why it is popular.
A material choice
Sea kayaks are constructed from various materials, such as plastic (polyethylene) or fibreglass, to carbon-fibre or Kevlar. The material used in the kayak is the governing factor in price – as is performance requirements. The cheapest is plastic, but this is also the heaviest (and this affects speed through the water). Plastic is, however, very tough. Fibreglass is the ‘traditional’ material of modern sea kayaks; it offers increased rigidity over plastic and is easy to patch up in the field if you do damage it. Kevlar and/or carbon kayaks are expensive, but that price does get you a craft that is fast, light and strong. You do, however, need to be more careful with these materials (most notably if your kayak is all-carbon-fibre, due to its lack of impact resistance compared to other materials) near rocks, garage floors, etc. If you do want the ‘toughest’ sea kayak, look for a fibreglass/Kevlar model. Kevlar is tough but susceptible to UV damage, so kayak builders get around that by using fibreglass on the outer layer, with tough Kevlar on the inner/underneath. Highly regarded Aussie-owned and made Mirage Sea Kayaks offers a wide range of material options (some unique to the brand) in its range and can build a craft matched to the type of paddling you enjoy. As well, having that face-to-face contact with your boat builder when looking to take that first (or next) step up in kayak quality is ideal as it makes it easier to understand why certain materials and methods are used.
Finish the build
As a general rule, a sea kayak should include plenty of storage (look for at least two storage compartments, front and rear – and more if possible); a simple, robust rudder (if you want a rudder); a comfortable and easily adjusted seat, and deck rigging (elasticised straps fore and aft of the seat area for storage of gear). One other ‘accessory’ that we think should be standard with every sea kayak purchase is a bilge pump; if the unfortunate does happen and you capsize, you want to be able to remove the water from inside the craft as quickly as possible. They are relatively cheap and can, literally, be a lifesaver.
The power of the paddle
Length, weight, blade type and construction (one- or two-piece are most common) are all important factors in choosing the correct paddle. Sea kayak paddles have two blades, at opposite ends of a connecting shaft. These blades can either be feathered or unfeathered. The term “feathered” is used to describe the positioning of the two paddle blades at opposing angles. This is claimed to increase paddle efficiency both in the water and through the air; as the lower blade hits the water at the optimum angle (there is no set “perfect” angle; individual paddlers generally have their own preference) for pulling through the water, the opposing paddle is angled to “slice through” the air, with the least impediment to the paddler.
A one-piece paddle is strong and simple in construction; there’s no joining section that may create a “weak point”. Negatives include storage constraints due to length, and the feathering on one-piece units is not adjustable. A two-piece paddle takes up less storage space, you can (usually) adjust the feathering, and it is the best option for a spare paddle (an absolute essential) as it is easily strapped to your kayak.
The most affordable paddles are of aluminium (shaft) and plastic (blades) construction. These are also the most inefficient, due to weight and plastic’s inherent flex. Move up to the top tier of paddles for a light, full carbon-fibre paddle. Be aware, though, nothing is perfect; carbon-fibre is stiff, but as a result of this, it is susceptible to breakage when too much pressure is applied. A full-fibreglass paddle/shaft combo is the most popular – and offers the best bang for your bucks.
In terms of blade shape, there are two options: symmetrical or asymmetrical. Then, you also have to consider the shape of the blade’s cross-section. This can be flat, spooned, wing or dihedral. An asymmetrical-shaped blade is recommended for ocean touring as, due to the blade being at an angle when it cuts through the water, the blade’s extra surface area on the outer section, and the extra blade-space above the middle, compensates for those parts of the blade (usually the upper middle section and inside edge) not in the water. In other words, even without the entire blade in the water, you don’t sacrifice too much in the way of propulsion.
As its name suggests, a spoon blade does just that, it “spoons” the water, providing high levels of forward motion, albeit at the expense of bracing power. For those just starting out, a flat blade is the preferred option; it offers decent forward stroke power, and provides more “bite” when bracing. A dihedral blade will eliminate blade “fluttering” (when your flat blade struggles to “push through” water due to the amount of force being applied to it by both paddler and water, it starts to flutter).
The perfect paddle blade size will only become apparent after many hours on the water. It is directly influenced by the type of paddling you do (short/fast; long distance), which influences the stroke angle you implement; high-angle brings more power; a low-angle stroke is used for touring. Theoretically, the larger the blade area, the more power output, but this will depend on the paddler’s strength, fitness and size – as well as their craft’s width, tracking and weight. Yep, for a simple-looking piece of equipment, there’s a lot more to a paddle than you think.
Paddling a sea kayak safely
You’ve got your watercraft and your paddle(s) so now it’s time to jump in the water, right? Well, no, definitely not. Before you even go near the water, you need to sort out the most important item on any paddler’s shopping list: safety gear.
Personal Flotation Device
A Personal Flotation Device (PFD) should be the first thing you purchase – and it’s crucially important to ensure that the PFD you are considering buying complies with the Australian Standard 4758 (AS4758). This standard covers four safety “Levels” for PFDs and was introduced in 2010 to bring Aus marine safety standards into line with international regulations.
