Beginner’s guide to paddle touring

By Amy Russell July 22, 2015
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If you’re a nature lover, keen to explore our rugged coastlines and ramp up your fitness, this summer grab a paddle and sink your teeth into sea kayaking.

AUSTRALIANS ARE remarkably lucky. Our island home is a playground of oceanic delights and diverse bushland ripe for the exploring. And nowadays, more so than ever before, we’re opting to do so in a kayak. “This really is a wholesome sport,” says Shannon O’Brien from Sydney Harbour Kayaks.

“Australians have generally grown up with a special appreciation of the water and kayaking is an evolution of that. There’s also the eco-friendliness of it. The harbour and our waterways are so accessible I think people take this opportunity to get out there.”

And, you have an even balance between leisure and fitness, says George Jessup, former president of the NSW Sea Kayak club. “You see so much when you’re paddling. And it’s also a physical challenge, particularly as you start going offshore. The first time I paddled I could hardly move the next day. I look back now and it was such a trivial paddle but it’s very much a skill-based sport with a natural progression.”

Then there is the ease and convenience of travelling in a kayak, a major drawcard for adventurers who’re sick of the sight of their backpack. “Sea kayaking really is the new bushwalking,” says Lawrence Geoghegan, owner of Nadgee Kayaks – the only solar-powered kayak factory in the world.

Everyone’s done the coastal tracks by foot and they’re just trying to get a new perspective on it all. And getting there on the ocean in your boat, you can carry a little bit more gear and a little bit more wine than you would when lugging it all around on your back.”

Ask any reputable kayaking expert and they’ll agree on one thing: the easiest and safest way to get a handle on sea kayaking is to learn from those in the know. So, we’ve swum the hard yards for you and grilled some of the our best manufacturers, guides, clubs and kayaking fanatics for their top tips on how to get started. Read on, and we’ll have you dipping that paddle in no time.

Learning more about sea kayaking

You may have thought your school days were far behind you, but combine an inexperienced kayaker with the tempestuous nature of the sea and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. “There is a huge amount of skill involved in this sport,” says George. “If you don’t stroke properly, you can’t go more than a few kilometres. You also need to be comfortable in your gear and you need to be able to control the kayak.” These are all skills that can be learned from an Australian-accredited canoeing instructor.

You’ll find there is a boat load of benefits to joining a professional kayaking club or association – not only will you be paddling alongside other kayak enthusiasts, most clubs also offer members free stroke correction and water-navigation lessons. Before you begin, do your research and find out what type of association suits your needs.

Getting kitted up for paddle touring

The easiest mistake to make as a beginner is to dive headfirst into your nearest store and spend up big on all the latest in paddle paraphernalia. Like most other outdoor activities, there is an abundance of expensive gear available for kayaking, some of which is simply unnecessary for a rookie.

Your best bet is to start with the basics and try before you buy. “Save your money and rent something first,” says Shannon. “Rent lots of different kayaks: fibreglass, plastic, long ones, short ones. Start to feel what best suits you and your style of paddling. Then talk to somebody who offers a try-before-you-buy program. We find out what you like and where you want to paddle, what your transportation and logistics are for your kayak, and then we work with you to make sure you get the right craft.”

And, as the old saying goes, you don’t want to be up shit creek without your paddle – a good quality paddle is essential.. Some of the more square shaped or scooped paddles are great for a short time but not a good time – once you’re paddling all day and you’re doing thousands of strokes, just the slight change in shape will make it easier. If the gear budget stretches far enough, it is also wise to invest in a spare paddle to store on the top deck as a back-up, especially for longer trips.

The rest of your gear can be broken up into must-haves for beginners and optional extras for the longer, overnight trips. For the extended journeys, be mindful of the weight and size of your gear. Unlike canoe touring, where you can – literally – pack in the kitchen sink, with a sea kayak you have to be a bit more selective with large equipment.

Learn the road rules of sea kayaking

It is easy to forget your worries when it’s just you, your kayak and a mesmerising stretch of coastline, but you can’t be complacent when you’re paddling. You’ll be sharing the waters with boats of various size and power, almost all of which will be larger and faster than you.

