The Ultimate Paddling Guide
Nothing beats an island continent for sea kayaking opportunities, whether it is a day-paddle or multi-day adventure along sections of coast. The sea kayak is the Leatherman multitool of the paddling world, and is equally at home on our long inland rivers as it is off the coastline.
Although commonly referred to as a sea kayak, this watercraft is also known as a ‘touring’ kayak, to differentiate it from its shorter, wider, whitewater-running sibling.
The sea kayak is the biggest selling kayak-type, with its appeal being its toughness and aforementioned versatility. Sea kayaks track easily through choppy water thanks to their narrow and long form. Some sea kayaks are also equipped with a rudder although some paddlers prefer the simplicity of models without a rudder, relying on paddle strokes and body movements to steer. Sea kayaks are stable and easy to learn to paddle, and add in their surprising load-carrying capacity – some longer touring models can lug up to 300kg – and it’s easy to see why they’re popular with adventurers.
Sea kayaks are constructed from various materials, from plastic (polyethelene) or fibreglass to carbon-fibre and Kevlar. The material used in the kayak is the governing factor in price and performance. The cheapest material is plastic, but this is also the heaviest, which affects speed through the water. Plastic is, however, very tough. Fibreglass is the traditional material of sea kayaks and it offers increased rigidity over plastic and is easy to patch up 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 near rocks, garage floors etc.
As a general rule, a sea kayak should include plenty of storage (look for at least two storage compartments, front and rear); a simple, robust rudder; comfortable seat that is easy to adjust; and alo look for a kayak that features deck rigging (straps across the front and rear, near the paddler’s compartment) as this makes for a handy storage option. 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.
Like the sea kayak, the canoe has been around for millennia, being the primary waterborne transport mode for many of the world’s indigenous populations. The fundamental design has changed very little, but the wide variety of models, sizes and materials now on offer in the modern canoe can be daunting for those looking to get into this discipline.
Making the canoe selection task easier is to figure out how and where you will be using your canoe. Canoe designs on the market today are varied: plastic all-rounder/recreational models (favoured by canoe hire companies) compete with everything from fishing-specific models through to the specialised whitewater models, designed to get you through rapids safely.
For the adventurous paddling family (think: two kids, two oldies) after a canoe for day and (potentially) overnight river camping adventures, the recreational canoe is the best choice, offering versatility, load capacity and ease of use for beginners. If your family camping trips often see you set up beside a river or lake, a canoe is a great way to up the enjoyment levels big-time.
A recreational canoe’s design brief is to offer easy paddling with plenty of stability. This is achieved via minimal ‘rocker’. This term refers to the curve of the canoe’s keel line (the bottom of the canoe). A canoe with minimal rocker is easy to paddle in a straight line, but is slightly more difficult to manoeuvre, hence its recommendation for flat, wide rivers and lakes. An increase in rocker (a slightly more pronounced curve) ups the manoeuvrability without overly affecting steering accuracy, so this type of canoe design can also work for family paddling in addition to being able to safely tackle slightly more challenging (grade I, II rapids, etc) waterways. A maximum-rocker canoe has a banana shape, and that pronounced keel line results optimum manoeuvrability and thus maximum fun on whitewater rivers, making them suitable to rapids of up to Grade III and IV.
For longer canoe journeys a touring canoe is great thanks to its combination of middling rocker (which does affect stability slightly, but secondary stability is enhanced) and robust build. The mid-range rocker means if you do encounter a section of rapids or tight water channels, the paddlers can respond quickly – as will the canoe – to get you through the obstacle. Touring canoes can range in length from 16 to 20 feet (5-6m) – yep, anything water-borne is still gauged in Imperial measurements. These craft are capable of carrying big loads thanks to their size.
For more experienced whitewater wizards, the whitewater canoe is really the only option. These boats possess maximum rocker and very high levels of manoeuvrability but are, really, only for the very keen whitewater paddler. Many touring canoes can be found with a slight whitewater bend in their design DNA, without sacrificing versatility in terms of their capability in other water types.
In terms of construction materials, canoes mirror sea kayaks. Plastic canoes are cheapest and can withstand plenty of rough treatment in most paddling scenarios, but they are heavy and not easily repaired. Fibreglass offers the best bang for your bucks in terms of strength, weight (lighter than plastic) and the bonus of being repairable in the field. For many years, the alternative to fibreglass was Royalex, which was a mix of vinyl (for the outer layer) and plastic, plus another inner layer of ABS plastic. It is no longer manufactured, although there are other brand-specific alternatives around. If you’re looking at focussing on flatwater (river, lake) touring – and have deep pockets – Kevlar canoes are well worth a look; lightweight and tough best explains both the material and the asking prices.
River/whitewater kayaks occupy the “fun” side of paddling. A river kayak – often referred to as a boat – can be used for a leisurely float down a river or a heart-attack-inducing run of Grade VI rapids (the International Scale of River Difficulty is used to rate the safety of sections of water. It tops out at VI for “runnable” sections in a whitewater kayak). The river kayak can be further broken down into sub-categories, such as river-running/touring, creeking and playboating.
