How to paddle offshore and in open water

By Pat Kinsella & Rohan Klopfer 27 April 2016
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Heading out to the horizon in a sea kayak is a brilliant outdoor experience. Here’s several must-knows to keep you safe.

THE RECENT DEATHS of two tourists who were kayaking on Lake Tekapo in New Zealand has again tragically highlighted how a bit of fun on the water on a seemingly benign day can quickly go horribly wrong if conditions change and paddlers aren’t prepared, appropriately attired and sufficiently skilled.

That such an incident can occur on a lake – albeit a large and very cold lake – underlines the fact that you don’t need to be miles out to sea to find yourself in a potentially life-threatening situation. As all experienced paddlers know, when you’re kayaking on open water, your situation can change dramatically with a simple change in the wind, a drop in temperature or an elementary mistake by you or someone you’re with.

Each and every time you venture into open water in a kayak, you need to think the potential scenarios through carefully, pack what you need (including emergency communications), wear the right gear (and take spares), allow for changing conditions and let people know what your plans are. This isn’t about being a killjoy; it’s about living to tell the tale of your aquatic adventures, including the ones that went belly-up, but which you had the skill/gear to extricate yourself from in one piece.


Ideally, before you go paddling anywhere, you should undertake basic training with an Australia Canoeing-qualified instructor. You can sign up to do fun and informative courses (which might just save your life) at various places around Australia, such as East Coast Kayaking in Melbourne. Your local sea kayaking club will either offer courses or refer you to someone who does.

“There is a lot to know,” stresses Rohan Klopfer from East Coast Kayaking. “Get one thing wrong and the lemons can start to stack up, and ultimately you can end up paying for it with your life.”

The essential safety kit for any sea kayak adventure.


The ability to understand and interpret predicted and prevailing weather conditions is crucial. You need to know what difference it will make if the wind is ‘on-shore’ or ‘off-shore’, and what impact things like fetch waves (wind-whipped waves) will have on your paddling experience.

In blustery conditions, experienced kayakers will seek out a wind shadow – an area that is leeward (downwind) of an object – such as a harbour wall, or a moored boat that will offer protection from the wind. “Lee is a kayakers’ best friend,” says Rohan. “Launch, paddle and land in lee.”

Always double-check the forecast before you depart on a paddle. This will allow you to make an informed decision about whether to go out, and what to wear. Be prepared to change your plans according to what you learn from the forecast – even if that means postponing the trip.

“When weighing up whether to go out, understand the limitations of your craft, yourself and your paddling partners,” emphasises Rohan. “You should be able to read the weather and environment while you’re paddling, and there should be contingency plans up your sleeve. Communication – with your paddling partners and someone on dry land – is key.”


The number one rule of kayaking clobber is: No cotton. Cotton kills. “It’s better to be hot and bothered than cold and emotional,” observes Rohan. “You can always cool off, but you can’t always warm up.”

Clothing must protect you from the environment, from things like the sun, cold, wind, insects (bugs) and sharp stuff like coral. When your clothing gets wet, it still needs to be capable of keeping you warm. Layers are good, with Merino making an excellent material to wear.

Even if the weather is nice, chuck a cag (canoeing jacket) into the boat in case it cools down later. In extremely cold water, a dry suit should really be considered. Always carry spare clothing for emergencies.


Communications and group management are incredibly important areas. Make sure everyone understands what whistles, paddle movements and hand signals might be used. Make sure you leave your plan with someone staying on dry land. Also take VHF radios, mobile phones in waterproof cases, PLBs and EPIRBS. Here’s a good video on paddle signals.


Have the right safety great – along with the skills to use it – and you can concentrate solely on enjoying your next paddle trip.

Another reason to take a kayaking course is to learn and perfect your basic paddle strokes, so you can stay in control of your craft and keep upright. If, however, things go wrong and you end up belly-up, you need to know how to self-rescue. There are various ways to do this, but a paddle float will make things much easier, and this is a piece of kit you should carry at all times, and practice using. Here’s a good video on self-rescue and one on self-rescue cowboy scramble.

If you can’t get back in your boat, it’s imperative you stay with is. A kayak makes a very handy float, and it’s easily visible from the air if someone is looking for you.

Did you know? 

In most states of Australia, if you are paddling more than two nautical miles offshore, you are required by marine law to carry with you certain stipulated pieces of safety equipment. There are several bloody good reasons for this, but can you name this required gear? Has it even crossed your mind to check how far you’re venturing out to sea? Have you got a contingency plan if everything suddenly goes south?

There’s a great video on Essential Off-Shore Sea Kayaking Safety.

Equipment essentials

Equipment required when off-shore paddling in Victorian waters, as stipulated by maritime law:

• Personal flotation device (PFD)
• Waterproof, buoyant torch
• Electronic bilge pump system (which operates hands-free, allowing you to continue to paddle), or a manual bilge system
• 2 x handheld red distress flares
• 2 x handheld orange smoke signals
• Compass
• Spare paddle
• 406 Mhz Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB)
• 360-degree white light (if you’re paddling after dark)

Highly recommended additional safety equipment:

• Mobile phone and appropriate waterproof case
• Watch
• Pea-less marine whistle (for communication in low visibility)
• VHF (Very High Frequency) radio
• 15-metre floating towline
• Short-line tow rope
• Safety knife
• Baseplate compass
• Paddle float
• Paddle leash
• Parachute rocket
• V-sheet
• Sea dye
• Float plan
• Food and water (in appropriate quantities for the journey you’re undertaking)
• Triage first-aid kit
• Spare clothing – fleece, merino or polypropylene (NOT COTTON)
• Basic repair kit