It also helps to have a general understanding of how boats handle and drive so you can anticipate what they’re going to do. Avoid the common mistake of stopping. When you’re stationary, boat drivers will find it harder to see you, so always keep paddling. The same goes if you speed up – it’s harder for the driver to tell what you’re doing; they will want to make an adjustment to go around you, so if you hold your line and your speed, the boat driver can make the necessary adjustments to avoid a collision.

Although unpowered vessels, like kayaks, have right of way on the water, most boat users either ignore this rule or are unaware of it. It does, then, pay to make yourself visible to other boat traffic. A simple solution is to fix a red bicycle flag to the rear of your kayak – this sits up high above the waterline and is easily spotted.

Sea kayaking navigation skills

Just as important as the right equipment and a good stroke for rookie paddlers, are basic navigation skills, including an awareness of forecasts. As a kayaker, you’re at the mercy of the weather and the water – conditions can quickly turn nasty so if you can see a change coming, you’ll have the chance to avoid danger.

Adrian Clayton, an Australian Canoeing sea instructor and a long-standing member of the NSW Sea Kayak Club, gives lessons to new recruits. “For a kayaker, ‘navigation’ means knowing where you are and where you want to get to in a safe and timely fashion. And even knowing where you’ve come from, in case you have to get back there,” he says. “When we say ‘safe and timely’ we take into consideration forecasts – if there’s a thunderstorm forecast we want to be off the water before that hits, beat a tide change, establish a campsite before dark, get to the pub before it closes.”

Adrian teaches ‘piloting’ as a skill to his students. “This is navigating when using a map and relating it to landforms and other visible features (both natural and manmade) to guide our way along the coast. Also, maps will show us where we might find a track if a walkout is necessary and where to expect to find support services such as shops and telephones. Then we’ll use sea charts to gain information on the nature of the shorelines we are paddling along and whether we’ll have to negotiate surf and other hazards to get in or out. Charts will also show where a kayaker can find safe passage.”

Sea charts can be purchased from authorised dealers, like Boat Books Australia, and need to be updated regularly. They easily go out of date because of factors like shifting sands. Visit the website of the Australian Hydrographic Office and refer to the Notice to Mariners for chart updates.

Understanding the impact of natural phenomena – such as wind, currents, tides, and the interaction between them – takes practise but is worth the effort, says Adrian. “Wind in particular has a huge impact on sea conditions, particularly when you’ve got a current working against the wind. This makes everything more challenging.”

Before a paddle log on to the Bureau of Meteorology for a detailed forecast of the area you’re paddling in – including weather warnings, an estimation of wind gusts and sea heights. Windsurfing website Sea Breeze also offers information on local swell, tides and a monthly moon calendar – tides will change depending on the moon phase.

Once you’re aware of the forecast, you can estimate how it might affect your progress. “We call this ‘dead reckoning’,” says Adrian. “This is a skill we use on the rare occasion that we’re out of sight of land. We take into account our speed and the time it should take to get from one place to another and then we factor the weather, tides and currents into our navigation – these natural phenomena may slow you down or push you off course. Or if you’re lucky, propel you forward.”

Adrian also supports the use of the trusty compass. “I like to work with two: One mounted on my boat and the other on a lanyard around my neck. We don’t want to rely on a GPS because the environment we’re in isn’t conducive to electronics.” And, above all, he encourages beginners to always paddle with an experienced kayaker because understanding and mastering these navigation skills will take time.

Leaving the pond as a sea kayaker

For a sea kayaker keen to tackle paddle touring, the world – and its oceans – are your oyster. But be careful not to bite off more than you can chew. “Don’t pick up a kayak for the first time this month and then in January try to paddle the Bass Strait,”
says Lawrence.

Always check in with the locals of the area as they’ll be the best source of reliable information. “These guys will know what the local conditions are,” says Shannon. “I could talk to you all day about touring, but if you’re going to be paddling up in the Whitsundays you need to chat to a local like Salty.”