The type of paddling you do will govern kayak selection. Due to conditions river kayaks are often used in, tough construction is imperative; plastic (polyethylene) is the most popular material but fibreglass is also used. Fibreglass’s appeal is its ease of repair; punch a hole in your plastic playboat and it’s all over.
A river running kayak is designed as an all-rounder and will be longer than a whitewater variant. A sub-variant of the river-runner is the creek boat, which has a more rounded bow and stern (front and rear) and a higher volume for additional floatation. The aptly named playboat is designed for just that: mucking around in small sections of rapids. These kayaks are the shortest and are designed to bounce off the waves and surf in the rough. These are for specialist paddlers only.
For a fast blast along the coast, an ocean ski is hard to beat. The ocean ski looks like a combo of sit-on-top sea kayak and a surf ski. An ocean ski is narrow (for speed) and long; expect to fall out pretty often as you learn your ocean ski craft, but it is well worth the perseverance. Plus, ocean ski manufacturers are now making the activity more accessible to rookies; new models, featuring a wider cockpit, are plentiful in the market. Ocean ski construction materials vary; fibreglass, carbon-fibre and Kevlar are all used, with the more exotic materials meaning you have to stump up some serious dosh.
You can use an ocean ski for coastal touring but you will need to be both very experienced at lengthy open water paddling in a ski, and also pack very light, as there isn’t much storage room aboard.
Selecting the right-sized paddle for your watercraft is essential for the most effective paddling. The right size (both in terms of length and blade shape/size) and proper technique will minimise the physical effort needed to move through the water. And, obviously, the more paddles you can try out in the water before buying, the better.
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 in the water and through the air; as the lower blade hits the water (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. Feathered paddles are available in a range of angles.
Length, weight, blade type and construction (one- or two-piece) all need to be considered when choosing a kayak paddle. In terms of kayak paddle construction, the one-piece paddle is stronger and simpler. Most one-piece paddles are also lighter. Negatives include storage constraints due to length and non-adjustable feathering. A two-piece paddle packs up smaller and many offer adjustable feathering. This makes the two-piece the best choice for a spare paddle – always take a spare, no matter what watercraft you’re paddling.
When looking at paddles, ‘light’ and ‘strong’ are the two words to focus on, regardless of the paddling discipline. A day of paddling will test your arms/shoulders so a lighter paddle will help reduce muscle tiredness, which can affect stroke effectiveness. The most affordable paddles are of aluminium (shaft) and plastic (blades) construction. These are also the most inefficient, due to weight and inherent flex. Move up to the top tier of paddles and you’ll snavel yourself a seriously light, full carbon-fibre paddle. Be aware, though, that nothing is perfect; carbon-fibre is ultra-stiff, which also makes it 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 weight, durability and performance. Other paddle choice factors include blade shape (symmetrical or asymmetrical; the second offers extra surface area), and size (go too large and you’ll fatigue early; go too small and you’ll get nowhere fast). A paddle may appear simple, but there are a lot more factors in making the right choice than you might first realise, so take your time and try as many out as you can.
Canoe paddle selection is akin to that of kayak paddles in terms of materials used (aluminium, plastic, carbon-fibre and wood are popular options) and blade shapes. The obvious difference: a canoe paddle is of a single-blade design.
The canoe paddle’s shaft can be straight or bent, with the straight-shaft paddle the best all-rounder owing to it being more manoeuvrable. A bent-angle shaft does provide better performance in flatwater touring, though, thanks to the fact the blade stays relatively upright in the water during the stroke, optimising the power generated by the paddler.
The shaft can be oval or circular, with the oval-shaped shaft offering – in most cases – more comfort and less fatigue. There are two grip options as well – the pear and the T-grip – with the more natural shape of the pear grip reducing fatigue, but the T-grip offering finer control when sudden changes in the paddle angle are needed.
Time to dip in
There is far more to paddling than just jumping in your favourite watercraft and paddling. As with anything related to outdoor activities, if you have made the correct gear choices, and learnt to use said gear properly, then the rest is smooth sailing. Water covers a massive part of our planet, and with the right gear and skills you’ve really got no excuse to not be out there, experiencing all the adventure our marine world has to offer.
A Personal Flotation Device (PFD) should be the first thing you purchase – and the PFD you buy must comply with Australian Standard 4758 (AS4758). This standard covers four safety “Levels” for PFDs and was introduced in 2010 to bring Australian safety standards into line with international regulations.
Correct sizing (and fit) is essential and is based on the chest size for an adult, but on weight for a child. In terms of fit, the PFD should be snug on the wearer’s body without impeding paddle stroke or movement in the craft. Check for high levels of adjustability; the more straps and buckles, the more adjustability for fit.
Other paddle safety essentials include a whistle, a safety line(s), a marine radio (or equivalent; a mobile phone is not reliable in remote areas); an EPIRB (registered with the Australian Maritime Safety Authority); compass and map; a GPS; a torch; bailing equipment (small bucket or bilge pump); first-aid kit and knowledge; spare paddle(s); and a high-vis flag if paddling in busy shipping/boating areas.
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