Before 2010, the PFD rating system was broken into three “Types”. So, even if your PFD is manufactured before 2010, as long as its Type grade correlates with one of AS4758’s Levels, it is still safe to use. These ratings will be clearly marked on the PFD’s tags, so check carefully before purchase. For open ocean paddlers, either a Level 150 or Level 100 PFD is the recommended device (although it is also the bulkiest); for coastal cruising and inland waterways, you can use PFDs rates from Level 150 to Level 50, and also opt for a Level 50 Special Purpose PFD – this will have been designed for one specific marine activity, such as sea kayaking. (For an extensive read on all things PFD ratings, see Australian Canoeing)
Correct sizing (and fit) is essential with a PFD. Sizing is governed by chest size for adults (children go by weight) and most brands will offer female-specific models as well, so there’s a PFD for everyone out there, it is just a matter of finding that perfect fit!
In terms of fit, the PFD should be snug on the wearer’s body without impeding their natural paddle stroke or movement in the sea kayak – and it shouldn’t ride up the torso. Also look for high levels of adjustability; the more straps and buckles the PFD has, the easier it is to adjust to your body shape. And remember: there’s no universal sizing – most brands will size their PFDs slightly differently (much like clothing in general). Make sure you try as many on as you can before making that final purchase.
Besides the all-important PFD, there are a few other essential safety items for all watercraft users. These include: a whistle (for alerting nearby watercraft in low visibility conditions), a safety line (or two; you may need to tow an injured paddler and their craft), a marine radio (or equivalent; a mobile phone is not reliable in remote areas, but take one anyway – you may get reception where you least expect it); an EPIRB (this must be registered with the Australian Maritime Safety Authority); a compass and map (and the knowledge to use them); a GPS (with spare batteries); a torch (of utmost importance for early morning/night/evening paddling); bailing equipment (either a small bucket or bilge pump); first-aid knowledge (not essential but very handy); spare paddle(s); and a high-visibility flag (especially if you’re paddling in busy waterways).
Transporting your sea kayak
When you have hundreds or thousands of dollars of watercraft affixed to the roof of your vehicle, you don’t want to skimp on a dodgy carrying system. The days of simply strapping your canoe to the top of a roof with some (bloody dangerous) occy straps and hoping for the best are, thankfully, long gone. The watercraft carrying accessory market is huge, with a number of excellent systems from highly reputable brands.
Your carrying system can be as elaborate or as simple as you like, with all of them built on the foundation of a robust roof-rack system. Most modern vehicles come standard with roof rails, which run along the length of each side of the roof, so most paddlers will only need to buy aftermarket roof bars to affix horizontally to these rails.
In terms of the actual carry system, you can opt for simple padded cradles, or you can go all out and fit something like Yakima’s ShowDown, which helps you lift the kayak on and off your vehicle’s roof. Things to consider when buying cradles/carry systems are the width of your craft, whether you’re carrying one or two (some cradle systems position the watercraft on an angle to minimise the amount of roof space used) up top, and any provision for paddle storage. (Most manufacturers have paddle-carrying systems as accessories to the main watercraft system.)
When securing your craft to the carry system, the best method is via ratchet straps; again, most manufacturers will either supply the necessary number with the carry system, or they can be purchased separately. Definitely leave the old ‘occy’ strap where it belongs – back in the 1970s. It is one of the most dangerous load-carrying items around; if one comes loose, the force of the rebound – and the hook itself, can easily take out an eye. Plus, the inherent stretch in the strap means your craft can still “move around” in windy conditions. Yep, dangerous! Most carry systems are manufactured of aluminium and plastic/rubber and – depending on their complexity – will require only minimal maintenance. Keep an eye on the high-wear sections (the pads and any hinges) as these will cop the most abuse and ensure any moving parts are lubricated regularly.
Of course, once you’ve got your craft off your vehicle, it’s not always a case of simply plopping it in the water; your vehicle may be up to a few hundred metres from the put-in point. A wheeled kayak cart is your best friend here, and there are loads of models on the market.
Other sea kayak accessories
Keeping warm and dry is the primary purpose of paddle-specific clothing. Merino wool garments are a great option as base layers as, even when wet, they still retain warmth. For the outer layers, windproof/waterproof spray/paddle jackets are the only choice. Look for one that has sleeve cuffs with Velcro adjustment so you can keep them tight to minimise water ingress. Booties made from neoprene are very popular when paddling. These will keep your feet dry and provide protection when you’re dragging it to shore. Last, but not least, grab a set of paddling gloves; blisters and cold hands will be a thing of the past!
All your gear needs to be protected from the elements and dry bags (and waterproof cases, such as those from Pelican) are the best option for this to be done effectively. The dry bag is of very basic construction. It is usually made from a heavy-duty plastic-coated fabric (vinyl is popular), or waterproofed (treated) fabric, with the joining points stitched (and then covered with seam tape), welded, or glued together to eliminate water ingress. They are very easy to use: roll the top opening over itself three or four times and clip the buckles together to ensure a waterproof barrier (you can check by squeezing down on the bag; if it doesn’t deflate/contract, it is properly sealed). Once that’s done, it’s an easy task to secure the dry bag to/in the hatch compartments of your sea kayak.
Sea kayak storage
Storing your watercraft securely – and in a dry area – will ensure it gives you years of trouble-free fun. There are any number of storage systems available so take your time to find the one that suits your house/the space you have in which to fit the craft. It could be hung from a garage ceiling using pulleys so it is out of the way, or (garage size dependent) stored using a wall-mounted cradle system. Both of these ensure the craft is off the ground, so it is aired most effectively. Oh, and make sure – before storage and no matter how much of a pain it may seem – to wash the saltwater off the kayak. This should also apply to your paddling gear and clothing – make sure it is washed regularly, then stored in a dry, airy area.